01 June 2015

On Paul Simon's "America"

Paul Simon's account of two lovers on a Greyhound bus journey. which in a few deft strokes of imagery juxtaposes the mixed-up emotions of young love against the passing scenery glimpsed through the window, transforming personal confusion into a metaphor for a country in search of itself. 
Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat. We smoked the last one an hour ago.... 
From its hushed, hummed introduction, through its near symphonic middle section, to its poignant, fading end, America is a true masterpiece.
-- Mick Brown, London Telegraph

I actually prefer the stripped-down (more) acoustic versions of this song to the overworked arrangement of the original, like this one from the 1981 Central Park concert, which I got on vinyl, while still in grade school, I think for Easter. It might have been Christmas. Anyway, I listened the shit out of the two disc set for years and have imprinted on my mind, forever, all the rotten patter ("Well, it's GREAT to DO a neighborhood concert....") with which Simon insisted on testing the audience's good will, all night. He's like an old comic, dying on stage, continuously, but too stubborn to give up on the promise of finally landing a line the audience is supposed to find funny.

Despite this recurrent, distracting, and cringe-worthily awful factor--which you keep trying to forget, hoping, even when you've heard the album a million times, that he'll get the message and just stop it--I feel that the Central Park concert album is a gem, recorded a decade after the guys split up in 1970, it seems, at Simon's insistence, (according to Garfunkel's recent, also cringe-worthy interview in The Guardian). I've always known, especially from the copious photographs in the liner notes and art of the old albums, that Paul Simon and Arthur Garfunkel had been best friends in high school, but sort of hated each other, in whatever present time in question currently under discussion, but despite the occasional affectionate reference to each other that I've gleaned from interviews--affection, which, of course, I'm looking for and want--my overriding impression of the two of them, after so many years, is that they're both impossible, wounded narcissists I would not want to share a meal with. I'm also okay with being wrong with this impression.

Anyway, I wanted to say something nice about this song. Kathy Chitty, Simon's Welsh girlfriend from his first London sojourn, accompanied Paul to the U.S. in 1964 when producer, Tom Wilson, required that Simon return to the United States to finalize mixes and artwork for Simon & Garfunkel's debut studio album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.. Instead of working on his first studio release, Simon embarked on a five-day road excursion with Chitty, out to Michigan and back to New York, in September of that year.

One of the things I love about this song is the bittersweet--melancholic, really--diminution from the naively confident optimism of the opening declaration, which is filled with the knowingness and unearned magnanimity of the young, tying in a knot the nod toward traditional marriage which unites monetary fortunes; the thrilling unknown of their combined fates, which seem simultaneously full of the joy of infinite possibility and the acknowledged, but woefully underappreciated, possibility of adversity (or of banality or of boredom) that this compound Fortune may disclose or not; and the signal social rebelliousness and sexual freedom of the era, in which marriage is rejected as the bond between two people in favor of a looser, bondless bond, heedless and disdainful of the traditional contract, certain that their enthusiasm for each other, alone, can structure and sustain this relationship according to their own, probably not closely-examined, rules.

Paul Simon had a special knack for evoking the pensive, imprecise, confused and confusing, enveloping ambiguity--the unmooredness--that alarmingly discolors our understanding of ourselves and the world, ourselves in the world, when our certainty arrives at an entirely unexpected turn or insight, disappointment or unintelligibility. And we experience it, physically, as a nausea, as our emotions overwhelm the body by suddenly being so clearly not separate from the somatic in the way we have grown used to parsing them. The final moments of Mike Nichols' 1967 film, The Graduate--for which Paul Simon wrote much of the score--provide a vivid example of this kind of disturbing event, when Ben "saves" Elaine from her own wedding, barricades her angry family and all the wedding attendees in the church, and the two of them run down the drive of the church together, laughing, with Elaine in her white wedding gown, and jump on a dusty old bus, without paying, make their way to the back, sit down--smiles still on their faces--and then in a long shot that closes the film, regard each other, not knowing where the bus is going, or what they are going to do next, or even perhaps if they want to be with one another.

In America, the narrator and Kathy, set out with a somewhat blithe promise of commitment to each other, provisions in the form of cigarettes and over-sweetened junk food, and the notion of a, perhaps larky, adventure to discover America for themselves, together. But as the song progresses and builds, it all falls apart: the simple freedom of their "quest"; their easy certainty about--and ability to relate to--each other; meaning, itself; and all the things they took for granted when they started this trip. The journey, the whole experience, takes on an indeterminate cast of danger, recklessness, and an anxious loneliness. Jokes fall flat; the two protagonists--it might not be too much to suggest that they have, in a visceral sense, become antagonists--retreat inward and away from each other, as Kathy reads her magazines (not, certainly not, his magazines, an unexpressed distinction that also deftly articulates the yawning void between the genders, a hitherto unimagined reality for this young couple) as the narrator gazes wordlessly out the window. The narrator makes banal statements about feeling lost to Kathy, which take on a sudden profundity in the song, and not just because the time he confesses this to her is when he knows she's asleep. By the end of the piece, the alienation of our two protagonists has begun to represent a larger significance that includes the nation, America, itself, and its citizens. And so the narrator has gone from broad, bold declarations encompassing self-knowledge and love, the future and fate, to numbly counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. I do not think it would be too much to suggest that we've all--all of us--been there, in one way or another, at one time or another.

The song has an interesting--yet familiar, very Simoneon--structure of juxtaposition and non sequitur. And, after finding the lyrics, as posted on Paul Simon's website, I better understood its placement of attribution, which is--and should be and should remain--ambiguous when listening to it. For example, I have always heard the narrator ending his statement to Kathy in the second verse at "Michigan seems like a dream to me now." But Simon has it go to the end of the verse as:

“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.”

In this case, we are presented with a conundrum, a mystery, in the switch from "we" to "I," and the clear attribution to the narrator in conversation with Kathy that he--and only he--took four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw. Perhaps they didn't travel to Michigan and back to New York together, or the narrator, is referencing an earlier trip Midwest and back compared to this one. The song was released in 1972. Kathy Chitty and Paul Simon took their road-trip in 1964. In 1966, Paul Simon played a festival in Saginaw. Is the Paul who wrote the song, at some point, perhaps almost ten years later, mis-remembering his post-Kathy roadtrip as prior rather than post another Saginaw excursis? I do not know. When listening to the song, this placement of "I" after "we" seems to signify a breakdown--as part of a gathering breakdown in the song--between the narrator and "Kathy." In reading Paul Simon's posted lyrics--which contain at least one spelling mistake: "Kathy, I’m lost," I said, thought [sic] I knew she was sleeping.--we fall into another territory, which we will fail to be able to parse here, in terms of biography, anyway. In terms of literary analysis, it will stand as an ambiguity.

While lingering over the thorny question of attribution, let us examine the other place where it remains unclear unless we look at the quotation marks Paul Simon has provided for us--who knows when? In the fourth stanza, someone--we assume the narrator--opens with, Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat. Now, we may, or may not, attribute the next line to the same speaker, We smoked the last one an hour ago. Neither line is attributed in the heard text of the song, but Simon's web-published lyrics clearly assign the lines to two separate speakers by use of separate quotation demarcations:

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago.”

Tradition--and certainly David Bowie, in his performance found below--gives the line to Kathy. But although the lyrics clearly indicate two people speaking, it is far from clear who is speaking which line. In any event, this is the only place "Kathy" speaks in her own voice in the song--excepting the observation about the man in the gaberdine suit, which occurs without quotation marks in the third stanza, interestingly, the bridge--we just don't know, in this case, which is the only case in which she speaks, which line is hers. Welcome to literary analysis, which sometimes is less about what we know than, very usefully, about what we don't know, but neither of which we can begin to ascertain unless and until we assess the knowable.

For myself, as a fan, a listener, and as a critic, I prefer the more ambiguity option. I am much more comfortable with not knowing who says what or where the quotations begin and end than I am knowing where the author placed those boundaries. When we listen to a song, we can't see quotation marks, except where they may be implied and where our imagination places them--and that placement is notoriously, and expansively, usefully, meaningfully changeable.

Very briefly, we will perform two two, perhaps three, breakdowns to explore some of the juxtapositions Paul Simon mobilizes in this song.

Let's begin with a cursory comparison of first lines, and they are:

“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together;" S1
“Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, S2
Laughing on the bus, Bridge/S3
“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.” S4
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping. S5

Every stanza--excepting the bridge--begins with an address, two of them to Kathy by name. We assume that whenever quotation marks occur, that it is to Kathy the narrator is speaking--though the narrator is always speaking, throughout this song, and therefore the song is also addressed to us, or to anyone listening, which is therefore us. 

[SIDEBAR: Friends like to give me shit when I employ the plural. I am not referencing the "royal we," in these cases, nor would I, ever. That royal usage is reserved for persons or "presences" who have more than one body, which is much too complicated to go into here. The "we" one applies in scholarly situations, is a respectful acknowledgement that a person is writing to and from a community of scholars and/or readers and/or listeners. A private letter is addressed to an individual. In most cases a poem, a novel, or a song--particularly when it has been published to a wide audience--is addressed to a plurality, and once you have entered that plurality, it is humble and polite to denote your placement in that social space. The song is not addressed to me--or even Kathy, anymore--but to all of us. And while my observations may arise from a personal engagement with this piece, those meanings are available to us all; and therefore we say "we" when discussing them with others. I am stuck in the middle with you about these things; we are bound to agree and disagree with one another about them. This is acceptable, normal, and unavoidable. In fact, it is preferable, because without disagreement, we would never learn anything new.]

Each first line takes us into a slightly different world, and each world is one slightly further away from the other. This should be clear by the gulf we see between the sentiment of Let us be lovers versus "Kathy, I'm lost," I said--and the second lines take us even further into each world, in each case. This has been covered already, but it is worth remarking again on the movement from being lovers to being lost, and this is effected most powerfully in the change from "we" to "I" and with the placement of certain images.

Look at the progression--or regression or retrogression--from "we" to "I." There is only one "I" in the first stanza. There is only one "we" in the rest of the song, and it occurs in the fourth stanza and seems to be attributed to Kathy. The shift between the first and second stanza's last lines is already stark, if you pay attention to it, with the shift from 

we... walked off to look for America 


I've come to look for America

The rest of the song is filled with I, she, I, and me. For the narrator, "we" has dissolved, not only into its constituent parts, but even more so into the narrator alone: to a loneliness that is a lostness, even though he is, tacitly, not alone. And finally, in the end, which is the chorus, this turns into "they" and doesn't even include the narrator or Kathy, anymore. The dislocation has moved outside of them, and outside the bus, to no longer include even them anymore. 

A moon arises out of nowhere in this song, over an open field--an empty field--reflecting suddenly the internal sentiment the narrator feels, we assume, after he and Kathy stop speaking about the last thing they had to share--a cigarette--which is gone. It packs a whallop, that pale moon over a darkened nighttime landscape. Such emptiness. Not the sun revealing all, but the moon revealing only its singularity and little else, just darkness, and that image discloses, reflects, reveals, and makes possible, the brutally confessional moment of being with the beloved, but lost. Lost, lost, lost. And the narrator counts the cars of the others he assumes have also "come"--not gone, but come--like them, like her, like him, like them, to look for America. He and Kathy and all those people on the turnpike have gone into America (perhaps from New York, or wherever), but they are in it now--they have come into America... and they can't find it, or themselves. 

The final sentiment seems to me to run something like this: 

I am lost, I say, to no one in particular, 
to no one awake or listening, except, 
perhaps, only to myself, perhaps,
if, even, I
can hear it.

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 magazines.
And the moon rose over an open field.

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

And they’ve all come to look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.

[Ed. Note: Except for the quotation marks, I have fudged with much of the punctuation and corrected spelling errors. Look for Paul Simon's version, here.]

Central Park Concert:

The original:

First Aid Kit on Letterman:

Sting, on tour in Philly:

The great Graham Nash:

David Bowie:

The classic Yes studio evidence:

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