On Saturday, September 19, 1981, on the Great Lawn, the central open space of Central Park, legendary singer songwriting duo, Simon and Garfunkel performed a free concert. People arrived at daybreak carrying chairs or picnic blankets.
The Parks Department originally expected about 300,000 attendees but even with rain ongoing until the start of the concert, an estimated 500,000 audience members made this the seventh-largest concert attendance on record in the United States.
The stage backdrop depicted an urban rooftop with water tank and air outlet, symbolic of New York’s skyline. At twilight, the backing band went onstage, followed by New York’s mayor, Ed Koch, who announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Simon and Garfunkel!” The duo entered through a side stage door, took center stage amid audience applause, looked at each other and shook hands, and began the concert with their 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson”.
After the second song, “Homeward Bound”, Simon delivered a short speech which began, “Well, it’s great to do a neighborhood concert.” He then thanked the police, the fire department, the park administration and finally Ed Koch. The audience booed at the mention of Koch, who had suggested permanent closure of the park, but they applauded as Simon continued and the irony in his reference became clear.
Simon & Garfunkel played twenty-one songs in total: ten by the duo, eight by Simon, one by Garfunkel, a cover of The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie”, and the medley version of “Maybellene”. Each performer sang three songs alone, including one new song apiece. Garfunkel sang the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “April Come She Will”, and “A Heart in New York”, a song written by Gallagher and Lyle that appeared on his album Scissors Cut, which had been released the previous month. Simon’s solo performances were the title song of his 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years, the number-one single “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, and the unreleased “The Late Great Johnny Ace”, which would appear on his 1983 album Hearts and Bones. Here is my absolutely favorite of their songs.
“The Late Great Johnny Ace” was interrupted when an audience member ran to the stage and shouted at Simon: “I need to talk to you!” The man was carried away by security, and Simon finished the song. The incident provoked associations to the song’s lyrics, in which Simon speaks as a first-person narrator concerning the deaths of Johnny Ace, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. Lennon’s murder by an obsessed fan had taken place less than a year previously, not far from the concert site. Despite this association, Simon said that he was not afraid of any on-stage incidents. In May 1982 as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, he explained that while it is not unusual for fans, for example, to jump onto the stage with flowers, this action was new to him, but also felt that the man simply appeared intoxicated. His greater concern was that the song’s premiere was ruined.
Lyrics referring to the New York area produced audience applause, such as Garfunkel’s ode to his home city, “A Heart in New York”, which describes from a New Yorker’s point of view the first glimpse of the city when returning there by air:
New York, lookin’ down on Central Park, where they say you should not wander after dark
Applause broke out during “The Sound of Silence”, when the narrative voice refers to a large crowd of people in the dark:
And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people maybe more
After the 17th song, “The Boxer”, which contained an additional stanza not included in the album version, Simon & Garfunkel thanked the audience and left the stage, but returned to deliver an encore of three songs – “Old Friends / Bookends Theme”, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and “The Sound of Silence”. Simon then said that their planned use of pyrotechnics had been disallowed, and told the crowd, “Let’s have our own fireworks!” Many spectators sparked lighters. The duo then introduced the members of the backing band and gave a final encore, a reprise of “Late in the Evening”.
This was the set list and if you own the album, you know it is one of the best albums ever recorded.