We’re starting to drag here; I gotta keep pushing onward. The song-by-song revisit of Art Garfunkel’s Seventies recordings continues with another of the ones you’ve probably heard.
Two songs after Art breathed life into Bruce Johnston’s idyllic reminiscences, here we have Art and an old classmate singing a considerably darker song about memories.
By Art’s telling, “My Little Town,” while a Paul Simon composition, is based on his own childhood as a budding singer and artist being pushed by his family to take up a more stable career.
It can be read as a sequel to some of Simon & Garfunkel’s Sixties songs, too, with a hint of curdled petulance around the edges.
The narrator of “My Little Town” could be the same character who sang “I Am A Rock,” more or less ten years on, explaining that, yeah, his parents really didn’t understand him and his youth really was crappy and he really did have to get out and get his degree and move across the country, and it’s not his fault he doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic.
Simon provides enough light touches to keep “My Little Town” from descending into self-pity, though. Like the line about pledging allegiance to the wall, or the line about “flying my bike past the gates of the factories” — both great images, and the latter, at least, suggesting that childhood wasn’t all torture.
Garfunkel, reputedly the more arranging-minded of the duo, might have contributed some of the song’s equally charming musical details. Such as:
-The way their voices split softly and somberly on the line “God keeps his eyyyyyye on us allll”
– The way the instrumental backing slips its bonds and goes into three-quarters time on the word “imagination,” only to force itself back into boring old four-four as Simon sings, “Everything’s the same back / in my little town.”
– The ominous pocket of wordless backing vocals that overhangs the transition into the last verse (the haunted “ahhhhh” heard at about 2:15 of the video below.)
These touches and the pure beauty of the voices are enough to rescue the narrator from sanctimony, and convince those on his side of the generation gap that maybe he really was entitled to his angst.
S&G cemented this impression in October 1975 by performing the brand-spanking-new “My Little Town” on Saturday Night Live, perhaps the definitive TV show for those on their side of the generation gap.
By the start of November, the single was hitbound on stations across the country, headed for a peak of No. 9 on the pop chart and Number One on the adult contemporary chart. For most intents and purposes, it was S&G’s last commercial and artistic hurrah — their eighth and final Top Ten hit, and their last original Top 40 hit (followed only by a live cover of “Wake Up Little Susie” in 1982).
The invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts tracks the song’s path to the Top 10 in such diverse local markets as Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Show Low, Arizona.
Conveniently, “My Little Town” broke big just in time for Thanksgiving, the holiday when people all over America go back to their little towns. There are probably a bunch of Americans of a certain age who think of uncomfortable reunions with their now-deceased parents when they hear this song .. people who didn’t know at the time what “nothin’ but the dead and dyin’” really meant.
Having missed the generational conflicts of the Sixties and Seventies, my own perception couldn’t be more different.
My dad used to play this song a lot when I was a kid (off Simon’s Still Crazy, not Garfunkel’s Breakaway), and I’ve always liked it a lot. Quite possibly my favorite S&G song, even. I bear none of the narrator’s ill will toward my own past, but the song speaks to me anyway.
(Now, when I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all. But that’s another story.)