It starts with a driving accordion riff, if you can imagine that. It does not sound anything like a polka. That, and an intermittent, insistent thwack of the snare drum:
It was a slow day, And the sun was beating On the soldiers by the side of the road. There was a bright light, A shattering of shop windows. The bomb in the baby carriage Was wired to the radio.
“Ripped from today’s headlines,” as they say? Nope – try 23 years ago. And maybe 20-plus years from now?
These are the days of miracle and wonder. This is the long distance call. The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, The way we look to us all. They way we look to a distant constellation That’s dying in the corner of the sky. These are the days of miracle and wonder, And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry…
It’s easy to forget – even hard to remember – how controversial it was when Paul Simon dared to travel to South Africa to work with native South African musicians. After all, a cause celebre du jour among your internationally known entertainers was boycotting the troubled nation divided racially by the state-imposed system of apartheid. This movement spawned the arguably forgettable (and, to lend credence to that argument) largely forgotten anthem “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City.” (Add this to the list of so-so songs written for worthy causes.)
But Simon wasn’t going to South Africa to entertain the beneficiaries of this segregated society at a plush resort. He was going to record an album with primarily black musicians for the sake of their unique style and to share this delightful music with the world. Happily, the musical establishment clearly “forgave” him and awarded the result, the album Graceland, with the 1986 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Further to his credit (in this writer’s opinion,) the lyrics quoted above notwithstanding, Simon did not take the opportunity to make a political record, destined to become dated as specific circumstances evolved. Simon has rarely, if ever, been overtly political in his music, even at the height of late 1960s/early 1970s American cultural turmoil in the era of Simon & Garfunkel. His songs are about the personal and therefore don’t get tossed out with yesterday’s newspaper.
In the years since Graceland’s release, South Africa abolished the apartheid system and released black South African leader Nelson Mandela from prison, allowing the majority of South Africans to elect him as the nation’s first black president. South Africa still has more than its share of social problems, but state-sanctioned segregation is no longer one of them. Times have changed since the album was produced, but Graceland remains relevant because it is essentially timeless.
Two things make Graceland a classic: First is the infectious, irresistible music, influenced not only by the South African music featured so prominently, but also by other relatively uncommon (to mainstream pop music, anyway) styles as New Orleans’s Zydeco. In the liner notes of the originally-released CD, Simon (naturally, as a musician) focuses on the various musical influences of each song. (If you don’t own this album – and you should – try to make sure your copy includes these notes. You won’t get this fascinating bit of musicology if you just download the tracks!) But the other thing that makes Graceland a classic is Simon’s unique lyrical style of saying things that make no rational sense but perfect IRrational sense. And for the purposes of this column, of course, we’re here to talk about the lyrics.
Simon clearly has a gift for lyrical imagery and a quirky turn of phrase. In the title track, he describes the scenery on a road trip with his son:
The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.
Here’s a picture of a couple of National guitars, in case you’re not familiar with this particular brand:
That lyric makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Just about every song on the album has examples of such seemingly tossed-off but amazing images, from the opening track “The Boy in the Bubble”:
Staccato signals of constant information
To the closing song, “All Around the World, or The Myth of Fingerprints”:
Well, the sun gets weary and the sun goes down Ever since the watermelon.
I don’t know what that means, but I don’t care. It makes perfect irrational sense. There are too many examples of such sensible nonsense throughout the album to mention them all, but a few of my favorites include, from “Crazy Love, Vol. II”:
Fat Charlie the Archangel sloped into the room.
(Tell me you haven’t had days where you did the same thing!)
And from the single “You Can Call Me Al,” this lamentation, full of middle-aged angst:
Why am I soft in the middle? The rest of my life is so hard.
If you’re into picking out lyrical “themes” in an album, there are several here. There’s the predicament of Everyman standing in bewilderment against the Great Big World. You get a hint of this elsewhere in “Al”:
Where’s my wife and family? What if I die here? Who’ll be my role model, Now that my role model is gone…
Eventually, though, even in “a strange world,” he gets his bearings well enough to see “angels in the architecture” and say “Amen! And Hallelujah!” Could that be because he has come to believe that, in spite of the overwhelming onslaught of “lasers in the jungle” in the larger world and problematic personal relationships in the private world, “we all will be received in Graceland”?
Love, always a favorite lyrical theme, is, in Simon’s world, complicated – a coy bob-and-weave between the participants:
She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right – All right in a sort of a limited way for an off night…
You don’t feel you could love me, but I feel you could.
After all, this is the man who already explained to us in 1983’s “Train in the Distance” that
Negotiations and love songs Are often mistaken for one and the same.
For that matter, romantic love usually doesn’t last, and the ending is frequently publicly humiliating:
And she said losing love Is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart…
Somebody could walk into this room And say your life is on fire. It’s all over the evening news, All about the fire in your life On the evening news…
Only in relatively distant memory is romantic love viewed fondly and nostalgically. (“That Was Your Mother.”) I believe it’s no accident that this pleasant reminiscence of finding new love is inextricably linked to the joy of experiencing live Zydeco music in Cajun country.
One kind of love is consistently honored as a positive force in life: the love of music. In “Under African Skies,” Simon and collaborating vocalist Linda Ronstadt pay tribute to Joseph Shabalala, leader of the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mombazo (featured on two of the albums most memorable tracks.)
This is the story of how we begin to remember. This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. After the dream of falling and calling your name out, These are the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain.
While they’re exploring the “roots of rhythm,” they take the opportunity to explain whence came Ronstadt’s muse:
In early memory, mission music Was ringing ‘round my nursery door. I said, “Take this child, Lord, from Tucson, Arizona, Give her the wings to fly through harmony, And she won’t bother you no more.”
In case you’d forgotten, Simon had already told us his own similar story in 1980’s “Late in the Evening:”
The first thing I remember, I was lying in my bed - I couldn’t have been no more than one or two – And I remember there’s a radio, coming from the room next door. My mother laughed the way some ladies do. Well it’s late in the evening, and the music’s seeping through.
How fortunate for us that the music seeped through Paul Simon. His love of so many flavors of music has enriched us throughout his career – especially, I believe, with this album. Yet if you can listen through the music and focus on the words, you’ll find subtle and literary depths that it’s easy to overlook because your toes are tapping uncontrollably and you can’t help but hum along.
I will now attempt to leave you with a video clip of my favorite song from Graceland, a performance with both musical and visual appeal (featuring the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mombazo plus an amazing drum/percussion breakdown – always a plus in my book…er…column!), and the indelible lyrical image of a poor boy, “empty as a pocket,” loved by a woman so rich she can wear “diamonds on the soles of her shoes.” (I’ve not used video clips here before. I sure hope this code works!)
The following comments are for "The Lyricist as Poet: Paul Simon's "Graceland"" by LinnieRed
I am just gushing with pride and joy over you. You! You who was apprehensive about writing this column. You're only in your second installment, and you are doing incredible work.
I'm not sure who quoted this, and I'm not sure who the quote came from, but last year on the pages of litdotorg one of the resident poets quoted another poet when he said (and I'm paraphrasing): One writes poetry for the sheer love of it. There is absolutely no money to be made in poetry, so you'd better love what you do."
And while all poets love what they do, there are some who love what they do and try to make a living at it, and of those, some do it rather well.
I think the person who thought those original thoughts forgot . . . that a lyricist is a poet. Music is poetry, and you're bringing that out brilliantly with your work here.
Whether people realize it or not, we are surrounded by poetry each and every day. Some good, some bad -- but all of it written by a person who is, at his or her core, a poet.
Now, on to some observations from your work:
You quoted the following:
"Well, the sun gets weary and the sun goes down
Ever since the watermelon."
I don't know what that means, either, but I wanted to point out that I was raised in the sticks -- rural King George, Virginia. We farmed and we gardened. One of the things we had every summer was a watermelon patch, and early in the day we would pick two or three of those (around 9:00 AM while the sap and juice was still in the melon. In the afternoon heat, the sweetness tended to go back into the vine, I guess), and we set them in a huge washtub of cold well-water in the shade.
In the evening, after dinner, we'd all sit outside and gorge ourselves on watermelon. There is nothing better than a shade and water chilled watermelon on a hot summer day!
And then, we'd relax, because as you know, gorging yourself on watermelon makes you too full, too heavy, and too sleepy to do anything else. We'd all sit outside, in the shade, and do a lot of nothing until the sun went down. Then, weary, we'd go to bed.
Maybe that's a bit of what that meant? Or, maybe not.
And I can relate to this bit 100%:
"Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard."
"If that's not a poetic rendering of a man's middle-aged lament, then I don't know what is!"
And this . . . how can anyone deny that this is poetry?
"This is the story of how we begin to remember.
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein.
After the dream of falling and calling your name out,
These are the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain."
You're doing a wonderful job my friend. I can't wait to see what you write next month!
Posted by: OchaniLele [Member] On: June 1, 2009
Props to TheRealKTL for video!
I want to thank TheRealKarmaTseringLhamo, AKA Lena, for helping me crack the code on how to include the video clip! We're both "visual types," so we both know the value of occasionally including something for the reader to LOOK AT, not just to read! ("'...what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'")
Folks, even if you don't read the column, PLEASE watch the video! It gives me goosebumps, and if any picture IS worth a thousand words, this video - with music, poetic words, dancing and drumming - is DEFINITELY worth the 1500-some words I wrote! (It's probably worth much more!)
Thanks, too, of course, to OchaniLele for his invaluable help preparing this for "weblication" (I think I just made up a new word!), and for his generous praise and rating! (I think you were too easy on me this month - but that's OK!)
Haven't decided for sure about next month's column, but the top topic contender is a Midwestern-U.S. "regional delicacy" - a musical group I've written about here before (but not as LinnieRed!) Be intrigued! Be very intrigued!
Posted by: LinnieRed [Member] On: June 1, 2009
GRACELAND...yah! LinnieRed is too cool;-)
As you already know years ago when I once worked as a librarian, I loved to listen to this album continually with my headsets on as I went about my library duties and such...this music got right into my deep into my humming soul bones...made me joyful and zippy, and YES this IS POETRY, truly a unique piece of work on Simon's part...and you did it all great justice in your column breakdown info and visual, yessss;-)
I love that you did include the VIDEO, most excellent!
Awesome column works here, absolutely awesome! Good job and triple gold stars on your forehead for this one;-)
Paul Simon rocks!
Very nice choice of an album and songwriter. Who other than Paul epitomizes the lyricist as poet? Amazing video and quotes! An enriching experience, to say the least. I dabble in music and songwriting myself, as one of my many interests, and am a fan of Paul's verbal imagery.
I was reading recently about a man who was influential in the style of music depicted, Solomon Linda, the author of "Mbube" -- the original version of the song popularized here as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Another great ballad, in my opinion. Sad story though, as he and his family lived in poverty. Your column reminded me of the influence songwriter-poets can have on the world.
Posted by: LoriLopez [Member] On: June 3, 2009
Thanx, LL! For my next trick...
...I acquired yesterday the latest studio album (2007 - they've released some live/compilation albums since) of the Midwestern U.S. regional/cult band to which (whom???) I alluded above, and I was not disappointed! I believe this act could give Simon a run for his money in the lyrics-as-poetry thing. I'm excited about introducing Litdotorg readers to their work (again!)
FYI, there's a nice non-"Lion Sleeps Tonight" version of "Mbube" on the now-apparently-obscure '84 live album "HARP" (Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger.) Good for hearing the song in it's purer form.
Thanks much for the read and the compliment!
Posted by: LinnieRed [Member] On: June 4, 2009
Just so you know . . . I can't wait to see what you do next.
And if you think I was too easy on you, well, I CAN be harder if you want!
;-) Ochani ;-)
Posted by: OchaniLele [Member] On: June 4, 2009
Paul Simon's Gershwin Prize!
I feel silly that I didn’t already know this, but I just learned today that in 2007, the U.S. Library of Congress awarded the first-ever Gershwin Prize for Popular Song to none other than Paul Simon! I discovered this because this week my local PBS station is rerunning the concert that was organized to commemorate this award. We overlooked the first showing of the concert over the weekend (watching NASCAR!) but fortunately, our station habitually shows specials like this several times, so we’ll get to see it Wednesday night. If interested, American readers might want to check the listings for their local PBS station to see if they, too, are running the show.
If very interested but unable to catch it on PBS, you could also consider acquiring the just-released DVD or Blu-ray! It sounds like an amazing concert, featuring such irresistible performances as Lyle Lovett singing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Alison Krauss and Shawn Colvin singing “The Boxer,” and a clip of the legendary Miriam Makeba joining Simon on “Under African Skies” (possibly at the Zimbabwe concert featured in the video clip above.) As if that weren’t enough, there’s also James Taylor on both “Slip Slidin’ Away” and “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Muppets Grover and Elmo on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and Simon teaming up on “Me and Julio (etc.)” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” with Stevie Wonder – who just won the SECOND Gershwin Prize earlier this year!
Catch the concert if you can! I’ll be watching Wednesday evening and will report back after…
Posted by: LinnieRed [Member] On: June 8, 2009
walking the talk
It´s nice that you chose to comment on Paul Simon´s Graceland. I don´t know where it stands in the charts, but it is definitely an all time favorite of mine. It remains fresh and thought-provoking even today, as you have mentioned. I had the great luck to see Paul Simon with Bob Dylan back in 2000, and he (they) performed all of Graceland, along with a few other tunes. I think the key to his talent is that he really believes in what he is saying, so that it is hard to separate the man from the music.
So...are you thinking of doing a piece on Bob Dylan for an encore?
You wrote well, and I couldn´t agree more with all that you stated.
Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: June 13, 2009
Add Your Comment
You Must be a member to post comments and ratings.
If you are NOT already a member, signup now it only takes a few seconds!