Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Only Living Boy in New York

To understand this song, one must know a bit about what was going on in the duo at the time. Yes, they were breaking up. But one of the reasons is less well-remembered today, and that was Garfunkel's desire to pursue a career as an actor.

The song is addressed to "Tom." This was Garfunkel's name when the duo was going by Tom and Jerry; Garfunkel was Tom Garr and Simon was Jerry Landis. The reference, of course, was to the famous cat-and-mouse cartoon.

Garfunkel was about to shoot the movie version of the anti-war novel Catch-22, which was going to film in Mexico. Which explains the first verse, in which Tom has a "part" for which he is going there.

Leaving Jerry, which is to say Paul, as the one left back in New York. He will feel as isolated as if everyone else in the city were dead.

The next verse hearkens back to their earlier, perhaps simpler days. A verse about the weather being the only important news, and having "nothing to do... but smile," could just as well have been said by the speaker of "Cloudy" or "Feelin' Groovy."

The final verse returns to the sentiment of farewell. (Along with "So Long" and the Everly cover "Bye Bye Love," this makes three farewell songs on one album, in case anyone had missed the point.)

The word "fly" here, in "I know your eager to fly, now," means more than just to take an airplane flight. Simon knows Garfunkel is eager to "fly" in the sense of "flee." He wants to escape the group and embark on his new artistic adventure, and he does not begrudge him his enthusiasm.

Simon's only acting advice to his departing partner is "Let your honesty shine/ Like it shines on me." Interesting, that to be "honest" is the best way to play a fictional character in a fictional story. But honesty, Simon admits, is one of Garfunkel's strongest traits, and he might as well use it.

(As it turned out, Garfunkel's acting career was brief. Its highlights were Catch-22 with an all-star cast, and Carnal Knowledge, playing Jack Nicholson's friend. He would soon return to singing.)

The chorus is intriguing-- simply the line "Half of the time, we're gone/ And we don't know where." Again, this aimlessness is one of Simon's main themes. It echoes "Cloudy" and also foreshadows the line in "Me and Julio": "Don't know where I'm goin'/ But I'm on my way."

To this searching line comes the wafting "Here I am," which is present, yes... but faint and receding, as if drifting down from an airplane speeding away overhead. Garfunkel sings this line, appropriately. Even when he is gone, he will still be "there" in some sense.

While many of Simon's songs refer to events and people in his life, few are as autobiographical as this. There were so many emotions around the break-up-- anger, betrayal, disappointment, bewilderment, abandonment... resignation, and finally, acceptance. This slight song manages to work through many of them in a short space, focusing on the final two.

Go catch your plane, Tom, Simon says. If this is what you want, I wish you all the luck there is. I'll miss you, but don't worry about me-- I'll be fine.

And, if you were the one leaving, what else would you want to hear?

A pretty, if slight, song, it seemed destined to be forgotten by all but ardent S&G fans.

It was revived by inclusion on the emo-heavy soundtrack of the Wes Anderson movie Garden State. It is by decades the oldest song in the batch, and it stakes an interesting claim for S&G as a grandfather to today's emo groups (much as grunge fans rediscovered Neil Young).

Next Song: Why Don't You Write Me


  1. Great song analysis. One note: Garden State is not a Wes Anderson movie (although it is in the same vein). The film was written and directed by Zach Braff.

  2. Mea culpa. I can only hope both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Braff are flattered at the mistake.

  3. You are correct; it was Tom Graph, not Tom Garr. Artie Garr was another pseudonym Garfunkel used at the time.

  4. I read on a message board that Paul once said there was a hidden, personal meaning in this song that he didn't want to reveal. You can sort of imagine where that might go... based on statements like that, and similar things Garfunkel has said, one might speculate as to whether S & G were a couple. I myself strongly hope not, because I prefer the idea of a bond of pure male companionship.

    Garfunkel doing the movies was really sad, because from what I can gather reading interviews with both men, Paul misunderstood Art's whole attitude to the group and the new venture. There's a pretty bitter bit in Paul's Playboy interview from 1983 where Paul said he had realized that Art just wanted to stick it to him (though he put it more harshly). He thought Artie's attitude was like "Ha! Finally, I'm gonna get to do something you can't do, and now you'll be the unknown one." He also thought Art cared more about movies than music, as though movies were "the more important art form." At the time of the breakup, I don't think Paul would have verbalized his feelings that way, but it was the conclusion he seemed to reach later.

    My impression is that's not how Art looked at it at all. Sure, he wanted to add a string to his bow, and he did look at this as a good show-business opportunity, but his idea all along was just to take a "break" from Paul, then come back and continue on as S & G. He knew they were getting on each other's nerves and saw this as a good way to pass the time while they separated temporarily. But in his own words, "If you had told me 'You're gonna have to choose between movies and Simon & Garfunkel. Which do you want to be?' I would have wanted to be Simon & Garfunkel." I've never gotten the impression that Garfunkel was actively intending to leave Paul in obscurity, or deciding movies were more important than music. Music is obviously his first love, as it is Paul's. He just liked the idea of bringing in this extra "thing" to the duo. It pleased his show-business mind.

  5. I agree, there seems to be no S-G romantic undercurrent. Since Simon doesn't want to say, I guess we'll never know.
    For what it's worth, even with Simon's Annie Hall cameo, neither has proved to have much of a movie career. That includes One Trick Pony.
    I can see S's side, though. Sure, you SAY you'll come back, but what if you get the movie bug? Where does that leave me? Wasting 2 years waiting, for nothing, while you shoot?

  6. I enjoy your blog. It is very interesting.
    I hope you understand my English;I am no native speaker (I am Dutch)
    Because I belong to the generation who were teenagers in the period S&G had their successes, those songs mean more to me than just a period of songwriting by Paul Simon.

    I always thought the second verse was about Paul's feeling alone.Not interested in any news and having no contact; just a smile pretending he is ok.Apparently I'm wrong.
    I'm curious why you think or know this verse hearkens back to their earlier days.
    I never understood why Paul was feeling so alone. He was writing songs;what he always did on his one.Now I know that he already was planning to split at that time,I understand it even less. After the split they would not be together too.
    Is this really about missing Art?

    However, there is still more to tell.
    I have read (The Guardian 12 febr. 20013, interview Art; and also somewhere else) that Mike Nichols had cast both Art and Paul for the movie. But he has cut Paul's part.
    I think Paul wrote the song in response to being cut from the movie. He did not want to be in New York, but in Mexico;acting. And that he was disappointed, bitter, maybe jealous.
    But he could not blame Art.
    I don't think Art really wanted to "flee". The intention was both would play a part in the movie.

    You also call here the song "So long FLW"
    How would someone feel when he discovered the song he sung actually was saying "so long" to him? And he did not know!
    I believe such a thing is unfair and cruel.

  7. Dear Anon:
    Your English is excellent-- far better than my Dutch! Thank you for your compliments and comments. It is always interesting for me to see, when I fling these posts into cyberspace where they land.
    I have the disadvantage of being born in 1970, when the duo was already splitting up.
    As to why I feel the second verse is about being younger, it seemed to me that an adult would be more involved in the world and want to know the news, while a teenager just needs to know whether to bring a jacket when heading out the door. An adult certainly has more to do in a day than "smile," as well. Since he had recalled the Tom & Jerry days, I felt he was having a nostalgic glance backward. But no, nothing in the verse says overtly that these lines are about being a teen. It was just a sense I had.
    As far as his knowing he was going to be alone and still missing Art, I think it is safe to say that many people have mixed emotions upon parting, especially after a long partnership. While anxious to leave and begin his solo career, he would still miss the person he spent so much time with, and made so much music with. And perhaps is it as much about being alone and without anyone in general as it is being without Art specifically.
    I did not know that Simon was supposed to be in the movie. Perhaps the song was a way to tell Art "No hard feelings-- your part will go fine."
    Garfunkel must have realized the song "So Long" was about himself, even as he sang it. He had been an architecture student, and so FLW was one of his nicknames. You say that Art never meant the split to be permanent, but I think he had to have known that was a possibility-- wasn't he hoping that his acting career would take off?

  8. Yes, of course!Paul sings "Tom", he thinks of the past.Good to know;thanks.

    About "So long":I've read several times Art didn't know the real meaning of the song.Also he has asked Paul to write a song about FLW.
    Paul has said (interview Playboy 1983)that no one knew what the song exactly was about."Even Artie didn't know".
    So I really believe it was a unpleasant surprise for him. He was naive? Yes,he was.
    It suits Art's honesty.(it's a good trait,but not always convenient;in my opinion)
    My experience is that real honest people often are (a little) naive.They just don't realize that other people are not always honest.I suppose Art knows better now he is much older.

    I found your blog when I was looking for information about "Mother and child reunion".(what a strange and weird name for a menu)
    Then I started with the beginning of your blog.There is still much to read.
    It must have been a lot of work for you!

    I wish you a merry christmas

  9. Anon-- It would be hard for me to believe that Simon wrote and sang a song to "Tom" that mentioned a "part" he would be playing in "Mexico" and that Art did not realize the song was about him.
    As for Art's honesty, Simon praises it in the song itself (see the final verse, also addressed to Tom).
    The original mother and child reunion menu item was a wry, perhaps twisted, way of looking at the fact that the dish contained both chicken (a mother) and egg (a child).
    And it was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. I wrote one post a week, so I would not get burned out over the long haul, but yes, it took me several years.

  10. Oh..,it must be a misunderstanding. I obviously was not clear.
    I wrote a comment on 14 december. Since you also mentioned the song "So long Frank Lloyd Wright" here, I also had a small note about that song. My comment on 20 dec. was a reaction at your comment at 14 dec.
    (you can still follow?)
    The song that Art sang without knowing he was singing his own farewell was "So long FLW" (not "the only living boy in NY" which was sung by Paul)
    Sorry for the confusion.

  11. Anon-- Thank you for appreciating my confusion, and for removing it. I can see how Art missed the reference to himself in that one, sorta, but not entirely. FLW never "harmonized 'til dawn" with him, for instance, and there are many more music references in the song than architectural ones. There are mentions of parting, and Wright and Simon never even met, to my knowledge (Simon was born in 1941 and FLW died in '59, so it was technically possible, say, if Wright had given a talk at Simon's high school). Also, Simon is a bright, educated guy-- but what does he know about Frank Lloyd Wright?

    1. Certainly,I agree with you;it is highly unlikely that Paul Simon ever met Frank Lloyd Wright. It is clear to me,of course.
      But:- Paul's lyrics are often quite cryptic. Art asked him to write a song about FLW, and he did not know then what we know now: that Paul intended to break up.
      - Why would both Art and Paul lie about it? Paul did not have any advantage in to say that that even Art didn't know where the song was really about.
      - I really can not imagine that anyone would sing his (own) farewell song. Especially if he is not the one who wants to break up. And wouldn't it be strange to sing "so long" to himself?

      Sure, as I wrote, you can say that Art was naive. But did he have any reason to suppose the song was "so long" to him?

      In my opinion he trusted Paul, he did not know what was happening;just thought they were (still) friends and he had no idea that Paul would play a prank on him.

  12. I think there is a darker meaning to this song. While the first verse is correct--it's clearly saying to Artie to go do his movie and the strangeness of having his time/city to himself, I think the second verse is taking a shot at Artie. Surely, the two would have been talking while Art was in Mexico, getting news about how the shoot was going etc. I think Paul is saying "I get the news I need from the weather report." as a way of sticking it to Artie. As if to say "Hey, if you're going to go do that, guess what--I don't need you either. And I don't need news of how things are going in Mexico." I think that's the hidden meaning that someone alluded to. Not really jealousy, but being that Paul was a control freak, he didn't like Art being a free spirit not depending on him, so this song speaks to that almost codependent relationship. I also think the "let your honesty shine" line is also tongue in cheek, as if to say he was tired of Artie being hard to work with and honest with him. So he's saying, let someone else deal with your "honesty." I'm happy being on my own without you.

  13. watermelonkid-- I understand how you could take those lines as being sarcastic, but I don't think they are for several reasons. Mostly, Simon would not be so undiplomatic or cruel or business-unsavvy as to spew venom and record it, let alone release it. Two, the music itself, with the choral "ah" is too angelic and earnest; and Art sings it, so why would he agree to sing in a song that disses him? Lastly and second-most importantly, Simon was done with the partnership, too, and wanted more control over his music without Art's input... so why begrudge Art's moving on at all, let alone to a possible successful (and non-competing!) career. To me, the song says, "Goodbye and godspeed."
    You ave two people who have known and worked alongside each other for so long singing "Here I am" at each other as they part ways. Whether it reflects all of what Simon thought and felt I can't say, but the song itself as we have it is sincere.