Paul Simon: “American Tune”
By most accounts, Paul Simon is not that nice of a guy. I was disappointed to discover this many years ago, as I’d always admired his music, but I have it from a reliable source (among others) — my late grandfather, who played violin as a session musician on a couple of Simon’s albums. Simon treated his session musicians with little respect — as opposed to John Lennon, who was apparently very friendly and considerate, even though he was, well, John Lennon, and could have easily placed himself far above everyone else. (Just for the record, Frank Sinatra was like Simon in this regard, so maybe Lennon was an anomaly.) But in any case, Simon is said to be an egotistical bastard, pretentious and self-important.
And that’s unfortunate, but it has never gotten in the way of his also being one hell of a great songwriter. Few songwriters can lay claim to a catalog of songs as incredible as the one that Simon has racked up. Personality aside, I can’t help but love most of his recordings, both with Garfunkel and solo, up through and including 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. For someone who’s so self-centered, it certainly hasn’t prevented Simon from being able to find soul and beauty and pull it out time and again to create classic compositions. The writer of “Bridge over Troubled Waters” has to have a heart after all, right?
And his heart is even more evident in “American Tune,” from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Sure, it’s written mostly in the first-person, so it’s sort of about himself, but he turns that perspective outward to make it a universal song of resilience in the face of loneliness, tragedy, and heartbreak.
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to hear the song without getting choked up — ever since I was a kid when I’d hear it on my parents’ copy of the album. And again, even now, as I listen to it and write this. The gorgeous melody accentuates the emotions of the lyrics in a way that prevents the song from being melodramatic or overwrought. I will go so far as to say it’s among the most beautiful songs ever written — and for that alone I’ll always love Paul Simon, bastard or not. After all, he’s certainly not alone in the ego department in the world of music — can’t really hold it against him too much.