Troubled Water

Hokey and sentimental was my unexpected reaction to hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters the other day. In my memory it was still that significant work of folk music from high school. From the perspective of time, and even though the sentiments of old were as forthcoming as ever in my mind, but not my heart, the music seemed hollow. Is there a time limit on sentimentality or does the changing world cause sentiment to fade in significance? 

The bridge over troubled waters was  between generations in the sixties when the “generation gap” was the big story of society. All ages could appreciate the message in the music while still preferring either the music of Cream or Lawrence Welk according to their generational proclivities. At least we thought it should be.

I continued to listen for an hour to Simon and Garfunkel that day, reminiscing about my high school years, seeking a reason for the missing passions the music used to hold for me. The music was the same, I had changed and the world has too. So, why am I no longer moved by the stunning reveal of Richard Cory’s suicide and the bullet in his head? 

Mostly, I remembered the time our stolid and prim Presbyterian church allowed its youth to fashion the service for a Sunday in lieu of the normal presentation. We chose to use a number of songs from the newly popular singing duo. We also banged a few cymbals to startle the old fogies in the stalls from their complacency. We ended up not starting a new tradition of youth services during the normal hour, but we were given a time slot on occasion to make our noise as we choose in the gymnasium, not the sanctuary.  That experiment taught us that we wouldn’t be included in the adult conversation thereby making the generational gap even wider.

There was great power in the music of the youth at that time. Even though it is considered lyrical and harmless in contrast to music of say, Cream or The Doors, the music of Simon and Garfunkel was banished from the adult ceremony. Our modest efforts to bridge the generations served to distance the gap between us. They didn’t want to hear even the gentlest of our artists. This may have served as the inciting incident in my eventual break from the church. I renounced my baptism during my sophomore year of college. My elderly parents still attend that church, but they don’t hold with its teachings any longer; all their remaining friends go there to enjoy the fellowship, not the theology. 

So, the more I participate in the arts, the more sophisticated my tastes become. I choose classical and jazz music, and only rarely return to music of my youth. I stopped listening to pop music after the age of disco. I am open and accepting of a Lady Gaga type persona for the show-biz qualities of her performance and the phenomenon she creates, but I don’t just sit and listen to her music.

So, this feeling of distance I got from the music of Simon and Garfunkel, and the recollection of passions I no longer experience from the songs is enigmatic. Having just used that word–enigma–I realize that ‘resolution’ is part of the answer. I’ll have to take you through my thought process to explain what I mean. 

What, exactly, is the difference between the music of that era I still enjoy, and Simon and Garfunkel. My thoughts drifted back to the summers of my high school years. I spent six weeks of those summers away from home at what was called, back then, a camp for retarded children. I was a counselor with four other fellows in my cabin who supervised 12 to 15 teenagers considered to be ‘trainable’ in the language of that day. We had a small record player in the cabin and two records, Tommy by the Who, and Fiddler on the Roof. I was the only one who cared about Fiddler so we played Tommy constantly. Our circumstance and the deaf, dumb and blind boy who struggles to exist in the world seemed to have some parallels. 

I now perceive the Simon and Garfunkel music as somewhat insipid, but the Who’s music continues to speak to me as it did back then as an unclear series of questions in search of answers. No one has a clear understanding or explanation for the meaning of the original Tommy album. The plot doesn’t exist even after a film and a musical version were attempted. The music speaks for itself as a series of solid yet enigmatic musical statements leading to questions, so we are left to ponder the implications and insinuations. As a work, it has existential coherence.  It takes the listener on a journey guided by an intent. There is no resolution.

Bridge… on the other hand is pleasant and soothing and has a solid conclusion. ‘If you need a friend I’m sailing right behind,’ and there you have it, no continuing existential angst, all is fixed and all is well. How nice! The absence of a continuing question in the listener’s mind lets them forget the questions and concerns. They may wonder if the ‘friend’ is meant to be a boyfriend or God, but either way the answer still fits. The journey is from apprehension to solution presented in a very intense, pleasant song.

Why, then, does a lack of resolution allow Tommy to retain fidelity? I believe it has to do with the purpose of art in the first place. As Ibsen said, “An artist makes clear to himself and to others the temporal and eternal questions astir in the age and the time in which he exists.” Notice he doesn’t say anything about the answers. An answer would either finish the conversation or lead to different questions. A song that answers its own question terminates the conversation as Bridge…does. Whereas, questions continue to arise from Tommy; they may be centered on different temporal issues, but the eternal questions remain the same. 

All we have to do is listen to the music to hear the difference. Bridge… is about a present solution to the troubled waters. The music soothingly builds drama through an elaborate melodrama of worry in contrast with soothing passages.  The tension is resolved in the end of the song with glorious fanfare.

Tommy seems to be on a Siddhartha-like journey of self discovery leading to the dissolution of his fantasy of godhood. The story is bittersweet. The music is tense and harsh. It maintains a high level of tension which never achieves a true resolution. The possibility of resolution is continued through the whole Rock Opera by anticipatory musical statements suggesting a questioning yet brighter future. He attempts to be a god, the Pinball Wizard, but fails in the final song, We’re Not Gonna Take It which gives a clear rejection of him as a deity, but leaves us hanging, unsure of the lessons Tommy takes from this rejection. What does this mean? Well, like all good art we are left to ponder that question with our own wits. Can we find enough hints in the story or the music for an answer?

To be clear, I’m not saying art should leave us hanging around being existentially baffled. That would be absurd. I am saying that lasting art stirs the pot and forces a reaction in multiple generations. Swanee River by Stephen Foster has a similar sentimental quality to Bridge…, few people are moved by it now as they were in previous generations. I expect that is what’s happening to The Bridge Over Troubled Water–the story ends real close to where it begins (worried? I will help, the end) and the excessively overblown orchestration has outlasted the age it was created for. I also expect that as rock music becomes less commonplace Tommy’s effect will fade too. If rock continues into the future so will Tommy while Bridge… lays down next to the Swanee River.


  1. says

    I thought Tommy was dead and flat in spots, personally. Some of it had the energy of greatness (“Pinball wizard”) and some of it was just blatantly trading on star power (“Eyesight to the blind” – which was terribly mixed) but I also agree with you about Simon and Garfunkel. I was in the crowd, at a distant edge, during the concert in Central Park and I felt like it was just an old couple in a broken relationship, going through the movements. There was very little “oomph” to it and even things like the “ad libs” sounded scripted.

    If you want some insipid, upbeat, “everything will be all right” music, it’s hard to top Cindy Lauper’s version of “Time after Time” which is, at least, really well-assembled pop.

    I think that’s the issue: Simon and Garfunkel were right at the point where the music industry was inventing ear-worm pop. Stuff that’s light but crunchy with no calories, but lots of salt and spice to distract you from its essential lack of flavor. Shortly after that, we saw two major shifts in pop music – one: “musicians” that are performers who can ‘dance’ to a clicktrack and lipsync with one of their studio recorded performances. They don’t play an instrument and they zombie-walk through preplanned choreography designed for them by an expert. That transition was finally completed when Michael Jackson ruled the world with “Billie Jean” – after that, popular music was performance not creation.

Any Thoughts?