Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel gave the world something that has never been fully recognized, I think. Now, I enjoy folk music and several of its most recognizable proponents, but I cannot deny the inherent sanctimony of a lot of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan’s most famous tunes. Sure, these were protest songs, and the subjective “us versus them” attitude was an obvious tack, but over time, some of these songs lost luster. Some lost it because of modern cynicism: “Yes, you’re outraged over this Tower of Babel. Where were you when it was being built? Is singing about it all you can do now?” Others lost it because of an overbearing quaintness, hymns to Ralph Waldo Emerson that smacked of being so out of touch, they might as well be alien transmissions.
So when Simon & Garfunkel burst on the scene, they freed up the voice and acoustic guitar from the tyranny of the right-minded (or the left, thinking politically). Their songs could be political, but they could also be nonsensical, traditional, and deep in their hearts they were always pop stars like their heroes the Everly Brothers; when they approached thorny material, Paul Simon did so as a writer, Art Garfunkel as a choir singer. When the duo was matched with a crack staff of Columbia’s studio musicians, the mass psychosis that plagued Dylan’s efforts in going electric didn’t affect the pair. Their saving grace was not simplicity but subtlety.
This all comes through on Live 1969, a collection of recordings from a tour concurrent with their finishing Bridge Over Troubled Water that year. They were on the verge of an acrimonious breakup that would result in years of sniping, famously documented in a “reunion” on the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975. Fortunately, that subsurface nastiness is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the focus is hard set on the songs of two voices and often one guitar. You couldn’t get more traditional folk than that. And when they are backed up by other musicians, it’s never superfluous. The clearest example is when Garfunkel takes the stage, backed only by piano, to perform “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Just as poignant is “The Sound of Silence,” the song originally intended for the stark folk treatment, then later filled in with studio musicians to produce the rock tune we recognize today. In it’s rawest, live incarnation, nothing is lost because it was always there from the start. When Simon palm-mutes the strings and thumps out a beat while moving toward the end section, it becomes as epic as anything they’ve ever done.
But is this album necessary for anyone other than diehard fans? I’d argue the answer is yes, even though the intentions of its release are not strictly to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the tapes’ existence. According to some of my digging and sleuthing, it was prepped to go back in 2007, but was held back shortly after promo copies made the rounds, so this newfound synergy is only a part of the plan. The disc will finally be rolled outÁ‚ first to Starbucks outlets, then later on to the rest of the market just in time for the 2009 Christmas sales season. There are no major revelations to be found here, either. You know these songs by heart, just as you know they will be performed superbly. But only here will you hear Bookends‘ mournful centerpiece “Old Friends” devoid of the “bickering divorcees” subtext present on latter reunion recordings.
Of course, you’re getting this from someone who is thrilled with the CD’s mere existence, so I’m not the picture of objective critique… but as someone who was raised on voice/guitar groups that were hell-bent on exposing everything that was wrong with the world, but seldom prepared to offer any solutions to the problems, my gratitude for the ability of Simon & Garfunkel to so skillfully say a lot, and a little, gets the best of me. I suspect it’ll do the same for you.