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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike

Working on this Radio Four programme about things you can learn from pop record made me think about records that have been particularly good teachers.
I first heard "America" by Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. It was on their album Bookends. I got in when I was 17. I can remember looking at the cover in a pub on the outskirts of Wakefield and wondering “who’s this Richard Avedon who took the cover picture?”
“America” yielded the usual crop of new words. I think it was probably the first time I’d come across the expression “real estate”. It was certainly the first time I’d heard of Mrs Wagner’s pies. They stopped making them in 1969, apparently.
It’s about a love-struck couple taking a Greyhound bus trip north from Pittsburgh to New York, the last part of the journey being on the New Jersey Turnpike where they count the cars. Twenty years later I went on the New Jersey Turnpike with a car-full of guys all going “forty five, forty six, forty seven..”
Nowadays you would say it was a gap year song.
It contains one of those evocative place names that give American pop music such a head start.
Saginaw. Say after me. Saginaw.
But, this being Paul Simon, it has to change gears from personal to universal in the last verse, which brilliantly captures: the melancholy of travel (or am I the only one who feels this?) ; the great American quest to see where America (which is essentially a concept rather than a place) can be found.
So much American music is about what I call emotional geography, about going somewhere far away in order to feel differently. I can’t think of any American Literature class that could get that over more powerfully than this song does. I have heard it a thousand times and never get bored with it.
Despite being known primarily as a melody writer, Paul Simon’s best songs are all written around the percussion. (See "The Boxer", "Cecilia", "The Boy In The Bubble", "The Obvious Child" etc). Hal Blaine, the man who provides those rumbles just before the line “Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping” also played the tattoo at the beginning of all those Phil Spector records.
And the name Cathy comes from a girlfriend he had when he was in England. She lived in Brentwood, Essex, she appeared on the cover of his first solo album, and he still keeps in touch with her today.