From an Underground Man: Art Garfunkel Reflects on His Life, Work, and Relationships

While the event was scheduled to start promptly at 7:00 p.m., by 7:30 there was still no sign of Art Garfunkel, one half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, currently on tour to promote his new memoir “What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man.” Low murmuring reverberated throughout the packed First Parish Church, with college students and old fans alike anxiously awaiting the artist’s arrival.

When Garfunkel arrived, followed by moderator and WGBH’s executive arts editor Jared Bowen, the room erupted in a standing ovation that lasted until they both sat down. Bowen seemed surprised at the warmness of the welcome. Garfunkel did not.

Garfunkel began by explaining the process by which he composed his novel. “As I walked, I wrote. I wrote about my life, my marriage, and about Paul Simon.” The walks that he referred to were a series of staggered treks he made in the ’80s and ’90s, covering in installments the countries of Japan, Ireland, and the United States.

During these walks, Garfunkel had ample time to reflect,write, and listen to music—not excluding the tunes of his disbanded folk duo. Listening to his songs with fresh ears gave the artist new perspectives on his work, including his duo’s five-time Grammy award-winning hit. “The finale of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ went on for too damn long,” Garfunkel said, referring to their fifth album’s final song.

Garfunkel, a notorious perfectionist, even went so far as to criticize his performance at “The Concert in Central Park,” an event that drew half a million people, became the band’s first live album, and is the seventh largest concert in American history. “I wasn’t pleased. The audience loved it, but [the performance] is not really for the audience. When you’re up there, you’re busy in your own hard work. I’d give myself a C+,” he said.

In talking about Garfunkel’s work in Simon and Garfunkel, the conversation inevitably turned to Garfunkel’s intermittent relationship with his lifelong friend Paul Simon. When Bowen inquired into the relationship between the two artists, Garfunkel became defensive and vague. “Why don’t I ask you about your marriage, Jared? Winter follows summer no matter how beautiful the summer is. Relationships wax and wane. For two-thirds of a century, his arm has been around my shoulder,” he said.

Bowen attempted to continue the conversation, but the artist seemed keen on changing topics. “I’m interested in moving on. I want to be seen as a man with twelve solo albums,” he said. Later in the conversation, Garfunkel reflected on the nature of transition in one’s life. “I don’t think we make conscious decisions to end chapters of our lives. It’s only later that Jared asks us to title events in our lives,” he said.

During the Q&A; portion of the event, an audience member asked Garfunkel if music could be used to address the political crises of today, just as the music of Simon and Garfunkel did in the 1960s. “I want to represent the things we’re forgetting, the beauty of a melodic line. I can’t believe the times we’re living in: a distortion of truth and beauty. It’s unacceptable that we should consider all of this normal,” he said.

While Garfunkel had no qualms commenting on the state of society and politics, he responded more cautiously when asked about his views on the state of modern music. “It’s so easy to give a one word answer: no! But you never know if you’re making a judgement because of your blindness. It’s a tough age to be,” he said.

One audience member, Julian F. Gonzalez ’21, prefaced his question by explaining to Garfunkel his family’s personal connection to the artist’s music. Gonzalez expanded on his story after the event. “When my dad first came to this country, he took lessons at a local community college to brush up on his English, and there he met my mom who was his tutor. They went out on a few dates and they kinda liked each other, but it wasn’t until one night when they were out and the song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ came on and they started slow dancing did they realize this is who they were meant to be with,” he said.

Self-described Simon and Garfunkel enthusiast Carolyn G. Martin seemed very pleased with Garfunkel’s light demeanor. “I was surprised how approachable he was. The very first thing I thought after the event ended was, where is this man going to get a drink after this. I want to go and have a drink with him and continue these conversations.” Martin was also impressed with the way Garfunkel confronted tough and personal questions. “Going into this, I was thinking is he going to have a lot of ego, how is he going to portray Paul? But I think he handled that dynamic really well. He was pretty objective for someone so mired in that relationship. It was a night to remember: pretty good for a Wednesday,” she said.

Audience member and writer Harold Lepidus, author of “Friends and Other Strangers: Bob Dylan Examined” echoed Martin’s sentiments. “I thought he was engaging. I thought he was very articulate as well as being self deprecating, because he has a reputation of being quite serious and he was actually very funny,” he said.

After Garfunkel answered a score of questions ranging from inquires into his walks, favorite artists, creative process, and drug-related endeavours, the event drew to a close. The breadth of topics discussed in the talk meant that the event served, much like his recently released novel, as a reflection on the life and work of Art Garfunkel. It seems fitting then that the prolific and celebrated artist ended the night on a reflective note. “I’ve just loved entertaining you. All my life. Thank you,” he said.

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