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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Fifty years on: Simon & Garfunkel

by Trevor Moore This month, on 16 September 2020 to be precise, my good friend Macman, a.k.a. Neil Mack will be tripping the light fantastic on 2EARFM in the fourth of his series of albums Fifty Years On.

There are two classics that were released that were released in September 1970. On the 19th Neil Young released his 3rd studio album, After the Gold Rush and, on the 23rd, Santana released Abraxus. Both records did well: Young’s album went double platinum in the US and the UK, reaching number 13 in Australia. The success of Abraxus is, strangely, mixed though overall it was a commercial success especially in the US where it stormed to number 1 and went quintuple platinum (i.e. 5,000,000 copies). Its success in the UK was more muted: it reached number 7 but with sales of only about 100,000. It was number 1 in Australia. I was in the UK at the time of its release, and as a member of the record buying public, I certainly noticed it. My sister was, and remains, nuts about it. Both After the Gold Rush and Abraxus were important albums to have lying on the coffee table.

The very early days: Simon & Garfunkel as Tom & Jerry in the 1950s. But you have read the title of this piece. It says, “Simon & Garfunkel” and you would be expecting that Macman would be playing the last studio album released by the duo in January 1970: Bridge Over Troubled Water. That is slightly over 50 years ago. In 1969 Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate had been chosen to film Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (which we all remember from the 1960s) and he offered Art Garfunkel a part. As a result, Art was in Mexico when most of the Bridge tracks were recorded and several are essentially solo efforts by Paul Simon. As work on the album proceeded Simon and Garfunkel realised that their partnership had outlived its usefulness. Art was tiring of what he later described as his “underdog role”: Simon wrote the songs, Garfunkel just sang them: as he said, "I felt envious of Paul's writing and playing, especially onstage, where I had nothing to do with my hands”. As Bridge Over Troubled Water topped the singles and album charts on both sides of the Atlantic, the pair went their separate ways; Art to a part on the movie Carnal Knowledge and Paul to make his brilliant eponymous solo album.

But you would be mistaken if you expected Macman to be playing Bridge as the September offering for his Fifty Years On series. He is nothing if not capricious, is Macman, and that is why he plays such an eclectic mix of music on his shows.

The poster for the concert (they had posters in those days) which was done by a designer called Michael Doret who is still working in LA. Eleven years after Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for the Concert in Central Park. As the New York Times reported the day after the concert “several hundred thousand people seeking remembrance of the 1960s carpeted the Great Lawn of Central Park yesterday evening for the free reunion concert of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.” So, although the Concert in Central Park was played 39 years ago, Macman has decided that since the 1960s were nearly the 1970s and that 39 is close to 50 … well, for whatever reason … he has chosen to showcase the album that came out of the Concert in Central Park, which is Simon and Garfunkel’s first of four live albums. We had to wait for 20 years for the second live album which was 2002’s Live from New York City, 1967 which had been recorded at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now called the David Geffen Hall).

The Concert in the Park was a free concert held on 19 September 1981 in Central Park, New York. By the mid-1970s the park was deteriorating: the city did not have the money to maintain the city’s “green lung”. A non-profit organisation called the Central Park Conservancy was established to raise money that would restore and maintain the park. The Concert in the Park was targeted to raise $100,000 for preservation of the park through sales of T-shirts and buttons celebrating the concert. As the New York Times reported: “by mid-afternoon, the vans dispensing the Art Deco T-shirts were already out of the popular sizes.” In spite of Paul Simon’s fears, the concert was a huge success, at least in terms of attendance. The then mayor (Ed Koch) estimated that 500,000 people turned up; the police department estimated 400,000. But what’s in a 100,000 here and there? It’s still a big number. The police had done one of their customary drug sweeps that morning and made 10 arrests. When Paul Simon thanked the Fire Department, the Police Department, the Parks Department and Mayor Koch, he also thanked ''the guys selling loose joints who are giving us half their income tonight.''

By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong ... but this half a million are in Central Park on 19 September 1981

A Long Island promoter, Ron Delsener, called Paul Simon on behalf of the Central Park Conservancy. Simon owned an apartment that overlooked Central Park and Delsener’s pitch was that Simon should do a free concert to signal that the neighbourhood was up and coming. The idea was for a solo concert by Paul Simon, but he called Art Garfunkel and invited him to join him for 10 songs toward the end of the show. The problem for Simon was that this would mean that he would appear to be the warm-up act for the return of the erstwhile duo. The three weeks of rehearsals leading up to the show were fraught with difficulties. At one point there was an idea that each would do solo spots before returning as a duo. Garfunkel wanted to perform the songs exactly as they had performed them all those years previously; him singing and Simon on acoustic guitar. But Simon couldn’t play the whole concert due to an injury, so they brought in an 11-piece band. They quarrelled over whether or not to wear hairpieces. Simon said yes, Garfunkel said no; Simon won.

Hairpieces in place: there is no accounting for vanity. Nevertheless, a few days before the concert Simon told the New York Times that he and his partner were “back from the boulevard of broken duos” and a 50 metre stage costing three quarters of a million dollars was built. Mayor Ed Koch opened the show: “Ladies and Gentlemen: Simon & Garfunkel” and the crowd erupted. The people cheering would have included those who remembered the duo from the 1960s (and possibly even as Tom & Jerry from the 1950s). There would have been those who were there just because the concert had been so hyped beforehand. But after a short pause, the duo launched into Mrs Robinson. The sound on the album is clear and the performance and harmonies are flawless … as you would expect but the 11 piece band means that it is not the song from the movie (The Graduate). All the songs are well-executed … they move from Mrs Robinson and on through Homeward Bound, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the set closes with The Boxer. It includes Paul Simon’s 1975 Still Crazy After All These Years and, perhaps as a throwback to their days as Tom & Jerry in the 1950s a cover of the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie. Listening to their cover the influence of the Everly Brothers on Simon & Garfunkel is as clear as the nose on the end of your face.

But any hopes of a permanent reunion were not to be realised. They toured together in 1982 and they planned a studio album that would have been called Think Too Much, but it was not be. That album became Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones. They performed together in 1990 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and again in 1993. In 2004 they played Madison Square Garden that resulted in the album Old Friends: Live on Stage.

In terms of attendance, the Concert in the Park was successful: it remains one of the top 10 biggest concerts in the US. But in terms of its contribution to the Central Park Conservancy it was less successful. Against a target of $100,000 it made $51,000. But it did make a lot of people happy if only for an evening.

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