Do you remember where you were on September 19, 1981? I sure do. To this day, I can close my eyes and feel the damp late-summer air, smell the wet grass and the weed, and feel the joyously communal vibe of the 500,000 people who surrounded me that day.
To back up just a little bit, let's remember that September '81 was only nine months removed from the day John Lennon had been murdered outside the Dakota. I had spent three full years of my childhood hoping every single day that the Beatles would get back together, and now it was never, ever going to happen. Then one morning soon after I had started ninth grade, my dad folded back a page of the New York Times at breakfast and showed me the announcement that Simon & Garfunkel—my second favorite musicians—were reuniting for a free concert in Central Park the following weekend.
I didn't have to beg my parents to let me go, or make illicit plans to sneak into the city with my friends. My dad, a mild-mannered suburban psychologist with more than a passing resemblance to Bob Newhart, was in his quiet way much cooler than the other Long Island dads. Of course he would take my brother and me to the concert. He wanted to go, too. I mean, who wouldn't?
I don't remember the logistics of what we packed for lunch or how we got into the city that day, I just remember getting to the park early enough to snag a decent spot (though we still needed to use the binoculars we brought), sitting on an old camp blanket in a drizzle, and watching the sea of humanity grow bigger and bigger around us as the day wore on.
Of the half million people who were there, I remember one very clearly: Sal, a hippie with a Frank Zappa mustache, was sitting on the blanket next to us (crazy—I can't remember the name of an editor I talked to yesterday, but three decades later I still remember this guy's name!). He drank several bottles of beer, and as the day turned to dusk, he lit up a doobie; when I looked over to see what that weird smell was, Sal signaled "Shhh," and winked at me like I was in on some conspiracy. That was the first time I ever saw someone smoke pot.
And of course, I remember the music. Mayor Koch made a brief introduction, and then the duo walked onstage: Garfunkel in a black vest with his magnificent ginger Jewfro, Simon in a black blazer accessorized with his guitar. Without a word, Simon started strumming the iconic chords of "Mrs. Robinson," and it was on. Though I can't remember any of my teachers that year or where we went on vacation, I can remember each and every song I heard that day: "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard," "Wake Up Little Susie," "The Boxer." I remember the chills that ran down my spine when Art Garfunkel sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I still can't quite fathom how a human adult male can produce such a tender, ethereal tone. I also remember some crazy guy running on to the stage and being tackled by security as Paul sang "The Late Great Johnny Ace," and I remember cheering along with the crowd when they sang the line "And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more …" from "Sounds of Silence."
I also remember that as much as I loved the concert, I was almost more excited about the prospect of telling people that I had been there, that I had experienced pop-culture history! I eagerly bought the official T-shirt (it has long since disappeared from my collection, and I can't find any on eBay, but I remember it was blue with stars and a crescent moon, with orange letters spelling out the singers' names). I imagined wearing it to school the following Monday: People would stop me in the hallway to gawk in jealousy, ask a million questions about the concert, and maybe even beg me for my autograph. I realize now that the concert T-shirt was the 1981 equivalent of Instagramming a selfie, or checking in at Central Park on Facebook.
Of course, when I showed up at school on Monday, most of my classmates, who were more into Hall & Oates and Rick Springfield at the time than some '60s folk duo, greeted my T-shirt with an ambivalent shrug. I did notice a couple of older kids, geeks like me, who were also sporting Simon & Garfunkel blue, and we gave each other the secret nod when we passed in the hall.
I may not have the T-shirt anymore, but I have the memories: My dad, my bro, and me—and Sal, natch—sharing an evening of sublime music, when half a million New Yorkers gathered to hear the sweet sounds of two local boys done good. I've been to many other concerts since then, from Paul McCartney at Giants Stadium to intimate cabarets in tiny New York nightclubs, but that was my first, and my very best.