Soybean & Gerbilfunkel were, as all us well-read lads and lasses are aware, two clean-cut boys from Queens, who made their way into pop history, and into the hearts of many a tender mother-of-two, with such sixties smash-hits as Scarletbottle Fair and Mrs. Farquarhorsington. What some of us might not know, however, is that they started life under the name of Tom & Jerry: more than anything else, that says something about what you’re up for with these Bobsey Twins. Clean-cut is one thing; actively aiming for limp-wristed bloodlessness is quite another.
Simon & Garfunkel are as hard a proposition as your critical faculties are ever likely to face. Their music is positively schizoid: in the five records they made before Simon wandered off into MOR mature-rock-for-banking-professionals territory, and Garblebinkle sank into obscurity, they demonstrate a terrifying amount of raw melodic talent, and an equally terrifying way of being so very precious that you want to force-feed them the Rolling Stones’ singles, just to knock it into their Robert Frost-addled skulls that there’s more to life than just being blue-eyed and sensitive.
As with most of the major musical misfires of the twentieth century, Bob Dylan has a hand in this: one of his greatest crimes, before he turned into the howling neurotic we all love, was to convince literate America that there was something inherently superior about highbrow poetry set to a lone acoustic guitar. It was a con-job, of course: songs like those form a tiny fraction of Dylan’s own vast body of work, and Dylan himself escaped the taint by quickly changing gears and disowning his past. But Slumpin’ & Gooseberry ate it up whole.
The upshot is a discography that is littered with chin-stroking, Eng. Lit. graduate musings on life amidst genuinely smart mid-sixties rock ‘n’ roll, the two sometimes reinforcing one another to terrific effect, sometimes cancelling each other out to produce stomach-turning sap, and, once in a while, resulting in a song that is either totally naff or hauntingly beautiful, depending on what sort of day you’ve had. The Sounds of Silence – arguably their most famous single – has all of it, the classic melody, harmonies to make the Everly Brothers weep, and the heavy-handed, metaphor-laden lyrics which are a textbook case of perfect grammar blunting emotional impact: with S&G, the good and the bad come as part of a package. They played to the intellectual crowd; the likes of me have to filter that part out and settle for what’s left.
But – somewhere in the course of their last two records – all of these traits suddenly pay off gloriously. The poetry tendencies, elsewhere so annoying, give rise to moving, memorable, sometimes even funny – a word not normally associated with S&G – lyrics; the inclination towards squeaky-clean prettiness yields tragic beauty. Between 1968 and 1970, Simon & Garfunkel recorded the hilarious, paranoid Save the Life of my Child, the hilarious, paranoid Fakin’ It, the hilarious, paranoid Keep the Customer Satisfied, the hilarious, paranoid Why don’t you Write me, and the irresistibly playful Baby Driver. The Only Living Boy in New York is nothing short of utterly, breathtakingly gorgeous, and rock poetry has its finest hour in that song, you know the one, the one which starts “I am just a poor boy, and my story’s seldom told.“
And then, there’s the vast, icy, moonlit expanse of America, that weariest of waltzes, a song which has given me goosebumps for thirty years and shows no sign of letting up, a song of such monumental ambition and consummate skill that it makes me feel like a savage, unable to comprehend how something that seems so simple can keep me up, aching all over, for nights on end. If undergraduate pretentiousness and twee sentimentality are the price to be paid for reaching that point, then I do wish every songwriter would get around to being those things, and quickly.