Fifty years ago this week, Bridge Over Troubled Water, the last full-length studio album by Simon and Garfunkel, brought joy and tears to Columbia Records execs on its release. Joy, because the 11-song collection quickly became the best-selling LP of the label up to that point. Tears, because Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, it was becoming apparent, were pulling in different directions, and by year’s end would split up.
Simon and Garfunkel were not the only rock act to break up in 1970—the Beatles did, even more famously—but what happened with this duo may have been the most interesting split. They had come together, fought and split 12 years earlier as Tom and Jerry. They had almost fallen apart in various points in their five years on the charts. And they would continue approaching and repelling each other for the next half-century.
Issues of ego, among other matters, drove a wedge between the partners. Garfunkel was sensitive to criticism that he could only sing, while Simon could sing, play guitar, write songs and involve himself intently with the recording process. On the other hand, Simon envied his friend’s attempt to break into acting with a non-singing role in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22, even as he resented delays in recording the album resulting from the movie’s shooting interruptions.
Different musical directions also chafed at the two. The original plan had been for 12 songs, but they could only agree on 11. With Simon plopping for his own “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” versus Garfunkel’s selection of a Bach chorale, the two were at loggerheads until Simon simply decided to put out what they had in hand.
Even the single “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—spotlighting Garfunkel in a solo turn that he later described as a “gift”—created tension. Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee chose a Phil Spector-style string-laden, thunderous conclusion over Simon’s more restrained preference.
For all the turbulence it caused in their professional and personal relationship, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” together with the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” formed a trio of early ‘70s songs that offered comfort and consolation following a decade of unrest.
All these years later, the success of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” lies less in its Grammys for Album and Record of the Year, nor the 19 weeks the album stayed atop the charts, but in the grace, beauty and solace that millions have found in what amounts to a secular hymn.
Simon and, to a lesser extent, Garfunkel enjoyed success as a solo artist. But many fans—myself included—continue to feel that their collaboration brought out the best in each other. Perhaps they felt the same way themselves at points: In 1976, they joined forces again, briefly, on the dark “My Little Town,” in 1981 in their concert in Central Park, and in the occasional appearance together through the years (such as their rendition of “The Sounds of Silence” at the 2003 Grammys).
In “Old Friends,” from their prior album Bookends, Simon and Garfunkel harmonized about two aged men, sitting on a park bench, thinking back on their lives. These days, in their late 70s,with their recording careers far closer to their ends than their beginnings, trying to sort through their complications, they have become much like what they once imagined.