By Jane Spietz
WHERE: Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
WHEN: 8 PM Friday, January 20, 2017
COST: $59.50, $49.50
Singer poet Art Garfunkel rose to fame as one half of the Grammy-winning folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel with childhood friend Paul Simon. The two were responsible for putting out classics such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Sound of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” “America,” “The Boxer,” “I Am a Rock,” “Homeward Bound,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Cecelia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “At the Zoo,” and many others. After going their separate ways in 1970, Simon and Garfunkel reunited from time to time throughout the years. Their free benefit concert in Central Park in 1981 drew an audience of more than 500,000 people and a performance at a fundraiser in support of Hurricane Katrina relief helped to raise $9 million. However, Garfunkel clearly stated during my recent interview with him that another reunion with Simon was not in the works.
To this day, Garfunkel has maintained a successful solo career with live performances and the release of numerous well-received albums. Major hits include “All I Know,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “So Much in Love,” and “Since I Don’t Have You.”
In addition to his music, he is a man who pursues a variety of passions. Garfunkel has written a series of stirring prose poems which can be viewed on his website. He is also a prolific reader, completing two books per month on average. Along the way, Garfunkel earned his master’s degree in mathematics, worked toward a doctorate in mathematics education, and briefly worked as a high school math teacher. He became a fan of long-distance walking and through the years has participated in treks across Japan, the United States, and Europe. Garfunkel caught the acting bug and most notably starred in Catch-22 (1970) and Carnal Knowledge (1971). He received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the latter role. In 2010, Garfunkel experienced the devastating loss of his singing voice which he fortunately regained after resting his vocal cords for several years. He currently serves as a spokesperson for the End Blindness by 20/20 campaign.
Recently I reached Garfunkel at his mid-town Manhattan office, where he was working on a book which he referred to as a semi-autobiography.
Jane Spietz: How did you come to realize that you were blessed with the gift of an incredible singing voice?
Art Garfunkel: I was in the alleyway in Queens in 1946. I was five years old. There in the alleyway with my pink Spalding punch ball, throwing it up against the roof of our building. Making up some game of how many times can I hit it into that little box up there. I noticed that I would be singing to myself. I thought that it was kind of a nice singing voice. This is pretty, this singing. And I would sing stuff that I heard on the radio, like Nat King Cole. I would sing it and I would hear that there was control in my vocal cords. It was pleasing. So I sought out rooms that had tiles, stairwells. In school, when the kids would walk out of school down the stairs, I would linger and be the last one. I would be in the stairwell and any rooms with tiles. It was so pretty to make that sound. I was becoming entranced with that. The songs I was using were pop songs on the radio. I loved the song “Too Young.” And there were some crooner hits from those early days that I latched onto. It’s just so much fun to sing them.
JS: What is your favorite song to perform live?
AG: I like to sing “A Perfect Moment.” It’s a tune I wrote and put on my album of a few years ago, Everything Waits to Be Noticed. It’s pretty, pretty. I love things that are super pretty. And for me this melody does it. A perfect moment. I sing it early on in my show.
JS: You and Paul Simon have briefly reunited from time to time throughout the years. Do you feel there is a possibility of the two of you getting together again?
JS: I have enjoyed your work as an actor. Would you consider acting again if the opportunity arose?
AG: You know, I would. If a script comes in the door, and you open it up and there on page two you’re off and running with a very interesting grabber, your mind is engaged. Like, ‘this is truly funny,’ or ‘I am interested in what they’re talking about,’ or ‘I love this main character.’ If it’s any of those things, and the script is hot, you’re halfway toward wanting to call the director and saying the parameters – ‘where do you intend to shoot it, in which month do you want to start working?’ We meet up and talk about it. You’re halfway there. But I just that think finding a script that has intelligence and flair is the devil’s business. Who’s writing these days? Where are the good scripts? I don’t know. It’s a tough age we live in. But I am available for quality stuff.
JS: You have an extensive background in mathematics. How did you end up teaching high school math for a short while?
AG: It was a local school, it was nearby. I got a country house in Litchfield Connecticut. I had just gotten married. It was a local, easy thing. It was kind of a variation on take a rest. You’re coming off of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Just take a rest. Teach at the local school, it’ll be calming. That was that phase in my life. Connecticut.
JS: An avid reader, you finish about two books every month. What do you like to read?
AG: Fiction and nonfiction. I like philosophy, I like history. I like books that have great reputations so that there’s nothing wrong with going back a hundred or 200 or 500 years. There is where the great reputations are. I like weighty books, books that have weight, because they’re smart. The writer made a tremendous devotion in writing it.
JS: You have stated that you are not a treadmill kind of guy, and instead enjoy long distance walking. You have walked across Japan, Europe and the United States.
AG: I finished Europe; that was the last one. Ireland to Istanbul, just a year ago. Now I’ve stopped walking, and the body needs it. My body is saying to me, ‘Come on, where else? What’s the next thing you’re going to do?’ I don’t know. I need to invent another trek.
JS: How about Canada?
AG: Too many evergreens. (Laughs) But maybe El Paso to Montana. Vertical, up the West.
JS: Talk about your experience with vocal cord paresis. What was it like to lose your voice?
AG: All I know is that the vocal stopped happening. In 2010. And I really don’t know why. I could hardly talk. The singing wasn’t there. It went on for months and months. I saw doctors. That gets you nothing. Only my own inner instincts were of anything to me. My instincts told me, ‘You’ve not lost it, you’re going to persevere. You’re never going to give up until you get this back. It’s your nature, and therefore you’re going to get this voice back. So have a lot of patience, just let it be. Right now you can’t sing.’ When you have that resting, you keep saying, ‘Now, am I ready now?’ So you try stuff and you fail and you weep and it’s tragic. You book a room of a thousand empty seats so that you can sing on microphone with speakers. It’s not singing in the shower, this job. And you still crap out. It’s no good. And now you’re two and a half, three years into your recuperation and it’s still not happening. This makes you start crying a little bit. ‘Come on Lord – am I ever going to sing again?’ I was born to be a singer. I don’t know how to be a person if I don’t sing. And you keep going. Then you book some shows with people and you say to yourself, mending is getting out there even before you’re mended. Even though I’m not ready, I’m gonna to do it and be ready and get onstage and see what happens. And it’s going to be very irregular, dodgy. There goes perfectionism. Tonight, that’s over. It is true, that part of mending is doing it even though you’re not mended yet. That helps you mend. Getting back into it. There’s a good lesson to learn.
JS: What a blessing it is that you have regained your voice.
AG: You’re kind. It’s my delight to sing in a way that gives pleasure and to share it. I go for the goosebumps.
JS: Permission was given for the Bernie Sanders campaign to use the song “America” during his run for president.
AG: (Sings a number of verses of “America”) I believed in Bernie’s message. That’s true. The song rises to the love of America. It’s a very unusual flag-waving moment for Simon and Garfunkel, from out of nowhere. And the flag that’s waved, is that harmony line above the melody (sings the verse ‘All come to look for America’). It just soars! Naturally it works for anyone who wants to say I love this country.
JS: Talk about your involvement with the Quest to End Blindness by 20/20 campaign.
AG: My friend of long-standing, Sandy Greenberg, lost his eyesight in college. I would work with him, help him along, and read books to him. He became the head of the Wilmer Eye Institute at John Hopkins University. Well, when you are the head of something you announce your campaign. This campaign is to end blindness by 2020. Stop and think about that one, Jane. Sandy has said, “If you don’t go for major goals in life, what’s the point of living?” That’s what he’s trying to do. Sandy says if you can get some serious scientists from around the world to come together, you can get white hot energy out of the convergence of talents. People who are in the same place, at the same board room. The nearness of other talented people can be very helpful to really work wonders in terms of expanding your research.
JS: Looking toward the future, what thoughts would you like to share with young musicians?
AG: It’s noisy world that doesn’t need any more noise. Why are you young musicians adding your bit to it? There’s only one answer to that – ‘I’ve got to do this.’ So, do it for the love of music and create something beautiful.
JS: Art, I will see you at the Pabst Theater in January. Thank you for your time.
AG: See you then. Thank you, Jane.