"America" / Simon and Garfunkel
This is the song that started me smoking. The two characters in this song are always trading cigarettes, or fumbling for them in their pockets, and it's so melancholy and cool. "Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat / We smoked the last one an hour ago". . .whatever this movie was, I wanted to be in it, and if that meant smoking -- well, then I was in.
This album, Bookends, happened along right when I was entering my intellectual-wannabe phase of adolescence, and though I cringe to think of it now, I have to admit that girl is still inside me somewhere. Bookends had everything -- it was political, it was poetic, it even had a black-and-white photo cover, an artsy gesture in an era of florid four-color album art. Simon & Garfunkel were among the first folkies to dare to add rock instrumentation: Notice how the whispery vocals and acoustic guitar of the first verse -- "Let us be lovers / We'll marry our fortunes together" -- soon get layered over with drums, organ, synthesizer, and a backing chorus, though it strips back down to the acoustic for the middle verse (all the better to hit a crashing finale). What's even more daring -- It Doesn't Rhyme. Blank verse in a rock song? Earth-shaking.
And yet very few songs have ever caught the disconnected inertia of a road trip as beautifully as this. It's basically a jump-cut series of snapshots, two people on a cross-country highway trip (and if you've never driven from the Midwest to New York, you have no idea how LONG this ride could be). At first the lovers joke around -- "I've got some real estate here in my bag" --and make fun of the other passengers ("She said the man in the garbardine suit was a spy"). But as they settle into the trip, the journey itself becomes the experience, the existential process of rolling over America, staring out the bus window at the endless spool of scenery.
The drumbeat pounds as we hit the last verse, and despite myself my heart catches, because it's unbearably poignant: "'Kathy I'm lost' I said / though I knew she was sleeping" -- as if the only time he can confess such emotions is precisely when his girlfriend isn't listening, and suddenly I feel as lost and alone as he does. "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why," he adds, those last three syllables drawn out into an almost cataclysmic wail of yearning, Garfunkel's sweet falsetto soaring over Simon's teddy-bear tenor.
To me, the futility of human existence can be summed up in this song's last line: "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They've all come to look for America..." What are they looking for? What are we all looking for? Heavy stuff, man.
It was probably easy to strike this pose in 1968, and no doubt there were thousands of hipsters back then who sneered at Paul Simon's cheap philosophizing. But I don't know...I still want a cigarette every time I listen to this song, even though I haven't had one in 20-some years. It still makes me long to hit the open road and hunt for the meaning of life there. And there's nothing more American than that.