To celebrate the birthday of one of our finest pop composers, we look behind the scenes of his classic song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
It was spring 1969. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gone. Racial tensions were erupting across the country. The war was raging in Vietnam.
What was a sensitive singer-songwriter like Paul Simon to do but dig deep for some words of solace? As he gazed out the window of his New York apartment across the East River, he sang the opening lines he’d had for over a week. “When you’re weary, feeling small . . . When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” He especially liked how the melody to the second couplet echoed one of his favorite Bach chorales.
But after that promising start, there was only the sound of silence.
“I was stuck for a while,” Simon admitted. “Everywhere I went led to somewhere I didn’t want to be.”
What ultimately inspired him to finish his “humble little gospel song” was an album by southern gospel group The Swan Silvertones.
“Every time I came home, I put that record on, so it was in my mind,” Simon said. “I started to go to gospel chord changes, and took the melody further. Then there was one song where the lead singer was scatting, and he shouted out, ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.’"
That offhand phrase provided the lyrical key he’d been looking for.
Simon couldn’t wait to play his new song for his musical partner Art Garfunkel. With its sweeping melody and sustained high notes, it would be perfect for Garfunkel’s choirboy-pure voice. Or so he thought.
“He didn't want to sing it,” Simon said. “He couldn't hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times, I think I'm sorry I didn't do it.”
Garfunkel remembered it differently. “When Paul showed me ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ he said it was for me. And I loved the song immediately. My way of saying thank you was, ‘Are you sure? Because you sound lovely singing it, and it’s almost like you could do it . . .’ Now the famous story is that he took offense and that became a thorn between us, as if I was rejecting the song. That’s nonsense.”
Regardless of who was to deliver Simon’s ballad, the duo hustled into CBS studios in Hollywood to chisel out the finer points of the arrangement. But it soon became apparent that the two-verse song wasn’t quite finished.
Garfunkel said, “It was supposed to end with the second verse, but there seemed to be a promise of what could be if Paul were to extend the song. The whole production could open up, and we could make a record with real size.”
Reluctantly, Simon wrote a third verse. “You could clearly see it was written afterwards,” he said. The third verse may not have pleased the songwriter, but it made room for a wonderful kitchen sink arrangement that included two bass parts, vibraphone, strings and a thundering beat, made by the drummer slapping chains from his car’s snow tires across a snare drum.
That third verse also became the source of some lyrical controversy. In the late ‘60s, scouring songs for hidden meanings was every rock fan’s favorite hobby. And listeners wondered about the ambiguous line “Sail on, silver girl.”
Simon said, “There was a whole period of time where the song was supposed to be about heroin.” And silver girl was the syringe. “It’s absolutely not so,” Simon said. In fact, silver girl was a sly reference to Simon’s then-wife Peggy. “It was half a joke,” Simon explained, “because she was upset one day when she found two or three gray hairs on her head.”
Two weeks in the making, the finished record was a dynamic tour-de-force, swelling from a cathedral hush to a deeply moving finale which left all who heard it teary-eyed. It was also five minutes long. Back then, AM radio wouldn’t touch any song over three minutes. But Columbia Records honcho Clive Davis declared, “It’s the first single, first track and title of the album.”
“I knew it was an important song, but I didn’t know it was a hit,” Simon admitted. “Which was not to say I was surprised when it was a hit. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it wasn’t a hit.”
It was indeed a hit, Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest ever. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” spent six weeks at #1. It swept the Grammys in 1971, claiming six awards, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Now a standard that’s been translated into many languages, it’s been covered by hundreds of artists, from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles to Annie Lennox.
Ironically, this song of fellowship contributed to Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup in 1971. As Simon said, “Many times on stage, when I'd be sitting off to the side . . . and Artie would be singing it, people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, ‘That's my song, man. Thank you very much. I wrote that.’ In the earlier days, when things were smoother I never would have thought that, but towards the end when things were strained, I did. It's not a very generous thing to think, but I did think that.”
Garfunkel said, “We’re strong in our musical opinions, and we’ve had lots of differences, but we’ve remained pretty damned gentlemanly all the way. These stories about how much we didn’t make harmony always make me laugh, because I think, ‘Isn’t the obvious thing about Simon and Garfunkel that they really made harmony very closely?’”
In the reunion tours the duo have staged in recent years, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” closes every show with a blast of that harmonic love.
“I’ve sung it six million four hundred thousand times,” Garfunkel said, “and every time, I get a little visitation of the power of a great song.”
As for Simon, who has continued to grow and experiment as one of pop’s most progressive artists, he remains slightly in awe of the song. He has said, “I know so much more than when I wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ but I doubt that I'll ever write anything that has that ease and simplicity again.”