[12 March 2008]
Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy ...
—“Old Friends” by Paul Simon
Paul Simon was 26 when he wrote “Old Friends” for an album that Simon and Garfunkel called “Bookends.” Four years from now, they’ll both be 70.
For Simon, for Art Garfunkel and for Pete Fornatale, whose career as a high-profile disc jockey and writer has neatly paralleled the adventures of the hugely successful, high-maintenance pop troubadours, it’s been a long, often strange, and frequently complicated trip.
Now, with all the characters in this real-life soap opera past middle age, Fornatale, a longtime Port Washington, N.Y., resident currently heard on WFUV-FM, has chronicled the singing duo’s love-hate relationship.
The paradox of Simon and, to a lesser extent, his partner - fueled by decades of what Fornatale calls a “sibling rivalry,” but what was, more to the point, a furious competitive streak - is that Simon wrote of solitude and alienation, yet the songs blossomed as the pair sang them.
In “Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends” (Rodale Press, $16.95), Fornatale traces this process, as well as the social climate and popular culture that created what he says was one of rock’s ultimate “concept” albums - along with the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” - of the 1960s. And why not? Fornatale, a dedicated archivist, was not only present at the creation: He took notes and made tapes.
Fornatale’s stints in the `70s and `80s at WNEW-FM in New York were classic radio, with the disc jockey alternating on the air among such DJ icons as Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa and Jonathan Schwartz.
“Anyone who passed through New York in those years still remembers ... if they find me on XM (satellite radio) or on the Web, I’m like a voice from home,” says Fornatale, 62. “We put a lot of goodwill out there; it comes back in the most affectionate way.”
Why’s that? “Part of the reason is that that era is so gone, and so dead. People who hold it close, they want to touch anything that makes it tangible again.”
In the `90s, Fornatale emigrated for a couple of years to WXRK-FM but has now completed the circle and returned to WFUV, the Fordham University station where his career began in 1964, when he was a student there. His Saturday show from 4 to 8 p.m., “Mixed Bag,” carries on the Fornatale tradition of themed musical content and warm, cozy chat.
The “Bookends” project, he said, grew out of a simple request from his son Peter, an editor at Rodale Books, who was compiling a series of books focused on the rock `n’ roll touchstone albums of that era.
It turns out that the Simon and Garfunkel album that young Fornatale was proposing for his dad was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
“I said to him,” the elder Fornatale recalls, “that even though it won more awards and had more hits than `Bookends,’ `Bridge’ was the duo shredding apart. You can listen to that album and hear Paul thinking about a solo career, and you can hear Artie phoning in his part from the set of `Catch 22.’ I told him that I wanted to do the album where they took the reins of their own destiny.”
Young Fornatale said he had no hesitation about asking his father to take on the project.
“There were moments he was a pain in the butt, but he came around,” Peter said. “Initially he wanted to write about themes and what was going on in the country, but we got him to hang those ideas off the making of the album. With a little instruction, he was able to make it work.”
Simon at that time was less than prolific. The lyrical, literary “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” showed great promise in 1966, but the next year the pair released only two singles - “Fakin’ It” and “At the Zoo.” Filmmaker Mike Nichols had asked Simon to write material for a movie Nichols was preparing - 1967’s “The Graduate” - but Simon balked, struggling with writer’s block.
Except that he did deliver to Nichols bits and pieces of a tune - a chorus, some choppy guitar riffs.
It was called “Mrs. Robinson.”
“The Graduate” soundtrack, with its still-unfinished version of “Mrs. Robinson,” was joined in the upper reaches of Billboard album charts in the summer of 1968 by the resurgent “Parsley, Sage” and by a new record called “Bookends.”
“Bookends” was released by Columbia Records the day before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Two months later, on the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, “Mrs. Robinson” - now with lyrics and full-blown arrangements - was the No. 1 record in the country.
“Was that serendipity? Synchronicity?” the elder Fornatale asks. “A No. 1 record tells you a lot about the time; it is a snapshot of the time.”
At WNEW, Fornatale was in the center of the action. The great and the near-great artists of the decade passed through the studio’s doors.
“What’s different about my take is that I talked to Paul and Artie when they were making the record,” Fornatale said. The DJ actually corralled them first when he was at WFUV in the mid-‘60s, when “Bookends” was under construction.
Oddly enough, Fornatale said, he never interviewed Simon and Garfunkel at the same time, because so often they weren’t talking to each other.
Fornatale says he’s working on an “oral history” of Woodstock and that he plans to maintain his “Mixed Bag” show. He’s captivated by the idea that his program, streamed online, can be heard live “in Paris, in Spain, in the Congo.
“For someone whose career was dictated by the radius of the antenna of the station that he was working for,” he says, “this is a miracle.”
Paul Simon is keeping busy these days. For nearly the whole month of April, he’ll set up shop in a series of concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which will feature a number of “special” guests.
“Love in Hard Times” is the title of Simon’s BAM residency, and it will be broken down into three distinct parts:
“Songs from `The Capeman,’” running April 1 to 6, is comprised, not surprisingly, of tunes he composed for the short-lived 1998 Broadway musical. Guests include Claudette Sierra, Obie Bermudez, Frankie Negron, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
“Under African Skies,” from April 9-13, revisits the sounds of “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints.” Performances by Hugh Masekela, Milton Nascimento, David Byrne.
“American Tunes,” April 23-27. Simon’s most enduring legacy may be his catalog of urban and post-urban songs from albums such as “Hearts and Bones” and “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.” Performers for these concerts will include Olu Dara, Grizzly Bear, and The Roches.
For details and ticket prices, call the BAM at 718-636-4100.
And in Simon and Garfunkel news, the Starbucks chain just released a CD called “Live 1969.” The disc is drawn from previously unreleased recordings from the pair’s November 1969 U.S. tour, which turned out to be their last for more than a decade.
The album includes early live versions of songs from the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album, including “Why Don’t You Write Me,” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” and the title track. Also featured are such classics as “Homeward Bound,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and “The Boxer.”