Lives of the great songs / Bridge over troubled water
Sunday 11 September 1994
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'). And after two verses it stops. A palpable hit? Well, yes, because of one thing - the chorus line: 'Like a bridge over troubled water, I would lay me down'. Garfunkel's version mends the grammar and changes it to 'I will lay me down', but either way we're looking at a winner.
Where had Simon got this image from? From the Bible, perhaps: 'I will lay me down in peace and take my rest' (Psalm 9). Or from 'The Lord's My Shepherd' (Psalm 23): 'He makes me down to lie/ In pastures green.' In fact, the main influence was a line in the Swan Silvertones' version of 'O Mary Don't You Weep'. Simon recalled hearing this on his radio in 1957 and picking out a line of scat thrown in mid-way through by Claude Jeter: 'I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in My name'.
This is still, though, some way from the grandeur of Simon's finished line. Yet apparently no exact source exists for his words: you just feel there should be one. Here is a songwriter's dream - a phrase that not only seeps into the language, but seems to have lived there for years beforehand. (Simon would do it again later with 'still crazy after all these years', a new coinage that immediately felt like old tender.)
Not that it caught on immediately with everyone. Jimmy Haskell, who arranged the strings for the final recording, misheard the demo's chorus altogether and wrote on the title page of his sheet music, 'Like a Pitcher of Water'. Simon framed it.
What Garfunkel made from the bones of the demo is something Simon is in awe of and, at the same time, something he has never quite forgiven him for. Garfunkel's soprano delivery is faultlessly sweet, floating on a studio-
contrived reverb effect which picks up the merest hint of sibilance (in the words 'small', 'tears', 'eyes'), magnifies it and flings it away as if into the far corner of some giant cavern. People tend not to remark on the piano playing, by Larry Knechtel, but it is formidable and essential - not just the rolling and gradually quietening storm of the introduction, but the whole performance. It is an object lesson in accompaniment, intricate but never intrusive, supporting and meeting the tune at intervals, then ducking away to allow the voice to be heard.
Slowly, Garfunkel gathers strength, pushing the words ever harder to the conclusion that Simon originally planned at the close of the second verse. 'I'll take your part when darkness comes and pain is all around, like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.' And then the third verse starts, with distant crashes, as of waves on pebbles. Low strings are heard. A bass guitar pops in and slides up.
Simon said this part of the song put him in mind of the Righteous Brothers - the voice is doubled, a bass drum presses the song forward, the strings well up rapidly. The lyric, meanwhile, after the simple clarity of the first and second verses, now veers away into pop vernacular. 'Sail on silver girl, sail on by, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way.' (It has been argued - normally in tones of outrage - that these lines champion a drug experience, the 'silver girl' referring to the needle on a syringe. Simon maintains they relate quite innocently to his wife who had just discovered her first grey hairs.) And gradually, drawing longer breaths, Garfunkel carries himself to the huge, open-throated cry at the end of 'I will ease your mind' as the cellos come sawing through the air underneath him.
It's a real party piece, a guaranteed show- stealer. And Garfunkel has never been shy about stealing shows with it. In the reunion concerts at the Paramount Theatre, New York, in 1993, all he had to do was come on and hit that high note and everyone was out of their seats. What can it have been like for Simon, when the signal moment in a concert of his own music didn't involve him? In a recent Omnibus documentary on BBC1, he was candid, confessing that hearing the extraordinary ovations which would greet Garfunkel's performances of the song, he would find himself sitting there, ignored, thinking: 'Author] Author]'.
Not that he has ever suggested that Garfunkel's vocal delivery wasn't a superb thing in its own way - 'astounding,' he told me, 'a real virtuoso performance'. Yet his own, solo renditions of the song (there's one on the Live Rhymin' album, CBS 1974) have tended to be modest, Simon accompanied at the piano by the late Richard Tee, who would make the chords tremble in a churchy kind of way, as if attempting to lead the song back. And further elaborating the distinction between his demo and the record, Simon put it this way: 'Artie's version is much more white gospel.' Then a pause. 'More methodist than baptist.'
What of those who have carried the torch from there? Perhaps bearing out Simon's greatest fears, most of the cover artists are the light-entertainment crew, attracted as ever to a warm sentiment gently expressed, but also to what the song offers in the way of a work-out or challenge - the assault on Mount Garfunkel. Why do they do it? Because it's there. Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Shirley Bassey, Nana Mouskouri - each has headed for the summit, coming on all dreamy and comforting in the foothills and ascending with various degrees of smoothness to wax noisy and masterful in the third verse. It is the choirboy Aled Jones who gets closest to Garfunkel's unstrained purity (Best of Aled Jones, BBC, 1985), but as his voice hadn't broken when he made his attempt, he may have to be disqualified for cheating.
But vocal heavyweights, too, have gone for the song. Paul Simon said, directly after its composition, that he could hear Aretha Franklin singing it and Franklin's 1971 recording (Aretha's Greatest Hits, Atlantic) makes a different kind of music altogether, hearing those gospel traces in the tune and lyrics and pursuing them hard. Itself a Top 10 American hit and a Grammy winner, her version glows like a devotional candle.
Elvis Presley, meanwhile, was in a position to go either way with the song: much to Simon's disappointment, what the King delivered on Magic Moments was more Andy Williams than Aretha Franklin. 'It was in his Las Vegas period and done with conventional thinking: it kind of imitated the Simon and Garfunkel record. He sang it well, but it would have been nice to hear him do it gospel because he did so many gospel albums and was a good white gospel singer. It would have been nice to hear him do it that way, take it back - as opposed to the big ending; he seemed to end everything with a karate chop and an explosion. So he didn't really add anything to the song. It's not nearly as significant as the Aretha Franklin recording. It's just a pleasure for me that Elvis Presley recorded one of my songs before he died.'
But to what extent is 'Bridge over Troubled Water', as Simon put it, 'a tiny little, humble country church song', even in essence? Hymns and gospel tunes are more often second person than first and any phenomenal curative powers are normally ascribed to God. Here, the capacity to cope and assuage which the song triumphantly celebrates belongs to the singer - who further illustrates this strength within him or herself by turning in a particularly belting third verse. If you go through the song substituting 'He' for 'I' ('When tears are in your eyes, He will dry them all', 'He's on your side when times get rough' and so on), you end up with something closer to gospel. The song has an element of self-promotion that church music does not readily admit - unlike pop songs, which revel in that kind of business. You could argue that Garfunkel's instinct with 'Bridge over Troubled Water' - to make it dazzling, to command your awe, to give it the showbiz treatment - was an accurate response to the material to hand, rather than, as Simon has sometimes seemed to imply, a wilful requisitioning of it.
As Simon says, it could have been different. But it couldn't have been better. - To hear 'Bridge over Troubled Water', tune in to Virgin 1215 at 9-9.30am today, when Gary Davies will play one of the versions discussed. Virgin is between 1197 and 1260 kHz MW, depending where you are, and in stereo on Sky and cable TV.
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