The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’

Every time I play ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ on YouTube, it automatically leads on to ‘America’. And I let it play and I usually sing along with it, a thing that should only be done in private since I can carry a tune like a string bag can carry water.
I remember that I first heard the song at school, when two of my year-mates performed it on the stage of the school hall, a duet on acoustic guitars for some sort of entertainment the pupils were putting on, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it because they seemed to flatten the tune out of it, nor hear what they were singing. I only remember it was ‘America’ because they’d talked about rehearsing it.
I don’t think I knew it was by Simon and Garfunkel, or even who they were. I have a vivid memory of hearing ‘Sound of Silence’ on the old radio at Brigham Street, and getting spooked by the lyrics. All this stuff passed by me.
But I love ‘America’, perhaps above everything else Paul and Artie did, except of course ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. I love its slow haziness, it’s rise and fall, the sense of space between the instruments. Most of all I love the place I am taken to in the song.
It’s a road song, heir to Kerouac and forerunner to Springsteen. Where ‘Bridge’ is Art Garfunkel’s song, ‘America’ is Paul Simon’s. He and his girlfriend Kathy, of ‘Kathy’s Song’ and ‘Homeward Bound’, are on a Greyhound bus, travelling at night. They’ve picked up the bus in Pittsburgh and we never get to learn where they’re headed, two lovers with a pack of cigarettes and a joke about marrying their ‘fortunes’ together.
But where they’re going has no place on any map you could buy over the counter, because they’re all gone to look for America, and in that place and time, America was something you found in your mind, the great dream of what the country meant to you, and what you saw it could be, not what it was.
Paul and Kathy are travelling a road that will take them forever. They joke about other passengers, they smoke their cigarettes, he wakes from a dream, lost and confused as she continues to sleep, and we see her behind the words, long, dishevelled dark hair, head on his shoulder as he looks drawn, and cramped, the moon risen over an open field holding them in its cold light..
Everyone around them is on the same journey, that quest to find who you are and what you’ll be and where you are. They count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, counting them in to their quest. Though travelling in space, they are really travelling in their souls, which is what the song means when it runs out of words and it fades into that endless road to the sound of an organ wrapping itself around the melody, cocooning it against the inevitable.
Nobody found America, not that year, not since. Seventeen years later, Talking Heads took the same road, but by then we all knew that the destination was unattainable, and they called it for what it was, a ‘Road to Nowhere’.
Out there, the Pauls and Kathys still ride, still take the piss out of the weirdos who accompany them, still sleep fitfully and awkwardly, along night highways that maybe, one day, if we remember how to be better than this and to care for one another and write words that can penetrate to the heart of this need to reach a fabled land, we may finally arrive at that land of pride and hope and honesty and equality that each of us calls by a private name but that many call America, the America that has never been but still lies beyond our horizon.
Each time I let one song transition into another, I become a rider on the same lost Greyhound.

And Richard Adams…

It’s a sorry spectacle, the greed with which 2016 is grabbing people to take with it, the latest the 96 year old writer, Richard Adams, the creator of Watership Down.

I heard about it late, in 1975, bought it, read it and, like almost everybody else, loved it. Like the best of stories, it began as a story for Adams’ own children, to be told on car trips and at bedtimes, and, likeĀ The Hobbit, generations earlier, when written down it was quickly sold.

And he changed the course of fantasy fiction as well. After Watership Down, there was a pronounced towards beast-fable, stories focusing on animals of every kind, the most notable example perhaps being William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, and its many sequels, of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. But it was Adams who opened that door for them to follow.

And I remember going halfway across Nottingham, to its only suburban cinema, in 1978, to watch the animated film, from which Art Garfunkel’s ethereal ‘Bright Eyes’ had already spent several weeks at No. 1 (six of them eventually).

Adams went on to a long and successful career as a writer, though I only read two more of his books, his first two sequels. Shardik was set in a fantasy world, full of made up names and places, none of which felt or sounded real, and was about a bear that was worshiped as a god. I was disappointed and didn’t keep the book long.

His third, The Plague Dogs, I was sensible enough to borrow from the Library rather than buy, sitting up late on a Friday night to finish it, at about 3.00am. It was a good book, and it was full of route-maps of the dogs’ progress, drawn by Wainwright, but I wanted to finish it and take it back as soon as possible, because it was impossibly flawed.

It needed a strong editor to tell Adams to cut it back by about 100 pages, and to knock back his obsession with animal testing. That was an essential part of the book from Adams’ point of view, but his constant attacks unbalanced the book, came over as a bee in the bonnet rather than any well-reasoned protest.

I never read anything else by Adams.

But he wrote Watership Down. And we honour him for that.

The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘I am a Rock’

One afternoon, I was out driving. There was a cassette tape playing, a compilation tape of stuff recorded from the radio, mainly, over many years. This song came on. The woman with me listened carefully to the words and then asked me if I didn’t realise how much they applied to me. Or rather, to the me I had been before meeting her.
She seemed amazed that I had never made the connection, and it’s true that, once I listened again, the connection was obvious. The only explanation I could give was that I had known the song, been very familiar with it, since the Seventies, when it was just another Simon and Garfunkel song, a hit single, but their least successful hit in Britain, reaching only no. 19 where all their other successes had been top 10 records.
Familiarity had bred, in this instance, not so much contempt as oblivion. It was quite true that I had been shaped by events to echo the singer, though the song wasn’t true in every respect. A rock may feel no pain, and an island may never cry, but in this instance both were states I would have aspired to if I had consciously understood that this song was coming to be about me, and when it mattered most, neither state had saved me.
But I could not deny the force of Paul Simon’s middle eight: Hiding in my room/safe within my womb/I touch no-one and no-one touches me.
Time rolls on, and once again Paul Simon is singing for me, and this time I cannot hear the song without reflecting on its words. Once seen, things never become unseen again. I have suffered from depression for years. It is once again severe, and my best times are hiding in my room.
I wish this song meant nothing to me again, but a vibrant tune.

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 5

Lost 70s Volume 5 consists of 24 tracks, making it the longest of the series so far. It’s an unusually conventional, even mainstream album, especially for me, with more hits than any other compilation, and few of the kind of esoteric track that’s been my regular material to date. It was clearly themed that way, but even with the array of success on parade, these are still tracks that have largely vanished from memory, except in the minds of the fans of these artists. And me, of course.

This is not the original version of the compilation. After getting very sloppy in curation and including a number of tracks several times on different volumes, not to mention including too many tracks by the same artist that would be better grouped, I re-burnt the entire series, filling in spaces with tracks that had not been available when the original compilation was created.

Gold Medallions: Tucky Buzzard

I still have my original 1973 single of this, on Deep Purple’s Purple label. The band were blues-rockers, but this track stood out as a complete anomaly against everything else of theirs that I heard. There’s a strong acoustic component, working in tandem with a flowing electric lead guitar, and backed by understated electric piano. The song never exceeds medium pace, but it has a strong chorus, that it’s not afraid to let repeat, brazenly, into the fade. The overall effect is hypnotic and this was one of my favourite songs of 1973. And before anyone starts flashing upon the disco era, flashing chest hairs and medallions, this was well before Saturday Night Fever and it’s not that kind of song.

Sky-high: Jigsaw

Jigsaw are a bit of an anomaly as far as I’m concerned. They started out as a lightweight pop band, but the ads for their debut 1970 album seemed to suggest they were some kind of super-heavy, quasi-progressive band, with serious credibility. The only one of their albums I heard, bought dirt cheap from a shop specialising in deleted stock, was primarily the work of a cabaret-oriented band, singing sweet melodies over muted horns and strings in 1973. That’s a hell of a journey in only three years. Nevertheless, it gave me a soft spot for them, and I was chuffed when they had a top 10 hit with this song, from a movie soundtrack. It’s all big, sweeping strings, a commercial melody and the band making a token effort, with sub-Shaft guitar mixed low. A similar-sounding, more ballad like follow-up got to about no 35 and that was it as far as the UK was concerned. I’ve still never heard anything from that first, heavy album. I’d love to have a clearer idea of the puzzle.

I want more: Can

It started with Kraftwerk, and commercially it pretty much ended there, but the mid-Seventies was a period when there was an increased consciousness of German bands and their pulsating concentration on electronic rhythms, long before disco got into that mode. Can got airplay for this grunting, grinding, rhythmic song, with its steady beat, minimal electronics and acoustic bass. It got them into the top 30, and onto Top of the Pops and into my memories.

The Devil’s Answer: Atomic Rooster

This was the second, and by far the biggest, of two hits in 1971 by this trio, led by ex-Crazy World of Arthur Brown keyboard player Vince Crane. It’s a mix of tempos, smooth and aggressive and supported by snarling horns and was deservedly very popular. Then it vanished from everybody’s consciousness. There are songs that you go back to where it’s impossible to see how they caught on with the public. This isn’t quite so obscure, but to modern ears, it increasingly becomes a surprise.

Who do you think you are?: Candlewick Green

I actually loathed this at the time. It was a top 30 hit for a cabaret-pop single from a cabaret-pop band, but it’s melody and simplicity has grown on me with the years. Oddly enough, it’s only relatively recently, well after compiling this disc, that I learnt that this is a Jigsaw song and the Candlewick Green version is a carbon copy of the arrangement. I also heard, though it seems improbable, that this was also popular in the Northern Soul clubs.

Billy Porter: Mick Ronson

This is more Lost 70s traditional territory. Mick Ronson was Bowie’s guitarman in the Ziggy Stardust era, and for the rest of the decade was the subject of the NME T-Zers annual Dr Barnado’s award, given to any band that provided a good home for the talented Ronson. ‘Billy Porter’ was another of those turntable hits that got re-issued a time or two without success. It’s nervous and edgy, but that’s what the song is about, and Ronson’s not the world’s best singer, but it’s a great record. We were right and you were wrong, you ignorant and tasteless bastards!

I’ve got you on my mind: White Plains

White Plains started off as a studio band, one of four fronted by session singer Tony Burroughs, put together by a group of professional songwriters who’d had an unusually productive afternoon and felt like keeping their booty to themselves. All four songs/bands went top 10. With hits to their names, all four ‘bands’ were then set up to record with permanent personnel. This was the White Plains’ second single, a piece of mid-tempo, sweeping, orchestra-strong pop with a very Sixties sound – not surprising because it had already been a minor (no 38) hit in 1968 from Dorian Gray (not, I assume, his real name) with a little-changed arrangement. White Plains went on to have another half dozen hits in changing styles, some of which more distinctive than this, but it’s a slice of simple pop that I liked then and like now. Sometimes, formative listening is more than formative.

Faithful: Marvin Welch and Farrar

Given that it’s 45 years later, I can admit that when I first heard this single, by a talented acoustic trio comprising two ex-Shadows and the future musical director for Olivia Newton-John, I thought this was a band led by someone called Marvin Welch and backed up by something called Farrar: and what on Earth was a Farrar? Thanks to my progressive oriented mate Alan, I was to hear a lot of this trio (even before the Livvy connection), and whilst most of their output was pretty bland, this single, about a sailboat, was unforgivably beautiful, delicately produced featuring nothing but acoustic guitars, distant minimal strings and an achingly gorgeous falsetto chorus, practically pregnant with yearning and loss. The boat is symbolic.

I must be in love: The Rutles

I had a deprived childhood. My parents prevented me from watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Many were the Fridays I got to school to be assailed by cries of ‘Spam!’, or inexplicable bursts of people singing that they were lumberjacks. It was hell. The only series I ever did get to see was the Cleese-less final series, which was crap. Anyway, I was always far more into the Goons. But it meant that I found little interesting in Erc Idle’s side project, Rutland Weekend Television, and didn’t even watch his and Neil Innes’ grand parody, All you need is Cash featuring the Rutles. This was the single. It’s mildly hammed up, but the point, which I didn’t fully realise at the time, is that underneath the affectionate parody, this is a beautiful aping of the Beatles’ sound and those early singles. Very McCartney-when-he-was-good.

Eve: Jim Capaldi

Capaldi was the drummer in Traffic whom, by the early Seventies, specialised in jazz-influenced, spontaneous music, recorded after getting their heads together in the country. His solo career was much more conventional and he did get a couple of hits, one with a cover of the old Roy Orbison song ‘Love Hurts’. This wasn’t the other one: a quiet, slow-beginning pop ballad, an unrequited love song to the lady of the title, who may well have been suspiciously close to being of a forbidden age if you listened closely to the words. But it built itself up into a fine, controlled, horn-blasting frenzy and featured one of those brief but brilliant silver-bell guitar solos worth three minutes of anyone’s time.

Miracles: Jefferson Starship

In the abbreviated form of Starship, this Seventies sequel to the rowdy Jefferson Airplane went on to mega-stardom. ‘Miracles’ was the first stirring of the second phase band, a lovely, smoky, lazy love song with multi-layered vocals that was big in America and nothing over here, but it’s an effortless gem, cool, smooth and inviting. It’s a long way from ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to love’, which are still superior efforts,but as the first steps of a new, unrelated band, it’s pretty and pleasing.

Joy: Apollo 100

An American band with one of those regular efforts to turn Beethoven’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ into a pop tune. Most of it’s pretty undemanding, built on an organ cycling through the main riff/melody, but it breaks for a stunning, ten second, chiming guitar solo that was the only bit of the record I liked in 1972, and which is still worth all the rest of the track put together now.

The Selecter: The Selecter

I supposed you could call this a hit. This subdued, ska-driven, slow instrumental was the b-side to The Specials’ ‘Gangsters’, loose and contemplative and moody. This bears no resemblance to The Selecter’s own singles in their own right, but it deserved attention of its own.

Don’t Let Him Touch You: The Angelettes

I’ve already gone on about this odd single under my Infinite Jukebox series, here . There’s nothing more I can add now. This is seriously weird, and there’s a lot of wrong stuff behind it. If any of the girls implicitly believed in what they were singing, then you have to wonder just how much their parents were indoctrinating them.

Ebony Eyes: Bob Welch

Welch was an American guy who played with Fleetwood Mac during those intermediate years between Peter Green and Buckingham/Nicks. Johnnie Walker gave a lot of airplay to this single in 1976, before he buggered off to America, leaving us with Paul Burnett at lunchtime on Radio 1 (how could you do this to us, Johnnie?). From the sound of this song and production – which has nothing to do with the Everly Brothers – he could have transformed the Mac even sooner. Bet he didn’t look as good as Stevie Nicks, though.

Keep on Truckin’ (Part 1): Eddie Kendrick

This slab of funk was an unconventional track by the former Temptations lead singer, breaking the top 20 with a number taking Robert Crumb’s catch-phrase (which wasn’t all that old at the time) as it’s title whilst having nothing in common with the master of underground comics. It’s a compelling dance track of exactly the kind I normally loathe, but it goes to prove the point that in any genre of music, not matter how offensive it may appear to the ear, there is something that stands out as different in a way that is impossible to define. Keep on truckin’ baby.

Windfall: Rick Nelson and The Stone Canyon Band

Rick, or Ricky, had already had one career by the early Seventies, as child actor and teen idol, with special reference to the much-played oldie ‘Hello Mary Lou’. But here he was, only in his early thirties, a more or less has-been who retained a keen interest in music, of a more countrified style. This time round, Nelson was determined to be in charge of his music and not subject to controls and whims. Johnny Walker championed the laid-back country blues of ‘Garden Party’, which was based on a real-life encounter with a Rock’n’Roll Oldies Festival. That became Nelson’s manifesto: ‘if memories were all I sang/ I’d rather drive a truck’. This was a later single from the same year, recorded with his Stone Canyon Band, a brash, uptempo country song about the little things, the natural things in nature and life that are at the heart of love. But ‘Garden Party’ was his last success, and not even songs like this could extend his career. Nelson, who feared flying, died in a plane crash in 1985. He should have had more time, the music industry should have treated him better.

Summer Breeze: Seals and Croft

In 1976, the Isley Brothers recorded an oozingly soulful version of this song that became one of my favourite singles of the year and which, quite rightly, has overshadowed the original ever since. This is the original. It’s a folky, acoustic approach from a duo notorious for taking a song about smoking drugs irresponsibly into the US Top 10. The song is still pretty nice in its original form and I like to remember it from time to time.

Love like a Man: Ten Years After

We’re really into the commercial sector of this compilation now. There was a time, through 1970/71, when it seemed like every underground band had a single hit record in them. This one was Ten Years After’s, a top 10 track from 1970, with a slow, slinky, blues number featuring Alvin Lee’s beautifully constructed guitar riffs. Astonishing stuff, really. Every one had one commercial track in them, whether they wanted it or not.

This Flight Tonight: Nazareth

Move forward three years. Nazareth, a Scots hard-rock band, a kind of heavier Slade, had started tucking into the charts fairly regularly. This latest single was a rock arrangement of the dreamy Joni Mitchell number, and as such was pretty controversial for the complete contrast to the original. It was still a new song to me and I liked it’s controlled impulse and its scudding beat, and its distorted solo, screeching like a jetplane.

You can make me Dance, Sing or Anything: The Faces and Rod Stewart

I don’t usually like to admit this out loud but in the Seventies, I very much preferred Rod’s solo stuff to The Faces. ‘You can make me dance, sing or anything’ (with a bracketed sub-title of incredible length detailing other things, all impeccably domestic, that the remarkable lady at the heart of this song could get Rod the Mod to perform), was the last and least successful of the Faces’ chart hits, as well as being the only one to pick Rod’s name out. That’s because this is very much a Rod solo song, given to the Faces who are, in consequence, much more restrained and controlled, and brighter in sound in this bouncy, uplifting song during which nobody gets pissed and pukes on the floor. It’s a complete joy, and you kind of want to meet the woman who can inspire such selflessness. Probably a blonde with long legs, mind you. The apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree.

I Believe (when I fall in love it will be forever): Art Garfunkel

Post the split, Art Garfunkel had two, widely spaced hits in the UK, both of which reached number 1. This lovely, smooth cover of a Stevie Wonder song didn’t reach the charts at all, though Art did get a Top of the Pops slot by way of promotion. This is one of those tracks I offer as evidence that I had no affinity with the Great British Record Buying Public because by any estimate I recognise, this should have been massive beyond belief. With the obvious exception of rabbits, what did ‘Bright Eyes’ have that this 1976 single didn’t? It still sounds like it was a hit.

I think we’re alone now: The Rubinoos

Remember the famous Berserkley Label? Jonathan Richman, the Modern Lovers and ‘Roadrunner’? The Rubinoos, Tommy Rubin’s teenage pop band, were one more of that unbroken flood of brilliant singles that came out of California, absolutely none of which but Richman sold. Later on, Tiffany had a hit with a cover of this that was so inadequate, it should have been having weekly sessions with Sigmund Freud. Originally a hit for Tommy James and The Shondells, but their version was never so alive as this one.–GjPg

Gimme dat ding: The Pipkins

And to end, another top 10 hit. Remember those four bands fronted by Tony Burroughs? This notable one-off was one of those, a bouncy, flouncy, old-fashioned little silly number, batted backwards and forwards by a squeaky falsetto lead and a gravelly bass making grumbly remarks. It’s actually about a metronome, which places it as part of the ‘Oliver in the Overworld’ story in Freddie Garrity’s ‘Little Big Time’. It was a pure novelty song. Nowadays, it does make an old man happy.

The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’

I don’t remember hearing this for the first time. I hope I was impressed but I suspect I wasn’t. I’d only just begun to listen to music properly, seriously, enthusiastically, and I think this song, this perfect blend of simplicity and sophistication, went over my head.

I remember the stir it caused, the universal applause it received, a rare but deserved one-mindedness about a song. These were the days when DJs had theme songs, topping and tailing their shows, and Dave Cash, whose Radio Programme saw out Radio 1’s time-constrained afternoon broadcasting, immediately switched his theme for this song, just so he could play it twice a day, every day. He was barred from doing so once the single reached Number 1.

What have I to add to the millions of words already written and spoken about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’? This was the song that, effectively, broke up Simon and Garfunkel, and it’s entirely understandable.

Where do you go from here? What have you left, what can you do after a song and an arrangement that will still be playing a thousand years from now? And how can you write and arrange a song like this, even without Paul Simon’s ego, and stand at the side of the stage every night watching Art Garfunkel sing it, and take all the applause?

It begins with a piano, alone, a single player somewhere in an empty space. Sure-handed, composed, developing a musical theme, a serene melody until, in a moment of resolution, a space for thinking, it is joined by Garfunkel’s voice, equally alone: light, unafraid, pure, almost weightless. When you’re weary, he sings, feeling small. When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.

This is a love song, but it’s nothing like any other love song. It’s not a sexual love, the way it always is now, nor even a romantic love, as would be expected then. We do not yet understand it, but the words have already introduced us that this is different, that what Garfunkel is singing of is love, pure love, agape: love of soul, of the whole.

I’m on your side. Four simple words, undramatic, committed. We all want that all need that, someone to be on our side. No matter what.

When you’re down and out, when you’re on the street. For a moment, we flash back to the poor boy of ‘The Boxer’, pocket full of mumbles, but this is no boy. Whatever else, whoever else Garfunkel is singing to, is making promises to, it is a woman. And his singing is getting stronger, and richer, and the pianist’s sound is growing, his hands heavier on the keys, to match the growing strength of the song, of the promise. Like a Bridge over Troubled water, I will lay me down. And Garfunkel’s voice has grown, and now it fills all this space into which it came, sweet, soft, alone.

And the chords mount, the music builds. Simon has held back so long, a choice of the greatest musical daring, trusting on that piano, and on his partner’s voice, to hold everything together, so still, so brave. But the cymbals clash, strings begin to hum, soft yet piercing, a single bass note plucks in the deepness, and again.

This is a love song about having someone’s back, about being there for them, about smoothing their way. It could be condescending, looking after the little woman who’s out of her depth, it could be a father or mother to a child, looking after them. But the glory of this song is that it is not. The singer has faith. Not just faith, belief, knowledge. Sail on Silver Girl, sail all night. Your time has come to shine. This is your time, this is you, all the things that you are and can be and will be, you have it in you to be all of that. I’m on your side. I will watch, and I will glory in you and what you will do.

And I will be there, sailing right behind. In those times of darkness and despair, when everything feels as if it is against you, I will be ready, I will support you, I will be what you need to make your way. I will be a Bridge over Troubled Water. I will lay me down.

And the music soars and swoops. Paul Simon draws in for a few lines of steely, austere, harmonies, reminding her of how her dreams, her future shines, but this is Art Garfunkel’s song and whatever it meant to their partnership, Paul Simon’s artistic soul saw it right, understood that it was Art’s voice that was key to this, that his was the right voice, the only voice, to do justice to this spiraling, towering, cathedral of sound, this immense, lifelong, soul-deep assurance. I will lay me down.

It’s not hard to see why many will call this a deeply religious song, will see God as the voice and the promise, not just to a young woman making her world for herself on the very cusp of feminism. I will comfort you. But to me, to arrogate this song, this promise, to a deity is to diminish it. This is an intensely human song, an incarnation of what we are and can be, of everything we contain within us that so rarely we display.

We can be like this. We are like this. This is in each of us. Paul Simon’s gift lay in finding a way of saying that, and finding a music that says it in complete harmony with the words. Like a Bridge over Troubled Water. How much I need one.