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Mark Steyn

Request of the Week

Bridge Over Troubled Water

The SteynOnline Request of the Week was a weekly feature at this site for 11 years until the beginning of 2012, since when it's been on hiatus. However, the other day we received this:

Mark,

I'd been meaning to buy one of your gift certificates for some time, and I finally did it this weekend. I thought about sending it to a Democrat friend of mine, but he's bright enough to figure out that he could diminish my donation to your legal expenses by using the darn thing. Instead, I'd like to request that you re-post the article you wrote about Paul Simon and how his giving "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to Art Garfunkel to sing ultimately drove a wedge between them.

Thanks,

Kevin Kartchner
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Well, as I said, our Request of the Week department isn't really in business anymore, but, since you're a paying customer, I don't feel we can really refuse. As for bringing our request spot back as a weekly feature, I'm not sure about that, but, if you've swung by the Steyn store to help prop up my end of the upcoming Mann vs Steyn trial of the century and you'd like a reprise of a favorite column, by all means drop us a line and we'll do our best to oblige.

The piece Ken asked for first appeared as our Song of the Week in 2011, when we marked Paul Simon's 70th birthday. That week, we also aired a podcast in two parts focusing on his solo career. But this essay celebrated the song that was the apogee of the Simon & Garfunkel partnership:

When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all...

When you're weary of songs that feel small, it's nice to have a song that feels big - seems to be about something more than just boy-meets-girl, goes on twice as long as your run-of-the-mill pop record, has a sense of its own importance but not to the point of self-parody ("Bohemian Rhapsody"). For a long time "Bridge Over Troubled Water" fulfilled that role. In 1973, when Capital Radio became the first ever (legal) commercial music broadcaster in the United Kingdom, Richard Attenborough launched the station by welcoming listeners and then playing, as the very first record, Simon & Garfunkel. Until well into the Eighties, whenever Capital and many other stations polled listeners on their all-time Top 100, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" would invariably be voted Number One. It had a broad appeal. Back in the Sixties, Simon & Garfunkel were the rockers your parents liked. Not just put up with, but really liked: Nestling among the Ray Conniff LPs and Fiddler On The Roof cast album, you could usually find a Bookends or Sounds Of Silence, and well played, too. I once made Paul Simon visibly bristle when I said airily that a lot of suburban couples with two on the aisle for Hello, Dolly! listened to their eight-tracks of Bridge Over Troubled Water while driving to the theatre. But he conceded the essential truth of the observation. The Bridge album became one of the biggest sellers of the rock era, and in 1970 its title track hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. It marked the high point of the Simon & Garfunkel collaboration - and also the end.

The song was born the previous year - 1969. Paul and Peggy Simon and Art Garfunkel had taken a house for the summer on Blue Jay Way in Los Angeles, the eponymous "Blue Jay Way" of the George Harrison song, inspired by the Beatle's stint at the same pad. Even by the standards of resentful double-acts (from Gilbert & Sullivan to Martin & Lewis), the responsibilities in the Simon & Garfunkel partnership were unevenly divided: Paul wrote all the music, and all the lyrics, and played guitar, and sang the song; Art did the high harmonies, and that was pretty much it. But Paul loved Artie's voice, and loved harmony, too. I once asked him whether, as he got older, he found rock'n'roll "limiting", and again he bristled. No, he insisted. You could do anything in rock'n'roll that the old-time crowd - Kern and Porter - had done with their kind of music. But I noticed a couple of years later that, in a centenary appreciation of George Gershwin for The New York Times, Simon conceded that, for all their skills, the rock generation had never been able to advance to the harmonic sophistication of their predecessors. Among his peers, he was an unusual writer in that he seemed to think of harmony, even when he couldn't quite reach for it.

I noticed something else during the week I spent with him for a BBC documentary. He had a small group of songs that sounded like piano ballads - "Still Crazy After All These Years" was the example I chose, and I asked him if that's how it was composed. "It was written on the guitar," he said, "but the record is a piano song, just like 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was written on the guitar but it's a piano song. I've only written one song on the piano, it's a song called 'Nobody' on the One-Trick Pony album. Otherwise they're all written on the guitar. But I play the guitar in a pianistic style. When I'm writing those kinds of ballads I'm not just kind of just strumming a G chord. It may be important that I have the third in the bass or the fifth in the bass, and I'm writing the bass line and the moving tones at the same time that I'm making up the melody. I'm shaping the harmony, so the harmony is a little bit more complex than it would be in a three- or four-chord rhythm song."

And so, in that summer of '69, he sat down and wrote a piano song on his guitar:

When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will lay me down...

"That whole phrase just poured out together," said Simon. "Words and music, all in one, just like that. And you always know when you've got something, when you've got a great line." He'd written it on his guitar in G, and wanted it played on a gospel piano in E flat. So Jimmie Haskell, an arranger who'd worked with Simon before, offered just as a favor to transpose it. "You call off the chord in G and I'll write it in E flat," he said. They put his name down on the credits. When Simon tells the story of Haskell's stenographic contribution, he usually adds, "He won a Grammy for that", as if he's either still vaguely resentful about it, or this just demonstrates how the music biz is organized around outmoded methods of cutting in.

Still, at the end of it, Paul Simon had a gospel song for the times, a kind of quasi-spiritual ballad for the end of the Sixties evoking in its central image the River Jordan. In the troubled waters of the day, it was a song whose moment had come - of its age and yet seemingly transcendent of it. Rock of ages, so to speak:

When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I'll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will lay me down...

Sometimes you don't know how big a song's going to get. It was decided the tune needed a real string section, so Simon gave his demo to an arranger to write up the string parts. He came back with the charts and passed them around to the musicians, and Paul noticed that at the top he'd written the title as "Like A Pitcher Of Water". That's what he thought Simon was singing on the demo. Paul had it framed and hung it up on the wall. The problem now was that it wasn't quite a full pitcher: The song feels big, the production's big, but there's not quite enough of it. In the studio, Garfunkel suggested there should be a third verse, and after listening to Larry Knechtel play it through on the piano one more time Simon wrote:

Sail on, silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine...

Paul Simon never liked it. He always felt you could tell it was written later, that it doesn't sound like the first two verses, doesn't belong with them. But most of us don't hear it that way. In context, it sounds like this is what it's all been building up to, a big finale that "pulls out all the stops", as Garfunkel put it. Over the years, Art also took to claiming he "wrote a bunch of chords" for "Troubled Water", or anyway dictated them Irving Berlin-style to Larry Knechtel at the piano.

Who knows? The real difficulties began earlier. Bridge Over Troubled Water was the most successful album Simon & Garfunkel ever released, and the worst to make. Garfunkel was away filming Catch-22 in Europe with Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate). "On several tracks there's no Artie at all," Paul pointed out. "You don't hear Simon & Garfunkel singing together." Instead of 12 songs, they wound up with 11. Paul had written something called "Cuba Si, Nixon No" and recorded a music track for it. When Artie got back from filming, he refused to sing it - with hindsight, probably wisely, at least as far as the Hello, Dolly! eight-track segment of their audience were concerned. Garfunkel proposed "a Bach chorale thing", which Simon didn't want to do. "F--k it," said Paul. "Put it out with 11 songs."

If "Cuba Si, Nixon No" wasn't a close call, the increasing acrimony between S & G nearly cost them the big song. Simon hadn't written "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for his own voice. He heard it in Garfunkel's. Not just business as usual, with Artie singing the high harmonies, but Artie singing the melody line, singing the whole thing. "Here's a song I just wrote," Simon told him. "I think you should sing it."

Garfunkel listened, and then he said, "I don't want to do it." Years later, he explained that it was because, when Simon demonstrated the song to him, he went into falsetto on the high parts, and Garfunkel thought, "Hey, you know he has a really nice flutey falsetto." He thought it would sound good in Simon's voice. As he tells it, he wasn't rejecting the number, he was sufficiently "relaxed and generous" to want to let his partner have it.

For his part, Simon came to conclude that Garfunkel was right: He should have sung it himself. Once it became Number One, and the biggest song the partnership ever produced, and the surefire showstopper, there was no room for Paul in the song. He'd sit off at the side of the stage while Larry Knechtel would play the piano, and Artie would sing:

I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will lay me down...

At the end, audiences would go wild and cheer and stamp their feet and demand encores, and Paul would think, "That's my song, man." He was weary of S&G, and feeling small. No wonder he didn't like that last verse:

If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind...

Simon didn't need Garfunkel and Garfunkel didn't need Simon, and neither wanted to sail behind the other. "I resented it," said Paul. "It wasn't very generous of me, and I wouldn't have felt that way two years earlier." And so a song about laying yourself down for your friend came instead to mark the end of a friendship that had endured since the Sixth Grade. When I spent that week in Simon's company, we didn't talk much about Garfunkel, except for one off-camera moment when, just en passant but with noticeable vigor, he compared Art's insipid take on "I Only Have Eyes For You" with the Flamingos' version.

As for "Bridge Over Troubled Water", it passed into the language. Simon was struck by its rapid co-option by the headline writers - "Teddy Kennedy's Bridge Over Troubled Water" ran one Chappaquiddick story at the time of the Senator's presidential run. Like a lot of golden age pop lyrics, it feels like a phrase that's always been there, but in fact it wasn't, not until Paul Simon sat down and wrote it up. "I'll be your bridge over deep water" in "Mary, Don't You Weep" is close, but lacks the musical ease.

Simon told me there were two versions he really liked - Aretha Franklin's is the gospel record he always had in mind, and Elvis Presley's is just a helluva performance. And Paul McCartney was so impressed when he first heard the song that he decided to write a "spiritual" of his own: "Let It Be," A lot of water under the bridge since 1970. It doesn't top the All-Time Greatest rock polls quite the way it did, and it's not quite a standard, either. But only a year or two back, at the Grammies, it was the song Andrea Bocelli, Mary Blige, and David Foster chose to do as their all-star Haiti fundraising singalong. And the original record still sounds pretty good - a pledge of enduring friendship that bust one up irretrievably:

If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will ease your mind
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will ease your mind...

And then the troubled waters ebb, and all's that left is a solo violin and a long E flat, lasting over ten seconds before dying away. And then... the sound of silence.

from Request of the Week, May 13, 2014

 

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