Posts Tagged ‘Mark Cohn’

‘Tom, Get Your Plane Right On Time . . .’

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

There’s a new auto commercial that’s popped up in the past few weeks. I’ve seen it numerous times during the football playoffs the past two weekends. But even so, I don’t recall which brand of automobile the commercial is promoting. That’s because the music selected to back the commercial distracts me every time. So maybe I should say I’ve heard it numerous times. And here’s what I’ve heard:


I recognized it the instant I first heard it, whenever that might have been, maybe three weeks ago. It’s a passage from “The Only Living Boy In New York,” a recording that first saw the light of day in 1970 on Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album.

Here’s the track in a video. The excerpt used for the auto commercial runs from about 1:16 to about 1:46.

It’s a beautiful track, one that I’ve always thought kind of got lost behind the album’s hits: The title tune, which spent six weeks at No. 1; “Cecelia,” which went to No. 4; “The Boxer,” which reached No. 7 and “El Condor Pasa,” which went to No. 18. “The Only Living Boy In New York” wound up on the B-side of “Cecelia,” but I think those positions should have been reversed and that “The Only Living Boy . . .” would have done very well as a single on its own. (I’ve never much cared for “Cecelia,” or for “El Condor Pasa,” as far as that goes.)

But the song remained an album track, and over the years, as I’ve put together mixtapes and then CD mixes for friends and for myself, it kind of got lost. I don’t recall using it very often in those mixes, and I should have. And I don’t often drop Bridge Over Troubled Water into the player these days, so I hadn’t heard “The Only Living Boy . . .” for several years or more until part of it showed up hawking cars the other weekend. Thus reminded, I went back and listened to it, and realized anew how good it is. (I think it’s generally accepted that the song was Paul Simon’s way of encouraging Art Garfunkel to pursue his developing acting career at a time when their musical partnership was nearing its end.) Having listened, I then did some digging, wondering about cover versions.

There were a few covers of the tune before 2000, but the pace of covers increased after that, and I’m not sure why. If the shift had occurred a few years later, I’d ascribe it at least partly to the use of the original recording in the soundtrack to the 2004 movie Garden State that year. But a couple of years before that, the song began to pop up for some reason.

But let’s start back in the 1990s.  The covers of the song that are listed at All-Music Guide (probably not a complete list) include a straightforward folkish version from the New Zealand band Random Thoughts, included on the 1992 anthology Out from the Cold (1964-72) and a delightful cover of the tune by Everything But The Girl, included on the 1995 anthology Acoustic Rock. Then there was the version done by Larry Kirwan on his 2001 album Kilroy Was Here, which used an energetic jazzy arrangement behind an idiosyncratic vocal performance from Kirwan, the lead singer and songwriter for the band Black 47.

One of the more odd versions of the tune came on a 2001 release by a group called Ausculate: Mystical Chants: The Songs of Simon & Garfunkel, an album that includes “The Only Living Boy . . .” and eleven other Simon & Garfunkel tunes in faux Gregorian chant settings. It’s an interesting listen but not one that compels repeated plays:

I can’t find any trace – not at iTunes, at Amazon or anywhere else – of a version of “The Only Living Boy . . .” by a group called The Trouble With Sweeney. It’s included on a 2002 EP titled Play Karen and Others, but it doesn’t show up anywhere. I did find a nice, almost Celtic, arrangement of the tune on Undercover Agents, a 2003 CD from a group called Hobnail Boots (or perhaps just Hobnail), but I can’t find anything else about the band. Based on discographies, it does not seem to be the New Zealand band called Hobnail Boots, but I’m not certain about anything except that the band covered the tune pretty well.

Other covers came along after “The Only Living Boy . . .” was used in Garden State: Kevin Laurence, Dandelion Snow and Sin Fang recorded the song, and at about the time the movie came out, David Mead recorded a unremarkable version of the tune for the television show Everwood, which ran from 2002 to 2006 without my seeing a single episode.

I came across two other versions of “The Only Living Boy In New York” that I thought I’d share here. The first is by Swedish singer Montt Mardié, who released the tune in a Swedish translation on his 2009 EP Direkt till Svenska. I realize it’s not everyone’s deal, but I’m fascinated by other-language recordings of songs I love.

Finally, the best cover of “The Only Living Boy In New York” that I’ve heard while digging around this week can be found on a CD released last summer by Marc Cohn of “Walking In Memphis” fame. His Listening Booth: 1970 album has him covering twelve hit songs from 1970, and I think he generally does a good job of it. His cover of “The Only Living Boy In New York” shines:

We’ll see you Saturday.