Forty-five years after Simon & Garfunkel split up, the singer is still consumed with bitterness
I hear Art Garfunkel before I see him, singing to himself as he drifts across the hotel lobby in a blue T-shirt, heading for the lifts. At 73 his golden curls have become white dandelion seeds, and he is not as tall as you might imagine — an illusion that was probably created during all those years standing next to the diminutive Paul Simon.
As I’m early, I hang back and wait for him to reappear. When he does, he has changed into a white shirt and is carrying a large manila envelope. He tilts back his head to study me through black-framed glasses before proffering his left hand to shake, explaining that he trapped his right one in a door. We find a quiet corner in the bar area and instead of ordering a coffee – it is 10am – he asks for a bowl of pea soup.
Oh good, I think, this is going to be a memorable encounter.
“I’m allowing myself to be victimised here,” he says, jiggling his knee, not making eye contact.
By me? “By the press. I’m nervous.”
Really? Someone who can sing in front of half a million people (as he and Paul Simon did in 1981 for that historic, but temporary, reunion “the concert in Central Park”)? “Oh, I was nervous there, too. You feel vulnerable. Exposed. You might forget a lyric. It’s brave work, this work. I want you to respect it.”
But I do, I say, I do – which is why I’ve already bought my tickets to see him in concert when he returns to London in the autumn, to play at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Gorgeous acoustics,’ he says, relaxing a little at this. It will be a tour of seven cities, and it nearly didn’t happen because in 2010 he suffered from a “paresis” of his vocal chords. “Since I lost my voice – and I have now almost fully recovered it – the loud, high notes haven’t quite come back, so I need a mic for volume.”
When the middle range of his voice went, he was devastated. “I teased it back by singing in empty theatres. I would sing, and crap out, and my knees would buckle and I would whimper in frustration. I didn’t know how I was going to carry on. Was I going to be some guy named Walter who doesn’t sing? Did I have to get a regular job instead? I’ve been singing since I was five. It’s my identity. I can get away with murder when I sing.”
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, prior to their split in 1970 (Picture: Rex)
He is often described in terms of that goosebump-inducing voice of his – “angelic”, “haunting” and so on. But when I ask him to describe himself he says: “I’m a misanthrope.” There is something in that, given what he will go on to say about his father, and Paul McCartney, and Paul Simon. But I would also add “eccentric”. Take his habit of listing on his website every book he has ever read. “You notice it’s heavy sh*t,’ he says. ‘It’s not fluff.”
Since Simon & Garfunkel split up in 1970, he has married twice and raised two sons, had a film career, walked across America and Europe – ”to get away from people” – and continued recording.
Although his solo hits (Bright Eyes, I Only Have Eyes for You) were written by other people, and though Paul Simon wrote all the Simon & Garfunkel songs, he does write. Prose poems, mostly. In long hand. “I never bought a computer or a cell phone.”
He also does a lot of mathematics, having read it as a student at Columbia. “I’m precise. I think in proportions. I play games with numbers and I proportionalise. I imagine we have now done 1/8th of our interview.” I check my watch.
He even took a job as a maths teacher at one point, in the Seventies, despite being a world famous pop star.
“I’d just got married and moved to Connecticut, and there was a nearby preparatory school and so I taught math there. It was a weird stage of my life, to leave Simon & Garfunkel at the height of our success and become a math teacher. I would talk them through a math problem and ask if anyone had any questions and they would say: “What were the Beatles like?”
At the risk of sounding like one of his pupils, I ask about the Beatles, specifically George, who felt his talents were overshadowed.
“George came up to me at a party once and said “my Paul is to me what your Paul is to you.” He meant that psychologically they had the same effect on us. The Pauls sidelined us. I think George felt suppressed by Paul and I think that’s what he saw with me and my Paul. Here’s the truth: McCartney was a helluva music man who gave the band its energy, but he also ran away with a lot of the glory.”
Shortly before they split up, Simon & Garfunkel released what was to become the (then) biggest selling album in history, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Why did they walk away from that phenomenal success?
“It was very strange. Nothing I would have done. I want to open up about this. I don’t want to say any anti Paul Simon things, but it seems very perverse to not enjoy the glory and walk away from it instead. Crazy. What I would have done is take a rest from Paul, because he was getting on my nerves. The jokes had run dry.
But a rest of a year was all I needed. I said: ‘I’m not married yet. I want to jump on a BMW motorbike and tour round Europe chasing ladies.’”
Did he have a seduction technique? “I had it down to an art form. When you sign autographs after a show, you see the real pretty one and make sure you get to her last. Then you ask, ever so casually, ‘Have you had dinner?’”
Paul Simon once said that it upset him that audiences thought Garfunkel had written his masterpiece, the song Bridge Over Troubled Water – because Garfunkel sang it as a solo, with piano accompaniment.
“I saw that quote, too. But how many songs did I sing upfront and have a real tour de force of vocal? Does he resent that I had that one? I find that ungenerous.”
It’s an intriguing answer, one that makes me suspect that Paul Simon is not only a musical genius – that overused word seems appropriate – but also an insecure man who has to be the centre of attention. When I mention that I went to see Paul Simon and Sting at the O2 a few weeks ago, Garfunkel sits forward. “Oh tell me, I’m curious. Did he do Bridge Over Troubled Water?”
“It was a gamble that he did that. And when they did it, was Sting on the arrangement?”
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together as part of their 2015 world tour
When I say he was, Garfunkel jiggles his knee again, looks over his shoulder, reaches into his manila envelope and produces a clutch of his prose poems marked with pink Post-it labels and reads one to me. It is about a zebra.
He’s a hard man to get the measure of, Art Garfunkel.
On the one hand he still seems eaten up by bitterness about his divorce from Paul Simon, yet he also talks about his old friend (they were at school together) with deep affection.
Simon and Garfunkel during their reunion tour in 2003 (Picture: AP)
He can seem vainglorious, too, referring to his own “beautiful” voice and being a “helluva singer”, but egomania is not incompatible with self-doubt, or misanthropy. And perhaps if he was nervous about this interview it was to do not with what I would ask but what he would answer.
He grew up in Queens, New York, a few blocks away from Paul Simon (they attended the same high school and started impersonating the Everly Brothers when they were 13). But what about his home? Was there singing there?
“Dad played rudimentary piano and sang with my mum, in thirds, but it was all middlebrow stuff.”
His father was a travelling salesman of men’s coats.
“At the end of the war there were a lot of surplus bomber jackets that needed to be unloaded. He travelled in the north east, four-day trips with sample cases in the trunk. Lately I’ve been thinking why did he not want to stay home with us more? Did he have a girlfriend on the road? I think the man who goes through his adult life as if he was born to carry a burden on his back has an inferiority complex. He thinks his place is not to stand up with dignity but to carry the samples.”
He sips a spoonful of pea soup as his 24-year-old son, Art Junior, appears and says hello, before heading off to wait at the bar.
“We were estranged for a while,” he says. “Aged 16, my kid created a distance. He broke my heart a little. Now he’s moving back to love of family. For these shows I’m going to bring him on stage. We harmonise. He’s got the singing gift.”
When I ask what advice he has given his son he makes me laugh with his answer: “Watch out for traffic.” Anything else? “Be kind to people. I’m working on that second one myself, because I’m not always kind. I’m judgemental and picky. When I order room service and they get it wrong I try so hard to be kind and I fail. ‘But I only asked for three things! How could you get one wrong?’
“Or to the taxi driver: ‘How can this be hard? Listen to the address and take me there. Don’t you care about your job?'”
I say there is one more question I have to ask, and he will have guessed what it is.
“Will I do another tour with Paul? Well, that’s quite do-able. When we get together, with his guitar, it’s a delight to both of our ears. A little bubble comes over us and it seems effortless. We blend. So, as far as this half is concerned, I would say, ‘Why not, while we’re still alive?’
“But I’ve been in that same place for decades. This is where I was in 1971.”
He then seems to address not me but his old friend. “How can you walk away from this lucky place on top of the world, Paul? What’s going on with you, you idiot? How could you let that go, jerk?”
Actually, another question strikes me. I speculate about whether Paul Simon might have a Napoleon complex. Is there a height thing there, between them?
“I think you’re on to something. I would say so, yes.”
He adds that at school he felt sorry for Paul because of his height, and he offered him love and friendship as a compensation. “And that compensation gesture has created a monster. End of interview.”
When he drifts off back to the lifts, singing to himself again, I check my watch. Turns out his mental clock, when he guessed how far we were through the interview, was exactly right.