(Because starting with something simple just wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?)
I suspect that the bulk of the population of Earth is intimately acquainted with the works of Paul Simon, but- you’ve guessed it- I was until recent years almost wholly ignorant of him. This fits in rather nicely with my growing theory that there is a subset of artists on the Giant Handwavy Venn Diagram whose fan base can be split neatly down the middle, with ‘long term devoted fans’ on one side and ‘not that keen as a youth, but got into them with age’ on the other. (See Van Morrison, The Doors, Pink Floyd et. al. Shocking, but on the whole true.) As an undergrad I used to mock a medical student friend who carried the best of Simon and Garfunkel wherever he went, but all he would do in response was sigh in a careworn manner, sit down and play The Sound of Silence at me, in a vain attempt to convert me to their light, inoffensive folksy ways. Thank God he didn’t play ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)’, really.
Fast-forward five years to my ‘glittering’ IT career, ironically testing the software that likely scheduled my degree exams. I was rummaging through my partner’s dusty CD collection looking for something to take to work as an upbeat distraction from the daily grind. I pulled out Graceland. ‘This any good?’ I offered. P, bless him, just stared incredulously as if I had just asked ‘These ursine chaps, do they defecate in wooded areas?’ I’ve never been hurried out the door, CD in hand, fast enough. And sure enough, it was a life changing experience to borrow the well-worn term.
What makes me sit up and take notice, before we even factor in the familiar history of the record, is its strict uncompromising attitude to the subject matter. Paul Simon has said in interviews that he is capable of being a verbally angry man in the face of injustice, but not necessarily in his songwriting. Nevertheless, from the outset there is a quiet power, a restrained indignation bubbling under the surface of nearly every track. No, says Simon, I’m not going to stand at the top of a hill yelling ‘we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!’, but I will curse eloquently under my breath as I walk through the townships.
So it is with the first song, The Boy In The Bubble. Not the gentlest introduction to our theme, demanding our consideration with the insistent pounding of drums; yet with a seemingly gentle opening scene:
It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
The presence of soldiers, we discover, necessitated by
a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio
Matter-of-factly told, Simon continues to describe the ‘days of miracle and wonder’ we apparently live in that allow these events, over thrumming bass and accordion accompaniment. A slight trace of a dig at the then-current Live Aid phenomenon might be detected- ‘It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts… Staccato signals of constant information, A loose affiliation of millionaires… The way the camera follows us in slo-mo’. It’s a call to action and change, not to semi-earnest donations.
We move (figuratively) to Graceland. This is a track that is in no hurry to begin proper, and so the listener is treated to a full forty seconds of that wonderful sunny guitar punctuated by juicy bass octaves, before Simon even begins singing.
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
As an opening image, it’s unparalleled at transporting the listener straight there, through ‘the cradle of the civil war’. Quite why Graceland has been chosen is by no means immediately apparent; Simon claims it just fitted well into the rhythm. (Many of the lyrics are sung with unusual rhythm, simply to fit into the music. He’s not in the business of trimming lyrical gold down.) As a place of celebrity pilgrimage, it’s here held up as a place where all might be received, even ‘poor boys and pilgrims with families’. The protagonist is travelling with the child of his first marriage, having evidently just dealt with a breakup:
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
A poignant verse; nothing private remains in the aftermath, and all that is left to do is to escape to the glitter of Graceland. And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear some other celebrities in the backing vocals- the Everly Brothers.
I Know What I Know remains one of my favourite songs for its infectious danceability and lyrics 10cc or Steely Dan could have written:
I guess she thought I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way
For an off-night
Sounds like the clientele of our local.
She said there’s something about you
That really reminds me of money
(She is the kind of a girl
Who could say things that weren’t that funny)
We’ll come back to the money theme later, but suffice to say that these lines amuse me greatly.
I said aren’t you the woman
Who was recently given a Fulbright
She said don’t I know you
From the cinematographer’s party
It’s almost as if veiled insults are being hurled between this unknown couple. (Or is it a joke- ‘A cinematographer and a Fulbright scholar walk into a bar…’) Regardless of the wry lyrics, the melody is a joy to hear, with its uplifting backing of the Gaza Sisters, and I defy anyone with a pulse not to get up and dance to it.
Gumboots flies past in a flurry of accordion and brass picked out with sparkling guitar, detailing a therapeutic taxi discussion, bringing us neatly to Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, one of the tracks featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This is a group I am very fond of since seeing them live last year, and I urge you to see them if you get the chance. (I’ve never left a gig so uplifted before!) The a cappella intro gives way to the positively gleaming overdubbed guitar riffs providing the soundtrack to what is by all accounts a charming portrait of a poor boy trying to impress a rich girlfriend. Simon’s command of imagery shines again:
She was physically forgotten
Then she slipped into my pocket
With my car keys
A relationship of convenience due to her wealth, it would seem. But Simon goes on to paint a humorous domestic picture of the poor boy applying aftershave ‘to compensate for his ordinary shoes’ when they go out dancing. It’s sweet, poignant and of course topical.
Thanks to the famous music video starring Chevy Chase, You Can Call Me Al is probably one of the best-known tracks on Graceland, and rightly so. Bursting in with blasts of brass, two overdubbed fretless basses, penny whistle and drum solos and everything but a conga line, it’s one of my favourite oxymorons of music- the upbeat major key track about depressing subjects. Packed with jokes and wordplay, it’s one man’s journey to spiritual awakening through despair, insecurity and the Third World.
Under African Skies is pleasant enough; featuring Linda Ronstadt, it saunters along but doesn’t particularly stand out as a jewel in the crown, unlike Homeless. Ladysmith return for this track in all their isicathamiya glory, and are allowed full rein for most of the song. When Simon finally begins singing, that wonderful rhythmic grunting and clicking kicks in that just inspires throwing one’s hands in the air and chanting along. One of the standout tracks for me.
Fat Charlie the Archangel stars in Crazy Love Volume II, a jaunty oxymoronic piece about divorce (or so it would seem), skipping lightly along with jaunty woodwind; Simon follows this with That Was Your Mother, evidently inspired by some kind of Zydeco barn dance knees-up. It’s a fun little piece drenched in Bayou heritage, and would be out of place if it weren’t for All Around The World carrying some of that energy over. Ending on a wish for equality that doesn’t verge too much on the saccharine, Simon leaves us with the refrain:
It was the myth of fingerprints, I’ve seen them all, and man, They’re all the same.
Presumably at this point I would insert some kind of pithy, Jerry Springer-esque reassuring statement about all living together in harmony and taking care of ourselves, but it’s neither appropriate nor necessary. If you require a solution to feeling jaded and exasperated with the human race, you can do worse than listen to Graceland all the way through. Seriously. It will be good for your soul. And you’ll forget the abomination that was Hearts and Bones for a short while.