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.


  1. Anonymous12:32 pm

    Yes, it's sad but even Ted Hughes would have had a problem making Mytholmroyd sound lyrical. Scarboro fair always sounds better than scarborough fair! Even throw away places like Ashtabula, sound great and don't forget Winona.

  2. Anonymous11:20 am

    Do be sure to include Perry Como's 'Delaware'. A New Brass Key indeed.

    I'm still a bit hazy about Chuck Berry parking up on a Kokomo, what exactly a levee was, and as for (Tommy Steele's) version of Talahassee Lassie, down in what sounded like 'erpallay' in his mock American - I've just looked it up and found it is actually 'FLA'. That's only taken me 40-odd years to get, then. Even so, I wouldn't have known what 'FLA' was supposed to mean at 10 years old. What a great idea for a programme.

  3. Anonymous12:14 pm

    I was introduced to America via a record - the Thunderbirds LP. My strongest memory is the sound of Martini glasses clincking to a soundtrack of 70's easy listening, as they were discussing about saving the world. Of course, as a 10 year old I knew nothing of cocktails, but the cover had a picture of Tracy Island. And when you come out of LAX and see the Air Traffic Control Tower ( you know you are in Thunderbirds land for real.

  4. "'Kathy, I'm lost' I said, though I knew she was sleeping" has always been my favourite lyric in any song. And Simon and Garfunkel, especially "America" (and "Homeward Bound", naturally) have always been a travel essential over the years, in cassette, CD and now MP3 form. Unfortunately my hazy knowledge of geography as a child led me to sing "This chicken seems like a dream to me now", instead of Michigan, and I developed a variety of nonsensical ideas for the "Mrs Wagner's pies" line. A song full of very American specifics, yet the sentiment is profoundly recognisable. I still don't really know what a gabardine suit looks like.

  5. I think a garbardine suit is a bit of a liberty. He means a garbardine mac, surely, as in Harry Lime, Philip Marlowe and other loiterers beneath the lamp post.

  6. Nice post. I really liked it.

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