Bridge Over Troubled Waters

When I was a teenager and wanted to be a musician, I had two distinct phases. First, I had a gentle folky phase, and then one day I suddenly switched to harder, high energy music. I stopped listening to a lot of my old favorites. (I tell this story in my book Street Song.) During my  folky phase I was into Dylan’s more gentle songs (“Girl From the North Country,” “One Too Many Mornings”), Paul McCartney ballads like “Mother Nature’s Son,” James Taylor,  Donovan, and Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t care much for Simon and Garfunkel as singers. In fact, I actively disliked Garfunkel’s voice. I found it cloying. But I did like their harmonies. I was mostly into Simon’s songwriting and guitar playing.

I haven’t listened to Simon and Garfunkel in more than 40 years, but a week or so ago I got one of their songs into my head—”So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”—and it wouldn’t leave. That led to my becoming obsessed with another tune—”Song for the Asking.” Both songs are from the same album, Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Eventually I needed a fix. So I went to YouTube where I found a video of Art Garfunkel doing a live performance of the song “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” It amazed me. It’s one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever heard—and fascinating to watch.

In September of 1981 Simon and Garfunkel agreed to do a free concert in Central Park, and half a million people showed up. They hired some heavyweight studio musicians to back them up. The pianist was Richard Tee. The original piano part on the record was played by Larry Knechtel, a white studio player and it sounds like white gospel piano playing: nice and filigreed. Tee is black and the piano part has a different feel. He plays it on an electric piano and he funks up the arrangement just a little. There are more percussive, block chords than in the original, but he plays them tastefully. The first two verses are just Garfunkel and Tee playing a duet. You can tell they’re really listening to one another. Garfunkel is doing his choirboy thing, but he’s so pure, so devoid of any show biz pretense, and so musical that it’s very beautiful to watch. He’s intense, but restrained. He doesn’t get into any histrionics, which it would be very easy to do with that song. The way the melody is constructed and the key it’s in, he has to put energy into it to sing it at all, but he walks a very fine line. And, as the person who put up the video says, “He nails it.” It’s quite moving. He delivers the heart of the song and doesn’t make any mistakes, doesn’t fluff any notes, which is something very few pop singers can pull off in concert. They’re usually not disciplined or well-trained enough. And he does it in front of half a million people. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Art Garfunkel won my respect with his performance, and you can watch it here.

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8 Responses to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”

  1. Tim Mueller Says:

    Thanks, Mark. This was wonderful. It’s so amazing the power that music can have. It’s sad to see it abused these days, at least what mass media bombards us with.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes, and musicians have lost the ability to deliver that kind of power by writing and recording in their bedrooms, so to speak. Few have any experience with live performance, which is where music comes alive. It’s not the musicians’ fault entirely. There are fewer and fewer venues to play live as more and more people choose to cocoon.

  2. tz Says:

    I am relieved to hear your mature self could hear what your younger self couldn’t… the perfection that is Art Garfunkel.

  3. mobius Says:

    One of my all time favorite youtube videos, and I watch it for the soulfulness….I spent a weekend with it in the background recently…and everything you say is how it was….back then….

  4. Margaret Benbow Says:

    I have the original “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” 60’s album–with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel dressed as caped traveling troubadours,and some rather schlocky songs–and as a result it was too easy to sneer at them as posers. I was wrong. They both deserved better. Thanks for the link! I liked (and was amazed by) Garfunkel’s simplicity and directness in performance. For the first time I let myself appreciate the beauty and honesty of that song.

  5. JB Says:

    I have been slowly reading “How Music Works” by David Byrne (2012). It illuminates the ways that musicianship has changed due to technology over time, even starting with phonographs and radio. Overall, it is highly enjoyable and not too subjective as to make it all about David Byrne’s music projects.

    It has taken me a long time to enjoy the recording process. I ultimately see recording and performance as two separate art forms. Anybody who expects a performance to sound exactly like the record is fooling themselves. Music just doesn’t work that way.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes. That’s the reason I never hope that a performer will sing some particular song I like. Live, it’s always a higher experience when they play what they feel like playing.

  6. joe Says:

    simon & art are poets,beautiful stuff,as per this & the state of our
    world’s poetic nation,check out: shane koyczan-to this day.
    on youtube,as good as The Boxer. 😉

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