Art Garfunkel: Singer with a Capital 'S'
The Angelic Voice is Back for a Luminous Engagement at the Winery
When he first answers the phone, Art Garfunkel swears he's "disheveled" and unorganized. But as the conversation careens through a myriad of topics, his voice takes on the measured rhythms of a hip counterculture poet. That's exactly who he is. And yes, he really does converse in the same unconventional, free-flowing verse as in his autobiography What Is It All But Luminous. Like his contemporary Bob Dylan, he's prone to ask as many questions as he receives, often instead of a standard¬†answer.
For over 50 years, the iconic artist has harmoniously interpreted the best songwriters from the modern era, especially the works of his former singing partner Paul Simon. If his only record was "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the legacy would be sealed, but Garfunkel is beloved for an incredible canon of material, with and without Simon. "Mrs. Robinson," "The Sound of Silence," and "A Heart In New York" and "All I Know" are just a few of his instantly recognizable classics. Now almost 100 percent recovered from a multi-year struggle with vocal chord issues, he's back on tour and headed to City Winery for two shows this month.
INsite spoke with the erudite singer/actor/writer by phone at his home in New¬†York.
Your acting debut in "Catch -22" opened a whole new chapter in your life - just as it helped define a new generation of non-conformist '70s filmmaking.
It did. I moved from the luckiest singer in the world, as a harmony guy, as a Simon and Garfunkel guy, into the world of acting which is as rich as the world of music. It really opened up a tremendous area of fun, creative expression and theater. Saying somebody else's lines and being an actor is a game and it was just unfolding for me. I have no training at all in classes, teachers or mentors. I just was [director] Mike Nichols' notion. I'm the gleam in his¬†eye.
It was also around this time that books became such a big part of your life.
That's right, when I had all that down time, hanging in the hotel before they called us to the set, I began to go from book to book to book. Now it's been 1,270-something books. I think, if you're gonna read, just write it down at the end.
You still have every book you've ever read at this point, correct?
They're all in my possession, yes. I sustained a bit of a fire and it ripped up some of my shelves a few years ago. But I replaced every damned one of 'em. I love my books. My beautiful wife Kim really took the opportunity to redo everything after the fire; my location is with all of my reading wrapped around me.
You have a couple of sons who have performed with you at various times, as¬†well.
I do. Arthur Junior is 26 and he's in Germany and I have a sixth-grader [Beau Daniel] who is the joy of my life, the centerpiece of my activities. Getting him to school and making sure now that he's 12 and entering these tricky adolescent years with a daddy nearby.
That's around the same age you were when you first met Paul Simon. It's such a formative time for everything, especially in the arts.
That's the age when everything is thrown at you. You really do check in as the person you are. Your personality, your tastes form right around there. It's almost like, 'that's it,' it doesn't change much. Were you a Beatles¬†nut?
Oh yes and the Beach Boys and all the folk stuff.
You had good taste then.
I also enjoyed the Simon and Garfunkel catalog during that period as well.
We were good. You know, we go to the arts to get away from things. It's a world unto itself. It tries to turn its back on all the noise, the Trumpery. The test is, are you captivating enough to succeed in taking your audience elsewhere? It's the great elsewhere where artists want to live. My autobiography is about the great elsewhere. It's about my life. The wonder of it all, the mystery of being a¬†person.
The book contains a lot of non-linear imagery but it's a totally cohesive read that covers a lot of ground, even within one specific moment.
If I were a filmmaker, I'd be one of those European filmmakers with a lot of jump-cuts. A lot of editing.
But no bad splices though, just real emotions and scenarios.
When you write these things, you go by feel. You're thinking, 'I'm the writer, but I'm also the reader as I'm writing it. What wants to come next?' It's a funny thing when you're a lifelong singer. If you're the lifelong singer, how do you spend your life? I have my private life, as it is with so many, light and shade, and then there are the things you do to keep it interesting. If they offer you an acting role, can you jump in and see how it feels?
Many of the entries came during your lengthy walks as you'd get away from the noise of the city.
If you're writing your whole life, can you walk across the United States and Europe? I've walked these countries just to get out of town, just to shake out the city stuff. The traffic, the honking of the horn. You shake it out by walking in Indiana and Missouri or Wyoming. I'm interested in the vitality of being.
The last tour was songs and stories and poetry. How has it changed?
What if it's the same?
Then it will be even better.
I knew you were involved with diplomacy and niceness! You're committed to being diplomatic - if not truthful. But really, aside from a little kibitzing and joking around, what if it's the same show? This is what I do. If you haven't seen it, then here it is. If you have, then here it is again.
Since you're doing two nights, it's worth seeing twice.
Like a record. When you play a record, you play it again, that same exact record. I never think from my end there's a need that I must come back with a new show. It would be tremendously burdensome. I don't want to not do "Bridge" or "Scarborough." I didn't learn to do a better show since I saw you last. I learned a little bit of nuances, so there's a little bit of change.
One big change is the voice. It's definitely back.
I forget that when I was there last, the voice was hardly there. I lost it in 2010, Lee. By '13 and '14, I was doing shows but I was croaking. By 2016, I was rolling along. I was very brave. When your whole identity is singing, especially. I lost it. But I found it!
It's such a pure sound.
[starts singing "Scarborough Fair" and breaks up]. Not this morning it's not. (Laughs)
I've seen shows where the artist may have thought it was a 'bad' performance, but it was still great because it was of the¬†moment.
But I have to meet my good standards, it doesn't matter if people say, 'Oh that was more than good enough.' If I don't like it, I'm down. I walked off the stage with Paul at Central Park in 1981. A half a million people were cheering for Simon and Garfunkel and the show was over. It was 10:30 at night. Paul will attest to this; as we walked off, I'm just behind his neck and I say, 'Oh man, we blew it.' He said, 'We blew it?' I said, 'Yeah, I wanted us to be a little more precise and our pitch to be more accurate.' He turned around and said, 'Are you crazy Artie? This was a home run, man!' That's what a perfectionist I am. And that's the real Simon and Garfunkel, that's a tiny vignette.
People love the music you made together.
We're sweethearts! We're like cartoon characters. We are musicians. We play. Lee, we play with notes and chords and words. I have made a friendship with the public, the western world, Europe and North America. Many years ago, they seemed to know I'm in this for the right reasons. It's what we gave the world, the healthiness and joy of rock and roll.
The purity of that feeling, there's just no match for it.
That's what I thought I was doing when I was making those records, putting it out into the world and making things lift up.
Art Garfunkel will play on February 10 & 11 at the City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.