Still Alive!
Cover Image for Art Garfunkel

Art Garfunkel

Zachary C. Solomon

In the very beginning, still in high school but already under contract, the duo needed a moniker, their surnames presumably too much of a mouthful, or more likely, too Jewish, for general consumption. “Simon” was perhaps passable. But Garfunkel. The name can’t help but sound like a skin disorder and its odorous byproduct, or something shoveled from the ocean floor, an unpleasant thing with many putrid holes.

Paul picked “Jerry Landis,” adopting in patriarchal inversion his girlfriend’s last name. And in homage to his love of mathematics, Arthur selected “Tom Graph.” Together, they became Tom & Jerry, bizarrely taking their inspiration from an already widely popular cartoon of crass, violent partnership.

It’s hard not to make the associations: Simon as the diminutive mouse of innocence, infinitely creative in his repeated escapes; and Garfunkel as Tom, a cat who regularly transforms his uncontrollable hatred into anvil-lifting strength, all in service of maiming or murdering Jerry. To be clear, and this is important: Tom doesn’t want to eat Jerry; he wants only to brutalize him.

You wonder if, as a high school senior, Art Garfunkel glimpsed his future in some Forest Hills witch’s parlor and saw how maligned and savaged his public persona would become, and so he held his breath and made the supervillainy decision to embrace it with full agency, aligning himself with one of cartoondom’s greatest evildoers. It was an odd choice, but a telling one—the auspicious start of a lifetime of unlikability.


The world couldn’t decide what they wanted out of the famous harmonizer when he went his own way, so he gave them a hint. In 1975, Garfunkel released Breakaway, his second solo record, his title having the utter temerity to suggest a kind creative imprisonment—if only he could be free of Paul Simon, then the world would know the true Art Garfunkel.

Dave Marsh, reviewing Breakaway for Rolling Stone in 1975, called the album “artistically…an error of incalculable proportions…who can doubt that Simon really is the artist, Garfunkel only the simple production tool?” Music journalist Jeff Burger cited the album’s “emotionless proficiency.” The record, he wrote, was full of tracks as “weak and indistinguishable as they are technically impressive,” which is as apt a description of Garfunkel’s solo career as one is likely to find.

The record wasn’t just disliked—it was reviled—and it set off a lifetime of outsize ignominy. Was the music really that bad? Did it really warrant such vitriol?

Of course not. Garfunkel released ten solo albums in the following decades, filled almost exclusively with folk covers, traditionals, Jimmy Webb originals, and songs from the Great American Songbook. They are all, almost without exception, incredibly pleasant albums. They feature, as they should, Garfunkel’s ethereal, unmistakable tenor, a musical tool of almost aggressive loveliness. Hating this music requires effort and bloodlust. You have to try really hard to be that passionate about it.

Which makes one wonder. What do we actually want from Art Garfunkel? Humility? An apology? The actual sounds of silence? The answer, it seems, is nothingness—to never hear from him again. Fortunately, he’s never cared about what we want.


Throughout the fifty-plus years that have elapsed since the duo’s 1970 breakup, Art Garfunkel has tried.

He released four solo records that 1970s alone; another six would follow. He gave effective, moving performances in not one, but two Mike Nichols films: Catch-22 (1970) and Carnal Knowledge (1971), for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. He snagged the lead in Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing. And when the screen offers dried up, he turned to letters.

He began writing poetry and became a bibliophile in the most extreme sense. His website, which he launched in 1999, contains lists of every book he’s ever read. There are over 1,000 entries. His annual favorite lists note each book’s length in pages, which feels a bit like a child trying to earn screen time from a parent.

In 1989, he released Still Waters, a collection of prose poems. A memoir followed: 2017’s  What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man.

The poems aren’t great. The memoir was hardly read. A near-pan in the Washington Post and an obviously generous assessment in Moment Magazine appear to be the book’s only semi-major coverage. A clue, however, for Garfunkel’s whole rotten appraisal, comes from Kirkus, which clocked that there was “plenty of pretense.”

There is, simply, no Art Garfunkel without pretense. Pretension is his singular trait, and the sole characteristic that has simultaneously kept him both famous and reviled these many years past the height of his popularity. When we hear of him, it’s because he’s said or done something so pompous that you simply have to know about it. When he behaves poorly — as he did in 2012 when, later citing vocal distress, he bailed on two planned concerts in Sweden without telling anyone, and “went missing” until subsequently turning up in New York — he gets lambasted to a degree that Paul certainly wouldn’t if he had done the same. We simply cannot stomach that the “lesser” talent of one of the most influential and artistically successfully duo’s in music history thinks of himself as worthy of praise, reverence, and the bandwidth to behave melodramatically, and we detest him for his hubris.

Yes, Art Garfunkel has a tough personality. The book thing is arrogant and strange: a shining example of why quantity is worth less than quality. Yes, a studio engineer caught him pontificating bitterly between takes in the early 90s, referring to the “techno-realities of our job” and berating the producer for “[chasing] away…whatever was fertile about the song.” Yes, bragging in an interview about how he assumed all cantorial duties at his Bar Mitzvah and held his congregation hostage for four hours of pubescent singing is a forced, legend-origin flex. And, finally, yes, writing in his memoir that he “got the girls…fabulous foxes, slim-hipped, B-cup, little Natalie Woods” is as unflattering a sentence as a human can possibly write.

There’s no question that snobbish babbling of any sort is a bummer. But there is a direct line of correlation between how talented an artist is and how much pretension we tolerate from them. And in the case of Art Garfunkel, we do not tolerate enough. Fifty years of mediocre to pleasantly banal art is not enough to erase the man’s contributions to American culture. There can — and I hope there will — be more from Garfunkel before the curtains fall. It could be terrible. It won’t matter. By the time 1970 rolled around, Art Garfunkel had earned a lifelong right to pretension. We failed him by taking him seriously. We took him seriously when we should have laughed alongside.

Take “The Only Living Boy in New York,” one of the most majestically wistful songs ever recorded. What makes this song? Is it Simon’s lyrics? No. The lyrics are near nonsense, vague allusions to Garfunkel’s sojourn “down to Mexico” to film Catch-22 and something about the mystic knowledge of weather reports. Is it the ingenuity of Simon’s song structure? Not particularly: it relies on musical cliches like bass walk-downs and a minor turn in the chorus.

Then what is it? It’s the choir—the multi-tracked cadre of voices ascending out of the muck and grime of the city, recorded in the mythical, literal hallways of Columbia Records. Whose voice is riding the crest? Who is it singing “Here I am.”

It’s Art’s. And if that’s not enough, that sigh of the sublime, then remember that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — a shock of a song that makes more natural sense as a firework conclusion — opens the album of the same name.

There’s only one person who could have pulled that off, and it’s Art. And that’s enough for a lifetime.

Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

Zachary C. Solomon is from Miami, Florida. He received an MFA from Brooklyn College, where he was a Truman Capote fellow. His debut novel, A Brutal Design, will be published in early 2024 with Lanternfish Press. He lives with his wife, the novelist Mandy Berman, and their daughter in New York’s Hudson Valley.