Bridge Over Troubled Innovation

5th March 2020

It is fifty years since Paul Simon released his songwriting masterpiece, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, masterfully interpreted by Art Garfunkel.

Artie (as Simon calls him) made the song his own. It took two weeks to record, and fully one week to lay down the vocals. It was not the sustained high notes at the end of the song that created challenge, but rather the sensitive, almost faltering beginning. 

“When you’re weary, feeling small. When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.”

It did not come easy.

“The first verse, in its delicacy, was the Devil’s business”, Garfunkel recalled.

But ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ leaped from the vinyl, topped the charts for six weeks in the USA, became a radio staple (despite its length), and remains deeply loved two generations after. 

So, what was the creative process by which ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ came into being? And how might it instruct and inspire creativity in you, or in me?

This is my focus. To unpack genius in pursuit of learning. There are no ‘rules’ in creation, of course.  Rather, this is stimulus for your consideration. But, perk yourself up nonetheless. There is much to uncover between the lines and under the bridge of one glorious song.

(1) Talent has track-record: unforgettable creative work does not rock up from nowhere, unannounced. Paul Simon had written hundreds of tunes, honed his skills and already had made his mark before ever ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was his. 

And it was Simon who wrote it. Not Artie. Not the amazing pianist (Knechtel). Nor the imaginative percussionist (Blaine). Innovation is indeed a team effort, but each person has a role. We are not each carbon copies of the other. We are not a committee to decide the average of what’s best, derived by the allocation of sticky stars. 

Innovation is led by creative talent. Genius, even better. And this may not be the most senior person in the room. But who it is should usually be obvious. And if it ain’t, it’s time to reshape your team. This is how you uncover the unexpected, blissful chords [which, in the case of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, is a diminished A]. 

(2) Great innovation samples and steals. Simon described how he riffed on Bach to discover part of his melody, on Gospel to create the song’s lifting chord progressions which move to inspire, and on a phrase from an  unknown band called The Swan Silvertones.

“I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name”, cried The Swan Silvertones’ lead singer. That was it. That was the hook Simon needed. He switched ‘deep’ to ‘troubled’ – and made something forgettable live forever. 

In brand-building, do we give enough attention to imagining, fiddling, sampling, waiting..? We can get trapped by imposed rules (over-thinking), or competitors (vaguely copying), or consumer research (passively deducing).

Innovation is not the pre-ordained result of process. Method alone does not win the prize. Creativity is the result of connecting talent, stimulus and imagination. Nothing profoundly beautiful emerges only from diligence.

(3) Ideas are cheap. Great judgment is genius. Simon describes how ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ got stuck at several junctures. He knew what he liked, but wouldn’t accept musical fillers to bring him home. Writing the song was a non-linear process. It had moments of suspension, where he busied himself elsewhere – until a fresh connection was made. 

This is innovation’s most perilous moment. How to know when to pause? How deeply to know when something is excellent? Judgment is an act of creative intuition – built on the shoulders of experience, talent and confidence. Not necessity. Not politics. Not committees which ‘keep everybody comfortable’. In innovation,  know who is creating, who is judging and who is executing.

Artie should be well-pleased that he was not left anywhere near the writing of this song, and only to its singing. 

(4) Being true to the idea may require sacrifice. The songwriter who wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ conceived of it in a sweet tenor register. He might have transposed it down to a baritone’s comfort zone so he too could have been the soloist and gathered the garlands. But Simon handed it to his partner. And Artie made of it the highest art. 

Sometimes, we give over the execution of innovation to incumbents in order to be polite or for an easy life. They are the ‘logical’ partners. But this denies a key signature of innovation: shape your executional team based on the creative idea, not the creative idea on your executional team. 

(5) Being true to the times. The best creativity speaks to the era into which it is born, and is relevant to the human truths in the air,  not just a need to tap the feet.

‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was released in 1970, soon after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the student riots in Paris, and the ongoing groggy headache of Vietnam. It spoke to the collective need for kindness and caring – investing in these things a spiritual dimension. The song purposefully leaned in to the feelings people most yearned to feel.

Innovation resonates when it is part of a greater cultural whole. Whether that be Greta-angst, or Vegan fury, or Corona frenzy, the beauty of bees, the sorcery of Silicon Valley, the rising of women or the sophistication of simplicity. 

Innovation brings new things to the world so that living becomes more meaningful. Profit and glory are happy outcomes, but never the point.

Oh to create something beautifully true! For this alone I would lay me down.


To the reader: This essay is one of a series examining great creators. Read about Abba here. Or John Lloyd Wright here. Or John Cleese here. Or the Wright brothers here.

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