The 40th Anniversary Edition of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is coming out in a few weeks. It includes a DVD with a wonderful documentary about the making of the album. Here’s a piece I wrote for Classic Rock about the title song:
Spring 1969. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gone. Racial tensions were erupting across the country. The war was raging in Vietnam. And Richard Nixon was in the White House.
What was a sensitive singer-songwriter like Paul Simon to do but dig for some deep words of solace? As he gazed out the window of his New York apartment across the East River, he sang the opening lines he’d had for over a week. “When you’re weary, feeling small . . . When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” He especially liked how the melody to the second couplet echoed one of his favorite Bach chorales.
But after that promising start, there was only the sound of silence.
“I was stuck for a while,” Simon admits. “Everywhere I went led to somewhere I didn’t want to be.”
What ultimately inspired him to finish his “humble little gospel song” was an album by southern gospel group The Swan Silvertones.
“Every time I came home, I put that record on, so it was in my mind,” Simon says. “I started to go to gospel chord changes, and took the melody further. Then there was one song where the lead singer was scatting, and he shouted out, ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.’
“And well,” Simon says. “I guess I stole it, actually.”
Simon couldn’t wait to play his new song for Art Garfunkel. With its sweeping melody and sustained high notes, it would be perfect for his partner’s choirboy-pure voice. Or so he thought.
“He didn’t want to sing it,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1973. “He couldn’t hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times, I think I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”
Today, Garfunkel remembers it differently. “When Paul showed me Bridge Over Troubled Water, he did say it was for me. And I loved the song immediately. My way of saying thank you was, ‘Are you sure? Because you sound lovely singing it, and it’s almost like you could do it . . .’ Now the famous story is that he took offense and that became a thorn between us, as if I was rejecting the song. That’s nonsense. I don’t remember him having a hard time with my grace. He said, ‘No, I wrote it for you.’ I said, ‘Thank you, man,’ and got into singing it.”
Within a week, the duo was in CBS Studios in Hollywood, huddled around a piano with session ace Larry Knechtel, chiseling out the finer points of the arrangement. But it soon became apparent that Simon’s two-verse song wasn’t quite finished.
Garfunkel: “It was supposed to end with the second verse, but there seemed to be a promise of what could be if Paul were to extend the song. The whole production could open up, and we could make a record with real size.
“We modeled it after the Righteous Brothers’ Ol’ Man River,’” he continues, “where Phil Spector holds back his production until the last line. What a neat thing to save it, save it, save it, then give ‘em the kitchen sink!”
Simon wrote a third verse (“You could clearly see it was written afterwards,” he says), making room for a kitchen sink that included two bass parts, vibraphone, a string arrangement (“A bit stock but it does the job,” Garfunkel says) and a thundering beat, courtesy of Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine.
Blaine recalls, “The image I got when I heard the song was a black man in a chain gang. So I went out to my car, got my chains from my snow tires, and overdubbed the ending section. I was on my knees in front of the snare, pulling the tire chains across the head, and slapping them down on two and four. It created a cool after-beat.”
With the instrumental track done, Garfunkel spent a week perfecting his vocal. “The last verse I nailed because of the thrill of pole-vaulting over the high notes. Getting the middle verse was pretty easy too. But the first verse, in its delicacy, was the devil’s business. That took a lot of sessions.”
Two weeks in the making, Bridge was a dynamic tour-de-force, swelling from a cathedral hush to a deeply moving finale which left all who heard it teary-eyed. It was also five minutes long, which guaranteed no radio play. But Columbia Records honcho Clive Davis declared, “It’s the first single, first track and title of the album.”
“I’m eternally grateful for his belief in the song,” Garfunkel says.
The duo’s biggest hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” spent six weeks at #1 in the US (three weeks in the UK). It swept the Grammys in 1971, claiming six awards, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. A standard that’s been translated into many languages, it’s been covered by hundreds of artists, including Johnny Cash, Annie Lennox, The Shadows, Bonnie Tyler and most recently, as part of the Hope For Haiti benefit, by Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli.
Ironically, this song of fellowship contributed to Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup in 1971. As Simon said, “Many times on stage, when I’d be sitting off to the side . . . and Artie would be singing it, people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, ‘That’s my song, man. Thank you very much. I wrote that.’ In the earlier days, when things were smoother I never would have thought that, but towards the end when things were strained, I did. It’s not a very generous thing to think, but I did think that.”
Garfunkel says, “We’re strong in our musical opinions, and we’ve had lots of differences, but we’ve remained pretty damned gentlemanly all the way. These stories about how much we didn’t make harmony always make me laugh, because I think, ‘Isn’t the obvious thing about Simon and Garfunkel that they really made harmony very closely?’”
As the duo reunite again this year for what may be their final tour, Bridge Over Troubled Water will close every show with a blast of harmonic love.
“I’ve sung it six million four hundred thousand times,” Garfunkel says, “and every time, I get a little visitation of the power of a great song. To say, ‘Whoever you are, if you need some solace, I will try to be a moment of sweetness for you.’ This kills me. To be the lucky one to express that. It moves me every damned time.”
In the late 60s / early 70s, scouring songs for hidden meanings was every rock fan’s favorite hobby. Though Bridge Over Troubled Water seemed to be a straightforward hymn, there was that ambiguous “Sail on, silver girl” line. Paul Simon says, “There was a whole period of time where the song was supposed to be about heroin.” And silver girl was the syringe. “It’s absolutely not so,” Simon says. In fact, silver girl was a sly reference to Simon’s then-wife Peggy. “It was half a joke,” Simon explains, “because she was upset one day when she found two or three gray hairs on her head.”