Hello there! This week’s blog entry is America. This is a beautiful and moving folk-rock song composed by Paul Simon. We will review the original song by Simon & Garfunkel. We will next discuss covers of the song by David Bowie and by Yes.
Simon & Garfunkel and America:
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were school-mates in Queens, NY. They began singing while in school, and first appeared as the duo Tom and Jerry. They had one hit, the 1957 tune Hey Schoolgirl inspired by the Everly Brothers, and then broke up.
Paul Simon then embarked on a solo career, while Art enrolled in college. However, they got back together in 1963 using their real names, Simon and Garfunkel. They hoped to cash in on the demand for folk music.
In October 1964, they released their first album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. It was a mixture of original Paul Simon tunes, some traditional folk songs, and covers of a few pop tunes. The album was a flop.
Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon performing in Ann Arbor, MI (same state as Saginaw) in 1968.Embed from Getty Images
However, a DJ in Boston began playing Simon and Garfunkel’s tune The Sound of Silence on his show. The song became popular, and stations along the East Coast began to play it.
At this point, producer Tom Wilson decided to re-mix the song. Inspired by the folk-rock sound made popular by The Byrds, Wilson assembled some studio musicians who created an instrumental backing, adding electric guitar and drums.
Wilson turned The Sound of Silence into a folk-pop hybrid, and re-released the song. The good news is that this tune became a blockbuster hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, and established a tremendous demand for Simon and Garfunkel songs.
The bad news was that Tom Wilson had not bothered to tell Paul Simon that Wilson was re-mixing his track. Simon was horrified to see his “pure” folk song turned into a folk-rock tune. However, he could not argue with the commercial success.
As a result, CBS rushed out an album called Sounds of Silence. Several of the songs on the album had previously been issued on an album titled The Paul Simon Songbook, that had also been a commercial disappointment.
This time around, the success of their single The Sound of Silence and the folk-pop re-mixing of their tunes produced a smash hit album. Folk purists were highly critical of Simon and Garfunkel’s commercialism, but by this point the duo were off and running.
In fall 1964 Paul Simon had been performing in London, but he returned to the States to finish off final post-production of the first Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM.
At that time Paul was living in London with his girlfriend Kathy Chitty. Kathy accompanied him to the U.S. Paul then traveled up to Saginaw, Michigan to perform a concert. He re-joined Kathy in Pittsburgh after the concert, and the couple then embarked on a Greyhound bus trip before Paul showed up in New York to work on his album.
America describes Paul and Kathy’s trip, that began in Saginaw.
Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off to look for America.
“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
I’ve come to look for America.”
Of course, America is about much more than a trip around the Eastern U.S. Philip Holden gives an impressive description of the song.
‘America’ … is three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications.”
I find America an absolutely brilliant song, with a stunningly beautiful arrangement. On the bus, the singer pours out his angst to his girlfriend, even though he knows she is asleep. “Kathy, I’m lost … I’m empty and aching, and I don’t know why.”
The song America was not released until Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth studio album, the 1968 Bookends. In 1972, America was released as a single. I am amazed that the song charted no better than #97 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Here is the audio of the Simon and Garfunkel song America.
What a lovely song! I especially enjoy it because of Larry Knechtel’s haunting work on pipe organ, Hal Blaine’s drumming, and the ethereal tenor saxophone from an uncredited session musician. The song finishes off with a crescendo, with Paul Simon observing “the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” while Art Garfunkel interjects his soaring high tenor vocals.
And here are Simon and Garfunkel live, from their Concert in Central Park in Sept. 1981.
This summer concert drew half a million people. By then, Simon and Garfunkel had broken up, but they re-united for this performance. Obviously, there was still a tremendous demand and appreciation for the boys.
The Concert in Central Park was such a phenomenal success that Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982. However, that tour was cancelled, and although the pair recorded several tracks for another album, Paul Simon then decided to release the album as a solo project, the 1983 release Hearts and Bones.
Paul Simon has since gone on to an exceptionally successful solo career. Art Garfunkel released a few albums, and he also pursued an acting career. He starred in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols. For his part in this movie, Garfunkel was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.
The song America enjoyed a surge in popularity in 2000, when a portion of the song was included in the film Almost Famous. We reviewed this movie in an earlier blog post discussing the song Tiny Dancer. And here is the clip from Almost Famous.
In this scene, the lead character William Miller’s older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) is arguing with her mother (Frances McDormand). Anita says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess,” and plays America. Anita’s control-freak mother is not amused.
Just before Anita leaves, she whispers to her brother “Look under your bed. It will set you free.” Anita has left a suitcase full of iconic 60s and 70s albums – the Beach Boys; Rolling Stones; Led Zeppelin; Jimi Hendrix; Joni Mitchell; Bob Dylan.
The music changes his life — young William becomes a music critic for Rolling Stone magazine at age 16, just as writer-director Cameron Crowe did in real life. And the song America, describing a restless urge to hit the road and “look for America,” perfectly encapsulates Anita’s situation.
I have seen Simon and Garfunkel performing together a few times on TV since their breakup. The tension between the two is palpable. Art Garfunkel makes an effort to be civil, while Paul Simon behaves like a jerk.
For example, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, Art Garfunkel called Simon
“the person who most enriched my life by putting those songs through me,” to which Simon responded, “Arthur and I agree about almost nothing. But it’s true, I have enriched his life quite a bit.”
I have no idea what went on backstage between the two, but I am not optimistic that they will ever perform together again. What a shame – on their best songs, Simon and Garfunkel shared a magical chemistry. They were a brilliant pop duo, and they both enriched our lives with their music.
Anyway, the music from their collaboration lives on, even though they have gone their separate ways.
David Bowie and America:
We have discussed David Bowie a couple of times previously, for his cover of Dancing In the Street (with Mick Jagger), and for his cover of John Lennon’s Imagine. Here we will briefly review his life and career.
David Bowie was one of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of our time. He was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and he took the stage name David Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ singer Davy Jones.
David Bowie burst on the pop scene in 1969 with his stunningly original single Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”).
In 1972, Bowie re-surfaced as the glam-rock character Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy featured flaming red hair together with flamboyant rainbow-hued gender-bending costumes, such as is shown in the photo below from a 1973 tour.Embed from Getty Images
Portraying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band The Spiders From Mars rapidly gained notoriety for their highly theatrical live performances. Apparently Bowie/Ziggy was positively mesmerizing on stage, and he developed a cult following as a result.
However, in 1974 Bowie drastically changed direction. He moved to the U.S., ditched Ziggy, and changed his musical genre to something he called “plastic soul.” In 1976, Bowie trotted out a new persona, the Thin White Duke, named after the title track of his new album, once again signifying a change in musical style.
Bowie’s career contained many abrupt changes. In nearly every case, he emerged as a leader in a new musical direction. Bowie often shuffled band members and producers at the same time. A restless, probing artist, he was constantly pushing the envelope in many different areas.
Here is David Bowie in a live performance of America.
I find this extremely moving. Bowie performed this at the Concert for New York City, just a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here, he is sitting on the floor while singing, and he accompanies himself on a Suzuki Omnichord.
I find this an exceptional rendition of America. At this terrible moment in our nation’s history, Bowie’s stark, simple and powerful version gives an entirely new meaning to this tune. At the end of the song Bowie, who was at the time a resident of New York City, gives a shout-out to his local fire department.
There is an interesting back-story to Bowie’s cover of America. The group 1-2-3 released a cover of this song in 1967, even though the Simon and Garfunkel version was not released until 1968.
Paul Simon had first recorded America in London in 1965, although this version was never released. Tapes of Simon’s recording session were passed to 1-2-3 by a studio engineer; the group then recorded covers of both America and The Sound of Silence from those tapes.
1-2-3 performed their cover of America in a 1967 concert, and David Bowie was present at this performance. The keyboard part he plays at the Concert for New York City is reminiscent of the 1-2-3 cover.
David Bowie enjoyed a spectacular career in pop music. In recognition of his creativity and versatility, Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Bowie was also an acclaimed actor. He began training in acting before he embarked on a musical career. He appeared in a number of interesting films, including Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1983 vampire film The Hunger, and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige. Bowie also played the lead role in The Elephant Man on Broadway for 157 performances.
David Bowie died of liver cancer on Jan. 10, 2016. Just two days earlier, he had released his final album, Blackstar. That album focuses on themes of mortality and death.
David Bowie was apparently a mesmerizing performer. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance. It is not surprising that he was a talented actor, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.
David Bowie was a true cultural icon. He pushed way beyond the boundaries of current fashion, and he made a tremendous impact on pop music. His contributions to music, fashion and modern culture will be missed deeply.
Yes and America:
The band Yes are one of the most prominent and long-lasting of the “progressive-rock” bands. They were originally formed in 1968, and today not one but two different versions of Yes are still touring.
I have to admit that I am deeply ambivalent about the “progressive rock” movement. I loved the group Traffic, admired Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues, and was a big fan of Jethro Tull.
On the other hand, I loathed groups such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Iron Butterfly. I am not entirely sure I can justify my preferences, except to say that I considered ELP to be pretentious and overblown. And I was unimpressed by Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which I considered a 20-minute snooze-a-thon.
In my opinion, Yes were closer to Emerson, Lake and Palmer than to favorite bands such as Traffic or Jethro Tull. Anyway, the group combined rock ‘n roll with psychedelic rock, jazz fusion and even some elements of classical music.
At left we show the “puffy logo” for Yes. In this case, the letters have been enhanced with the color pattern of a butterfly.
Like Iron Butterfly, Yes also had a tendency to produce extremely long songs: the title cut for their 1972 album Close To The Edge clocked in at 19 minutes, or one entire side of the album.
Yes had two major hits. In 1972, the band gained fame with the song Roundabout, which made it to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Below is a photo of the band Yes in a recording session for their 1971 album Fragile, which contained the single Roundabout. From L: drummer Bill Bruford; bassist Chris Squire; guitarist Steve Howe; lead vocalist Jon Anderson; keyboards Rick Wakeman.Embed from Getty Images
Then in 1984, Yes scored a #1 hit with Owner of a Lonely Heart. At this time, Anderson and Squire teamed up with Trevor Rabin on guitar, Tony Kaye on keyboards and Alan White on drums. This group is sometimes referred to as “Yes-West,” since the group relocated from London to L.A.
Here is the band Yes performing their version of America. This took place at a concert at Lewiston, NY in 2012.
Just like the David Bowie version, the rendition of America by Yes owes much to the cover by the group 1-2-3. The Yes version is over 11 minutes long, and contains several sustained jazz-inspired guitar solos by Steve Howe.
The lead singer here is Jon Davison. At various intervals between guitar solos, he interjects the lyrics from America. This is an impressive rock-jazz fusion piece.
Since the mid-80s, Yes has experienced a considerable amount of turmoil in its membership. Musicians have been added, others have dropped out, and the band has re-formed several times, occasionally by adding people who had departed earlier. One almost needs a scorecard to keep up with the changes.
In 1991 Yes put out an album called Union. At this time, the band consisted of eight members. However, it was eventually revealed that at no time had all eight musicians ever recorded together in the studio. The album was stitched together from tracks contributed by a few members at a time.
Over the years, Yes developed a large and loyal group of supporters. Their fans pushed hard to get their favorite band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eventually Yes made it, but only after a sustained campaign by their supporters.
A group called Voices For Yes lobbied on the band’s behalf. Prominent leaders in this group were John Brabender, a top aide for conservative senator Rick Santorum, and Tad Devine, who was active in the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Al Gore.
This might be the only time those two politicians have worked together on any issue! This just proves that “rock ‘n roll makes strange bedfellows.”
In April 2017, Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall recognized eight current and former members of the band: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire (who passed away from leukemia in 2015), Bill Bruford, Tony Kaye, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Alan White, and Trevor Rabin.
At present, two different splinter groups are touring under the “Yes” name. One group includes Jon Davison, Steve Howe and Alan White, while a second group calls themselves “Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Travor Rabin and Rick Wakeman.” Significant confusion ensues at venues when the two tours nearly coincide.
Yes has had a long and eventful career as a progressive rock band. They were central players in efforts to incorporate elements of jazz and classical music into rock ‘n roll. The band had a couple of pop hits and developed a cult following.
I will end this post with a cheesy joke. Perhaps the greatest stand-up comedy routine of all time is the Abbott and Costello classic “Who’s on first?” This involves the confusion surrounding a baseball team with ‘Who’ playing first base, ‘What’ playing second base and ‘I Don’t Know’ at third base.
In the 70s, a comedy takeoff on this classic involved an all-star rock concert. In order of appearance, the headliners were “Who on first; Yes on second; and Guess Who third.” The routine subsequently writes itself.
That’s all, folks – I’m here all this week!