There’s something unsettling but sublime about hearing a voice that has accompanied anyone with ears over the last 50 years gamely hum his haftorah portion into your cell phone.
“I remember the nusach, but not the words,” laughs Art Garfunkel after a singing few lines of the familiar melody in his even more familiar, lilting tenor that’s graced dozens of classic songs recorded with his erstwhile partner Paul Simon. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “The Boxer,” “Sounds of Silence” are just some of the Simon and Garfunkel standards that defined a generation and cemented their status as the greatest duo in pop history.
A curious mix of new age platitudes, New York City bombast and motivational speaker enthusiasm, the 72-year-old Garfunkel is generous in sharing his memories, philosophy and advice as he prepares to give his first-ever solo concert in Israel, June 10 at Bloomberg Stadium (Simon and Garfunkel performed here once in 1983).
With 12 post-S&G albums to his credit including worldwide hits like “Bright Eyes” and “A Heart in New York,” Garfunkel will be accompanied at the show by guitarist Tab Leven, and promises a wide selection of S&G faves as well as his own work.
“Tad’s a brilliant Nashville player, he has that Paul Simon picking thing that we know so well from ‘The Boxer.’ And he has a very fluid folkie style that’s an essential ingredient. He makes ‘Scarboro Fair’ feel like it’s wafting along,” says Garfunkel.
During the half-hour conversation last week, he expounds on relationships – his complex one with childhood friend Simon, his faded one with Judaism and the thorny one between Israelis and Palestinians. Garfunkel often thinks out loud and frequently goes off on verbal riffs that he truncates with a sheepish chuckle and a “Let’s go on to another topic, shall we?” Where are you talking from?
I’m in my Manhattan – in my downtown office. I live midtown but I rent this office.
I’m an artist and I’m raising a family. I have a nine-year-old son! It’s messy and chaotic where my family is, and it’s very quiet here where the artist is.Are you a Yankees fan or a Mets fan?
Neither – I love the Philadelphia Phillies. Back in 1950 when I was eight, my dad took us to see the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson and Duke Snyder. They were playing the Phillies, who had the lovely pin-stripe uniforms and players like Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn. And I said to myself, just because you’re from another city doesn’t mean you can’t be their fan. Of course, nobody else sees it that way. But for 60 years, I’ve watched them lose game after game but I’m still a fan.I loved your first album ‘Angel Claire’ (1973) – how important was it for you to establish your own identity after Simon and Garfunkel broke up?
Ah, Angel Claire
. It opens up with “Traveling Boy” – that’s a good opening song. Did you hear that my concern when making those first solo albums was the sound itself? The drum sound had to be great, the records had to have production that was full, but not too full. Did you hear that my concern was the color of the production? To answer your question, my one-word answer would be ‘very.’ It was very important to establish my own identity. My whole foothold in the music business as a singer – one I feel is a good singer – was hanging in the balance.
I didn’t want them to forget about me or think that I can only sing with that partner. I’m a good singer and it was very important for me to hold on to an audience.How has your relationship with Judaism evolved over the years?
What’s your relationship with Judaism? (I tell him that I’m traditional). I’m more lapsed than that – shame on me. I was busy being a rock star in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I was too fancy for God.
Now I’m raising a family, and I have my own spiritual values that are not identified within Judaism. [Garfunkel and his wife Kathryn have two children, 24-year-old James and nine-year-old Beau, born to a surrogate mother].
It’s a spiritual center of my own that involves going to Buddhist meetings. The word ‘religion’ is so fluid, it depends on how you define it. We have a tremendous amount of sweetness in our family and a lot of spiritual poetry in our lives. So you could say, yes, we’re raising our son in a religious framework.
I think you’re probably looking for another kind of answer, but I think that the most important thing in life is that you feel part of something bigger than you and that you learn to love kindness.Do you still remember any of your haftorah from your bar mitzvah?
(Laughs) No, but I do remember those beautiful melodies from our Conservative synagogue on Main St. in Queens (begins to wordlessly chant).
I knocked them out at my bar mitzvah. I had a natural vibrato, perfect for the minor key. My first success and first fun as a singer was in that synagogue with all that wood and high ceiling. I learned to like my own voice through these melodies from the bar mitzvah service. Do you keep up with current events regarding the Israeli and American differences regarding Iran and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian issue?
– that’s what’s going on – that’s what you call it, right? The mix is all too rich – you can hardly bear it, it’s so strong, the feelings, the competition.
Both America and Israel are determined that Iran not have a nuclear capability, but it’s not so simple. Israel, though, says ‘yes, it is simple. Just don’t negotiate with them.’ There’s nothing I can say as a layman to add to the conversation other than saying that there are many strands to the whole fabric.
If only Israel was located in the middle of Australia, you’d have so much less trouble. I feel for Israel, it looks like you have many more decades of this shit to face with the Palestinians. This is a formula that is not yielding anything – no movement, no creativity.
You’re in for a couple more hundred years of stone throwing. It’s remarkably static and it feels like it hasn’t budged an inch. You’re locked into an embrace of animosity – you and your neighbors.
There are other kinds of embraces that are more cooperative. Where does this embrace of animosity come from? It’s like people who don’t want to sing because it’s too much fun to shout. What sparks you to keep performing – what do you get out of it?
My friend David, I don’t need the money. Why else would I continue to perform if I didn’t find it gratifying? If you want to know the truth, I get a great pleasure out of the technology.
It’s a mixture of two thrills – the thrill of having a voice and using it (he breaks again into a wordless melody). A lovely vibrato in the throat...it’s a lot of fun to have a gift in your throat.
Now, if you hook that up to what you can do technologically today, even with just a microphone, you can learn to play it like an art form. You spend your life learning the subtleties. The depth of that sound concoction is your life’s work.
Of course I want the voice to be big, but I want it to be articulate, to have body, to have the highs and middles and the lows to be exactly right. You spend your life refining how the microphone works – and I’m hooked – I love this game.You developed voice problems in 2010 that plagued you for the next few years. How frightened were you that you might never recover your singing voice?
I felt a sense of God being very involved in all this. When I first discovered at age five that I had a very special voice, I looked at it as God’s gift to me. And it lifts you up with the Lord himself. All my life, I’ve felt this line connecting me – because it’s extraordinary to open your mouth and have this lovely sound going on there...it’s Godly.
Today, I’m careful to take care of my voice. I have my iPod and I sing along to my favorites like Chet Baker. I sing along to certain singers like Don and Phil Everly that take me from the low range up to the highs, and it gives me energy. When I get to Michael McDonald, I’m cooked.
I like walking, being alone and singing to myself, just lost in the world. That works for me. You’ve uniformly chosen to record material by your peers. Isn’t there a song by a younger songwriter out there you’ve heard that you’d like to record?
I’m asking myself here, ‘should I tell David the truth?’ Because how one sees things is full of blindness, and I’m like everyone else. I have my own subjectivity.
So the answer is no, I don’t think that there are great songwriters coming up. I know that sounds awful, and as soon I say it, I know that I’m doing a great disservice to some really great people that you just haven’t heard, Mr. G.
But I’m not hearing them. There are people who say ‘you gotta hear this’ or ‘listen to this writer.’ But it just ain’t happening. You could look at it as staying in your own era or you could look at it as degeneration on my part. What would you like the history books to write about Simon and Garfunkel?
For two different cats, they really fused. We’re really different personalities. I’m a very different person from Paul Simon. But there’s enormous respect there and it’s great fun making music with him. He’s a killer.
When Paul’s playing guitar and singing with me so that we’re both finding each other’s sound, there’s this bubble that comes around us that’s so much fun to be in. We listen to each other with extraordinary seriousness.
That’s closeness David, that’s love.Do you become those teenagers in Queens whenever you get together?
Yes, we revert back to our 17-year-old selves when we get together, but we don’t get together much.
Life is nasty, it separates people. It’s just something in the plan. Maybe it’s because the universe expands all the time and we all go out to the corners of the universe.