What Is It All But Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man
By Art Garfunkel
Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pp., $27.95
And I thought that former Monkee Michael Nesmith’s Infinite Tuesday would be the most offbeat, non-traditional and often fan-frustrating musician memoir to come out this year. Artie’s has that one beat by a mile.
If you’ve ever seen Art Garfunkel interviewed, you know his mind works a bit differently – definitely more than the grounded-in-reality view of former partner Paul Simon. Like his ethereal voice, Garfunkel sees the world in some sort of cosmic way that can (as with Nesmith) come off as pompous.
Less an actual autobiography than a series of musings, memories, poems, lists and proclamations jotted down over nearly three and a half decades, the narrative ping-pongs, with sometimes three different time periods explored on one page with little or nor transition.
What the reader won’t get in this book is any deep sort of detail, revelation or even much thought about Garfunkel’s music career, especially the years with Paul Simon that many will be hoping for. He spends more time detailing their childhood (the two met in a junior-high production of Alice in Wonderland) and very early career than the recordings of so many classics, like “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “America” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Much less their own on-again/off-again personal and professional partnership.
“In our twenties, we made some special recordings,” he offers. “Paul won the writer’s royalties. I got the girls.”
His film career and solo music career get similarly shafted. Instead, the book is peppered with lists – we learn that from February 1979 to January 1984, he read 133 books, including works by Proust, Joyce, Salinger and Richard Price; he’s kept a detailed list of every book he’s read since 1968. A list of songs on his iPod. A list of best personal achievements. There’s a lot of autobiographical poetry, but about life musings, travel, and his wife.
There’s a lot about his wife and kids and even, yes, lists like “10 Reasons Why I Am In Awe of My Wife” and more poetry (“I BURN for you, Baby Kim, while I live”). Non sequiturs abound: “You can never discover fuschia twice,” “Gillette would make a blade that would last a lifetime if it wanted to.”
We also learn that Art Garfunkel once read the entire dictionary – from Z to A – and took two extensive walking tours across the U.S. and Europe for the hell of it. By contrasts, there are a handful of lines about the historic Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park, all dry facts.
Maybe he could have combined his love for his wife with his singing partner (“I BURN for you, Paul Simon, to be onstage together”).
If it sounds like I’m a bit bemused by the book, I am. And I actually pity the poor publicist who has to market this. But you know, if you’re an Art Garfunkel fan or have any knowledge of how he rolls, this will be for you.
It is without a doubt a very personal memoir, and the reader feels as if he or she is seeing Garfunkel's true sensitivity. In some of the book’s most compelling passages, the singer writes – in a variety of forms – about his health scare from a few years back when he temporarily lost the main thing that’s made him special for nearly six decades: his voice.
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In a 2009 episode of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, the two hapless struggling folkies Bret and Jemaine get a temporary job as a Simon and Garfunkel tribute act, complete with wigs and costumes. Jemaine finds himself having incredible sex with a groupie – provided that he keeps the “Garfunkel” costume on and dims the bedroom lights.
In perhaps the best surprise of the series, the real Art Garfunkel shows up to claim his wayward girlfriend back (she was trying to make him jealous by fucking lookalikes), with promises of some intimate and naughty “Garfunkling” to come.
And that’s what this book is. If you’re looking for a regular book with music-industry tales of recording and touring, or of Simon and Garfunkel’s heyday, you’ve been Garfunkled. But if you’re looking for an offbeat, wandering tale told by an offbeat, wandering soul…