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It’s been decades since Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup, and each reunion since 1970 has been tinged with tension as fans of the folk-rock duo hold their breath to see how long their partnership will last this time around.
As it turns out, there’s a culprit to the split. Revealed during a special screening of their controversial 1969 documentary Songs of America on Wednesday at New York’s Paley Center for Media, Art Garfunkel and doc producer Charlie Grodin point the finger at Mike Nichols — the man who had featured Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair” in 1967’s The Graduate, for which he won the Oscar for best director.
Grodin traced the roots of the rift to when the filmmaker first cast Garfunkel and Paul Simon with Orson Welles in Nichols’ satirical 1970 film adaptation of Catch-22, then cut Simon’s role. “That was the beginning of their split-up,” Grodin explained. “I just think this is outrageous — you don’t take Simon & Garfunkel and ask them to be in a movie and then drop one of their roles on them. You just don’t do that.”
Garfunkel, who made his acting debut in the film, agreed. He also cited the film’s as Simon’s motivation for penning the song “The Only Living Boy in New York.”
“Yes, Chuck’s gone right to the heart of the difficulty in Simon & Garfunkel when he says, ‘Artie and Paul were cast for Catch-22, and Paul’s part was dropped.’ That, of course, is an irritant of the first order. So I had Paul sort of waiting: ‘All right, I can take this for three months. I’ll write the songs, but what’s the fourth month? And why is Artie in Rome a fifth month? What’s Mike doing to Simon & Garfunkel?’ And so there’s Paul in the third month, still with a lot of heart, writing about, ‘I’m the only living boy in [New York]. You used to be the other one.’ ” (Q&A moderator Bruce Fretts, articles editor for TV Guide, then jokingly added, “Mike Nichols is the Yoko [Ono] of Simon & Garfunkel!”)
The duo’s 2010 reunion tour was canceled due to Garfunkel’s vocal cord paresis. The singer admitted he has yet to fully recover.
“In January of 2010, I started having some vocal troubles in my midrange, and my ability to finesse the notes — which is my stock in trade — went south on me. I don’t know what it is. I saw doctors; they were not helpful. I just hoped that it was in capacity that was visiting me and would pass on. Now, it’s three years, it’s getting mostly better; I’m pretty much there. I’m starting to book small shows — warmup things, workout places. So I’m back to 14 years-old with the vulnerability of an audience and the nervous energy of, ‘Will the voice be there?’ ”
Throughout the panel, Garfunkel also answered questions from the audience about persuading his son to fully pursue the music business, being naturally influenced by his roots in the synagogue and how he felt when “Hey, Schoolgirl” became his and Simon’s first minor hit in 1957 — when they were billed as Tom & Jerry.
“I look at it as pop formula confection; we were fans of the Everly Brothers, and this was our rockabilly song that we wrote together,” Garfunkel said of creating the song — which peaked at No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 — with Simon as teenagers. “The fact that it sold and made us high school seniors who had some credibility in school set me off in life, that was the big kick! We did a couple of years of that, we stopped having hits, and then we stopped being friends for a few years.”
Footage of their time just before their second breakup (just after Catch-22) was featured in Songs of America, which also chronicled the nation’s state after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy the previous year. Presented by Sony Legacy at the Paley Center for its first public screening, the film followed Simon & Garfunkel as they toured and recorded what would be their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
“I didn’t realize how political we were — I didn’t realize how we were being seen as Democrats; I thought we were being seen as having a heart and being universal in humanism,” said Garfunkel of sponsors refusing to support the film. Clips capture Garfunkel showcasing his stance against the Vietnam War. “Now I’m older; I look at [my comments in the film] as somewhat naive. Well, don’t you have to face up to put your ass on the line with people who don’t like America and force our hand? I act as if, if we can only stay clean and keep our hands clean, that would be preferable. It seems naive to me now.”
Yet more than 40 years after it unsuccessfully aired on CBS, the anti-war sentiments in Songs of America still sting for Grodin.
“What’s really depressing and upsetting to me about seeing this now is nothing’s changed — in fact, I think it’s gotten worse,” the actor and news commentator said. “I think we’ve gone downhill. We’re in more countries, fighting more people for more reasons that have to be explained better to me. … Somebody will have to explain to me why kids are getting killed in the paper every day: young men, young women getting killed. … I don’t know what the kids are doing over there now, and it’s very upsetting to see that’s nothing changed.”
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