Driving to Bath recently, we allowed the iPod to run us through all the Simon and Garfunkel tracks it contained – and it suddenly became something of a sentimental journey, because listening to Simon and Garfunkel seems very much an activity which is rooted in the past. We sang along, snatches of ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘For Emily..’ and even ‘Cecilia..’ But when this one came on, my heart did a little jump and began to melt (two quite contradictory metaphors of course, but there you go.) Just hearing those harmonised hums that begin the song takes you to a younger you, doesn’t it?
… Before we launch into ‘Let us be lovers/ we’ll marry our fortunes together’ let’s acknowledge this is a young person’s song, the irony of the opening line perhaps being that romantic youngsters have only their poverty and idealism to share, their only ‘real estate’ in their bags. Never truer. This is a sort of studenty song, backpacking across the country with that youthful sense of quest and curiosity to discover the real nature of what they’ve taken for granted, to discover the concepts and the reality behind the geographical materialism – ‘we’ve all come to look for America..’
And for me this is a sixth form song. I saw and heard John Rogers Prosser singing and playing it in school one day and I felt straight away the kind of yearning beauty that the song possessed. And at around the same time one of my best friends, Barrie, (where are you now, Dr./Professor of Soil Science?) was becoming a huge Paul Simon fan. Barrie learnt to play the guitar way before I did; he was our sort of local (ie. Church youth group ) guitar player, and hitting adolescence he began to learn to play his way through all the early Paul Simon songs up until ‘Bookends’, and he played them well. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ came out towards the end of this period of shared (because he got me interested too) enthusiasm…oh, maybe not, I also recall Barrie enthusing over songs from Paul Simon’s ‘first’ (post S&G) solo albums, and learning to play things like ‘Duncan’ and ‘American Tune’. But in my mind, the ‘Bookends’ songbook both ‘capped’ the sense of Simon’s extraordinary talent… and somehow ended our peculiar fascination with those great early songs of his. (Barrie moved seamlessly into a Leonard Cohen obsession, by the way, as a yin/yang thing with my JoniMitchellism..)
To me ‘Bookends’ seemed to have a rare almost mystical beauty, despite the quirky things like ‘At The Zoo’ and ‘Punky’s Dilemma’, and ‘America’ was the song that most encapsulated that spirit, or that most appealed to the unformed teenage senses of angst and incipient wanderlust. More about that in a moment maybe. There was also something delightfully refreshing about the lyric and the construction too – the conversational tone, the sense of the ordinary (‘so we bought a pack of cigarettes/and Mrs. Wagner pies..’), the credible touches of youngsters conspiratorially observing and inventing back stories for the people around them (‘.. I said be careful, his bow tie is really a camera…’). I knew nothing then about Greyhound buses, and could only imagine these exciting journeys across the states – though I got a taste of it a few years later, and Simon’s charm-touched song to youthful fun, quest, longing… came back to mind then.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t articulate it to myself when I first heard this song, but now I’m aware of at least two elements of appeal held in delicate balance – that sense of search for the wider ideals, for the particular discovery of what is so big that it can only be unknowable, but must still be known… ‘To look for America’ reminds me of that fabulous passage at the end of ‘The Great Gatsby’: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” And at the same time for me perhaps as well the sense of a spiritual thirst and emptiness that will not easily be satisfied by lesser goals. This weariness and longing is also there in this song: ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said…/ I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why..’ Faltering but fairly fervent little Jesus-believer that I was back then, these dual longings within us seemed very close to the heart of what it was all about.