by Alan Haber
One of Paul Simon’s best songs, lyrically astute and honorably charged, “America” is the third track on Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends, fading up out of the long goodbye of “Save the Life of My Child.” “Oh my Grace, I’ve got no hiding place,” comes the lyrical cry over a bed of ghostly, harried vocal lines and more sturdy pop instrumentation. It comes to pass that perhaps, just perhaps, the child is saved, but there is this that suggests an otherwise flawed end: “In an atmosphere of freaky holiday/When the spotlight hit the boy/And the crowd began to cheer/He flew away.”
From that might-be cryptic vision, Simon’s pen turned from chronicling a search for a panacea for men and women paralyzed with fear to a chronicle of men and women searching for answers that would quantify their yearning. Where, exactly, is their America?
After descending vocal lines sung on top of a bed of guitar strums and accented notes comes the observational, opening salvo of “America”: “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together,” Simon sings delicately. “I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.” With that somewhat, likely tenuous firmament in place, the man and his female companion (name of Kathy, also the name of an actual figure in Simon’s early musical life) prepare to begin their journey, purchasing a pack of smokes and some Mrs. Wagner’s pies. After hitchhiking a fair enough distance, the man tells Kathy that he’s “…come to look for America.” An explorer, a truth seeker, on a mission.
Boarding a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh, the couple play almost childlike games to pass the time. Kathy remarks that “…the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.” The man traveling with her counters with an equally playful and mindfully obtuse observation: “Be careful. His bow tie is really a camera.” Which, if true, might hold some of the answers the couple is looking for. Has this spy gathered proof of the existence of America? How fast can these images be developed?
There is gazing out of the window and some magazine reading, after which Kathy’s companion reaches an epiphany of sorts. “Kathy, I’m lost,” he tells her, as she sleeps. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” After looking out over open fields as the bus passes around and through towns large and small, the journey seems to culminate, even as the bus continues on, in the man’s realization that he and everyone on the bus and everyone in the cars passing by them are all, as it turns out, looking for America, for their dreams to come alive.
“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” the companion sings. Cars from near and far and most certainly in between; campers and pickup trucks and cars that double as boats, and station wagons and automobiles with faulty transmissions and leaky oil pans, all pointed toward the lands of milk and honey and prosperity and, above all, safety, all are looking for their America. A place to call home, where it feels like home from the second the lawn sprinklers turn on in the morning till the moment they turn off at night. Everyone on the road, whether real or imagined in the course of everyday life, is looking for America. For their America.
Covered by all manner of artists through the years, “America” was most recently and, perhaps, best interpreted in an emotionally charged performance by First Aid Kit, a sister duo from Sweden. They performed the song with creative, lovely, acoustic guitar picking, piano and an equally emotional, live string section in a showstopping version on one of the last broadcasts of The Late Show with David Letterman (see below).
Discussion of “America” seems appropriate on this day, Memorial Day, a day during which our thoughts turn to those who served in the armed forces and lost their lives protecting our freedoms. Listening to “America,” as performed by Simon and Garfunkel or First Aid Kit or any of the artists who have covered it with sound artistic expression and passion, is still a powerful experience, and so it shall be for as long as we all continue to look for our Americas.