Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis, which, along with the death of President John F. Kennedy four-and-a-half years earlier and Sen. Robert Kennedy one month later, anchors the 1960s as a period of tumult. We’ve been bombarded ever since with the idea that the music of the 1960s provided some sort of real-time soundtrack to all that civil unrest and loosening of moral strictures.
It’s not true, of course, no matter how prescient Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” might seem when set to a grainy supercut of college antiwar protesters. There is one album that documents the anomie underlying what America went through in the late ’60s, however, and it’s Simon & Garfunkel‘s Bookends, released one day before King’s assassination, April 3, 1968. At just a hair under 30 minutes in length, the duo’s fourth album is a portrait of sadness and isolation, of a quality far beyond their earlier efforts at aping Bob Dylan or their forays into English traditionals, and without the overwrought poetry of their two records from 1966, Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Paul Simon’s guitar-playing style lacks self-indulgence, but his lyrics are frequently overwrought and pretentious. He shed almost all of that on Bookends.
It’s dad-rock, for sure. Mostly acoustic and kind of a downer at times, Bookends is remarkable for being a Boomer artifact that’s obsessed with quiet mortality at a time when that generation was bursting with youthful exuberance and hungry to throw away the old order. A very rough, asymmetrical concept album — only Side 1 is thematically consistent, really — it doesn’t quite have the melodic heft or the moments of I’m-gonna-miss-you-buddy that percolate throughout 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, the pair’s last full collaborative effort. But Bookends is special. Notably, the LP came with an incredible full-size poster of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel combined with the Queensboro Bridge at dawn, accompanied by a sprig of oh-so-late-’60s flowers. (That bridge is also the 59th Street Bridge, of “Feelin’ Groovy” fame.)
While the poster was a marketing gimmick meant to justify a higher price for the record, it’s hardly commercial art. It’s also much better than Bookends‘ black-and-white cover, which depicts Garfunkel with his blond frizz shorn as tightly as Wimbledon — relatively speaking — and a doe-eyed Simon letting every single muscle in his face go slack. It’s not as ugly as the distorted image of the Beatles on Rubber Soul‘s cover, but it’s close. Making it worse, the poster has fallen into relative obscurity.
Many of the songs have done anything but. “Mrs. Robinson” is certainly the most famous, having been the standout track of The Graduate and the source of the startling lyric “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Not far behind is “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” which The Bangles would turn into a No. 2 hit some 20 years later. In cut time, its muted trumpet has the jubilant insistence of Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” even if the song is about getting drunk alone because you’re too conscious of the impending end of your youth.
But all that comes on Side 2. Side 1 opens with the first of the short, mournful “Bookends Theme” pieces, the first one barely half a minute in length yet full of cautionary words about reminiscences. Like a path through a woods that leads to a vista of an entire city, it opens into “Save the Life of My Child,” an escapist flight from a steam-powered cityscape whose tabloid sensibility takes a dig at the cops. Between the chorus of she-demons that backs the refrain and the sound effects, it’s hard to believe the song’s heart is acoustic.
Its fadeout blends seamlessly into the hummed opening of “America,” a disconsolate bus ride between two people who throw their lot together because they have nothing, playing a few silly games with one another only to retreat into silence as they realize they still have nothing. The lyrics reference Kathy Chitty, Simon’s girlfriend from when he lived in England, culminating in a cinematic sweep from a bus window to a panoramic widescreen: “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. / Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America.”
The pinnacle of orchestral heartbreak, “Overs,” follows, a portrait of a relationship run dry. Pop-song breakups tend to be full of fire and defiance, not people paralyzed with the inability to get it over with, and I’ve always loved Garfunkel’s comfort with inhabiting a female persona — unless it’s understood that the song is about the demise of a creative partnership. “Voices of Old People” is the strangest track, excerpts from a series of interviews Art Garfunkel recorded, which run from end-of-life depression to more quotidian concerns like mucus and aches. What appears to be a dialogue at one point is two unrelated conversations spliced together. It is a horrifying portrayal of age, frankly, and while virtually every line is quotable, the one that jumps out is the final one, a woman who says, “It just is, beautiful. Like, just a room. Your own room, in your own home.”
“Old Friends” and its bridge are the apogee of Garfunkel’s vocal melancholy: “Can you imagine us years from today / Sharing a park bench quietly? / How terribly strange to be seventy.” (The only S&G song on which he sounds more angelic is “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.”) Listening to him marvel about being 70 is not quite as weird as hearing Roger Daltrey sing, “Hope I die before I get old” at Outside Lands 2017, but it’s still poignant in light of how Simon, now 76, announced his retirement from regular touring earlier this year. And you will never talk me out of the belief that the accidental sharps and flats the strings and French horn encounter as they go wildly out of tune does not represent a death. The “Bookends Theme – Reprise,” this one a full minute in length, and in an unusually muted harmony, closes out the first half of the album.
Side 2 consists of the most magnificent jumble of uncategorizable leftovers and B-side rejects in the pop canon. “Fakin’ It” is gloriously weird, with its impostor syndrome and its Proustian enervation and its past-life dream sequence of a little girl entering a shop. (Find me a better handclap-plus-trumpet-blast ending, I dare you.) With its jazzy bassline and somehow-not-irritating whistling, “Punky’s Dilemma” tops the weirdness, seemingly written late at night during an outbreak of the munchies by a New Yorker who finds Southern California fascinating but ultimately inscrutable.
“Mrs. Robinson” was originally supposed to be called “Mrs. Roosevelt,” which would have ruined everything, particularly the song’s slinky coquettishness. Simon later met Joe DiMaggio and said it was an awkward encounter, but how could anybody have a problem with being taken as a universalizing figure that an entire country could have looked up to the skies and seen reflected back? “A Hazy Shade of Winter” builds on its propulsive quality without making any kind of climactic musical statement, and then the album finishes with the proto-“Cecilia” cut “At the Zoo,” an adult version of a kid’s song, with nonsense traits attributed to the animals, who all seem to enjoy captivity if it lets preen their eccentricities for a human audience — even the pigeons, who are hanging out too.
Apart from the passage of time, other motifs recur throughout. There are two separate references to The New York Times, sounds of smoking and requests for cigarettes, plus an implication that someone is sneaking a joint in the basement. You can hear echoes of “Eleanor Rigby” in the strings and Ringo Starr’s drumming in the percussion — and of course “Mrs. Robinson” specifically cites “I Am the Walrus.” You can hear the Vietnam War and the 1968 election droning on very softly in the background, here and there. And it’s a joint effort. That Simon wrote the songs and lyrics and plays guitar and does more than half the singing is irrelevant.
Garfunkel understood this better than anyone. In a 2011 interview with Esquire, he said, “There are many songs where I’m supposed to be a shadow. Many songs, I was a silvery edge around Paul Simon’s coffee-brown lead front part. As the record emerged, you go, ‘That’s what it is. Those are the two personalities. That’s what’s happening.’ And the sound is lovely as long as the composite works. I don’t care if it’s seven-eighths Paul and one-eighth Arthur. Look how the silvery edge makes the record work.”
Bookends is timely and avant-garde and full of beautiful arrangements, but it’s wonderful mostly for the same reason all Simon & Garfunkel songs are wonderful: that strangely emotional commingling of two very different voices into an unmistakable whole, one that still can’t stop the disintegration from spreading outward in all directions.