Time it was
And what a time it was
It was . . .
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
– “Bookends,” Simon & Garfunkel
I was young and innocent when I first listened to Simon & Garfunkel. They were a fixture in my childhood world. The characters in my life embodied characters in their songs. As a child, I didn’t understand their music, which shared the record cabinet with “Winnie the Pooh” and “Big Bird Leads the Band.” Less innocent a quarter century later, I listen to Simon & Garfunkel and commiserate with the wandering youths in their songs.
I wrote the above paragraph, the beginning of an essay about Simon & Garfunkel, in 2010, when I was twenty-five or twenty-six and the duo was about to go on tour. That pending tour was my “news hook.” “Now, 40 years after they broke up people still listen to their music and they still give occasional concerts,” I wrote. Now they are going on tour. Except the tour didn’t happen and my “hook” became much less catchy: “They were going on an ‘Old Friends’ tour . . . They have postponed the tour indefinitely since Art Garfunkel strained his voice.”
Isn’t this how so many essays about childhood go, contrasting children’s ignorance of the adult matters surrounding them with adulthood itself? I can think of two essays of mine that follow this pattern. The contrast is so obvious that it seems a bit silly to juxtapose the “now” of 2010 with the “then” of the 80s and point out how much one had matured. Yes, a twenty-five-year-old is more mature than a kindergartener. On the other hand, the “older, wiser” self gets constantly updated, so the “mature” voice of an earlier essay may well seem young and innocent in retrospect. Best to avoid maturity claims altogether.
Now, ahem, six years after cancellation of the Simon & Garfunkel tour forced Ashley P. Taylor to indefinitely postpone her essay, Paul Simon has released a new album, “Stranger to Stranger,” gone on tour again, without Garfunkel, and, at Forest Hills Stadium July 1, played what, according to The New York Times, may have been his last North American concert, a concert that—wait for it—Ashley P. Taylor went to see. It looks like she may have, at last, a news hook, but she’d better write fast before “has” becomes “had.”
The present—news—is fleeting. But what I really want to talk about, and what such news hooks are meant to justify, is timeless—memories of memories of memories. Not just “now” and “then” but life’s unceasing progression as one transforms into the other.
I first listened to Simon & Garfunkel when I was a little kid. I put “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” on the record player and danced in the living room, sometimes with my dad, who would pick me up and swing me when I asked him to.
I really loved the name, Simon & Garfunkel, but it took me a while to grasp that “Simon” was Paul’s last name. I preferred to think of them as a single person, Simon Garfunkel. “Can you believe that they actually started out calling themselves ‘Tom & Jerry’ when their own names were so appealing?” I wrote in 2010. I didn’t know who sang the lead, but I liked Garfunkel best because of his name.
A particular reason that I loved the “Greatest Hits” was that in kindergarten, September of 1990, Mrs. Robinson was my teacher. Yes, it’s true: “Simon Garfunkel” wrote a song about my kindergarten teacher. I think my mom brought in the record to Mrs. Robinson’s class so that we could listen to “her” song. Imagine the adults trying to keep straight faces as we played the theme song from a movie about adultery for a class of kindergarteners who pictured their teacher, a smiley, round older woman with glasses and short curly hair, as the song’s main character.
I thought of the Mrs. Robinson in the song as a lonely old lady wandering around the house snacking on cupcakes from her pantry and missing Joe DiMaggio. My parents told me that the song was from a movie, “The Graduate,” but I didn’t inquire beyond that.
Simon & Garfunkel always reminded me of my two half-brothers, Benny and Jonny, who are about twenty years older than me. Children of my dad’s first marriage, they were kids in the sixties, when Simon & Garfunkel were recording. They both played guitar and sang, and for a while, I think, they played in a band together. Jonny would sit around with a guitar and make up songs to entertain me, his kid sister. They were in the prime of youth (and on the edge of adulthood) when I was in diapers, and I looked up to them. I could imagine them “kicking down the cobblestones” together like the guys in “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Though Benny is three years older than Jonny, I always thought of them as a pair. Simon & Garfunkel. Benny and Jonny. Cool guys with guitars.
Simon & Garfunkel always seemed like part of the world my brothers lived in that I was discovering. The world was new to me, but I could tell that it was old. We had a lot of elegant, old family furniture, and the furniture that wasn’t antique was comfortably broken in: a scratchy, orange armchair with a footstool; a coffee table made from a slab of salvaged black marble lying on a dinged-up frame. The freestanding wooden bookcase held, behind its glass-paned doors, shelves filled two-books deep with worn paperbacks whose pages fell out as you turned them, marked on their covers at no more than 75 cents apiece.
I often felt that I was exploring in my own house when I was a kid. One day, I opened a drawer in our china cabinet to discover two 45s: an Apple record with Paul McCartney’s “Band On The Run”; another with “The Good Ship Lollipop.” When I put the old key in the lock and opened the musty drawer to discover those records, it was like finding treasure, and treasure I could access at that: the 45s played on the mini record player I had in my room, on which I already listened to “Miss Nelson Is Missing” and “I Love Trash.”
The above description of my childhood basically rings true; I felt little need to revise it from what I had written six years ago. I also agree with my old comments about the themes—traveling, searching, longing—in the music itself, which I’ll reprise below. It’s my description of myself in 2010 that seems off. I wrote that I identified with the wandering young men in Simon & Garfunkel’s songs, but now the comparison between twenty-five-year-old me and a Simon-and-Garfunkel protagonist seems pretty weak.
There’s no question that the characters in Simon & Garfunkel’s greatest hits are searching for a life that feels meaningful, in which you have dreams and hope that they could possibly come true. Optimism, searching—which often involves traveling—and disappointment structure so many of Simon & Garfunkel’s songs.
Take “America.” “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” the song opens. The narrator hitchhikes from Saginaw, Michigan, and boards a Greyhound in Pittsburgh to “look for America” with another character, Kathy. They have nothing more than the possessions in their bags, a pack of cigarettes, and “Mrs. Wagner’s pies.” At first, all is rosy. They make up stories about others on the bus. Then they run out of cigarettes. Aimlessness, or lack of a destination more concrete than “America,” turns frightening. “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping. / I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” The singers’ voices begin to grate as the lyrics continue. “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America / All come to look for America”—here the notes have an echoey quality communicating vastness. The notion of countless other people seemingly just like the narrator, and on the same quest, transforms from a source of camaraderie into an existential ache.
“The Boxer,” describes a young man who leaves home and sets out on his own, “in the quiet of the railway station / Running scared.” He searches, for shelter—“. . . seeking out the poorer quarters / Where the ragged people go”—work—“I come looking for a job / But I get no offers”—and, finally, the past—“. . . wishing I was gone / Going home.”
People seek not just the future but also the past, sometimes both. In “Homeward Bound,” even when the protagonist has gigs and a daily routine, “every stop is neatly planned / For a poet and a one-man band,” he is not happy:
Every day’s an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines.
And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
Once again, life’s monotony overwhelms and he wants to be going somewhere else, to be “homeward bound.” In “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” he asks the listener to “remember me to one who lives there. / She once was a true love of mine” (emphasis mine). In “Bookends,” Simon & Garfunkel look back on “a time of innocence / A time of confidences” with longing and regret. “Preserve your memories / They’re all that’s left you.”
What comes of this searching? The young man portrayed in “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” finds nothing but silence and hardening, or a wish to be hard. “I am a rock / I am an island,” he proclaims. Or so he would like to be. “And a rock feels no pain / And an island never cries,” unlike the man himself. In the end, the poet is disappointed.
His only respite lies with the girls he meets along the way—Emily, Kathy, Cecilia, and whomever he left at Scarborough Fair—though it seems to me that he spends more time pining for those women than enjoying them.
In 2010 I wrote: “Now, as a young adult seeking my fortune, I identify more with the subject matter of the records I listened to as a kid.” There’s something wrong with that sentence. I think it’s the “now,” the idea that this fortune-seeking is something so well-defined, something happening “now” that wasn’t “then.” The idea that a fortune is something that already belongs to you—“my fortune”—and that you expect to find also bothers me; rather life is a perpetual search.
A lot of what I wrote then is only worth reading aloud, and sarcastically. For example: “I often feel lost and empty and don’t have any real complaints, just angst.” The sentence communicates no believable emotion. It’s flat. It sounds like a television virgin pretending to commiserate with a friend about some sexual experience that she hasn’t had.
Or take this paragraph:
. . . I’m still lost. One year out of college, I gave up the reality of a career in science for the dreamy possibilities of a career in writing. Reality remains harsh. I’m living in the city where I moved for a job in biology only to work as a cashier in a grocery store. My life has not yet ended in bitter disappointment, but I can identify with the wistful sentiments of “Bookends.” People young and old glorify the past. “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”
Though the contrast between the child and the young adult living on her own is mostly laughable—both because of its obviousness and also because of the way the young adult exaggerates her present world-weariness—there is something to it. Something does change when one leaves home. As a kid listening to Simon & Garfunkel, I had no idea how easy or hard it would be for me to go off and follow my dreams. In childhood, I succeeded at many things, especially school, so I did think that I would probably climb some kind of ladder and travel the world, too. I didn’t imagine myself feeling stuck or lost. So no, I didn’t yet identify with the struggles to establish a life that the Simon & Garfunkel songs expressed. Nor did I, as a child in the only house I’d ever lived in, know a sense of longing for home and the past, a longing that to me now seems as ordinary and ever-present as a body part. The contrast between childhood and early adulthood is self-evident and important at the same time.
What I disagree with most about the old essay is the idea of being “still lost,” as if being lost were a phase I expected to move through (possibly graduating to “bitter disappointment”). The tone is impatient. The 2010 narrator is making marks on a timeline: as a child, “innocent”; one year out of college (note the specificity) “lost”; sometime in the future, “found.” She points out that she “didn’t understand their music [that of Simon & Garfunkel]” as a child, and implies that she does now, as if understanding were a yes-or-no matter. I think Simon & Garfunkel appeals to that part of us that is eternally searching and trying to better understand.
There’s something very “meta” about my relationship with Simon & Garfunkel. Like so much art, the music of Simon & Garfunkel is about our lives, but it’s also part of our lives. The musicians sing of searching and exploring the world in songs that we found through our own searching and exploring. They sing of memory and longing for the past, and at the same time, many of the memories we miss are tied to Simon & Garfunkel. I remember riding with my mom to an antique mall called “The Big Chicken Barn,” my cassette of the “Greatest Hits” playing in the tape player, where I would look for out-of-print sequels to Harriet the Spy in the old books section upstairs and she would browse the downstairs booths—reconstituted rooms—of furniture, clothes, dishes, dolls.
“Hello darkness, my old friend,” Paul Simon sang two weeks ago, a rainy Friday night, at Forest Hills Stadium. “I’ve come to talk with you again.” The narrator of “The Sound of Silence” is somewhat world-weary, yes, but the song itself is also old and beloved, an old friend to the audience, which roared when we heard Simon pick the somber opening notes.
Singing “Bookends” now (Time it was/ And what a time it was / It was . . .), does Paul Simon feel a doubled weight of nostalgia, from both inside and outside the song?
As I think back to my little-kid self and my gleeful enthusiasm for “Simon Garfunkel,” I’m no longer sure whether to file it under “exploring” or “longing for the past.” It’s both. In the present, the search always continues. But all that searching, everything that isn’t forgotten, eventually solidifies into memory. Sitting on my bleacher seat through the pre-show downpour, then seeing Paul Simon live, with a stadium-full of fans of all ages, each a spot of yellow, pink, blue or green waterproofing, is a memory now, too. Thank goodness for records, in all their senses, capturing for replay what is otherwise ephemeral. “Preserve your memories. / They’re all that’s left you.”