An American Tune
Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
We've told our stories of that day a hundred times, a thousand times: where we were, what we did, with whom, how. It's not rehearsed; it's just right there, the dividing up and sharing of the loss.
The stories of the days after, we don't tell as often. There isn't as much to tell, maybe. Maybe we don't remember them very well, or don't want to, or can't split the parts and pieces up to share.
I sat on Interstate 80 for two hours on September 12, headed back to Toronto, waiting for the Jersey state troopers to clear a hellacious car-hauler wreck; hundreds of us wandered along the border in Buffalo that night, lost, calling to each other out the car windows; the customs agents looked under every seat and mat in my little car…these things happened, but only to me.
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
I listened to music in the days after — occasionally just to have it on while I tidied up the loft, but mostly to sit there, quietly, not doing anything else, hearing it. I downloaded "The Star-Spangled Banner" so I could have it nearby, the version from the Ken Burns "Baseball" series, full of pompous trombones with a faint "play ball!" from the umpire at the end. I would put it on repeat and listen to it fifteen or twenty times in a row, sitting cocked back in my desk chair with a box of Kleenex on my lap, and I would cry and cry.
Oh, but I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home
So far away from home
I don't recall how, but at some point I seized on an old Paul Simon song, "American Tune." My family and I listened to a cassette of Simon and Garfunkel's concert in Central Park on every single car trip we went on, and I had never cared much about "American Tune" one way or the other; "Late In The Evening," which I really liked, came right after it in the set list, so I never really listened to "American Tune," just sat through it patiently.
And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I had that album on for whatever reason, needing something familiar, and of course I had to listen to "America" a few dozen times — even though the cheesy keyboard on the live version always drives me nuts — because the crowd greets the "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike" line with a happy roar. Every time I hear that line, wherever I am, I smile, because the Turnpike is a thing that belongs to me, the banks of reeds, the big blue steel dinosaurs in Kearny, the rest stops named for poets. It's mine because it's home and it's home because it's mine.
Then I guess I stopped thinking about New Jersey and went back to sweeping up, and after a while, the album came to "American Tune."
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
So I listened to that one a few times, and then I went online and downloaded the original version. It's just Paul Simon singing, a little guitar, some strings, talking about getting through the days.
But it's all right, it's all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong
The Central Park version is better, because they sing it together. Paul Simon's voice has a matter-of-factness to it that gives the song a shrugging "what can you do" tone; it's what keeps "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War" from giving you diabetes, that "hey, I'm just telling you what happened" way Simon has.
Art Garfunkel's voice is dramatic, airy, pained — A Bit Much at times, for sure. But when he begins "American Tune," singing by himself, the song is a story about the two of them, between the two of them. He's singing to us, but he's also singing to Paul Simon. He's remembering.
And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Simon comes in on the second verse, and you get a sense of them there, surrounded by thousands of people, alone together, doing the work, telling the story. Fitting the parts of it together to build it.
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying
I thought of my mother singing the harmony part of the song in the front seat while I sang the melody in the back. I thought of going to the top of the Statue of Liberty when I was a little girl and how, from the top there, a lock of the Statue's hair looked like a giant inch worm. I thought of hearing Times Square from my parents' front porch on New Year's Eve, hundreds of thousands of people down there, me up here, alone together.
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
And sing an American tune
It's bottles of wine sitting on the kitchen table between two tired people who have known each other forever. It's heads rested on shoulders in front of the TV. It's books lifted out of sleeping hands and lights turned off and foreheads kissed. It's rides home.
Maybe it doesn't say these things to you, but to me, it's a song about late movies, about highways, about Jackie Robinson, about all the people and places in the stories we tell ourselves in the middle of the night to make morning worth waiting for, about a big, awful, wonderful, scary, happy country, just like the average family is, just like life itself is.
Oh, and it's all right, it's all right it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all — I'm trying to get some rest
I listened to that song a thousand times in 2001. It's still one of my favorites, the two of them singing, to each other and to me, rueful, hopeful. It's all going to hell, they tell each other, but I saved you a seat.
Singing "Happy Birthday," and stories over cake. It's all we've got sometimes; today, Don gets both.
September 11, 2006
Tags: music September 11th