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Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water

May 17, 2017

April 25 1970 at London's Royal Albert Hall. I had just turned 14 and this was the first live gig I'd ever been to. A few weeks earlier, my friend Roger and I had sneaked out of school at lunchtime, hopped on a bus from East Sheen and queued for a couple of 10-shilling tickets (this was the last year of old money). Now, in awe at the scale and Victorian magnificence of one of the world's greatest concert halls, we excitedly made our way up to our seats in Upper Orchestra West, the rows of cheaper vantage points behind the stage.

 

What followed was one of the best shows I'd ever get to see. Maybe even the best. Of course I didn't know it then – and for a while I thought all live music would be this good. It was only about 30 years later that I truly came to appreciate the magic I had witnessed that night in Kensington Gore.

 

Back then Simon and Garfunkel were on top of the world. Just three months after its release, their latest album Bridge Over Troubled Water was No1 in the States and the UK and, for good measure, the title song was also top of the pops in the singles chart on both sides of the Atlantic – the first time this double double had been achieved.

Behind the scenes, though, all was not well with Paul and Artie. The love-hate relationship that dated back to their teenage days in New York – when in 1957 as Tom and Jerry they enjoyed chart success with Hey, Schoolgirl – was becoming increasingly strained. Garfunkel's decision to embark on a film career (he had spent most of the previous year filming Catch-22 and would go on to shoot Carnal Knowledge in the summer of 1970) angered Simon and meant that only three months after the Albert Hall date the duo would break up – not quite for good but in reality as good as.

 

However, despite the mutual antagonism and jealousy, Paul Simon's melancholic songwriting and Art Garfunkel's angelic voice were a peerless combination and they reached their apogee with the song Bridge Over Troubled Water. A majestic and spiritually uplifting gospel hymn to love, it is Simon’s masterpiece.

 

In Homeward Bound, his excellent (if unflattering) 2016 biography of Simon, Peter Ames Carlin describes how, inspired by the Swan Silvertones’ O Mary Don't You Weep, featuring the falsetto of singer Claude Jeter and the lyric ‘I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name’, Simon had picked up his guitar and started strumming and a melody slowly came into his head.

 

‘The first time Paul heard what he was singing,’ writes Carlin, ‘when it registered in his conscious mind, tears came into his eyes. The song felt more channelled through him than written by him, as if Jeter's voice had unlocked a door containing the best melody Paul had ever written.’

 

Excitedly describing his new song to Garfunkel as his Yesterday, he played a demo featuring his own falsetto voice. His partner loved it and, according to Carlin, urged Simon to sing it himself. ‘It is a great song. You wrote it, you sing beautifully, you deserve to do it.’

 

However, according to Carlin: ‘In the heat of that tense summer, Paul heard that as an insult. “It’s my best song and it’s not good enough for Artie to want to sing it?” It took only a few minutes for Artie to change his mind but that moment of hesitation – what struck Paul as rejection – took root right alongside everything else Paul had recently come to resent about his partner.’

Even in the light of all the angst in the background, on stage at the Albert Hall that night everything was perfect. Just the diminutive Simon on a stool with his guitar, Garfunkel towering over him at the microphone. An exhilarating version of The Boxer had been the highlight so far, but all roads led to Bridge Over Troubled Water. When the pianist Larry Knechtel, who had played the part on the album, was finally introduced, Simon withdrew from the lights, sat down on a table at the back of the stage (right in front of us as it happened) and left the spotlight to Garfunkel’s voice.

 

Stripped bare of the recorded version’s lush instrumentation, the performance was mesmerising…

 

When you're weary, feeling small 

When tears are in your eyes, 

I will dry them all 

I'm on your side 

When times get rough 

And friends just can't be found

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will lay me down 

 

When you're down and out 

When you're on the street 

When evening falls so hard 

I will comfort you 

I'll take your part 

When darkness comes 

And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will lay me down 

 

Sail on silver girl 

Sail on by 

Your time has come to shine 

All your dreams are on their way 

See how they shine 

If you need a friend 

I'm sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will ease your mind 

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will ease your mind

 

When Garfunkel hit the sustained high note at the end it was as if the entire Albert Hall congregation had been lifted 1,000 feet into the air.

Simon then ended the show with a beautiful solo rendition of Song For The Asking and, still buzzing with it all, we rushed out into the cool night air and watched as Garfunkel quickly left the building, mobbed by fans and bundled into a waiting car (no sign of Simon, of course). We decided to walk the seven miles home to Richmond, and nattering away at 19 to the dozen about what we had seen I can still vividly remember helping to push a broken-down car along Kensington High Street and, later still, taking an ill-advised short cut across the total darkness of Barnes Common.

 

Once back home my record player – previously spinning the likes of Cream, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac and Chicago – was taken over (in the short term at least) by Simon and Garfunkel, much to the relief of my mother, who loved to sing along with Bridge Over Troubled Water. If anybody had asked me then what I thought was the best song ever written there could have been only one answer, and even now – 47 years later – that note always does it for me.

 

It is ironic, perhaps, that although it is Paul Simon’s greatest song it can only really achieve that greatness – despite countless cover versions ranging from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley – when sung by his erstwhile partner Art Garfunkel. It perfectly sums up the flawed relationship between two old friends who seemingly can’t stand each other. What a waste.

 

Ian Tasker is retired and lives in Somerset. Previously head of sport layout at the Guardian and assistant sports editor at the Independent, he has also worked as a dustman (in Virginia Water), a bus conductor (in Leeds) and a bartender (in New Orleans). He is obsessed with Tottenham Hotspur and the Allman Brothers Band.

 

 

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