The Graduate OST released in January 1968 saw Simon & Garfunkel become a very big deal on an album that featured their name in bold print even if they only contributed one new song. But what a song it was, “Mrs. Robinson” would hit #1 on the US singles chart with its full version appearing on side two of the duo’s Bookends album released that April. The single is best remembered from the soundtrack which obscures its lyrics about Mrs. Robinson being in a mental institution and later talks about watching a political debate that claims “when you’ve got to choose/every way you look at it, you lose”.
Bookends got off to a difficult start with producer John Simon (no relation) being brought in to help Paul with a bout of writer’s block before eventually leaving the project, the album was then produced by the duo with Roy Halee. The eventual recording sees the first side contain a concept journey from the start of life through being elderly. “Bookends Theme” is a lovely acoustic number that is interrupted by a dissonant Moog synthesizer slash that announces the arrival of second track “Save the Life Of My Child” that also contains a snip of “The Sound of Silence” amongst the chaos.
“Voices of Old” is a sound collage put together by Art Garfunkel of folks in two different seniors’ homes speaking about life. This leads beautifully into the guitars and strings of “Old Friends” sitting on a park bench like “bookends”. The title track then reappears at double it’s length as the first version and closes out side one.
Paul Simon describes the second side of the album as “throwaway tracks”, with some dating back to the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme recording sessions. “Fakin’ It” is an up-tempo rock song that sees Simon speak of imposter syndrome to a chorus of handclaps. The heavy guitar riff of “Hazy Shade of Winter” took the single to #13 on the singles charts as Simon sounds close to rage that “the leaves are brown/there’s a patch of snow on the ground”. The Bangles would later introduce this song to a whole new generation of fans when their version goes to #2 in the late 80s. The album ends with the lighthearted single, “At the Zoo”.
The heart of the album is on third track, “America”, an epic of emotion in under four minutes. It has a folky, 60s vibe of discovering America on a Greyhound Bus, a trip that Simon did take with then girlfriend Kathy Chitty. It carefully describes a scene of boredom with a sense of longing in a moment that would rarely occur today in a world with everyone locked into their phones.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine/and the moon rose over an open field….”Kathy, I’m lost”, I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/they’ve all come to look for America
Bookends is a massive leap forward for the duo and one that was certainly influenced by what The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys were doing with pop songs in the late 60s. Simon & Garfunkel stretch their boundaries to experiment with unique sounds, collages and concepts. While Simon is dismissive of side 2, it’s sound likely inspired a whole crop of 90s alternative power pop bands. While it clocks in at just under 30 minutes – the album’s experiments, enduring singles, and iconic black and white cover art all make Bookends a landmark album.