Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Part of the reason this song is so resonant, even today, is its message of unwavering friendship. It never mentions the word "love," even if it is to a "silvergirl," so it is not necessarily a "love song" in the usual sense.

And while there are mountains of love songs, there are very few songs about friendships: "Thank You for Being a Friend" (written by Andrew Gold decades before it became the Golden Girls theme song)... "Friendship" from the musical Anything Goes... and the now-obscure "You're a Friend of Mine," a duet between Jackson Browne and Clarence Clemmons (yes, Springsteen's late saxophonist).

At the level of "Bridge" are Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," and Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." A song that should be as well known is Shawn Colvin's "Climb On (a Back That's Strong), and then there is Randy Newman's "You Got a Friend in Me." Still, compared to the endless supply of love songs, that's barely an album's worth of material.

One thing that many of these songs share is a religious, even Gospel, feeling. "Bridge," which Simon often performs with Gospel groups doing harmony, is definitely influenced by Gospel music, as is the turn of phrase "lay me down." "Stand" and "Lean" are pretty much Gospel songs as they are. And Carole King explained that her song was what she hoped God would sing to her. There is something holy about friendships that "Bridge" really gets.

Simon was listening to a great deal of Gospel music around this time. A line sung by Rev. Claude Jeter (later heard on "Take Me to the Mardi Gras") struck Simon. The song was "Mary, Don't You Weep," and Jeter sang, "I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in My Name." So that's where the "bridge over... water" comes from.

Another thing the songs have in common is straight-forward language. A bridge spanning turbulent waters is a powerful image, but Simon presents it in very simple words. This is not "a still-life watercolor of a hour-late afternoon." It's a bridge, as elegant as one in a Monet, yet as magnificent as the Golden Gate. And the water is "troubled," a very emotional idea.

The lyrics here are almost too simple. Simon uncharacteristically uses cliched expressions like "down and out," "on the street," "I'm on your side," and "when times get rough." It's a shame, because right next to these, Simon presents turns of phrase that are just as basic in their word choice, yet more innovative-- "feeling small" (a size, not an emotion), "when evening falls so hard (a pun, yet a poignant one)-- that have just as much emotional impact. More, in fact, for being new.

For some reason, these friendship songs tend to be about supporting friends in bad times, not celebrating good ones together. "Bridge" is very much a song of support--what else is a "bridge" but something that supports you until you reach the other side of an obstacle?

The third verse-- when the other instruments join the piano-- is about that other side. It is time for the beleaguered friend "to shine," like "silver"... and so will her "dreams." Since she will be shining in the spotlight, he won't be standing beside her and sharing it, but positioned "behind," still in support mode.

One irony of the song is that it is almost entirely performed by Garfunkel, and it is (aside from "Emily") his most beautiful performance. For one member of a duo to sing a song by the other is as image of support as powerful as the central one in this piece; imagine a song about friendship called "I Will Always Sing Your Song." Yet Simon and Garfunkel have one of the most infamously contentious friendships in all of celebrity-dom.

Among his best, most-acclaimed songs, "Sounds of Silence," "Mrs. Robinson," and "Call Me Al," show a sophisiciated, cynical side of Simon, and even "Scarborough Fair" has a hidden sarcasm, as we have seen. "The Boxer," which we are yet to discuss, is about dealing with adversity, and "Homeward Bound" and "Graceland" are about a longing that may prove unfulfilled. Of all the songs vying for the position of Simon's magnum opus, only "Bridge" has a message of pure hope.

Once, on Saturday Night Live, Simon jokingly discussed his image of being "Mr. Alienation." But how could anyone think of him in those terms while remembering that he wrote this, the greatest ode to friendship?

"Bridge" remains one of the most important songs in all of popular music, perhaps in all of music history. It is one of the few songs receiving many millions of airplays. It is one of the most covered songs in music history, with versions by everyone from Elvis to Aretha.

The song and its album won six Grammys. The album as a whole won Album of the Year and Grammys for its arrangements--shared by S&G and others-- and engineering. The song won Record of the Year (to Simon and Garfunkel, for their performing and producing it), and both "Contemporary Pop Song" and just plain Song of the Year (to Simon, for writing it). The song is also in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Moreover, the song is now a cultural landmark. Simon has performed "Bridge" at times of healing from national crisis. More recently, it was performed to raise money for relief from the Haiti earthquake.

Next Song: El Condor Pasa (If I Could)


  1. I think it's so ironic that Simon FORCED this on Garfunkel. Garfunkel, bless his heart, genuinely liked Paul's voice and thought he sounded great on it. I heard him describe Paul's falsetto as "real nice and fluty" in an interview. But of course, nobody can sing it like Art, and Paul knew that. It was completely unfair for him to then turn all jealous later when it became a monster hit. But sadly true to human nature.

    Incidentally though, methinks Art may have a point---Paul's voice doesn't get enough credit IMO. There is something really supple and easy to like about it.

  2. I hadn't heard that Simon was jealous of Garfunkel's success with the song. Rather, I read a comment of Simon's that when he hears the applause for the song, he thinks, "I wrote that, thank you very much."

    But I do agree with you and, I guess, Garfunkel, that Simon has a really great voice. I listen to it all the time!

    All of that said, you can now compare the Garfunkel-solo, Simon-solo, and S&G duo versions of the song... and agree that the full-on Gospel choir versions might not be half-bad, either.

  3. But that comment obviously stems from jealousy. Simon knew it was one of his crowning achievements, but now it would be forever tied with Garfunkel and not him. He's said elsewhere that he thought, "That's MY song man..." He says now, and I think he's only half joking, that letting Art sing it was the biggest mistake of his career.

    But yeah, I love comparing versions. It seems to bring out the best in people. Simon himself has done different things with it. For example, there's the glorious slow burning rendition from 1974 with the Jessy Dixon Singers---I think it would be perfect for a movie soundtrack. But then you have the reggae-tinged version from 1991, with the extended Richard Tee intro. That's completely different but cool in its own way.

  4. The Glee version was good, too, but they cut it short. Oh, well. Also, of course, Aretha's (I have the 45). It's such a gospel-y song, and these singers totally clicked with that.

    I don't think people think of BOTW as a "Garfunkel" song. They think of it as a S&G song. And it won the Grammy, and went to #1, and became one of the most-covered song ever anyway, so how upset could he be? Listen, when Elvis sang it, do you think he was thinking of Garfunkel?

    Lastly, Simon has so much else to be proud of. Could he really be bitter about Garfunkel being associated with that the one song?

  5. Well, I don't think he's THAT bitter anymore, but I'm going by what he's said in interviews about how he felt at the time that it skyrocketed. Sure, a lot of singers have put their stamp on it through the decades, but there was a time when it was very closely tied to Garfunkel and to his voice.

    I think it's believable to want the one thing you don't have even if you already have a lot of other things. It seems like human nature to me. I get the impression that Paul and Art each wanted what the other had. What's been nice in recent years is seeing them put their differences behind them. I think they realized they were getting old and it was just silly to keep not speaking to one another. Paul nailed it once when he said the rockiness of their relationship was essentially "working out the last remnants of adolescence... jealousy, ego, whatever... so when it doesn't work, it doesn't work on a pretty childish level."

  6. Well, Simon is nothing if not self-aware.