Paul Simon was a big deal in my house growing up.
Not sure if my dad or my mom was a bigger fan (I’m guessing my dad) … but Simon’s Seventies output made up a prominent part of my parents’ rock record collection, way back when.
And when Simon made his commercial comeback in 1986 with the “Graceland” album, it was a big deal. A very big deal.
For months, it seemed, the Blumenau family did one of two things at 6:15 or so every night. Either we put on the nightly TV news over dinner (WOKR Channel 13, followed by ABC with Peter Jennings), or we put on “Graceland.”
The album was a thing of wonder — a rejuvenated storyteller with new perspectives to offer — and we reveled in it night after night.
Every once in the bluest of moons I take it out again. Tonight was one such night.
And so, lubricated by a couple snootfuls of cheap bourbon, we revisit this album of great wonder so many years ago, and see what it has to offer us in — what the hell year is it? — 2012:
* Any writer will tell you that the beginning of a story, lyric, blog post, etc., is crucial. (Just as any guitar player will tell you that the beginning and end of a solo are all anyone really cares about.)
Simon begins the album with a memorably jarring image — a slow, hot day interrupted when “the bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.”
It’s not an image that necessarily has a lot to do with the rest of the album, thematically, but it sure gets your attention.
The second song begins with another wonderfully compressed image, albeit one only appreciated by the six-stringers among us — “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.”
Just some nice details to show that Simon, a great songwriter at his best, hadn’t lost his chops.
* The “boy in the bubble” had been dead for two years by the time the album came out … but damn if “staccato signals of constant information” doesn’t describe 21st-century online life.
You don’t have to nail every last detail to build something that lasts.
* The worst moments of the “Graceland” album tend to involve people who sound like they walked out of Woody Allen movies — intellectual Manhattanites with ants in their pants.
We get one as early as the second song, which is otherwise a thoughtful exercise: “There’s a girl in New York City / who calls herself the human trampoline.”
And this should interest me … because?
* Not sure exactly what type of African music is represented in “I Know What I Know” — soukous, maybe? — but it and I have a hot date to keep.
Have had since 1986, I suppose, but I’ll show up one of these weekends. I love the way the guitars interlock.
* “Gumboots” loses me in the first two lines — “rearranging my position on a friend of mine who had a little bit of a breakdown.” More neurotic Manhattanisms, from where I sit.
* On the other hand, the “poor boy” who changes his clothes and puts on aftershave in “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” is pretty much the diametric opposite. Maybe that’s why I find that song a thousand times more interesting than “Gumboots.”
* Fretless bass player Bakithi Kumalo’s ectoplasmic solo in “You Can Call Me Al” tended to get all the attention in ’86 … but there’s a fill of his in “Diamonds On The Soles” that gets me every time.
It happens underneath Simon when he sings “And I could say ooh-ooh-ooh” … and Kumalo takes off up the neck and plays this nimble soaring riff that sounds like winged freedom. I can’t really describe it here, but if you know the album, you know the lick.
* There’s something about a wordless vocal chorus at the very end of a song that makes it the perfect way to go out.
The “ta na na na / Ta na na na na” ending of “Diamonds,” with Simon joined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is one such marvelous ending.
(The ending of David Bowie’s “Starman” — with Bowie’s voice, Mick Ronson’s rangy guitar, and the string section all joining together on the the “La-la-la-la”‘s is another example. But I digress.)
* I didn’t have MTV in 1986-87, so I don’t associate “You Can Call Me Al” with Chevy Chase. Probably makes the song much easier to take nowadays.
* Speaking of “Al,” I imagine Simon in his writing room, sweating over the details: “I can call you Julie, and Julie, when you call me, you can call me Seth — no, goddammit, that’s not quite right!”
* Just as Simon immortalized Joe DiMaggio with those famous lines from “Mrs. Robinson,” the line about the failed role model ducking back down the alleyway with “some roly-poly little bat-faced girl” suggests the worst excesses of Mickey Mantle.
Or so it does to me, anyway.
* The guy in the third verse of “You Can Call Me Al” — the foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, “holds no currency” and is inspired by “angels in the architecture” — makes for a refreshing contrast to the previously mentioned Woody Allen types. Maybe that’s why I enjoy his moment in the sun and tend to skip past the songs about the neurotic New Yorkers.
* I can still hear my dad exulting about how Linda Ronstadt’s voice is “clear as a bell” on “Under African Skies.”
It is an awfully nice piece of harmonizing, heard in retrospect … and the chorus, with Simon singing about “the powerful pulsing of love in the veins” over Mr. Kumalo’s propulsive slap-bass, combines for something greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.
(Which leads us to one drawback of “Graceland.” For the most part, it wears better than most mid-’80s productions. There are a couple places where Big Eighties Drums show their unfortunate face, though. One of them is about 2:15 into “Under African Skies.”)
* “That Was Your Mother” is partially undone by the album’s most unfortunate gaffe, in which Simon sings about dancing to the music of “Clifton she-NEER.”
The zydeco legend pronounced his name a la Francais — something like “SHAY-nyay” — and can be heard doing so on 1975’s “Bogalusa Boogie,” one of the most celebrated zydeco albums of all time.
Simon’s mispronunciation kinda makes him look like a complete tyro — as, perhaps, he was.
That said, he is redeemed by the zydeco beat. It’s hard to hold a grudge when a zydeco two-step is playing.
And, y’know, “Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters” has to be one of the most wonderfully irrational band names of all time. Who can argue against any song featuring Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters?
* Album closer “All Around The World, or the Myth of Fingerprints” is also dragged down by drama (namely, the subsequent accusation by Los Lobos that Simon stole the song from them during writing sessions.)
It’s kinda catchy, though, and also notable from a thematic standpoint. The album, which (like all Paul Simon albums) gets all caught up in interpersonal romantic relationships, ends with the words “That’s why we must learn to live alone.”
Is that the final lesson for all of us? Or for all the itchy Woody Allen Manhattanites who inhabit the lyrics?
Is the man who made a mother and child reunion sound bittersweet and sang about 50 ways to leave one’s lover once again throwing in his hat on the side of alienation, separation, isolation and irreconciliation?
(OK, I made that last word up. Blame inebriation.)