Friday, March 27, 2015

Favorite Song Friday: America

Paul Simon is a great songwriter—that’s pretty much a given.

The man also has a serious predilection for being an uninformed, self-important tool, but hey, not all songwriters are saints which walk among us. And as a songwriter—despite at least one heartily misplaced sense of rivalry that hopefully by now he has forgotten about (though I doubt it)—he remains on a very, very short list.

(No, that’s not a height joke).

One of my favorite songs he ever wrote is, in fact, one of his greatest: 1968's “America,” from the wondrous Bookends album.  It’s such a beautiful piece of music and a such a personal and moving story; two young lovers making their way across the country in search of…something. It’s a heartfelt travelogue where the search is everything, to the point where we really don’t even know what the destination is. Nor do we need to, I don’t think.

And as much as any Simon and Garfunkel song, "America" I think truly shows just how essential Arthur Garfunkel was to the final product. Sure, Paul did the songwriting, played guitar, took an awful lot of the lead vocals. But listen to what Arthur's voice does to this song. His harmonies make it soar and lend it a level of soul that is almost impossible to imagine would be there without him.

But a recent listen of the song had me thinking about the songwriting first and foremost, and what an unusual turn it was for Paul Simon. This is one of the best examples I have ever heard of blank verse, minimalist songwriting, and it's not something Paul did too often.

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes
And Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

"Kathy," I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've come to look for America

Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, "Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera"

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery
She read a magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

"Kathy I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why"
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

Now one of Paul's trump cards has always been to take an array of songwriting styles and make them work.

"Homeward Bound" is more of a straightforward rhyme scheme, with some internal rhyme for good measure ("...all my work comes back to me in shades of mediocrity..."). 

"The Boxer" goes for poetic flourish, particularly in the final verse, which is astounding when positioned with the straight narrative that largely proceeds it. It is also largely unrhymed until the end of each verse, which is incredibly difficult in its own right.

"The Sounds of Silence" has no chorus (like "Homeward Bound" does and which the "Lie la lie" part ably represents on "The Boxer") and instead depends on a series of couplets which lead up to a steady reveal at the end of each verse. 

"Graceland" embraces pop as much as it does its African sensibilities and stands as a more traditional, middle-aged update of the search we first hear about in "America." 

But "America" is written blankly as a straightforward narrative, not a rhyme in sight, and it works to a tee. It sounds like something Hemingway would write, if Hemingway were a songwriter.

Just look at the fourth stanza as a perfect example. It's downright journalistic, no images or metaphors to describe what's happening, just plain voice, first-person reporting, and it's staggering in its simplicity. Particularly considering Paul Simon's gift for being such an intricate and imagistic writer.

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat."
"We smoked the last one an hour ago."
So I looked at the scenery,
She read a magazine,
And the moon rose over an open field.

It's helped, of course, by an irresistible melody and, again, some of the most breathtaking interplay between the two singers we've ever heard. And it sets up for what follows; one of the saddest and most devastating lines rock-n-roll has ever produced. No drama, no bombast, just one more simple statement. And it hits like a hammer.

"Kathy I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."

It's a gift to write like this, because it's so hard to mesh blank verse with melody and make it work. It's an even greater gift to have this be only one of the types of writing at which you excel. Paul Simon, flaws and annoyances aside, once occupied some very rare, very special terrain as a songwriter. He surely did.

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