Listen to this track by folk-rock titans and close harmony bar setters Paul Simon and Arthur Garfunkel, known to the world by the partnership name of Simon & Garfunkel. It’s ‘The Only Living Boy In New York” as taken from the duo’s 1970 album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, their final (to date) studio album and the B-side to their well-known favourite “Cecilia”. This song is the sound of the edge of the 1970s, and what would soon be a disolved partnership most associated with the 1960s.
The pair had made four albums before this one, gaining an audience as a folk-rock duo, with an impressive number of hit singles in that vein, making them one of the most prominent acts of that decade. But, before they were Simon & Garfunkel, they were Tom & Jerry, a pop duo with a minor hit in the charts at the end of the ’50s in “Hey Schoolgirl“, influenced heavily by another titanic vocal duo – The Everly Brothers. They even appeared on the venerated TV show American Bandstand under that moniker. So, when Simon sings about ‘Tom’ in this particular song, it’s not hard to imagine that he’s talking about his soon-to-be-erstwhile partner, who by the end of the ’60s had found a second career as an actor.
By the time this song was being written by Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel was winging his way to Mexico to film the movie version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 instead of hunkering down with his musical partner to aid in the completion of their fifth record. The tone of the song betrays feelings of isolation, with some sentiments of betrayal that can be detected swimming just beneath. It would set a tone for the recording and release of the duo’s album, sidelined at one point by Garfunkel’s absence.
Despite the duo’s immense popularity, with this album being the pinnacle of that success and being in the charts for many years after its release in January of 1970, it was clear that the interests in the partnership were divided. There would be reunions after this. But, to date, the record off of which this song comes would be their last together as a studio entity. This does not include their 1975 hit “My Little Town” which, perhaps tellingly, appears on the solo albums of both Simon and Garfunkel that year (Still Crazy After All These Years and Breakaway, respectively) instead of being notable as a Simon & Garfunkel song as a part of that earlier canon of material.
As such, “The Only Living Boy in New York” can be looked upon as an expression of alienation between the two artists. Yet, to me, it sounds too sad, too melancholic, to really be a song of bitter acrimony. To me, it’s more like a lament.
After all, these were two singers who’ve known each other since junior high school. Sure, there’s some professional tension here that eventually led to the undoing of their working relationship as a full-time recording unit. But, to me the sound of this tune is that of disappointment, and the fraying of a friendship. This adds a poignancy to this song, with more at stake than just a delayed album release. It’s about a relationship between old friends that’s drifted apart.
There’s nothing like heartbreak to create the best pop songs around.
For more information and news about Simon & Garfunkel, a partnership that has been on and off for 50 years now, check out the official Simon & Garfunkel site.