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45 Years Ago: Simon and Garfunkel Reunite for George McGovern

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It was June 1972, and only about a year since Simon and Garfunkel called it quits. But already they were reuniting.

It was a one-time-only deal, or so they thought, in support of Democrat George McGovern’s presidential bid. In McGovern, like a lot of younger voters of the time, Simon and Garfunkel found a voice of reason. He was against the war in Vietnam, which alone appealed to the younger masses, and, hey, he wasn’t Richard Nixon. It didn’t win McGovern the election, but it did have a hand in the success of the duo’s Greatest Hits album.

Actor and activist Warren Beatty organized the fundraising benefit “Together for McGovern,” as it was called, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for June 14, 1972. Paul Simon, who had been trying to get a solo career off the ground, and Art Garfunkel, who spent some time focusing on acting, didn’t necessarily agree on much by that point. But they agreed Nixon-for-president was a no-go. “I think McGovern is the best candidate that has a chance of winning,” Simon said in a Rolling Stone interview that year. “I do believe in the lesser of two evils, and in that spirit I became a McGovern supporter,” Garfunkel told Rolling Stone the following year.

The buzz surrounding their performance — leading up to the benefit and following it — was rampant. A bootleg of the show spread far and wide, despite its extremely poor sound quality. Young fans didn’t care; they just wanted to be a part of the experience. They could hear bits of the musicians’ personalities shine through, like when Simon, who was 30, laughed at fans’ shouted requests for “Voices of Old People,” a track from their 1968 album Bookends.

Simon and Garfunkel played eight songs at the benefit, including “America,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “The Boxer.” Just weeks later, Columbia Records released Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, and cashed in on the defunct act’s then-current cache. The album reached No. 5 on the chart, and included 10 of their biggest hits along with four previously unheard live recordings.

According to Peter Ames Carlin’s 2015 book Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, “You could count on one hand the times he’d taken a public stand about anything beyond love, literature, moral quandaries and the entertainment industry — with a finger or two to spare. Even at the height of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, he limited his thoughts to his songs. … He played his first post-Simon and Garfunkel solo show for a peace concert in 1970,” before taking on the McGovern benefit, “but that had less to do with McGovern’s brand of liberalism than Paul’s deep loathing of the shifty, anti-intellectual president, Richard Nixon.”

But there were some issues on which he had to take a stand. “In the end, I’m not indifferent,” Simon said. “When Nixon was elected, I cried. I actually cried. I remember puttin’ on the TV set in the morning, and I saw he was coming down to make his acceptance speech. Tears started rolling down my eyes. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next four years. Humphrey sold himself out. He does not deserve to get it again. It’s too late, so like, what’s the choice?”

He had some interest in Shirley Chisholm — who became the first black candidate to seek a major party’s presidential nomination, as well as the first woman to seek the Democratic party’s nomination — before she lost to McGovern. But he felt McGovern was the least “political” of the candidates, all of whom he believed represented various special interest groups.

Garfunkel, however, spoke more about the other draws to the concert, which also included a reunion by the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, as well as a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary. “It appealed to my showmanship,” he said. “Much more than McGovern ever could to my politics. It’s selfish, I suppose. I loved the idea of those three acts, I thought it would be a terrific show.”

Later, he called it a “strange, non-experience” to be performing again with his old friend and musical partner. “I did think beforehand that it would be a kick, some kind of novel experience, and yet after about three bars into the first song I had a very strong feeling, “Well, here we are again. This is where I left off.”

Simon and Garfunkel didn’t perform together again until 1975, when they, along with Nichols and May again, reunited on the second episode of new TV show called Saturday Night Live.

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