Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pondering an American Tune

This is something I wrote for Paste a couple years ago. It's an end-of-the-year reflection, a taking stock of the geography of the heart. It seems appropriate today as well. I know so many people who live in uncertainty, in fear, in the growing realization that life as we have known it is changing, and that nobody knows what the new life will look like. More than ever, this seems like an American tune.


It’s a restless 3 a.m., the most melancholic hour for insomniacs. And it’s 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 on this Thursday night; work beckons again in just a few short hours. But sleep isn’t coming, at least not for a while, 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 friend, Paul Simon’s American Tune—the perfect late-night accompaniment to insomnia. With somber, stately melody cribbed from a J.S. Bach chorale, Simon’s gentle, hushed delivery unsuccessfully masks 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

we’ve lived so well so long

Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

It’s an American tune from the early 1970s, conceived in a different world—Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon, fresh memories of Kent State and My Lai—but it’s a sentiment all too contemporary for those who descend daily into London tube stations, who fearfully cross Baghdad streets or inhabit the splintered ruins of Asian villages inundated by the tsunami. It must ring in the ears of those who endure genocide in Darfur, those who suffer from sub-Saharan Africa’s AIDS plague. Death carries no passport, and it’s 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. A Cleveland, Ohio suburb loses 14 of its young men in one bloody day in Iraq, and a community seeks to comprehend the gaping hole in its heart. Even closer to home, my father-in-law lies in his newly dug grave while two dear family members battle cancer. And at 3 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’s not. We’re misfits and strangers here, always voyaging, never able to escape from ourselves or the inevitability of our demise. And there are days when it appears we’ve 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’ve spattered this year like bullets, fired willy-nilly out of anger, arrogance, stupidity, even naiveté, always amazed that the gun goes off when I pull the trigger, always slightly stunned when that scent in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the scattered roses in my mind. It’s 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 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 you listen. Some nights that’s the best thing you can do.

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 won’t 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.


hallga77 said...




Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Andy. I can still remember where I was when I first heard the song: I was visiting some friends in Ithaca, New York, in 1973 or '74 and while we were hanging around talking the song came on in the background and I got chills. I'm not sure anybody else noticed; maybe they'd already heard it a hundred times, but it was new to me.


Anonymous said...

Great essay, Andy.

By odd coincidence I was listening to Willie Nelson's version of American Tune when this popped up on my feed!

Ty said...

Although this will be very random, I wanted to say I much admire your ability to take even the most subtle realizations and amplify them to a greater importance and understanding. No subject "is what it is." As a recent Kent grad, it is reassuring to know that even most established person still questions and ponders so much. This blog, like others you have written, continues to verify that reassurance.

AA said...

"always slightly stunned when that scent in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the scattered roses in my mind"

Beautiful writing that rings so true. Thank you.