‘Sail On, Silver Girl . . .’

We spent a pleasant evening with Rob and his sister Mary Ellen the other Saturday, taking in a show by a local group called the Fabulous Armadillos. The show, titled “What’s Going On – Songs From The Vietnam War Era,” was remarkable, with the very familiar tunes – starting with the Animal’s “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” and ending with Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” – being performed as closely as possible to the original recordings.

(Interspersed between many of the tunes came memories and commentary from three veterans of the armed forces, two who served in Vietnam and one who served in Iraq, giving the evening a sense of gravitas.)

Performing the songs as closely as possible to the originals means, of course, finding local talent able to perform in a broad range of styles. I would guess the most difficult thing about a band like the Armadillos is finding vocalists. Not to downplay the instrumentalists – especially the guitarist of the group who replicated Jimi Hendrix’ famed Woodstock performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” just before intermission – but somehow vocal matching seems harder.

Which is why I wondered a bit when one of the group’s vocalists took his place in a spotlight during the first half of the show and the keyboard player in the shadows behind him moved into the familiar and beautiful introduction to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s one thing for a keyboard player to master Larry Knechtel’s astounding piano arrangement, and it’s quite another to find a singer who can match Art Garfunkel’s range and purity of tone.

Of course (well, perhaps I shouldn’t be so matter of fact about it, but having seen the Armadillos a couple of times, nothing they do really startles me beyond, occasionally, the choice of material), he nailed it, leading to one of several standing ovations the crowd gave the band during the two-and-a-half hour show.

And since then, in odd moments, I’ve found myself thinking about and assessing Paul Simon’s masterpiece, and not for the first time. Nearly ten years ago, when offering the 228 tracks of my Ultimate Jukebox, I thought about “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” writing:

I suppose there’s little argument about which record was the best thing that Simon & Garfunkel ever did. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is an extraordinary song and record. But as much as I’ve loved it over the years, I found myself uneasy sliding it in among the other records in this mythical jukebox. As well as looking for good records, I guess I was also looking for flow, for a collection of songs that would make interesting combinations and patterns as the tunes played. And I decided as I considered the work of Simon & Garfunkel that “Bridge” just brings a little too much weight along with it, stopping the show.

Well, it did stop the show the other week, at least for a few moments, and it touched a memory for me of a bicycle ride through the streets of Fredericia, Denmark, a ride that took place forty-five years ago this month. I was falling in love, and after spending an evening with the young lady, I was biking sometime after midnight to the home where I lived with my Danish hosts. As I wrote in a memoir a few years ago:

I was so enthralled, so immersed in the joy of falling in love, and one night, as I rode that big black bicycle home to Vejrøvænget, I sang the third verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the verse that goes, “Sail on, silver girl. Sail on by. Your time has come to shine – all your dreams are on their way. See how they shine.”

I could not make the young lady in question shine as much as she deserved. And, not quite fifteen years later, when the same verse became a beacon in another chance at love, another woman and I learned that maintaining the luster is hard work, and we failed. Even with all that attached to it, that third verse of the song is still my favorite, and – after truly listening to the song for the first time in a long time – I find myself loving the song again.

Here it is, the title track of Simon & Garfunkel’s brilliant 1970 album:

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