Sep. 19 – Show Made Simon & Garfunkel Kings Of New York

Central Park was alive with sounds that were not silence!

Just a few days ago we remembered Elton John’s 1980 landmark free concert in Central Park, New York City. Well that concert reverberated in many ways and today we look at an even bigger free concert there the next year- Simon & Garfunkel’s reunion show on this day in 1981.

Simon & Garfunkel of course were not only one of the most successful duos or groups of the ’60s and early-’70s, but were diehard New Yorkers. But creative differences and egos had split them up in 1970 after the release of “their” last album, Bridge Over Troubled Water (I use the quotation marks as despite the labeling, many people would consider it a Paul Simon solo record in which Art Garfunkel jetted in to add a few vocal harmonies.) A brief reunion in 1975 yielded an appearance on Saturday Night Live and the decent one-off single, “My Little Town” but fizzled soon after. Meanwhile, during the decade, Paul Simon had established himself as a major recording star in his own right with hits like “Me and Julio Down In the Schoolyard”, “Kodachrome” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”. Art Garfunkel… well, not so much despite a few solo records (his acting career which seemed to take precedent over the music in the Bridge era also had failed to take off to any serious extent.) So the prospects of the two getting back together in the ’80s seemed remote. This was, after all as Ultimate Classic Rock reminds us, “before reunion tours became a natural part of being in a group.”

Meanwhile, back in the Big Apple, the beautiful Central Park was deteriorating. The city was in tough financial times and the jewel of Manhattan was being neglected and getting run down. No surprise then that the city’s Parks Commissioner took note of the popularity of Elton’s 1980 show, and proposed doing something similar in ’81, with a big free concert that would be recorded and sold as a park fund-raiser. Quintessential New Yorkers Simon & Garfunkel quickly came to mind.

At first neither seemed all that anxious to do it. Simon was having some confidence issues, with his latest album, One Trick Pony being the first since the duo split not to make the top 10 in North America or Britain. Then, when they were considering the idea, they ran into a wild difference in their concepts of what the show should be. Garfunkel wanted a stripped-down, acoustic show with just the pair of them and guitars on stage whereas Simon wanted to incorporate some of his own material and have a fuller sound… plus, injuries had limited his ability to play the guitar for long stretches.

In the end, Simon’s view won out and the concert was planned, with 11 local studio musicians recruited to back them up, including two guitarists, a pianist, trumpet and sax players and a drummer. While the pair were rehearsing and planning, the city started promoting the show, although the ads and posters had both mens’ names and left the type of concert rather ambiguous, with many unsure about whether they would reunite or simply each play their own sets.

A little rain that day didn’t dampen the spirits of New York music fans and eventually mayor Ed Koch welcomed them to the stage- and enthusiastic cheering of 500 000 fans. As such, they managed to surpass the attendance record set just a year earlier by Elton.

Few were disappointed; Simon and Garfunkel appeared fresh and ran through a set beginning with “Mrs. Robinson” and ending (initially) with “The Boxer”, running through an assortment of their best-loved tunes as well as several of Paul’s solo hits like a more latin-sounding “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” (complete with Mariachi-style horns) and “Kodachrome” , with a bit of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” mixed in it. They returned for an encore of “Old Friends”, “The 59th Street Bridge Song” and “The sound of Silence” (and a second brief encore with a snippet of “Late in the Evening.” In all they did 21 songs over about two hours, with the only real problem being the debut of a new Paul Simon song, “The Late Great Johnny Ace”. The song which dealt with the murders of JFK and John Lennon incensed at least one fan who rushed onstage midway through it, which Simon says didn’t frighten him (he thought the fan was merely intoxicated) but did aggravate him. He told David Letterman later on that he was upset that the premier of a song he was quite proud of was ruined… and subsequently dropped from the concert album.

Although the show was free, it managed to raise about $3 million for Central Park renovation and upgrades, thanks to HBO filming it for a special and commercial releases. The HBO footage was put out later on VHS and eventually DVD, with 19 of the songs put onto a double album that was released in 1982. The album hit #6 in the US and UK, #9 in Canada but topped the charts in New Zealand and France – where it is certified diamond… proof positive of the universal popularity of Paul and Art.

While the stayed together and toured in ’82, plans to work together on an album of new material were soon scuttled, and they’d never do anything much of note together again. However, for one magical night they were kings of their hometown. Simon says of the concert “I didn’t get it… how big it was, until I went home, turned on the television and saw it on all the news.”  If Reggie Jackson will forever be “Mr. October” in the Big Apple, it seems that these two might equally share the title “Mr. September.”

4 thoughts on “Sep. 19 – Show Made Simon & Garfunkel Kings Of New York

  1. badfinger20

    I remember watching this…on video not live but I loved it. I got the album when it came out. I was in my first years of high school and it helped kick-start my Simon and Garfunkel love…along with the greatest hits package…which this was in a way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never seen it or heard it but might look it up now. As a kid I really liked Simon’s solo stuff in the 70s , but wasn’t til after this concert that I started to really like S&G’s stuff. Interestingly, (perhaps) it was mostly their Greatest Hits album that made me be an early adopter of CDs– around ’84, I bought a nice Hitachi player that cost $400 (that was a whole lot back then, especially to a teen working a summer job) after a dude brought his CD player into work when we were setting up displays in a little museum. It sounded SO awesome, and coincidentally I’d just heard the same album on cassette from another friend, and it sounded “meh.” Anyway, they sure put out some good music back in the day

      Liked by 1 person

      1. badfinger20

        We got into them around the same time… With them quality helps no doubt. That was a lot of money then no doubt at that time. There are so many songs I like by them… especially America.
        Their greatest hits is wonderful… not a bad song on the album/cd….
        Btw… I’m going to Atlanta in about three weeks and if I get a chance I may venture to that place you were talking about.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: April 22 – Carr Drove Sound Of Many A ’70s Hit – A Sound Day

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