4. Simon & Garfunkel – America (1968)
Published January 2019
For the first time on our New York jaunt we step outside of the Greenwich Village and look easterly to the borough of Queens, the original stomping ground of our first US100 bona fide New Yorkers, growing up and attending school together in the Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills neighbourhoods. Not that Manhattan doesn’t have a role to play, as both the location for Track 4’s recording and its artist’s most famous concert.
Despite the title, America’s lyrics do not cover the nation as a whole – unlike those of Track 2 – nor any of its most famous landmarks. In a typically folk fashion it instead makes reference to milestones of the every man, recounting a journey taken by Paul Simon from the dying ‘rust belt’ industrial town of Saginaw, Michigan to the New Jersey turnpike via a coach taken from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
America, prior to this moment in time, had somehow passed me by (a sentence you could perhaps apply more broadly). But once the grandiose magnitude of this project had somewhat accidentally been realised, it only seemed appropriate to include a track which namechecked this vast nation as a whole, and was grandiose in its own tone. As it happens, it’s now grown to become easily my favourite song of all those that reference the country in its title – no offence Messrs Springsteen or Gambino.
Funnily enough one can trace the origins of America directly to a small folk club in the UK home counties. If Paul Simon hadn’t met Kathleen Chitty at the Railway Inn in Brentwood, Essex in April 1964, then it’s unlikely that five months later he’d be boarding a Greyhound in Pittsburgh. The then London-based Simon went back to the States to lay down the final mixes on Simon & Garfunkel’s debut album but was more interested in his new romance – and so he and Kathy embarked on a short road trip instead.
It would be four years and another three albums before this mini-adventure had been translated into a fully written and recorded Simon & Garfunkel track. In the intervening period the character arc of the duo’s career had seen them recover from the flopping of their aforementioned debut, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., a disappointment that prompted Simon to return to the UK and Art Garfunkel to refocus on his studies. Tucked away at the end of side one of this poorly selling album was The Sounds of Silence, which picked up a limited amount of airplay in early 1965. That same year’s innovations in electrified folk rock as heralded by Bob Dylan and The Byrds inspired Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson to overdub the track with guitar, bass and drums – unbeknown to Simon & Garfunkel themselves – and by early 1966 the duo had scored their first major hit as the remixed version rose to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The success of The Sounds of Silence prompted a much more successful album of the same name (albeit with its title track now renamed The Sound of Silence), and ensured a number of other Simon & Garfunkel now-classics made their way onto 1967 film The Graduate. Also on this now iconic soundtrack was an embryonic version of the group’s second hit, Mrs. Robinson, later developed into a full album track for 1968’s Bookends. The day before its recording the duo had recorded America, which ultimately became track 3 of a surreal concept record that intended to explore a life from childhood to old age.
“This is neither a happy ending nor a sad one – it’s an ending that’s both at once and yet neither, full of the same mixture of exuberant optimism and fearful uncertainty of which the American Dream is comprised … This should be our national anthem, if ever the time comes to retire the old one – which is a little played out, wouldn’t you say? It feels like time for a new one.”
The good people at lyrical annotation site genius.com offer some of the more detailed and interesting interpretations of the writing that went into this song, with PatrickBrownson’s particularly passionate extensive essay criminally hidden away behind a mouse click at the song’s conclusion.
Such analysis shows that, while the music has its epic qualities, many see the song’s real power as being in its lyrics. While its tone is never one giddy enthusiasm, the descriptions of Paul and Kathy’s initial interactions have that implication, whether marrying their fortunes together or laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. But verse by verse this makes way for existential grief and confusion, Simon expressing his loss and confusion to a sleeping partner until at last they reach the New Jersey turnpike, with its vast number of cars looking for America, representing something quite hollow indeed.
Sonically America exemplifies the way in which folk had been transformed since the era of Woody Guthrie. Its heightened production values, rolling crashing percussion crescendos and atmospheric backing vocals are owed in part to the indulgences of Simon & Garfunkel that came as a result of their record label paying for the album’s recording sessions. The pair seized the opportunity to invest in viola players, brass instrumentalists, and percussionists (including Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew), and the end result is the most densely produced work in the entire S&G catalogue.
Although they did collaborate once more in 1975 on My Little Town they did not speak much at all in the years that followed their break up. But they say that make up sex is the best kind, and perhaps the same is true of musical reconciliation. Their 1981 homecoming benefit concert In Central Park is perhaps the most iconic moment for both the artists and this New York landmark – with half a million in attendance, it was at the time the largest open air concert in history.
The concert – later a hugely successful live album – represents an informative moment in New York City history. The concert did not just take place in Central Park – it was a fundraiser for Central Park, which had been allowed to fall into a state of deterioration on account of a $3,000,000 shortfall for its maintenance. With New York’s present day reputation for chic and wealth, it can sometimes be hard to grasp the extent to which the city’s civic authorities oversaw an age of blight and neglect during the 1970s and 80s (something that would have a huge influence on the rise of hip hop, as explored in Track 8). This can partly explain why so many New Yorker musicians felt the need to fly the roost as soon as they hit the big time – the Mamas & the Papas were not the only ones with California in their sights. The decision for Simon & Garfunkel to lead the concert can partly be attributed to the fact that they bucked this trend and stayed true to their New York City roots at the height of their success – “it’s great to do a neighbourhood concert,” Simon declares to huge cheers prior to playing America.
Despite the feelgood nature of 1981’s concert, snippiness continued to mark the pair’s relationship. A new collaborative album was abandoned because Garfunkel did not give up smoking. Simon’s production of 1986’s Graceland supposedly prevented Garfunkel from being able to work with his engineer of choice on his frankly bizarre Christmas album The Animals’ Christmas. Even their speech following admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 came with sarcastic digs from Simon aimed in Garfunkel’s direction. In 2016 Simon ruled out any further reunion and was to the point in explaining why: “we don’t get along,” he declared.
In 2018 Simon played his final concert as a solo artist in his home borough of Queens, following an enormously successful career that has also seen him admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame separately as a solo artist, 1986’s Grammy winning Graceland having the biggest impact of all. He’s toured with Sting (2014) and before that Bob Dylan (1999) – 34 years after recording A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission), a not-in-any-way-subtle dig at Dylan’s writing style. It’s fair to say that Garfunkel’s solo exploits never reached the same heights (that Christmas album is genuinely very strange), although as an actor he does have a Golden Globe nomination for his role in 1971’s Carnal Knowledge.
America has found itself cropping up in Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign and legendary film Almost Famous, a cinematic bible for the aspiring rock journalists among us. Meanwhile the song’s lyrics started getting spray painted on various abandoned buildings in Saginaw, Michigan as something of an artistic commentary on the depressing malaise of the former industrial town in which the song’s narrator hitchhikes from. Kathy Chitty, Simon’s travelling partner, is now living in a small unnamed village in Wales where she gets the bus to work at a technical college.
Art Garfunkel seemed to take the notion of ‘looking for America’ to heart: in 1997 he completed a 13 year project to complete a non-continuous walk from New York City to the Pacific coast of Washington after 40 separate excursions.
Genius.com annotations of Simon & Garfunkel – America
Anonymous artist explains motive for Simon and Garfunkel lyrics appearing on abandoned buildings and elsewhere in Saginaw – mlive, December 2010