Madison Square Garden, New York City.

September 21, 2018.

 ‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America…

I have a mental scrapbook made up of Before Times.

Of life Before COVID and coup, inflation and insurrection.

One Before Times snapshot I return to: Paul Simon’s final concert tour. Friday, September 21, 2018, his penultimate concert in his (and my) hometown of New York City. At MSG.

What stands out? The opener for that tour, America, the last time I heard it live. But to know why this song, on this day, is to know I’ve longed loved Simon. Musically, lyrically, spiritually–with Art, solo.  All of it.

I wrote my college application essay some 30 years ago about Simon. Looking back, perhaps it was overstated the way teen emotion is. My main idea: The line, The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls was as powerful a statement on societal isolation as any missive I’d ever heard.

But as I made my way through college, studying politics and history, that line stuck. That, and many others, guided every situation. For defeat, The Boxer where …the fighter still remains.

At heartbreak, Graceland: Losing love is like a window in your heart. And hope, Train in the Distance: The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.

A song lyric for everything: Where would I be without Simon woven indelibly into my heart and brain?

Madison Square Garden, September 21, 2018.

As years rolled into decades, Simon sang in my head. In 1991 at Central Park, as the Cold War crumbled; in 1999, as JFK Junior’s plane fell into the Atlantic; in 2003 in the shadow of 9/11; in 2017, as the political world shifted.

So, in 2018, when Simon announced his retirement. I seized the chance to see him. To say thanks. To say goodbye. To hear words that had been a balm throughout my once-young, now-middle adulthood. I knew that seeing him in NYC in September would be special, for this concert – the night before the tour finale – would be my last time to hear his voice “in the room.”

Simon’s opener was America, first recorded with Art Garfunkel for Bookends in 1968. Now, a half century later, this song had seen Simon progress from youth to old age, from folk rock to wildly creative musical experimentation that spanned the globe. For me, this tune took me to a time before my birth to middle age, with career transition, a marriage, and children in between.

Culturally, that song took American society from one fractured time – a turbulent 1968 – to an arguably more divisive era. So, to hear his ageing voice, to think of the moments those words had witnessed, to consider their resonance for new ears and new history, to reflect on their interwoven hope and cynicism. How to understand why those words hit so powerfully?

I rushed to my seat, grateful to have made it, after a prolonged train delay from DC to NY. As I dashed through the concourse, recognising the notes on Simon’s black acoustic, I became awash with emotion. Was it because I had made my own epic journey of sorts to be here?

So many thoughts rushed through my head: What is America?  The promise of someone with whom you can “marry” “fortunes together”? The possession of a “cigarette” and “Mrs. Wagner Pie”?  The counting of “cars on the New Jersey Turnpike”?

Well, kind of, I realised. It is all of those things. And none of those things. At least not exactly.

As Simon sings, the answer isn’t that simple. It is in the journey, the odyssey, the look for America. Not the end point itself. But maybe, just maybe, it is in the searching that we find the answer.

So we try.

And maybe, in a quiet moment – or in Simon’s case, while our travelling companion is asleep –we concede we really aren’t sure what we really are looking for and whether what we want can ever be found: I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…

Many Americans have understood all too well that empty and aching these last few years. And Simon, no doubt has, too. When he first wrote America and again, five decades later, when he opened with it.

America. Lost and hopeful, meandering and determined, finite and infinite.

America. Not the New Jersey Turnpike. Not the Greyhound. Not in Kathy’s sack.

America. The hope of a destination, and the realisation that there isn’t one. And in the empty and aching times in which we live, nobody captures it better than Simon’s America.

 

Stereo Story #678

 

More stories about Paul Simon songs

After discovering the Beatles as a 1980s teenager, M.B. Donnelly discovered the joys of music and song analysis and never looked back. Finding music a sanctuary in a confusing world, M.B. is an American history teacher, often reflecting and writing on the intersection between culture and music.