Friday, June 28, 2024

A DIALOGUE ON PAUL SIMON'S "AMERICAN TUNE"

 (This is a dialogue between writer Barry Alfonso and me regarding the song 'American Tune" by Paul Simon from his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. The chat was published in The San Diego Troubadour , keenly edited by good friend Liz Abbott, the best friend a music scene could have. Barry begins introduces the conversation with some concise and salient background, and then off we go.)

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, a mostly good-humored LP that contrasted with the often-melancholy tone of the singer-songwriter’s earlier work with Art Garfunkel. The exception to Rhymin’ Simon’s sunniness was “American Tune” an elegy for lost dreams set to a Bach chorale that overshadowed everything else on the album. I can remember the impact of the song on me as a teenager. And I remember also the reaction I had to reading a review of Rhymin’ Simon that appeared in the July 12, 1973 edition of the San Diego Reader, written by a cogent, sharp-elbowed critic named Ted Burke. Burke dismissed much of the album as “diffuse, distracted,” the work of an artist “mumbling to himself.” Ouch! However, Ted pronounced “American Tune” brilliant—and it was and still is. Remarkably, it has endured in popularity and significance, transcending its immediate relevance to the loss of 1960s’ idealism to be revived again and again to mark the national heartaches of the moment. Simon went on to write other outstanding songs, of course – and both of us went on to become friends at college and remain enduring partners in aesthetic crime ever since. Recently, we got together at a coffee spot on 30th Street in South Park to trade thoughts about “American Tune,” Paul Simon, and related matters in true rock critic codger fashion, still contentious after all these years…

 Barry Alfonso: When I read your Rhymin’ Simon review, Ted, I took criticism of Paul Simon very personally. I was like those intensely loyal Taylor Swift fans are today. I identified with his work, maybe a little too much. I wonder what your attitude about that album is now. Looking back over what you wrote 50 years later, do you think this is still a fair review?

 

Ted Burke: There’s nothing like 20/20 hindsight, which means I would have written a less severe review. In the ’70s I had the unfortunate habit of reviewing albums by favorite artists that didn’t rise to my standard as a personal betrayal, a conscious act of bad faith. Over time, post review, I had to admit that all of Simon’s skills as a songwriter were present throughout the disc, although I think that my original opinion was on target, that it was an honest attempt in song to venture beyond the elegantly constructed tunes regarding loneliness and encroaching despair. Lyrically, the stuff that was at the expressive heart of Simon’s oeuvre was weak tea for the most part. I think it’s the honest effort of a gifted writer trying new things, new voices.

 Barry: You had some good things to say about his song “Kodachrome” in there. Do you like the line, “Everything looks worse and black and white?” He’s right about that. 

Ted: It’s a great song and one that works in that it’s an effectively whimsical reminiscence of his days in high school. In a way you can say that it’s one of the first times Simon has expressed disappointment with the adulthood he’s grown into. The line that “everything looks better in black and white” is revealing in that the tune uses a Kodachrome camera as a device through which to wax poetic about a simpler time, with the suggestion that his picture taking captures a world he knows is disappearing with time and maturity. “Everything looks better in black and white” comes across as a sigh, a soft admission that despite glaring color of the pictures he snapped of the things he remembers, his thinking about them is literally black and white; life was fun and simple and full of adventure and then suddenly it became hard, full of jobs, families, debt, responsibilities, and the pains of aging. Simon does the cool trick of slipping in a subtle admission, a confession maybe, that the way his narrator is regarding his past is idyllic and untrustworthy, even to himself. This foreshadows what I consider Rhymin Simon’s best song a masterpiece, I think, which is “American Tune.”

 When I first heard the song, I thought the melody was gorgeous, moody, and reflective in elegant movements that were unusual even in Simon’s strongest songwriting. He was a superb creator of folk-informed melodic structures, and he was quite good at incorporating different music styles seamlessly: New Orleans sounds, reggae, a whole slew of Latin influences. Think what you will of the cultural styles he borrowed from; he used them wonderfully. But “American Tune” had a more architectural structure; it was subtler and had a haunting emotional power to it. It fit the lyrics, which themselves were something different for Simon, a deeper dive into a theme. Johann Sebastian Bach

 Barry: Did you know at the time that it was a Bach chorale? It wasn’t the first time that lyrics were set to this piece of music. In 1948, Tom Glazer used it as the setting for “Because All Men Are Brothers,” a workers’ anthem later recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary. It is stirring in a different way than “American Tune” is.  

Ted: I never realized that Simon had borrowed the music from Bach until I heard it on the classical station we play inside the bookstore where I work. That was a small but important revelation, and I could very well imagine how Bach’s doleful composition might have inspired Simon to write the lyrics in the tone and gravity he did. It might well have been the thing that gave him the stimulation to express some long-gestating notions that he until then couldn’t quite find the rhyme or reason for. This is rare and the melody inspired the tone of the lyrics, which was a mixture of nostalgia, disappointment, and melancholy, but it was always sort of softly played, and everything was still hopeful. You know, kind of like “I wanna go where all the good people go to sleep and wake up tomorrow, because tomorrow is another day.”

 His genius as a lyricist is heard in the unexpected and amazing leaps in the narrative line. In “American Tune,” this happens after the narrator fatalistically ruminates over living in a world that has lost its promise and purpose, where he goes on to the middle portion, where he dreams that he’s flying and down below him is the Statue of Liberty. I found myself beginning to have a visceral response to those lines, making me reflect upon my own sense of the inability of us to do better. We know better, but we do not do better. And yet this still goes on. And we have the money, we have the technology, we have the means to make this all better for everybody. But we don’t. Everything is piecemeal, everything is spare change, everything is compromised. What you have in terms of gathering your own strength is remembering your disappointments and trying to remember your dreams. And the dreams say you push out, you know, some faith that something better will come. I mean, for me, that was like thinking of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

 In the Cooke song, the singer speaks of brutality, hardships, and repression, a seemingly systematic discrimination intended to confine black Americans to the margins of society. But the song is about a tradition of faith, powered by the gospel of uplift that comes from the African American Church. The singer admits the hardship inflicted upon Black Americans and yet declares that he knows that things will change, that the Promised Land Dr. King spoke of exists in the hearts of all Americans, and that black Americans will have a seat at the big table. There’s a strong faith that this America does exist, or that it can still come into being if the lot of us put our shoulders to the wheel and move the country in the direction it needs to travel. It’s a prayer, really, for our country to transcend its worst traits and embrace a brotherhood and sisterhood of citizens that’s stronger for its diversity. Sam Cook’s performance lays out the tragedy of the black experience evocatively and yet is optimistic, hopeful in ways only the oppressed can be in times when faith is all there is to get you through the day and the days ahead.

 “American Tune” as well talks about life in a country where the promises of freedom, opportunity, and a harmonious life are severely lacking. But Simon’s song is downbeat, sad, and bitter and melancholic in the face of the chance that the America we’ve dreamed of living in is gone forever or that it never existed at all.

 I think the song works because of its brevity. I think it works because of the melody. I like the fact that he manages to step away from this position of a poet and developed another voice like somebody’s talking, you know, in words, which are festooned with literary analogies. I really don’t like most of the work he did with Simon and Garfunkel. His songs back then seemed to say, “This is what I think poetry sounds like.” I’m thinking of “April, Come She Will”: “I heard cathedral bells tripping down the alleyways” or “The Sounds of Silence”: “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…” You know, I was gonna bring something up about the movie we walked out of years ago… 

Barry: Yeah, it was from The English Patient: “The heart is the organ of fire.” You reacted to a spring in the theater seat that had stabbed you in the butt!

 One thing that still strikes me about “American Tune” is that it is an elegy for something that is gone. And I can’t think of any hit song from the rock era that expressed something like that. The closest thing I came up with, one that is very different but linked with the same era, is “Abraham, Martin and John,” which has a little hope in it. But the last verse of that makes you want to cry because it adds Robert Kennedy to the list. It’s a public elegy for something that’s been lost and that’s what “American Tune” is. It’s almost unprecedented that something like that would get the exposure that it did. Can you think of something comparable?

 Ted: I would say that would be “American Pie.” That song is a little more ambiguous, but yes, I see the comparison. What those two songs [“Abraham, Martin and John” and “American Pie”] have in common is the purposeful name dropping, actual names and obvious references to historical analogues. That’s why I like Simon’s song. I think he transcends them all because he’s speaking generally. I think he’s speaking across generations, whereas “Abraham, Martin and John” has lost much of its power of expressing a collective desire to make a better world. Message songs that invoke specific names and events don’t often occur to listeners when they regard the music of Dylan or Phil Ochs; specificity isn’t an element that travels much beyond the history books, but it’s the more generalized work, the lyrics leaning toward more poetic and elusive atmosphere are the ones that are remembered. Dylan famously accused Phil Ochs of just being a journalist, not a songwriter at the time when Ochs was still writing protest songs and Dylan started his experiments with surrealistic scenarios. Dylan was being a jerk, I guess, but he was right in the sense that audiences seeking something to listen to and help them create a sense of themselves in the world desire poetry, not editorials. It might sound cynical, but Dion’s song is nearly nostalgia, an Edenic daydream, right up there with “Get Together” by the Youngbloods. 

Barry: As I recall, “Abraham, Martin and John” meant a lot to people at the time. Listening to it was participating in an act of public mourning. I don’t know precisely what Simon’s motives were, but I suspect that it came out of his experience with the McGovern for president campaign. We saw Richard Nixon, the embodiment of all these terrible things, being reelected in the landslide. And Simon got back together with Garfunkel, whom he had rather bitterly broken up with to do a benefit for McGovern. He was all in for McGovern and watched him get wiped out in November of ’72. 1973 really felt like that was the end of the ’60s. And so “American Tune” came out in May of ’73 and it sounded like an elegy for everything that went before. I think that Simon had a stake in it personally. When I hear him singing about the dreams being shattered and driven to their knees, he’s not just talking about the workaday world, he’s talking about these bigger things that Americans just didn’t seem to live up to.

 The thing that gets me and got me wanting to talk to you about “American Tune” is how it keeps being revived, because it always seems relevant to certain moments of national disappointment and tragedy. It was written in reaction to specific events, yet it keeps being recorded and people keep getting meaning out of it. It’s 50 years later, and it’s like time hasn’t moved on. All the things that he’s addressing in that song are still relevant.

 Ted: A real generation spans 30 years, the years from youth to adulthood and between the time that young people become adults. they have families and eventually become grandparents. Generations that came after the Boomers, you and I had our own sense of disparity between the promises of hard work and advancement and the collectively felt experience. We look for heroes to help us come to terms with that.

  

When you’re a hero, you’re supposed to become the person everybody thinks you should be. I remember A.J. Weberman, the self-described “Dylanologist” who would go through Bob Dylan’s garbage and claimed that he had created a new science or sociology, all of which was based on his conviction that Bob Dylan wasn’t just a songwriter and poet but also a seer, a philosopher and prophet of things to come. I remember reading, with interest, a self-published squib he produced where there was a lot of tea leaf reading and how particular lines of Dylan songs forecast grave, epochal disruptions. The obsession with Dylan, the cottage industry of producing books about Dylan, biographies, interpretations, and all these other gratuitous additions to the prose committed to that, that this songwriter was disrespectful to the artist himself, because Dylan wanted to be left alone…

 Barry: How would this relate to Paul Simon? It’s interesting; Simon is not somebody where people go through his garbage for clues about how he thinks. He came out of a somewhat of a workaday, songwriting world. He’d been a momentary teenage rock star with “Hey Schoolgirl.” He was friends with Carole King and could have been a Brill Building tunesmith. Then, he went to went to England and became a folk singer. But he’s not a Bob Dylan-like figure. He is not regarded as a cultural leader in that respect. So, would it take someone like that to produce a song like “American Tune”? I mean, isn’t it interesting that Simon would be the one to write a song like that? Simon is not the kind of person that people were always over-analyzing and going through his trash for clues about how he lives.

 Ted: The difference is that Paul Simon is a professional songwriter. He sits down and he has a topic and he’s going to write about it. And he’s going to write a melody, he’s going to write lyrics, and I’m sure he’s also somebody who looks at what he’s written and edits things out.

 Barry: Well, here’s something else, too. In a way “American Tune” relates to the other songs on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the ones that you don’t care for. Simon might be saying, “Why am I writing all these lightweight songs about looking back at high school and here’s a lullaby for my young son and all these other light, fluffy songs? It’s because ‘American Tune’ is so heavy and it’s so much a meditation how things are now that I’ve got to write these other light songs to be alive and to be in this world.” The comparative lack of lyrical depth in songs like “Was a Sunny Day” or “St. Judy’s Comet” is a reaction to the depressing spirit of the times, just as—in a different way—“American Tune” is. 

Ted: Simon was also under pressure to produce a hit album. 

Barry: His first post-Garfunkel solo album was successful but not a huge hit. [It reached Number 32 on the Billboard Album Chart.] 

Ted: I think his solo career is nearly flawless in terms of albums. And in terms of Rhymin’ Simon, of the albums he’s put out that I’ve listened to, it’s the one I care for the least.

 Barry: In a way, “Loves Me Like a Rock” fuses the lighter sensibility of the album with Simon’s more thoughtful side. In it, Simon is saying, “If I was the president / The minute the Congress called my name/ I’d say, ‘now who you were fooling?’ / I got the presidential seal…,’” in other words, fuck off and get out of my face. It’s Richard Nixon razzing his enemies and the American people set to a gospel tune. He’s talking about the current situation with Nixon and the Watergate investigations, and he’s sort of riffing on the mood of the moment. It’s a fusion of the two sensibilities in an odd way.

 Ted: Well, the thing I also liked about Simon was his ability to look at his own image as a sad man just out of a relationship or overwhelmed with tragic nostalgia. Or he’s writing about something more ethereal. And you know, he does something like “50 Ways to Leave your Lover,” which just starts off like another sad Paul Simon song. And then, he says, “get on the bus, Gus….” That’s a nice touch that indicates he is self-aware of his image as a writer of melancholic songs. He’s a man who notices when there’s too much air in his tires.

 Barry: Yeah, I think he generally shows a lot of good taste, sometimes maybe too much good taste, but I would agree. 

Ted: I thought Graceland was Simon’s best record. It probably is one of the masterpieces of its time. “The Boy in the Bubble” has one of my favorite lines of all time—after all these surreal imageries and all these references to technology and media and the Age of Miracle and Wonder, he says, “This is the long distance call.” Yeah, it’s such a throwaway line, but it’s beautiful. 

Barry: No, it’s great. He could go widescreen when he wanted to, quite successfully. So, ultimately, what do you think people still get from “American Tune” when they hear it now?

 

Ted: I think people are nostalgic. And there’s always this useful past that they long for. I think most people I know—eventually everybody talks about the old days and just things just aren’t the way they used to be, or the way they should be.

 Barry: … “and everything looks worse in black and white.” 

Ted: What do people still relate to in “American Tune”? I remember having conversations, many of them, with my friends and classmates in the late sixties and seventies that, as high schoolers, our generation was smarter, more enlightened, that we were hopeful and had a moral compass that would change the culture, end racism and war, and undo the evils of capitalism. I remember reading The Greening of America by Charles Reich, wherein a lapsed academic prophesied an Eden on Earth because the younger generation would make the world irrefutably fairer and better in every regard. It was a real head trip and likely made some of the crowd I ran with a might smug and maybe even a bit delusional about what they thought they deserved. I had heady expectations, and there were no shortage of writers, activists, and media sorts reinforcing the idea that the Youthquake, as many called it, would tip the scales toward Heaven. And we were enlightened by many different sources: the hippies, early formations of New Age ideas, civil rights, politics, religious ideas because we’re an enlightened species, but also an awful lot of us at the time were in school and had a lot of leisure time; we didn’t have a lot of adult responsibilities. I’m speaking for many of us, not all of us, but the magazines reinforced that we can just keep doing all this stuff. We can just do it ad infinitum; this will never end and we’ll just get better and better, but it never did, because we became adults. People started having children, so they had to get jobs and pay mortgages. They had to pay income taxes and they had to accept that. I think a lot of people miss the days when they didn’t have many responsibilities.

 Barry: You think all of that is in “American Tune”? 

Ted: It’s implied. Simon’s narrator in the tune has equal measures of ennui, depression, melancholy, and disappointment. This works as a soliloquy of someone in the second half of life. It’s poetic, reflective, and woeful, a recollection of experiences that have brought us no closer to Heaven. We kind of see that in more recent history with the Slacker attitude or in the glorified hype about “Silent quitting,” of doing only the bare minimum required at a job because it’s a deadening, heartless routine. It’s interesting to contrast this with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” where the singer and the audience share the hard and bitter history of oppression, violence, and discrimination as Black Americans, yet they still get out of bed with the conviction that despite it all they will work even harder for the better world they believe in. The sad fact of the matter is that the generation Simon sings of in “American Tune” sounds like they miss the days when their job wasn’t to pay the rent. They, we, didn’t expect to be breadwinners and now we’re saddled with all this stuff. Well, what have we become? Have you become your parents? Yeah, you’re supposed to be the adult now. 

Barry: Maybe that is the true source of weariness and resignation in “American Tune,” the realization that it is time to grow up! 

It’s worth noting that sometime recently Simon rewrote some of the key lines in “American Tune” to reflect a wider historical understanding. He changed “We come on a ship they call the Mayflower / we come on a ship that sailed the moon” to “We didn’t come here on the Mayflower / We came on a ship in a blood red moon.” Rhiannon Giddens sang those new lyrics at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival with Simon backing her up on guitar. This reference to the horrors of slavery and the middle passage changes the whole meaning of the song. Was the poison in the American apple from the very beginning? It’s not that the apple went rotten. The poison was in there all along. 

Ted: It’s probably the one time I can think of where a revision helps the song in terms of making it even more timeless. 

Barry: Yeah, because the song could always be accused of—well, this is the evil of the privileged life. They are the regrets of people that he met at the McGovern cocktail party. Rich liberal angst. 

Ted: Yeah, your memories, your own nostalgia, your despair, your anger over the way things turned out are products of a privileged set of expectations. As opposed to the “blood red moon” line, which I think just broadens the spectrum. 

Barry: I don’t think there’s a neat resolution to what Simon is dealing with in “American Tune.” Earlier, you talked about how the song is capacious enough to hold your own interpretations of its imagery. There is the image of the Statue of Liberty, smiling at you as you’re sailing away to sea. What does that really mean? It’s in a dream. And it’s very ambiguous. You can read a lot into that. Does it mean that you’re protected? Does that mean she’s waving bye-bye, and her protection has been lifted? It’s not clear what that means.

 Ted: Yeah. I like the mystery, the unexplained intrusion of the dream into this dour ode. Although it defies sequential logic, the stanza intensifies the felt melancholy and avoids the overly dramatic. Simon—artist and craftsman that he is—knew when to leave it alone and allow the words to resonate as they would. 

Barry: Speaking of being hip, Paul Simon was never considered the hippest songwriter. And yet a song like “American Tune” can endure and be meaningful to people for 50 years. 

Ted: His best work, the major portion of his output, began with the release of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends album. Simon developed his ear for speech and stopped straining to be poetic and ceased his attempts to make big statements about the human condition. His best songs resonate because Simon wrote credibly, in clear and freshly uncluttered language. You can note his increasing sense of irony, of taking himself less seriously, in expressing relatable experiences in concise, coherent, and pithy ways that were filled with all kinds of melodic hooks, segues, and choruses. Whatever one has to say about Simon, his songs have stood the test of time. I think he’s good because the songs are good. Once he got out of the Simon and Garfunkel cage, as he was starting work on Bookends, he attained the particular genius we know him for. 

Barry: He would say that a lot of those songs on side two (“Fakin’ It,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and “At the Zoo”) were failed singles. He was not particularly proud of those songs and wouldn’t perform them live. That was his take on it. 

Ted: The album had some psychedelic Sergeant Pepper-ish stuff for certain elements of the crowd, but besides that I thought it was a very strong album. In the song “America,” it’s become clich√© “to look for America.” But I thought the song was just beautifully constructed.

 Barry: The language is very visual, like a movie: “and the moon rose over an open field.” It just sounds good. It’s a wonderful use of words. 

Ted: “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.” That’s a line you remember, just a nice use of the place name. And when he does get to his confession, it doesn’t it doesn’t ring false.

 Barry: The imagery in “America” reminds me of “American Tune.” I mean, the narrator of the song wakes up on the bus and he says, “I’m lost.” He says it to his girlfriend who’s asleep. And then he just looks at all the mass of the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s some of the same feeling you get in “American Tune” of just being lost and overwhelmed and not knowing who you are or where you are. It’s like David Byrne saying in “Once in a Lifetime,” “My God, what have I done?”

 Ted: Yeah, maybe it’s just the discovery of suddenly feeling very small. And maybe, in “American Tune,” somebody is talking about that in a disembodied voice, expressing a collective memory where everybody has the same expectations and assumptions that didn’t pan out.

 Barry: The last lines of the song are: “Tomorrow’s going to be another working day/ And I’m trying to get some rest.” You could say that you’re trying to get some rest at least in the hope of getting up tomorrow and making things different. I don’t see a lot of obvious hope in it. But you are carrying on. What’s that Samuel Beckett line? “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

 Ted: Yeah. What are you doing? I’m doing the thing I can’t do. Yeah. I can’t face another day. Yeah, what time is it? I gotta get going! I mean, it’s that kind of thing. You know, I had to revise what I felt at the end of the song. It’s a vague sense of hope. Yeah, tomorrow’s another working day. That’s it. 

Barry: Any final wrap-up thoughts about “American Tune”? 

Ted: I think “American Tune” is a masterpiece by not trying to be a masterpiece. I think it works better than, say, “A Day in the Life.” I think it works better than that as a work of art. It’s something that is sophisticated and subtle, with interesting progressions that come from a Bach chorale. It’s poetic without seeming like it’s trying. It’s professionalism in the best sense. It sounds like a song that Simon cared about. I don’t think there’s a wasted word in there. There’s not a gratuitous line. There’s not a bad image. I think it’s very spare without seeming chintzy. I think it’s poetic without seeming arch. I think it’s transcendent of the conceits of its own time. And it doesn’t drown in its own despair. 

Barry: I agree. There’s a clear-eyed facing up to reality that’s brave in a way. 

Ted: It’s a song by or about somebody who is resilient. But being resilient doesn’t mean that you’re thriving. It just means that you’re able to get up and continue. 

Barry: Well, you know that there’s a new set of facts on the table. And you need to find a new way to engage reality. As the song says, “I’ve certainly been misused.” It’s talking about your bigger involvement in society and, yes, you’re going to keep living. And, yes, you’re going to rest your bones and work. But as far as how you participate in the bigger world, you’re going to draw back a bit; there’s a line that’s been crossed and you’re not going to do that anymore. It seems that America has faced this again and again since “American Tune” was first released. Maybe that’s why the song has never gone away. 

Ted: And the mystery is, is that line going to be crossed? Are you going to be the one to cross it? Or is it going to be for someone other than me, really? Have you done things in this life that will create another way of approaching life situations as they present themselves? A different way of thinking? I think in a lot of ways we have. I think that despite what I’ve said that we have made progress in various fields and parts of the population that have benefited over the last 50-60 years from legislation and activism. But how does that continue from here?

 Barry: Well, that’s another discussion.  And tomorrow’s gonna be another working day, right? 


Ted:
So I hear…

No comments:

Post a Comment