While there's definitely some Beatles influence in the production of Simon & Garfunkel's atmospheric "The Only Living Boy in New York" (listen to those Ringo-like drum fills), the song is really a unique piece in and of itself. The production manages to encompass the duo's influences while encapsulating their unique and hugely successful and influential folk-pop blend. In fact, in the use of distant-sounding, thickly layered backing vocals, one can hear foreshadows of similar tricks used on records by Elton John, among countless others, in the '70s. Listen to "The Only Living Boy in New York" -- with its mix of strumming acoustic guitars, start-and-stop drums, and a far-off wall of harmonies -- and then John's "Rocket Man" and you realize it is a direct line from the former to the latter. Paul Simon was a restless and ambitious studio innovator, aspiring to the same level as the Beatles and Brian Wilson in terms of scope and desire for new textures and depth of sound. Simon basically produced or co-produced many of the Simon & Garfunkel records, collaborating with engineer Roy Halee.
One can continue to trace the influence onto such navel-gazing melancholy as Belle and Sebastian's lovely meditations, a group also given to introspection and who also understand the emotional resonance of a young adult referring to himself as a "boy." Like the latter's best songs, the narrator of "The Only Living Boy in New York" uses irony while bemoaning his lousy state of affairs and generally feeling sorry for himself; while he knows he's not the only one with issues, he still feels like "the only living boy in New York" after he is left alone by the song's addressee: "Tom, get your plane right on time/I know you've been eager to fly now/Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine/Da-n-da-da-n-da-da-n-da-da/Like it shines on me/The only living boy in New York."
There is a purposeful feyness to the lyric, the "boy" self-reference, and a man singing about what seems to be the end of a relationship with another man. When one remembers that Simon and Art Garfunkel had a minor hit as the Everly Brothers-modeled Tom and Jerry -- where Garfunkel was Tom -- the significance of the song becomes clearer; the chart-topping, Grammy-winner for album of the year, Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), was the duo's last studio project together. "The Only Living Boy in New York" was about the dissolution of the musical partnership, and likely, the friendship as they knew it. Anyone who has been in a band with the same partners for any length of time will liken the relationship to a marriage. A more accurate description, perhaps, would be close siblings, but either way, the end of such deep bonds could be as devastating as the end of any other relationship, marriage notwithstanding. Simon, singing the lead vocal, sounds resigned, defeated, just barely breathing out the wispy melody. One can only imagine the drama of the two men -- friends since high school -- singing it together in the studio.
In an interview with Song Talk magazine, Simon commented, "I like that record, and I like the song, too. That was written about Artie's going off to make Catch 22 in Mexico," referenced in the song's first verse: "Tom, get your plane right on time/I know your part'll go fine/Fly down to Mexico."
In the same interview, Simon goes on to comment on the arrangement: "I liked the 'aaahhhs,' the voices singing 'aaah.' That was the best I think that we ever did it. It was quite a lot of voices we put on, maybe 12 or 15 voices. We sang it in the echo-chamber, I remember that, too." In Simon and Garfunkel -- A Musical Biography by John Swenson (1984), Garfunkel claims the layered vocals were his idea, noting, "It's us around eight times screaming, and we mixed it down very softly...I started getting into open-mouth harmony, in a very loud, strident way. We were screaming at the top of our lungs and inside an echo chamber. I remember that day that Dylan dropped by to visit. We came out of the booth after all this screaming, and there he was. Anyway, we got a very foreign sound."
The loneliness and emotional ache of the song positions it as a standout in Simon's stellar catalog. He is a master of melancholy, a man whose voice seems to always have a tinge of sadness, even when he is singing "up" material. And when blended with that of his partner, Garfunkel, the result could be heartbreaking, especially on a personal song such as this.