Some music is an aural snapshot of a time and place. In it, I can hear, taste, feel, see a bygone age. Simon and Garfunkel have always dropped me right me right on my ass in the 1960s. On one hand, Simon and Garfunkel were just square enough to be safe listening for the Mrs. Robinson generation. And yet, they provided a ray of light through the clouds in the minds of a generation of Benjamin Braddocks in search of their identity after rejecting the call of their parent’s generation to go into careers like ‘plastics’. The Graduate aside, Simon and Garfunkel are a product of the 1960s. They started at the cusp of transition in this country, not full fledge in the middle of it. Their songs work for an America coming out of the self-absorbed 1950s into the personal, political, civil, and global revolutions of the 1960s. I smelled burning nagchampa incense on “The 59th Street Bridge Song”, and on “Homeward Bound” I felt the rough polyester of an Amtrak seat on my back.
A 1967 concert newly released from Columbia/Legacy recordings, Live from New York City, 1967, is a sample of the penultimate folkies in their heyday. Art Garkunkel’s witty comments and their use of two voices in harmony with a folk guitar accompaniment give the performance a purity somewhat exempt from the chaos of the times. Some of their best songs still had yet to be written, and the country was just beginning to seriously crack as love-ins turned into a more militant form of protest. The Long Hot Summer and race riots were just around the corner, but for that night, America was still retained some of its innocence.
Back then, when musicians wanted to protest, they wrote songs like “A Church Is Burning”, which, presumably, is about the torching of black churches by white hate-mongers in the South. Songwriters like Dylan were slinging venom and making accusations such as Dylan’s “Masters of War,” but Simon and Garfunkel often were concerned with the business of healing in “A Church Is Burning” and later in their finest work “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.
This isn’t to say that they were above feeling blue. One of their more subtle and brilliant songs, “The Dangling Conversation”, turns a stagnant relationship into a college literature class. Full of vivid images and faded magnificence, it seems like a sketch for an unwritten Arthur Miller play more than a song.
More than anything this album reminds me that Paul Simon was one hell of a guitar player. He plays a six- and 12-string acoustic guitar for this concert and his ability to pluck such wonderful melodies amidst all his chaotic strumming is mesmerizing. His fingerpicking is flawless to the point of sounding like an update of the work of folk musicians from the 1920s and 1930s who often relied on a single guitar to act as a bass, guitar, and percussion for a song. Anyone glancing at the credits of the album will perhaps wonder what Garfunkel was doing up on that stage with him, since Simon played guitar, sang, and wrote or adapted all the songs. But Garfunkel is just more subtle, adding background vocals and accents to Simon.s songs that distinctly differentiate the Simon and Garfunkel phase from the Simon solo phase. Simon can’t reach that same state of vocal angst that Garfunkel belts out in “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her”.
Even when Beck is armed with just an acoustic guitar he sounds nothing like Simon and Garfunkel. He beats on his guitar and hauls melodies out of it, rather than gently seducing them like Paul Simon. But there were a number of parallels with this Simon and Garfunkel recording and a Beck concert at Lincoln Center a few months back I could not shake. First, the venue for the Beck show was Avery Fisher Hall, home to a gargantuan organ and host of classical performances far more often than rock stars. Back before the same venue had been remodeled and was still known as Philharmonic Hall, Simon and Garfunkel had played songs there that would be forever associated with their generation. They certainly weren’t the only ones writing those songs, just one of the few to have achieved mainstream success; plenty of smaller, lesser known artists still played similar music in small cafes in Greenwich Village. And when Beck took the stage, he was as much a representative of a significant chunk of today’s American youth as he was a musician. An indie hero, well versed in all aspects of pop culture, ironic, and mistaken as a slacker by an elder generation, Beck is not the only one who plays his type of music, and he’s not necessarily the best at it. But he has achieved mainstream success with it. Because of that, he too will someday bring us back to these days, our own more innocent time. (Even recent history is noticeably more innocent). However, while we wait for Beck to release one of his current masterful concerts 30 years from now, Simon and Garfunkel will do just fine.