Art Garfunkel has been an icon for more than half a century, but he’s still working hard to promote himself and his music.
Not only is he performing in the relatively small market of Virginia Beach this weekend—in between a show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a trip to Europe—but he’s also doing local press.
“I always run scared, no matter what I do in this business,” he said in a recent phone interview with AltDaily. “I always work as if I’m a neophyte. … So here I am with my usual insecurities, coming to town, like a 26-year-old singer who’s very nervous and wants to really knock ’em out.”
Here are some highlights from the rest of the conversation:
AltDaily: Last week was the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival. I wondered what recollection you might have from that performance.
Art Garfunkel: Well, emotionally, I have a fantastic memory about how wonderful Monterey was. It doesn’t come across in the press quite as great as it really was. I could say the same thing about the ’60s. The ’60s were fantastically colorful in America, and I have not seen it quite captured in movies or press. They don’t get it. They put pictures of smiley faces, and that’s the ’60s. Well, Monterey was a brilliant expansion of the cultural spirit of America. We all unbuttoned our shirts in America during that period.
It was amazing to have a concert with all these acts working for free. For free. That was unprecedented, and that was a jolt. They were all coming from far away. They were taking planes to sing for rock ’n’ roll and for the kids and giving them a buzz. There’s no profit—has nothing to do with money. That’s unprecedented. Well, that was an enormous turn-on. …
So what can I say? You had to be there. It was so beautiful. I went to the hotel to take a break at one point. … When I came back, the sun had set, and there was the Jefferson—Airplane, they called themselves in that day—and they were singing with their backs to the audience. They were facing the back screen at the back of their stage, and there was a light show. Some kind of globular thing, like in a chemist’s slide—moving, globular imagery. It was wonderful to get stoned to. And there was the Jefferson Airplane. Something about their backs to the audience, playing to their own light show, spoke to me. I just loved that. It was a way of breaking out of show business as we always knew it. … That spoke to me.
The research I did shows that you had a seven-song setlist. Is that right?
Did we? Sounds about right—yep.
Three of those songs [“Homeward Bound,” “For Emily, Wherever I My Find Her” and “Sound Of Silence”] you’re still doing now—Simon and Garfunkel classics. Your thoughts on the timelessness of the songs?
They’re timeless. Those are my thoughts. … I do them because if they were ballplayers and I was making up the line-up, a powerful hitter is a powerful hitter in any decade. “The Sound Of Silence” is wonderfully valuable. I would be coy if I left it out.
I counted up your tour dates from this year. You’ve done 34 shows in less than six months.
Yeah, I do about 50, 60 a year. That’s me. I have two children; the youngest one, little Beau, is 11. I can’t bear to leave him long. We love each other. I would not want to be out of town much.
What is it like maintaining that touring schedule at the age of 75?
You have to stay physically in shape. I do a lot of walking. I’ve done it all my life. I’ve walked across America. I’ve walked across Europe—from Ireland to Istanbul. So you have to keep your stamina up. You get into a routine when you’re a concert artist. You’d be surprised what really matters. I’m a vocalist. So stay away from experiences where you will use your voice foolishly. That’s the telephone. That’s general gossip and chat. I love my wife, but I have to not have lengthy conversations.
Tell me about your relationship with Dave Mackay and Tab Laven. How long have you been performing with them?
Tab and I go back—I’m just guessing now—seven years? How did I get to know Tab? I made an album in Nashville with Buddy Mondlock. … Buddy wanted me to know Tab, and I met Tab, and I found him to be so in my wavelength musically. We started working together, and it just fit, you know. It’s like falling in love. “How did you meet your wife?” I don’t know—it just felt so right. The answer usually is something like that. It felt so right.
Dave Mackay is a recent arrival in the band. I was so happy to work for years with only Tab on the Martin guitar, which is extreme. Less is more. Just one guitar and Garfunkel’s voice is scary. When you’ve lost the voice, as I did in 2010, and you’re trying to bring it back, and you’re alone with one guitar—it was my game in 2010, 11 and 12. Now I’ve slipped into more security, and I have a piano player—electric and acoustic—Dave Mackay, and because he’s such a fine player, it’s just a lot of fun.
It looks like you open a lot of your shows with “April, Come She Will.” I would think that’s such a demanding song to start out with.
Why? Why is it demanding?
Well, as a non-singer, it’s just so delicate, and the range is incredible.
I see. … Well, I’m brave. Show business is a brave profession. You’re right. It’s very exposed, but my whole show is that way.
What kind of prep work do you backstage before you come on?
It’s all about what you don’t do. Stay away from trouble. I reach for the ceiling and touch my toes to elongate my hamstrings—because I’m setting myself up for the bow at the end of the night. I sing backstage to my iPod, and there’s my James Taylor songs and my Chet Baker tapes. I stay away from people. I don’t need to talk about anything. I have my assistant, Matt Craig, who is such a good friend and takes care of anything that arises. I look at the setlist. I think about what I’m going to say to them. I start feeling kind of a joy that goes with adrenaline.
I’m at the stage in my performing life where I’m no longer so nervous as I used to be—that it’s incapacitating, [that] I’d rather throw up than go on stage. Those days finally, finally came to an end a few years ago. Now I have what feels like the exact right amount of nervous adrenaline. So I come on stage really happy.
The Simon and Garfunkel songs, I think, are obvious—the greatest of the greatest hits. How do you select the solo material that you perform?
I pick my songs based on simply: What do I feel like singing? What feels lovely to me? And there comes “Perfect Moment,” my song that I wrote a decade ago. … “99 Miles From L.A.” is from my Breakaway album; that’s the most popular one. Tab and I have a good fix on how to do that together. How do I pick? Well, I look at the musicians. What do they play well?
You shape the show—I do—based on what wants to come next. When a song is over, you pretend you’re the listener, and you sit there with the finish of one song. … What’s the right place to go to next? And that’s how I come up with a setlist.
I read a lot of your poetry that you’ve shared on your website.
It’s wild, isn’t it?
Tell me how you intersperse your writings throughout your shows now.
Everything is feel. I’m the one who develops the show. So you have your variables—uptempo, slow, time for a reading, time for a song, an arrangement that’s very empty and I’m all exposed, followed by one that’s a little thicker like “The Boxer,” where Mackay on keyboard adds a lot. These are the variables you’re dealing with, and I intersperse poetry—these poetic bits—when it feels like it’s right. It will set up the next thing.
Do you actually carry a notebook out on stage and decide what to read?
I have my envelopes. I write my bits on the back of envelopes with my felt-tip pen, and I walk on stage—I think Abe Lincoln did the same thing. I come out, sit on my stool, I have my little table, and sing and then go to the readings—back and forth. I’m having a great time up there. I developed the show when the voice started coming back, and it’s really a heyday for me now.
Do you still do Q&As in your shows? Will you be doing that in Virginia Beach?
I don’t think so. Should I?
Well, I would think there are probably some people who would want to ask a question of you.
I’ve got to think about it because I love doing it, and I don’t do it in my show lately. It’s been many a show since I took questions from the audience. … You’re reminding me. I’m going to speak to Matthew and try and set that up.
There are so many covers of Simon and Garfunkel songs. Are there some that you really love more than others?
I’m so out of it. There’s so much I haven’t heard. They tell me that the charity record of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has come out in England to raise money for victims of the Grenfell apartment fire. I asked Matt: Can I hear it? I wouldn’t naturally run into it. I have to seek these things out. I’m missing so many things.
I wonder which cover record of Simon and Garfunkel you’re thinking of that I might not know? When I hear them, I smile. I’m extremely bemused. It’s great when people have a try at these wonderful songs. They deserve cover records.
My favorite is a group called First Aid Kit. It’s two women, and they do a beautiful version of “America.”
Love to hear it. First Aid Kit. Thank you. “Laughing on the bus. Playing games with the faces.” I wonder how they did that.
I’m a big “Saturday Night Live” fan, so I wanted to ask you about the famous skit where Paul didn’t recognize you.
Years ago, Paul called me in the afternoon, said, “Artie, I want you to come down here. This is a very funny bit we’re working on. Listen to this: I’m supposed to run into all these people while I’m waiting on line for the movies, and it’s remarkable how much I, Paul Simon, recognize their names. ‘You were at the concert in Central Park—a half a million people, but Paul Simon recognizes the faces of these people.’” So Paul tells me the bit. Then he says, “And then you come by, Artie, and you’re the one face I don’t recognize.” So I laughed enormously, and I said, “I’ll be there.” You see how Simon and Garfunkel works? When the material is there, when the joke is really funny, when the song is really brilliant, when the harmony is beautiful, I’m in. And that’s how people work. So I came downtown, jumped into the skit, and we did it.
Anything else you want to talk about?
Well, as long as you put in that I love my wife, Kathryn. I married a very beautiful, wonderful woman almost three decades ago. She should be in the story because she’s an essential part of who Art Garfunkel is and what makes him function. Please mention my book. It comes out September 27th this year. What Is It All But Luminous? It’s my life.
And you have my two kids. I have Arthur Junior. He’s 26. He’s in Stuttgart right now; he’s just begun an album. And then I have my little guy, Beau. Both boys, the same mama. He’s just finished the fifth grade, and he’s here in Disneyworld with his mom and me. I’m the kind of daddy that comes down to Disneyworld with his son. … That’s all I need to say.
Art Garfunkel will perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach. Ticket prices start at $46.50. For tickets and more information, visit www.sandlercenter.org.