Monday, September 19, 2011

A Neighborhood Concert for Half a Million People

On this day in 1981, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunited for a free concert in New York's Central Park.

My memory of that time is that there was considerable publicity surrounding the event. It had been at least 10 years since the two had performed together in public (with a few exceptions when they reunited briefly, as they did in 1975 when they recorded "My Little Town") and half a million people showed up on that mid–September Saturday to hear a couple of native New Yorkers in what Paul Simon called "a neighborhood concert."

I guess it goes without saying that expectations were quite high.

Sometime after that day, it was announced that a recording of the concert would be released in 1982. A friend of mine and I waited — not always patiently, I might add — for that record to come out, and, for awhile, one of us went to the local record stores every day and reported to the other that it still wasn't available.

"Not yet," the one who had checked the record stores would report. No further elaboration was needed.

I don't remember which of us got the album first, but whoever it was called the other with the joyful news. I do remember that it wasn't long at all before we both had a copy of it.

It was one of the few times in my life when I eagerly anticipated something — a book, a movie, a record — that did not ultimately disappoint. This album exceeded my expectations.

As I say, Simon and Garfunkel hadn't performed together in public in more than 10 years. I assume they did rehearse before the concert in Central Park, but, to the ears of someone who was raised on their music, they sounded as if the last time they played for an audience was just the night before.

They sounded that polished, that flawless to me.

They were comfortable playing the songs that made them one of the most beloved duos in history, and some songs — "Old Friends" springs to mind — were stunningly poignant.

Sometime in the spring of 1982, I saw a videotape of the concert on cable. I hadn't had the album all that long, but I had listened to it almost exclusively, and I could sing along with every song on it. I knew every sound, every vocal inflection, every spot that differed from the old studio recordings in any way.

I thought that the only difference was that I could see them singing the songs — I considered that a tremendous step forward, too.

But I was wrong. There was a significant difference. The album didn't include a song called "The Late Great Johnny Ace," a tune Simon wrote following the murder of John Lennon the year before but had never recorded.

The song didn't mention Lennon until near the end, but, when it did, a disturbed fan rushed the stage and was pulled away before he could reach Simon.

Lennon's murder was still an open wound for many people, and that song, sung as it was a short distance from where Lennon had been gunned down, may have been regarded as too controversial for the executives at Warner Brothers.

It was an open wound for me, too, but I still would have liked to have had that song on the album. I thought it was a great song, and a good example of something that has really always amazed me about Paul Simon. Almost without fail, every song he has written and recorded has been damn near perfect — in concept, in execution, in everything.

He always seems to convey precisely the mood he wants to convey.

And the familiar Simon and Garfunkel songs like "Mrs. Robinson," "Homeward Bound," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and so many others (I really wanted to hear songs like "I Am A Rock," but they probably would have had to play all night to cover everything I wanted to hear) sounded great — but so did the songs from Simon's solo career, like "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard" and "Kodachrome" and "Slip Slidin' Away" — all of which benefited from the addition of Garfunkel's tenor.

Particularly noteworthy was "Late in the Evening," which was part of Simon's soundtrack for the 1980 movie "One Trick Pony."

"Late in the Evening" was played about midway through the show — and then it was reprised as the finale. It's the only song that was played twice that night.

The concert wasn't entirely about their folk–rock hits from the 1960s. There were songs from both of their solo careers. Garfunkel's solo career was more modest than Simon's, but the concert did include "A Heart in New York" from the album Garfunkel released just before the concert in Central Park.

But nothing could compare, really, to their renditions of the songs that made them famous. It was what all those folks came to Central Park to hear.

They came to hear songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

So many people have sung that song over the years.

But nobody ever sang it as well as Art Garfunkel.

And perhaps he never sang it quite as well as he did on this evening 30 years ago.