Reviewed: Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water [40th Anniversary Edition] (Columbia/Legacy, 2011)
Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water [40th Anniversary Edition] (Columbia/Legacy, 2011)
Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth and final studio album marked their commercial peak. Though many fans find the previous album, Bookends, to be the apex of the duo’s artistic creativity, it’s hard to think of another pop act that exited with a success comparable to this album and its title track. Despite Garfunkel’s initial reservation, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” made good on Simon’s feeling that it was the best song he’d ever written, topping the Hot 100 for six weeks and winning Grammy awards for song and record of the year. Though the recording is deeply tied to Garfunkel’s brilliant vocal performance, the composition spawned dozens of successful covers, including Aretha Franklin’s Grammy-winning R&B chart-topper and Buck Owens’ Top 10 single. In the 1970s it became a staple in Elvis Presley’s stage show, and cover versions continue to be recorded to this day, with a live version from the 2010 Grammys having charted, and the television show Glee having featured the song the same year.
But the title song is far from the album’s only jewel. With Garfunkel away for the better part of 1969 filming Catch 22, Simon was left to work alone, and apparently consider a post-Garfunkel career. “The Only Living Boy in New York City” and “Why Don’t You Write Me” are easily heard to be contemplations of Simon’s isolation, while “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” includes the telling lyric “so long Frank Lloyd Wright, all of the nights we harmonized ‘til dawn,” an allusion seemingly tied to Garfunkel’s study of architecture at Columbia. The seeds of Simon’s multicultural solo career can be heard in the Peruvian flute of “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” broad rhythm instrumentation of “Cecilia,” and reggae styling of “Why Don’t You Write Me.” The album topped the chart, won Grammys for engineering, arranging and Album of Year, and spun off four hit singles.
This CD/DVD set marks the 40th anniversary of the album’s January 1970 release, and combines the original eleven tracks with two hours of video material. The DVD includes the duo’s rare 1969 CBS television special, Songs of America, and a new documentary, The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. The special, aired only once on November 30, 1969, has been bootlegged many times, but never before officially reissued. At the time of its airing its social and political viewpoints – particularly its explicit anti-Vietnam war messages – caused sponsor Bell Atlantic to pull out. But with backing from CBS (the same network that had fired the Smothers Brothers earlier in the year), the program found a new sponsor (Alberto Culver, the makers of Alberto VO5) and was aired uncut.
Both video features are extraordinary documents. The 1969 special, originally shot on film and pieced together from two different sources, is a post-Woodstock look at America in which Simon and Garfunkel seem to be trying to explain the younger generation to adult viewers. They surface the questions and doubts on the minds of many young people in 1969, starting with the incalculable loss of the decade’s heroes – JFK, MLK and RFK – and reflections on the brutality of poverty and the activism of the farm workers, UAW and Poor People’s March. First-time director (and future famous actor) Charles Grodin skillfully mixed compelling newsreel imagery with voiceovers and interviews, and interwove performance footage and behind-the-scenes shots of the duo at work. Simon and Garfunkel are spied working out arrangements of new songs, rehearsing their stage band and recording in the studio.
The making-of documentary repeats some moments from the ’69 special, but adds context with discussions of the program’s creation and controversies. There’s additional concert footage and contemporary interviews with Simon, Garfunkel, their manager, Mort Lewis, their engineer/producer, Roy Halee, and two of the studio players (drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Joe Osborn) featured on the album.. The conversation with Halee is particularly illuminating, as he describes how the duo’s studio sound was produced, and provides specifics of the album’s tracks. The song-by-song discussion reveals numerous details on personnel (Fred Carter Jr., for example, played guitar on “The Boxer,” Joe Osborn played an 8-string bass on “Only Living Boy in New York City,” and Larry Knechtel developed the gospel piano on “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), recording locations, production techniques, and brightly highlights the creativity everyone concerned poured into the album.
Missing from the CD are the bonus tracks (“Feuilles-O” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water (Demo Take 6)”) available on earlier releases, as well as the oft-bootlegged session track “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” but the video disc is priceless and a fantastic bonus to celebrate this album’s anniversary.