At the height of their huge popularity, Simon & Garfunkel released their final — and some say best — studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. It was actually 41 years ago, but why quibble? Due Tuesday March 8, its 40th Anniversary Edition from Columbia/Legacy is a rare treat — especially given more than two hours of newly issued material on DVD.
That includes the Nov. 30, 1969 TV special Songs of America, shown just once to low ratings and never before issued on home video. The almost one-hour film captures S&G in the studio, on the road and on stage, as they start introducing the songs which made the Bridge album a classic.
Directed by actor Charles Grodin, a friend of Art Garfunkel’s from their Catch 22 shoot, the film mixes S&G with hot-topic news footage of the day: protest demonstrations, Vietnam combat, images marking the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK.
The special almost didn’t get aired and was tuned out by most of America, despite S&G’s stature. But it’s certainly worth watching now, not only as an entertaining time capsule but also a candid look at two artists as human beings, not stars.
It seems clear that the duo was about to wind down and split, just as the Beatles broke apart around the same time. But their message is still fervent: distinctly antiwar and pro-humanity, which makes it sad this was deemed “controversial” in the still-repressive context of ’60s network TV.
Some of the special’s footage is used in the DVD’s best element, the 71-minute The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. It traces the Queens, NY friends’ lives almost from their meeting at age 11 through an incredible career, via interviews with Garfunkel and Paul Simon, as well as studio colleagues such as engineer Roy Halee and backing musicians such as drummer Hal Blaine.
They recount the recording process for virtually the entire Bridge album, which sometimes meant getting echo effects in hallways or in chapels. Whatever it took — they were creatively innovative.
Simon also explains why AT&T dropped the TV special it had financed, making way for another sponsor. “They thought they were getting a straight entertainment special, and it was political. It was antiwar. And I guess it was liberal.” Yeah, I guess so, too.
But the recording process showed how the duo first known as Tom & Jerry and patterned after the smoothly harmonizing Everly Brothers was splintering. The new record, Simon observes, was more like a later Beatles album than an Everly Brothers sound, with each singer taking solos and rarely joining in their usual exquisite harmonies.
I confess, Bridge is not my favorite S&G album. It seems too formal and ornate for a folk duo, albeit one with such masterful pop sensibilities. Though it’s tough to pick from albums 2, 3 and 4, I’d go with 4, Bookends, as my personal favorite. But that said, Bridge’s songs include some of their best, among them the lovely Song for the Asking, which Garfunkel rightly labels an overlooked gem.
I also miss the romanticism of earlier S&G records. There’s nothing as warm and tender as April Come She Will or Kathy’s Song, but instead Cecilia, a song about lack of commitment amid sexual abandonment and partner-changing. Hey, it was the swingin’ ’60s (at least when this was recorded in late ’69).
But the documentary’s highly personal looks at S&G during the album’s day still show endearing and intriguing sides to one of the most significant forces in pop music in the ’60s — and that’s saying a lot.
To S&G, thanks for making such a moving mark on the most vibrant decade of your lifetimes. And from me, personally, thanks for the lift.
Also newly available March 8 from Columbia/Legacy is another Queens-based release in Billy Joel — Live At Shea Stadium. Sold as a 2 CD/1 DVD set or as a solo DVD or Blu-ray, it captures Joel’s more than two-hour show at the New York Mets’ soon-to-be-razed ballpark in July of 2008, featuring guests such as Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, John Mellencamp and Roger Daltrey.
It’s a beautifully shot, rollicking show, and it’s fitting that Joel was the last act booked at Shea, just as ZZ Top delivered the final concert at what was once called The Summit in Houston (and is now a church). Joel’s sold-out congregation is ready to rock and party, and the piano man, with a superb band of longtime stalwarts, delivers.