Hello! Welcome to this tour through Phil Ochs’ debut album! It’s nice to see you all looking so chipper this morning!
Because I’ll be serving as your trusty tour guide, I should tell you a teensy weensy bit about my qualifications! I have had the privilege of leading tours through three Phil Ochs albums: I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Pleasures of the Harbor and Rehearsals for Retirement. I was scheduled to lead tours for one or two of his other albums, but I hadn’t planned on including All the News that’s Fit to Sing in the tour schedule.
But here I am! How about that? Gosh and golly, is life full of surprises or what?
Well, this little detour happened because of something I came across in my research of another Phil Ochs album called Tape from California. You see, I hadn’t done a Phil Ochs tour in over a year, so I thought it would be a good idea to review his biography so I could put this particular work in the proper context. You wouldn’t want a tour guide who had no idea what she was talking about, would you? And thanks to the wonders of the Information Age, all I had to do was type “Phil Ochs” in the address bar on my web browser and I was whisked away to the Phil Ochs Wikipedia page lickety-split!
Gee whiz, isn’t the Internet one of the swellest things ever?
I’m sorry, could you repeat the question? No, I don’t know about queue-anon. Is that some kind of group that helps people who don’t like to stand in line? That sounds like a very worthy cause! Boy, that Internet really is something, isn’t it?
Where was I? Oh yes—well, down at the bottom of the Phil Ochs page there were links to all his albums. Wasn’t that thoughtful? And All the News that’s Fit to Sing was right on top! Right where it should have been! Doncha just hate it when the thing you’re looking for isn’t where it’s supposed to be? Well, that’s one problem I didn’t have that day, thank my lucky stars!
Now, there wasn’t a whole bunch of information about the album on that page, I’m sorry to say, but there was a link to a review by a man named Mark Deming who writes reviews for a website called AllMusic. He even gets paid to listen to music and write about it! Wow! Imagine that! Well, folks, I’d like to share part of that review with you—don’t worry, it won’t take up too much of our time. The review was very, very teensy-weensy and I’m only going to share a teeny-tiny-itty-bitty sliver so we can stay right on schedule. How does that sound? Great! Here goes:
“Early on in his career, someone described Phil Ochs as a ‘singing journalist,’ and his first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, represented the state of the art in topical songs in 1964. That presents a bit of a problem when listening to it today; Ochs’s debut is so much a product of its time and place that it just sounds perplexing a few decades on. Remember Lou Marsh? Or William Worthy? Well, if you don’t, the songs about them on this album may not mean much to you, and while the facts behind the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil rights movement are doubtless clearer in your mind, that only gives them a perversely nostalgic quality that hardly becomes them.”
Well, that made me very, very angry, especially the part about “this album may not mean much to you.” And it made me even angrier because I don’t like to lose my temper. It’s very unladylike. I’ll be honest with you and tell you it took every fiber of my being to prevent me from cussing! Yes, sirree, I was pretty hot under the collar for a minute there!
But I took a deep breath and right after I exhaled, I heard a fragment of a Phil Ochs song playing in my head! Isn’t that amazing? You’ve probably heard it—it goes “And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody . . . outside of a small circle of friends.”
You see, I believe that the study of history is an important and worthwhile endeavor. You remember that phrase, “History repeats itself?” Well, guess what? It does! Take Lou Marsh, for example. Do you know what he did? He tried to stop a fight and was killed for it. Do you know of anyone recently who tried to stop a fight and was killed for it? Yes, that’s right—the policemen at the Capitol Riots. It takes a lot of courage to try to stop a fight, and I think we should remember people who gave their lives trying to protect others. And do you know who William Worthy was? He was a journalist whose stories made the government very, very mad—so mad that they took his passport away and tried to throw him in jail. Can you think of someone in the government who said that journalists should go to jail for doing their jobs and trying to find out the truth? That’s right, ex-President Trump. So, you see, history does indeed repeat itself, and if we learn more about history and the people who made it, there’s a chance—just a chance—that when we realize we’re living through another historical rerun, we can fix the problem instead of making the same old mistakes over and over again. Wouldn’t that be ducky?
Okay! I’ll bet you’re ready for that tour through All the News that’s Fit to Sing! What’s that? How do I really feel about Mr. Deming? Well, it’s not something I’d say in polite company, so let’s play fill-in-the-blanks! Ready? It’s a common two-word phrase and the first word has seven letters, beginning with an F and ending with a G. No, it’s not fog—good guess, though! Tell you what—it rhymes with what we do with geese to make our pillows nice and fluffy. That’s right—we pluck them! Now, the second word starts with an I and ends with a T—it’s a little word with three whole syllables in just five letters!
Isn’t language just the most amazing thing ever?
Phil Ochs was born to an American father and Scottish mother in El Paso, Texas, about a year before Pearl Harbor. His father was a doctor who was drafted by the army and sent overseas near the end of the war, where he had the great misfortune of treating hundreds of American soldiers wounded in the very bloody Battle of the Bulge. The experience triggered depression and eventually bipolar disorder, conditions that made it impossible for him to establish a stable medical practice. He became what is referred to as a locums tenens, working in temp jobs all over the country. The family finally wound up in Columbus, Ohio, where Phil became a promising clarinetist, then (believe it or not) spent two years at a military academy in Virginia.
I’d categorize his study of classical music and military education as the “good boy” side of Phil Ochs. Like most middle-class kids who grew up in a heavily-conformist era, he was programmed to live up to parental expectations and follow socially-acceptable paths, but as was true of many of his peers, there was a not-so-good-boy side of Phil that dug Elvis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Like a good Columbus boy, he went to Ohio State, but something didn’t sit right, so his not-so-good-boy persona blew off college and headed to Miami, where he was jailed for sleeping on a park bench. Sometimes weird experiences lead to what seem to be moments of clarification, and Phil decided to return to Ohio State, become a writer and major in journalism.
Phil called that moment a “flash,” but the college degree path proved to be something of a flash in the pan, for though he may have still held lingering hopes for a conventional existence, Phil Ochs simply wasn’t wired to be a conventional guy. While the universities of the late ’50s weren’t the delightfully radicalized dens of iniquity that emerged in the mid-to-late ’60s, many did harbor non-conformist cliques that gravitated towards Beat Generation philosophy, left-wing politics and the emerging folk revival. A friend named Jim Glover turned Phil onto folk music, especially the works of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and taught Phil how to find his way around a guitar. Fascinated by the Cuban Revolution, Phil began submitting semi-radical pieces to the school paper which were consistently rejected. In response, he started his own underground paper and began to write politically-oriented folk music. After the powers-that-be refused to make him editor-in-chief of the official student organ, he dropped out of college with only a quarter to go, finally leaving the “good boy” behind to seek his fortunes in Greenwich Village. Immersing himself in songwriting and live performance, he would soon advertise himself as a “singing journalist” who drew inspiration from Newsweek, drawing enough attention to earn a spot at the Newport Folk Festival, which in turn led to a contract with Elektra Records.
All the News that’s Fit to Sing was released in April 1964. The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak and a small but growing number of Americans were starting to question American involvement in Vietnam, thanks to the work of journalists like David Halberstam. The American folk music revival was entering its final stage when “singer-songwriters” began nudging the genre away from traditional folk songs to original works of subjective poetry and protest. Outside of the politically-neutral Kingston Trio and the politically-correct Peter, Paul and Mary, folk music had never done much on popular charts, and at this moment in history, the vast majority of Americans seemed to lose all interest in folk music. A peep at the Billboard Top 20 on April 4, 1964 reveals that Americans were longing for happiness, fun and forget-about-ism in a desperate attempt to leave the trauma and grief of the Kennedy assassination behind them:
1-5: The Beatles (“Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Please, Please Me”)
6. Terry Stafford, “Suspicion”
7. Louis Armstrong, “Hello, Dolly”
8. Betty Everett, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)”
9. Bobby Vinton, “My Heart Belongs to You”
10. The Dave Clark Five, “Glad All Over”
11. The Four Seasons, “Dawn”
12. The Temptations, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”
13. The Beach Boys, “Fun, Fun, Fun”
14. The Serendipity Singers, “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down”
15. The Searchers, “Needles and Pins”
16. The Four Seasons, “Stay”
17. Elvis Presley, “Kissin’ Cousins”
18. Marvin Gaye, “You’re the Wonderful One”
19. Al Hirt, “Java”
20. Tommy Tucker, “High Heel Sneakers”
Not exactly the music designed to motivate the masses to storm the battlements, and certainly not a promising environment for a “singing journalist.” Only one folk song made that Top 100 list, the traditional “Tell It on the Mountain” by Peter, Paul & Mary. The Beatles filled eight additional slots, and you could stretch that number to ten if you include the Beatle tribute song “We Love You Beatles” by The Carefrees and a Beatle parody number by the Four Preps, “A Letter to the Beatles.” At this early stage in their careers, The Beatles were seen as harmless good fun (though parents wished they would do something about their hair) and not the harbingers of massive cultural change they would turn out to be.
One thing The Beatles accomplished that they don’t get enough credit for is the resurrection of guitar-based rock, which had pretty much been relegated to the surfers in the early ’60s. As noted in Teach Rock’s self-guided course on “The Rise of the Electric Guitar,” the rebirth owed as much to the visuals as it did to the sound: “The disparity in the popularity between the piano and the electric guitar became more pronounced still after the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Their instrumentation, consisting of two electric guitars, electric bass, and drums, became the archetype for the next generation of popular musicians” (they forgot to mention that their guitars were also seriously cool-looking). Thousands of Baby Boomer boys, fortunate enough to hit puberty during an unprecedented economic boom, now started bugging their parents to buy them an electric guitar instead of a shiny new Schwinn.
Significant change always brings out the Luddites, and the anti-change agents in this case were the traditional folkies who blew a gasket when Bob Dylan went electric. What they didn’t realize when they booed him at the Newport Folk Festival is that Bob Dylan was actually saving folk music from a trip to oblivion. The emergence of folk-rock brought the social consciousness of folk music into rock, encouraging the more talented songwriters (Lennon, McCartney, Ray Davies, Jagger-Richards, etc.) to search for topical matter beyond teenage romance and the not-so talented songwriters to cover songs written by folk musicians in order to retain their relevance. Dylan covers were obviously the most prevalent, but the charts from 1965 and 1966 had room for covers of other folk songsmiths like Pete Seeger, Tim Hardin and yes, even Phil Ochs. Those covers in turn led curious listeners to explore folk music in more depth, resulting in the ultimate win-win for all concerned.
So though it may appear that Phil Ochs’ maiden release couldn’t have come at a less propitious moment, it’s always better to be ahead of the curve than behind it. Phil Ochs was an unconventional guy who emerged on the scene at a time when people started questioning fundamental conventions of American life. Though he would never come close to approaching the popularity of Bob Dylan, his music and passionate activism would earn him enough of a following to satisfy the record labels and sufficiently pique the curiosity of J. Edgar’s boys at the FBI, who managed to fill his file with five hundred pages of alleged subversive activities.
All the News that’s Fit to Sing captures an artist at the very early stages of his career, and if you’ve only heard Phil’s later works you might find yourself disappointed. The lyrics only hint at the exceptional insight and wit he would eventually bring to the table; his vocals feel a bit uncertain; the arrangements aren’t particularly interesting (though Danny Kalb’s service as co-guitarist compensates nicely for Phil’s still-developing skills on that instrument). The stories behind the songs are not any more “dated” than Titanic or The King’s Speech or the recent flood of screen takes on British royalty are “dated,” though there are a few instances where Phil failed to make a solid case for timelessness. What comes through loud and clear is his empathy for the disadvantaged and his frustration with a country that was consistently failing to act in accordance with its most sacred values.
Phil teamed up with Bob Gibson to write the opening track, “One More Parade,” a song that questions the American love affair with the military. No, this Bob Gibson is not the St. Louis Cardinals great AND MY FAVORITE PITCHER EVER but the Bob Gibson who co-wrote the George Hamilton IV hit “Abilene” and whose style and compositions had a major influence on Phil’s development as a songwriter. It’s interesting that mentor and acolyte chose the military parade as the operating metaphor because military parades have never been common in the United States, usually limited to presidential inaugurals and celebrations of victory in declared wars. Metaphorical quibble aside, what Ochs and Gibson called into question was the taken-for-granted belief in the emerging American role as the “World’s Policeman” and the consequent romanticization of permanent war:
Cold hard stares on faces so proud
Kisses from the girls and cheers from the crowd
And the widows from the last war cry into their shrouds
Here comes the big parade
Don’t be afraid, price is paid
Don’t be ashamed, war’s a game
World in flames
So start the parade!!
So much for the Founding Fathers’ rejection of standing armies and Washington’s warning about foreign entanglements. By the time Phil Ochs released “One More Parade,” the United States had a huge standing military of 2.7 million personnel and an arsenal of 29,463 nuclear weapons. Most Americans accepted those numbers as a fact of life, just as they accepted the playing of the militaristic national anthem before sporting events (which began near the end of WWI but became a ritual during and after WWII). Phil would raise the alarm bells with greater intensity in “Cops of the World” on Phil Ochs in Concert, anticipating what would become the prevalent belief of those who live outside the United States that America wasn’t the world’s policeman but the world’s bully. With American involvement in Afghanistan approaching its twentieth anniversary, one can only speculate on how things might have turned out had Americans have taken President Eisenhower’s words a bit more seriously:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
As we shall see, this inability on the part of the American people to accept both truth and consequences frustrated Phil Ochs to the very core of his being.
“The Thresher” relates the story of the USS Thresher, a nuclear-powered, armed-to-the-teeth submarine that sank during deep-dive trials on April 10, 1963, resulting in the deaths of all 129 persons aboard. Phil’s attempt at irony (“She was a death ship all along/Died before she had a chance to kill”) falls short of hitting home and his commentary on the smugness of the shipbuilders never makes it past the stage of vague implication without evidence to back it up. In this case, his “reporting” lacks proper fact-checking and falls seriously short of quality journalism.
As was true for Phil Ochs and his contemporaries, the music of Woody Guthrie was a defining influence, and the Guthrie “talking song” proved to be an excellent format for Phil’s vocal style and innate gift of satirical expression, as demonstrated in “Talking Vietnam Blues.” As much as I admire JFK’s wit, intelligence and irrepressible libido, his doublespeak regarding Vietnam and his attempt to get David Halberstam kicked off the Vietnam beat qualified as acts entirely unworthy of the man:
Sailing over to Vietnam
Southeast Asian Birmingham
Well training is the word we use
Nice word to have in case we lose
Training a million Vietnamese
To fight for the wrong government and the American Way
Phil was already under FBI surveillance at this time and I’m sure that expressing the blasphemous belief that America could actually lose a war didn’t improve his reputation at FBI headquarters. The refusal to accept defeat served as the primary motivating factor driving American involvement in Vietnam long after it was obvious that the war was unwinnable, an intervention that wound up lasting for twenty long years.
Twenty years . . . twenty years . . . where have I heard that number before?
The most powerful passages involve more detailed exposure of the “we’re just there to train the Vietnamese” bullshit and the repeated violations of stated American values that marked American foreign policy during the Cold War and beyond:
Well the sergeant said it’s time to train
So I climbed aboard my helicopter plane
We flew above the battleground
A sniper tried to shoot us down
He must have forgotten, we’re only trainees
Them Commies never fight fair
Friends the very next day we trained some more
We burned some villages down to the floor
Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide
Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide
Threw all the people in relocation camps
Under lock and key, made damn sure they’re free
The remaining verses deal with the hypocrisy involving America’s public relations gambit of promoting democracy and freedom while installing and supporting brutal, anti-democratic regimes. Phil mentions Diem and his psychotic wife, Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek, choosing to focus on how the policy manifested itself in eastern Asia. He could have easily expanded that list to include American-supported dictatorships in pre-Castro Cuba, Guatemala, Iran, Spain and Laos. The release of All the News that’s Fit to Sing coincided with the American-backed coup to overthrow democracy in Brazil; the U. S. would invest serious resources in Latin America during the 70s and 80s to unseat democracies and prop up dictatorships under the banner of anti-communism. Capitalist-friendly regime change facilitated by military and CIA involvement remains one of the options on the table in the conduct of American foreign policy to this day, continuing to damage the country’s credibility as a neutral power broker.
Unfortunately, Americans have pretty much tuned the whole thing out, and there isn’t a Phil Ochs around to remind them of what America is supposed to stand for.
“Lou Marsh” honors the memory of the social worker who attempted to intervene in a Spanish Harlem gang brawl and paid for that choice with his life:
He felt their blinding hatred
And he tried to save their lives
And the answer that they gave him
Was their fists and feet and knives
You have to have your head up your ass (like a certain music critic whose name escapes me at the moment) not to perceive the lasting relevance of this song. Lou Marsh was one of those rare people who find their life-purpose early on, as noted in a UPI article written immediately following his murder:
“Greater love hath no man than this. That he lay down his life for his friends.” Lou Marsh read those words of Jesus when he was a boy attending a Baptist Sunday school. He took them as most Christians do as a yardstick of ultimate devotion. He had no way of knowing, then, that he would one day be measured against that yardstick. In hindsight, it seems rather a miracle that Lou Marsh should have had any love at all in him-let alone the supreme kind of love. He was a quiet, serious-minded Negro boy, more sensitive than most to the humiliations and deprivations which were visited upon him while he was growing up in one of Philadelphia’s black ghettoes. Somehow he survived all of the hurts without learning to hate.”
As Phil relates in the song, Marsh would eventually conclude that the church was not up to the task of tackling the poverty and violence of ghetto life:
He left behind the chambers
Of the church he served so long
For he learned the prayers of distant men
Will never right the wrongs
Prayers . . . prayers . . . “thoughts and prayers” . . . the standard response from the distant Second Amendment wackos after every mass murder . . . the same wackos who believe that African-Americans bring poverty upon themselves and are not to be trusted with the vote . . . the ghouls who take pride in the falling poverty rate that has left “only” 45 million people under the poverty line. As the French proved so emphatically in the late 18th century, there is no greater threat to social stability than an impoverished populace, and Phil emphasizes this truth in a moving epitaph:
Will Lou Marsh lie forgotten
In his cold and silent grave?
Will his memory still linger on
In those he tried to save?
And all of us who knew him
Will now and then recall
And shed a tear on poverty,
Tombstone of us all.
Fuck . . . oh, what was that guy’s name? Oh yeah. Fuck Mark Deming.
When describing “Power and Glory,” Phil Ochs told his sister that he was writing “the greatest song I’ll ever write.” Youthful enthusiasm aside, it’s a promising piece with two weaknesses: one, the tempo approaches amphetamine overdose levels; and two, it borrows too much from Woody Guthrie (the first two verses are very reminiscent of “This Land is Your Land”) to make the grade as Phil’s best song ever. The lyrics improve significantly after he finishes with the Guthrie-like travelogue and gets to the point, which turns out to be the main theme of the album: America’s failure to live up to her promise of greatness:
Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)
Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor
Only as free as the padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand
His strongest argument is missing from the version on this album, but you can access the full take with the extra verse on YouTube:
But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom and they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry
We can stop them if we try
Though Ochs was probably referring to the extreme anti-commie crowd and the racist southerners who controlled Congress, you will never find a more accurate description of the Republican Party of Donald Trump. That should tell you something very important: the sickness that led to Trump’s ascension is part-and-parcel of the American psyche. That sickness did not weaken and die after Phil wrote this song, nor in the fifty-plus years of its aftermath, nor will it die out in the foreseeable future.
Tell me again how Phil Ochs has lost his relevance?
“Celia” finds Phil supporting a worldwide effort to secure the release of Filipina feminist and activist Celia Mariano Pomeroy, who was jailed for ten years (along with her American husband, William Pomeroy) for her role in a rebellion rooted in the anti-poverty movement. Both were released at about the same time; Mr. Pomeroy was immediately exiled to the USA but Celia’s entry was denied by the U. S. government. The effort to secure her release was spearheaded by her husband, and the situation was resolved by the time this song was released (the couple took residence in the U. K.). Phil adopts the role of Mr. Pomeroy in this first-person narrative, and though his sentiments are well-meaning, the song itself is rather pedestrian and lacks the emotional punch of his better stuff. Still, it’s a damn sight better than Phil’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s horribly tedious poetic effort, “The Bells,” a piece that should be retitled “Death by Onomatopoeia.”
With “Automation” we finally get around to a good old Phil Ochs working man song, and though this first foray into the celebration of labor isn’t as memorable as some of his later efforts, the theme he establishes is solid and definitely reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s belief (best captured in “Pastures of Plenty”) that when you do the work, you develop an emotional attachment to your labor and to the fruits of that labor that wages do not adequately cover. Capitalism’s greatest blind spot is its obliviousness to the sense of ownership and pride that lay workers feel in their work and the consequent absence of loyalty to the workers when times are bad:
For the wages were low and the hours were long
And the labor was all I could bear
Now you’ve got new machines for to take my place
And you tell me it’s not mine to share
Though I laid down your factories and laid down your fields
With my feet on the ground and my back to your wheels
And now the smoke is rising, the steel is all aglow
I’m walking down a jobless road and where am I to go?
Tell me, where am I to go?
The answer is “nowhere.” You got paid, didn’t ya? Look up “employee” in the dictionary, bud—it means “one who is used.” Well, now you’re useless. Sorry!
Much to Mr. Deming’s eternal discredit, the song that best reveals Phil’s exceptional talent for spotting the Orwellian features of American democracy is one of the songs Deming felt wouldn’t mean that much to you, “Ballad of William Worthy.” Wannabe journalist Ochs only mentions Worthy’s occupation in passing, painting him largely as just another traveler (though he does slip in the pun, “fellow traveler”) who happened to visit a country to which travel was frowned upon by the leaders of the Land of the Free:
Well, it’s of a bold reporter’s story I will tell
He went down to the Cuban land, the nearest place to hell
He’d been there many times before, but now the law does say
The only way to Cuba is with the CIA
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore
But somehow, it is strange to hear the State Department say
“You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay”
Orwellian indeed! Travel to Cuba had not been banned at the time Worthy paid Fidel a visit; his passport was revoked after he returned from “Red China” earlier that year. When he made it back to the USA, he made it through customs just fine with a birth certificate and vaccination record. It was six months after his return that the government heaved a collective “Oops!” and charged him with the fake crime of returning without a passport. Sentenced to the hoosegow by a judge friendly to the Kennedy Administration, his conviction was overturned on appeal. I know the Kennedys had bugs up their butts about Castro, but this vendetta was far more irrational than their hangup with Fidel or Bobby’s obsession with Hoffa. If Cuba was so bad, why on earth wouldn’t you want Americans to go there, if only to better appreciate how good it is back home? If America is truly the greatest country in the world, what the hell could you possibly be afraid of? The hypocrisy here is stunning, as Americans faced no obstacles whatsoever if they wanted to piss away their vacation time visiting a country run by a sadistic dictator:
Five thousand dollars or a five year sentence may well be
For a man who had the nerve to think that travelin’ is free
Oh, why’d he waste his time to see a dictator’s reign
When he could have seen democracy by travelin’ on to Spain?
“Ballad of William Worthy” also features one of Phil’s best vocals on the album, displaying both his excellent articulation (critical for a singing journalist) and his patented audible smirk that comes to the fore when he sings about the absurd actions of those in power.
“Knock on the Door” deals with that sinister sound that accompanies a visit by the Praetorian Guard, Gestapo or the KGB. While Phil covers Rome, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the song makes no connection to the American experience, explicitly or implicitly, making one wonder what Phil was trying to warn us about. That lapse in coherence is forgiven by the second talking song on the album, “Talking Cuban Crisis.” The first verse seems to describe Phil’s reaction to the media’s reaction to Pierre Salinger’s announcement that the President would address the nation that night “on a matter of the highest national urgency.” I could find no evidence to support Phil’s reporting in the second verse, but I get his point:
Well, I didn’t know if I was for or agin’ it
He was yellin’ and screamin’ a mile a minute
Well, he said “Here comes the President
But first this word from Pepsodent
Have whiter teeth
Have cleaner breath
When you’re facin’ nuclear death”
The verse breaks off in the middle to allow Danny Kalb to whip through the melody Pepsodent jingle: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” I was crushed to learn that my trusty TeeVee Toons: The Commercials CD didn’t have a Pepsodent commercial, but I found one on YouTube for you Baby Boomers who want to take a trip down memory lane.
Gee whiz, isn’t the Internet one of the swellest things ever?
Phil’s “reporting” is remarkably balanced, given his admiration for JFK. He generally supports the President on the blockade but tweaks him for his use of that very scary phrase, “full retaliatory response.”
From Turkey and Greece, Formosa and Spain
The peaceful West European Plain
From Alaska and Greenland we’ll use our means
And twenty thousand submarines
We’re gonna teach the Russians a lesson
For trying to upset the balance of power
What I love most about the song is his honest reaction to impending doom (especially because it’s exactly how I would have reacted):
But me, I stood behind a bar
Dreamin’ of a spaceship getaway car
Head for Mars
Any other planet that has bars
I would have stocked my fallout shelter with enough booze and cigarettes to last a century.
“Bound for Glory” is Phil’s heartfelt tribute to Woody Guthrie and his legacy. The lyrics paint a vivid and accurate picture of Guthrie’s travels and his music, but the verse that resonates most with me comes at the end:
Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore,
But so few remember what he was fightin’ for.
Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim,
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?
I think Phil found the answer to that question a few years down the road when he wrote “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and like all people with progressive leanings, I find the endless inaction on matters of critical importance deeply frustrating. For a more complete analysis of “Bound for Glory,” I’m going to send you to an excellent blog devoted to exploring Phil’s music, Shadows That Shine. Enjoy!
Phil teams up with Bob Gibson again for “Too Many Martyrs,” a brief but moving poem about the life and death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The verse that describes the murder is chilling, even more so when you remember it occurred that day after President Kennedy’s famous civil rights speech:
The killer waited by his home hidden by the night
As Evers stepped out from his car into the rifle sight
He slowly squeezed the trigger, the bullet left his side
It struck the heart of every man when Evers fell and died.
The closing line from the chorus, “Oh, let it never be again,” is repeated twice at the end of the song in what would prove to be a hopeless exhortation indeed.
Speaking of failed exhortations, Phil attempts to reignite a sense of hope in the closing song, “What’s That I Hear,” where he exhorts listeners to try to hear the sound of freedom calling. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to feel it himself, delivering the vocal in a rather flat, tired voice that betrays a deeper sense that the journey ahead will be long and hard and that success is anything but certain.
As a woman who was born five years after Phil’s too-early death, I don’t have the emotional attachment to his music that I might have experienced had I lived through the 1960s. My emotional attachment to Phil Ochs arises from a different source—the undeniable quality of his music. I always learn something from listening to Phil Ochs, even when I’ve heard the song a hundred times before. There are few musical artists I’ve listened to whose work is as compelling as that of Phil Ochs, and even when he’s not on his game, his genuine concern for people and for his country makes me want to travel back into the past and tell him, “Don’t worry, kid—we’ll get ’em next time.” Though All the News that’s Fit to Sing falls short of perfection, his potential is obvious, and knowing that there are better works to follow makes me appreciate the start of his amazing trajectory all the more.
After pussyfooting around for way too long (probably a blonde thing), I have now decided to review the Phil Ochs albums I’ve missed: Phil Ochs in Concert, Tape from California, Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. You can expect an Ochs review every four weeks. This is partly self-indulgence—I love exploring Phil Ochs—but my overriding motivation is to pay homage to an artist whose work deserves far more respect and attention than it has received. I hope to make the case that his songs are indeed timeless and extraordinarily relevant to life in the 21st Century.
Wish me luck!
I do not like Paul Simon, man.
I do not like him, Sam-I-Am.
In this version of the Dr. Seuss classic, I play the role of the unnamed character and my asshole father plays Sam-I-Am. Having asked me again and again to review Simon, Garfunkel or both, I thought I had shut the door pretty firmly in my non-review of “The Sounds of Silence” in the Dad’s 45’s Series, Part Three:
“Do I have to, Dad?” “Yes.” “But I can’t stand Simon & Garfunkel.” “Paul Simon is an important American songwriter.” “Paul Simon is just the English major version of Neil Sedaka.” “Come on. He was a more-than-credible poet.” “If he was such a credible poet, why did he have to keep reminding people he was a poet and that Artie was just a one-man band?” “How about if we extend the series to 1968 so you can do ‘Mrs. Robinson?’ Surely you see the value in that song.” “I think it’s a dumb-ass song. They tried to show how hip they were with the ‘I Am the Walrus’ snippet and that reference to DiMaggio was astonishingly racist. Who needed DiMaggio when you had Willie Mays? Was it that the white folk back then didn’t cotton to Willie because he was a black dude?” “Well, if all you’re going to do is trash Paul Simon, then don’t bother.”
In truth, the conversation went on a little longer, and I might have said something like, “If I ever hear a Paul Simon song I like, I’ll review the whole fucking album.”
I wish I wouldn’t have said that . . . but I had no idea that a confluence of global events and a failure in predictive science would conspire against me:
- Wednesday, October 28: Macron announces Lockdown: The Sequel, effective Friday, October 30. Maman calls and suggests I come for dinner Thursday night; I remind her that their house is within the 1 km radius restriction, so what’s the rush? “You never know,” maman replies. My mother has amazing instincts.
- Thursday, October 29: A nut with a knife slices up three people at the Basilique Notre Dame that morning; the authorities place the city on a terror alert. I think it’s best to stay put while the gendarmes round up the usual suspects, so I cancel dinner. Meanwhile, I receive texts from three American friends asking “Are you okay?” I respond to all three as follows: “Thanks for your concern, but have you ever known me to spend any time in a fucking church?” I only know the place because I used to walk by it on my way to the Burger King I patronized for my daily Diet Coke fix.
- October 30-November 2: I spend most of my time fucking, writing and walking the dog, waiting to see how things play out. I chat with maman Monday night and we agree that I’ll come for dinner the following day. She reminds me that Tuesday is Election Day in the USA and cautions me that because my father is in an exceptionally giddy mood due to his fervent belief in a Biden victory I should avoid ruining the good vibes with my equally fervent belief in a Trump coup-d’état. Good girl that I am, I agree to her conditions.
My partner, dog and I arrived at about 5 p.m. Tuesday evening, long before the polls closed in the States, but early enough to ensure we’d be able to get home before the 9 p.m. curfew. Dad was in the living room listening to a playlist of some of his favorite tunes; after acknowledging his presence with socially-distanced V-for-Victory signs, we headed to the kitchen to help with meal preparation. When I had completed my tasks, I wandered back to the living room and started thumbing through Dad’s LP collection, looking for a couple of vinyl versions on my to-do list. Every now and then Dad would belt out a line with noticeable and slightly off-key enthusiasm—“Everybody must get stoned” and “She’s got it, yeah baby, she’s got it.” I kept thumbing, half-listening, sometimes humming, occasionally moving my hips to the more appealing beats.
“What are you doing?”
I thought it was kind of obvious and wanted to respond with some snark, but I remembered maman’s injunction to avoid spoiling the mood. “Well, I was looking to see if you had a copy of Masterpieces by Ellington . . . ”
“No, no. What is your body doing?”
I didn’t know what the fuck he was asking me. How should I respond? Breathing? Monitoring my metabolic rate and making the necessary cellular adjustments? I opted for clarification. “What do you mean?”
“You were wiggling your ass.”
“Okay—I always wiggle my ass to the beat when—”
“You were wiggling your ass to Paul Simon!”
“Bullshit. You know I don’t like Paul Simon.”
“Your ass says differently.”
Continuing to luxuriate in his oversized comfy chair with my pooch in his lap, Dad used his remote to flip back to the previous song, which, much to my dismay, turned out to be “You Can Call Me Al.”
“Okay, so what?” I respond with some trepidation.
“Well, I distinctly remember that you said something about if you ever found a Paul Simon song you’d like, you’d review that album.”
“Fuck,” I said under my breath. I thought old guys were supposed to be losing their memories.
“So, while you’re thumbing through the collection, why don’t you save yourself a little time and thumb over to “S”, where you’ll find Graceland under Simon, Paul. Give it a try.”
“Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.”
“Fuck,” I repeated, uncontrollably shaking my ass to the African beats.
To be honest, I was kind of surprised that Dad didn’t nail me before that conversation: I made a semi-positive comment about Graceland in my review of Future Games, where I related a conversation involving the album in which he was a participant. Perhaps the intensity of my overreaction to Simon & Garfunkel caused that thought to linger in his psyche and dismiss contrary evidence as fake news.
I hope that’s the last time I use that phrase.
The truth is I really didn’t mind hearing Graceland when it came up in the rotation on the home stereo during my youth—I just didn’t take it all that seriously. I’ve always considered Paul Simon something of a lightweight, an opinion that hardened as I explored the work of his contemporaries. Can you imagine Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs writing cutesy-wootsy crap like “59th Street Bridge Song,” “Kodachrome” or “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover?” I’d classify his early work as “Pop Songs for Virgin English Majors,” marked by poetic pretense and very little depth. His most acclaimed early-period work, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” is the funeral song I never want to hear at my funeral.
Wait a minute . . . I’ll be dead, so . . .
I considered Paul Simon a competent pop songwriter, producing superficially intellectual versions of Brill Building tunes. He mastered the formulas at an early age, shifting his style and subject matter in lockstep with the changing tastes of the listening audience. That opinion still stands.
Two things happened to make Graceland the exception to the rule. The first was the lackluster chart performance of the album Hearts and Bones, an album snarkily described by Robert Christgau as “a finely wrought dead end.” Since he had no chance of turning himself into Madonna or Prince (the new favored children at Warner), the label wrote him off as a has-been and couldn’t have cared less about what Paul Simon was going to do next. As Simon himself pointed out, the label’s indifference freed him from the pressure of producing something salable according to schedule. He was free to explore other possibilities.
Those possibilities came in the form of a bootleg cassette of South African street music (mbaqanga), identified in the documentary Under African Skies as Accordion Jive Hits Vol II by the Boyoyo Boys. In the film, Simon recalls how he couldn’t stop listening to what would have been a primitive recording at best, entranced by the music and the enthusiastic beat. He asked a pal at Warner to track down the artists; Warner did him one better by hooking him up with South African record producer Hilton Rosenthal, who sent him a stack of recordings of black artists and suggested he record an album of South African music.
Simon thought that was a great idea and resolved to go to South Africa because he wanted to “work with people whose music I greatly admired.” The problem he faced was the U. N. cultural boycott, which required member countries “to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges” with the apartheid government and specifically ordered “writers, artists, musicians” to stay the hell away. After talking it over with Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones—and after receiving the full support of the South African black musicians union—he decided to make the trip.
What he did not do (though Harry Belafonte recommended he do so) was clear his visit with the African National Congress (ANC), an oversight that would lead to a whole lot of grief in the future. From Simon’s perspective, the visit had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with artists connecting with artists. He would be attacked for what the cognoscenti considered naïveté, but I fully understand and support his perspective. Music is a far more unifying force than politics and cultural exchange is vital to our survival as a species. The black musicians wanted him to come because they saw the opportunity to share their music with a world audience, which they should have had every right to do.
And no, Paul Simon did not exploit the musicians from a perspective of white privilege. He did what white people are supposed to do: he used his privilege to try to improve the lives of the underprivileged and even the playing field. He paid the musicians triple the New York hourly studio rates earned by elite session men. He gave them credit for their work on compositions, allowing them to earn royalties. He flew them to New York to help with the recording process and enabled them to see (and delight) millions through an extensive world tour. Whether you like the music on Graceland or not (and I haven’t weighed in on that aspect of the story yet), Paul Simon’s role in this story is above reproach.
Once he arrived in Johannesburg, Simon spent two weeks in the studio with the best musicians Rosenthal could recruit. Except for his intent to record one of the songs on the cassette (“Gumboots”), the sessions consisted of unstructured jams peppered with nonsense lyrics and scat that Simon hoped would yield workable phrases and themes he could transform into album tracks. Though the music they played wasn’t particularly complex, Simon had some difficulty getting in sync because he was used to writing songs based on chords, while the foundation of modern South African music is the bass part. Engineer Roy Halee picked up on this when editing and mixing Graceland: “The bassline is what the album is all about. It’s the essence of everything that happened.”
Interestingly enough for a self-styled poet, the lyrics to the songs on Graceland weren’t written until after Halee and Simon had painstakingly built the music from the recording scraps. Simon had to learn how to sync the meter of his poetry with the bassline, which in turn forced him to honor the virtues of poetic economy. This imposed discipline severely limited the tendency of Simon to go “too cute” or “try too hard to be hip,” as evident in his earlier work.
This is a very brief summary of the backstory; if you want to know more, Under African Skies is an unusually balanced and often moving story of Graceland and its worldwide impact.
Now . . . let me recite my mantra and then we’ll get to the songs.
“Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.”
“Boy in the Bubble” opens with the distinctive sound of Forere Motloheloa’s piano accordion, immediately signaling a departure from the guitar song norm. That perception is quickly confirmed by the subsequent appearance of four shocking, thunderous beats from Vusi Khumalo on the toms and the warped tones of Bakithi Kumalo’s bass. Motloheloa’s core riff came from a song he wrote as leader of the band Tau Ea Matsekha, a song about “paying tribute to a beautiful woman who he found and is happy with.” The song was included in the album pile Rosenthal sent to Simon, who checkmarked it as something he wanted to explore in the Johannesburg jam sessions.
The music that came out of that session and through the editing process certainly doesn’t have the feel of an ode to female beauty. The minor key and strong forward movement communicate a tense urgency—and the opening verse is in perfect sync with that subliminal message:
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
Simon said the song was about the dichotomy of “hope and dread,” but that abstraction lacks the power communicated by his juxtaposition of bomb and baby carriage. The verse depicts both calm and storm, evoking the curious historical pattern of major disasters occurring on days of calm, sunny weather. December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. When witnesses to those events talk about their experiences, their stories often begin with phrases like “it was a quiet Sunday morning,” “it was a perfect day in Dallas,” “the skies over New York were clear and cloudless.” When those folks mention the weather, they’re struggling to grasp the senselessness, the shock of a sudden life-changing event.
Simon then proceeds to shock the listener with the first line of the chorus, “These are the days of miracle and wonder,” a phrase that comes across as incredibly tone-deaf following the depiction of an act of terror, but actually reflects a profound understanding of the dichotomous nature of human existence. Yin and yang. Darkness and light. Good and evil. Radios are delightful when they play your favorite tunes and radios can become instruments of evil when wired to set off an explosion—both applications are the result of human “ingenuity.” Remaining true to his narrative of a dichotomous reality, Simon repeats “These are the days of miracle and wonder” at the end of the chorus, but follows it with the paradoxical “And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry/Don’t cry.” Our miracles and wonders always exact a price, as most clearly demonstrated in the systematic disruption that follows every major technological innovation and wreaks havoc on the working classes.
Verse two is a bit obscure but deals with the greatest dichotomy of them all—the cycle of life and death. Verse three is the most exuberant, with Simon’s thoughts spilling over into a sort of appended verse set to the music of the chorus. The overflow communicates the exciting and terrifying speed of change, the danger of “staccato signals of constant information” (prescient, given that Graceland is pre-Internet) and Simon’s perceptive insight into who’s running the show (he provides a succinct description of how the world works in Under African Skies):
It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
Think of the boy in the bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
If you’re struggling to find contemporary examples of how a technological development that appears to be a good thing turns out to be a very, very bad thing because of the power held by “a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires,” look no further than your Facebook home page. “Boy in the Bubble” isn’t dated in the least—Simon succinctly describes the essential struggle of the human race at this point in the evolutionary cycle, brilliantly integrating those lyrics with a mix of musical styles and diverse instrumentation.
I have at least one important qualification for reviewing the song “Graceland.” I’ve actually been there! I sat in the pink Jeep from Blue Hawaii, visited the well-tended gravesite and marveled at the exquisite bad taste of the Jungle Room. I hung out in the gift shop, filled with matronly southern women with their silvery-gray hair wrapped up in buns cradling armfuls of Elvis memorabilia. While visiting Memphis, I also explored the scene on Beale Street, just missed the duck parade at the Peabody Hotel and witnessed the brutal poverty of the Mississippi Delta.
Paul Simon took pretty much the same trip, but for different reasons (I just wanted to listen to some music, experience the history and have a good time). He had been working on the lyrics to one of the songs and used the term “Graceland” as temporary filler until something better came along. For some damned reason, “Graceland” wouldn’t go away, so he decided to fly down and give it a look-see. It can’t be stressed enough that this was Paul Simon acting on instincts and following his whimsy, as befits a recording artist whose record company had pretty much given up on him. He had the great good fortune to experience a blessed moment of artistic freedom, a very rare occurrence in any artist’s life, no matter where they are in the hierarchy.
What blows me away about “Graceland” is how completely Paul Simon captured the mood and symbolic meaning of the place. When I visited, the atmosphere was one of relative stillness, even with all the tourists passing through. These were people on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, lowering their voices to near-whispers out of respect for the sacred environment. The faces of the visitors as they departed radiated an almost spiritual serenity as if the experience was healing in some way—as if being with Elvis had helped them recover from some kind of pain or difficulty.
Simon’s pilgrimage begins with a jaunt through “The Mississippi Delta . . . shining like a National Guitar,” following the river of life through “the cradle of the Civil War,” on his way to join the American hadj as it converges toward the hallowed ground:
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
At this point, Paul Simon could have taken the path forged by Ray Davies’s alt-Norman character in Soap Opera, explained to the listening audience “I’m doing research for one of my songs,” and written a cute little number about this “crazy” place he decided to visit on one of his pop star whims (Paul Simon’s greatest sin has to be the overuse of the word “crazy”). Fortunately for posterity, the Paul Simon who wrote “Graceland” had been recently humbled by commercial failure and crushed by the collapse of his marriage to Carrie Fisher. As he approaches the shrine, memories of that loss come to the fore, forcing him to realize that like all the other pilgrims headed to Graceland, he is searching for an experience that might heal his wounds:
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “Losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.”
Tragedy has the virtue of eliminating the need for pretense; no matter how much you try to put up a brave front, people can see and feel your pain. Simon arrives at Graceland, looks at the people surrounding him and realizes they are one and the same: human beings trying to deal with deep existential pain coming together in shared grief in their search for some kind of comfort:
And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
I may come across as a cynical, cold-hearted bitch at times, but I was actually quite moved by my visit to Graceland and I felt nothing but love and respect for those matrons clutching their Elvis relics while wiping away an occasional tear. I think Paul Simon felt the same way—his humiliations made him one of us, “tumbling in turmoil,” part of the multitude of ghosts and empties sharing a profound sense of loss.
Shit. Seven paragraphs and three long quotes into this song review and I haven’t even mentioned the music! I could do seven paragraphs on Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass part alone, a collage of arpeggios, truncated phrases and ghost notes that punctuate the rhythm from the drums and percussion while establishing complementary rhythms that propel the song forward. Or Ray Phiri’s amazingly fluid and diverse lead guitar, featuring toned-down, high-speed arpeggios in the background with lovely melody-enhancing solos. And then we have The Everly Brothers handling the harmonies on the chorus in one of the sweetest examples of icing on the cake in my musical memory. While I remain totally baffled by “Mrs. Robinson” winning the Grammy for Record of the Year, I have no issues with “Graceland” winning the 1987 award—it’s a great song with great performances all around.
After two fairly deep pieces, Simon shifts to the lighter side with a song about a Manhattan soirée in “I Know What I Know.” The Johannesburg recording was a family affair, with members of General M.D. Shirinda and The Gaza Sisters inviting children and siblings to the studio. The intro features a noticeably brisk and loud guitar accompanied by an enhanced snare attack that certainly grabs the listener’s attention and then some, so it’s something of a relief when they ease into a background role. The semi-random appearances of The Gaza Sisters singing in the Shangaan language and dropping in sets of joyful whoops from time to time add to the absurd party atmosphere. While the song doesn’t explore the passive-aggressive toxicity of these dreadful parties to the extent that Phil Ochs does in “The Party,” Simon does a fine job of recording for posterity the witless conversations focused solely on sniffing out a partygoer’s status so one can decide if they’re worth the effort. The song sort of collapses into the next track, “Gumboots,” the song that initially led Simon down the path that wound up in Graceland. It turns out to be more of a zydeco number with its breakneck speed and deft accordion, but the lyrics feel like pre-Graceland Paul Simon with too many cute turns of phrase (“I said hey Senorita that’s astute/I said why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute”). Tuning out the lyrics does allow the listener to appreciate the lovely background vocals of Diane Garisto and Michelle Cobbs.
Side One ends on a positive note with “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” featuring the marvelous choral work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I love the sound of deep male voices and the inherent melody and rhythms in many African languages, so listening to the a capella introduction is a special treat for me (I also love the way Ladysmith’s gruff timbre contrasts with Paul Simon’s smooth and gentle vocal). Ray Phiri’s distinctive guitar opens the song proper, set to a mid-tempo sway with exceptional contributions from the percussion quartet and horn trio. The lyrics aren’t much to write home about, a sort of non-story about a rich girl and a poor boy that somehow results in the equalizing experience of “Sleeping in a doorway/By the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway” without much explanation as to how they got there. Simon also resorts to his habitual use of the word “crazy,” convincing me that it’s his all-purpose go-to when the language center in his brain goes on the fritz. The best lyrics in the song can be found in Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s introduction, translated from Zulu as “It’s not usual but in our days we see those things happen. They are women, they can take care of themselves.”
YES WE CAN!
Flipping over to Side Two, we engage with the song that got me into trouble in the first place, “You Can Call Me Al.” The song has a noticeably different feel than the other songs on Graceland, having been recorded entirely in New York, but the continuing presence of Phiri, Kumalo and Ladysmith provide an ample measure of continuity. The groove that set my ass to waggin’ was the work of arranger and synthesizer man Rob Mounsey, who combined a nine-piece horn section with unique bass and percussion contributions to keep the beat moving. I don’t know how anyone can help themselves from ass-wagging to this song—it’s superb, street-struttin’ stuff.
Paul Simon gave a rather vague and confusing explanation of the song in an interview with SongTalk magazine, probably because the guy in the song going through his mid-life crisis who finds himself getting “soft in the middle” and in need of a photo-opportunity pretty much describes Paul Simon at this point in his life. It’s not entirely biographical; I doubt very much if Simon lost his faith in role models because (not being an Evangelical Christian) his hero “ducked back down the alley with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl.” However, he does admit that the last verse is autobiographical in the sense of describing the culture shock he experienced in South Africa. What he describes is not specifically tied to his experience but generalized to depict the average American, lost and clueless in foreign climes:
A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says, “Amen and Hallelujah!”
Of course he would. On sensory overload with all those furriners speakin’ funny and his dollars worthless, he chooses to chalk it all up to his god rather than trying to engage with the natives and maybe learn something in the process.
The sexy, sassy sound of “You Can Call Me Al” gives way to the occasionally more soothing but still intensely rhythmic “Under African Skies.” The softer sounds come from the Simon-Linda Ronstadt duet in the verses; the rhythm was described by Hilton Rosenthal in the liner notes as “a Zulu walking rhythm,” a modestly assertive, prideful gait. Both vocalists raise the intensity in the chorus, though only Ronstadt reaches full belt-out mode.
The “Joseph” in the song probably refers to Joseph Shabalala, leader of Ladysmith Black Mombazo and not the New Testament Joseph, as the often-wrong Stephen Holden has asserted. The lyrics promise “the story of how we begin to remember” but I’ve searched high and low and can find no evidence of such a narrative. I do know that the narrator (such as it is) cannot be Paul Simon, who was born far away from Tuscon, Arizona and, unless he is hiding a very big secret, is not a girl (“Give her the wings to fly through harmony”). There are indeed some attractive lines in the lyrics (“This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein”), but beyond the spare description of Joseph, not much in the way of coherence. I think the music is beautiful and I love the work of Ray Phiri and Bakithi Kumalo (again), but after hearing recordings of the live version with Miriam Makeba taking Ronstadt’s role, I find the original comparatively disappointing.
According to Songfacts, “When he returned to America, Simon wrote “Homeless” and put a demo of the song on a tape, which he sent to the group (Ladysmith Black Mambazo), letting them know they could change it any way they wanted. The demo cassette was Simon on piano singing only the line, ‘We are homeless, homeless, moonlight sleeping on the midnight lake.’ Shabalala continued the story in Zulu to complete the songwriting process.” What he did was borrow some of the lines from a traditional Zulu wedding song, resulting in a set of lyrics where “homeless” takes on multiple meanings, none of which sync with the modern Western definition of homelessness as a phenomenon resulting from income disparity, technological progress and property rights:
- In the context of a Zulu marriage proposal, the word is used as an argument for union, as in “we are homeless now, but together we can create a home.” That’s sweet.
- Another translation (from Shabalala) of the introductory lines describes a temporary, nomadic existence: “We’re far away from home and we’re sleeping. Our fists are our pillows.”
- A subsequent passage (beginning with “Zio yami”) translates roughly into “My heart, you have killed me from the cold,” equating homelessness with loneliness.
- The English lyrics sung by Ladysmith also describe the displacement of people following a major storm (“Strong wind destroy our home/Many dead, tonight it could be you”).
And though Paul Simon did not want Graceland to be a political record—a naïve wish if there ever was one, given the nature of apartheid—the subtext can easily be interpreted to equate apartheid with homelessness, in the sense of living within the geographical boundaries of a state while being excluded from participating in the creation and sustenance of that state. The line “Somebody cry why, why, why?” is political, whether Paul Simon likes it or not.
Lyrics and language aside, “Homeless” is a mesmerizing and moving choral performance, thankfully delivered a capella. If you ever joined a school chorus or a church choir, you know it takes a lot of practice to get all the voices in sync—and I’m just talking about getting everyone to hit the right notes. The great choral groups go beyond that and connect on a spiritual level, with each individual feeding off the energy of the others and giving it back in return. You hear that very clearly in Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance on “Homeless,” where the group completely immerses itself into the music and the shared experience, intuitively responding on all levels—dynamic, rhythmic and emotional. What’s even more remarkable is that Paul Simon’s contributions don’t feel at all like those of an outsider—he also catches the spirit and delivers appropriately impassioned lines. I can’t listen to “Homeless” without tearing up, and the source of those tears come from both the bitter sense of injustice forced on those remarkably gifted artists but also the awesome beauty of human voices joining together in spirit and song.
Let me take a moment . . . Paul Simon is about to go crazy on me.
I was stunned to learn that Simon hadn’t planned to include “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” on Graceland until a combination of an unexpected performance on Saturday Night Live and a Warner-imposed delay of its release caused him to reconsider. I wish they’d excluded “Crazy Love, Vol. II,” a song about a loathsome character improbably named Fat Charlie the Archangel who approaches the prospect of divorce with equally loathsome stoicism. Ray Phiri’s band Stimela provides the background music, which is easily the best part of the piece, but their talents are wasted here. I don’t exactly why this phrase came to mind, but I’ll spring it on you anyway: this song is nowheresville, daddio.
Paul Simon wanted a couple of tracks that connected African and American music, so he popped down to Lousiana and found a real zydeco band complete with washboard by the name of Good Rockin’ Dopsie And The Twisters to deliver the goods on “That Was Your Mother.” This is a sprightly little number with Alton Jay Rubin (aka Rockin’ Dopsie) on accordion supplying counterpoint rhythm and fills and a solid sax solo from a gent named Johnny Hoyt. The tale involves a father relating to the son the circumstances behind his birth; dad is your classic traveling salesman who hit the road in search of booze, broads and good-time music (not necessarily in that order). While “standing on the corner of Lafayette,” a “young girl, pretty as a prayerbook,” happens by . . . and I guess something happened between the two to produce a kid, but Simon gives us no information as to how or how quickly consummation took place, nor does he imply that the kid was the result of a virgin birth. But while Simon may be squeamish about sex, his narrator pulls no punches when he tells the son his appearance on the scene was not particularly welcomed:
Well, that was your mother
And that was your father
Before you was born dude
When life was great
You are the burden of my generation
I sure do love you
But let’s get that straight
Joe Strummer waxed lyrical about the line, “Before you was born dude/When life was great,” and I have to admit I had to laugh at the sheer honesty of the statement—perhaps the loose feel of zydeco makes it feel okay . . . oh, hell, I’ll admit it—I never wanted kids and it’s exactly what I would have said to a kid had I ever been so unfortunate to have one.
For the finale, Simon flew over to East L. A. to work with Los Lobos, an exceptionally talented rock band versed in multiple styles who at the time were a year away from their breakthrough hit (“La Bamba”). The song that came out of the session was saddled with the unwieldy title “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.” The lyrics are about . . . a former talk-show host, no . . . a former army post, no . . . okay, it’s the talk show host . . . well, the lyrics make little sense and I would like to nominate the line “ever since the watermelon” for Worst Line to Ever Appear in a Paul Simon Song. If you put the lyrics aside and focus on Paul Simon’s intent to link African and American influences, the song works, largely because Los Lobos kicks ass right from the get-go. The intro featuring Louie Perez banging a steady beat and Conrad Lozano ripping it on the bass is a great warmer-upper, and both David Hidalgo (accordion) and Cesar Rojas (guitar) keep the heart pumping with propulsive power. Though I don’t think much of the song, the enthusiastic performance of the band allows us to leave Graceland on a perfectly natural high.
On to the reckoning . . . Graceland is an outstanding piece of work featuring fabulous and inspiring music played by world-class musicians and engineered to near perfection. While there are a couple of lyrical misses, the album contains at least three certifiable masterpieces of the songwriting art and several top-tier tracks guaranteed to elicit a smile and some energetic hip-shaking. Graceland had an enormous impact throughout the world, exceeding anything Paul Simon could have hoped for when he made the courageous decision to work with black South African musicians. And yes, the album had a political impact—by giving those musicians worldwide exposure, Simon transformed apartheid from an abstraction to a tangible evil oppressing the lives of real human beings with hearts, souls and undeniable ability. Both the music and the story of Graceland are deeply moving, and it certainly deserves to be included in any discussion of the greatest albums of all-time.
Sigh. It takes a big girl to admit she’s wrong, and though I’m only 5’6″ and 122 pounds, I think I can do this.
I like Paul Simon, man!
I do! I like him, Sam-I-am!
And I would listen to him in a boat
And I would listen to him on a goat
Okay, I think that’s enough. Ciao!