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He's Free to Be Art Purely for Art's Sake

Pop music Whether walking the world or making solo records in the studio, Garfunkel follows his own path.

May 07, 1999|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Art Garfunkel lives a charmed life, and don't think he doesn't know it.

Because of the enormous success of the 1960s-era folk-pop duo Simon & Garfunkel, the golden-voiced, New York-based singer has enjoyed the financial freedom to be choosy in his artistic pursuits.

Sure, Garfunkel has occasionally reunited with singer-songwriter Paul Simon. But since the duo broke up in 1970, Garfunkel has eschewed that safety net to record a dozen solo albums, act in feature films ("Carnal Knowledge," "Catch-22," "Bad Timing" and "Boxing Helena") and write a collection of poetry ("Still Water").

His good fortune seems to apply to his personal life too. He'll be the first to tell you that he has an understanding spouse. You see, when this hubby goes out for a walk, he really goes.

Garfunkel, who appears tonight and Saturday with the Pacific Symphony Pops at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, said wife Kim supported his recent decision to "pick up, leave home and just drop out and take a week off to walk across Wales . . . just because it's relaxing and good for my health. . . .

"That's lucky," Garfunkel said by telephone from his Manhattan apartment that overlooks Central Park. "It doesn't always work that way in life."

Garfunkel is one serious walker. He began hiking across the United States in 1987, a 40-installment trek that lasted--on and off--10 years. His itchy feet recently led him abroad for a sojourn that began in Ballyshannon, Ireland, and thus far has taken him into Wales. Later in the year, Garfunkel said, he'll to return to Wales and venture into Normandy, France, before reaching his final destination of Istanbul, Turkey.

"Initially, I walked to clear this throbbing hum of traffic in my ears," explained the 57-year-old performer. "Plus, I'm a loner. . . . I'm very happy with my own company. . . . I can sing real loud if I want to."

Last year, Garfunkel stopped walking long enough to record his latest CD, "From a Parent to a Child" (Sony/Wonder.) Featuring pop songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Marc Cohn, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and John Sebastian, among others, the 13-track collection is dedicated to Garfunkel's 8-year-old son, James.

Garfunkel said his goal was to make a record for children without it sounding childish.

"I think it's a friendly album that's easy to like, yet it's not at all patronizing," he said. "You should treat kids as if they want the rhythms to swing as much as any adult wants them to . . . and go after real melodies. At the same time, you don't want real sophisticated lyrics or innately harsh sounds, like screeching guitars. But in every other respect, I wanted a rich pop album . . . something like the Beatles' sound."

The singer's crystalline tenor, seemingly unaffected by the passage of time, is in fine form throughout the warm recording, particularly in the Beatles' "I Will" and the Cat Stevens/Eleanor Farjeon tune "Morning Has Broken."

But, as has much of Garfunkel's solo work, "From a Parent to a Child" has met with commercial indifference, selling only 43,000 copies, according to SoundScan. How disappointing are those figures?

"I used to say to Paul [Simon], 'We'll never top this in terms of mass popularity,' nor do I expect to," Garfunkel said. "I mean, there's so much luck involved in selling millions of records. You might have a two- or three-year run. . . . Ours lasted six years.

"But life does go on, and I want to have a good time and continue to grow. When I go up to bat, I don't swing for singles--I'm still going after the homers."

As Garfunkel continues to record without the benefit of the long ball, he leans heavily on the past for material in concert. While Simon, who composed all of the Simon & Garfunkel hits, has grown weary of performing much of the duo's material, Garfunkel welcomes the opportunity.

"I'm totally comfortable singing our hit songs. . . . Now why is that so unusual?" he asked. "If Phil Collins plays a really popular song from his Genesis days, would it be weird if he enjoyed it? But critics tear us up, and, for whatever reason, certain performers are anxious to put their past songs behind them.

"I never saw it that way. I'm totally pleased with my entire body of work. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' 'Scarborough Fair,' 'The Sounds of Silence', 'Mrs. Robinson'--those are wonderful songs. I'm just like the fans--I love 'em. So that's a real difference between me and my former partner."

It's puzzling, though, that Garfunkel, an avid reader and writer of journals and poetry, relies exclusively on outside material. Has he ever tried--or at least considered--parlaying his love of words into the songwriting craft?

"It's a sticky question," he replied. "Paul and I actually wrote together as teenagers. But to be thoughtful--to write an artful song--I don't actively pursue it. I mean, I don't turn off the phone, close the door, chain myself to the piano and give myself a three-hour sweating-it-out period. . . .

"Songwriting is its own little art form. . . . It's a seamless marriage of melody and lyricism that I must either be afraid of, or it simply refuses to come to me. I don't know."

Still, Garfunkel feels good about his own contributions.

"When I left Simon & Garfunkel, I stood in a position of good fortune. I've never had to pander . . . to take the low road in order to get the hit singles that will gain the clout to rise to a higher level in the industry."

Garfunkel blames the profit motive for creating "an America that is a cultural junkyard." For himself, he said, he takes "comfort in my wife's Buddhist words of advice: 'Just be busy making value.' "

*

* Art Garfunkel joins the Pacific Symphony in a pops program tonight and Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $14-$52. (714) 755-5788.

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