America gets a bum rap. I’m not talking, mind you, about the United States of America, which gets all the bad press it deserves. No, I’m talking about seventies soft-rock superstars America, the folkie trio who gave us “A Horse with No Name,” which Randy Newman famously dismissed as being “about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid.”
Personally, what has always pissed me off about the song is the band’s claim that the horse has no name. That’s balderdash. Of course the horse has a name. It may not be Trigger or Mr. Ed or Black Beauty, but it’s something. Vocalist Dewey Bunnell was probably just too lazy to ask the horse its name. “I’m Conway,” the horse would have replied. Or, “I’m Luther, good to meet ya.” Of course the horse could have offered Dewey his name. But a horse has its dignity.
But I have not come to pile on. If it’s easy to mock the gentle folk rock strains of Bunnell, Gerry Buckley, and Dan Peek, it’s just as easy to like them. You just have to let go. You know, take a walk on the mild side. The truth is I liked—and still like—America more than any of their soft rock contemporaries, even the ones with “artistic credibility.” Which is my way of saying I’ll take them over Crosby, Stills & Nash any day.
And I’m here today to urge you to run to the nearest record store to pick up a copy of the band’s 1975 compilation, History: America’s Greatest Hits. The LP has 12 songs, only 2 of which (“Muskrat Love,” “Woman Tonight) suck. And that’s a bargain at any price.
If you’re my age, by which I mean to say your idea of a fun night out is going coffin shopping, you’ll be surprised by how many of these songs you liked (or hated) but have forgotten all about. I like and remember “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” and “Sister Golden Hair,” but I was pleased and surprised to rediscover such forgotten gems as the folked-up “Don’t Cross the River” (shades of Neil Young!) and the plaintive “Daisy Jane,” with its great chorus that goes, “Does she really love me/I think she does/Like the stars above/I know because” and so on. “Sandman” does CS&N one better, thanks to the remarkable vocal harmonies of Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell. And it may be the only America song that carries even the slightest hint of menace. America isn’t comfortable with menace. America does wistful.
I’d forgotten all about “I Need You” as well. Less folk than chamber pop, you could mistake this one for a Hollies’ tune, or a tune off a Bread record. “Tin Man” I remembered, but I guess I remembered it wrong, because upon listening to it again I found it totally irksome and cloyingly cute. So you get 9 great songs—still a bargain!
Oh, and I can’t help but give a shout-out to “Sister Golden Hair.” This song made me so happy back in the day. It may be a trifle but it’s not trifling in my eyes. It takes me back to my youth as vividly as Proust’s taste of a Madeleine rocketed him back to his. You won’t find many record reviewers citing Proust, or admitting to love “Sister Golden Hair.” It’s part of my charm.
But let’s return to “A Horse with No Name” for a moment. You can say whatever you want about it—it’s a shameless Neil Young rip-off, the lyrics aim towards deep but are shallower than your average baby pool, etc.—but I’m always happy to hear it. It makes me laugh. But the laugh is a gladsome one. I may be a cynic, but I just can’t bring myself to write off “A Horse with No Name” as total horseshit.
GRADED ON A CURVE: