If you really wanted to know (you don’t), Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ is probably the greatest written song in modern music. This assertion is to its lyrics, and as a lyrical product – though I’ll briefly discuss how it’s music is a triumph itself.
Actually, let’s start there. If we are to follow that the form = content equation equals greatness, and we should, we see a proper matching here. The lyrics, a pastoral stitching of Americana episodes, are matched with music quite the same – a melodic stitching of highs and lows, of speeding up and slowing down; crashes and lithely stringings. Much as we are offered the glory of searching in America and growing along its fresh highways (we mustn’t forget how new the highways were in 1968), and as we are offered, simultaneously, the existential wail that comes along with that long, drawn highway, we are also given a music of happiness and scattered solitudes.
That’s the music. It’s great. But that’s not why I’m writing this.
I’m here because of the words. Paul Simon, and yes I’m assuming Paul – sorry Art – wrote in a three minute song what Keroauc tried to do in the entire On The Road. In all of his writing, really. And yes, I know Jack came first – but who cares. Keroauc needed drafts of a novel (read that, drafts) and really got nowhere as to what America is and was and should be, but rather threw together pages of self imbibing and denial and all the other scraps we called “Beat”. Ginsberg’s poem “America” is a great insight, but it’s a farce because he saw America as a farce, and was probably right.
But Mr. Simon, well he saw something in America that needed to be in a folk song. He saw the journey of two lovers, from Michigan to New York and in their journey he saw the near whole of America. Not geographically, of course, and not in simple representation, but in crazy plotlines that dot up the American citizenship. He paints the true color of our American blood, a feat so extraordinary because that color can look so different at times, but runs true always.
What does this look like? Well, for one, Simon’s America isn’t caught up in the “mere accumulation of material things”, an omen the great Robert F. Kennedy dropped on this nation just a few weeks prior to ‘America’ being released.
Simon’s America is about so much more. It’s about people, it’s about love and lovelessness. Knowing where you are precisely, and not knowing where you are abstractly. It’s about Michigan as much as it’s about New York, and about America as much as it’s about its own narrator. It’s filled with episodes meant to illustrate the silliness of the road, the longing of the road, the two paths that diverge in the woods kind of road and the other drivers on the road, not realizing they’re on the road and heading nowhere. Keroauc, to use him again, had the metaphor of the road at his disposal. I’ll give him credit for that. But he fails to see the road does not need to be drawn out, that sentences to diagnose a true American fervor don’t have to be run-ons without commas or sense – they can be a simple song verse about a man who may or may not be a spy.
What I mean to say is that Simon uses images. He doesn’t need the novel. America never needed the novel. Man, on the other hand, is as deep and non-episodic as to require thousands of years of prose to diagnose any kind of condition. We’re a simpler country and, even if we’re not, we’re a country that believes in the individual experience.
And that may be the greater point that even I’m missing. As perfectly summarizing as Simon’s verses are to his unique experience – of the two lovers finding their way Eastward, and of him finding out he is in fact lost – the true derivation of the whole endeavor here is written in the last lines….”they’ve all gone to look for America”.
Because as simple as someone wants to make this country, it and its meaning are not obvious. The two are far from synonyms here. Simon, like every other American, is searching for his version, his true nation and place of birth. And that America, like ever other American’s America is a phantasmagoria, a dream aloft in some clouds. Clouds getting pocked by the Manhattan skyscraper tips and spreading out along the Great Lakes and raining all over Saginaw and some miles away on an empty pack of cigarettes laying on the side of the highway after being tossed from a bus window.