"It's better to burn out than to fade away", sang Neil Young on Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), but 2018 has already seen several elder statesmen of rock and pop make plans to retire with their dignity intact.
Announcing his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, Elton John explained he was leaving the stage to concentrate on family life. Neil Diamond, who sadly has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is also stepping down before the cracks start to show.
In the rock world, meanwhile, celebrated drummer Neil Peart has hung up his sticks, bringing the curtain down on his band, Rush. Peart is the lyricist behind Losing It, Rush's 1982 song about the ageing process's ravages upon our physicality and creativity. When he felt the demands of his drumming performances becoming too much, he knew what he had to do.
More recently, Paul Simon has also announced his retirement from the live stage. After short farewell tours of the United Kingdom and the United States this summer, his last-ever show will take place on September 22 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York City. “It seems more like fate than coincidence that I should do the final show [there],” Simon has said of the event. “I could have ridden my bike from home to the park in about 20 minutes when I was a kid. Thank you all for the ride – I had a great time.”
The complex relationships between the duo
Corona Park is alluded to in Simon's 1972 solo hit, Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard, and the September show has the blessing of Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City. Given Simon's incontestable status as one of the greatest living songwriters, moreover, his final concert is shaping-up to be a true landmark event.
The singer’s website promises fans “a once-in-a-lifetime-show”, and “a stunning, career-spanning repertoire of timeless hits and classics.” Simon will also play some favourite cover songs that have been specially chosen for the occasion. Wonderful as all of that sounds, though, one important question remains: Will Simon be inviting Art Garfunkel, his other half in the most successful vocal-duo of all time, to join him for one last hurrah?
The duo performing Bridge Over Trouble Water:
The pair’s relationship has been particularly complex and acrimonious in recent years, and yet a brief Simon & Garfunkel reunion in Corona Park doesn’t seem beyond reach. It would give both parties a chance to offer an olive branch, and to tip the hat to their extraordinary back catalogue one last time.
It would also have pleasing echoes of another famed Simon & Garfunkel New York show: In September 1981, 11 years after they recorded their final studio album together, the duo reformed to play a stunning free concert to more than half a million people in Central Park. At the time, Garfunkel was still mourning the loss of his actress girlfriend Laurie Bird, who had committed suicide at their Manhattan apartment two years earlier. At Central Park, when Garfunkel nailed the vocal climax of his piece de resistance Bridge Over Troubled Water, it showed extraordinary courage.
“Yes, it did feel like Paul’s heart was going out to me,” Garfunkel told me in 2015, asked about Simon inviting him to play the Central Park show. “It felt like he was saying, ‘We can’t leave Artie to waste away on his own – he’s too useful’.”
'Paul’s got a very precious soul'
The roots of the tensions between the two old school pals lie deep. Garfunkel has long felt that his role in interpreting Simon's songs has been under-appreciated, while Simon, the writer of such peerless classics as The Sound Of Silence, Mrs Robinson and Homeward Bound, has at times seemed to resent the spotlight falling on Garfunkel, his angelic-voiced counterpart.
The duo performing The Sound of Silence:
Post Central Park, the pair undertook reunion tours in 1993, 2004 and 2009, but there was often a tangible fragility to proceedings, Artie and Paul's personal relationship still an awkward dance. When they sang Old Friends together, two men in their late sixties, it was Garfunkel's arm that would find its way around Simon's shoulder. "Yes, I'm warmer," he told me. "I'm tactile."
In January 2010, Garfunkel's extraordinarily mellifluous voice temporarily deserted him. When I spoke to him in 2015, he was still recovering from the stiffening of one of his two vocal cords. He cited a vocal strain caused by Paul Simon's insistence on louder on-stage instrument monitoring during their Asia and Australia tour of 2009 as the root of the problem, but made it clear that he would work with Simon again at the drop of a hat:
“Paul’s got a very precious soul and my heart goes out to his real set of needs,” Garfunkel told me. “He can be subterranean, and yet I feel a new Simon & Garfunkel album is [just around the corner].”
Sharing the stage one last time
When I interviewed Simon in 2011, we discussed the story behind Simon & Garfunkel's 1970 split. Famously, the director Mike Nichols had asked both men to act in his film Catch 22, but when Nichols later wrote Simon out of the screenplay, Garfunkel flew to Mexico for filming in any case, leaving Simon in New York to continue writing and recording the Bridge Over Troubled Water album.
One of Simon's songs for the record, The Only Living Boy In New York, wished Garfunkel well in Mexico, but Simon's "So long, Artie!" on the fade of So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright was more pointed, and seemed to presage the duo's messy break-up.
“Artie going to Mexico was probably the main reason Simon & Garfunkel split,” Simon told me, “but I think we would have broken up anyway. All duos do. It’s just too hard. When one person does all the writing, the stress is very difficult to manage.”
In the same interview, Simon told me just how great a singer he thought Art Garfunkel was: "There were only a few people around in pop music at that time who had that beautiful a voice. Maybe Paul McCartney. Denny [Doherty] from The Mamas & The Papas had a great tenor voice, but I don't think it was anywhere near as distinctive as Artie's."
When Simon says farewell at Corona Park, it would be a great shame if Art Garfunkel wasn't there too. His voice is inseparable from Simon's greatest songs.