Lives of the Great Songs

By Smith, Giles | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Lives of the Great Songs


Smith, Giles, The Independent (London, England)


ART GARFUNKEL sang this song, but Paul Simon wrote it and he thought it could have turned out differently. "The demo of `Bridge Over Troubled Water' will show you that it was a much less grandiose thing than the record. It was a humble little gospel hymn song with two verses and a simple guitar behind it . . ."

So much for that. By the time Simon and Garfunkel came out of the studio with the finished version, the song had grown a third verse and had sprouted strings and cymbals and a drum that goes off like a cannon. It had become not a hymn but a giant pop ballad, and simplicity (and, perhaps, humility) were somewhere in its past.

Still, people liked it that way - liked how the song welled up from its quiet opening until it rang in their ears, liked how Garfunkel's voice started out soft and pulled itself gradually higher to the sustained note at the end. This wasn't one of those pop numbers that drove a catchy idea round the block a few times: it unfolded across its four minutes and 50 seconds, developing like a drama. As a result, you couldn't really drop in and pick up the plot at any point; to make it work, you had to start at the top and follow it all the way through.

But millions gladly gave up the time. In February 1970, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" went to No 1 in America and sat there for six weeks. It was No 1 in Britain for just three, but the Simon and Garfunkel album of the same name stayed in or around the charts for 18 months. Ask most people what they think of when they think of Simon and Garfunkel and they will say "Bridge over Troubled Water".

In 1971, at the Grammy Awards, to nobody's big surprise, the song cleaned up: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Contemporary Song, Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists, Best Engineered Record. Covers happened quickly. Aretha Franklin recorded her version in August 1971 and Stevie Wonder had it on a live album within the year (At the Talk of the Town). In 1973, when Capital, Britain's first commercial radio station, launched, the first song it played was "Bridge over Troubled Water". It was already that kind of record.

Ever since, though, Simon seems to have clung to some reservations about the song, or at least about what it became. "It has lived a long life," he said, "and I've gone through many different feelings about it from negative to superlative." But more often than not, the feelings he has voiced publicly have been the negative ones. The song slipped loose of his intentions, but that's only part of the problem.

It took a colossal 800 hours of studio time to make the Bridge over Troubled Water album, Garfunkel quibbling with some anti-Nixon material that Simon wanted to include, and further annoying his partner by slipping off to Hollywood every now and again to chase his new career in the movies. This was their last album together - they had agreed to split before it even reached the shops. And strangely, some of the personal difficulties between them find a unique focus in (of all places) this hymn to the virtue of seeing another through.

In 1993, Paul Simon put together a boxed selection of his work (Paul Simon, 1964/1993, Warner) and threw in the demo of "Bridge over Troubled Water" so we could hear for ourselves how the song started out. There he is, 28, picking quietly at an acoustic guitar and singing in a small, struggling falsetto, based, he would later recount, on the Rev Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, Simon's favourite gospel group. (Jeter would later sing on Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras".)

The first line of the melody is askew and the descent of the chords under the chorus isn't quite worked out. There's a patch of mumbling where words have yet to come and a couple of duff lines which would become strong ones eventually ("when evening turns you blind"

became "when evening falls so hard I will

comfort you").

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