The first time around, in 1981, no fewer than 400,000 fans carted lawn chairs, lanterns, and ice chests into New York City’s Central Park, suffusing its Great Lawn with nostalgia, good vibes, and plumes of marijuana smoke. The throng had assembled to witness native New Yorker Paul Simon’s reunion with his old partner, Art Garfunkel; the morning after, bulldozers plowed the lawn, a bit of restoration paid for by the show’s promoters. So, on Aug. 15, 1991, when Simon — sans Garfunkel but backed by a 17-piece band — drew an estimated 750,000 back to the city’s green lung, the singer really was homeward bound: There he stood, playing to what some claim was the biggest live-music crowd in NYC history.
And as at that first free show, the sky had threatened rain all day, but the clouds miraculously parted. ”I was literally calling the weather number every two minutes,” says Dan Klores, coproducer of the concert’s live HBO broadcast. ”So much work had gone into the planning and production, it just couldn’t rain.”
This second time around, Simon was charged not only with providing the musical magic but building a bridge over troubled water. Though Central Park had a history of successful pop events throughout the ’70s and early ’80s — with shows from the Jefferson Airplane, James Taylor, and Elton John — the record was marred in 1983 when gangs ran amok after a Diana Ross concert. With 200 complaints filed and at least 49 arrests made, city officials were leery of the mayhem a crowd might inspire on a hot summer night.
Nevertheless, it was a smooth ride from the start, when then-New York City mayor David Dinkins kicked off the show at 7:15 p.m. with Simon’s introduction. ”When I got to the park at one in the afternoon, there were already hundreds of thousands of people there,” says Klores. ”It was a thrilling feeling. You knew it would be an incredibly peaceful and buoyant night.” And so it was: Only two arrests were reported — and that with only 540 officers on patrol and approximately one Porta Potti for every 4,688 concertgoers.
Simon proceeded to play hits from his solo albums, Graceland, Still Crazy After All These Years, and The Rhythm of the Saints, as well as a smattering of Simon and Garfunkel classics. Chevy Chase even joined him for a rendition of ”You Can Call Me Al” before Simon closed the show with ”The Sounds of Silence.” The crowd, needless to say, was anything but.
Even the oft-taciturn Simon seemed transported by the event. According to Klores, ”When he came off the stage that night, we hugged and he looked at me and said, ‘This is the biggest thrill of my career.”’
Time Capsule: August 15, 1991
At the movies, Hot Shots!, starring Charlie Sheen and Lloyd Bridges, is the box office top gun, having grossed $29 million in two weeks. On TV, female-fronted sitcoms rule as Roseanne, Designing Women, and Murphy Brown all finish among the week’s top 10. In music, Bryan Adams’ love ballad, ”(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” is in its third week at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. And in the news, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton announces plans to form a committee to explore a run for the U.S. presidency.