I’ve been a Paul Simon fan for more than 40 years. My parents owned Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. It was one of the I’d-inevitably-know-inside-out standards that my dad would play on the weekends, along with albums from Jimmy Webb, Cleo Laine, Art Pepper and many others.
We had one of those teak record players back then that you could stack the records up on on the spindle and they’d drop at the end of each side after the needle arm had magically retreated. I can remember The Dangling Conversation and For Emily Wherever I May Find Her as the soundtrack to watery Sunday winter sunshine in Canberra. Simon’s songs were films of bigger world and Art Garfunkel’s voice provided glorious coattails.
When I went to University and bought a guitar, the only thing I had to go with it was the Paul Simon Songbook and another with tabs from the early albums. It took me ages to learn how to play anything and my ‘performances’ were a running gag. But I could do a decent 59th St Bridge Song and if not too drunk or stoned, could manage a bit of Scarborough Fair or Homeward Bound. With the latter, I could play that opening flourish very well, setting the scene for immediate disappointment. I never had rhythm, though it did arrive, oddly, thirty or so years on. One lesson for budding troubadours – you work the strings to your advantage if you start in a haltering, faltering way and build the quality of your performance. Under promise and over deliver.
One of the standard pub debates is Simon vs Dylan. The Dylanistas think they have it won. It’s no contest, they say. Ginsberg, in the brilliant Scorsese hagiography says with a flourish “there was something of the Holy Ghost about him” and looking at him in his prime that’s hard to argue against. He is the perfect fusion of medium and message. He embodies the song. He is the instrument and its perfect delivery.
But Paul Simon is something else. I see all (or most) of his songs as powerless epics, sung from the realistic perspective of a man caught up in the magic and futility and fragility of life. Each of them are exercises in hope against the current. When he writes of ‘maladies, melodies,’ or ‘the thought that life could be better….woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains‘, he lends his fragile and decorative expression to our anxieties, rendering them quiet glories. ‘He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping, then he turned around and headed home again.’ If Dylan allowed the song to inhabit him and him become a fulcrum for our awe, Simon’s songs invade us all, administered palliatives to our insecurities. The minor tragedies and glories of love, the reshaping of the circumstances of our hearts, are all there.
Dylan’s love songs, for me, are always about saying something too late. The post hoc ‘I once loved’ phrase crops up often. His love songs are often apologies.
Simon, on the other hand, is never in apologetic mood. The songs are a close examination of the feelings of love and its aftermath, but they are a more rounded examination of love and its consequences, mostly deferring to the third person. ‘One and one half wandering Jews, return to their natural coasts, to resume old acquaintances, step out occasionally, speculate who had been damaged the most. Easy time will determine if these consolations will be their reward.’ Or ‘Negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same.’ What they lack in the pastoral, they gain in the visceral.
I’ve seen Paul Simon twice, once at the Sydney Cricket Ground with Art Garfunkel in the early eighties (“So this is the Sydney Opera House, huh?”) and once with Ladysmith Black Mamabazo at the Royal Opera House. After the latter I rushed out to the stage door to see if I could catch a glimpse. I did. I’ve always admired his ease with his hair and from the back of the throng I could see his lid bobbing towards the limousine. The crowd parted for a moment and I could see into the car, which to my surprise back then was full of well heeled elderly people. He has always been a private man, choosing the songs as the moment of connection and intimacy rather than (for the most part) the gossip columns, but at this moment I had to recalibrate my idea of him, not as a ‘head to the nightclub’ sort of guy (though why I’d ever think that, I have no idea), but as a ‘go home and talk about books, art and politics’ sort of guy. His songs, for the most part, trade the upward waft of sentimentality for the burden of preoccupation and this three-second glimpse of his after-show world told me enough.
There’s something else about the way that words and music fit in his songs. In Dylan, there’s a lot that rests on the end of the line. His voice travels off and back like an enthusiastic dog on a long leash. It’s a pleasing trick that supports Ginsberg’s hypothesis. In Simon’s case, I think the lyrics rhyme with the music. He does sideways rhyming. The words are as intrinsic as the melody line. I’ve been in my fair share of Manhattan elevators in which a muzak version of a Simon classic doesn’t stand the transition.
I don’t know why but a line from his classic song, America, fell into my head this morning. It wasn’t a line of poetry, but it was one of his Kodachrome moments. The line was ’So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mr Wagner pies.’ Simon’s songs are always visual. ‘The Mississippi delta was shining like a National Guitar,’ for example, is one of the many lines that save us a journey, as is ‘we are travelling together in the Sangre de Christo, the Blood of Christ Mountains of New Mexico’.
I started to think a bit more about America and how visual a song it is and I thought I’d dig a little and put some pictures to things I’d made my own story for and see how the truth matched up. So here, for no reason other than a lyrical treasure hunt, is America annotated. I hope he won’t mind me using his lyrics.
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 pies
[Well guess what. Mrs Wagner’s Pies did exist. Mrs. Wagner made her summer home in Ocean Grove, New Jersey in the 1870s. She’s the one on the balcony holding the cat in the photo below…
She was a talented baker who started out baking for her Ocean Grove friends and neighbours. Word soon spread. She baked at home, initially on an old-fashioned wood stove in her small kitchen. Her husband delivered the pies in a large wicker picnic basket. By 1890, the Wagners traded in their wicker basket for a horse-drawn pie wagon, and they moved to a bigger house. In the basement they built a 20×20-foot coal-fired brick oven which could bake between 150 to 200 pies in 45 minutes. They also had a small shop on the basement level.
Mrs. Wagner made her pies from fresh fruit that was delivered daily from nearby farms on horse-drawn wagons. She also received 40-quart cans of fresh milk from local dairies. The secret to her light and flaky crust was supposedly a ratio of 12 ounces of pig lard to every pound of flour.
Mr. Wagner served as the first pie delivery man, until business got so big that the Wagners had to hire a second driver. Each driver would cover one half of Ocean Grove. They’d drive around slowly, twice a day, calling out “Pieman, pieman!” As the popularity of her pies grew, Mrs. Wagner opened additional bakeries in Newark, Jersey City, and Brooklyn. Pies were filled with freshly prepared apples, peaches, pineapples and blueberries, and in winter, pumpkin and mincemeat.
After World War I, production in Ocean Grove stopped and pies for the Jersey Shore were delivered from the Newark plant. The company continued to grow. Mrs. Wagner’s pies were featured at the 1939 World’s Fair. By then they had loading stations across the country: in Toledo, Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlantic City. 40,000 stores and restaurants bought their pies from Mrs. Wagner. Mrs. Wagner’s pies went out of business in July 1968. You can buy a tin on eBay.
And we walked off to look for America
Cathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburg
Here’s the Greyhound depot in Pittsburg. I guess they spent a bit of time here before boarding the bus.
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
Saginaw, Michigan, became the destination for a great number of workers migrating from areas of the United States that were greatly devastated by the Great Depression, especially from the south. This migration continued throughout the war years and in the economic boom, which followed. Saginaw, like most of America, benefited from the dramatic economic prosperity following the war. General Motors expanded its presence in Saginaw, and other manufacturers increased production as well. This caused the population of the City to swell to its height of approximately 100,000 during the 1960s. Here’s downtown Saginaw:
It’s around 370-440ish miles from Saginaw to Pittsburgh, passing through Ohio on the way. One hundred miles a day hitchhiking does feel like a bit of a short-changed slog, so I think we can validate the implied note of exasperation. It might also answer why he’s aching a bit later in the song, physically if not emotionally.
And I’ve come to look for America
Laughin’ on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gaberdine suit was a spy
I’m visualising someone a bit like Pete from Mad Men.
I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera
It’s worth listening to this last bit. The gaiety of the beginning of the bus journey that sweeps them away and the trading of jokes is perfectly captured. Then she offers her joke about the spy and he retorts in the customary bloke-building-on-a-perfectly-acceptable-joke-with-something-that-demonstrates-his-technical-knowledge way that ends the sequence. And then, if you listen to the descending notes that fill the pause, the flattening of the mood is exquisitely captured. I don’t know anything about music, but I guess they’re diminished notes or something, but they are absolutely perfect. He hands the responsibility for the storytelling over. Then, after the pause…
Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
Don’t do it. They’re bad for your health.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field
Two space references in a row. Effortless.
Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
The bus looks quite comfortable, in a Norman Rockwell way. I’m not sure it was quite that pleasant.
I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why
Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America
Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America
All come to look for America
It’s a tremendous song that deftly weaves youthful hope and despair. It sets up the restlessness, ‘the thought that life could be better…woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains’, that is a constant theme in his storytelling. See as a bookend ‘American Tune’ which he wrote I guess a decade later.
As a poignant coda that says much about the challenges that America faces, back in 2010, residents in Saginaw started to see lyrics from the song spray painted on dilapidated buildings around the town.
The elemental expression of the darker reading of his lyrics is pretty apposite today as Americans look to the polls in November. The American Dream, as it’s described, always feels to me like something ahead of us, rather than behind. Something of a threshold, with one foot on it, and one in a bleaker street. Simon’s songs are often, if not mostly at this pivot point. You’re never there and it’s never too late. They’re an examination of a state. The rest is up to us.
Here’s the song: