Critics lauded the first four Simon & Garfunkel records as great folk rock achievements. Each album was considered a masterpiece by the duo’s fans, and each LP was considered better and more artistically advanced than its predecessor. Then several of their songs found their way on the soundtrack of the hit movie The Graduate, including one written specifically for the film, “Mrs. Robinson”. As a result, tremendous expectations and pressure were put on S&G to create another tour de force when they went in the studio to record a new disc in 1969. However, the two men had creative, political, and personal differences. Despite the tensions, they did complete the album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and went on tour before the LP’s January release. The duo split up soon afterwards, but the record went on to become S&G’s most successful.
Live 1969 features 17 tunes from S&G’s tour in October and November recorded in six separate cities (Detroit, Toledo, Carbondale, St. Louis, Long Beach, and New York City). The material comes from all five records, and the duo is joined by the session musicians who played on their studio albums. The live versions of the songs do not sound much different than they do on the studio recordings. It’s unclear why these particular tracks were chosen and why they were ordered this way on the disc. It seems unlikely that these recordings were the best from each of the shows, as the compilation comes off as more of a patchwork affair. The inclusions are not chronological in order of when the songs were first written or when these recordings were taped. The set begins with “Homeward Bound”, an odd choice to start off a live album with, and ends with a quiet rendition of an older track, “Kathy’s Song”. The “Mrs. Robinson” track is marred by a high-pitched keyboard sound that disturbingly floats in and out of range. There is not much stage patter here; a few songs are given short introductions, but that’s about it. The conversation that is included suggests a certain amount of tension between Simon and Garfunkel, as they rarely interact with each other.
There are other reasons for stress as well. This is America in 1969, the time of Woodstock, President Richard Nixon’s first year in office, the moon landing, Vietnam War protests, etc. There are no mentions of what is going on in the world, although Simon had written several political songs. In fact, segments of the 1969 tour that were broadcast on television were often unable to find commercial sponsors because of the music’s political nature. This compilation was originally scheduled for release at a time nearer to its original recording date, and it seems the producers wanted to refrain from controversy for financial reasons.
Knowing this gives the lyrics a potency they had at the time, but might not be realized by a contemporary audience. What innocent lines like “Pigeons plot in secrecy” or “Feelin’ groovy” might have meant to an audience back then could be different for current listeners. Although the central political lesson of “Mrs. Robinson”, “Laugh about it / Shout about it / When you’ve got to choose / Anyway you look at it you lose” still remains just as potent and true.
This is also true for the healing nature of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. This would have been the first time audiences heard the song, and the crowd responds enthusiastically to its offering of comfort. The words speak of when rough times, when pain is all around. There is a collective acknowledgement that they were living in hurtful times. The saccharin nature of the solace might be too much to bear for more contemporary, cynical listeners who believe this is the way life always is and has been. But for those children of the ‘60s who once believed in the dreams of a better tomorrow, the sounds of silence could only be redeemed by the sound of music. This new song gets the most positive group reaction. No wonder the future studio release of the album with this name became one of the best selling discs of the next decade.