Simon & Garfunkel were odd-looking; wee Paul with his monkish fringe and studied seriousness, tall Art with his receding white-fro, coming across like a beatnik boffin who’d be more at home in a Village coffee house than the science lab you could be forgiven for thinking he’d strayed from.
Don’t be fooled by the looks though, as Simon & Garfunkel were dynamite together, the masters of melody and close-knit harmonies. Their music seemed to arrive fully-formed; new yet familiar, with intricately picked ringing melodies cascading freely from Simon’s guitar while Garfunkel’s lead vocal floated on top. The first time I heard them (probably a warm and crackly Mrs Robinson on my dad’s record player), I knew the tune inside out before it had ended. By the second listen, it seemed as though their music had always been there.
As a duo, their music found fans in millions around the globe and for a wee while at least, they outsold all contemporaries. It seemed that every household in the country owned a Simon & Garfunkel album. Friends’ parents, neighbours, aunts and uncles all owned them. My dad’s pal who we called ‘Uncle’ even though he was no blood relation at all (we’ve all got an ‘uncle’ like that, haven’t we?) tucked away his Simon & Garfunkel records next to his Abba and Elton John albums. His collection, like many from that era, was hardly out there or edgy, but it wasn’t insipid easy listening either. As with the other artists named above, Simon & Garfunkel’s music is timeless. It’s both class and classic.
Formed from a friendship that stretched back years to their Queens, New York childhood, by the time they’d hit their first real success with 1964’s Sound Of Silence single and its parent album, Wednesday Morning, 3. A.M., they’d perfected their act, from the folk-via-Everlys ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, recorded as Tom & Jerry – Art was Tom, Paul was Jerry – before going their separate ways to try their luck as solo artists, before once again hooking up as the more straight-forward Simon & Garfunkel.
Throughout the 60s, their records were on constant rotation, especially in the States where Americans finally had something of their own that could rival the imported popular acts of the day. Nothing like the beat groups from the UK, they steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, gathering popularity with each record they released. In an act that almost split the duo, at the record company’s insistence, the cream of session musicians – the Wrecking Crew – were brought in to embellish their music. Songs that had been recorded as a close-miked two piece now drowned under the weight of reverb and drums and strings and – no! – electric guitars. Despite this jiggery pokery, the records sounded terrific, and their ever-increasing sales and chart positions seemed to justify the enhanced approach.
By the end of the decade though, small Paul and tall Art hated one another. Years of being in the same room, sharing the same stage, management, record label, even apartment at one point all came to a head. Offered the chance of a part in the movie adaptation of Catch 22, Garfunkel grabbed it firmly with both hands and left on the next available plane for Mexico. Simon, with little to do but write alone, turned in one of the finest songs in his back catalogue.
The Only Living Boy In New York is a straightforward tale of the events.
Tom, it starts, get your plane right on time. I know your part’ll go fine. Fly down to Mexico. Da-n-da-da-n-da-n-da-da and here I am, The only living boy in New York.
I’ve got nothing to do today but smile…..I know you’ve been eager to fly now………let your honesty shine like it shines on me…
You don’t need to read too much between the lines to see the giant-sized cracks in their relationship.
Simon & Garfunkel – The Only Living Boy In New York
It’s a brilliant song, simply strummed and softly sung. Enhanced by overdubbed and underplayed keys, a Fender bass line that Brian Wilson would be proud of and a subtle cacophony of Hal Blaine tumbling toms, The Only Living Boy In New York is Simon & Garfunkel in miniature. By the time the aah-aah-aahing backing vocals come in, it’s almost all too much. Almost, but not quite. If you play it once, you’ll want to replay it 4 or 5 times before commencing the rest of your day. But you knew that already.
Fast forward a couple of decades and another joined-at-the-hipper-than-hip couple released their own version. Everything But The Girl‘s Tracey and Ben turn in a performance that, while faithful to the original, sounds a bit flat and, for want of a better word, mumsy. It features enough of their own identity – her furrowed brow and downcast, melancholic vocals and his richly-produced guitar and naked-and-out-there singing voice – to make it a reasonable EBTH cut, but as you are no doubt aware, there are far better tracks in their back catalogue.
Everything But The Girl – The Only Living Boy In New York
Sadly, there’s no space here to include Carter USM‘s punningly-named Only Living Boy In New Cross. A terrible band with (admittedly) a great line in puntastic song titles. If two grown men wearing baggy shorts and backwards baseball caps while shouting over rudimentary drum machines in daan sarf accents is your cup of tea, head on over to YouTube. Or 1991.