Art Garfunkel: An Exclusive Interview07/31/2019

Art Garfunkel: An Exclusive Interview

Art Garfunkel is an odd guy in the very best of ways. A self-described “nut case,” Garfunkel is actually an extremely wellread musical perfectionist who possesses anangelic tenor, a curious mind, an advanced degree in mathematics, a gift for prose and a passion for very long walks. With such a diverse array of interests, it came as no surprise that a conversation with Art Garfunkel would become a whirlwind of ideas, remembrances and impressions on a life well lived and a talent well nurtured. Most widely known as half of the folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, Art Garfunkel was born and raised in Queens, New York. Growing up, Garfunkel enjoyed music from a young age and he describes his obsession with echoes and acoustics as an almost spiritual experience. After honing his singing skills in the synagogue, Garfunkel met Paul Simon in the sixth grade. The two performed together as Tom and Jerry and even had a hit on the pop charts with “Hey, Schoolgirl” in 1957. The rest, as they say, is history.

Simon and Garfunkel as we know them reformed in 1963 and released a series of influential albums, including Sounds of Silence; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; Bookends and Bridge over Troubled Water. Additionally, the duo contributed to the soundtrack of the 1967 Mike Nichols film The Graduate with the now infamous song, “Mrs. Robinson.”

Over the years, Garfunkel has released numerous solo albums, dabbled in acting, written an autobiographical book of poetry and prose, married, fathered children and walked—a lot. Coming of Age had the unique pleasure of speaking with Art Garfunkel in advance of his concert at the Pensacola Saenger Theatre about his life, his musical philosophy and his accomplishments. 

Good morning, Mr. Garfunkel. How are you today?

Whimsical. I’m in the mood to be a ‘60s hippie. Are you in the mood to talk and to be a curious person? After all I'm in your hands. Life is in the eye of the beholder. You could be very flat about the history of rock and roll and I come out as a nowhere man or you could realize that I was on the second floor of the edifice called rock and roll’s history—this giant skyscraper—and helped build the second floor. It's exciting if you look at it that way. You have to start with respect for the history of rock.

I certainly have that. I grew up listening to your records as a kid.

Ok. Here’s a test question—I said whimsical. Do you know how good Phil Spector is as a record producer? Did you ever hear Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High?

Yes, I have.

So, you know how good that is. It's a perfect example of a great rock single. So if you had said, “I never heard it,” I would go—hmm. Okay, that that tells me something. Do you know how good Mark Knopfler is as a guitar player? He’s a record maker with a real sense of less is more. He's very spare. As were Fleetwood Mac. When Fleetwood Mac came on the scene, they were making very empty sounding records, but it was groovy. I jumped into the content of it all, didn’t I? I believe rock and roll is an American invention that we exported all over the world and it's an unbelievably healthy and joyous and wonderful export. It's a terrific thing that makes America a great country. It certainly is.

I know that you have a degree in mathematics and I wonder how that interplay between music and math works for you.

I don't know if they relate so much. I think math is a wonderful, worthy training of the brain. When I make music, I'm involved with feeling. What feels right? Math is just a cute game, an overlay. It's cute that this note is the vibration of sound at a certain number of vibrations per second. And that's why that pitch is that. If it was a slightly higher pitch, then that would mean more vibrations per second. Well, when the number of vibrations per second is let's say 200 and if you double the number of vibrations per second, that just happens to be an octave higher. That fact amuses the shit out of me. It’s mathematics, but it's just an overlay. It's a curiosity — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. That's the octave. And if the low note is 200 vibrations per second, that high note will be 400 vibrations per second. Okay, what a coincidence. That's how the Lord made the musical pitches to relate to each other — fascinating. Do I use it in any record I ever made? No. Does it come up when I'm with musicians in the studio? Not really. Math is a curious overlay that comes up in interviews like this, right? I think it's a cliche when we try and hook up the math and the music mentality. I think the brain goes to different places. I love Bach and it's almost like mathematics—his fugues and the way they run on top of each other and build these constructions. It seems sort of mathematical, but it's not really.

I understand that you have written down every book that you've read since 1968. How and why did you begin this tradition?

That's correct, because well, why not? You start reading and when you finish the book, you can write down the title and keep a record of it. You move on and on. From 1969 when I was making Catch-22 with Mike Nichols, I’d be sitting there on call at the hotel in Guaymas, Mexico waiting to come down after Jon Voight did his part and Orson Welles. I was one of the actors. I had all of his time on my hands. So I said, alright, let's see War and Peace by Tolstoy. They say it's the greatest. It was. Let's try Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What is this new book by Philip Roth, a new author, called Portnoy's Complaint? Let's see. If you read content—the good stuff—your mind is amused from book to book to book. You go back to the past. You look at what they gave you at college. When I was at Columbia College we read Darwin's Origin of Species and it all seemed like wonderful food for the mind. The entire college curriculum comes alive, from Thomas Hobbes to Plato, and you start thinking now that I'm a little older in my later twenties, I see the heavyweight value of all these great concepts they gave me at college. These are wonderful large thoughts. Montaigne, the French guy, what a smarty. So I have never stopped. I like history. I like philosophy. Forty-five years later at an average of two books a month, I've now read 1,292.

That's fascinating. Do you ever re-read something that you loved?

I like Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions. It's his autobiography. I like that book. I read it twice. There's one other I read twice. I forget.

When you write down the name of the book, do you put any notes or your thoughts on the book?

Just the name of the book. Inside the book, there are a lot of markings in the margins about what I think of this or that. I'll put an exclamation point—meaning this is a heavy paragraph.

Is it true that your personal library is full of these 1,292 books?

Every one of these books is lined up in my office at the top of my apartment in New York. They're mostly paperbacks. They're all lined up in the shelves in the order I read them. I'm anal compulsive. I'm surrounded by all these books and it's my history.

You enjoy walking. You've walked through America and Europe, correct?

I'll tell you what; I use the notion of staying interesting to yourself. I've used it all my life. That's why I'm a rock and roll Daddy. And I need exercise. A New Yorker is claustrophobic.

So years ago, I began to leave. I started leaving my apartment with my New Balance sneakers and headed west. And with 40 different installments over about 20 years, I crossed America to the Pacific Ocean. I’d do a two-week walk, fly home and live my life. Later that year, I’d do another one.

In the late 90s, I started walking through Europe. I began in Western Ireland—dig this—I walked across Ireland, Southern Wales and Western England. Can you picture it? Do you see the map a little? Western England down to the English Channel. I took a ferry to Normandy. Now I’m in Chartres. I go through Paris and then come down through Paris to Lyon. I’m sure you can picture this. It's gorgeous there. This is Burgundy. I'm writing in my notebook and I'm singing and I'm alone. I cross over the Alps into Northern Italy and come down to Genoa. I wheel around to Sienna and come south to Rome and then down to Naples. Now I cross to the east side of Italy— to the heel of the boot in Brindisi. I take a ferry to Northern Greece. I cross Greece from one end to the other end. That was a long 500 miles of northern Greece and then I got to Istanbul. Two years ago I got to Istanbul.

I do about two a year. It’s great exercise. Great getting out of New York. Great for writing and singing, you can sing as loud as you want. It seemed like an answer to being a New York City boy. A walk like that is very solitary.

You must enjoy being alone with your thoughts.

I like myself. My thoughts are interesting to me. I like the big questions. I think about mortality and I write prose poems. I’m connected to the world through an audience. I’m Art Garfunkel. So if I do something that's worthy and entertaining, I might have a bit of a vehicle. I'm not pissing in the wind.

Did the idea for your book, What Is It All But Luminous: Notes From An Underground Man, come from these walks?

The Alfred Knopf publishing company saw my stuff. I know an editor and he took a look at what I'd been writing. He said there's a book here. He brought it to Vicky Wilson, the primary editor at Knopf. She liked what I wrote. She really helped me see that this is an autobiography. You're writing things that really trace back to your youth and go through your Simon and Garfunkel salad days right into the introspective man you are who falls in love and then loses a girl from suicide and then is very lonesome and artistic through the ‘70s and ‘80s and then finds love with Kathryn from Minnesota and has these two children that you cherish to this day and these solo albums that you keep making in the studio while you walk and write and get this literary assignment to put out this book.

The trick is trying to stay interesting to yourself. Throw yourself into fear. I'm going to leave this. It's too stale. What are you going to go to? I'm not sure. It's going to be scary but I'm going to jump into that scary place. That is what life is. It keeps the blood circulating—jumping into the scary place of black, of the unknown. It'll be known once I get there.

So you mentioned your family and your kids and your wife. You've kept a pretty low profile over the years that. Can you tell me a little bit about your family and your children?

I have two sons from the same mama—Kathryn Cermak from Minneapolis. We fell in love in the mid-80s. We married in 1988. We had James in 1990. But he hates the name. Daddy, you gave me an Anglo-Saxon name. I don't feel I am that person. Well, who are you honey? I'm Arthur Jr. I'm flattered. Okay, whatever. So, I bring him on stage and he's Arthur Jr. and he's a magnificent singer. He's a great guy.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your boyhood. What were you like as a child? What did you dream about? What did you do for fun?

The question is almost too rich. It's too psychiatric for me to know myself that well. Who are you really at the core? I don't know. I wish I knew. It's a scary question. Do you know who you really are below your creativity? We know you can put on an act and be colorful. You can sing. You can entertain people. You did it in the living room when you were seven. You would come back with your basketball from the gym and pass your mom playing Mahjong with her women friends. They're in the living room and you would stop and you would charm the shit out of them for about five minutes. You developed a routine and it would change, but your mouth would kick in and you would be this entertainer to your mom's friends—learning how to be a charmer with your basketball—all sweaty.

And from these days I sang in rooms that had echo. Rooms that had great echo turned me on fiercely—a stairwell or the synagogue. If the room really gave you reverb and put tails on the notes so that when you held a note, it was very goose-bumpy to me and spiritual and I chased after that. I made sure nobody was listening. I was in a state of privacy and I worked on putting these tones out so I could hear beauty. A man, a boy working on beauty is a rare, daring, brave thing. So you need privacy. You need stairwells. (Singing) Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. You could get carried away with beautiful songs that are unabashedly, daringly up there. Whether it's (singing) When you walk through the storm keep your head up high. You know You'll Never Walk Alone by Rodgers and Hammerstein was a great, upward aspiring ballot. Well, I locked onto those. If there were a dozen of them around, I mastered all of them. The goose bumps, the upper reaches—I was a kid with a tenor stretching my upper tenor in privacy in rooms that had reverb.

At around age 10 or 11, I saw that the synagogue gave me what I wanted. I started mastering these minor-key Hebrew notes. I had no idea what the language meant, but it worked in the synagogue and it produced tears from these men in their robes—produced tears.

Two years to three years later, there's Paul Simon in my life. And there's Alan Freed on the radio come from Cleveland and brought with him records by Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Elvis and Little Richard. Little Richard—how wild. I was 13 and Little Richard was really sexual, daring, rhythmic, hot stuff. So I listened when I did my homework. And there was Paul Simon who moved into the neighborhood a few blocks away. We got to know each other in the sixth grade. We were in junior high together; smoking our first cigarettes and listening to Alan Freed give the New York kids rock and roll. We sang it in a Buddy Holly, rockabilly kind of way because we could sing. We would hold rehearsals and blend pretty nicely—like the Everly's.

Paul would play guitar like Buddy Holly. So we had a rock and roll competitive style. We knew we had a shot if we would make demos and go into New York and try and compete. That's what you do when you're a New Yorker.

When did you get into the folk scene?

As soon as it arrived in New York. What was it—‘61, ‘62.The folk scene was middle-of-the-road, slightly corny at first. The Kingston Trio was very wholesome in their sound. I never felt that was raw enough, but they brought Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley and Barry McGuire gave us the Eve of Destruction—that had the real flavor of what I would call the folk thing. The lyrics punched you in the jaw. They woke you up to the pockets of unfairness in America. There was a righteousness that was proper. That was the first record that had the sound—a well-made pop record with the folk righteous lyric. Then came Joan Baez. She was wonderful. Soon came Dylan. He had that wonderful truck driver’s vocal sound with wonderful songs, but what an image. The man who made size 31 jeans really work.

You’re a bit of a perfectionist and you’ve talked before about chasing the perfect note. Where does that drive come from?

I'm a nutcase. I love neatness. Aesthetically, I'm involved with beauty and I love super neat things. I love less is more. I love the architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe and his Seagram's building in New York. I love very neat things. So I like to produce a sound that's really Rolls-Royce tooled.

Do you have a favorite song of yours to sing and/or at least favorite?

When I do my show, I love Perfect Moment. I’m co-writer of it. When you write them yourself, they are your exact taste. Perfect Moment has a prettiness to it that I like. I sing it and I get off on it just a touch more than the others.

Is there any that you wouldn't mind never sing again?

Yes. There's one—only one. It strains me. I don't feel the juice, but I try and act as if I do. There's only one. I really enjoy the others. I don't tell anyone because I don't want to put it down. I don't want them to listen to me and think that I’m hating it the whole time.

On your current tour, you do a good bit of storytelling, is that right?

Well, in the sense that I show you my book—these little one minute prose poems. I drop in on my connection with the studio, with my love life, with my American views sociologically, with my past. These prose poems are me and I thread them between the songs.

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