Several songs on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water seem so perfect it’s as though they must always have existed. Surely the title song, “El Condor Pasa,” and “The Boxer” waited somewhere in the ether to be revealed at a propitious moment in history. Right?
Not quite. The album was coaxed forth over a difficult year by two old friends whose partnership was beginning to dissolve. The creation of the title song captures the tension in microcosm: first, they disagreed over who should sing it. Garfunkel didn’t want to but Simon persuaded him—only to regret in later years that he doesn’t appear on the duo’s most famous song. Garfunkel thought the song needed a third verse, so Simon wrote one, even as he believed it didn’t measure up to the first two. In the end, it would take them two months to finish the song, emblematic of the sporadic nature of their work together by this time. Even when the album was done, the tension remained. Thinking of adding a song to pad the album beyond 36 minutes, they couldn’t agree what to add, so they left it alone.
“The Boxer” and “Baby Driver” had been released as a single in the spring of 1969. The first inkling the public got of the rest of the music on the new album came on November 30, 1969, when some of it was included in the documentary Songs of America, broadcast on CBS. It’s full of performance and off-stage footage of the two, but what Songs of America is mostly is a political commentary on the state of America at the end of the 1960s.
Getting the film on the air was a struggle. The original sponsor bailed entirely, and CBS had problems with the content. One sequence features “Bridge Over Troubled Water” over a montage of the JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King funeral trains. After seeing it, a network executive told director Charles Grodin and Simon that the segment was unbalanced. Grodin asked what he meant. “They’re all Democrats,” the executive replied. Simon broke in: “We prefer to think of them as assassinated people.”
Here’s the whole Songs of America film, which is also available on DVD. Watch it before Sony realizes it’s up.
Bridge Over Troubled Water and its title song were released in January 1970; it took “Bridge” only four weeks to reach #1 on the Hot 100. The album reached the top of the Billboard 200 on March 7 and stayed 10 weeks. By dethroning Led Zeppelin II, it turned the spring of 1970 into a season of soft rock ascendant. Another classic of the genre stars in our next installment.