Simon & Garfunkel – The Only Living Boy In New York.
“There’s an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of ’em says: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such … small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”
Woody Allen, Annie Hall.
I’m a big fan of Jewish humour. I don’t know if I’m allowed to like Woody Allen anymore; I don’t even know if I want to like Woody Allen anymore, but I can’t delete what’s already been filed away in my brain, and maybe I shouldn’t anyway, but the quotation above resonated with me straight away. I mean, I enjoyed its deeply ingrained sense of misery, futility and whingeing, whatever happens. The pessimism, I suppose.
‘The Only Living Boy In New York’, I came to late. My first experience with Simon & Garfunkel was via a compilation album done – extremely well – by The Alan Caddy Orchestra and Singers which didn’t have this particular song on it. Believing, as I did, everything my old man told me was true, I thought anything that wasn’t on a Greatest Hits album was inevitably unmitigated bollocks. My dad’s a very clever chap – a lot cleverer than I am – and I just didn’t question his wisdom. In a lot of ways he was right, but it wasn’t until Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine brought out ‘The Only Living Boy In New Cross’ and the music mags referred to Simon and Garfunkel in the punning title that I realised my ignorance. Pre YouTube, I sometimes waited months – years – before coming across things I was looking for: films, records, books.
When I eventually heard it, much later, I thought three things:
- My old man’s views on albums may have been flawed.
- I fucking hate Carter USM.
- This could be the most Jewish record in the world.
On the face of it, it’s a song about loneliness. Here’s Paul Simon, the only living boy in New York. All alone. By himself. Wishing his friend – probably his only friend – was here with him. Sad times, eh?
In a lot of ways, that is what it’s about, but there’s more to it than that. There’s something a bit fruitier below the surface that’s going on, the idea of which, in general, appeals to me.
I heard a radio documentary on the album ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ around that time and, when it was talking about this song, it said that Art Garfunkel was in Mexico filming ‘Catch-22’ and Paul Simon was back in New York, working on the album and he wrote this because he never knew when Artie was going to be around to record and he was sad about it. Seemed reasonable, but I suspected there was more to it than Rhymin’ Simon (I don’t like any solo Paul Simon records, apart from 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, and it’s mainly the drums I like on that) was letting on.
I couldn’t find any books about Simon & Garfunkel in the library, so I was on my own – the only living boy in Hull with too much free time on his hands and a burgeoning interest in Judaism, at least in terms of pessimism and self-pity.
Like many such endeavours, after too long going round in circles and getting nowhere, the answer sprang almost fully formed from my brain: this wasn’t just a reflection on loneliness, this was about martyrdom.
The opening verse made sense in terms of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Catch-22’ dilemma.
“Tom, get your plane right on time
I know your part’ll go fine
Fly down to Mexico
Do-n-do-d-do-n-do and here I am,
The only living boy in New York,”
‘Tom’ is Artie Garfunkel because Simon & Garfunkel were originally ‘Tom & Jerry’, so that made sense. The ‘part’ that would go fine would be ‘Nately’ in ‘Catch-22’. Paul Simon was going to be in it as well, but his part got cut, so he was left alone in New York. So far, so good. This was in line with the radio documentary so far.
“I get the news I need on the weather report
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report
Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile
Do-n-doh-d-doh-n-doh and here I am
The only living boy in New York,”
Second verse, same sort of thing: if Artie was due to be flying back but the weather was crap, he’d stay in Mexico, leaving Paul Simon to twiddle his thumbs in the studio, thinking about suspending Hal Blaine in an elevator shaft to get the reverb on the drums in ‘The Boxer’ presumably. Possibly as the sort of projection that opens up to you when you’ve got a lot of money. Poor Paul, eh? Never mind, he’s still smiling, eh? Resilient, you see. Tolerant. Accepting.
By the time it gets to the bridge or the middle eight, or whatever it is, the plot thickens subtly.
“Half of the time we’re gone
But we don’t know where,
And we don’t know where,”
At this point, Artie has joined in, doing that angelic harmonising that he was so good at, singing, “Here I am,” swathed in reverb, making him sound like he’s in Mexico or something, presumably. This is the point at which Paul reveals that his martyrdom might not be quite as benign as he’s implied so far. The key line is the second one: “We don’t know where…”. As the title of the song has made abundantly clear, half of Simon & Garfunkel know exactly where they are. In fact, it’s the word, ‘we’ that is the crux here because it’s not ‘we’, is it Paul? It’s ‘you’, meaning Art Garfunkel. Every bugger knows exactly where Paul is. Paul’s all alone in New York. We even know what he’s doing in New York, don’t we? He’s sending his best wishes to his best friend Artie – encouraging him. And when Artie’s due back but doesn’t make it, Paul’s alright with that because he does a bit of smiling to get him through the lonely, lonely days in New York where it’s probably snowing as well.
“Tom, get your plane right on time
I know you’ve been eager to fly now
Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine now
Like it shines on me,”
Last verse now, and this is where Paul finally lets slip and shows us his acid tongue. Mainly a repeat of the first verse, the lashing comes when he sings of ‘honesty.’ What have we learned of Paul Simon from this song? He’s kind, he’s encouraging, he’s lonely and he faces adversity with a smile. Everybody knows it’s Artie who’s buggered off and left Paul, but Paul is such a big man about it that he’s not going to sing “Half of the time you’re gone and I don’t know where…” No, he’s not going to point the finger. He’s practically shouting to the Romans that he, Paul Simon, is Spartacus and if you’re going to crucify (Sp)Artie(cus), you’re going to have to crucify Paulie, too. That’s right.
That’s all very well, but the missing person in the song has been sketched out for us too, and what’s Artie like? Artie fucks off where he likes, when he likes and leaves poor Paulie to get on with the hard work. Artie’s obviously a bit worried about being an actor in a major Hollywood movie but Paulie, bless him, encourages him to go – even though it means Paulie will suffer. What have we learned about Artie? Selfish, thoughtless and lacking self-confidence. And now, in the last verse, we learn that he’s also ‘honest’. But about what?
Paulie doesn’t tell us that. What he does tell us is that Artie is evidently very honest with Paulie but apparently not with the rest of the world in general. Still, about what? I’ll get to it, but first, a minor diversion to beginning of the 20th century.
Diversion – The Monkey’s Paw –W.W. Jacobs.
The thing about The Monkey’s Paw is that the reader never gets to see the thing that they’re dying to see – what the son looks like after. It’s clever because once you’ve been shown what a thing is like, you can deal with it and, more pertinently, it could be worse. If the son had one of his eyeballs dangling on his cheek, ichor dribbling out of it into his ruined maw, we’d think, ‘At least it wasn’t both eyeballs. At least the eyeball juice isn’t spraying into a puppy’s face.” The moral being, if you don’t make it totally clear what it is that you’re implying, the readers are likely to imagine something far worse than you could ever conjure up for them.
End of Diversion
And that’s what Simon does: in not specifying exactly what it is that Garfunkel is so honest about in his presence, it makes the listener assume the worst. In fact, it makes them incapable of settling on one particular thing because we are never given closure on what Artie was actually honest about in front of Paul, but not the rest of the world. And what does the listener assume? Artie is mean to Paulie whilst simultaneously giving the impression to the world at large that he’s a great big softie with hair like a microphone from 1975. How could he be a bad man? Yeah, well Paul Simon knows all about the real Artie Garfunkel. Not the image he presents to the public, mind. Not ‘Lovely Artie with his lovely voice’, oh no. Not that he’s going to tell us about it, because Paulie’s too much of a great guy to do that. Too much of a good friend. You know, the type who hangs around waiting for you to finish having a good time hanging around with your other friends… The type who just wants you do be happy… Even if you spend your entire life being cruel to poor Paul Simon and pretending that you’re some sort of benevolent, elongated teddy bear. At best, Paul Simon implies that Art Garfunkel, is eager to leave him. And after all he’s done for him…
The Only Living Boy In New York is the most Jewish song in the world, because Paul Simon can’t help but play the role of the stereotypical Jewish mother in it:
‘Don’t you worry about me, you go enjoy yourself. I’m dying here, but I’ll do it quietly so I don’t upset you all having a good time. If only you cared about your mother. The one who provided (songs) for you… Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone how badly you treat your mother…’
There’s an idea that quite a few songs on Bridge Over Troubled Water are about Simon and Garfunkel breaking up. I don’t know if it’s true and I don’t care, really. I don’t really care about The Only Living Boy In New York being about them splitting up either. What grabs me is Simon’s desire to tell the world exactly what a cunt Art Garfunkel is whilst simultaneously painting himself as a pure hearted martyr.
The final irony, of course, is that in pointing out Garfunkel’s alleged lack of public honesty, Simon shines a light on his own selective version of the truth, which shows him as a bitter, uncharitable man who desperately wants to air his dirty washing in public, who tragically lacks exactly what he castigates Garfunkel for: self-confidence and the inability to let his honesty shine, shine, shine out on the world at large and just come right out and say it.