In the summer of 1996 four of us pooled some money and bought a beat-up, hard-rode 1985 Dodge Prospector conversion van for $750 from the Mid-American Auto Auction in Louisville, Kentucky. The thing was amazing—it had wooden venetian blinds that mostly worked and one of those little ladders anchored to a rear door. That the van shook like it was entering the atmosphere when rolling faster than 44 mph meant nothing to us. We fixed it up, which really consisted of three things, in increasing order of importance: 1. Found a way to stash some weed behind the CB. 2. Replaced the missing rear captain’s chairs with some replacements we found at a junkyard. 3. Took a copy of Neil Young’s Zuma to a local mall and had the cover airbrushed onto a license plate that we proudly affixed to the front of the van. Thus was the van christened Zuma. As my father said, we were about to meander into parts of the country deeply unknown to us in a vehicle he wouldn’t trust to circle the block. But we set forth on our adventure. About 18,000 miles of driving over nine weeks, with most of our stops being the grand National Parks of the west, where we’d hike, backcountry camp, and try to stay awake following each ten-mile trek long enough to drink whiskey.
We had the things you’d expect. Sleeping bags and backpacks. There were a couple of acoustic guitars and a somewhat ingenious storage system created by lashing together milk crates with bungee cords. We wore out two copies of Rand McNally’s United States road atlas, an indispensable tool in those pre-GPS days, particularly for people hoping to avoid interstates and keep to William Least Heat-Moon’s blue highways. And we brought some road culture, of course: in addition to a journal I never cracked other than to note the locations of our daily campsites, I brought with me a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I’m also the one who placed the obligatory, totemic copy of On the Road in one of Zuma’s door pockets.
A Discman connected to the speakers through a tape adapter stayed on the console next to the beer cans and food crumbs. In between the two first seats were rows of CDs. Although we may have each had Discmans, music was a communal, though not necessarily equitable, affair during the trip. Three days in, one of the guys requested Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” and I think I managed to filibuster that selection for, quite literally, weeks. We were not the easiest folks to get along with.
Certain records served as the background to that trip, soundtracking midnight drives through the Tetons, or the marathon, single-shot drive we took from Arches in Utah to Glacier in Montana, or the 23 hours spent shuddering from Albuquerque to New Orleans, which is still the only time I’ve ever spent in Texas. The first Son Volt record. Bowie’s Hunky Dory. American Beauty. The first two (remarkable and criminally neglected) Dire Straits records. Any Neil Young, with extreme prejudice in favor of Tonight’s the Night, Zuma, and Comes a Time. These were all in heavy rotation.
We also listened to quite a lot of Paul Simon’s eponymous 1972 solo record. Like all music that ever means anything to you, to this day, insofar as I ever listen to that album, it has the ability to tractor me back to that time, those places, and those friendships which have frayed, been redeemed, or ended silently over the past 20 years.
Since finishing that last sentence, I’ve been staring at the screen. It’s been quite some time, and I’m surprised at what I’m about to attempt. When I first set out to write this piece—or rather when I accepted the assignment—I intended to spend some time exploring how Paul Simon fit into the, for lack of better concepts, teleology and history of American musical populism. The thing about the Zuma trip was supposed to be scaffolding to delete once I started talking about my ideas. But that’s proven impossible. Not because that task is objectively impossible, but because I can’t clear my mind of one of my fellow travelers and how every time I think of the Paul Simon record I think of him and what our friendship was and what it has become. But I also don’t quite know how to talk about that, either.
You know “Mother and Child Reunion.” If you’re taking the time to read this, you surely know that song. But do you know how the song got its title? According to a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Simon was eating at a restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown. The menu included a dish featuring chicken and eggs called, of course, Mother and Child Reunion. According to that RS interview, Simon’s response was, "Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one."
That’s about as sentimental as Paul Simon gets.
Simon’s a great songwriter—and songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” invested him with the aura of an emotionally raw troubadour. I’d argue that reputation was always-already incorrect, but in his first solo record he revealed himself as an emotionally distant poet of the everyday. Not that he only wrote about the banality of everyday life. More to the point, he wrote about even the most transformative moments—social protest in “Peace Like A River” or losing one’s virginity in “Duncan”—but delivered everything with a Vulcan’s detachment. It’s beautiful. It’s also cold.
For the record, I find this a startling observation. Paul Simon has long been a contender for honorable mention in any top-five list I’ve created while boozing away the night. And I’m a sloppy emoter. But when my impressions of that record were made, I think my ears were as novice as Simon’s heart was when he wrote those songs.
Simon was 30 years old and desperately trying to escape the long shadow of his co-fame with Art Garfunkel when he released this record, but it is a young man’s record. Paul Simon doesn’t reckon with its past. The record doesn’t indulge in nostalgia and is a bit frozen in the extremities. There may be heat in the heart but the way the record touches the world is with icy fingers that can’t quite feel what they’re grasping. It feels strange, in hindsight, that this album played such a role in that long-ago trip. It’s not a road record. It’s a roadside motel record.
In the ’72 interview, Simon goes on to discuss “Mother and Child Reunion” further. Critic, producer, and, in this instance, interviewer, Jon Landau says that he read a lot into that track’s title, to which Simon says:
“Well, that's alright. What you read in was damn accurate, because what happened was this: last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog. It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss—one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was [Simon’s wife] Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can't get it.’"
Paul Simon is less clumsily expository than this interview response, of course, but the album feels marbled by similar emotional near-connections. Feelings exist in the record’s atmosphere, if you will, but if we keep with that metaphor, they are exhaled as easily as they’re inhaled. They don’t seem too deeply enmeshed in the songs. Sometimes this is in the service of irony, as in “It’s carbon and monoxide / that ol’ Detroit perfume,” the first lines of “Papa Hobo,” a playful invocation of the Motor City’s realities—realities which lead the narrator to hit the road and leave town. Some of the songs don’t feel complete so much as suspended with narrators that are enchanted by getting through the day in a life that is both easy and rewarding. “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” is an unfinished idea. And “Run That Body Down” offers the record’s best example of its alluring, easy banality. The record play-acts at emotion.
This guy that I keep thinking about—let’s call him Neil—was one of my best friends. Starting early in high school we spent years together, inseparable, playing music, drinking Keystone Dry, doing other white dude things. And then life intervened. By life, at least in this instance, I mean desire. It’s a trope, of course, but at some point Neil started sleeping with a women who had recently dumped me, and when he did that, something broke, and drift started.
The rupture was abrupt. Over years, we tried to heal. The break occurred before we bought the van and headed out west. That journey wasn’t an attempt to salvage the friendship. But it did cast the friendship’s frailty in an entirely different light. There were things we couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about. Music remained a safe common ground, where the biggest battles would be fought over which Bowie era was superior. We listened to Son Volt and Dire Straits. We keyed in to Paul Simon.
The ability to be romantic and adopt a philosophical posture toward the dissipation of our youth is a stupendously privileged thing in which to engage. We often—and here “we” means a lot of middle class, literary kids like me—ache in some stupid, forlorn, bad-poetry way, contriving a sense of sentimentality in the moment. This clouds reality, though. The knock-off Keatsian appreciation of the passing moment obscures what is passing. Time, life, sure, but in this context friendship. For years that’s how I approached my history with this dear old friend. The point became the poetic echo of a lost friendship. The loss of the friendship became the point of the friendship.
But why does Paul Simon connect so intimately with a two-decade-old experience? I think it’s because the record tends to shrug off its hollow emotional core with a similar kind of poetic shrug. Neil and I have been trying for several years to re-establish something. We’ve never been fully out of each other’s lives, but nothing has ever really felt natural. Maybe we’re coming close to that now. I don’t know. But what I do know, and what thinking about Paul Simon confirms for me, is that expression of an emotion is not the same as feeling that emotion. That even though we always know that the cherished things in our lives are passing away, what we should never honor is the process of loss over the things you lose.