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Monthly Archives: September 2016

“Mary Was An Only Child.”

Art for Art’s Sake, our song-by-song walk through the Seventies oeuvre of Art Garfunkel, continues apace.

When the kindest thing you can say about a song is that Jorge Milchberg’s charango has img_2617littlenever been so sensitively presented, that’s probably a sign to stop typing.

But I made a promise to say something about each song in Art Garfunkel’s catalog … so here we are on side two of Angel Clare, coming down from the high of “All I Know” to the melancholy folk-picking of “Mary Was An Only Child.”

It actually ain’t as bad as I make it sound. Art sings with a quiet intensity that doesn’t come through on some of Angel Clare’s folkier numbers.

The “Scarborough Fair”-style countermelody is a welcome addition; it reminds you who you’re listening to without being bluntly imitative.

The message (as I understand it) — to look for the divine in everyone and everything, even the downtrodden — makes sense enough.

And Jorge Milchberg’s charango — it’s one of those plunky little Latin American guitars made from the shells of armadillos — will satisfy even the most devoted charango aficionado.

(Supposedly, session legend Tommy Tedesco plays bouzouki here, as well. Growing up, I used to read Tedesco’s column in Guitar Player magazine, where he revealed his secrets to getting calls on odd instruments: Tune them all like guitars, and think like a bouzouki player. Worked fine here.)

It might be that my mental block against “Mary Was An Only Child” stems entirely from the word “Jesus.” I have kind of a hair trigger when it comes to religion, and it doesn’t take much Jesus to start feeling preachy to me, particularly in contexts involving human failure or weakness (“you might have seen Jesus, and not have known what you saw.”)

The use of the name “Mary” for the unappreciated young girl also makes me feel like I’m being hit over the head with homilies. My feelings toward the song might be different had the poor lass been given a less dramatically Biblical name.

Garfunkel’s arrangement also contains a couple of detractive musical missteps, like the way the horns step on and blot out Art’s first countermelody (the one appearing after the line “If you watch the stars at night”), or the curiously buried outpourings of Spanish on the fade-out (what’s that about, anyway?)

In that big 1973 Rolling Stone interview I keep referring to, our man says about his arrangements: “There’s a lot of things all over the album. Didn’t Orson Welles say that a child’s best toy is a movie studio? That’s what it’s like.” On this track, it’s possible that Art should have left a toy or two in the box.

Not the charango, though. Dude’s wailin’.


“All I Know.”

We continue our song-by-song stroll through Art Garfunkel’s Seventies oeuvre. This tune, you probably know.

Three minutes and forty-three seconds.

That’s the precise amount of time (listening time, not recording time) it took Art img_2617littleGarfunkel to leave behind his roles as wandering recluse, retired second banana, semi-successful actor, and math teacher and return to being a Pop Star.

Not a Bobby Sherman/Tiger Beat kind of Pop Star, of course, but rather the sort of performer whose new releases would be noticed on the mass market, widely purchased, and reviewed in all the best places.

A visible figure in the crowded pop-music firmament.

The sort of person whose plans to start recording a new album, or whose appearance to pal around backstage at someone else’s show, would be noted in the press.

A player in the pop game.

(Art managed to hold onto this public status throughout the Seventies. Signs of slippage would become noticeable by the end of the decade — though, to be fair, hanging onto Pop Stardom does not seem to have been Art’s first priority or his greatest interest.)

Like so many of Art’s other big musical moments, “All I Know” begins with Larry Knechtel’s piano. Two-and-a-half minutes later, it’s swelled to a reverberant orchestral crescendo.

But the story throughout is the voice — soaring here, diving there; shimmering with vibrato; by turns wistful, wounded, hopelessly devoted, and at last triumphant.

The Italians like to say that God gave Ferris a wheel, Cruyff a turn and Garfunkel a voice.* “All I Know” is the ideal, outsized showcase for that set of pipes, and for the heart-on-the-sleeve vocal sensibility of the guy who owns them.

America snapped it up, sending “All I Know” to Number One on the adult contemporary chart for pretty much the entire month of October 1973 and into the pop Top Ten the following month. That success did much in turn to drive sales of Angel Clare, which reached No. 5 on the album charts and remains the artist’s most successful solo album.

(The ARSA database of local radio play charts indicates Art was Number One in Sarasota, Florida, for one week in mid-November, nudging out Ringo Starr and the DeFranco Family. In Pawtucket, Ringo held off Art for the top spot, with Peter Cetera closing third and Gladys Knight fourth. Gods walked the earth in those days. Some sang better than others.)

By the end of 1973, Art Garfunkel, in the eyes of the average record buyer, would have moved firmly from “wonder what he’s up to?” to “wonder when the next record’s coming out.”

If “All I Know” has a drawback, it might be that it dominates just about everything else on Angel Clare. Even the winning moments — the gentle Haitian folksong; the goofy tropical jam; the boy-on-the-road drama — seem like bumps in the road next to the epic hit single.

It would probably have been too much to expect Art to record 10 songs of the scope of “All I Know.” You can only climb the emotional mountain so many times, after all. Even Bridge Over Troubled Water didn’t have 11 “Bridge Over Troubled Water”s. It had its lightweight and lighthearted tracks, including another one of those inescapable Everly Brothers covers.

I still like to imagine Seventies Art hiring an orchestra for a few sessions and cutting a full Sinatra-style album of heartfelt, knife-in-the-gut ballads, or even eight ballads and two token foot-tappers.

I would listen to Art Garfunkel Sings For Bruised Hearts shamelessly, frequently and with pleasure … probably more pleasure than I derive from most of the records Art actually did release.

But, that’s not where Art’s taste and vision took him.

We’ll always have this, anyway:

* No, not really. They should, though.

“Feuilles-Oh/Do Space Men Pass Dead Souls On Their Way To The Moon?”

Our song-by-song trip through Art Garfunkel’s Seventies output reaches the end of Side One of Angel Clare.

Yeah, that title. A most curious confection. One of the weirdest song titles coughed up by any img_2617littlemainstream Seventies artist — especially if you shuffle Zappa, Beefheart and one or two other weirdos out of the deck.

What the hell could a song called “Feuilles-Oh/Do Space Men Pass Dead Souls On Their Way To The Moon” possibly be? And what could its amalgamated writing credit of “Traditional/J.S. Bach, Grossman” signify?

The mythical 1973 record buyer we conjured up a few posts ago might have bought Angel Clare just to find this all out. (Or, he could have saved himself a few bucks and just bought the “I Shall Sing” single, which had “F-O/DSMPDSOTWTTM” on the flip side.)

“Feuilles-Oh” — it rhymes with “Faygo” — is from all tellings a traditional Haitian folk song.

If things had gone differently, it might have been well-known to the average pop listener before Angel Clare ever came out. Simon and Garfunkel cut a version of the song during the Bridge Over Troubled Water sessions, but left it off the final record; it didn’t see the light of day until 2001.

Art’s version is more ambitiously arranged — d’ya think the musicians’ union directory has a listing for toy piano players? — and is also sung about a half-step higher.

(The sound of an ocean liner recorded in San Francisco harbor is mixed into the song, according to Art’s lengthy and entertaining 1973 Rolling Stone interview with Ben Fong-Torres.)

“Feuilles-Oh” is the sort of gently “exotic” foreign-language folk song you might hear arranged for a sixth-grade choir, with one child brought out front to play glockenspiel and another to play woodblocks.

It still possesses a certain charm. Art’s French is lulling, and I’ve found myself whistling the melody at work over the past couple of days.

So, while I can’t help but wonder what made the song special to Art — the world is full of folk songs, after all — it works amiably as an album-filler.

As for the “Dead Souls” part, it’s a minute-long mid-song sidetrack that takes its melody from a Bach oratorio, and its words from a gardener with curious ideas about the Apollo program. (The “Grossman” who provided said words was Linda Grossman, Art’s wife.)

Angel Clare was recorded at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, and the resonance is in full effect on “Dead Souls,” which features a choir of Garfunkels bathed in gorgeous high-roofed ambience that justifies the songlet’s existence all by itself. (The harpsichord helps too; I love me some harpsichord.)

So, the mystery of “F-O/DSMPDSOTWTTM” resolves itself as three minutes of gently charming esoterica — the work of a guy with a desire to deploy different sounds and a willingness to step off the beaten track.

In our next installment: Art G. drops tha bomb.

“Old Man.”

We continue to examine the Seventies albums of Art Garfunkel, one song at a time. We haven’t gotten far; and tonight, we won’t get much further.

All of these entries will reflect, to a greater or lesser extent, their author’s prejudices img_2617littleand blind spots.

Perhaps none will do so more than today’s post, which brings us into contact with a famous American musical figure (not Art Garfunkel) whose critical belovedness has always befuddled me.

Quite simply, I have never really gotten Randy Newman.

I’ve never taken to the affected mouthful-of-biscuits drawl he uses as a singing voice. I’ve never gotten past the notion that a number of his songs (of the ones I’ve bothered to hear) sound much the same in construction and arrangement.

And most of all, I’ve never warmed to his particular brand of wit — call it cynical, sarcastic, mordant, or whatever word you choose.

I understand what he’s shooting for, more or less, but for some reason, neither the jokes nor the craftsmanship impress me.

(OK, one song of his I liked: “Kingfish,” from the only Newman album I have ever owned, 1974’s Good Old Boys. In writing a triumphant anthem for a long-dead demagogue, Newman created a rousing piece of historical fiction; plus I love the opening lines about the hundred thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans. So, yeah. One song.)

So many of his songs are warped, twisted, barbed, and skewed that it makes me wonder how I’m supposed to take them and what, or if, I’m supposed to believe.

Are they parodies? Parodies of parodies? Is he laughing at the person who’s narrating, or the person who’s listening, or the people who are offended by the entire crux of the song, or everybody at once? (viz. “Short People.”)

I’ve just never felt that his melodic, musical or vocal gifts reward the work I put into figuring out where he might be coming from. (Pretty much all of the world’s professional music writers seem to have no trouble with this, for what that’s worth.)

Consider “Old Man,” from one of Newman’s most highly regarded albums, 1972’s Sail Away.

Is it meant to be an unsentimental, cut-the-crap reminder that everyone dies afraid and alone (and, by extension, a jab at soft, glossed-over presentations of death)?

Taking the song’s monologue structure at face value, is it a mocking character sketch of the kind of clod who would barge in on an old man’s deathbed and remind him that his passing makes no difference in the grand scheme of things? Are we supposed to recoil from the narrator’s cruelty?

Is it meant to split the difference between those first two possibilities — to suggest that the narrator, however rude and blunt he may seem, is serving truth and honesty more than anyone else in (or outside) the room?

Or does the song perhaps represent the internal narrative in the mind of somebody — a dutiful nephew, say — who’s saying all the right things out loud?

I’m probably supposed to find that ambiguity intriguing … but in reality, I’ve given it about as much thought as I feel like giving it, and now I’m going upstairs to listen to Chuck Berry sing “Sweet Little Sixteen” a couple of times.

I will say this: While “Old Man” doesn’t overmuch move me, it inspired Art Garfunkel to give a nuanced and dynamic performance — a showcase display of his vocal talent.

In particular, our hero wrings every ounce of emotion out of the final verse. Check out how the line “You taught me not to believe that lie” spreads out and gets wings, and how Art’s voice catches in a gasp on the last word.

So, if this is a cruel song at heart, but it’s sung with full-throated passion by unironic babyface Art Garfunkel, what does that ambiguity represent?

Oh, sod it.

“I Shall Sing.”

We continue the Art for Art’s Sake series of posts, in which the Seventies solo career of Art Garfunkel is picked apart, one song at a time. We’re halfway through Side One of Angel Clare, so pull up a seat.

The phattest, funkiest, stone-gassiest groove in Art Garfunkel’s three-song-old soloimg_2617little career begins modestly, with what sounds like a pair of hands patting out a beat on a kitchen countertop.

Other instruments drop in casually, one at a time, as if they have to put out their cigarettes first.

There’s a clicky bass; a strummed acoustic guitar; some higher-pitched stringed instrument (maybe another guitar played way up high?); bari sax; timbales; and finally an entire horn section straight from Barbados or someplace, with a delightfully sharp-edged lead from the alto sax.

No more than forty seconds removed from the bloody travails of the willow garden, we are treated to a genuinely bouncy sand-between-the-toes Caribbean jam.

Over this backdrop, Mister Garfunkel the singer discusses the circumstances in which he intends to pursue his profession. (SPOILER ALERT) The answer is pretty much “you name it, Bunky” — when he’s high or low, when he’s right or wrong, when it’s night or day, he shall sing, la la la, and like that.

This glass of tropical punch served as the second single from Angel Clare. It insinuated itself into enough hearts, minds and toes to sneak Art onto the Top 40 for a single week in February 1974, only 14 spots behind Gordon Sinclair.

(Wiki says it was a much bigger hit on the adult contemporary chart, reaching No. 4.)

And for what it is, it ain’t all bad. As a statement of purpose, it avoids being indigestibly heavy. As a lite jam, it lite-jams.

If there is any drawback to Art’s joyous song, it is the relative lack of actual song beneath the joy.

Written by Van Morrison, of all people, “I Shall Sing” is a two-chord wonder — no intro, no bridge, no coda (no guru, method or teacher, either) — that’s skating on progressively thinner ice once it passes a minute-thirty.

Art and company use every arrangement trick in the book to pad it out to single length, including a few more go-rounds at the very end than are strictly necessary.

You’ll also note that in the first verse, we hear one Garfunkel; in the second verse, two; and in the third verse, three; at which point the gimmick reaches the outer limits of plausibility.

No matter. Just relax and enjoy the soaring sax leads, played by well-traveled hornman Jules Broussard, who was part of Van Morrison’s recording group at around the same time.

And enjoy Art’s temporary departure from reality and responsibility.

He’ll get bogged back down in slow strings and earthly travails soon enough.

“Down In The Willow Garden.”

Sliding into my best Casey Kasem voice, I pose a question to the pop geeks in the crowd: img_2617little

How many pop or rock albums can you think of that include covers of more than one song from another album?

A few theoretical examples: Imagine if Get the Knack had included versions of two songs from Meet the Beatles, or if the first Beach Boys album had poached two or three songs from some Four Freshmen long-player.

Even on those hardscrabble early LPs British Invasion bands recorded before they knew how to write songs, the bands tended to spread out their borrowing so as not to steal too excessively from any one record.

(The debut albums by the Who and the Moody Blues include two James Brown covers apiece. I suppose those songs might have been shoehorned onto a single compilation album in the U.K., so technically that might count, though it’s just as likely the bands were working off 45s.)

One cover from a favorite album, like one quote from your favorite movie, is a tip of the hat to your influences. Two suggests that maybe you haven’t started speaking your own language yet.

Which brings us back to the eternally well-spoken Art Garfunkel, who drew two of the songs from Angel Clare from the same source — the Everly Brothers’ 1958 collection of traditional songs, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.

“Down In The Willow Garden,” on side one of Angel Clare, and “Barbara Allen,” on side two, are stately ballads of love and death, cut from old cloth and with an air of eternity about them. (We’ll get back to “Barbara Allen” in a later post.)

The narrator of “Willow Garden” makes the guy singing “Traveling Boy” seem like a sweetheart: He poisons his lover and runs her through with a sword before throwing her body in the river. For this he pays with his life, after it turns out that money will not buy his freedom.

(Joining the choir invisible is something of a running theme on Angel Clare. In addition to a couple sets of dead sweethearts, we’ll meet a dying old man, ponder a question involving dead souls, and hear about a little girl who is suggested to have passed into heaven. I have not deduced a pattern or central message to this surfeit of croakage, though I do not believe it to be coincidental. Be assured that Chief Inspector Clouseau is on the case. Anyway.)

Art sings this sordid tale with an air of inherent gentleness and no particular urgency.

Not that I expected him to growl like Bon Scott or anything … but he doesn’t sound tremendously invested in the proceedings. He sounds like he’s telling a tale out of an old storybook, one he knows well but that no longer shakes his soul, if it ever did.

Or, he sounds like he’s revisiting a song he used to sing in younger, hungrier days, and while it’s still embedded in his DNA, he just doesn’t approach it the same way any more.

Whatever the reason, I find “Willow Garden” to be pleasant but unmemorable, a genre exercise caught in polish and sheen, a song about a disembowelment that shows no blood. (The Everlys, with their piercing country harmony and simple instrumental backing, did it better.)

If Wiki is to be believed, Paul Simon lends harmony to parts of “Willow Garden,” while Jerry Garcia plays lead guitar. Simon acquits himself with grace, while Garcia — except for a flurry early in the song — is unrecognizable.

If you want to hear an old love-and-death ballad done with spirit and personality, find a good version of Garcia and the Dead getting lost in “Pretty Peggy-O.” Even better, I’ll give you one. You owes me nuttin’:

(Next up in Art for Art’s Sake: Still another famous performer provides grist for Art’s mill. Will it work out any better? Stay tuned.)

“Traveling Boy.”

It’s mid-September 1973.

(If your memory doesn’t go back that far, just imagine you’re in the same room you are now, except no computers, and everything’s orange, brown or avocado green. That will hold you.)

You’ve traded in some used LPs you’d outgrown, and got a little spending cash from your friendly record store owner in return. And in your pile of new albums, you’ve brought home Angel Clare, the first solo album by Art Garfunkel.

Why, exactly, you find a little hard to explain. As a loyal reader of liner notes, you know he hasn’t written songs before; he doesn’t have a lyrical style or worldview that draws you in.

You’ve never heard him perform outside the setting of Simon & Garfunkel. And in the three-and-a-half years since Bridge Over Troubled Water, you haven’t heard him at all. (He’s spent the time acting, reading, teaching math at a prep school, and generally waiting for inspiration to lead him.)

Putting aside your copies of Hard Nose the Highway and Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert, you drop the needle on this familiar yet unknown quantity.

What do you expect?

And what do you get?

# # # # #

I wasn’t artistically conscious in the fall of 1973, but I find it easy to relate to the mythical record-buyer described above.

I find Art Garfunkel — countertenor, Ivy League graduate, math teacher, voracious reader, long-distance walker, amateur poet, sometime actor, pot smoker — an interesting character from afar.

And I’m fascinated, at least mildly, by the prospect of him setting his own musical course.

Like Robert Plant after Zeppelin, one wonders how much he contributed to the musical brew of his first group … which elements he would choose to carry with him, which to discard, and which to add new … and how that all might change in response to larger musical developments surrounding him.

These are not questions for which men go to war, certainly. But they are the sorts of things that keep music fans occupied.

They’re going to keep me occupied for a while, as I blog Art Garfunkel’s 1970s solo output, one song at a time.

So let’s go back to that dropping needle and start from the start.


# # # # #

The song’s called “Traveling Boy,” but at first glance, Our Hero doesn’t seem to have traveled very far.

Larry Knechtel, who’d provided the pianistic bed for “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” comes back to once again lead Art by the hand into a Big Number. Former Simon & Garfunkel producer Roy Halee is in the control room as well.

Knechtel’s piano is tinnier and more hesitant than before, though.

And as Art unfolds the lyric — beginning with the image of lovers awaking beneath the midday sun, and ending with an ad-libbed declaration of “no goodbyes” — it becomes clear that Our Narrator has no interest in bridge-over-troubled-water devotion.

Having gotten the night of pleasure he was after, he’s hitting the road instanter and forthwith, and makes no promises beyond “always thinking of” his ladylove. (Which is to say, no promises.)

I imagine critics in 1973 saw Paul Simon’s face between the lines of “Traveling Boy”‘s nice-knowin’-ya message. And, who knows? Maybe they were right.

On the other hand, Art didn’t write the song. Our fictional devourer of liner notes would notice Garfunkel’s complete absence from the writing credits, and instead see Paul Williams and Roger Nichols credited as writers for “Traveling Boy.”

So, maybe Art simply eyeballed the song as a good framework for a big S&G-style production number — laden with strings, horns, a soaring soprano vocal backup, and even a fuzzy, prominent lead guitar that Wikipedia credits to J.J. Cale (and that drops out of the mix with unprofessional suddenness at about 3:45.)

The song works on that level. And it serves as a useful introduction to a couple of things Garfunkelites would come to know over time:

– Matters of the heart, and dysfunction or disagreement thereof, would be the major lyrical theme in Garfunkel’s work.
– Art’s taste in arrangements would tend toward the lush and romantic.
– Art hadn’t been concealing any surprising whims to make hard-rock records; there was no Cub Koda beneath his placid exterior, itching to come out.

If our mythical record buyer had been cool with all of those developments, he would have considered “Traveling Boy” a promising start.

If not, he might have put on Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert and resolved to give Angel Clare a second chance some other, mellower time.

As for us, we’ll return in a bit, as Garfunkel’s second track introduces another, less predictable lyrical theme.