My Pop Life #130 : America – Simon & Garfunkel

America   –   Simon & Garfunkel

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 pies

and walked off to look for America…

It was some time in early 2015 when I became aware of the two Swedish sisters Johanna & Klara Söderberg who call themselves First Aid Kit covering this evergreen classic.  Clear, bright, bel canto voices with a precise harmonic shiver  : the song lived again in their youthful rendition.   It marked our first year living in New York City, two English actors who’d packed two suitcases and one cat each and upped and flown to the Big Apple on a whim in February 2014.   My wife Jenny and I had moved six times by the time I heard this cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s song, from Harlem in the snow, to the top floor of a brownstone in Washington Avenue in Brooklyn in the deeper snow (and an encounter with fairy godmother Johanna), across the street to a sublet in an apartment block, to the Village in Manhattan, then Air Bob in Bed-Stuy, to Hall St in Clinton Hill, now next door in Fort Greene.  It was our third major stint looking for America.  First – 1992 Los Angeles for three years, Venice, West Hollywood and Green Cards.  Next – 2002 Los Angeles for another two years – Los Feliz.  Now New York.  Coming up for two years as I write this.

My first experience of America was in 1976 when my best friend Simon Korner and I hitch-hiked from New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Cape Cod.  It was our gap year – though it was called “a year off” back then.  We’d done our A-levels, got our University places sorted – him at Cambridge, me at LSE.  I’d then left home and gone to work in Laughton Lodge as a Nursing Assistant, a period I outlined briefly in My Pop Life #58.

Essentially I was required to keep an eye on a ward-full of 30 men of differing shapes and sizes, but all classified in 1975 as ‘Mentally Subnormal’.  Some of them were dangerous.  Some were catatonic.  Now they would be called clients with a learning difficulty.  All this for a later blog, but I mention it in passing.  I worked there from October through to April 1975, saving money to fly to New York with Simon, to go and look for America.

It was terribly exciting, we were 18 going on 19 and from a small Sussex town called Lewes.  Seeing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Smithsonian, the wide open prairies of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains, Monument Valley and the Arizona desert was an unparalleled experience for two young men, and it changed and bonded us both.    Paul Simon did a similar trip with Kathy Chitty in 1964.   I kept a diary of the trip and at one point in New Mexico wrote a kind of Ode :

America ! America ! The skies all seem to say !

Or are they saying something else, like : “Let’s be on our way” ?

 It’s rather hard to tell because it’s cloudy out today

But Ralph and Sigh don’t mind because they’re IN THE USA !!

Fairly safe to say there wasn’t a budding Paul Simon hiding within at that point.   It’s more of a Soviet Farm Song satire.

Perhaps not surprisingly this song always makes me feel emotional for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  The ultimate line : “…counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America…” is so simple and ordinary yet it has a poetic magic that lifts the song into a mythical hymn for the soul.  Of all those people searching for their best life on this vast continent.  Plenty wrong with the USA of course which I won’t rehearse here.  this is about the other side of the coin.   The optimism of America, constantly encouraging, constantly asking you to make the very best of yourself.  The reason why we keep coming back.    The hope.  The interior yearning made physical reality.

We had Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in our house all through childhood, Mum must have bought it.  This song didn’t stand out to me at the age of ten or eleven, I was hooked on Sound Of Silence, Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme, Homeward Bound.  But it must have crept under my skin because it has become one of my favourite songs of all time.  Again, I’m not sure why, but it has a strange ineffable power : unusually there is no rhyme at all in the lyrics, and the chorus is just one line, slightly altered each time “…look for America”.    Paul Simon evidently knows that from the specific and the individual experience comes the universal : the details of the Greyhound Bus trip from Pittsburgh which had started as a hitch-hiking journey from Saginaw, Michigan, the cigarettes, the jokes, the youthful joy which turns to melancholy in the last verse :

Kathy I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping..I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

the reference to smoking pot “some real estate here in my bag” and the the space between the two voices above all lend this three-minute masterpiece a unique power.  In particular the middle verse :

So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine and the moon rose over an open field..”

has no equal in pop writing for me.  There is just so much space in the song, and the listener fills it with their own fantasies, desires and feelings.  But mainly with their own bruised optimism.

graffitti on an abandoned building in Saginaw

I thought I would post the First Aid Kit version because I became rather obsessed with it, but after a few months of listening to hip hop and electronica I went back to it.  It still sounds bright and beautiful, but it is in the end a cover of a classic.  There are technical issues – chopped bar lines and other things I won’t bore you with, Paul Simon’s song is best served in the end by Art Garfunkel and himself, some acoustic guitars, a wandering soprano saxophone and a melodic bassline.  Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ and Hal Blaine on the drums join them on this recording, but essentially the space created between all of these elements is where the song’s beauty lies, which the Swedish sisters have understood so well.  David Bowie made a similar empty echoing version immediately after 9/11 which I post below.

My other memory of this song is the film Almost Famous of course, a film about music with one of the finer soundtracks I can remember.  The closing credits roll over The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows“the closing song on their 1971 LP Surf’s Up and well outside the 20 Golden Greats arena.   Simon & Garfunkel’s song accompanies the young hero leaving home, looking for America.  One of those cliches that always lands.

Simon & Garfunkel 1966

Paul Simon is of course one of the finest songwriters of any era.  I sang his solo praises in My Pop Life #89 .  The combination he had with Art Garfunkel was immaculate though and unlikely to be bettered as a vehicle for his amazing songs.  I think they fell out probably – and unspoken issues kept them apart aside from one remarkable song My Little Town and a concert in Central Park in 1981 when they tried to heal the rift to no avail.

Carousel Singers at the Unitarian Church Brighton 2013

Towards the end of my Brighton period, around 2013 I suppose, I joined a group run by Julia Roberts called The Carousel Singers.  I was suggested by ace percussionist Paul Gunter who played for a while with The Brighton Beach Boys and is a senior graduate of Stomp – because Carousel – or rather Julia – were looking for a pianist who could accompany a choir of learning-disabled adults.  My year with Carousel was extraordinary, funny, moving and occasionally sad.  We’d meet every Wednesday evening in the Unitarian Church on New Road in the centre of Brighton.  Julia, Paul, another musician Gabrielle, graduate Karis and me.  My instinct was always to push the singers further, assume that they could do things that perhaps they hadn’t been asked to do before, stretch them out a bit.  And we used to write songs together, as a group.  In particular the choir members would come up with the lyrics, and I would supply some kind of tune and chords to go with them.  The first time we did this, for a song we called Song For Iain,  I used a simple descending F to C bassline which pleases the ear and sounds very POP, but for the second song I just couldn’t get ‘America’ out of my brain, and blatantly lifted chunks of melody for the choir to sing.  Fran in particular got it, and always remembered the tune from one week to the next.  Others joined her.  Others again could scarcely talk let alone sing, but it was a group which looked out for each other and didn’t judge, but always supported each other.  I learned a huge amount from working with these people, who just 40 years earlier would have been on a locked ward in a Mental Hospital being dosed-up with various drugs.   The Carousel Singers all have a level of independence, and a huge reservoir of compassion combined with a lack of judgement of other people’s ability and capability.  It was extraordinarily moving.  I do believe that we could learn a great deal from adults and children with learning difficulties.

Meanwhile I’m still looking for America.  Wish me luck.

Simon & Garfunkel :

First Aid Kit get an ovation from Paul Simon :

the David Bowie video isn’t the 9/11 one but hey !

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My Pop Life #111 : Heroes & Villains : The Beach Boys

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Heroes & Villains   –   The Beach Boys

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…

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This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s.  The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released.  My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.

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Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach.   I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973.  I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions.   Pet Sounds you ask ?  Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles.    Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.  Featured image

The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination.  It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way.   The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper,  itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album.   One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.

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Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls.  This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity.  Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”.    The album never came out.   But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before.   Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song.   Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.

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I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains.   Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult.   But it applies here.   The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu.   It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live.   They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out.  The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound.  A series of clues.  This was like a suite of songs all with the same title.  It’s just a little bit mental.  The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.

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Indulgent ?  LSD ?  Genius  ?  Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved.  Probably all of these.  Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967.   It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere.  I went to see it a further five times that week.  It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended.  Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself.  My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best.  Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together.  He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.

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Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes

In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project.   It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2.   It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval.  It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically  containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell.  Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.

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Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967

When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA.   Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom.   Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived.   Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns.   We started doing some of the more complex songs.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  And Your Dream Comes True.   And – yes : Heroes & Villains.   Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together.   I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show.   It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job.   And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music.   It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.

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Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06

Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too.  Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post.   But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles.  He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.  Featured image

Stevie in Los Angeles 2012

Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010.    Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to.   Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering.   He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains.   I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise.   Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together.   In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will.   It is astonishing.   Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better.    I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions.  It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…