This piece is planned to appear as a chapter in my book-in-progress The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). Parts of it have appeared previously in different settings.
An infinite number of rockin’ pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
FIRST AID KIT: America
Written by Paul Simon
Produced by Mike Mogis
From the EP America, Columbia Records, 2014
My daughter Meghan knew about First Aid Kit well before I did, and she played their Emmylou Harris tribute song “Emmylou” during one of her guest DJ stints on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio. First Aid Kit were among the final musical guests on Late Night With David Letterman in May of 2015, which was where and when they floored me with their sublime cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.”
As a teen, I was a Simon & Garfunkel fan, ranking them up in my pop pantheon not all that far below The Beatles. I never stopped being a fan, though I did listen to them with decreasing frequency. My introduction to the song “America” came via the incongruous means of a comic book letters column in the early ’70s, wherein a reader closed his missive about the (then) topically-relevant Green Lantern/Green Arrow series by quoting the song’s line, And we walked off to look for America. You can scoff if you wanna, and maybe you should, but that seemingly innocuous tag line has stuck with me for decades. I was 12 or 13. I was on a bus going to or from visiting my grandparents in Missouri. Not knowing the song itself yet, I had no idea how very appropriate it was to learn of its existence while traveling on a Greyhound.
Relevance. We search for it in our entertainment and in our art, a connection to what we feel, to what we desire, to where we think we are and what this place looks like today. Relevance. Meaning. Sometimes we imagine a meaning an artist did not intend, but that’s fine. That’s how art becomes a part of our lives.
First Aid Kit is from Sweden, consisting of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg. In their rendition of “America,” First Aid Kit’s reading of Paul Simon’s lyrics takes on a shimmering, gossamer quality that not even Paul and Artie’s delicate harmonies could match.
Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
The American experiment is nearly two and a half centuries old. This experiment–a nation governed of the people, by the people, for the people, we the people–is ongoing. It has had successes, and it has had failures. There have been times when we’ve fallen far short of our goal of who we want to be. There have been times when our collective efforts have shined like a beacon of hope around the world.
We are not shining at the moment. A nation that could elevate a soulless charlatan like Trump to its highest office is a nation that has betrayed its own ideals. Snowflake pretend patriots who cry out in indignation about athletes taking a knee to protest institutionalized racism and police brutality do far more to dishonor the flag they pretend to revere. While proud know-nothings shrug off science and responsibility as fake news, and blithely and belligerently celebrate the thickness of their skulls in the midst of a pandemic, those who seek a fairer and brighter example of the American experiment may despair.
We can do better. We can be better.
I still believe in this experiment. The experiment’s guiding principle isn’t unique–there are other nations that also embrace these concepts of freedom and possibility–but it is, and must remain, America’s defining quality. We can be better than we are. We can always seek to be better than we are. The American experiment can choose acceptance over exclusion, charity over greed, humility over arrogance, love over hate. We can. We will. We must. Our goal is written in our mission statement: a more perfect union. This experiment continues.
All come to look for America.
The sound is sweet, the feeling electric and liberating. Let the word go forth. Let the torch be passed.
And let freedom ring.