Saturday, August 15, 2015

Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park (NBC-TV, filmed 9/19/81, released 1982)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last evening was a PBS pledge-break special rerun of Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park, a free performance from September 19, 1981 which was supposed to kick off a big reunion tour but didn’t because the always volatile relationship between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel took a bad turn during rehearsals for the subsequent tour, so the subsequent tour never happened. Simon and Garfunkel first broke up in 1965, after the financial failure of their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., a strict folk album that used no other musicians, and Simon was actually in England when Columbia Records decided to take one of the songs from Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., “The Sounds of Silence,” dub in a rock-band accompaniment and release it as a single. “The Sounds of Silence” in its altered form became an enormous hit, and Columbia called Simon and Garfunkel back together to work in the recording studio on an album of folk-rock songs that would go out under the title The Sounds of Silence and capitalize on their single hit. Simon and Garfunkel went on to record three more LP’s — Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water — apparently after long arguments over what shape to put the songs in. Though Simon was the duo’s songwriter (which posed problems for Garfunkel after their definitive breakup in 1969 because he had a hard time finding material as good as what Simon had written for him), Garfunkel’s sweeter voice and the duo’s awesome vocal harmonies (which they’d copied, they both admitted, from the Everly Brothers — also a big influence on the Beatles when they sang together) were as much a part of the group’s popular appeal as Simon’s infectious and poetic (sometimes a bit too poetic for their own good) songs. The ongoing conflicts reached a peak after Bridge Over Troubled Water and Garfunkel’s subsequent acting role in Mike Nichols’ film of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 — it was a troubled production and Garfunkel was only supposed to spend a month on it, but instead he ended up working on the movie for a full year, and Simon got tired of waiting for him and instead went into the studio and recorded the songs he’d intended for the next Simon and Garfunkel album as tracks for his first solo LP, Paul Simon. (I remember an interview at the time in which Simon said, “It was hard to tell the record company there wasn’t going to be a follow-up to the album that sold nine million copies.”)

Simon and Garfunkel next attempted a reunion in 1975, but that lasted only long enough to produce one song, “My Little Town,” for the (otherwise) Simon solo LP Still Crazy After All These Years. The 1981 concert was their next attempt, and though they seem on the same wavelength throughout the program — “I’m so-o-o-o-o in the mood,” Garfunkel exults during the show — the tensions were still there. Also, by the time the concert in Central Park happened Paul Simon had also switched record labels from Columbia to Warner Bros. after a confrontation with its own levels of bitterness: having signed with Warners while he still owed Columbia one more album, Simon told Columbia he wanted to do an LP of 1950’s oldies as his last album for them. The “suits” at Columbia were naturally upset that Simon wanted to palm off an album of 1950’s covers on them while saving his new original material for Warners — but in the meantime Columbia had signed James Taylor while he still owed Warner Bros. one album under his former contract, and ultimately the two companies simply traded commitments — Warners agreed to release Taylor one album early if Columbia would do the same with Simon — so they could both start on their new labels immediately. This meant, however, that the Concert in Central Park LP had to come out on Warner Bros. and Warners had to borrow Art Garfunkel from Columbia, where he had remained, so he could appear on it. The concert is a marvelous performance, though marred in this presentation by PBS’s relentless hucksterism; the pledge-break interruptions are almost as long as the program itself and the film was so drastically cut that of the 22 songs listed on the page for the concert film, only 14 appeared on the version PBS showed — the better to entice you to make a contribution of $132 per year and get the deluxe CD/DVD version of the original concert so you can hear (and see!) all the songs. The editing also screwed up the time sense of the original concert — when it begins it’s still daylight but by the time it ends it’s night, and I suspect the cut songs largely took place during twilight and thereby made the transition seem normal.

As for the performance itself, whatever was going on between Simon and Garfunkel off-stage, they were consummate professionals and looked like the best of friends on-stage — and their harmonies, not only on the songs they originally recorded together (though they had a large backing band there, they did “The Sounds of Silence” as a folk duo without accompaniment the way they had originally recorded it on Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.) but on Simon’s solo songs as well, are to die for. (“Slip Sliding Away” in particular gains immensely from Garfunkel’s harmony part — just as the rough rehearsal version of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” cut by the Beatles benefited from John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s backing vocals.) At the beginning Simon refers to it as a “hometown concert,” since they were both New York City natives, and though the crowd was estimated at about 150,000 (giving an interesting “twist” when they sing the line “10,000 people, maybe more” in “The Sounds of Silence”), the concert does have a surprisingly homey feel. Part of it is the total lack of pretension in the stage set: about all they did to decorate the backdrop was hang a Simon and Garfunkel banner off the water tower (the real one that ordinarily services Central Park); otherwise the “set” is simply the scaffolding to hold the stage lights and provide power for the microphones, sound system and electronic instruments used by the band members. And the band is incredibly hot, with Black pianist and organist Richard Tee (he’s in especially good form on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” reminding us once again how all rock — even something as seemingly far removed from the Black church tradition as this elliptical ode to friendship from a couple of New York Jews — has its roots firmly in Black spirituals and Gospel music) and drummers Grady Tate and Steve Gadd — the latter expertly reproducing the drum lick that was such an infectious “hook” for Simon’s solo hit “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Another Simon solo song, “Late in the Evening,” was also one of the high points of the show, a nice mix of rock and R&B even though the only version shown on the pledge-break edit was the ending “encore” (they didn’t actually perform it twice: producer Lorne Michaels and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg simply repeated the earlier version from the concert and ran it again under the closing credits).

What this show means today — at least to someone of my sexagenarian vintage who remembers this music vividly when it was new (and the extent to which Simon and Garfunkel were already a nostalgia item in 1981 is underscored by the new chorus Simon added to the lyrics of “The Boxer,” about how they’d gone through so many changes as they’d got older but were still “more or less the same”) — is to be amazed once again that in the 1960’s music as lyrically complex and sonically gentle and subtle as this could not only be successful but could dominate the charts. I know I’m becoming a cliché by bemoaning the current state of popular music and lamenting that it’s all garbage, unlike what I listened to in my youth — and I’ll admit that every so often I hear a Tori Amos, a Neko Case, a Duffy, a Lorde, a Hozier, who moves me and convinces me at least briefly that there is still room in the music business for someone with some of the same qualities I admired in my favorite artists from the 1960’s and 1970’s — but it’s hard to watch a show like this and not be consumed by nostalgia even though the whole point of showing Simon and Garfunkel today is to demonstrate how powerful this music still is and how it readily deserves pop-classic status. I did find it annoying, however, that the announcers on KPBS went on and on and on about how you can’t find stuff this good on commercial television and that’s why you have to give them money — when this show was originally filmed for commercial television (the presence of Lorne Michaels’ name on the credits as producer — he was the hot-shot Wunderkind at NBC who had created Saturday Night Live — gave it away); apparently PBS conceives of much of its mission as showing old music shows that commercial TV wouldn’t show now but did when this stuff was new and still popular (i.e., the Lawrence Welk Show reruns and the interminable “MyMusic,” so spelled, retrospectives on everything from big-band swing to Broadway to Motown).

FOR THE RECORD: I recently checked the Wikipedia page on the Simon and Garfunkel Central Park concert and found out that the joint reunion tour the concert was scheduled to kick off really did take place: “In May 1982, Simon & Garfunkel went on a world tour with stops in Japan, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, the US and Canada. The European leg of their tour began on May 28, 1982, at the Stadion am Bieberer Berg in Offenbach am Main. This was their first performance in Germany, and had an attendance of around 40,000 spectators. Many years would pass before the duo performed together again. Their next joint public appearance was in 1990, when the two performed at a ceremony for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Simon gave another free concert in Central Park, on 15 August 1991, he refused Garfunkel’s offer to participate. They would appear together in 1993 for 21 sold out concerts in New York, with half of the show being Paul Simon solo with a band and the other half Simon and Garfunkel. Later the same year, they did some charity concerts, including the Bridge School Benefit concerts and a benefit for United Way of Canada Children's Charities at SkyDome in Toronto. Their next performance as a duo was in December 2003, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This concert was recorded, and released in December 2004 as the album Old Friends: Live on Stage.” Also, the original broadcast of the September 19, 1981 concert film was not on a commercial network, but on the premium cable channel HBO (Home Box Office).