When I entered my last year of high school (1965), I had been profoundly alone for seven years. I had no friends and I’d never been on a date. As Dickens said of one of his characters, I was as solitary as a clam.
The music of the 1960s changed that. When I heard the Beatle songs Yesterday and Hide Your Love Away, and I listened to Simon and Garfunkel sing “the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made”, I had to come to the door of my shell to find out what was going on.
There was a magic mood in the air. Young people were suddenly taking an interest in everything, even in a shy solitary boy who had been avoiding them for years. A girl in another class tried to catch my attention whenever we passed in the hall. She was on the swimming team, along with a guy in my class who I’d begun to talk to. She got him to badger me until I came out one afternoon to watch them practice. I only went in hope they would leave me alone afterward, but I guess they knew that once I’d seen her in that blue swim suit I wouldn’t be able to return to my shell.
I would have one date with her, the only date I would have in high school. But that began my years of struggle to understand the social world.
Though I was averse to people, at least to ‘getting to know’ them, I wasn’t averse to adventure. I spent a winter hitchhiking alone in Europe, plus two winters wandering in Mexico and Guatemala.
Somehow that also led me into the insurance claims world, accident investigation, marriage and children.
Yes, Simon and Garfunkel were instrumental to all that. I fell in love with their songs, but there was one that I was ambivalent about – the satirical song, I Am a Rock.
If you don’t know that one, it begins with a young man (or woman) looking out the window of an apartment onto snow covered streets below, grateful for his detachment from the people there. His is the voice of an introvert, or maybe someone autistic, certainly a loner. He calls himself an ‘island’ and a ‘rock’. Although he values his aloneness, it is made clear in the song, through the tone of voice and choice of words, that Simon and Garfunkel are mocking his detachment, as if it’s nothing but cowardice separating him from the real world.
He says he has no need of friendship, doesn’t want the pain often associated with it, and that he disdains its laughter and love.
Those lines felt like a betrayal to me. I had never disdained friendship. It was just that friendship wasn’t open to me. You need a social instinct for friendship, and that was clearly missing.
This loner also says, “my books and my poetry protect me”. Pardon me, but what is wrong with that? Books and poetry are not a wall we use to hide from the world. They are part of the world. They’ve protected me all my life. If you’re shy and solitary, and trying to cope with the unshy, over-populated, insensitive, manic, aggressive modern world, you need some protection.
At one point he admits that he has been in love, and says that if that hadn’t happened he never would have cried. No mention is made of the likelihood that, probably through no fault of his own, he’d suffered a bad love experience. That’s what often happens when shy solitary people try to connect with social people – bad connections, with painful consequences.
Yes, it was a disappointment to find that Simon and Garfunkel were not sympathetic with people like me. But I forgave them. How could I not forgive them when they produced songs like The Sound of Silence, Mrs Robinson, and The Boxer, three of the finest pieces of highway music ever written?
The young man you see in the 1968 mining certificate photo above carried I Am a Rock inside himself as a personal anthem for years. If he looks a bit haunted, that’s only because he had just returned from months of wandering through the mountainous green country in southern Mexico and Guatemala, and he’d only recently gazed into a pair of dark beautiful eyes that, although he would soon return to Mexico looking for them, he would never see again.
But in Mexico, where he’d begun to learn Spanish, he’d also begun to learn that shyness and solitude were perceived differently in Spanish culture. In Spanish literature the stories about solitude and solitary people were legion.
But there is no finer recognition of shyness and the solitary mind than in the 1973 song of singer/songwriter Emilio José, Soledad.
The word ‘soledad’ translates as either solitude or aloneness. It is both of those, but in Spanish the meaning seems deeper and richer. The song begins with the singer declaring that his, or her, ‘soledad’ is like a poppy growing alone in a field of wheat. It is a….
criatura primarosa, que no sabe que es hermosa, ni sabe de amor ni enganos.
An ‘exquisite creature that doesn’t know that it is beautiful, and knows nothing of love or deception’ (my translation). The singer goes on to say that he wants it to remain that way, so it can continue to be genuine and natural ‘like the clear water that rises happily up from a spring, not knowing where it is going’.
This is not just an acceptance of shyness and solitary behavior – it is a celebration of them. When I first heard Soledad, it entered my life like a happy spring, and it has never left. The song became famous in Europe, if less so in North America, and deservedly so.
No, in North America you’re not supposed to sing of the beauty of solitude and aloneness, nor its ability to nourish the soul, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sing about it anyway.
Yes, the young man in the photo had begun to learn these things. He’d begun to write the first Alan Conrad stories too, and, although those stories would be all be rejected by publishers over the next forty years, he would never desert them. His experiences in Mexico, combined with the literature and songs of Spanish culture, would be the only antidote he needed to counter the strange pressure that exists in our culture to have everyone think in the same vein, with the same shared set of values. He knew already that he was on an island, and that it would have to be an island of rock if it was not going to be eroded by the sea of North American culture that, despite its professions to the contrary, wants everyone to think alike.