What Is It All But Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man
2017, 256 pp, $27.95
“I have these vocal cords. Two,” the singer Art Garfunkel writes near the start of his intriguing book of impressionistic musings about his life, What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man. “They have vibrated with the love of sound since I was five and began to sing with the sense of God’s gift running through me.”
In the 70 years since then, Garfunkel (now 76) has been serenading the world with his magically sweet tenor with such grace that he and his music can seem inseparable. And so, too, can his name seem indivisible from that of singer-songwriter Paul Simon, with whom he collaborated in close vocal harmony during their years together, from 1964 through 1970, as the duo Simon & Garfunkel.
But over the decades, the harmony of the relationship itself has been less than seamless, their differences dating even to before the partnership dissolved in 1970.Since then, their many ups and downs have played out in public through periodic concert reunions, rumors of a planned new album together that never materialized, seasons punctuated by what fans could only interpret as sounds of silence, and hints (or wishful thinking) that yet another joint gig is in the offing. It should be no surprise, then, that the push-pull between the power of two and the lonely eloquence of one is a recurring refrain throughout Garfunkel’s book. It is the bedrock story—and relationship—to which he keeps returning. He likens it to a “poetically stunning” love affair that has lasted 64 years and counting. But he does not shy away from the emotionally intense rivalry and ambivalent brotherly love that has also defined their friendship.
In the memoir, Garfunkel pushes back against the perception that he was the lesser half of the duo, “merely” the singer, not the songwriter, by pointing out his contributions as the musical arranger, as well as reminding readers of his own vocal gifts. But he is also generous in applauding Simon, asking, “Is there any writer in our time with such beauty and poignancy of heart and mind?” The more I read, the clearer it became to me that rather than argue about which one was the “better” artist, we should instead acknowledge how the blend of their talents together served to create a distinctive, and lasting, body of musical work. It was that recognition, after all, that formed the original basis for their collaboration, and remains the foundation on which their continuing friendship rests.
They were two lower middle-class Jewish boys from Queens, Garfunkel tells us, born less than a month apart in 1941. They met at the age of 12 in their grade school play, Alice in Wonderland. Garfunkel was already singing in public—at synagogue, where his renditions of “minor-key, age-old prayerful melodies,” he writes, made the congregants cry, and where his bar mitzvah drew a standing-room-only crowd. In junior high, in love with rock and roll, they started making music together, with Simon playing guitar and Garfunkel working out streamlined vocal harmonies modeled after their idols, the Everly Brothers. As precocious high school seniors, age 16 (they skipped a grade), they dubbed themselves Tom and Jerry and cut their first record, “Hey, Schoolgirl,” a teeny-bopper hit that led to an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
And then—at least from Garfunkel’s point of view—came Simon’s first betrayal. Simon cheated on him, releasing a solo single without Garfunkel, under the name True Taylor, and the news stung. He writes, “He’s base, I concluded in an eighth of a second, and the friendship was shattered for life.” And yet, he continues, “Eight years later we were world-famous. You will love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”
Still, Garfunkel wonders, was he himself later guilty of betraying Simon when, in 1969, he left Simon & Garfunkel behind to pursue an acting career, accepting film director Mike Nichols’s offer to play the role of Captain Nately in Catch-22? He wonders, “Who throws the stone and who throws the return stone?”
Such passages reveal his meditative bent. Elsewhere, Garfunkel’s self-portrait can be dark, a reflection of his own cast of mind as well as the grief-stricken residue of trauma: the 1979 suicide of his girlfriend, the actress and photographer Laurie Bird, at their New York apartment when she was 25 and he was filming a movie in Europe. He repeatedly flashes back to wistful memories of their relationship, as well as to the guilt that haunts him for being absent when she needed him. He became more reclusive and his mood sank even deeper after his beloved father died. He took a leave of absence from performing and began writing. It is as if he went “underground,” and these are the notes from the emotional place of his book’s subtitle. A sample passage reflects this mindset, as he writes, “All is vanity. Where is meaning? We are eating and excreting organisms.”
Garfunkel’s penchant for isolation continued into the early 1980s, when he began a series of epic walks across America and parts of Europe. In his descriptions, these journeys come across as a search for meaning and solace amid nature’s wonder. In this way, step by step and over time, he heals. At the start of one walk, he wittily invokes a classic Jewish blessing, writing, “Shehecheyanu, bless me, O lord, bless my feet / Thanks for sustaining my life and for bringing me here.” He also rediscovers his capacity for joy. He celebrates, in numerous hymn-like incantations, his connection to his wife Kim (whose stage name is Kathryn), whom he married in 1988, and their two children James (also known as Arthur, Jr.), who is now a singer in his own right, and Beau Daniel. He gives additional prayerful thanks when he recovers, in 2014, from a potentially career-ending bout of vocal cord paresis. His sense of gratitude is best expressed in the poem that gives the book its title: “The beauty of light finds a room in us,” he writes, “what is it all but luminous?” Lines like this demonstrate Garfunkel’s own impressive talents as a writer.
Garfunkel covers all these aspects of his life, but elusively, with abrupt jumps in time, place and mood. The opposite of a conventional autobiography, his book more closely resembles a ramble through his emotional world, a miscellany filled with lyric-like poetry, spiritual meditations and Psalm-like blessings of gratitude as well as entertaining anecdotal outtakes from time spent among the Beatles, Jack Nicholson and other superstars. He intersperses these passages with mammoth, accountant-like lists taken from the 1,217 books he has read over the past 48 years, including classic titles by Kafka and Hermann Hesse, as well as the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. He also includes his iPod song list which, along with James Taylor and the Everly Brothers, features operatic arias sung by Enrico Caruso.
The overall effect is that of a musical collage, a mix of many overlapping riffs, some memorable, others—well—duds, including some truly awful poetry and tasteless jokes, a variety of enigmatically precious insights, and an inclination to disclose too many details about his sex life. Those who wish to argue that Garfunkel is a lesser writer than Simon will find evidence here to support them. But the book’s more lyrical passages—and his two well-received books of poetry—suggest that the core problem in this volume is his inability, or unwillingness, to edit himself and let go of his darlings and shorten his meanderings.
Even so, the book yields insights into Garfunkel’s personal and artistic struggles and sheds light on the dynamics, both creative and inter-personal, that fueled the musical partnership that made Simon and Garfunkel household names. That is also why, however pretentious or peculiar some of Garfunkel’s thoughts can be, they go down easily with music by either or both Garfunkel and Simon playing in the background. Despite their solo careers, that they will remain conjoined to the very end is dramatized in their running joke of recent decades, asking each other who will write whose eulogy. But whoever remains the last singer standing, Garfunkel’s appreciation could easily include this gracious summing up of what they’ve given each other: “For two-thirds of a century his arm has been around my shoulder. He dazzled me with gifts. I nurtured him in his youth. He brought me into prominence. I taught him to sing. He connected my voice to the world. I made us stand tall. All of our personal belongings are intertwined. We say it’s exhausting to compete, but we shine for each other.” To which I can only add, amen.
Diane Cole, author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, writes for The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor and the book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker.