[17 March 2011]
Bridge Over Troubled Water was Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth and final studio album, released during their initial heyday in 1970, and widely acknowledged to be the duo’s worst record. That does not mean this was a bad disc; just that the other four were great and this very good one suffered by comparison. The material comes off as a collection of one-offs and doesn’t fit together as a concept in the way the prior albums seem to be whole creations. Critics compared the record to the Beatles’ White Album in that one can hear the incipient break up of the band in the way they separately perform the material (e.g., “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” is almost all Garfunkel, “Only Living Boy in New York City” is almost all Simon) and in the subjects of the songs themselves (i.e., “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” was Simon’s farewell to his partner, who was once an archecture student while “Only Living Boy in New York City” Simon’s declaration of independence).
In hindsight, a track by track offers many revelations about both Simon and Garfunkel and the times in which they were living. For example, the cut “Keep the Customer Satisfied” hints at the pressure the two were under to create a big hit records, while “Cecilia” bawdily comments on the changing sexual mores. However, in 1970 the most important aspect of the record was the gospel power of the title track, widely perceived as a healing balm for those who suffered during the turbulent decade that preceded it.
While the duo imploded as a group, they exploded as a commercial entity. The record was enormously successful. It won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Song of the Year in 1971, reached number one on the Billboard magazine charts, and sold over 25 million copies around the globe. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked the disc as #51 on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
The 40th anniversary Columbia/Legacy edition offers no new material or re-editing of the sound. (Technically, it’s the 41st anniversary.) The record company did that back in 2001, when it released a digitally remastered vision along with two bonus tracks: demos of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the classical tune “Feulilies-O”. What it does offer is two DVDs, the original 1969 television special “Songs of America” and a brand new documentary about the making of the album, “The Harmony Game”. These are worth the $14.99 list price, whether you already own the CD or not.
The Charles Grodin directed “Songs of America” may be edited clunkily—there are three, count ‘em three, versions of Simon and Garfunkel performing the song “America” in less than 60 minutes, but it contains fascinating footage. The original sponsor of the program, Bell Telephone, dropped out because of what it perceived as controversial content. Simon clearly condemns the nation’s involvement in Vietnam and Garfunkel expressively acknowledges the dilemma a recruit would find himself in when asked to fight. While those views may be shocking for a popular music act on television in 1969, other segments were considered more disturbing. There is lovely video of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy caught in casual moments, and then footage of Americans lined up to watch their funeral trains go by.
In “The Harmony Game”, Simon said that network lawyers criticized the use of the three men as unbalanced, because all three were Democrats. “I thought all they had in common was they were assassinated,” Simon joked in disbelief. Even actor Robert Ryan’s somewhat apologetic introduction to the show did not convince viewers to stay tuned. Simon noted that over one million people changed the channel to watch a Peggy Fleming ice skating show during the first commercial break of his program.
“Songs of America” also contained documentary images of Cesar Chavez and the Poor People’s March on Washington and images of racial poverty. Simon thought his views on these issues matched the mainstream and expressed surprise at the fact that they were not. But perhaps he should have realized that intercutting footage of Woodstock with Vietnam War explosions over the lilting panpipes of “El Condor Pasa” would bother more conservative elements of society. Whatever. This DVD release marks the first time the television special could be seen since its original broadcast.
“The Harmony Game” offers interviews with Simon, Garfunkel, sound engineer Roy Halee, and musicians who played on the record discussing how it was made and where the songs came from. It’s full of audio tidbits, such as the homemade source of percussion on “Cecilia” and the fact that the harmony vocals on “The Only Living Boy in New York City” were recorded with the singers actually vocalizing in the echo chamber, etc. If you have ever wondered how a certain odd sound was made or how the choice of instrumentation on a song was decided, you will probably learn the answer here.
There’s other information as well. Simon said that he originally wrote only two verses of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, but that Garfunkel and Halee convinced him that a third was necessary. I think he was right, from an artistic viewpoint. The third verse seems artificially optimistic and positive. “All your dreams are on your way,” indeed; it did not make sense then, and it does not now. The country was embroiled in war then, its population polarized, and to naively state that everything will work out for the best offers false hope. But what do I know? Simon took his co-conspirators advice and had the biggest record of his career.
Meanwhile my favorite song from the album, “The Only Living Boy in New York City”, was never a top ten hit (unlike four other tracks) and is now used to sell cars. You can hear part of the song on Honda Accord television ads. Instead, I recommend picking up the new release with the two DVDs instead. It also contains a 22-page color booklet with detailed liner notes, rare photos, and informative essays by Michael Hill and Anthony DeCurtis.