The Timeless Genius Of Paul Simon’s American Tune

Over the last couple of weeks, Pam Corkery and I (Newstalk ZB’s The Two) have been doing ZB’s weekday evening show and have loved bringing what we do (which is normally once a week on Sundays between 9pm-midnight) to an even wider audience.

For us a hugely important part of our shows is the music, even though we are within the confines of talk radio. Ironically this gives us much more freedom than if we were in music radio. As I told one ZB listener on Twitter, anything good between 1955 and 2013 is our loose criteria, but really there’s a whole lot more to it.

We like to start the hour with a minute or so of something current that is either in the news, on the charts or relevant to what we are talking about. Either way, it has to be good. But the real fun is how we end each hour and in particular, how we end each show. It’s there that we cast the net a little wider, aiming to give people songs that hopefully make them incapable of leaving their cars when they’ve parked up, for fear of missing a single bar or lyric. Once again though, there is always a reason why the song has been chosen, though this time, the song is played in full and has to not only be good, but brilliant.

If this method of song selection sounds lofty and over earnest in its ambition I don’t mind. Recent end of show stunners include REM’s Nightswimming (Michael Stipe’s birthday / Pam’s new-found love of late-night swimming / the fact it was close to midnight when we played the song), Fun’s Carry On (a song both sad and reflective as well as inspiring and emotional – perfect for New Year’s Eve), Rod Stewart’s The Killing Of Georgie (always handy to douse the flames of homophobia), the Commodores Sweet Love (we’d just done a show focusing on the beauty and frustration tied up with the idea of gratitude) and just the other night, Paul Simon’s American Tune.

It was American Tune that had the greatest affect on both Pam and I. Here is a song I’ve played literally  hundreds of times since I was a kid (though never heard on the radio), but somehow the magic of hearing it on the airwaves made it sound like I’d never heard it before. What is it about the power of the radio that a song you love always sounds at least twice as good when it’s on the radio compared to when you’re playing it yourself at home or in the car? Oddly, this is true even when I’m the one playing it on the radio.

I’d chosen American Tune initially to draw attention to the exasperation over the near impasse in Washington regarding the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but also aware it’s timeless lyrics (written in 1973 against the backdrop of Watergate and the Vietnam War) are still relevant with the heightened gun-control debate in the States. But what really got Pam and I as we sat in the studio listening was that despite the song being called American Tune, it really could be about any country in the world and any one of us. Set to the stately melody of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale from St Matthew’s Passion, few songwriters have summed up the doubts and fears of the human condition better than Paul Simon in this song. The second verse is always the one that sticks in my mind:

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 alright, it’s alright
We’ve lived so well, so long
Still when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
Can’t help but I wonder
What’s gone wrong

So if you love talk about the stuff that matters alongside the music that matters, make sure you join Pam and I on The Two. Here is the song, all the best for 2013.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'd forgotten what a beautiful song that is. Thanks Tim for the memory jolt.

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