Listen to this track by angelically voiced interpretive singer, actor, and one-time member of a world-beating folk-rock duo that bears his name in part, Art Garfunkel. It’s “99 Miles From L.A”, a cut from his 1975 album Breakaway, his second solo album. The song itself was recorded that same year by its writer, the singer-songwriter Albert Hammond (who also wrote “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer around this same time), complete with lyrics by none other than Hal David.
Garfunkel is wrongly thought by some to be a gooseberry in his own career, with Paul Simon looked upon as the significant talent in their partnership, mostly due to the fact that Simon was a writer and (up until very recently at least) Garfunkel was not. It is also thought that Garfunkel’s solo career is lightweight and a bit “wet”. But I would argue that very few singers reached the depths of melancholy that Garfunkel has in his singing, adding his unique vocal instrument to some of the greatest songs ever written and recorded, and being absolutely indispensable to how well those songs connect on an emotional level with listeners of multiple generations. So few singers in an English-speaking pop context are able to sing a line that is both gloriously optimistic and devastatingly sad at the same time with such precision. This is not to mention his pivotal role as producer and arranger on Simon & Garfunkel albums, of which not many people are aware.
How does Garfunkel bring his formidable vocal powers to this song? I think he does it by utilizing his voice around the very ambiguous story that this song is telling, where we as the listeners aren’t sure of what kind of story it is; happy or sad.
Garfunkel’s capacity for melancholy makes “99 Miles From L.A” the perfect vehicle for his unique talents to create the effect of innocence under pressure, with heartache just around the next bend. It certainly helps that the arrangement here helps to shore up its wintry vibe, with weeping strings, flowing acoustic guitar, and with Garfunkel’s double tracked voice wrapped in echo, almost as if it’s quietly struggling against being consumed by its surroundings.
This is a decidedly solitary road trip song, with one character driving through a pallid landscape populated only by telephone poles, road signs, and inclement weather. This song is about a sense of disconnection and a longing for contact, with the elements and experiences described conflated with the presence of a lover and underscoring that lover’s absence all at once. It contains highly evocative and very cinematic images and sense of narrative in that very seventies washed out quasi-realism style. You can practically see the rain splashing against the windshield and the telephone poles zipping past one by one as the narrator drives, lost in thoughts as he is about seeing his lover, or possibly never again. And that’s just the thing with this song. It’s hard to know how this tale will end up.
Garfunkel’s voice is perfectly suited to this sense of ambiguity, either soon to be comforted or forever doomed by love’s promise, and more importantly and potently both at the same time. Also, there is something distinctly northern about his approach to arrangement and vocal delivery that my ears connect with the kind of twenty-first century folk and chamber-pop revival that came out of Scandinavia starting in the two-thousands, particularly in the work of Kings Of Convenience and José González. Upon hearing this, Garfunkel is certainly one of the key influencers of that wintry, desolate sound. In this way, even the idea of driving to L.A, known for its warm climate, palm trees, and mythic levels of fame is an interesting exercise in disconnectedness, too. This narrator is much further away from the glitz and glamour of La-La Land than a mere ninety-nine miles! There is a certain hint that this narrator must cover far more distance than he expects before his journey is over. That tension is palpable through out, and perhaps connects with the idea that sometimes even when we want to reach someone, the road between us and them can be a very long one indeed.
Art Garfunkel is a poet, walking enthusiast (he’s taken some very long walks!), and continues as a singer today, even after a period of vocal troubles that nearly ended his career. You can learn more about him at his website, artgarfunkel.com.
For even more, here’s an interview with Garfunkel from The Guardian, which covers his solo career, his tumultuous relationship with Paul Simon, his love for the written word, and his one-time career toward his M.A in mathematics, accomplished concurrently as his star was at its highest peak with Simon & Garfunkel by the end of the 1960s and into the early seventies.