It may not surprise you to read that 2017 wasn’t one of my favorite years. No reason to go on about it.
But it was an unexpectedly good 12 months for Paul Simon. Two of the year’s best movies (or at least two I liked) – “Baby Driver” and “The Only Living Boy in New York” – were titled after Paul Simon songs. It’s hard to imagine that almost 50 years ago someone could write a single album that included “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “The Boxer” and “Song For The Asking” – not to mention these two now more-appreciated re-visitations. Some folks are more talented than the rest of us.
It made me wonder if Simon was eerily prescient – even as a young man seeing more keenly our future strains, challenges and heartaches. But I’m guessing it’s not that. Music works its way deep into our frameworks – touching, molding and triggering our strongest and most foundational sentiments. It’s why you can see tears come to the eyes of even old brutes like me at a concert when the first chords of a magical song from one’s youth are struck. “Baby Driver” and the like are just lying around, well below the surface, waiting to be of service and resuscitation. Unused and half-forgotten parts of us.
But, if I’m to be candid, none of these 1968-69 efforts represent Simon’s best intervention. That came three or four years later with “American Tune.” Appearing during the closing years of Vietnam and the opening chapters of Watergate, it was never a mega-hit. I’ll also concede it borrows heavily from the centuries-old Protestant hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Still, it haunts like none other. It mourns what it fears to be a nation in collapse. Simon himself said: “I don’t write overtly political songs, although ‘American Tune’ comes pretty close, as it was written just after Nixon’s election.”
It is a lonely, plaintive, yet collective cry:
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 travelling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong.
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.
And I dreamed I was flying
High above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
Nixon was a villain. Actually beyond that. But he and his lot can seem almost civilized these days. Almost. Think hard on our new normal. Nixon was a consummate liar. But I’m not sure anyone has ever lied like Trump – in any age. When Trump, the other day, accused China of selling oil to the North Koreans, it seemed to me, no matter what the facts are, Chinese officials could simply have responded: “Does anyone on the planet believe anything Donald Trump says?” No effective rejoinder could be proffered.
The president has declared he is a serial, Harvey Weinstein-like sexual predator. He fought like a champion to enroll a child molester in the Senate. No matter. He obstructs justice breezily, without embarrassment, then boasts about it to the Russians. So what? He and his minions passed a tax/health care law to greatly enrich the president and a few of his capital barons while crushing the lives and prospects of millions of the most vulnerable Americans. Then they hosted a high-fiving White House celebration. Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs alumni) toasted draining the swamp.
At every available turn, the president picks fights with insufficiently obsequious African-Americans. Uppity-ness isn’t tolerated at Trump Tower. Racists swoon – delirious with unanticipated ascendancy. Federal agency heads – from education, EPA, interior, labor, consumer protection – work to destroy their sworn missions. Republican leaders lie endlessly to defend their allegiance to a stunningly narcissistic, psychotic and utterly self-obsessed president – showing there is no depth they won’t plumb. Evangelical ministers and their flocks demonstrate they’re more immoral than the politicians.
“American Tune” ends with a hint of resignation:
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.
Simon’s a great songwriter. But if he meant we can wait this out, his prescription won’t do. In the age of Trump, we either resist or collude. It’s the new “American Tune.”
Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.