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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Simon and Garfunkel - The Mother and child of reunions

By Norman Lebrecht / July 18, 2004

The rain held off in Hyde Park last night but we were quickly drenched in nostalgia.

This was Simon and Garfunkel's first London concert for 22 years and many of those around me looked as if they had been at the last, and the ones before that - indeed, as if they had measured their lives by the litany of these familiar songs.

The duo, having split up acrimoniously in 1971, get together once in every decade, making an art form of the act of reunion. Half a million people saw the US leg of this tour; 50,000 people packed Hyde Park, paying anything from £40 to £180 for a distant view of two men in their sixties who represented the elixir of our own vanished youth.

Not that we were overwhelmingly middle-aged. Many in our throng, in their teens and twenties, knew every lick and lyric and seemed to be measuring their long lives ahead against this mysteriously deathless, ossified body of music. They stood, they sang, they danced the dusk away with a sense of secular communion and wholly innocent abandon. Herbal tea was served in the hospitality area. It was that wicked.

Simon and Garfunkel ambled on stage half an hour late and opened with Old Friends, accompanied on Simon's acoustic guitar. Bad mistake. Viciously exposed, the voices sounded furred with sediment like a pair of old kettles, wobbling on the hob.

A blast of amplification from a virtuosic seven-piece band buried further deficiencies and before long I was singing along with the best of them to I am a Rock and Scarborough Fair. I don't get to sing much during symphony concerts. This would have been a complete treat were it not for my noticing that the audience were often singing more in tune than the celebrated artists.

Art Garfunkel alluded in a piece of shmooze to their early struggles as folk singers on the streets of London, around 1965. Paul Simon confirmed that this was their 50th year of friendship and 48th of argument. They didn't have much to show for it. Mostly, they were separated by two clear feet of stage floor, without eye contact or anything to suggest pleasure in the other's company.

Simon acknowledged their debt to the close-harmony style of the Everley Brothers who, on cue, trotted out to deliver Bye Bye Love and Dream, Dream, Dream, in impeccable two-tone shoes. As the next supporting act, one almost expected Elvis.

Close harmony is fine as it goes, but it doesn't go very far when two singers cannot look each other in the eye and take a leap out of regulation thirds and fifths to try some imaginative riffs above and below the stave. Simon and Garfunkel were locked in the tropes of their remote past.

As one immortal ballad succeeded another - Cathy's Song, Sounds of Silence, Homeward Bound - the ear cried out for a creative dissonance, for something to break the tonal monotony. But on it sweetly droned - American Tune, Bridge over Troubled Water, The Boxer - and the enjoyment around me was unalloyed. Two slim girls from Radio 2 were jumping up and down like clubbers; their senior colleagues were snuffling with sentiment. The mystery of mass attraction deepened.

As far as stage personality goes, Simon and Garfunkel are in negative equity. Simon looks like a salesman in an Arthur Miller play, Garfunkel like a best man at a wedding who means every word of it when he says 'thank you so much for a lifetime of support'. They are a pair of nice guys from Queens, New York, who lack the zest of a Jagger or the menace of a Bob Dylan.

And yet, they captivate. I must have been all of 16 when I heard them first, Wednesday Morning at 3 A.M., more folk than rock. Unlike other folkies of the period they were both urban and urbane; the words of the prophet were written on subway walls. They were also engaged in the sixties dynamic. The songs expanded into personal relationships and echoes of Vietnam. They spoke of our time, our confusions. They still do.

The magnetic element in them, though, is a yearning for something never quite attained, for a Mother and Child Reunion, for a poet and a one-man band. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, aspiring to angelic harmony, illustrate in their lives and music the impossibility of symbiosis - the unattainability of perfect friendship for any length of time. In their most poignant numbers, there is always one chord unresolved.

And that's why their music can sell out a park. Nostalgia ain't perhaps what it used to be, but it can still teach us a thing or two about our former selves.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001