Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence

If he ever got back to the twentieth century, Paul Simon wrote in a recent song, he would ‘open the book of his vanishing memory.’ Listening to a succession of glorious songs from his catalogue in The Simon and Garfunkel Story at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Sunday night, made evident how many of Paul Simon’s songs right from the early days were concerned with the passing of time and the frailty of memories.

Think of this, from S&G’s first album, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, in 1964:

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song
I’m twenty-two now, but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
[…]

And the leaves that are green turn to brown
And they wither with the wind
And they crumble in your hand
Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello
Good-bye, Good-bye
Good-bye, Good-bye
That’s all there is

It’s pertinent to note this fact when discussing a show that many would see – quite rightly, in certain respects – as an exercise in pure nostalgia. Yet, quite apart from the fact that so many of the songs written by Paul Simon during the S&G years were so bloody good, the fact is that nostalgia was built into a great many of these songs – a sort of ‘forward-nostalgia’ that imagines a future time when the singer will look back and recall present moments.

The S&G album which is most clearly, in the words of rock journalist Bud Scoppa, ‘a meditation on the passage of life and the psychological impact of life’s irreversible, ever-accumulating losses’ is Bookends, which as a concept  album concerned with age and the passing of time, in retrospect seems remarkable for having been released in that year of youth and rebellion, 1968:

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you

The Simon and Garfunkel Story narrates the duo’s rise to fame through the 1960’s, their eventual breakup at the height of their success in 1970, before culminating with their triumphant reunion concert in New York’s Central  Park in 1981. It’s a sort of hybrid of a musical and tribute show, combining their music with a big screen projection of carefully-edited images and video clips that evoke the era and the trajectory of the duo’s own story. The pair are played by Gregory Clarke as Paul Simon and Joe Sterling as Art Garfunkel, two musical theatre performers with a strong background in acting. Rather than acting out scenes from the duo’s past, the presentation format allowed the songs to become the main focus of the show.

From the opener, ‘The Sound Of Silence’, it was clear that the evening would not be an embarrassment. To attempt to emulate S&G’s iconic harmonies is a difficult feat, but the two actor/singers do a remarkable job of faithfully recreating their vocal harmonies – with Sterling particularly impressive at nailing Art Garfunkel’s ethereal, choir boy vocals.

The stage at the Liverpool Philharmonic before the show
The stage at the Liverpool Philharmonic before the show

These guys are actors as well as singers and not only sound like S&G, but look like them (at least from the upper circle) and move like them, too, with Joe Sterling again particularly effective at capturing Art Garfunkel’s on-stage mannerisms,  especially the way he placed his hands on the back of his hips.

Joe Sterling as Art Garfunkel and Gregory Clarke as Paul Simon
Joe Sterling as Art Garfunkel and Gregory Clarke as Paul Simon

Ably accompanied by a three-piece band, comprising Leon Camfield on bass, Adam Smith on guitar and drummer James Pritchard, between numbers Clarke and Sterling tell the story of Simon and Garfunkel’s early friendship, forged as they grew up in Queens, New York, just three blocks away from one another, attending the same schools. They wrote their first song in 1956 while still in High School, and a year later had landed their first recording contract as Tom and Jerry (the show includes a performance of an early rock’n’roll number, ‘Hey Schoolgirl’).

Tom and Jerry in 1957
Tom and Jerry in 1957

By the early 1960s S&G were big on the New York folk scene, and their songs, though sweet and reflective, came to occupy a significant part of the soundtrack of a turbulent decade, even if their mood didn’t always reflect the tenor of the times. This was amply demonstrated by the video projection which formed the background to the songs, sometimes juxtaposing footage of the decade’s conflicts, war and assassinations with sharply contrasting songs such as ‘Scarborough Fair’.

I was impressed that, after ‘The Sound of Silence’, Clarke and Sterling gave us ‘He Was My Brother’, a less well-known song Paul wrote after Andrew Goodman, who was S&G’s friend and classmate at Queens College, was one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in June 1964. Unfortunately, in this instance the background to the song wasn’t explained.

The Simon and Garfunkel Story
The Simon and Garfunkel Story

The show follows a chronological progression through the S&G catalogue – from their first album in 1964, Wednesday Morning, 3AM (which made little impression), through those that made Simon & Garfunkel a household name – Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Time, and Bookends. Some songs are no surprise: Scarborough Fair, I Am A Rock, America, and Mrs Robinson are all present and correct. But the show features quite a few lesser-known songs too, such as Richard Cory – in Clarke’s words, Paul Simon’s ‘happy song about suicide’ – and Patterns, allegedly written under the influence of psychedelic substances.

As Homeward Bound is played, on the screen is projected an image of the plaque on Widnes railway station which records that it was there, following a performance in Liverpool, that Simon, while  waiting for the early morning milk train to London, wrote the lyrics. It was a love song to the girl he was missing, Kathy Chitty, who he had met wile based in London in 1964, and for whom he wrote several more songs, including Kathy’s Song and America.

The segment on Bookends was particularly well done. First, the visuals echoed the album’s concern with the journey of life from youth to old age: while the performers left the stage while the sequence of conversations with elderly men and women recorded on tape by Garfunkel at the United Home for Aged Hebrews and the California Home for the Aged. Then, when the musicians returned to play Mrs Robinson, we saw clips from The Graduate, which featured the song on its soundtrack (though I’ve never understood what relevance, apart from having the same name as the seductress played by Anne Bancroft in the film, the song has, given that it concerns the resident of a home for the elderly). But, I could watch the clip they showed of the film’s final scene any time: better than anything else, it seems to me to capture my generation’s rebellion against the moribund ways of our parents. The cross jammed in the door! The couple’s faces studied as they sit at the back of the bus looking towards an unknowable future.

Then we arrive at the album which outsold all their others, and according to our narrators, outsold all other albums in 1970, the year of its release, and in each of subsequent two years – becoming, at the time, the biggest-selling album of all time, out-doing even the Beatles.

From Bridge Over Troubled Water we get to hear ‘Cecilia’; the song was originally recorded with S&G’s friends banging on pots and pans in the studio, and with its line ‘Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia up in my bedroom’ it has the power, even now, to evoke a particular time and place.

Meanwhile, ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ is presented as a lyric which reflects the way in which the S&G partnership was being pulled apart at this time by the different directions which the duo’s careers were taking – with Art increasingly drawn to screen acting. Paul wrote the song while Art was in Mexico on the shoot for the film of Catch-22. It’s an elegy for their friendship in which he harks back to the Tom and Jerry days:

Tom, get your plane right on time.
I know your part’ll go fine.
Fly down to Mexico.

So the partnership broke up. Cleverly, at this point a musical interlude by the backing band covered the solo years, with themes from ‘Late in the Evening’, ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’, ‘Graceland’ and more woven into a segment that led up to the 1981 reunion show in New York’s Central Park which came ten years after the duo separated. From that show we heard ‘Late In The Evening’, ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’ and their habitual closer and tribute to their biggest influence, the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’.

Simon and Garfunkel's Concert in Central Park
Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park

Something about seeing the images of the 500,000 people crowded into the park beneath the New York skyline brought to mind the day, almost exactly 20 years later, when the death planes would come. We can never know what’s in store.

The show ended, as S&G’s live performances tended to, with ‘Bye Bye Love’. I heard some around me saying that the performers had chickened out of doing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, that no-one but S&G could do it. But, of course, it had been saved for the encore – and Joe Sterling did a brilliant job, singing solo until Gregory Clarke joined him on stage at the ‘Sail on silver girl’ bridge. They finished with ‘The Boxer’.

I know some have serious doubts about tribute shows, but this was well-structured sequence which varied the mood, for example segueing from the spare acoustic ‘Kathy’s Song’ into the full rock band sound of ‘I Am A Rock’. More than that, it’s quite simply enjoyable, serving as a reminder of how many brilliant songs Paul Simon wrote. Now, half a century later, play almost any Simon and Garfunkel song and you will be transported back to those confused and turbulent years of the sixties, years of tragedy and struggle but ultimately filled with hope.

So, an enjoyable evening, my daughter’s birthday gift to me. Unfortunately, being ill she couldn’t be there. But my gratitude is immense.

Sail on, silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water

simon-and-garfunkel

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.

Set list

From Wednesday Morning, 3AM (1964):

  • The Sound Of Silence
  • He Was My Brother
  • Bleecker Street

From Sounds of Silence (1966)

  • Kathy’s Song
  • Somewhere They Can’t Find Me
  • Homeward Bound
  • Richard Cory
  • I Am A Rock

From Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme (1966) 

  • Scarborough Fair
  • Patterns
  • The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)
  • The Dangling Conversation
  • For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her

From Bookends (1968)  

  • America
  • Old Friends
  • Bookends
  • Fakin’ It
  • Mrs Robinson
  • A Hazy Shade Of Winter

From Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)

  • Cecilia
  • Keep The Customer Satisfied
  • The Only Living Boy In New York

From The Concert In Central Park (1982) 

  • Late In The Evening
  • Slip Slidin’ Away
  • Bye Bye Love

Encore

  • Bridge Over Troubled Water
  • The Boxer
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One thought on “The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories

  1. That monochrome photograph leaves a lump in my throat. A time when memories to be kept were chosen with care. Theirs was the soundtrack to so many lives with more poetic and relevant lyrics amongst so many other’s well written at that time. Every song title brought the sound straight back, perhaps it is just me but i do not find new songs that do that for me…

    That image… who needs garish digital colour?

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