Have you ever noticed that the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” don’t contain rhymes? I’ve known this song for at least 20 years, and it never once occurred to me, until today, after reading about the song. Is it Paul Simon’s songwriting prowess that sneaks the blank verse by us? Are we supposed to notice?
Now that I know about the non-rhymes, I think it contributes to the song’s themes of loneliness and loss. The two main characters are making their way across the country and becoming increasingly directionless. It’s telling that the only hint at a rhyme is in the first verse, when the couple is still in the beginning phase of their journey: “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” After that, as the pair runs out of cigarettes and counts cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, the lines are fragments with no rhyming counterparts.
“America” has always been my favorite Simon and Garfunkel song, not only because of those lyrics, but because of the melody, which is so beautiful but so simple. The fact that he uses that simplicity to portray this complex, crumbling relationship (both the relationship between the characters and their relationship to their country) is what makes this song so heartbreaking.
I rock my almost-two-year-old daughter in a rocking chair every night before bed, and last night my wife and I both rocked her in the middle of the night because she had a fever. At three o’clock or so this morning, as I was singing “The Wheels on the Bus” for the second time, it occurred to me that, when Lilly was born, I would sing her the strangest songs. The simple reason for this is that there are very few songs for which I know all the lyrics. One of them is “Grand Canyon” by Magnetic Fields; another is “Still Crazy After All These Years.” The former song happens to have a beautiful, lullabye-like melody, but I have no idea why I started singing a Paul Simon song about aging (that not only mentions beer but includes the phrase “I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day”).
I do know that, after Lilly was born, I suddenly loved “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a song that I’d never given much thought to before. We have a copy of the album on vinyl, a hand-me-down from Lizzie’s parents, and it was one of many records I put on while we were housebound during our maternity and paternity leaves. In many ways, including my musical taste, I’ve been an old man for a long time now, but having a kid has made me much more comfortable embracing songs like this. Vibraphone and a smooth sax solo? Don’t mind if I do! I’ve been putting diaper cream on a butt all day; you’re damn right I deserve some relaxation!
This song isn’t nearly as simple as it seems. For one thing, I like how funny it is, which I hadn’t noticed before. While I didn’t think Paul Simon considered himself a crazy guy, I didn’t think it was straight-out sarcasm until recently. Additionally, this song isn’t all smoothness: that orchestral thing after the bridge is full of unrest, and then there’s that subtle key change at the end, which Simon slips in by preceding it with the “five” chord of the new key (fifths resolve to their root chords, so in this song, our ears are expecting the new key, which makes it hard to notice). It escalates the song ever so slightly, as if the middle-aged narrator is getting up from his chair with a sigh. Unrest comes in different forms the older you get.
Speaking of which, if this post is full of nonsense, it’s because of lack of sleep. You can blame everything on kids!
Now get off of my lawn.