Art Garfunkel’s forthcoming anthology The Singer includes key moments from 10 of his solo efforts, and a number of collaborative projects with Paul Simon — none perhaps more interesting than this one.
Anthematic and so unsettling as to stand apart from anything he ever did as part of Simon and Garfunkel, “My Little Town” had always held such resonance for me — even before the arrival of this 34-song, two-disc Legacy Recordings set. For all of Garfunkel’s many triumphs (“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Breakaway,” “Scarborough Fair,” “The Sound of Silence,” even the shattering “April Come She Will,” all of which are featured as part of Songwriter), this might just be my favorite recording of his.
Recorded with Simon for Garfunkel’s 1975 project Breakaway, and also included on Simon’s concurrent Still Crazy After All These Years, “My Little Town” opens with a ruminative piano signature from Garfunkel, as he and Simon (who sing in tandem the whole time) frame a childhood spent dreaming of escape from a city that feels like this soot-covered cul-de-sac for dreams: “In my little town, I never meant nothing; I was just my father’s son — saving my money, dreamin’ of glory, twitching like a finger on a trigger of a gun.” Even the colors of the rainbow have been drained of their vibrancy in this place.
As an adolescent, I thought I knew that town pretty well — many of us did. It seemed Garfunkel’s parents, like ours, never understood him, never completely bought in to his plans. Though he possessed one of his generation’s most distinctive voices (a tenor that shoots past nostalgia right into that place where honest emotions live), Garfunkel’s folks apparently insisted he stay in school — where he would eventually earn a master’s degree in mathematics. We were all getting that same speech about having something to fall back on, and all we wanted to do was our own thing — play guitar, write stories, whatever. This song didn’t just sound like his own autobiography, as seen through the lens of Simon’s carefully constructed words, it sounded like everybody’s I knew.
“My Little Town” became Simon and Garfunkel’s eighth Top 10 Billboard hit, peaking at No. 9. Makes sense, right? We couldn’t have been the only ones who wanted, more than anything, more than anything in the world, to follow this song’s path — to get out: Get out of our little rooms in the back of our parents’ houses, break free from the every-day boredom of a place where we’d grown up. I remember speeding away, with the city skyline receding in the rearview mirror of my 1974 Volks, feeling like I’d just been paroled. And the chorus here, as Garfunkel and Simon burst forward in unison, summed it all up for me perfectly: “Nothing but the dead of night, back in my little town!”
Only later did I learn, after getting it wrong for years, that Garfunkel was actually singing: “Nothing but the dead and dyin’, back in my little town” — a richly twilit lyric, and one that speaks even more directly to the sense of escape that always surrounded “My Little Town.”
I chuckled softly when it came on as part of The Singer, and not just because of that long-ago lyrical mishap. I’ve got my own kid now, in his own backroom. And I’m sure he’s going to make that same drive one day soon.
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Garfunkel has described his work in compiling The Singer as something of a “swan song.” He reportedly is suffering from a condition called vocal paresis, which has severely limited his ability to perform: “I’ve put together 50 years of what I did, with and without Paul,” Garfunkel told Spinner, “and it’s me saying, ‘While I was here on earth, this was me and music.'” The Singer, which also includes “All I Know,” “Barbara Allen,” “For Emily,” “(What A) Wonderful World,” “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright,” and two newly recorded performances (“Lena,” “Long Way Home”), is due August 28, 2012 from Legacy.