I’ve a particularly fond memory from my former work life, formed during the early days of my tenure at the law firm where I spent the last years of my career. I was so very new to the place then, feeling more or less out to sea, hired to crack a difficult nut that many firms had already tried and failed to crack; I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that at the time, I wasn’t really sure it could be done, not by me anyway. So I put on my brave face and came on all capable, like of course I could, hoping this time I’d have more luck than I’d experienced thus far in my fifteen painful years of stumbling from one miserable career setback to the next, bouncing between law firms among the bank towers at Toronto’s gilded intersection of King and Bay. What could I do? Nothing but put one foot after the other, one day at a time, and try not to dwell too much on how many sceptical lawyers would need convincing when it came time to justify my salary. So many unsympathetic lawyers! There were hundreds of them, my new firm being one of the growing set of national partnerships with outposts across the country, and I had to go visit them all, selling them on what I was there to do, pretty much an itinerant carnival barker.
So there I was on the road, returning from making my pitch to the crew in Hamilton, sitting in a Greyhound and looking idly out the window, a little wrung out from performing and glad the day was over. Watching the 403’s dreary scenery roll by, I was reminded of a favourite song. It played in my head while the bus barrelled down the highway, and feeling a little whimsical, maybe a little hopeful, I pulled out my Blackberry and typed a message to someone who was then just a new colleague, but would soon be as family: Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. A strange message, perhaps, to arrive in one’s email out of nowhere, which maybe wouldn’t be well received, but I pushed “send” anyway and waited. In just a few seconds came her response: She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. Then, seconds later: I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera, and for the first time in a long while it seemed possible I might be more than just another pathogen confronting the legal profession’s robust immune system.
America appeared on the album Bookends in 1968, a year rather like the nasty one we’re living through now, fraught with the sort of social, political, and geopolitical upheaval that turns the whole universe topsy turvy, leaving everybody at something of a disoriented loss. It was a different kind of culture war then, fought not just between left and right, but also between the old and young, pitting the adults of “the establishment” against an enormous cohort of those new 20th Century creatures, the “adolescents”, the two groups shouting at each other across the chasm that everyone called the “generation gap”. It was a time when parents were frankly alarmed by their own children, and viewed all aspects of youth culture with suspicion if not outright hostility, feeling threatened and rejected, all of their cherished values under assault. In this environment even Simon and Garfunkel could seem upsetting, and a wistful, evocative tune like America could seem to be taking sides – it was, after all, the reviled “hippies” and the like who talked about dropping out of society, and walking the land in a quest to “go find America”, whatever that was supposed to mean. Probably something to do with drug use, and maybe communes. Find America for the love of God – surely they’d all do better to go find jobs instead, and make something of themselves.
In the way of such things, the counterculture became mainstream. These days we all understand perfectly well the disillusioned urge to look past the superficial, strip away the corruption, and rediscover the founding ideals upon which our purportedly free and democratic society was supposed to have been based – so much so that in 2016 Bernie Sanders was able to use America in a really quite moving and effective political ad. Almost none of us who wound up composing the next establishment did any such thing of course, but we remember the impulse, especially now as we begin to bow out wondering what it is we accomplished, reeling in a post-Trump dystopia in which memories of the upheavals of 1968 can seem like the stuff of pleasant nostalgia from the Beforetime. It’s easy to lose sight of the context of Paul Simon’s touching little masterpiece, released in the midst of a year blighted by assassinations, global student unrest, the crushing of the Prague Spring, and the endless, fruitless American prosecution of what suddenly seemed certain to be a losing war on the other side of the world, a year ushered in by the Tet Offensive that concluded, somehow, on the grace note of American astronauts reading our creation myth to the whole world on Christmas Eve, from a point almost 240,000 miles away in space. Emerging out of all that was this humane, touching, and perennially relevant ballad of young lovers wandering lost in their own country, looking for something they couldn’t identify and feeling, like so many of us then and ever after, empty and aching and not knowing why.