“Hello darkness, my old friend…” is the iconic and well-known first line of Simon and Garfunkel’s hit 1964 song. But do you know the amazing story behind the lyrics of ‘The Sounds of Silence’?
It began when Arthur “Art” Garfunkel, a Jewish kid from Queens with a passion for literature and music, enrolled in Columbia University in the year 1960. During freshman orientation, Art met a fellow Jewish boy from a poor Buffalo family that struggled to stay above the poverty line. His name was Sanford “Sandy” Greenberg. Both students immediately bonded, soon becoming roommates and best friends. Both only nineteen and filled with the idealism of youth, they promised to support each other whatever happens.
The students could not have predicted that soon after starting college Sandy would be struck by tragedy. His vision became blurry, causing heavy headaches. Although doctors diagnosed it as temporary conjunctivitis, the problem was getting worse. Finally after seeing a specialist in a hospital in Detroit, on a bitterly cold February-day of 1961, Sandy received the devastating news of severe glaucoma destroying his optic nerves. The young man with a dream of becoming a lawyer would soon be completely blind.
Sandy had just started to see the world open up to him as a junior at Columbia University. Now, instead of plans for a bright future—Harvard Law and politics—the man faced a new reality of complete darkness. His new life seemed to offer only a cane or companion dog, menial work, and a cautious path through life.
Sandy was devastated and fell into a deep depression. He gave up his academic studies and moved back to Buffalo, horrified about the prospect of being a burden to his already poor family. Consumed with shame and fear, Sandy cut off contact with his old pals, refusing to answer letters or return phone calls.
But that’s not how this story ended…
One day, out of the blue and to Sandy’s surprise, his best friend Art showed up at the front door. Arthur “Art” Garfunkel was not going to allow his buddy to give up on life, so he bought a plane ticket and arrived in Buffalo unannounced. Art convinced his ex-roommate to give college another try, and promised that he would be faithfully escorting Sandy around campus to make sure he didn’t fall – literally or figuratively.
In the depth of his new darkness, Sandy faced a choice—play it “safe” by staying in his native Buffalo or return to Columbia to pursue his dreams. With the loving devotion of his girlfriend (and now wife) Sue and the selflessness of his best friend Art Garfunkel, Sandy took the challenge. He endured unimaginable adversity while forging a life of exceptional achievement.
Art kept his promise, staying right by Sandy’s side and serving as his eyes. As a true friend, Garfunkel made sure that even though Sandy had been plunged into a world of darkness, he should never feel alone. Art effectively organized his life around helping the blind friend and even started calling himself “Darkness” to demonstrate empathy with Sandy’s difficult situation.
Later on Art gave his friend much more than his support and eyes… One day, while guiding Sandy through crowded Grand Central Station, Art suddenly said he had to go and left his friend alone and petrified. Sandy stumbled, bumped into people, and fell, cutting a gash in his shin. After a couple of hellish hours, the blind man finally got on the right subway train, but he bumped into someone again when exiting the station. To his surprise, Sandy heard “sorry pal” and immediately recognized Art’s voice! Turned out his trusty companion had followed him the whole way home, making sure he was safe and giving him the priceless gift of independence. Sandy later said, “That moment was the spark that caused me to live a completely different life, without fear, without doubt. For that I am tremendously grateful to my friend.”
Though blinded at nineteen, Sanford D. Greenberg graduated from Columbia University (Phi Beta Kappa) and, following a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford, received his M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard and M.B.A. at Columbia. He married his high school sweetheart Sue and became an extremely successful entrepreneur and philanthropist.
While at Oxford, Sandy got a call from Art and greeted him with his usual “hello Darkness, my old friend!” Interestingly, this time Art was the one who needed help. He’d formed a folk rock duo with his high school colleague Paul Simon, and they desperately needed $400 to record their first album. Sandy and his wife Sue had literally $404 in their bank account, but without hesitation Greenbergs gave their old friend all of their savings.
Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel’s first album was not a success. Actually it seemed like a total failure at first. However, one of the songs, titled ‘The Sounds of Silence’, became a #1 hit a year later. The opening line echoed the way Sandy always greeted Art. Simon & Garfunkel went on to become one of the most beloved musical acts in history.
‘The Sounds of Silence’ became the soundtrack of the 1967 movie ‘The Graduate’, most notably in the final scene, underpinning the protagonist Ben’s (Dustin Hoffman) slow-dawning realization of his emotional emptiness.
This old song became extremely popular again in 2016, when a video called “Sad Affleck,” dubbed the first verse of “The Sounds of Silence” over a forlorn-looking actor Ben Affleck, silent in an interview, alongside Henry Cavill, co-star of Batman vs Superman. The “Sad Affleck” video caused “The Sounds of Silence” to chart again. The song reached number six on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart and number two on the Streaming Rock Songs Chart, owing to 5.6 million streams, mostly on YouTube and largely attributed to the “Sad Affleck” video.
Around the same time, the heavy metal band Disturbed performed a cover of “the Sounds of Silence”. About a week later, the cover reached the number three spot on the Hot Rock Songs Chart, at the same time that the original was at number six. Paul Simon even reached out to Disturbed singer David Draiman, telling Draiman his performance of the song was “powerful.”
Whether because of Sad Affleck, Disturbed, or both, search interest for hello darkness peaked April 2016, giving the song a new life.
But back to the blind hero of our story:
Sandy Greenberg was a White House Fellow under Lyndon B. Johnson and later chaired the federal Rural Healthcare Corporation and served on the National Science Board. His career as an entrepreneur and investor began when he invented, of necessity, a speech-compression machine for those who need to listen and absorb large volumes of printed matter. He subsequently founded several enterprises, including a company that produced specialized computer simulators and the first database tracking antibiotic resistance globally.
In a December 2020 ceremony streamed worldwide, Sandy and Sue awarded the initial Greenberg Prizes: $3 million in aggregate to those researchers who have made the greatest progress toward ending blindness for all mankind. Sandy sees it as his life mission and also describes himself as “the luckiest man in the world.” – thanks to his best college pal.
The two Columbia graduates, each of whom has added so much to the world in his own way, are still best friends. Art Garfunkel said that when he became friends with Sandy, “my real life emerged. I became a better guy in my own eyes, and began to see who I was – somebody who gives to a friend.”
Adapted from the memoir: “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life.” by Sanford D. Greenberg. Published by Post Hill Press, 2020.
Richard Axel, 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, wrote about this book: “Light emerged from darkness in Genesis, in the creation of the heavens and the earth. Light also emerged from darkness in the life of Sandy Greenberg. This memoir reveals a triumph of the human spirit. It is the story of a man brought from blindness to richness, from darkness to light, through his passion and his accomplishments, and from a deep commitment from those who loved him. This book renews life in us all.”
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