Listen to this track by sixties folk-rock proponents Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel; Simon & Garfunkel as they are logically known. It’s “America”, one of the greatest songs about identity, soul-searching, and the American mythos ever written, initially appearing on the duo’s 1968 album Bookends.
The song would appear in many forms over the decades and in various places in pop culture, usually to frame the themes of restlessness, youthful angst, and coming-of-age rites of passage and loss of innocence. Today, the day before the Presidential election of 2012, these themes are as pertinent as they were in 1968, which was also an election year.
The song is a fictional account of a bus trip from Michigan to New York City, with one of the travelers named Kathy, the same name as Paul Simon’s then-girlfriend’s. This caused many to think that this was an autobiographical song. But, it wasn’t.
Even if it was, the song isn’t really about just the two main characters in the tale in any case. It’s much bigger than that, reaching a Joseph Campbell-sized portent over the years as the song sank into the public consciousness about what America, as an idea, really is.So, what is actually being said here about America, and how might it still apply? Read more
Listen to this track by folk-rock titans and close harmony bar setters Paul Simon and Arthur Garfunkel, known to the world by the partnership name of Simon & Garfunkel. It’s ‘The Only Living Boy In New York” as taken from the duo’s 1970 album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, their final (to date) studio album and the B-side to their well-known favourite “Cecilia”. This song is the sound of the edge of the 1970s, and what would soon be a disolved partnership most associated with the 1960s.
The pair had made four albums before this one, gaining an audience as a folk-rock duo, with an impressive number of hit singles in that vein, making them one of the most prominent acts of that decade. But, before they were Simon & Garfunkel, they were Tom & Jerry, a pop duo with a minor hit in the charts at the end of the ’50s in “Hey Schoolgirl“, influenced heavily by another titanic vocal duo – The Everly Brothers. They even appeared on the venerated TV show American Bandstand under that moniker. So, when Simon sings about ‘Tom’ in this particular song, it’s not hard to imagine that he’s talking about his soon-to-be-erstwhile partner, who by the end of the ’60s had found a second career as an actor. Read more
Here’s a clip of Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening”, from his 1980 One-Trick Pony soundtrack album. This version is from Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park, which was filmed the following year.
The song is a great example of a songwriter who understands the importance of economy, which is also notable in earlier songs like “America”. Much like that song, this later tune also manages to become cinematic in just a few short verses. The tune is similarly populated with characters – his mother who “laughed like some ladies do”, “the girls out on the stoops”, and the narrator himself who is “underage in this funky bar” who then precedes to blow away its patrons with his nascent guitar skills.
It makes sense then that this comes from a movie of the same name which Simon wrote and starred in. Perhaps he wanted to see whether his economic storytelling abilities would translate to the big screen. Critics at the time weren’t so sure. But, at least he didn’t forget to write a good tune or two to go with the film.
Another thing I love about this tune is that horn section, and the percussion lines, both of which are forces which really push this song along. That’s another thing which Simon understands well, of course – music which interlocks with the story he’s telling. And I love the calypso flavouring too, like this song was meant to be a Caribbean road march to celebrate Carnival or Crop Over. Overall, this song just screams celebration!
Paul Simon would follow this soundtrack album up with the underrated Hearts and Bones in 1983, and then really have the best 80s a pop icon from the 60s would ever have after the release of his seminal Graceland album in 1986.