Art Garfunkel was recently in conversation with WGBH’s executive arts editor, Jared Bowen, about his new memoir, “What Is It All But Luminous: Notes From An Underground Man.” Sponsored by Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Garfunkel’s riff on the highlights of his celebrated music career and his life story were delivered in the same stream-of-consciousness that distinguishes his peripatetic memoir. Evoking a collection of diary entries, Garfunkel’s memoir encompasses prose poems, unique lists and “notes that I took as I lived my life.” The book’s font is a digitized version of Garfunkel’s handwriting, emphasizing the intimacy of his thoughts.
Garfunkel was born on Nov. 5, 1941. The middle child of three sons, he grew up in Queens, N.Y. He met Paul Simon when they were both 11 years old. He fondly remembers singing in his synagogue at the age of 10. However, Hebrew school, he glumly reports in his book, “was not at all about five thousand years of religious belief. Who knows what the Jews believe? Keeping us off the playground after school? It was about the boredom of reading, of sounding out those characters without knowing the meaning of those words….”
Yet at his bar mitzvah, Garfunkel delivered his Torah portion with feeling. “…In the high-ceilinged temple room with the resounding wood walls, [I knew] that my singing those minor-key age-old prayerful melodies was moving grown men to tears in the aisles before me,” he writes. Paul Simon was at his bar mitzvah, and soon after the two became a singing duo that was first known as Tom and Jerry. Their debut also marked a partnership that spanned for almost 60 years. “Paul was the engine, business wise,” he said. “While I was singing in ninth and 10th grades, I needed Paul to knock on doors in the city with his guitar to get us record contracts.” The turning point of his career with Simon began when Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson remixed “The Sounds of Silence,” offering the musicians a record contract.
When asked why he distills his relationship with Paul Simon in the book to just four paragraphs, Garfunkel asserted: “Relationships wax and wane. Paul is a dear friend in my life. He’s so close to me that sometimes he can’t see it.” Garfunkel then read the few paragraphs in the book in which he refers to Simon:
“Who will speak at whose funeral? When I said, ‘You’ll outlast me, you live more carefully,’ he said, ‘Write out what you want.’ …For two-thirds of a century his arm has been around my shoulder. He’s dazzled me with gifts. I nurtured him in his youth. He brought me into prominence. I taught him to sing. He connected my voice to the world.”
In that world, Garfunkel’s voice earned him six Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction with Simon into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. These days, the duo, which broke up in 1970, does not speak to each other. “I haven’t spoken to Paul in over a year,” he said. “It’s probably the longest time we’ve turned our backs on each other. But who knows, we may talk again. It’s all about spontaneity.”
When asked if he felt their careers had been in competition, Garfunkel said: “Paul pulled me into that sensibility. He certainly carries that competitive sense. I didn’t think I was competitive.” Garfunkel hints that Simon may have had a role in Garfunkel losing his voice in 2010. The two had reunited for a tour of the Far East. “We pumped out a lot of sound,” recalled Garfunkel. “I said we didn’t need to be so loud; the engineer could just turn the dials up. But Paul wouldn’t hear of it. We really put out a loud sound and when the tour was over I started having vocal problems. Then I really lost my voice and couldn’t speak.”
These days Garfunkel is singing in a three-man group. He cites James Taylor as an ongoing influence. “There is such a dignity in James’ vocal production,” he said. “He sings with such a respect for all living things.” Taylor’s recordings are integral to Garfunkel’s warm-up routine. Although Garfunkel is a tenor, he warms up with Taylor’s bass-baritone. “Early in my warming-up process,” said Garfunkel, “my voice starts low and I go through James’ repertoire feeling his emotion.”
Art Garfunkel’s voice has been heard singing some of the most famous songs in the world. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Scarborough Fair” are high on the list of his favorites. Garfunkel is also an avid reader who has kept a fastidious list of the books he has read since 1969. To date, there are over 1,100 books that he has noted, and they represent all genres except mystery. “I try to be a generalist,” he said. “And I always finish my books, even if I don’t like them. I stay with an author.”
His current practice of Judaism is mixed with Buddhist influences. In the book, he evokes Buddha and God in his own mash-up of the Shehechiyanu blessing. “Nam myoho renge kyo. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam: Blessed art Thou, my God, King of the Universe—I give you my awareness and my appreciation for sustaining my life throughout and bringing me alive to this point.”