Traveling up and down the country, playing songs, telling stories and talking to people every night, there are a couple of questions that usually come up - most famously the “can you please tell me how you get to play with Frank Turner?” question, followed by the “is your name really John Allen?” question. They’re fine, not exciting, but I guess why people would be interested in the answers I have to give. Every now and then though, somebody comes up with a questions that ignites a thought process in my mind. I love that. Recently a guy asked me what in my opinion the difference was between a good song and great song. I immediately replied that it was in the lyrics. But is that true? In search for a deeper answer, I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to some of my all time favourite songs. Masterpieces by Dylan, Clapton, Springsteen, the Counting Crows, Nick Cave and many others. While I was listening to them and reading through the lyrics I rediscovered how inspiring they actually are and I decided it was time to start a new series in my blog. From time to time I will sit down and give you insight into music that I believe is great. Songs that inspire me, albums that I feel I couldn’t live without anymore or artists that have become friends even though I have never met them in my life. I will try and take a look behind the scenes, tell you, from my perspective, what makes songs, albums or artists great, what meaning they hold for me or what stories I connect with them and discuss some of my all time favourite lines and verses. If you’re interested, feel free to hop on board as we start with:
#1- “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together…”
(America by Simon & Garfunkel)
I can’t recall when I first stumbled upon this song. It was featured in one of the key scenes in one of my favourite movies, Almost Famous, by Cameron Crowe, when the protagonists’ sister Anita plays it to her mother in order to explain why she intends to leave home to become a stewardess. When I watched Cameron Crowe’s movie for the first time, I remember thinking: “wow, America by Simon & Garfunkel”, but how I got to know it? No idea. All I know is, America is one of my all-time favourite songs. Let’s dive into it.
The song was written in 1966 and first published on Simon & Garfunkel’s penultimate album Bookends (Released on April 3, 1968). Stephen Holden from The Rolling Stone called it “three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications.” Wow… right now I feel I have nothing to add to this… but anyway, let’s have go.
America is based on a road trip that Paul Simon undertook with his then girlfriend Kathy Chitty. The year is 1964 and Simon knows that the best days of their relationship are over, still he cannot convince himself that leaving Kathy would be the right choice (Eventually she ended the relationship, unable to deal with the growing public attention and returned to her home in England). In this context, the first lines make sense. “Let us be lovers…” almost sounds like he is trying to convince himself or even both that they still can work as a couple. I love the little guitar intro, the humming of Simon’s and Garfunkel’s voices that set up the melancholic tone and atmosphere for the whole song. It takes me to a place that might or might not exist only in my mind. Is it the contrast? Maybe. Simon talks about universal topics like love and marriage only to address something as trivial and mundane as cigarettes and pies. one line later - a technique that can be found throughout the song.
We get to know they’re actually on a road trip in the second verse. Simon mentions places they have been to, Pittsburgh, Saginaw, both in the US state of Michigan. The song actually was written in Saginaw, where Paul Simon spent a couple of days in 1966 to play a show. Fun fact: Legend has it that he was only paid about a quarter of his standard fee to perform but still accepted because he had to see what a town called Saginaw would look like. 44 years later, an artiste group called Paint Saginaw sprayed lyrics from the song on vacant buildings and abandoned factories to mourn the steadily dwindling population.
One of the the best parts of the song to me is the bridge in the middle. The major7 chords just shout out melancholy while the content of the lyrics is more playful than in any other part of the song. For the first (and only) time in the song, the atmosphere is light. The couple are investigating their fellow travellers, making up stories behind the people they encounter. Who hasn't done that? What’s this guy? He looks like a banker. Why is he dressed like this? Come on. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. And if you say you’ve never done it, you’re a liar or really sad. Do it then, please, it’s fun!
With the third verse, Simon gets right back to the melancholy. There’s a raincoat, implying bad weather and she is reading a magazine while he watches the scenery fly by. Ironically, the setting described here is the perfect kind of situation for me to listen to this song. On the train, on the bus, on a plane, with my headphones, staring into the distance, seeing nature, houses, cars fly by, this is when the song completely unfolds and really hits me heart. When the moon rises over open fields, we get a sense of significant loneliness and disorientation. Staring at an open landscape like the one I imagine in this song, may put many things in perspective, it may strike you as beautiful, but it also shows you quite drastically how small and insignificant you are in contrast to the world that you are living in.
The fact that Simon talks to Kathy while she is sleeping shows that even though they share the bus ride, the couple is further torn apart than ever before. They are not even in the same state of consciousness anymore. It is then that Simon drops the line that I think is the best line ever written about pain and depression: “I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why.” I cannot even begin to tell you how much I admire this line. Is it the simplicity? Its brutal honesty? I don’t really know. All I do know is that nothing ever came that close to describing the feeling that I encounter during what I like to call my “darker days”.
By the time the couple has left the deserted countryside behind and arrives in the busy streets of New York, Simon realises that they are not alone in their fears. As they can’t help but count the cars, they realise everyone out there is just like they are - just as lost, just as disoriented, just as lonely. The brutal irony that you can be among a mass of people and still feel alone is as hurtful as the fact that we are never alone in our struggle is comforting. Or, from another perspective, we are entrapped in a world where nobody is able to say for sure, what the point in living is. It’s dystopian, it’s depressing and it’s weirdly optimistic at the same time. In America, the country America itself or the American Dream, if you like, becomes a signpost, a directory, a symbol of hope and for better times ahead that we can cling onto when days are dark.
As a songwriter, what strikes me most in this song is the absence of rhymes. When writing my own songs, I spend so much worrying about rhymes and Paul Simon simply ditches all of it and by doing so creates an almost stream-of-consciousness style lyric about finding your place in life, searching for truth and salvation, and hoping to find the “real America”. What makes this song great? In the end it’s a story we all can relate to. Even if we’re fortunate enough to not suffer from heavy depression, we are still bound to have days when we are “empty and aching and (…) don’t know why”. And if you actually are depressed, if you face days when you feel lost and alone, when you feel that you are too insignificant and small to matter, you still have this longing for salvation and the hope that it will be better one day and - most importantly - the song underlines that you are not alone in your struggle. After all, we’ve all come to look for America.
Lyrics (words & music by Paul Simon):
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's pies,
And 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 hitch-hike 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 bow tie 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 her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.
"Kathy, I'm lost", I said, though I know she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
The've all come to look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.