There are worse ways to spend Valentine's Day than listening to the most romantic voice of its generation, live in a small room.
Art Garfunkel is in Savannah Feb. 14 and 15, for shows at Dollhouse Productions, which seats 300. From his classic work with Paul Simon in the 1960s, through a solo career that produced some of the most sublime pop music ("All I Know," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "Crying in My Sleep," "What a Wonderful World"), Garfunkel has never stepped outside a tiny circle of excellence.
Simon and Garfunkel had just announced a reunion tour, in early 2010, when Garfunkel inexplicably lost his voice, a gossamer instrument that bonds to Simon's tenor like morning dew to a robust flower.
The voice just laid down like a bridge over troubled water.
Things are much, much better now, as you're about to read.
Garfunkel, 72, began our conversation by asking if I'd seen the Grammy Awards, which had aired the previous night (he has eight of them with Simon, and another for his 1998 album Songs From a Parent to a Child).
He was surprised, he said, that the show was so entertaining (although he bailed shortly before it ended), and had high praise for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
And then we got started ...
CS: At the Grammys in 1975, John Lennon, Paul Simon and Andy Williams were bantering at the podium. Then you came out and had a really funny deadpan exchange with Simon. I never forgot it. Was it scripted?
Art Garfunkel: No. The nature of the friendship with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel is jokes, jokes, jokes. Always the inside poke in the ribs, that's all we ever say. Our knives are sharp when it comes to looking for the inside joke in a flash. So it comes out as if we practiced, but the mind works very fast, when Paul Simon is around, to find the inside, hip joke.
CS: That comes from knowing each other so well?
AG: Yeah, we went to junior high school together. We were always laughing. We're Lenny Bruce fans. We love Mike Nichols. We love Mel Brooks. These three funny people, but mostly Lenny Bruce, had tuned us. When we first met our manager, Mort Lewis, he had Lenny Bruce's album signed "From Lenny to Mort." And that impressed us a lot. So there's the overlap.
CS: I have to ask you, my friend, how's the voice?
AG: It's good. I'm happening again. It's a thrill to have it back. It's taken, what, 3 ½ years? The voice is happening.
CS: What happened, exactly?
AG: I did a show in Nicaragua, and I remember they were burning leaves in back of the outdoor show that I was doing. And it was a funny kind of a smell. I came home in late January of 2010. I went to the Palm Restaurant, where they have great lobsters. I was with my son. I gagged on one of the strands of this giant lobster, and it was a near-panic situation. I had to kick up the lobster.
From that point on, after that night, I was experiencing a tightness of the vocal cords and my voice started getting husky. I saw the doctors, and they said "Something in the fine symmetry of your two vocal cords has gone crude." That's the closest I can get to an explanation. The truth is, it's a mystery to me what happened.
The doctor said nothing except scratch your head, and that'll be $1,200, please.
The body is a mystery. To grope and figure out things about the mystery seems to be, from a doctor's point of view, hooking up expensive machines, taking pictures, and charging the patient a bloody fortune. That's what doctors have meant to me.
CS: But you did think at one point it might be gone?
AG: I did think at one point that it might be gone, yeah. I definitely did think it might not happen again. You can't count on God's work. Our body and how it works, you can't count on anything. And I was really having vocal trouble—my speaking was husky. I gave it months of resting and then began to sing, and it wasn't coming back very easily. I went through a lot of things.
I sing in a way that has to do with fine-ness. If it gets crude, then I'm not Artie Garfunkel any more. Oddly enough, I could sing in the high range. I had my upper notes, which is my stock-in-trade. I could sing in the bass, which I hardly ever use. But the whole midsection, which requires finesse, there's where you need fine-ness. That was blunted and crude, and there was the heartbreak of it all.
I kept singing, and singing in unison to my iPad. I would sing to Chet Baker and JJ Cale. And I was starting to get there. My unison to these great masters was starting to happen. I would sing to my old albums, in my iPod. I would sing to the Everlys—first Don, the lower voice, and then dear Phil, that great angel in the sky now. And I could get it. I sounded dead-nuts on. And that was promising.
When I took to the stage ... first I booked an empty house, so I could have microphone, reverb, speakers and projection, which is the real show business experience ... I was quivery. And it wasn't happening. I kept doing it, and a couple of years went by. I finally started singing to small houses. My wife is a Buddhist; I would sing to her Buddhist meetings, and it was all about facing your obstacle. And I was living example of "Man Meets His Obstacle." You do your best.
I ended up thinking "You've gotta get onstage and act as if you're ready, even though you're not ready." The adrenaline and the fear of doing a show, even when you're not ready, and throwing yourself into it, helps you get ready.
CS: I've never gotten over stage fright. I do a lot of theater, and play a little music, but never got over it. I look at someone like yourself and you look so friggin' confident up there!
AG: It's acting. What you just said really touches me. Now you're my pal. Now you get it, you understand. It's very unnatural, and very exposed, to say to a house full of people "Hush up and watch what I can do." It's all so presumptuous! It's what fancy people do! It's not my nature. It's a pretense to say "I am going to take care of your reality for the next 60 minutes." And I was back to that early stage of presumption and fear. At my advanced age! My knees were knocking. I was 15 years old again, just a year and a half ago. But you do it anyway. And only with the repetition of dozens of doing that do you settle back into the groove.
CS: I hear you signed a book deal?
AG: They don't want me to talk about it. I've been writing for 30 years. I write these bits. I don't know how to describe them, they're one-page, half-page reflections. They're memoirs of my life, my career, of my wife, my children, family, show business, Paul Simon, my history. I'm entranced by the living experience, if you must know, Bill. And so I write as a philosophically questioning guy. I've been doing it for about 30 years, to myself, for myself, thinking well, I like what I'm doing; I think I have my own voice. I don't know if it translates. I would sometimes read it to people, and some of them work, some of them don't. I finally got the courage to shop them around with a literary agent. And he came back with great responses: "You are a writer."
So I'm in the editing phase. But if you must know, the thrill of shaping up this show that I'm bringing to Savannah has completely captured me. I love what's going on. A new three-part concert has emerged in front of my eyes. And I'm into it.
CS: Do tell.
AG: I read some of these things we've been talking about. And I reflect on the song I'm about to sing. And I weave in and out of things I wrote and this now-returned voice. I go back and forth and I go through my repertoire while I show them my prose-poem bits. It has an identity of its own. I don't know anybody who does this, but it works. I'll come onstage and I'll go "Somewhere around the middle of the '60s, I took a room at the Hampshire House. I remember the carpet, cherry vermillion. The balcony looked up the axis of Central Park, dead center. Twenty-fifth floor. I was new to fame, and to room service."
I have just one guitar player, Bill. That's my show. It is what I call severe less-is-more. I'm trying to make every little thing be a big thing. And grow from there. At the end, I'll do a question-and-answer and finally, finally open up as a guy with a lot of love and a lot of experience, and a lot of accessibility. Ask me what you want to know, folks!
CS: Why do you say finally, after all these years?
AG: Because I've been behind Paul Simon all through that famous Simon & Garfunkel career. And during my own solo 20 years I had my four-piece band. I only slowly began to be a talker. That's why. I don't know if they know how proud I am of my body of work.
CS: OK, you brought it up, so I have to ask. You were about to tour with Paul when the voice troubles began. Are the two of you thinking about doing it again?
AG: Who knows? If the voice is working again. We're a hot duo! The world loves us, I love us, so it begs the question why wouldn't we do it again when the voice is back. But you gotta ask him. It takes two to make a tour.
CS: When you get to this age, are all the old animosities gone?
AG: Animosities, Bill? Something you know?
CS: There's been hot and cold running water over the years.
AG: We're different personalities. You see Paul Simon, you see Artie Garfunkel, you see two different kind of guys. My job is to keep the class of Simon & Garfunkel. I don't want to knock us off the pedestal and bring in the earthiness of two different personalities. We mesh pretty well. I don't think our story is animosity, I think it's harmony. Being two different people, we managed an alchemy of fusion in a pretty exciting way, right from childhood on. I think that's our story.