What Was, and What Might Have Been

Written By Geoffrey Himes

The Concert in Central Park

In 1981, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for a free concert to restore New York City’s most famous park. “The Concert in Central Park” features the duo’s greatest hits performed for more than 500,000 people, one of the largest concert audiences of all time.

When a married couple breaks up, the two spouses are not the only ones affected. Everyone who attended their wedding — or might have — is saddened as well. Something similar happens when pop duos and groups split up. It’s not just the group members who are heartbroken; their fans feel it too. That’s why there are so many calls for ensembles like the Beatles, the Supremes and Simon and Garfunkel to reunite.

The Beatles and Supremes never regrouped, but Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did — and in the most public way possible. Half a million people came out to show their support on September 19, 1981, when the two singers performed in public for the first time in nine years (there had been two joint TV appearances and two studio collaborations in the interim, all tense affairs). “The Concert in Central Park,” as it became known, was released as the first (and last) Simon and Garfunkel album since “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and then also as a video. 

The audience, which filled Central Park’s Great Lawn with a sea of shaggy heads, seemed overjoyed. The singers themselves seemed a bit wary of each other but the rust was minimal and they put on a terrific show, backed by 11 of New York’s top session musicians, led by drummer Steve Gadd and keyboardist Richard Tee.

The sense of a special occasion permeated everything, yet the evening provided musical substance beyond mere nostalgia. Even admirers of Simon’s first four, post-breakup studio projects wondered what they might have sounded like if they had been duo albums rather than solo releases.

The show begins with three S&G classics, but the fourth song is the salsa-inflected “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Above the push-and-pull rhythm, above Simon’s jaunty vocal from his solo album version, floats Garfunkel’s high harmony — singing all the words in linked phrasing with Simon, giving the song a whole new dimension. That’s not easy to do.

It’s really challenging for two singers to deliver the same words in different melody lines but with the exact same phrasing. Simon and Garfunkel do it again and again.

It’s really challenging for two singers to deliver the same words in different melody lines but with the exact same phrasing. Simon and Garfunkel do it again and again over the course of this show as if it was second nature — as, of course, it had become during their early partnership. And it creates an exhilarating effect — Simon’s conversational, folk-pop low tenor paired with Garfunkel’s angelic, choir-boy high tenor, so different yet functioning as a single narrator.

Where did they get that close-interval harmony singing from? They answer that question with the show’s seventh song: the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie,” written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the template for every S&G fast song (just as the Everlys/Bryants’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is the template for every S&G slow song).

Garfunkel sits on the steps to the drum riser during Simon’s solo vocal on “Still Crazy After All These Years,” but the tall, curly-haired vocalist takes the lead on “American Tune,” perhaps Simon’s best song and one that has had a telling revival in 2020. Simon sings the first half of the bridge in his skeptical, chatty voice before Garfunkel retakes the lead with his prayerful optimism. It’s the tension between those two attitudes — as well as those two voices — that informs S&G’s best work.

Garfunkel’s rendition may well be the best-ever version of this song, bringing out the pleasures of its hymnal melody as he once did on “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He would do so again on that song later in the show, while Simon sat side-stage. 

It’s Garfunkel’s turn to stand aside when Simon provides the public premiere of “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” a song about celebrity deaths that would appear on his next album. Just as he gets to the verse about John Lennon, who’d died a few blocks away 10 months earlier, a fan rushes the stage before he’s tackled and hauled away by a roadie. Spooky.

That next album was supposed to be a duo album, but the elementary-school friends began feuding again and “Hearts and Bones” (1983) became a solo project with one duo song. There would be other reunions and still more splits, but for one night in Central Park, the world could hear what might have been.

Geoffrey Himes wrote about pop music on a weekly basis in the Washington Post from 1977 to 2019 and has served as a senior editor at No Depression and Paste magazines. He has also written about pop music, jazz, theater, film, art and books for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, The New York Times, Smithsonian, National Public Radio, DownBeat and other outlets. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2016), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards. His book on Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” was published by Continuum Books in 2005. He’s currently working on a book for the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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