Grammy Award Lifetime Achievement Award winner Paul Simon, who needs no introduction to anyone alive in the era of the great American social upheavals of the 1960s and the subsequent waves of counterrevolutionary dissembling in the 1970s, made an epic appearance on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend to, at age 77, work his continuing musical genius with two innovative renderings.
The second was a fresh creative arrangement of his biggest hit, recorded in 1969 with his musical sidekick, Art Garfunkel. The two were the sound, not of silence (the name of their first hit), but the entire post-Kennedy Assassination and King “I Have a Dream” speech era in American history. The hit was “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” a takeoff on a gospel hymn that Simon wrote very quickly and, at the time, quipped, “Where did that come from? It doesn’t seem like me.”
He wanted Garfunkel, with his higher, more melodic voice, to sing the lyrics in the manner of a prayerful choirboy. The song became the duo’s greatest ever, winning five awards at the Grammys in 1971, including for “Best Song” and “Album of the Year.” It remains one of the most familiar and beloved songs ever, and even as both Simon and Garfunkel are now touring separately, neither would dare face an audience without including it. It was the name of their final album released in early 1970.
Watching Simon perform it on SNL, weeks after seeing him perform it live before 20,000 at the Capital One center in Washington, D.C., I shook my head in wonder, not only at Simon’s continuing talent, but at the thought of how so few people hearing it had any real personal historical context by which to appreciate what it meant at the time it broke onto our culture.
Of course, it did not appear in isolation of the very tumultuous times roiling the youth culture that immediately appropriated it.
Those were very wearying and trying times, indeed. The establishment’s counterinsurgency, which sought to unravel the progressive currents of the anti-war, civil rights and feminist and gay revolutions, were doing it with an unprecedented onslaught of what it touted as “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
Confused and disassembled, the youth movements were unravelling by the beginning of the 1970s, falling into disillusionment, despair and the mushrooming of mind-controlling cults. The gains of feminism were among the primary targets of this counterinsurgency, heightening the degradation of women in the counterculture through rape, intimidation, prostitution and an exploding pornography industry.
For an entire generation of disheveled youth, dirty, alienated, homeless and penniless in the big cities, Simon’s song had the impact of a gentle balm, almost like a lullaby. I was not alone in those days putting my player on repeat and falling asleep with that song playing over and over.
The inserted line, “Sail on silver girl, sail on by, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way,” spoke to the spirit of those youths, so idealistic when they left home, despite their now broken spirits.
It was a paean to “The Boxer,” the other timeless song on that same album, who was that alienated, tired and lonely youth, beaten down by the relentless assaults of the counterrevolution tearing at his body and soul.
“The Boxer” came to the big city “no more than a boy, in the company of strangers, in the quiet of the railway station, running scared, laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go, looking for the places only they would know.”
The boxer’s defeated spirit laments, “I’m laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was gone, going home, where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me, leading me, going home.”
But it doesn’t end there. In the spirit of the Bridge’s “your time has come,” an indomitable spirit is evoked: “In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame, ‘I am leaving, I am leaving,’ but the fighter still remains.”
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.