Friday, September 23, 2005

Paul Simon: Pondering an American Tune

A new article for the end-of-the-year issue of Paste Magazine ...


It is a restless 3:00 a.m., the most melancholic hour for insomniacs. And it is a month near the dispirited end of a hellish year in which too many people have died. Sometimes I can block it out, and sometimes I can’t. The thoughts that swirl around my brain tell me that tonight I can’t.

The house settles around me. Everyone else is asleep. It is a Thursday night; work beckons again in just a few short hours. But sleep is not going to come, at least for a while, and so I wander downstairs, check my e-mail, read the CNN headlines, and look out my window at the few lights still on in my neighborhood, wondering who else is up and prowling their hallways. I put on the headphones and settle back with an old, familiar friend, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” It is the perfect late night musical accompaniment to insomnia; its somber, stately melody cribbed from a J.S. Bach chorale, Simon’s gentle, hushed delivery unsuccessfully masking the images that churn with nocturnal disquiet:

I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it's alright, it's alright
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong

It is an American tune from the early 1970s, conceived in a far different world that still encompassed Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon, the fresh memories of Kent State and My Lai, but it is a sentiment that must sound all too contemporary to those who descend daily to London tube stations, who fearfully cross Baghdad streets, or who inhabit the splintered ruins of hundreds of Asian villages and towns inundated by tsunami. It must ring in the ears of those who endure genocide in Darfur, in those who suffer from the AIDS plague throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Death carries no passport, and it is no respecter of nations. And we too here in America have heard that insistent refrain. Poor New Orleans, pummeled and drowned, struggles to return to something approaching normal life. Where I live, in Ohio, a Cleveland suburb loses 14 of its young men in one bloody day in Iraq, and a community seeks to comprehend the gaping hole at its heart. Even closer to home, my father-in-law lies in his newly dug grave, and two dear family members battle cancer. And at 3:00 a.m., I can’t help it. I wonder what's gone wrong.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

We cross the oceans and send rockets hurtling to the moon, planting our flag on whatever scrap of rock we can find, claiming the land and its allegiance as our own. But it is not our own. We are misfits and strangers here, still apt to be blown away by winds or bullets, always voyaging, never able to escape from ourselves or the inevitability of our demise. And there are days when it appears we have learned nothing, least of all how to love. Just turn on the news. Or take a look at my heart. I think of the words I have spattered this year like bullets, fired willy-nilly out of anger, arrogance, stupidity, even naivete, always amazed that the gun goes off when I pull the trigger, always slightly stunned when that smell in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the roses I scatter in my mind. It is the shock of recognition, the one clear moment that comes only when all the distractions and entertainments have faded, when there are no more excuses, when the mirror reflects back our true image. What can you do? In my case, you pray. And you play the single greatest song of a singularly great American songwriter. You shut up and listen. Some nights that’s the best thing you can do.

And in my case I sit in my office, bathed in the blue glow of a computer monitor in a darkened room, pounding out this grim end-of-the-year reckoning. I will not be sad to see the end of 2005. Auld Lang Syne, and good riddance. We traffic in sorrow, the real hard coin of the realm, and music sometimes speaks hard truths. Tonight I listen to Paul Simon, to a beautiful melody and words that sting, and ponder the minor miracles: how we manage to rise above the broken heartedness and our own damned culpability, how we somehow find the strength and courage to get up, bleary eyed, and do it all over again.


John McCollum said...


I've been hacking through some of the same thoughts. When I get them in some sort of an order, I'll post on my blog or yours.

The tune that's been playing in my mind is Green Day's "Wake me up when september ends."

Anonymous said...

Most of the time, I too am convinced that this is Paul Simon's greatest song. It's certainly one of my favorites. But making a call like that leaves me feeling guilty.

In many ways, it feels like a sequel to another Simon masterpiece, "America." Simon's young hitchhiker is a little older, he's had some of his hopes dashed, he's had some of his questions answered, and yet he's still filled with a worldweary longing.

I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong.

If I can think of these two songs as part of the same story, I have no qualms about elevating these two above everything else in Simon's extraordinary canon.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Andy. You describe so perfectly why this is such an achingly apt song, even three decades later. I expect that I will be just as moved when I read this anew in a few months.

John McCollum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John McCollum said...

By the way, Andy, and on a completely different topic, regardless of what I may have implied last night at home group, I don't think that you're a jerk.

Well, that's not exactly accurate (insert winking smiley); specifically, I don't think that you were being a jerk in your comments about worship.

I am routinely misunderstood. People often walk away from encounters with me -- especially cyber-encounters -- and think I've said something I didn't actually say.

But I'm glad you're sensitive to the fact that people can be hurt, even when no harm was intended. That's something I need to learn.

I would have sent this via email, but I can't find yours. So there we have it.

Phil said...


Eloquently said. This is a great column, truly. And man, am I not going to miss this year either.

Glad to have run across this blog--

Phil Christman (as in "used to write for Paste too" Phil Christman)

Andy Whitman said...

Matt and Phil, thanks for your comments. I appreciate the encouragement.

Matt, great comments linking "America" and "American Tune." The songs do seem like bookends (sorry, bad S&G pun there) that bracket the passage from youthful idealism to something like worldweary longing.

Phil, I miss seeing your book reviews in Paste. Now that Paste has resurrected its Books section, are you going to submit new material? I hope so. You were instrumental in leading me to read Marilyn Robinson, whose novels I love.

Phil said...

I'm so glad I played a role in your reading Robinson! She's my hero.

I haven't tried submitting in a while (a combination of grad school time-crunch and fear, now that Paste is big enough to afford more famous names!). I really should. Thanks for the encouragement.

Anonymous said...

I have only discovered "an American Tune" in the past 2 or 3 years - about time of original article. It certainly has powerful lyrics that don't seem to have been well thought of or much noticed in the '70s, judging from some reviews.
But as a singer of traditional, medieval, Renaissance & Baroque music the tune catches at me ironically in view of Simon's title. Not only did he crib it from J.S. Bach (I presume) but Bach cribbed it from Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). It's from his 1601 "Lustgarten, Deutsche Lieder zu vier, fuenf, sechs und acht Stimmen (Pleasure Garden, German Songs for 4,5,6 & 8 voices) & appears there as a rueful little lovesong of at least 3 verses called "Mein G'mueth ist mir verwirret" (My mind is confused). There the tune isn't solemn at all but one of the bouncy, syncopated dances popular then. Who knows? As our knowledge of truly old music deepens it wouldn't be surprising to find that Hassler borrowed an even older dance. So Simon also knows a good tune when he hears one. Understanding a tune's past uses deepens our appreciation of its present & this one's proved its universal staying power.

Anonymous said...

Thirty-five years later, that song still have timely lyrics and a timeless melody. I think this song continues to speak to many of us, as Paul Simon has for many years. Who can ask for anything more?

Mercury said...

This piece is about three years old.. And I came across it by chance.

Beautifully expressed. I think I know how you must have felt.

It is one of my favourite songs too. And I'm awake, late, just letting my mind soak up the familiar words, hoping for some comfort.

It was nice to read this post of yours.

Seeker said...

Wonderful piece, Andy. We were eight non-religionists on a spiritual retreat. Invited to give an epilogue, I read out your post (with full attribution to you, of course), and played Simon's version of the song before and after the reading. "... There are days when it appears we have learned nothing, least of all how to love..." We were truly moved. Thank you.