by Ken Rolheiser
The Sounds of Silence today

As one who lived through the success of the iconic Simon and Garfunkel “The Sounds of Silence” from its release as a single in 1965, I am still awed by the song’s relevance today. Paul Simon said of the song, “…we have people unable to touch other people, unable to love other people. This is a song about the inability to communicate.”

Just as it spoke to me as a college senior in the late sixties, it has resonated with our worlds since. We struggle with spiritual darkness, the false “neon Gods” that we make, and the tens of thousands who talk without speaking, hear without listening and still are unable to really love others.

There is a great story about Art Garfunkel and this song! As a freshman at Columbia, Garfunkel met Sandy Greenberg who shared a passion for literature and music. Sandy was struck with severe glaucoma which led to eventual blindness. He fell into a deep depression.

Sandy’s melancholy led him down a dark path. He gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer and completely cut off contact with his old friends. Art Garfunkel showed up at his front door and insisted he would be by Sandy’s side. 

Art started calling himself “Darkness” to demonstrate his empathy with Sandy. He’d say things like, “Darkness is going to read to you now.” One day Art was guiding Sandy through Grand Central Station when he suddenly said he had to go. Sandy was left alone and stumbled along, bumped into people, and fell, cutting a gash in his shin. 

After a couple of hellish hours, Sandy finally got on the right subway train. After exiting the station at 116th Street, Sandy bumped into someone who quickly apologized - and Sandy immediately recognized Art’s voice! It turned out his trusty friend had followed him all the way home, making sure he was safe. (story from “Incredible Stuff”, Thilaksiri Bandara).

The fascinating story goes on. Sandy’s life changed. He graduated from Columbia, earned degrees from Harvard and Oxford, married his high school sweetheart and became a very successful entrepreneur and philanthropist.

The story takes another turn! Art called Sandy when his folk-rock duo needed $400.00 to record a first album. Sandy assisted. The album did poorly, but a single “The Sounds of Silence” became a hit a year later. 

Oddly enough, Paul Simon wrote the lyrics to “The Sounds of Silence”, though it mirrors Garfunkel’s life experience. In the song Simon reflects on how people ignore the words of musicians and religious leaders speaking against injustice and excessive materialism. 

As he created the muse, Paul Simon played warm, evocative notes over and over again. Often composing in a dark bathroom, amid the echo chamber of the tile floors and the sound of a running tap, the lyrics burst forth: “Hello darkness my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.” And the rest is history!

Or is it? “The Sounds of Silence” was written by a twenty-one-year-old. It is a youthful message, a young lyric. Our old world is crying for such peace. We are bombarded by noise that is environmental and geo-political. A single story, do I dare mention it? – “Donald Trump”. Will keep the air waves humming for years.

In the end we would do well to seek darkness and silence. We will likely settle for nature’s vistas of landscapes, mountains and streams, meditation, mindfulness and peace. 

(576 words)