Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER 15

When Paul Simon called Clive Davis to arrange a meeting, Columbia’s convivial president didn’t think twice. As far as Davis knew, Simon and Garfunkel were in healthy shape professionally and financially. In early July, they’d been presented with a gold record for sales of five hundred thousand copies of “Cecilia,” the galloping follow-up to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Although the Bridge album was drooping on the charts—and “El Condor Pasa,” its third single, failed to commandeer the airwaves the way “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Cecilia” had—it continued to generate substantial income for the label. One report that crossed Davis’ desk cited figures from Austria, where the company made a tidy $120,000 off twenty thousand Bridge LPs and $60,000 from the “El Condor Pasa” single. And that was merely one relatively small market.

Besides, Davis had other, troubling matters on his mind. On the morning of October 5, the phone had rung earlier than usual in his Central Park West apartment. One of his young sons answered and delivered the news to his still-sleeping father: Janis Joplin, one of the first acts Davis signed to Columbia, was dead, her body found facedown at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood. One of her hands was still clutching a cigarette, and one of her arms carried fresh needle marks. Davis knew Joplin loved a good time—he’d noticed her taste for Southern Comfort almost from the day he’d met her—but the news was still shocking. Joplin had just completed a new album; the day before her death, she’d sat for a photo session for its cover. Whether he was naïve or in denial, Davis said he knew nothing of her fondness for heroin—which, combined with alcohol, had led to her death.

For Davis and others in the music business, it had been that kind of paralyzing fall. It wasn’t merely the succession of deaths: Canned Heat’s Al Wilson of an overdose in his sleeping bag on September 3, followed by Hendrix, and now Joplin. The superstars who hadn’t died weren’t functioning as they once had. Sly Stone, who recorded for Columbia’s sister label Epic, was increasingly consumed by a drug problem, delaying his in-progress album and leading to a succession of missed concerts. In late September, Jim Morrison was found guilty of indecent exposure and profanity in a Florida courtroom, stemming from a neverproven accusation of pulling out his penis onstage with the Doors the previous year. Morrison was sentenced to six months’ hard labor for the first charge, sixty days for the second. Motown still landed dazzling singles in the top 10 all year—Edwin Starr’s “War,” the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours)”—but Marvin Gaye had temporarily retired from music, the Four Tops were stalled, and Wonder was in a changeover from child star to adulthood. The company, and black music in general, was in the midst of transitioning from love songs to socially conscious ones. “The Tears of a Clown,” the only major hit Smokey Robinson and the Miracles had pulled off that year, was a three-year-old recording.

The government was making other, equally rattling, noises about the business. On October 14, just over a week after Joplin’s overdose, Richard Nixon summoned a group of radio, news, and advertising executives to the Oval Office to talk about drugs and rock and roll. The assembled included radio programmers from around the country, the heads of ABC News and the national association of FM broadcasters, and Nixon’s old friend Gene Autry, the singing cowboy who now ran the Golden West radio network. One daunting administration figure after another—John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, officials from the Narcotics Bureau and the FCC—issued dire warnings about the connections between drug abuse and the music, and radio executives were asked to screen songs for drug references. To ram home the point, members of a New York drug-rehab center put on a skit. No hard-and-fast rules were laid out, but the chilling effect was felt by everyone in the room.

As if he’d already received the meeting’s subliminal message, Mike Curb, the young Republican head of MGM Records, announced he was dropping eighteen acts who supposedly promoted hard drugs in their songs. “I’m tired of hearing about these drugged-up acts who don’t show up for a television appearance,” Curb griped to a reporter. Curb didn’t name the specific artists whose contracts were being terminated, only saying he’d retained Roy Orbison, former Righteous Brother Bill Medley, and, strangely, hard-living former Animals frontman Eric Burdon (whose “Spill the Wine” just happened to be a major MGM hit that summer). Given Curb’s well-known political ambitions, many wondered if the move was his first step in running for office. (In fact, he would later be elected California’s lieutenant governor.) Davis was the first label head to denounce Curb, publicly chiding him for what Davis called “artistic witch hunts.”

Relative to this string of disquieting news, a phone call from Paul Simon was a stroll in the park, Central or otherwise. At the start, their relationship had been a little frosty. Simon seemed wary of Davis and his background in accounting. He and Garfunkel had bonded far better with Davis’ predecessor, Goddard Lieberson; over their first lunch together, all three talked about classic fiction and poetry. But after Davis made the right call with the soundtrack to The Graduate and allowed Simon however much time he needed to craft his music, the two gradually grew tighter. Over the occasional meal, Davis listened as Simon let down his notorious guard. Despite a string of hit singles, Simon told Davis he felt he wasn’t taken as seriously as some of his peers. “If you were viewed as a pop tunesmith, a hit songwriter, someone who didn’t move the social frontiers forward, you were relegated to secondary consideration,” Davis recalled. “Paul felt Dylan was getting more respect than him. He was keenly aware of that.” An avid reader of the rock press, Davis listened, nodded, and coddled. He told Simon he was one of the great songwriters of his era, his work equal to that of Lennon and McCartney.

Even though he was in tune with Simon’s neuroses, Davis wasn’t prepared for the topic of conversation when Simon arrived at his office at CBS headquarters in the Black Rock building on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. After a bit of small talk, Simon told Davis he and Garfunkel were no more and that he’d be making records on his own.

The head of Columbia Records was taken aback, both by the news and the straightforwardness of Simon’s declaration of independence. “It wasn’t, ‘What’s your advice?’” Davis recalled. “He wasn’t coming to ask my advice. He was coming to tell me a fact.”

Davis’ first impulse was to argue. It was almost impossible to imagine the two men apart (they, not CSNY, were “the American Beatles,” in Davis’ words) or to imagine where Simon would go as a solo artist. Garfunkel’s voice was such an integral part of the duo’s sound and identity. But he knew Simon too well to take such an argumentative approach, so he merely listened to Simon’s reasons. “He didn’t want a partner,” Davis said. “Artie was a very articulate partner, but that process had worn thin with Paul. He wanted to chart his own career without having to defer to another person.”

Davis wasn’t happy, especially now that some of his label’s biggest acts were on rocky ground. (In June, Dylan had released Self-Portrait, a self-destructive double LP weighed down with soggy cover versions, including Simon’s “The Boxer.”) Now Simon and Garfunkel looked to be history as well. “If you have kids, and they’re getting a divorce, you don’t applaud and say, ‘Great!’” Davis said. “Divorce isn’t happy news.” Davis tried, instead, to gently discourage him. Would Simon sell as many records on his own as the duo? Maybe, maybe not. Simon flinched but didn’t say much. By the end of the conversation, Davis sensed he couldn’t alter Simon’s decision. All he could do was hope the break was temporary.

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By then, Garfunkel was gone again. In September, Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of the Jules Feiffer play True Confessions, now retitled Carnal Knowledge, began filming in Vancouver, then later in Massachusetts and Manhattan. Feiffer’s biting, razor-sharp-tongued script followed the sexual adventures of two close friends from their saddle-shoed college years in the ’40s through facial hair and middle age in the ’70s. If Catch-22 was a seriocomic look at war, Carnal Knowledge would be a bleak depiction of male-female relationships in the new, sexually open era of the ’70s—which, in the film, would be depicted as a soul-depleting morass of lust, infidelity, communication breakdowns, and sexual frustration.

As with Catch-22, Garfunkel would be taking his place alongside established actors: Jack Nicholson, fresh off Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and sex-kitten pinup Ann-Margret. But there was one crucial, defining difference from the previous film. No longer just a member of an ensemble, Garfunkel would now be a costar, playing Sandy next to Nicholson’s Jonathan. Thanks to Nichols’ casting, he was no longer an aspiring actor; Carnal Knowledge would announce to the world that Art Garfunkel was a marquee name.

In Simon and Garfunkel circles, the timing raised many an eyebrow. Catch-22 had been a difficult experience, especially for Simon. Before filming began, screenwriter Buck Henry, feeling the script had too many characters, eliminated several parts, including a small role written for Simon. Simon wasn’t happy, especially once he learned that Garfunkel’s part remained. To many close to them, Simon being cut from the film— combined with the way it ate up so much of Garfunkel’s time throughout 1969—was one of the principal reasons for their rift. In casting Garfunkel in another film so quickly after Catch-22, was Nichols, perhaps unintentionally, helping drive a wedge between the two? Some in their circle wondered—even, it turned out, Simon himself. “There was sort of vaguely the presence of Mike Nichols around, which was disconcerting to me,” he admitted to the New York Times, albeit two years later.

“I never brought it up with either of them,” said their mutual friend Charles Grodin. “But if it was me, and my partner went off to do a movie, I wouldn’t appreciate it. ‘We’re a team and we’re doing great.’ But that’s me.”

The net result was clear enough: With Nichols’ support, Garfunkel would finally be on Simon’s level. Filming Carnal Knowledge in Canada (for its scenes set on a campus in the ’40s), Garfunkel again found himself in heady, non-rock-and-roll company. While shooting at Victoria College, the cast, particularly Nicholson and Garfunkel, became pals when they shared a house. Nichols asked the cast to refrain from smoking pot, which they did—except for the night when Garfunkel, Nicholson, co-star Candice Bergen, and others got high and watched Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, mocking the decade-old desert classic with stoned giggles. Feiffer took Garfunkel and Nicholson to a party on the nearby set of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where Garfunkel wound up in the same room as Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Robert Altman.

Sandy’s pensive, understated personality proved a perfect match for Garfunkel’s own. (“Artie was just playing himself,” recalled a friend of the time.) Sandy, who winds up a doctor, was another variation of the soft-spoken, pure-of-heart Nately he’d played in Catch-22—and, by association, the winsome characters Garfunkel embodied in Simon’s songs. To Garfunkel, the combination of Jonathan and Sandy felt familiar, as if Nichols and Feiffer had based the two characters on the idea of a longtime friendship like his and Simon’s. Much like Simon and Garfunkel over the years, Jonathan and Sandy were close but competitive, chummy but hard on each other. Early in the film, Nicholson’s Jonathan, a rapacious, sexually driven rogue, sleeps with Susan (Bergen), the modelbeautiful girl of Sandy’s dreams. As New York Times critic Vincent Canby would comment, “It is, in effect, a series of slightly mad dialogues between two people . . . that almost always lead to new plateaus of psychic misunderstanding and emotional hurt.” Those words also summed up Simon and Garfunkel in 1970.

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Among those who knew Simon and Garfunkel, the breakup shouldn’t have been news; even their lifestyles pointed to separate paths. Garfunkel loved nothing more than traveling, exploring, and spending time with his new Hollywood contingent. Settling down wasn’t anywhere near the agenda. Simon was friends with some of the same people; like Garfunkel, he spent more time with writers, directors, and actors than with fellow musicians or pop stars. But thanks to his new marriage, Simon was more homebound. Peggy Harper was smart, witty, and attractive but, as Lewis had discovered during their brief marriage, averse to social gatherings. As a result, Simon seemed to spend more time with her at their Upper East Side apartment—which would soon give way to a brownstone—and their house in Pennsylvania.

Another sign of an impending Simon and Garfunkel divorce should have been Simon’s ever-expanding tastes, particularly his fascination with rhythms and world music—a world apart from Garfunkel’s attachment to more opulent, romantic pop. “Cuba Sí, Nixon No,” Simon’s Chuck Berry homage, wasn’t the only song dropped from Bridge Over Troubled Water. Garfunkel had argued for a Bach choral piece Simon rejected; they also took a pass at “Feuilles-O,” a Haitian ode to the powers of marijuana. All three, along with a fourth song, “Groundhog,” were relegated to tape canisters.

Despite all those forewarnings, though, Clive Davis wasn’t the only one caught way off guard by news of their split. Mort Lewis, their manager, knew well how each got on the other’s nerves, sometimes intentionally. But when they walked offstage at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium that summer, Lewis had no idea it would be their last show. Increasingly, it was obvious what had happened: They’d effectively dissolved during the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water but hadn’t bothered to tell anyone who handled the business of Simon and Garfunkel.

Now everything, from their strained interactions to the paucity of live concerts during the year, made sense. When he heard the news, Robert Drew, executive producer of their Songs of America special, flashed back to its filming. In meetings, Simon did the majority of the talking; Garfunkel mostly sat and observed. Simon wound up editing the film himself, without his partner. Most strikingly, Drew recalled how the two made subtle jokes between themselves about disbanding. “They obviously had a plan, and the plan was to separate,” he recalled. “But it wasn’t announced and not spoken of in that way.”

Drew thought the story of their dissolution would make a riveting follow-up film, but they expressed no interest in making it. A planned live album for Columbia, culled from their fall 1969 concerts, was shelved. No press release or public statement about their dissolution would be forthcoming. (Despite his formidable ego, fanfare never appealed to Simon: That fall, he quietly donated $25,000 to the City College of New York, for what became known as its “Mrs. Robinson Fund” for teachers.) Simon and Garfunkel would recede as gently and nonaggressively as the decade.

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As early as 1957, Simon was painfully aware of show business’ dark side—massive fame followed by devastating, financially strapped obscurity. “Once you’re down, it can be terrible,” the sixteen-year-old Simon admitted to the New York World-Telegram during Tom and Jerry’s “Hey, Schoolgirl” moment. “There’s really nothing worse than someone who has been on the top and then is down.” Thirteen years later, the matter still weighed on him. In the wake of the breakup, Simon knew well that Garfunkel’s voice, blond Afro, and surname were more immediately identifiable to the public than his own. Simon told Lewis he was worried people would confuse him with R&B singer Joe Simon, and Davis’ qualms about Simon without Garfunkel didn’t help matters.

But the times were shifting in Simon’s favor. As the end of 1970 neared, solidarity began going the way of solipsism. The bands, one iconic ’60s act after another, were crumbling, the scrap heap growing higher with each passing month. The Beatles, CSNY, and Simon and Garfunkel—and, everyone soon learned, Peter, Paul and Mary—were only the most prominent. The Stax duo Sam and Dave, who brought volcanic energy to hits like “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man,” announced their dissolution. The Supremes no longer included Diana Ross, who left in January to start a career of her own. A frustrated Lou Reed split from the Velvet Underground in August. Jefferson Airplane lost their original drummer, Spencer Dryden, in January, and their smooth-voiced co-lead singer, Marty Balin, would be gone by year’s end. The Dave Clark Five, holdovers from the British Invasion, were now history. The Monkees, already down to only two of the four founding members, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, were also dust after one last illfated attempt to regain past glories with a final single in the spring.

Enter a new category and genre, one that could have had its own section in a record store—the solo album. A year or two before, the concept was unimaginable. Bands were collectives, united fronts; rarely if ever did a member spin off and make his or her own record on the side. The very thought was an affront to accord. Those who worked on their own, like Dylan, had always done so and were continuing the long-standing tradition of the troubadour.

By October, the group albums from earlier in the year were fading on the charts: Déjà vu at 24, Bridge Over Troubled Water at 43, Let It Be at 57. In their places were the remnants: albums by Harrison and Stills and Young and McCartney and Starr and, soon, Lennon and Crosby and Nash. Some were statements of individuality, others of frivolity. Either way, the collective message they sent out couldn’t be denied. Be it bands, community, the antiwar movement, none of it could be relied upon anymore. The rise of the solo album embodied the new self-reliance and self-absorption: the I Don’t Need Anyone Else But Myself, Thanks, statement.

Earlier in the year, Simon and Garfunkel had each grown anxious over the similarities between “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Let It Be.” Now, as the year ended, those songs, along with those on Déjà vu, had more in common than any of them could’ve imagined. The serenity of the music turned out to be merely a cover for the hidden turbulence that lay beneath. The songs meant to comfort fans were often as not a product of recording studio magic than true collaboration. CSNY’s chummy onstage banter, the way each member flattered the other after a song ended, turned out to be as much show business as reality. Even Simon’s supportive words toward Garfunkel’s acting aspirations in “The Only Living Boy in New York” were a camouflage for far more conflicted feelings. Whether it was the music or the country, whatever hadn’t already exploded in the two previous years let loose one last time, like a final blast of steam from a manhole cover. The cover flew into the air, crashed onto the street, and gradually rolled to a stop, and everyone seemed too exhausted to retrieve and replace it.

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In November, Columbia Records laid claim to San Francisco. After having signed a number of local acts, including Joplin and Santana, Davis gave the go-ahead to build the label’s first recording studio in the city, to be run by Roy Halee, Simon and Garfunkel’s coproducer and engineer. Given Halee’s association with the two men, many assumed they’d use the rooms to begin cutting new music. Instead, only one name was penciled in for sessions in December—Paul Simon.

“There was a thing called the golden age of the Beatles and when that broke up four years ago there was a huge slip-down—the energy level, the commitment disappeared,” Garfunkel said in an unpublished interview years later. “It’s looser now, it’s more personal, it’s scattered, it’s gone in lots of different directions.” Garfunkel began witnessing the transformation for himself. In New York in November, he, along with Dylan, caught the Fillmore East debut of Elton John, the British singer and pianist who’d released his first two American albums that year. The first had established him with “Your Song”; the second, Tumbleweed Connection, was suitably ambitious, an Englishman’s take on American country. John was part introspective balladeer, part Tin Pan Alley showman, and entirely of a different mindset than those who’d come before.

During the Carnal Knowledge shoot in Vancouver, Garfunkel, Nicholson, and Bergen took a break from filming and swung by a nearby arena for a concert to benefit a new, pro-environment organization. The billed performers were Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs. The unannounced guest was Mitchell’s boyfriend, whose album was now one of the most played records in the country. The musician whom Garfunkel’s partner hadn’t heard of earlier in the year had left the clubs and cult following—if not his troubles—behind.

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