July 24, 2000
Helena de Bertodano reports.
He and Paul Simon split up in acrimony nearly 30 years ago, but Art Garfunkel, soon to make a rare appearance in Britain, still wonders what would have happened had he and Simon stayed together
ART GARFUNKEL does not attract much attention as he sits in the restaurant of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Then he opens his mouth and sings in a voice as clear as a bell. “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told . . .” As he holds the last note, every head cranes around.
The man himself, with his greying blond curls and balding pate, looks like a dandelion that has gone to seed. But his singing voice still has the same unstrained purity which made him half of Simon and Garfunkel, one of the most successful musical partnerships of all time.
The pair split up acrimoniously nearly 30 years ago after producing Bridge Over Troubled Water. Both now pursue solo careers, which are inevitably less successful, occasionally burying the hatchet to reappear together. Garfunkel has also appeared in films, including Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge. Now 57, he will make a rare appearance in Britain at the Chichester Festival on August 6, followed by a show in Jersey.
I first meet him in his palatial triplex overlooking Central Park. The lift doors open directly into his three-floor apartment and I step into a silent sitting-room, with just a black and white cat sunning itself by the window. “Hello?” I call out. A woman with cherubic blonde curls appears, his wife Kim Cermack, an actress and singer in her thirties. Then Garfunkel emerges from another room, wearing a baseball cap bearing the words Boxing Helena, the name of the last film he appeared in. “The joke hat is for your benefit,” he announces. He goes over to his wife. “Have you ever seen a complexion like that?” he asks me, gazing at her wonderingly.
He rarely speaks to the press because he says he is often misunderstood, which is not surprising as he is – by his own admission – “weird”. But he is not without a certain disingenuous charm. He takes me up to see his son James, who is nine and the image of his father: the same reddish blond curls, high forehead and intense eyes. On the door to his playroom are crayoned dot-to-dot words, spelling out a wobbly Scarborough Fair and Sounds of Silence. One floor further up is Garfunkel’s study. The walls are lined with books, each one individually packaged in a plastic bag, a sign of his fastidious nature.
Proudly, he shows off the view from the terrace. “I’m a very lucky guy. I bought this triplex in the mid-Seventies for a price so low you would not believe it.” He seems to be inviting me to ask how much. So I do. “$150,000. Can you believe that? It has probably gone up 100 times.” That’s $15 million, folks.
Although Garfunkel’s agent has warned me against asking him about Paul Simon, it is Garfunkel himself who first mentions him. We are walking towards the Metropolitan for lunch and he points out the spot in Central Park where he and Simon played in 1981 to a crowd of half a million. “It was sensational,” he says dreamily. “The rains stopped in the afternoon and the sky was clear with that lovely pearl-grey look.”
Following the great success of this reunion, the pair tried to reunite but fell out again. The original bone of contention had been Garfunkel’s burgeoning film career which Simon felt was taking precedence over their singing.
I ask Garfunkel if he feels his acting impinged on the singing. “It’s a touchy question,” he says. “If you were to ask Paul Simon he would have a different answer from me. I go back to the days when Ringo Starr took on some acting roles. We all know John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] wrote the songs and they seemed to be just a little more equal than the other equals, and it seems like a valid thing to have done to enrich Ringo’s identity. It was with that in mind that I thought Arty Garfunkel could be enriched in Simon and Garfunkel. Paul writes the songs, Paul plays the guitar; this will be a nice thing for the duo’s sake.”
Garfunkel admits that he sometimes wonders whether he would have achieved such fame on his own. “I think about it,” he says equably as he eats a chicken salad and drinks Coca-Cola. “In many ways Paul was the engine of Simon and Garfunkel, the driving force, and I wonder if alone I would have faced the auditions, the business, the crass wall that one has to break down in order to make it. I would have sung and I would have been musical and I would have been good, but that’s not enough.”
Perhaps likewise, I suggest, Simon would not have made it without Garfunkel’s voice? “I wonder if he realises that. That’s as close as I’m going to get to any trouble; you’ll hear nothing else like that . . . I love Paul. I can sum it up in a phrase I know that he likes, when Lennon said this about McCartney: “We have enriched each other’s lives.” Full stop. That sums it all up.
He then tells me that Lennon, seeing that Simon and Garfunkel had buried their differences for the sake of a reunion concert, once asked him whether he should agree to work again with McCartney. “Imagine John Lennon saying this to me. I love that I’m getting to say this flashy truth to your tape. I said, ‘John, keep personalities totally aside. Just to produce the harmony is such a nice sensation in the ear and in the heart. It’s a lot of fun if you can keep it on that pure musical level’.”
When he works with Simon, he says that their attitude towards each other changes. “I’ve done shows with Paul where it was acrimonious before showtime, but the second we opened our mouths for the first line, there was a much larger truth than what we thought of each other.” After the concert, the feeling starts to disappear. “It’s funny, you’re left halfway in between. You’ve gotten a nice uplift but you’re not going to deny that there were differences before the show either.”
Arthur Garfunkel and Paul Simon met at school in Queens, New York, aged 11. They struck up an instant friendship and started singing commercially as “Tom and Jerry” while still in their early teens. But it wasn’t until they were reborn as Simon and Garfunkel that they really made it big. After they recorded Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Mike Nichols commissioned them to compose the music for the film, The Graduate. Garfunkel says he might drop in to see the stage version when he is in London. “I was dying to see it but I’ve heard mixed reviews, so I’m not sure.”
He says that he is now the happiest he has ever been. “I sleep good. I’m not troubled by things. To feel the stability of my marriage and see the wonder of a child is the most massive happiness.”
His first marriage, to Linda Grossman, ended in divorce. He once said that not only did he not love her, he did not even like her much. As a result he did not want to marry his next girlfriend, Laurie Bird, who committed suicide in 1979. It was suggested that his refusal to marry her was a contributory factor. Garfunkel became reclusive after her death and today refers to it as the worst time of his life. “I loved her a lot and she was suddenly gone and that was tough.”
In the early Eighties, he became more reflective and produced a book of prose poems, Still Water, a strange volume, part tribute to Laurie, combining philosophy and sentimentality. He also started walking vast distances, arriving in Japan on a freighter and deciding on the spur of the moment to walk across the country. “It looked pretty narrow on the map. I carried my hat and in the hat I had a change of socks, a toothbrush, and a rubber ball. Every day I would buy some clothes and throw away the old ones.” Since then he has crossed America on foot, in several separate stints, always returning to the exact spot he left off.
Now he has started on Europe . He has already crossed most of England and on his next stint will take it up just north of Poole in Dorset and cross by ferry to France. He says he is rarely interrupted by anyone. “I’m not easily recognised. I’m this guy listening to his Sony Walkman. I sing a lot. It’s a time to lubricate the chops.”
He says he considers himself unusual. “I’m about 20 per cent eccentric,” he says. I think I would be more generous than that. “I’m very happy to be different. I think the word different is a nice word.”
He is an authority, in a way, on words, having read the English dictionary from cover to cover. “Ain’t I a nut?” he says delightedly. “I don’t know what other people do with their lives, but my game is to stay interesting to myself. It was 1,664 pages, the Random House dictionary, with 275,000 words, I read ’em all. I collected two categories of words, words that were picturesque, like somebody combing the beach looking for lovely shells, and words that stretch your vocabulary.”
Describing himself as “philosophical, thoughtful, academic” he says that his whole life is aimed at “creating goodness”. But he admits to slipping up occasionally. “I have my temper tantrums. I have my times with my son when I wish I could be a little more careful. Of course I have my childish pouty reactions to things.”
I ask him when he last had a tantrum. “I had one this morning before you came over. I was a little uptight and I was with my trainer on my treadmill. I saw a whole pitcher of heavy sunflowers on the side of the table, which was leaning a bit. I said, ‘I do love this carpet, it’s such a nice blue; I would hate the flowers to fall because it’s such polluted water in that vase. I’ll just finish the treadmill.’ Five minutes later it fell. My son and his nanny rushed in to help. I tried to hold it in but because of the impending interview I was bottled up. I said” – he puts on a panicky voice – ” ‘Shouldn’t we put down a lot of water to dilute it?’ James was saying, ‘Look Daddy it’s all coming out’. I thought, ‘Yes it’s okay’.”
“He’s hasn’t changed from the beautiful soul he’s always been,” says Kim, when we return to the apartment after lunch. “I feel very glad to be married to him although sometimes he gets a little intense.”
Garfunkel still feels driven and says he will carry on singing indefinitely. He knows people turn out to hear him playing the old favourites. “They’re good songs. Paul Simon wrote great songs.” But he cannot quite come to terms with the fact that this is all he will ever be known for. “I suppose deep down I wish I could now put out another major chapter. If somebody says, ‘You brought back so many wonderful memories in your concert,’ it would not be my favourite compliment. ‘You’ve still got it’ would.”
He is preparing a new album which he says will be completely different from anything he has ever done before. “I’m really after all these years just coming into my own . . . I watched Sinatra through the years to see how far you can go with it. I know one thing: when I’m on stage I’m outside of the aging. I feel this is what I did when I was seven, so we’ll see how far I can get away with this lucky job.”
I ask if he ever wonders what would have happened if he and Simon had stayed together: would they still be producing hits? His face becomes tinged with sadness.
“Definitely. There are many things in my back pocket that were not used in Simon and Garfunkel. Our next album would have been interesting.”
There is still time, isn’t there? Garfunkel purses his lips and stares fixedly at the tablecloth. If ever there were a sound of silence, this is it.