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.

We never have sex…

The year I moved to Nottingham, to start my Articles, Woody Allen released his first masterpiece, Annie Hall. Co-starring Diane Keaton in the title role, critics all over hailed the film as the first complete integration of Allen’s comedic style with a consistent and coherent story.
I went to see it, a few weeks into my life in Nottingham. I think it was the first Woody Allen film I’d seen at all. It was followed by a number of re-releases in the cinema, in double-bills, each of which I watched, though I had to wait for Take the Money and Run and Play it Again, Sam on TV.
Despite the critics’ approbation, I didn’t find Annie Hall particularly funny. Indeed, given the expectations built up, it was actually disappointing, and his older films were much funnier (I had near hysterics at the opening shot of Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) when it dissolved from a pure white screen into a couple of dozen white rabbits hopping around.)
Time passed, as it does. That long ago, given that three years had to elapse before feature films could be shown on television and that videos were still a pipe dream by a man whose wife was typing up my files for me (didn’t know that until some years later), it was common for popular films to get a second release about six months later, and thus Annie Hall came round again in the November of 1978, and I watched it again.
The circumstances were unusual. I was back in Manchester for the weekend, to watch Droylsden in the FA Cup First Round proper, drawn away to Rochdale. The Bloods won the match and I came out of the ground feeling like I could run all the way back to Manchester, though practicality reasserted itself and I took the bus instead.
Back in the City Centre about six o’clock, I didn’t feel like just heading back for a quiet evening in so, being on my own, I decided to stop off for a film. There was nothing current that appealed to me, but Annie Hall was back, and I knew I could at least sit through it, so I bought myself a ticket.
This time round, I loved it.
What was the difference? Some of it was that I was in an elevated mood to start with, but most of it was that I understood it all this time. Between April and November, I had fallen in love.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. My first love had been a half decade earlier, when I had been 17: naive, immature, inexperienced, terrified of making mistakes and making the fundamental mistake of doing nothing out of fear. I had denied it to myself for years, trying to wipe the embarrassment from my memory.
And then I’d fallen in love again, equally unrequitedly, though this time it was due to external factors. But I was in love, enough so that I had been able to relax myself, to admit that my earlier feelings had been genuine and not some kind of dismissible puppy love (the amount of emotional energy I’d been using to repress that had been incredible, and I felt literally transformed by accepting the truth).
And watching Annie Hall whilst being in love, whilst having experienced those feelings, made the whole film understandable, gave me insight that opened up both story and jokes, made me laugh where previously ignorance had kept me silent.
The film is about the relationship between comedian Alvy (Allen) and the eponymous Annie (Keaton), who were then a real-life couple. It covers the beginning, the middle and the slow but inevitable end, when she goes off with Paul Simon. From the point of view of an unrequited lover, whose inamorata wasn’t interested in him as anything but a friend, there may have been nuances of which I wasn’t aware, but at the time I felt like I got pretty much everything, right down the middle.
And, with the exception of the serious one that nobody likes (not even the aliens in it) I was a regular for Woody Allen’s films in the cinema for most of the next decade. My last one was The Purple Rose of Cairo in respect of which I remember most the sober and serious atmosphere of the first twenty minutes or so of the film, until Jeff Bridges turns away from the plot of the film in the Depression-era cinema and speaks directly to Mia Farrow, in the audience, saying that she sure must love this film she’s always watching it. And he walks out of the screen and the cinema I was in erupted in a glorious gale of laughter which the film sustained from that point on.
Allen’s next film after this was the new one to be acclaimed his absolute masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters. For reasons I can’t recall, I didn’t fancy this one, and didn’t go to the cinema to see it. I have never seen a Woody Allen film in the cinema since, and when I did see Hannah on TV, I was by no means impressed by it. It fell even flatter with me than did Annie Hall, first time.
I haven’t seen any Woody Allen film, in any format, for a long time. Annie Hall belongs to my long ago novel in more ways than just the relationship inspiring understanding. I downloaded the film last year, but circumstances have prevented me from watching it until now.
Two scenes in particular stood out in my memory. One is the split screen scene that gives this post its title: Alvy and Annie’s relationship is slowly but certainly stumbling towards its conclusion and the mean time, each one is discussing the matter with their therapist. Alvy complains that they never have sex: three times a week. Annie complains that they are always having sex: three times a week. I have never actually had this as a direct problem (this is not a boast, just a reflection on incredible good luck) but the joke is simple but incredibly deep.
The other scene holds even more meaning for me.
Alvy and Annie have their final conversation as a couple, things slowly going wrong, the two heading in different directions even as they speak. The film goes on, showing Alvy not taking it very well. Suddenly, the scene switches to an artificial setting, two younger people, each superficially resembling younger Alvy and Annie. They speak the same dialogue as the early part of the scene we’ve just watched, a little stiffly, a little awkwardly. But, at the crucial instance, where the breach happens, ‘Annie’s dialogue changes. She gives in to him, does what he wants, preserves the relationship.
Before this, we know that we’re in a rehearsal room, that Alvy is sat over to one side, watching this performance, that it’s a play he’s written. Breaking the fourth wall, as he often does in this film, he addresses the audience, candidly confessing that he obviously wasn’t too proud to make things work in art where they didn’t work in real life.
But the real sting is that, from the moment the conversation goes in the ‘right’ direction, it ceases to be convincing, to be real or natural in any way. We don’t need to have seen the original to instantly realise that, from the moment Alvy forces his ‘Annie’ surrogate to respond against her natural instincts, she ceases to function as a believable person. For me, it’s the most impressive moment in the film, indeed in Woody Allen’s film career.
I’d like to credit Allen with all the layers I discern in that scene. There are many critics who, especially in later films, would argue strenuously that it was not intentional, but then that was the great thing about Woody Allen in those years. To me it was fully understood, inside and out, and it’s a lesson I took to heart.
When I came to write The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel, years later but dealing with the feelings that affected me when I saw Annie Hall that second time, I was too proud. I could have made things work for my character Steve, could have awarded him his Lesley in return for his being in love with her, but that’s not what happened.
Lesley wasn’t the woman I fell for but she was close enough in enough ways for it to matter inside, and it would have been false to have concluded the novel in any way different to how life had concluded things. I learned that from Woody Allen, which is why I hold Annie Hall in high esteem, even if I haven’t watched it in easily twenty years, or maybe more.
Rewatching the film after twenty years or however long it’s been, halfway back to when it was made, I only laughed occasionally, like the first time. Some of it is impossible not to laugh at: I knew it was coming but the sneezing the coke bit still had me roaring out loud. The scenes I’ve outlined above weren’t quite as I remembered them, but their essence was intact in my head.
But this time round, though I recognised the love in the relationship, how Allen made Alvy and Annie into a pair that you could understand loving each other’s presence, what I was most aware of was the incompatibility, the mismatch of this two that was always going to last longer than the things that brought them together. I’ve just had too much experience of seeing that to remain unaware.
In a way, it makes the film even greater, that Allen can show these two opposing forces blended into one relationship, so smoothly, that he can illustrate how great it is to be together with the only one you want to share things with, but that the places where the wavelength is not right, does not mesh, are the places that will endure. The sand and the rocks make an idyllic beach, but when the wide comes in, it’s not the rocks that wash out.
And I think, in a world where I have become sometimes unbearably negative that I no longer find Alvy’s negativity, Allen’s negativity towards everything to be as funny as I used to find it. They couldn’t have stayed that way, the targets in this film have been swept away by those forty years, the argument rendered invalid by time, but I’m only too aware of the utter self-centredness of Alvy’s running commentary, the ego that stipulates that only what I approve is worthwhile.
It’s still Diane Keaton’s film, though. It’s a wonderful performance, in every respect, and Annie Hall rightly made her a star. And she was ideal: an attractive woman who wasn’t unbelievably, film-star gorgeous. You believed that you could meet Annies playing tennis, and that they could fall for you. And you can get incredibly sad at the distance that grows between people when they stop being in love with each other. Which is worse, loathing or indifference? The final scene makes me think it’s the latter.
In the end, it comes back to that scene, when Alvy rewrites what wasn’t perfect for his own benefit and it doesn’t work. I’m working on the second draft now, having realised so many things that lie under the surface. I could make a plausible case, in psychological terms, for giving ‘myself’ more than I had, but I’d still know that it was wish-fulfilment. And wish-fulfilment doesn’t work: Woody Allen taught me that forty years ago, one November Saturday when I was young.

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.

Things you couldn’t say on the Radio

The random access butterfly of memory has flapped its wings again, stirring up another remembrance of times past. Gather round me, my children, whilst I relate to you another tale of when things were Not As They Are Now.
I speak of The Kinks, and their classic hit single, ‘Lola’. I have mentioned from time to time that I literally discovered pop/rock music ten days from the end of the Sixties, and ‘Lola’ was the band’s first big success of the new decade.
I’m pretty sure that I was vaguely aware of the band’s existence but not their history. I knew ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ but was under the impression that it was a novelty song, and therefore not by a ‘name’ band. I was certainly not aware that the band hadn’t reached the Top Ten since 1967, nor the Top Twenty since the following year.
It was a strange time. The Sixties were over, no-one knew what the Seventies was going to hold, and all the currently surviving Sixties pop bands were going ‘heavy’ to one degree or another. The Kinks weren’t immune to that, in fact they, in their idiosyncratic way, had begin the process somewhat earlier than most.
‘Lola’ was a glorious revival, but there was a point, early in its existence, where it could all have gone wrong, for the BBC were on the point of banning it.
Perhaps banning is too strong a word, and I’m not aware of what negotiations were being carried  out, but there was a distinct reason why the song, in its original form, was not going to get any airplay on Radio 1, and it was serious enough that, in order to get the record on the air, Ray Davies had to break off an American tour, fly back to  England, and record an overdub.
Let’s consider that opening verse, shall we?
I met her in a club down in Old Soho
Where they drink champagne
And it tastes just like Coca-Cola
C-O-L-A, Cola
I walked up to her and I asked her to dance
I asked her her name
And in a different voice she said “Lola”
L-O-L-A, Lola
Already Ray Davies is signalling that things are not quite of the ordinary, and indeed he quickly follows up by signalling openly that Lola is a transvestite and that ‘she’ and the singer are entering a sexual relationship.
Not exactly the lightweight, family-friendly, boy meets girl and shares nothing but sweet, innocent kisses until three years after the wedding that was the kind of thing decent, honest, hard-working parents expected their kids to be listening to on Radio 1 in 1970.
You may now think that you understand why ‘Lola’ was in such danger of a radio ban, but you would be wrong. Go back to that verse: the clue is right there. In order to make The Kinks’ new single playable, Ray Davies had to overdub a single word. Can you guess which it is?
That’s right: it was ‘Coca’.

The BBC was, and still is, an organisation set up, and operated by Government Charter. Though primarily independent (this is talking about 1970, when the Beeb really did hold itself separate from most Government influence and was incredibly better for it), it was still  the National Broadcaster. As such, it was barred from throwing the National weight behind advertising in any form. Even when it came to a pop song’s lyrics.
The Kinks could not be allowed to sway public opinion towards the Coca-Cola Corporation, and to the clear detriment of Pepsi-Cola, and all the other small brewers of Colas the world over. So Davies had to criss-cross the Atlantic to record a radio-friendly version that referenced the fictional Cherry Cola.
The single, of course, was unaltered. All those innocent thousands who bought it after hearing it on Radio 1 found themselves subjected to the most pernicious and insidious advertising.
Of course, the irony is that now, and for many years, the BBC has been perfectly happy to play the Coca-Cola version – always a jarring experience for those of us as old as me, conditioned to expect Cherry – and the forgotten radio version is just as much as advertisement as the original, Cherry Cola being a very popular drink.
This wasn’t the first, nor the last time that product placement would radically affect a record’s chances with the BBC. Let us go back a dozen years, to 1958, and the single ‘Beep Beep’, recorded by The Playmates.
I have a vague, and clear illusory memory of hearing this song on Juke Box Jury, but the more factual version is that I became familiar with ‘Beep Beep’ from its regular appearances on Junior Choice throughout the Sixties.
That alone should tell the young folk that we are dealing here with a novelty song. Let’s delve deeper. According to Wikipedia, this is a perfect example of accelerando, meaning that the song gets faster and faster as it goes along. It begins at walking place, with this guy driving along in his big, flashy, powerful, status symbol Cadillac when he gets beeped from behind by a guy who  wants to pass him: the guy in back is driving a Nash Rambler. Oh dear.
Whilst driving in my Cadillac, much to my surprise (beep, beep)
A little Nash Rambler came right behind, about one third my size (beep, beep)
The guy must have wanted to pass me out, cos he kept on tooting his horn (beep, beep)
I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn (beep, beep).
You get the picture. This may be a novelty song, but its subject cuts deeply to the heart of the psycho-sexuality of the American male. The beep beep, incidentally, is a cheap and tinny car horn, and it is beeped at the end of every line.
Naturally, the Caddy-driver speeds up, which is echoed in the accelerando, but instead of leaving the little Nash Rambler behind in the dust, the silly little car stays right on the Caddy’s tail, still beeping its horn at the end of every line, determined to overtake. Which would be a big disgrace.
Now we’re doing a hundred ten, as fast as I can go (bip, bip) – the horn has got faster too
The Rambler pulled alongside of me, as if I were going slow (bip, bip)
The fellow rolled down his window, and yelled for me to hear (bip, bip)
“Hey, buddy, how can I get this car out of second gear?” (fusillade of bips up to abrupt cut-off)
But this isn’t the song with which my infant ears became familiar. It was decades, and decades of forgetting The Playmates even existed, before I ever heard of Cadillacs and Nash Ramblers.. The song I recollected was about the driver of a generic ‘limousine’ being pursued by an equally generic ‘bubble car’ (and if you’ve ever seen a bubble car, you’ll know why that made the song even more of a goof).
Yes, the BBC had even required a novelty song to record a radio-friendly version that excluded references to specific makes of cars, even though neither of the cars or their rivals were available to buy in Britain. Even though not one Briton in one hundred thousand could have recognised a Nash Rambler if one ran him over (very slowly). The airwaves could not be defiled by commercialism.

Nor did this attitude die out any time soon. Fifteen years later, three years after ‘Lola’, Paul Simon had a massive world-wide hit with a song called ‘Kodachrome’. Kodachrome did not exist in Britain, but the single was never released here anyway. Not only would the BBC not play it, they wouldn’t even allow it to be referred to by name.
To return to the subject of ‘Lola’, you still may find it strange that, even after the invention of Cherry Cola to make the track playable, the BBC did not have any qualms about playing a song so clearly celebrating transvesticism and homosexual relationships, subjects all but designed to set the crusading heart of Mrs Mary Whitehouse a-fluster (look what a fuss she made about Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-a-Ling’).
In answer to that I can only point to another single that came out in 1973, Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, which improbably reached no. 10 in Britain. Where Ray Davies spoke in rather guarded, albeit unambiguous terms, Reed let it all hang out, especially the line about ‘But she never lost her head/even when she was giving head’ (which got censored like a shot on American radio – the ‘coloured girls’ didn’t survive either).
But the song was on Radio 1’s playlist, meaning that you’d hear it at least three to four times every day, Monday to Sunday. The DJs knew what it meant. The Producers knew what it meant. Everybody knew what it meant (except for a rather naïve, innocent seventeen year old with practically no experience, over whose head it passed like Concorde, and at a similar distance).
The BBC didn’t. They really did not get it. They seriously did not understand the words.
So ‘Lola’ was never in any danger , not even with the lines:
Now I’m not the world’s most masculine man
But I know what I am
And I’m glad I’m a man.
And so’s Lola.
L-O-L-A, Lola.

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.