Art Garfunkel says he’s finally come of age at 75

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Though Art Garfunkel has been singing since he was 4, he says he has finally come of age as a stage performer.

“I’m in command now. It’s my stage,” says Garfunkel, now 75. “I am essentially a shy guy and it’s not in my nature to say, ‘Hush up and listen to me.’”

Garfunkel’s almost ethereal countertenor sent Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and “Sound of Silence” soaring in the 1960s. Several Simon & Garfunkel songs feature prominently in Garfunkel’s stage show, which arrives Jan. 20 at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater.

Garfunkel’s current stage persona as a singer backed by guitar and piano reflect the musical sensitivities of a contemplative man whose feelings run deep.

The early years

Garfunkel’s predilection for song started in first grade, when the boy would stand in the empty hallways at P.S. 164 in his predominantly Jewish Queens neighborhood singing popular tunes — like “Unchained Melody” — and marveling at the effect of the hallway echo on his vocals.

A wire recorder, purchased by his father, allowed the boy to record his singing, then play back the recordings to find flaws.

Garfunkel and Paul Simon met in the sixth grade and Simon became interested in music after he heard Garfunkel sing Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” at a school talent show.

The boys began performing in 1956 as Tom & Jerry, styling their two-part harmonies after those of the Everly Brothers. In 1957, they cut “Hey, Schoolgirl,” which reached No. 49 on the pop charts.

Several years later — in 1963, and now as Simon & Garfunkel, they recorded an album of folk music, Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., for Columbia Records — to a lackluster public response.

It wasn’t until producer Tom Wilson overdubbed “Sound of Silence” with electric guitars, bass and drums that the public began to take notice. The song, with its socially conscious lyrics and theme of alienation, reached No. 1 in 1966.

Simon & Garfunkel next collaborated on the score and lent their songs to the Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate. Garfunkel acted in two subsequent Nichols films and he and Simon continued to make music together in the meantime.

“We were thoughtful and we used our brains,” Garfunkel says. “That was unusual in rock and roll.”

Scholarly bent

Garfunkel used his brain for more than music, earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from Columbia University in 1965. He later earned a master’s in mathematics and completed the coursework toward a doctoral degree in mathematics education, also at Columbia. The academic in him had awakened and, even though he only taught for a few years, the training helped foster what Garfunkel describes as his “quirky” nature in the years to come.

In academic fashion, Garfunkel’s website lists the title, author, number of pages and publication date of every book he’s read since 1968.  “I read about two books a month and I thought, if I am going to do that, I might as well write them down,” he says.

In November, Garfunkel read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers, the last book entered and No. 1,249 on his list.

He also lists 166 favorite books, the first of which is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions. Garfunkel first read the philosophical work in June 1968.

Walking into poetry

Garfunkel also likes to walk. He’s walked across Japan. In 1984, he traversed the United States — from his New York City home to Washington state’s Pacific coast. The U.S. trip, including details of the route, a map and commentary, also are chronicled on his website.

Two years ago, Garfunkel completed a walk across Europe, starting in western Ireland and ending in Istanbul.

“When I am walking I feel like I’ve pulled the plug on the noise and distractions of Western society,” Garfunkel says. “There is the sky and greenery all around me. My daydreaming kicks in, sometimes producing lovely phrases that may even have commercial potential in their ability to speak to other people.”

Some of these phrases appear in songs and others turn into prose poems — some of which will appear in Garfunkel’s autobiography, due in September.

The singer’s contemplation also contributes to his choice and interpretation of the songs he sings — 19 of which he will perform, along with 12 prose poems, during his Milwaukee concert.

At the end of the day, little has changed in Garfunkel’s tastes and preferences since he began singing in the hallways of P.S. 164.

“I loved ‘Too Young’ because the melody just did it for me,” Garfunkel says. “If you want to be a singer through the years, then you have to keep your heart light.”

In illustration of his thesis, Garfunkel sings the first stanzas of “Tammy,” written for Tammy and the Bachelor. The 1957 song was a No. 1 single for Debbie Reynolds, who died the day before WiG’s interview with Garfunkel.

“I find the song very lyrical, very ‘blue skies,’” Garfunkel says. “It’s the lyricism in the music, the thing that makes the song float beautifully like a ribbon on the breeze that makes it last.”

On Stage

Art Garfunkel performs in concert Jan. 20 at The Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $49.50 and $59.50 and can be purchased by calling the Pabst box office at 414-286-3663 or online at pabsttheater.org.