The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’

I don’t remember hearing this for the first time. I hope I was impressed but I suspect I wasn’t. I’d only just begun to listen to music properly, seriously, enthusiastically, and I think this song, this perfect blend of simplicity and sophistication, went over my head.

I remember the stir it caused, the universal applause it received, a rare but deserved one-mindedness about a song. These were the days when DJs had theme songs, topping and tailing their shows, and Dave Cash, whose Radio Programme saw out Radio 1’s time-constrained afternoon broadcasting, immediately switched his theme for this song, just so he could play it twice a day, every day. He was barred from doing so once the single reached Number 1.

What have I to add to the millions of words already written and spoken about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’? This was the song that, effectively, broke up Simon and Garfunkel, and it’s entirely understandable.

Where do you go from here? What have you left, what can you do after a song and an arrangement that will still be playing a thousand years from now? And how can you write and arrange a song like this, even without Paul Simon’s ego, and stand at the side of the stage every night watching Art Garfunkel sing it, and take all the applause?

It begins with a piano, alone, a single player somewhere in an empty space. Sure-handed, composed, developing a musical theme, a serene melody until, in a moment of resolution, a space for thinking, it is joined by Garfunkel’s voice, equally alone: light, unafraid, pure, almost weightless. When you’re weary, he sings, feeling small. When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.

This is a love song, but it’s nothing like any other love song. It’s not a sexual love, the way it always is now, nor even a romantic love, as would be expected then. We do not yet understand it, but the words have already introduced us that this is different, that what Garfunkel is singing of is love, pure love, agape: love of soul, of the whole.

I’m on your side. Four simple words, undramatic, committed. We all want that all need that, someone to be on our side. No matter what.

When you’re down and out, when you’re on the street. For a moment, we flash back to the poor boy of ‘The Boxer’, pocket full of mumbles, but this is no boy. Whatever else, whoever else Garfunkel is singing to, is making promises to, it is a woman. And his singing is getting stronger, and richer, and the pianist’s sound is growing, his hands heavier on the keys, to match the growing strength of the song, of the promise. Like a Bridge over Troubled water, I will lay me down. And Garfunkel’s voice has grown, and now it fills all this space into which it came, sweet, soft, alone.

And the chords mount, the music builds. Simon has held back so long, a choice of the greatest musical daring, trusting on that piano, and on his partner’s voice, to hold everything together, so still, so brave. But the cymbals clash, strings begin to hum, soft yet piercing, a single bass note plucks in the deepness, and again.

This is a love song about having someone’s back, about being there for them, about smoothing their way. It could be condescending, looking after the little woman who’s out of her depth, it could be a father or mother to a child, looking after them. But the glory of this song is that it is not. The singer has faith. Not just faith, belief, knowledge. Sail on Silver Girl, sail all night. Your time has come to shine. This is your time, this is you, all the things that you are and can be and will be, you have it in you to be all of that. I’m on your side. I will watch, and I will glory in you and what you will do.

And I will be there, sailing right behind. In those times of darkness and despair, when everything feels as if it is against you, I will be ready, I will support you, I will be what you need to make your way. I will be a Bridge over Troubled Water. I will lay me down.

And the music soars and swoops. Paul Simon draws in for a few lines of steely, austere, harmonies, reminding her of how her dreams, her future shines, but this is Art Garfunkel’s song and whatever it meant to their partnership, Paul Simon’s artistic soul saw it right, understood that it was Art’s voice that was key to this, that his was the right voice, the only voice, to do justice to this spiraling, towering, cathedral of sound, this immense, lifelong, soul-deep assurance. I will lay me down.

It’s not hard to see why many will call this a deeply religious song, will see God as the voice and the promise, not just to a young woman making her world for herself on the very cusp of feminism. I will comfort you. But to me, to arrogate this song, this promise, to a deity is to diminish it. This is an intensely human song, an incarnation of what we are and can be, of everything we contain within us that so rarely we display.

We can be like this. We are like this. This is in each of us. Paul Simon’s gift lay in finding a way of saying that, and finding a music that says it in complete harmony with the words. Like a Bridge over Troubled Water. How much I need one.

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