Where was I on Sept. 19, 1981, when all those people crammed into Central Park to see Simon & Garfunkel get back together on stage?
Big night, indeed, I could tell as my dear wife Karen and I watched on the wide-screen in the living room of our Little Bitty in the Syracuse city neighborhood of Eastwood.
Scrolling the guide, I’d noticed The Concert in Central Parklisted for our Syracuse Public Broadcasting station and set the DVR. WCNY-TV was using the 87-minute special featuring the reunion of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in front of a half-million happy folks in Manhattan’s green space as a fund-drive week piston, we discovered the night we hit play. Pledge $150 and receive the CD and DVD.
The format-choosers for the transformation from old school-square to the expanse needed for our new rectangle digital screen world went with up-close and cropped-tight to fill the screen instead of any sort of letter-boxing with dead space.
At times the performers looked a tad distorted. No matter.
We could still see the pair squirm some as they took the The sound was pretty consistently wonderful. Simon in particular looked ill at ease being back on stage with the man with whom he’d risen to the top of the music business since meeting three decades prior as young singers who grew up in nearby Forest Hills, Queens.
Garfunkel looked more at ease coming back after an 11-year split to pursue solo careers, according to the Wikipedia description of this historical event.
Their voices, however, fit together again quite harmoniously, stars aligned for a cause with songs rich in tradition and affection out there on the big lawn.
The event, put together by promoter Ron Delsener, was the first in a series to raise money for a much-needed refurbishment of Central Park. Nobody, not even Simon and Garfunkel, envisioned a half-million people would respond to the call.
It’s quite and entertaining history lesson now.
The pair sang a handful of songs individually.
Garfunkel took a solo turn, quite wonderfully, on their huge hit Bridge Over Troubled Water, as well as the tender April, Come She Will and a new one for him at the time and a quite appropriate choice, A Heart in New York. His voice when he was 39 years old was quite strong, I thought. The crueler take on him throughout his solo career was mostly for what he wasn’t rather than what he was, ran through my mind. He didn’t write the songs like old partner Simon, so he didn’t come off as the smart one. His voice, hitting that high range, was first-rate.
Simon chose his hits, Still Crazy After All These Years and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. With a big and talented ensemble on stage to back them — David Brown (guitar), Pete Carr (guitar), Anthony Jackson (bass guitar), Rob Mounsey (synthesizer), John Eckert (trumpet), John Gatchell (trumpet), Dave Tofani (saxophone), Gerry Niewood (saxophone), Grady Tate (drums, percussion), Steve Gadd (drums, percussion) and Richard Tee (keyboard, piano) — Simon chose to change the arrangements from the album versions of his songs. (I think they sounded rather like the work that would come out later, on his celebrated 1990 Rhythm of the Saints collection.)
Together, they took on their past.
And as dusk turned to night, they looked more and more comfortable, making eye contact at last, falling into a performing bubble of familiarity where personal tensions could be left on the outside.
They ended the set proper with The Boxer, their poetic work that’s still one of my favorite songs of all time. Great rendition it was.
And Simon & Garfunkel began an encore with Old Friends/Bookends, giving the half-million folks live and everybody who watched later on the HBO special and resulting home video release the chance to see and hear what that meant to them in the moment. Bitter, just a bit. Sweet, building and throughout. Heartfelt. Genuine. Genius. Thoroughly.
Goosebump moments hit me as I watched from my recliner chair …
There was Luke and Joe and Billy, the elementary school classmates who’ve recently hugged me back into their group via Facebook and then email, and how we listed to Top 40 hits on our transistor radios tuned to 77 WABC …
Mike, who I met when I moved away in junior high and then went to high school and junior college and college and worked with at the big daily, and just shared another birthday with Monday, and how our Ward Melville High crew took in our first concert of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Charlie Daniels Band together at the big gym at the neighboring and imposing campus State University of New York at Stony Brook …
Greg, who transferred with me from Morrisville to Maryland and worked part-time next to me at the Washington Post and still lives down there and corresponds with me about the Terps and life frequently, including a dear memory about how we saw the Electric Light Orchestra over in Utica …
And KP, my best bud from the start at the big daily in 1983 who just bought me a birthday lunch, and how we traveled up and down the New York State Thruway to see Bruce Springsteen in Saratoga Springs and Buffalo as well at home here in the Carrier Dome.
I sure wish that back in September 1981 I’d have noticed about this concert going on. If I hadn’t been too busy with the life of a 23-year-old sports editor at The Prince George’s Journal newspaper, maybe Greg and Mike and I would have jumped in the car and drove back to our home state to be there.
P.S. Simon & Garfunkel went on tour together again after this show, but broke up again. They’ve played together sporadically thereafter.
Do you recall the Simon & Garfunkel 1981 Live in Central Park concert, and if so, what are your thoughts? What’s your favorite Simon, Garfunkel, or S&G song, and why? Who’s your best old friend, and why?