Now that the leaves that were green have turned brown and we‘re nestled in our deep and dark December, I thought it might be time to take a more nuanced look at the end of this duo’s recording career. I have no wish to change their history, but only to offer another option that they might have chosen at the time.
First let me state that I am one of their biggest fans, and continue to marvel at their recordings after all of these years. When Fall comes around I invariably increase my listening time with them. As with The Band, Fairport Convention, Billie Holiday, Nick Drake and a few others their music just seems to be the soundtrack to that time of year. In short, don’t kill the messenger here as I take off on a lark of how I would have handled the final year or so of their recording career. Christmas is about wishes. Right?
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (the album) certainly deserves all of the accolades it has amassed. Most would say it was the right album at the right time. Commercially there can be no doubt. But I wonder if a slightly different approach to the music on it wouldn’t have worked out just as well. It’s not really my natural to try and rewrite anyone’s recorded history, but writers write and are used to writing their own endings which is all I’m really doing here. I want to make a case for a slightly different end to their recording career without losing any of the music, just touching it down in different places. To do that I’m going to dismantle the “Bridge…” album to the point that it never existed and their studio album career ended with “Bookends.” Stick with me, it works in my mind and it might in yours too.
First to explain my issue with the album itself. I was fourteen when it was released and immediately fell in love with it like most others. I couldn’t get enough of it. Now, forty three odd years later I think I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t so much an intended album as it was a patchwork of new songs, and others they had worked on, but not really worked up, as their partnership was winding down. It’s a bit like the second side of “Abbey Road” where the Beatles have said that a large portion of the songs were things that never quite got the green light the first time around, but with the end near a sense of urgency allowed the song fragments to work as a greater whole with a little tweaking here and there. I think we would all agree on how that worked out.
With my ears and perspective now I view the album more as a collection of great songs that while not cohesive, are certainly not filler by any measuring stick. In fact a few are among my favorites from their spare, but rich catalog. That’s why I want to find a new place for the songs since they can stand alone without the song that precedes, or follows any of them.
So with all of that heresy out of the way, here’s my revisionist history for their final recordings as a duo.
While the title track is one for the ages, the eight hundred pound gorilla is certainly “The Boxer.” It has gone from hit single, to album track, to a live staple for both artists, to a touchstone of twentieth century songwriting that rivals just about anything. While its literal story may not be universal for all of us, the images, despair and the loneliness, are inescapable feelings that don’t just disappear after the disc jockey says “that was “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel.” The song means too much to just fill five plus minutes on your drive to work. The images of New York Winter’s turn the song from color to black and white, while the opening guitar run mimics trying to navigate a busy sidewalk on a cold and windy morning. The illusion of going home that sounds so appealing will no doubt be just another disappointment for our protagonist. Coming right at the end of the sixties it serves as a perfect way to sum up all that was reached for and not quite gathered. We, like the fighter, of course remained, but the scars are now as visible as they were once internal.
All that said my first change would be to present this song with a slightly less bombastic ending and include it on the “Bookends” album. For a myriad of reasons it fits perfectly on that album and would have been no challenge to the less than thirty minute running time. I would have used the extra verse and let it be the album closer. While we’re on the subject of “Bookends” let’s also include “A Song For The Asking.” One listen to it and it seems apparent to me that it was written around this time and would have been a perfect fit. If you take away the now dated spoken segments of the this album and add these two selections I think you would have the perfect Simon & Garfunkel album. It would speak to all of their strengths. From the social consciousness, to the whimsical, to plaintive love songs and of course the melancholy the did so well it would flow seamlessly. One stop shopping for the best in songwriting and vocal prowess.
Anyway, back to the task at hand, we still have other tracks to reassign. I would send “Baby Driver,” ”Why Don’t You Write Me,” and “The Only Living Boy In New York” to Paul Simon solo albums. I have no doubt those tracks were him getting ready for his solo career. Speaking of solo albums let’s let Art have “El Condor Pasa” and “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” for himself. Then to ensure a double sided hit single put “Cecilia” on the b-side of “My Little Town,” it’s a good fit. “Bye-Bye Love” can find a home on the first box set. It really breaks the spell of the album with its inclusion and should be relegated to what it is: a fun song to toss out in concert to get the crowd involved. It serves no purpose on this album that I can see.
Lastly, I would have let the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” be a stand alone single. It would have been the perfect coda for their decade and certainly right for the time. The song could have made its album debut on their first hits collection as the only album to offer the cut. For the b-side, even though this was released in February, I would have used “Silent Night” from “Parsley, Sage…” but without the 7:00 O’Clock news overlay. It speaks to the healing aspect of the a-side and is something fans have long wanted.
That’s it, thanks for letting my have my say on this pressing issue. You may now go back to raking leaves and shoveling snow.