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Monday 5 December 2016

I created a monster when I offered Paul Simon my love and friendship

Forty-five years after the split from his school pal and partner, Art Garfunkel is still consumed with bitterness, writes Nigel Farndale

I hear Art Garfunkel before I see him, singing to himself as he drifts across the hotel lobby. He's 73, and not as tall as you might imagine - an illusion probably created during all those years standing next to the diminutive Paul Simon.

As I'm early, I hang back and wait for him to reappear. When he does, he is carrying a large envelope. He tilts back his head to study me through black-framed glasses before proffering his left hand to shake, explaining that he trapped his right one in a door.

"I'm allowing myself to be victimised here," he says, not making eye contact.

By me? "By the press. I'm nervous."

Really? Someone who can sing in front of half-a-million people, as he and Paul Simon did in 1981 for that historic, but temporary, reunion concert in Central Park?

"Oh, I was nervous there, too. You feel vulnerable. Exposed. You might forget a lyric. It's brave work, this work. I want you to respect it."

recovered

But I do, I say, I do - which is why I've already bought my tickets to see him in concert when he returns to London in the autumn, to play at the Royal Albert Hall.

"Gorgeous acoustics," he says, relaxing a little. It will be a tour of seven cities, and it nearly didn't happen because in 2010 he suffered from a "paresis" of his vocal cords. "Since I lost my voice - and I have now almost fully recovered it - the loud, high notes haven't quite come back, so I need a mic for volume."

Since Simon & Garfunkel split up in 1970, he has married twice and raised two sons, had a film career, walked across America and Europe - "to get away from people" - and continued recording.

Although his solo hits (Bright Eyes, I Only Have Eyes for You) were written by other people, and although Paul Simon wrote all the Simon & Garfunkel songs, he does write. Prose poems, mostly. In long hand.

He also does a lot of mathematics, having read it as a student at Columbia.

"I'm precise. I think in proportions. I play games with numbers and I proportionalise. I imagine we have now done one-eighth of our interview." I check my watch.

He even took a job as a maths teacher at one point, in the Seventies, despite being a famous pop star.

"I'd just got married and moved to Connecticut, and there was a nearby preparatory school and so I taught math there. It was a weird stage of my life, to leave Simon & Garfunkel at the height of our success and become a math teacher. I would talk them through a math problem and ask if anyone had any questions and they would say: "What were the Beatles like?"

At the risk of sounding like one of his pupils, I ask about George Harrison, who felt his talents were overshadowed.

"George came up to me at a party once and said, "My Paul is to me what your Paul is to you'. He meant that psychologically they had the same effect on us. The Pauls sidelined us. I think George felt suppressed by Paul and I think that's what he saw with me and my Paul.

"Here's the truth: McCartney was a helluva music man who gave the band its energy, but he also ran away with a lot of the glory."

Shortly before they split up, Simon & Garfunkel released what was to become the (then) biggest-selling album in history, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Why did they walk away from that phenomenal success?

"It was very strange. Crazy. He was getting on my nerves. The jokes had run dry. But a rest of a year was all I needed. I said, 'I'm not married yet. I want to jump on a BMW motorbike and tour round Europe chasing ladies'."

Did he have a seduction technique?

"I had it down to an art. When you sign autographs, you see the real pretty one and make sure you get to her last. Then you ask, ever so casually, 'Have you had dinner?'."

Paul Simon once said that it upset him that audiences thought Garfunkel had written his masterpiece, Bridge Over Troubled Water, because Garfunkel sang it as a solo, with piano accompaniment.

"I saw that quote, too. But how many songs did I sing upfront and have a real tour de force of vocal? Does he resent that I had that one? I find that ungenerous."

It's an intriguing answer, one that makes me suspect Paul Simon is not only a musical genius but also an insecure man who has to be the centre of attention. When I mention that I went to see Paul Simon and Sting at the O2 a few weeks ago, Garfunkel sits forward.

"Tell me, I'm curious. Did he do Bridge Over Troubled Water?"

Ended the show with it. "It was a gamble that he did that. When they did it, was Sting on the arrangement?"

When I say he was, Garfunkel looks over his shoulder, reaches into his envelope and produces a clutch of his prose poems marked with pink Post-it labels and reads one to me. It is about a zebra.

He's a hard man to get the measure of. On the one hand he still seems eaten up by bitterness about his divorce from Paul Simon, yet he also talks about his old friend (they were at school together) with deep affection.

He sips a spoonful of pea soup as his 24-year-old son, Art Jnr, appears and says hello before heading off to wait at the bar.

estranged

"We were estranged for a while," he says. "Aged 16, my kid created a distance. He broke my heart a little. Now he's moving back to love of family. For these shows I'm going to bring him on stage. We harmonise. He's got the singing gift."

I say there is one more question I have to ask, and he will have guessed what it is.

"Will I do another tour with Paul? Well, that's quite do-able. As far as this half is concerned, why not? But I've been in that same place for decades. This is where I was in 1971."

He then seems to address not me but his old friend. "How can you walk away from this lucky place on top of the world, Paul? What's going on with you, you idiot?"

Actually, another question strikes me. I speculate about whether Paul Simon might have a Napoleon complex. Is there a height thing there, between them?

"I think you're on to something. I would say so, yes."

He adds that at school he felt sorry for Paul because of his height, and he offered him love and friendship as a compensation. "That compensation gesture has created a monster. End of interview."

When he drifts off back to the lifts, singing to himself again, I check my watch. Turns out his mental clock, when he guessed how far we were through the interview, was exactly right.

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