Like the thinnest Buddha you’ve ever seen, David Bowie sat Indian-style at the front of the stage. And with the simplicity of a child, he stripped his version of Paul Simon’s “America” down to vocals, keyboards and drums. The audience recognized what he was playing and applauded excitedly. They cheered when “America” and “the New Jersey Turnpike” were mentioned (a large portion of the crowd consisted of NYC firemen and policemen, some who lived in New Jersey). For those watching at home, images associated with New York City appeared on the screen: crowded city streets, tall buildings, Wall Street brokers, hotdogs, parades and immigrants arriving in the New World.
Looking back to October 20, 2001, Bowie’s performance at The Concert for New York City, just after the 9/11 attacks, may be the most misunderstood performance in history. Though the genius of the song must be credited to Paul Simon, the circumstances surrounding the event brought a new dimension to it. Bowie, one of rock’s greatest vocalists, harnessed the emotions surrounding those circumstances and articulated the confusion, frustration and suspicion at the heart of an already troubling song.
Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
Like many couples seeking the American Dream, the two lovers pool together what they have. The narrator contributes a piece of real estate he’s been carrying in his bag. But his real estate is not a house in the suburbs circa 1950’s America, but a bag of marijuana. This is the 1960’s after all and the narrator and “Kathy” seek an alternative.
After fueling up for their trip, buying pies and cigarettes, there is a dramatic change during the bridge. Our narrator and Kathy are stoned and laughing at their fellow passengers. The twist comes when Kathy suspects a man in a gabardine suit is a spy. Being mistrustful of “anyone over thirty,” our narrator believes there may be something to Kathy’s suspicion. They are children of Cold War paranoia after all. As he warns her, “His bow tie is really a camera,” his carefree attitude transforms into a dark view of the establishment.
Returning to the verses, our narrator asks Kathy for a cigarette. She tells him, “We smoked the last one an hour ago.” Their fuel has dissipated. To fill the void, our narrator looks out the window, while Kathy reads a magazine, finding comfort in pop culture. The verse ends not with “to look for America”, like the previous verses, but with the empty image of the moon rising over an open field. Night is coming and there isn’t anything to see. Their search for America is over. Bowie, aware of this change, accentuated the new line to articulate the absence of “to look for America”. There was no applause from audience.
Our narrator can’t contain the feelings that consume him. In the first line of the final verse, he tells Kathy he’s “lost,” even though he knows she’s sleeping (Kathy’s now out of the picture and will sleep through the rest of their journey). The line, “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” is the bleakest sentiment expressed in the song. And worst of all, he has no clue why he’s feeling this way. He has come a long way from being the optimistic dreamer.
The narrator returns to the refrain “to look for America” for the final verse, though he does with a different outlook. He sings:
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike (applause from audience)
They’ve all come to look for America (applause from audience)
Though this refrain finishes similarly, the line, “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” provokes more questions about this journey. If they’re on the New Jersey Turnpike, then had the entire trip spanned the short distance from Pittsburgh to New Jersey? Geographically, that would constitute about 350 miles (around six hours).
Or, it lasted the time it would take two people to smoke a pack of cigarettes. That’s a far cry from a romantic coast-to-coast adventure. In fact, our narrator and Kathy aren’t even heading west, as Kerouac did in On the Road, the book that inspired many young people to explore the country. They’re heading east, which seems contrary to the American tradition of heading west to find one’s self and one’s country. Paul Simon took the romance and adventure the Beat Generation generated and turned it inside out, sending it back to the East Coast.
The scenery in this refrain has also changed. In the span of one verse, we’ve gone from an open field to the New Jersey Turnpike, which runs straight through the suburbs. The narrator’s great American journey ends back where he started. And by this point, it’s no longer his song. The suburbanites on the Turnpike are its subject now, though instead of going on a physical journey, like our narrator, they look to acquire the American Dream by living the life promised in the 1950’s, much like the people in Michigan the narrator was escaping.
Getting back to Bowie, why did he sing this song at The Concert for New York City? Was it because many of the working class people in the audience were from the suburbs? And if so, what was he trying to get across to them? Or, was he singing about the people who worked in the World Trade Center? (Some of them also commuted from New Jersey, as part of living that American Dream).
If none of these apply, then was he warning America about the fear and paranoia that was coming after the 9/11 attacks? If that was the case, he certainly hit the nail on the head in regards to the state of mind America had fallen into over the following eight years. In his Buddha-like state, he may have been an enlightened prophet, warning us of the evils that were coming.
Based on the intervals where the audience was applauding, the song’s message seemed to fly over everyone’s head. But I may be wrong. Those men and women at Madison Square Garden experienced the most devastating moment in our country’s history. There must have been a few people shaken out of their usual state of mind who began listening with different ears. Perhaps they understood that David Bowie was trying to transmit something strangely meaningful.