Retrospective Review: "Bookends" by Simon & Garfunkel
Was Bookends inspired by Sgt. Peppers?
On the surface, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends are about as different as two albums can be. But on closer inspection of the lyrics, the similarities are striking. Host Bobby Waller explores this groundbreaking concept album by one of America's most revered folk duos.
Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Learn more about Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, listen to Bookends, and read additional reviews.
Listen to Bookends
Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends Turns 50
This is a partial transcript of Ep. 23 of the What's This Album About? podcast published April 3, 2018
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ARTIST BIO: About Simon and Garfunkel
"Bridge Over Troubled Water” is the last song that Simon and Garfunkel recorded before their breakup in 1970. It’s atypical because, while the folk rock super-duo was famous for its perfectly blended vocal harmonies, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” features Art Garfunkel in a solo vocal performance.
This makes Garfunkel’s voice a fitting bookend for the duo’s career together—because not only was it the sound of their swan song, it was also the catalyst for their formation.
It all started in the late 1940s when fourth-grader Arty Garfunkel sang in a talent show at Public School 164 in Queens, New York, capturing the attention of schoolmate Paul Simon. The two eventually started singing together, forming a five-member doo-wop group called the Peptones, and then an Everly Brothers sound-alike duo called Tom and Jerry.
Tom and Jerry’s only charting hit, “Hey Schoolgirl,” peaked at #49 on the Billboard singles chart in 1957, when Simon and Garfunkel were still in high school. It was followed by a string of singles which failed to sell well, and so, after high school, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel went to college.
Still avoiding their overtly Jewish-sounding last names, they reunited in 1963 as a folk duo called Kane and Garr and were discovered at an open mic session at Gerde’s Folk City—the legendary club that had buffeted the careers Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The man who discovered Simon and Garfunkel at the open mic session was Tom Wilson, a former jazz producer/engineer who would go on to shape Dylan’s most groundbreaking folk rock albums,as well as albums by the Velvet Underground, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and the Mothers of Invention, fronted by Frank Zappa.
Wilson signed Simon and Garfunkel to Columbia Records, where the duo cut their first album, 1964’s Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., a sparsely arranged collection of five originals and seven covers, including three conspicuously Christian songs, sung un-ironically by a duo that was, ironically, finally comfortable being billed by their Jewish surnames. Sales were abysmal by Columbia’s standards, so the duo once again disbanded, with Art Garfunkel returning to college and Paul Simon pursuing a solo career in England.
But while Simon and Garfunkel were done with Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Wilson was not. He was quite taken by one of the originals on Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., in particular—a sparse, folky number called “The Sound of Silence.”
Without even consulting Simon or Garfunkel, Wilson overdubbed rock instruments on the recording, and it ended up sounding like this…
Paul Simon was initially irked when he heard Wilson’s bastardization, but when that bastardization hit the #1 position on Billboard’s Hot 100, even Paul Simon agreed it was time to make a folk rock album.
Named Sounds of Silence to echo the name of its chart-topping single, Simon and Garfunkel’s sophomore album was created to cash in on the duo’s sudden popularity as quickly as possible. Recording began in December of 1965, and the album was on record store shelves by the middle of the following month. Although the album yielded a new Top Ten single with “I Am a Rock,” Simon felt the rush to market had resulted in a disjointed album and, therefore, insisted on greater artistic control of the creation of his and Art’s third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which was named after a line in its lead single, “Scarborough Fair.”
And that brings us up to Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth album, Bookends, which, as I mentioned, is having its fifty-year anniversary this month. And so, to commemorate the event, we’re making it our feature album this time around, as we look at its lyrics and ask ourselves, “What’s this album about?”
LYRICAL ANALYSIS: Bookends
As I mentioned before, the main thing I want to look at is the parallels between Bookends and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. But first, let’s look at some important general information about Bookends.
Side 1 Concept Album
Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends was released on April 3, 2018, fifty years ago this week. It’s certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and won the 1969 Grammy for Album of the Year. Bookends captured audience’s attention not only because Side 2 included the hit singles “Hazy Shade of Winter,” ”At The Zoo," and “Fakin’ It,” which reached the number 13, 16, and 23 positions, respectively, on Billboard’s Hot 100, but also because Side 1 was a concept demi-album that covered the stages of a human life cycle in sequence.
So we’ve got youth, represented by Track 2, “Save the Life of My Child,” followed by early adulthood, represented by Track 3, “America,” followed by middle age on Track 4, “Overs,” and old age on Track 5, a sonic collage called “Voices of Old People,” and Track 6, “Old Friends.”
Side 1 of Bookends is an emotional roller coaster, and if you’ve never taken the time to listen to it from start to finish, you really should. Bookends is one of the most riveting concept albums ever made. But what interests me most about it is an assertion I read by the late New York disc jockey Pete Fornatale in his 2007 book titled Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. The assertion, which seemed a little far-fetched to me at first but proved more compelling the more I thought about it, is that Bookends bears strong and probably purposeful resemblance to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
That’s right! The most celebrated concept album of all time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
Comparison to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
But is it really fair to compare Bookends to Sgt. Pepper’s? Aren’t they apples and oranges? After all, Sgt. Pepper’s is a bright and playful album with unashamed expressions of free-spirited fantasy, while Bookends is a darkly self-conscious with a bent toward fatalism.
But a closer look suggests that Bookends may actually have been modeled after Sgt. Pepper’s.
Art Garfunkel himself stated in a 2015 interview with The Guardian that he and Paul Simon had been “terribly impressed” by Sgt. Pepper’s and that it had “shone a light on the path that led to Bookends.” And Fornatale has pointed out that the themes of Bookends often directly match the themes of Sgt. Pepper’s. So let’s look at that.
Side 1 of Bookends begins with an instrumental called “Bookends Theme” and ends with a reprisal of the same tune, now with lyrics.
Similarly, Sgt. Pepper’s begins with “We’re Sgt. Pepper’s lonely Hearts Club Band," which is reprised in a slightly different form toward the end of the album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).”
In other words, both albums are “bookended” by a repeated musical motif that ushers the audience into the narrative world of the album and later ushers them back to the world of everyday experience.
Both albums also have songs about the exploratory nature of young adulthood. In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s, that song is “She’s Leaving Home," which is written from the perspective of two parents waking up to find that their daughter has left home without warning, venturing out to seek a life that is more fun and less staid than the one they gave her.
And in the case of Bookends, that song is “America,” which is written from the perspective of a young man talking to his girlfriend as they embark on a bus trip in pursuit of their place in life.
Both albums also have a song about old age. On Sgt. Pepper’s, it’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Typical of the generally bright tone of Sgt. Pepper’s, “When I’m Sixty-Four” is written from the perspective of a young man anticipating old age and predicting he will be as much in love with his girlfriend/wife then as he is now.
The corresponding tracks on Bookends are “Voices of Old People,” a collage of audio clips collected by Art Garfunkel at the United Home for Aged Hebrews in New York and the California Home for the Aged in Reseda, and the song “Old Friends.”
Typical of the generally darker tone of Bookends, “Old Friends” provides a glimpse of two elderly friends sitting on a park bench fearfully anticipating death. But Bookends is not all gloom and doom. It does have its light moments, such as its final song, “At the Zoo.”
The Pageantry of Life
According to Fornatale, “At the Zoo” corresponds thematically to Sgt. Pepper’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Both songs entice the audience to witness a display of entertainment. In the case of “Mr. Kite,” that entertainment is a circus. In the case of “At the Zoo,” it’s a zoo.
And in both cases, I get the sense that the display of entertainment we’re being invited to attend is metaphorical. It’s not a literal circus; it’s the circus of life. In “At the Zoo,” this metaphor becomes most apparent at the end of the song when various zoo animals are associated with distinctly human personality traits. (“And the monkeys stand for honesty. Giraffes are insincere. And the elephants are kindly but their dumb.”)
This is the world according to the young Paul Simon. It might not be as bright as the world of Sgt. Pepper’s. The human life cycle, as depicted in Bookends, is marked by the suicidal despair of youth, the restlessness of early adulthood, the malaise of middle-aged, and the immanent death we face in old age. And yet there’s something undeniably compelling about the spectacle of it all.
The show is worth more than the price of admission.
And I think it’s this spirit of appreciation for the circus of life—for this zoo we call humanity—that makes me so fond of rock’s early concept albums. It’s why today—in 2018—I’m able to have a show called What’s This Album About? Because fifty years ago, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and others like them decided that an album could be about something. It could be an art form in its own right—regardless of the money-making value of its singles.
Life’s pageant, they implied, is immeasurably rich, and sometimes you just need more than three and a half minutes to say so.
Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to look and ask questions—and to keep your ears open because the more you listen, the more you love.