Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel – 4/3/1968

When I was about 13, I was very enamored with our brand spankin’ new CD player. Because we had so few CDs at that point, I spent some time in our living room, cross-legged in front or our stereo cabinet, attentively listening to every CD we owned. This included Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, which was of course included in my mom’s gift of S&G CDs. At first it was a matter of necessity, but I quickly came to like S&G very much. For mom, they were one of the only bands to have ever existed. Her favorite album is Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., but Bookends is mine because it has a definition and vision unlike any of their other albums.

The unifying concept behind most of the songs is the tension between the young and the old, and the awareness that the times (late ‘60s) were a period of hard change-over from one generation to the next. S&G glimpsed this in their cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in 1964, but it would be fully explored with Bookends.

The first side (or the first 7 tracks) is where this concept is the strongest. It begins and ends with the same musical theme. The record starts with a softly picked acoustic guitar, but only for half a minute. It then takes a sudden and startling turn with the hard and slightly creepy “Save the Life of My Child.” As this is Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth album, they’ve created a reputation of soft folk and folk-rock songs, melodic and poetic. Given that, the distorted synthesizer and “SNAP!” sound effect at the beginning make “Child” pretty alarming. The lyrics tell in an observational tone of the chaos and division between the generations. The song’s main inflection seems to be that the older generation needs to step aside, but it also subtly indicates the lost and prodigal nature of the young.

After that comes “America,” a haunting requiem for the American Dream. Paul Simon proves his worth as a lyricist here, as these are some of the most achingly poignant words composed in the entire decade. Simon’s fey, delicate voice brings form to music that overflows with undirected beauty. They tell the story of two young vagabonds traveling across America in search of themselves and the essence of this country. The story taps into something eternal, the earnest search for meaning in a world where it’s so hard to find.

When I was a kid, I didn’t really get it. The message went so over my head that I thought “to look for America” meant literally. But the song also mentions Pittsburgh, Michigan, Saginaw, and New Jersey. So I was like, “how can they be looking for a place they’re already in?” When I asked my mother, she said the “America” in the song wasn’t a place, or at least not a place with political boundaries. She very wisely didn’t explain further. After a year or two of life experience, here’s what I came up with. The America they were looking for wasn’t an actual place, but a philosophical ideal. They were looking for the concept of America, and what made their land more than just soil under their feet.

Zooey Deschanel, Michael Angarano and Frances McDormand in Almost Famous

There’s a scene in the first act of the movie Almost Famous which perfectly captures the spirit and mindset of this song. 18-year-old Anita sits her mother Elaine down and says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess.” The mother says, “We can’t talk anymore? We have to listen to rock and roll music?” The daughter then plays “America” on the home stereo and looks at her mother while it’s playing with a look that says so many different things. There is no better song to accompany a moment of needed understanding between the generations than “America.” Director Cameron Crowe has an amazing gift for picking the perfect song to accompany a moment in his movies, a song that matches up precisely with his characters and their motivations.

On Wednesday: Hey, Paul Simon, what ever happened to middle age?