“What’s the point of [making] this album?,” an impossibly youthful Paul Simon asks in the 1969 television special Songs of America. “The world is crumbling.” If Simon didn’t know then why he was “just” recording an album despite all of the tumult around him, he almost certainly knows now. After all, he and partner Art Garfunkel have seen Bridge Over Troubled Water make it to 40 years (actually, 41!), and have even participated in the celebration. The duo have also seen the accompanying album and its title track embraced by countless citizens of the planet over the past decades, especially in times of crisis. Bridge received colossal commercial and critical plaudits upon its release; six Grammy Awards and three Top Ten singles are among its accomplishments. But its greatest measure of success may simply be the way that “When you’re weary, feeling small…when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all” can still gently reassure one in need. Bridge Over Troubled Water has arrived in a stellar 40th Anniversary edition (Columbia/Legacy 88697 82724-2) containing the original album on CD plus a DVD. The landmark original LP still retains its power, for sure. But the real raison d’etre of this package is the two hours-plus of never-before-released content on the DVD. The Songs of America program and a new documentary, The Harmony Game, both take viewers back to a time when two musicians seemed on the brink of bridging the generation gap, voicing the concerns of youth in a way even their parents might understand.
Paul Simon holds that he didn’t intend Bridge as a eulogy for the soon-to-break-up duo, and the songs weren’t written to conform to a theme of farewell. (The fact that they were composed over a long period of time seems to confirm Simon’s recollection.) Still, it’s hard for a listener today to ignore the knowledge that Bridge would be Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album to date, and contains achingly beautiful valedictories. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” finds Simon addressing his partner, a one-time architecture student: “So long, Frank Lloyd Wright/All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn/I never laughed so long.” In “Song for the Asking,” a Garfunkel favorite, Simon wrote, “Thinking it over, I’ve been sad…Ask me and I will play/All of the love that I hold inside.” The album’s one cover version is, appropriately, the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” Not that it’s all elegiac; nobody could claim that of an album including the rocking “Ceciilia,” rollicking “Keep the Customer Satisifed” and exuberant “Baby Driver.” For a beautifully-crafted album with no filler, however, the title track still towers over the rest, even the indelibly poignant “The Boxer” and Peruvian-influenced “El Condor Pasa.” In “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Paul Simon could fairly claim divine inspiration.
Bridge is heard in its Vic Anesini remaster; Anesini remastered the album in 2001 and there is no indication that this is a fresh remaster. That said, it sounds comparably excellent to the previous issue. Unlike the 2001 edition, however, the 40th Anniversary Edition contains no bonus tracks. There were possibilities for inclusion; in The Harmony Game, Simon and Garfunkel acknowledge that both “Cuba Sí, Nixon No” and “Feuilles-O” almost made the cut before the final 11-track lineup was settled. (There’s no mention by either gentleman of “Groundhog,” often considered the album’s third outtake and recorded by Peter Yarrow in 1973.) Simon didn’t feel that Garfunkel’s Bach-inspired “Feuilles-O” fit on the album, while Garfunkel vetoed Simon’s politically-charged “Cuba,” protesting that he had “a hard time getting behind that lyric.” While Garfunkel says he might feel differently today, he made the right decision; “Cuba Sí” would have irrevocably dated the album which instead remains relevant today. (“Feuilles-O” eventually was reworked on Garfunkel’s 1973 album Angel Clare as “Feuilles-Oh/Do Space Men Pass Dead Souls on Their Way to the Moon?”) Should “Cuba” have made its belated appearance on this 40th Anniversary Edition? One, of course, wishes that it had, along with the early demo of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that appeared on Legacy’s 2001 remaster. If Messrs. Simon and Garfunkel, along with reissue producer Bob Irwin, were firm in their intention for the Bridge LP on Disc 1 to appear as it did in 1970, perhaps the much-desired “Cuba” could have appeared with the still-unheard “Feuilles-O” and previously-released “Bridge” demo as audio extras on the DVD? These rare tracks are about the only things we’re left wanting from this superb reissue.
Hit the jump for the scoop on the lengthy DVD’s two programs, Songs of America and The Harmony Game!
Songs of America is the controversial television special that aired on CBS-TV in November, 1969. Its original sponsor, Bell Atlantic (a division of AT&T), was unprepared when Simon, Garfunkel and director Charles Grodin delivered a documentary using the duo’s music to underscore the nation’s political turmoil. Bell refused sponsorship, which was picked up by Alberto Culver, manufacturers of the shampoo VO5. It’s jarring to see as the special’s first image the visage of actor Robert Ryan (The Dirty Dozen, Anzio), delivering a brief, stentorian introduction to let viewers know just what to expect. Ryan’s calming presence is quickly dissipated by stark and haunting images of America: not just freeways, factories and fields, but violence and protests, set to “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping…I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…” Simon and Garfunkel were addressing America’s ills in the only way they knew how – via their music – but with a provocative visual component. Nostalgic images of Mickey Mantle, Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon (“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”) are juxtaposed with footage of the still recently-assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”). Cesar Chavez and the Poor People’s March on Washington pointedly appear. The dialogue is as frank as the imagery, with Simon wondering aloud whether America is “gonna make it” for another 200 years but later admitting that he’s “hopeful” watching the Woodstock Generation come together with a real sense of belonging. The duo are even more direct and harsh speaking of the Vietnam War as when Simon asserts, “I think much of what we’re saying, if not all of what we’re saying, is extremely obvious. As obvious as it is that we shouldn’t be in Vietnam…”
Most gripping in Songs of America is Simon and Garfunkel eloquently addressing the need for an artist to speak out. As rhetoric still exists today from certain quarters that it’s somehow unpatriotic to dissent, their words still, alas, ring true. There’s also rehearsal footage and live concert segments from their 1969 tour; these vintage clips have been unseen for so many years and are truly priceless for fans of the duo. As expected, the video quality of Songs of America isn’t pristine, but the film has been reassembled from two existing sources for a seamless and eminently watchable experience. Songs of America is an unvarnished and even sometimes disturbing picture, for good and ill, of an era in American history that even today, still can’t be swept under the carpet. Of course, a Peggy Fleming skating special tidily defeated Songs of America in the ratings. Can’t win ‘em all!
The title of The Harmony Game, the new 70-minute documentary film by director Jennifer LeBeau, is derived from a comment in Songs of America that “the harmony game” is what Simon and Garfunkel were playing. Simon looked wary at the notion! Both Paul and Art appear individually in new interviews, along with virtually every other key figure involved with the album and television special: manager Mort Lewis, engineer Roy Halee, arranger Jimmie Haskell, director Charles Grodin, and Wrecking Crew members Hal Blaine (percussion/drums) and Joe Osborn (bass). Larry Knechtel, the pianist on the title track of Bridge who died in 2009, is remembered fondly by the participants. Portions of “Cuba Sí” are heard in the documentary, and there’s much good stuff about the writing of the title song. Simon graciously notes that his sometimes-unsung partner inspired him to write the third verse that sent the song to an altogether transcendent place.
The duo’s split is barely alluded to until the final ten minutes or so of the film. Even then, the differences between the musical kindred spirits are described as far more musical than personal. Rather than dwelling on the negativity that existed at the time, nostalgia has tinted the participants’ memories, and all offer delicious tidbits on the making of the album. Garfunkel stresses today how Halee encouraged the artists to move from “the song to the record,” and much time is spent discussing just how the familiar sounds were committed to vinyl. There are fascinating stories of the recording of “The Boxer” in a Columbia University chapel, and Simon credits Garfunkel for composing the instrumental section of the song memorably played by high trumpet and pedal steel. We learn that “Cecilia” was written when the quintessential New York duo was living in L.A. on Blue Jay Way the summer of the Manson murders, and that the song’s distinctive percussion part was developed almost as a way to break the tension in the air. I won’t give any more away, but there’s much more where all of that came from. Trust me, though – you won’t forget the anecdote about arranger Ernie Freeman (“Strangers in the Night”) and the album’s title song!
Could Simon and Garfunkel have followed Bridge Over Troubled Water? That’s not so easily answered. But thanks to The Harmony Game and Songs of America, we have great insights as to what made the album such an important one for 1970 and why it still resonates today. The 40th Anniversary set is rounded out by a 22-page color booklet containing two fine essays, one by Michael Hill and another by Anthony DeCurtis. The final lyric of the closing track on Bridge Over Troubled Water is “Ask me and I will play, all the love that I hold inside.” Whether or not Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel choose to continue rekindling their musical relationship, they’ve left plenty of love behind, at the ready. Put your CD on and sing with me now: Lie-la-lie, lie-la-lie…
You can order Bridge Over Troubled Water: 40th Anniversary Edition here!