14 – Simon & Garfunkel: America

S&G

Fifteen was a pretty awful age, and I hit the very bottom of it sometime in the spring of 1996. We’d just finished our Duke of Edinburgh’s Award practice expedition in the Yorkshire Dales. It had been trial by Trangia, a miserable weekend of petty squabbles and running jokes, usually at my expense. By the time our minibus got to Gargrave, I was conjuring up the smell of a roasting joint to get me through; I knew I would never curse home again. During a loo-stop at a service station, I found myself locked out of the coach in one of those fine drizzles common to Pennine parts, to a chorus of schoolboy laughter from inside. There appeared to be a human barricade at work; they were probably hoping for some kind of wig-out on my part. But I didn’t have the energy for fireworks. Bugger them, I thought, I won’t even bother to bang the windows. I’ll just sit on this bench here in my anorak, put my earphones in and listen to Simon and Garfunkel in defiance. I am a rock! I am an island!

Simon and Garfunkel were buttered muffin music for me as a teenager – comfort food to binge on. ‘I am a rock’ is every only child’s anthem, and was almost too true to be real when I was growing up: ‘hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no-one and no-one touches me’. Yet despite the embittered, hermitic lyrics, the music has the rise and shine qualities of a Christian summer camp. It’s a morning mantra: none of your Nirvanic layabout lie-ins for Mr Simon. Nowadays I find it a little less affecting than of old. How can misanthropy be so perky? How come it sounds so much like a rolling stone? I am still loyal enough to ‘I am a rock’ to remind you its recording predates Dylan’s by a couple of months, but the days when I printed the lyrics and framed them on my wall are long gone. ‘Bridge over troubled water’ has suffered much the same fate. At one point it was almost my signature song. I played and sang it tremulously at birthday parties and other social occasions, mostly in a state of inebriation. It probably sounded like a bad X-factor audition, though my audience was usually just as sauced as me, and thus too drunk to notice. It’s one of those rare pop tunes that seem to predate the dark ages – a battle hymn for the downtrodden; but it’s a difficult listen, a song whose final verse almost drowns in its own tears.

Still, these are everyman songs that strike a chord with people of diverse generations and persuasions. Perverse as it may sound, I really think this translatability, this popularity, accounts for Paul Simon’s relatively humble position among the great singer-songwriters of the sixties and seventies. The rockerati understandably rush to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, poets and sages whose albums are often more obviously challenging to the listener. And of course they worship the graven image of Bob: poor Bob, the orts and fragments of his genius sacrificed to Dylanolatry, every scrap of doggerel scrutinised for mystical truths. Paul Simon, on the other hand, is too twee, or else too normal for such reverence. His singing voice always reminds me of a Sesame Street character. It’s sweet and innocent and trustworthy; you can imagine him penning little ditties about his favourite numbers and colours. I know this irritates some people. His whole persona, all t-shirts with jackets and white sneakers, says ‘I’m just a small man, with a small guitar, singing small songs about everyday things’. But at their finest, what songs! Can anyone resist ‘You can call me Al’, surely the most exciting pop hit of the mid eighties? Who really cares if it bleached the beats of the township? It still sounds like joy. As for poetry, I’d venture that ‘For Emily, wherever I may find her’, with its gauzy talk of crinolines and organdie, is as gorgeous as any ‘Chelsea Morning’ or ‘Suzanne’. It’s also surprisingly otherworldly, though this is because Simon chooses to communicate its sentiments through the medium of Art. Indeed, watching old footage of Garfunkel at his peak, he seems to be just that: a medium. In clips of the duo, his transfixed, blink-free gaze is disconcerting to say the least; but his voice is a kind of enchantment, sprinkling fairy dust over Simon’s flower garden. ‘Scarborough Fair’ is their finest achievement in this regard; it’s like an antique shop coming alive, as if the harpsichords and music boxes are magically playing themselves after the premises have been locked.

Simon’s finest song is another miraculous fusion of the mundane and the magical. As paeans to the spirit of the USA go, ‘America’ is quite muted and modest.  It’s certainly no ‘Born to run’: these pilgrims are journeying to New York in a Greyhound bus, not the shiny, overheating Cadillacs of a thousand mythical road-trips. It’s the very opposite of brash. While it’s certainly in awe of America, there’s a nagging scepticism, a desire to keep it at arm’s length. The first two lines (two of the very best ever written) do just that: ‘let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together, / I’ve got some real estate here in my bag’. If there’s one thing I’ve gleaned from reading cases full of American novels, from The Grapes of Wrath to The Wizard of Oz and back again along the yellow brick road, it’s the dichotomous American relationship to home: it seems Americans are as obsessed with escaping their roots as planting them. Simon’s carrying acreage in his holdall, an ingenious way of saying he actually has no baggage at all. The fact that he communicates this through an image of property is everything: the twin impulses of settlement and flight are inextricable. What are Paul and Kathy fleeing? Saginaw, Michigan, memorably described by the poet Theodore Roethke as a place where bartenders ‘throw you through the front plate glass, / And then send you the bill’. Saginaw is clearly not America, but then is New York? At the end of the song, the arrangement becomes more excitable as the couple ‘count the cars on the New Jersey turnpike’: cymbals crash and the harmonies acquire an exotic burnish. The lovers don’t find America though. The lines only repeat. They – and we – are left looking, longing, hoping.

This may be Simon’s point, that we finally find America, and understand what it means to be an American, when we realise that there is no such place or person; or else that the most American thing of all is to yearn for a country that will never reach the perfection it has so manifestly set out to achieve since independence. This explains some of the pomp of the song’s finale, or at least those few bars before the folksy waltz resumes for the fadeout. It also lies behind the most anguished lines: ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping / I’m empty and aching, and I don’t know why’. But the rest of the track suggests that a different type of American sensibility may offer some consolation. The real America is the land of intimacies and unremarkable moments which form the true spine of the song, the pin-sharp flashes that Simon expresses with such lucidity and economy. Though I’ve never been on a Greyhound, I know the scene completely. I know the small talk interspersed with private thoughts, the long journey shared, the turning of the head to the window as the ‘moon [rises] over an open field’. I too have ‘play[ed] games with the faces’, inventing daft stories about fellow travellers to pass the hours. Who hasn’t? The music colludes with the lovers, and with us too; at around 1:38, the joke about the man in the gabardine suit being a spy is illustrated with a garrulous saxophone, aping the sound of co-conspirators tittering behind cupped hands. None of these experiences are especially unique to their journey, of course. But I can’t help thinking that this is the real America: a country in which they have the liberty to be normal. That’s what I love so much about the song. It finds gentle beauty in the most normal of actions and utterances. Perhaps this is why David Bowie’s rendition at the Concert for New York City after 9/11 was the most moving of the night. Skyscrapers tumble; the faces of those reflected in the glass, and the identities they project onto it, disappear in the debris. In the words of Philip Larkin, ‘what remains of us is love’. And love isn’t all fireworks and rainbows, is it? It’s raised eyebrows, comfortable silences, the ability to fall asleep next to somebody on the Greyhound without feeling self-conscious. None of us are rocks really, are we? Even if we think we are, we’re only surrounded by rocks of other shapes and sizes.

I’m pleased to report that I never again found myself locked out of a minibus. But I’ve taken many coach and train trips since 1996. Even if I’ve only wound up in Birmingham New Street, I too have looked for America. I too have unwrapped my sandwiches from the foil and dreamt. Duke of Edinburgh’s Award? Bah, a mere frippery in the margins of a university application form. Simon and Garfunkel? The soundtrack to my life, I guess. Home, where my thought’s escaping. Home, where my music’s playing. Home, where my love lies waiting, silently for me.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “14 – Simon & Garfunkel: America

  1. Hey Meera, thanks for the link! I always love photographs from inside the car. I love wing mirrors, for some reason – especially strange since I don’t drive myself…

  2. This is one of my very favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs. It seems to me, somehow, a modest attempt to make the Great American Novel on a more human scale; perhaps a bit like Malick’s Badlands, made before he found those very big brushes in his painting kit.

    It reminds me of so much, and across so many eras – it’s applicable to Steinbeck (not only the contents of the bag constituting the real estate, but also, just maybe, their actual dirtiness – some literal real estate in there?); to DeLillo (especially the near-homonym Americana); to the inevitable innocent passage at the beginning of Vietnam War movies (because weren’t these kids always jaded, even in that *nice* and *nostalgic* manner?).

    I find Paul Simon a bit much sometimes, because he does play up that ‘just a small man doin’ my thing’ character – and he was so grumpy and dull at Glastonbury! – but the sheer talent for setting stories to great tunes transcends that. And as you might imagine from my love of Vaughan Williams, I have a big soft spot for their reworking of ‘Scarborough Fair’.

    By the way, I also had a rotten D of E. However, someone on my team had it far worse; having replaced the cooking mechanism of the Trangia with cans of rice pudding, we (with our super-noodles) found it rather hard to forgive him, but we all felt bad when those same cans (along with perhaps eight or ten others) slowed him to a wheezing crawl by the end.

  3. Yes, the song is definitely both novelistic and cinematic: this small vignette is almost like a first chapter. Regarding innocence and experience though, it’s interesting what you suggest about there being a naive form of cynicism (the young Vietnam soldiers etc.) Perhaps the real ‘experience’ is an ability to retain a faith tempered with realism, having gone through that jaded period (hence a song that both critiques and celebrates the American imaginary). This is quite brave given the time of writing…it was de rigueur for American writers/artists/musicians in the 1960s to portray a nation ostensibly at war with the Soviet Union but in actuality at war with itself (JFK, Bobby Kennedy, MLK, Vietnam, Kent State shootings etc.) Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem has its place; but so does this.

    • That’s actually the right way around – I always instinctively see S&G as innocents who survived from the before the 1965-68 upheavals in the ethos of Americana, but when you consider the lyrics (and more prosaically the actual timings) they properly belong to the second half of the decade, if in a somewhat jarring fashion.

      And it is brave, yes – it’s like a wilful construction (or, better, excavation) of a narrative which went on beneath the eye-level of the commentariat and in spite of the many external traumas, interacting with them where necessary or desirable, but with older, local roots.

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