Interview: Art Garfunkel on his Reflective Memoir, Paul Simon and Monterey Pop

Mike Greenhaus on March 3, 2018

“Our lives are all about the experiences that we fall into,” Art Garfunkel says as he thinks back to the origins of his out-of- the-box quasi-memoir, What Is It All but Luminous: Notes From an Underground Man. “We stay with them if we like them, and then—months later or years later—some project you fell into has been completed. And now it has an existence, and you’re obliged to talk about its intentions, its beginnings.”

Landing somewhere between an autobiography, a travelogue and a collection of poetic musings, What Is It All but Luminous is, more than anything else, a look into the 76-year-old Garfunkel’s creative psyche and artistic process. The book’s roots date back almost 40 years to when the erstwhile Simon & Garfunkel singer decided to walk across Japan. In 1983, he started his journey across America, heading from his New York apartment, through Central Park, past his alma mater Columbia University and into New Jersey.

Garfunkel staged around three walks a year for over a decade—often armed with his Walkman and sometimes staying in two-star motels—and ultimately completed his cross-country trek in September 1997, before turning his attention to a similar quest in Europe. His observations serve as the springboard for What Is It All but Luminous, but the intimate volume is also spliced with playlists, book recommendations, inspirational quotes, notes on his time as a math teacher and, of course, reflections on his often turbulent relationship with Paul Simon.

What Is It All but Luminous arrives at the crest of Garfunkel’s current comeback. In 2010, after Garfunkel’s last tour with Paul Simon, he was diagnosed with vocal cord paralysis. Though he managed to overcome his ailments, Garfunkel’s relationship with Simon soured and the duo has not shared the stage in almost eight years. However, Garfunkel returned to active touring as a solo act, focusing on intimate rooms like New York’s City Winery that allow for stripped-down performances and storytelling. Reflecting the personal nature of Garfunkel’s current state, What Is It All but Luminous’ text is presented in a digitized version of his handwriting.

“I’m writing about who I am,” he says during some downtime while on his fall book tour. “None of us know who we are. I’ve been a little under the radar. I’m that guy over Paul Simon’s right shoulder. So you finally want to say to the audience, ‘Here’s what makes me cook. Here’s the nature of my fortunate life.’ And as you reveal yourself to them, you reveal yourself to yourself. I saw certain things that came up on Page 175 that really come right out of Page 42. And I realized, ‘Oh, that’s the young me turning into that me.’”

What Is It All but Luminous falls in the space between an autobiography, a travelogue and poetic snapshots. At what point did the book take that form?

I keep a notebook in my back pocket, and since I have walked across America and Europe, I have had a lot of time to think. It’s the things you do when you’re a rock star and your glory years are behind you—now you’re raising a family, but you’re still creative. I started following certain phrases that came into my head and would go, “There’s a grabber; that’s a wonderful commercial opening line.” I would think, “Am I old and jaded, or did the world just all go flat? Once, you were an icon if you made it. Now I wonder about words like that.”

I’ve been thinking about that theme my whole life, and I wanted to finally say it succinctly. And so you’re off and running and, for the next 12 hours, you’re completely wrapped up with how to express this with sentences that have a rhythm; with inflections and accents on the words so that there’s a dance, with a rhyme that’s subtle and internal. And you play the game of fixing, polishing, erasing—until you like what you did. You end up with a prose poem that’s maybe a minute long.

I’ve been doing that for 30 years now, and it’s been just a private thing—I never thought I was writing to anybody. I was just bit by inspiration, and I had to follow. And I’m a creative cat, so it’s a real pleasure to fashion these little things. I finally decided to get an agent and shop around my writings, and I got a great reaction. All the different publishers were offering me nice prices. So I thought, “I guess I’m a writer!” You’re concerned when you find that these publishers all want to sign you and take your book. I signed with Alfred Knopf—they felt like the most prestigious. And then they helped me shape up my notebook into a book.

The first thing you do is drop half of it, and stick with the more worthy half. And then you start thinking, “What’s the line running through this? Is it an autobiography?” Yeah. “Is it a travelogue?” Not really. “Is there more writing to be done to shape it like an autobiography?” Yeah.

I worked with Victoria Wilson at Knopf and she helped me shape it. She would say, “You don’t say anything about when you and Paul were working—how did you find your sound? Your records have a distinct sound. How did you get into that?” So she would say things that she felt the reader was going to really want, and that helped me.

I began to realize that there are some themes I’m writing about here. There’s straight autobiographical prose, and I open the book that way. There’s a definite tension to Simon & Garfunkel, the history of that group and what happened to those two guys. There’s my love life—I’m very lucky to be married to a beautiful woman named Kathryn, and we have two kids—that takes up some of my book. There’s me talking about show business, what it feels like to go onstage, and the reality of being a performer. I’ve been an actor in my time. I go into Mike Nichols, Jack Nicholson.

In the book, you mention that some of your first audiences were synagogue congregations. How did that spiritual setting shape your voice?

My early singing was all about great-sounding rooms, acoustics. In my neighborhood, there was a synagogue that had a high ceiling and wooden walls—and the reverb was wonderful. And that got me into singing. The early melodies I sang were ancient, minor-key Jewish melodies. And that minor key raised a lot of goosebumps on my arms at a very young age, and I could see it moved audiences. They’d tear up. Notice that I’m speaking with musical answers, rather than religious answers. Spiritually, I do the best I can to try and be a feeling human being who is humble and knows that there are larger forces on Earth. You can call it God. You can call it whatever you want. I call it “larger forces on Earth, that make us humble, that make us dumbstruck with the wonder of this planet.” Yes, I do the best I can to commune with these larger forces. And I sing with that kind of connection, and I hope to touch people’s spirituality.

You’ve started performing regularly again after battling vocal problems. Have you enjoyed returning to the road and focusing on more intimate listening rooms?

Well, now that the voice has come back after having lost it in 2010, I’m just so grateful and thrilled. It’s so much fun to use it and to hear the sound of Artie Garfunkel in good form. I heard Simon & Garfunkel before anybody else heard them. I made them. It happened through me and the speaker, years ago. So the delight of making a delightful sound is mine first—I’m thrilled to do it. I don’t know when I’ve had this much fun. It seems that as we get older, we yearn more and more for the thrill of what we do. Maybe it’s mortality. It sits on your shoulders and it says, “If not now, when? If you’re not going to control guns in America, when will you? If you’re not going to sing and get it on, when will you?”

It’s new for me to play a place like City Winery, where the audience is seated. There are dinner tables—I never used to do this. And they’re so close, they touch the tips of your shoes onstage. I feared those experiences all my life, until recently. I said, “Let’s try it.” And it’s a lot about the audience’s sensitivity. I thought, “If they will hush up and you can work with the quiet attention and stillness that you need, Mr. Garfunkel, then it might work at City Winery.” And it did. I come out with my cerebral, serious attitude. And I changed the awareness of the room from pop star to serious singer. And they all hush up. And even the waitresses are very accommodating.

There’s a Randy Newman song, “Real Emotional Girl”— “She’s a real emotional girl, she wears her heart on her sleeve.” I would’ve never played a song with such an empty arrangement in the past, only working with Dave Mackay on piano. To me, that Randy Newman song is theatrical. I love working the left side of the stage and the right side of the stage, moving around, showing them my kisser and trying to break their hearts with the poignancy of Randy Newman’s brilliant writing. It’s part of this new, less-is-more approach. I sometimes open the show with “April Come She Will.” It’s short and sweet. April, May, June, July—it’s a relationship that lives and owers and fades and dies. Call it Simon & Garfunkel; it’s many love affairs. Simplicity shines when the arrangement is so empty.

You mentioned the cycles of friendship. How would you describe your relationship with Paul Simon at this point?

Oh, the autumn—it’s not a good time. It’s always tough to analyze a relationship in public. It’s essentially very embarrassing. Where is it now? I don’t know. Go to Paul—ask him.

What Is It All but Luminous is packed with lists, including some of the songs that inspired you as a singer and, later, as an arranger.

These are the songs that changed my life—that’s slightly different from favorites. So “changed my life” means going back autobiographically, and remembering which tunes really affected you. The Crew Cuts had a hit with [The Chords’] “Sh-boom” when I was young and that really affected me. The lead singer was up front, and the background guys were going “Life could be a dream…” Then, the the lead guy goes, “Life could be a dream.” And I heard the combination of lead and background, and it charmed me. There weren’t many records when I was a kid with that. And then along came R&B. Now you have the lead singer up front and you have the rest of the group doing doo-wop. And that’s another way to put the front guy ahead of the background music. I guess I was starting to see things as an arranger would in those early days.

The ‘60s in America—we really broke out in that period. Imagine hearing “Good Vibrations,” Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, for the first time, after Perry Como and Patti Page, and all those pop songs that were in that predictable category. The use of the recording studio as if it were Vincent van Gogh’s palette—it was great and exciting and fun to see what records could be. They don’t capture the ‘60s in any treatment. When they try to give people that don’t know a sense of what it was like, I never think they capture the thrill. 

Did you feel this cultural shift as it was happening?

The Monterey Pop Festival is very important with respect to what we’re talking about. That really was the pulse of the shift—right there in ‘67. It was in its absolute authentic truth—this breakout of American spirit. Years ago, I saw D.A. Pennebaker’s film treatment of Monterey Pop and I thought, “Almost! They almost got it!” But the film doesn’t quite get you there—to see Jefferson Airplane onstage thrilling the crowd with their backs to the audience, looking at their own light show on the back wall. Once upon a time, that was a whole new thing—to put your back to the audience and play to the screen with these weird jellylike amorphous movements that made an art piece on the back wall of your stage. It was cool! It sounds like a little thing now, but it was once a first.

I stood next to Jimi Hendrix before he went on. And he was throwing pills down his mouth—I guess it was LSD. And then he went on and did a show that was so wildly creative—making love to his guitar and burning his guitar. But his feline, catlike motions were the greatest of all performers. There’s Michael Jackson—he was great. Mick Jagger, in his youth, he moved great. But Jimi Hendrix—it was amazing to be with him just before he went on at Monterey.

In those days, we loved Buffalo Springfield. I was a Mamas and the Papas fan—they were a great American band. Paul and I looked at The Beatles when it came to who’s to our left and to our right, trying to make very

arty albums. We made up the Monterey Pop Festival—Lou Adler and The Mamas and the Papas and Paul and I. We made up the guest list. We knew it’d be very exciting for Otis Redding to close one of the nights. That was a big high point of the weekend. 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here