Tag Archives: altrockchick

Paul Simon – Graceland – Classic Music Review

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.”

“Deal!”

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
Memphis, Tennessee
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
In Graceland

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
In Graceland

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.

Deep breath.

Here goes.

Say!
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!

Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler – Neck and Neck – Classic Music Review

This is a complete rewrite of a review I published during my first year of blogging when I tried very hard to obey the common wisdom that short posts are the way to go because no one has time to read anymore.

Looking back on those reviews today, I would describe my writing as “utterly vacuous crapola” . . . which also happens to reflect my feelings about most contemporary music criticism. If the purpose of music criticism is to present a point of view that might enlighten, educate or inspire a reader to form a different opinion, then arbitrarily limiting the word count is the dumbest approach imaginable.

Although it took some time to sing “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” my approach now is to ignore word count, make the necessary apologies for my long-windedness and write as many words as demanded by the subject matter. Hence, an empty piece of garbage like the Spice Girls’ debut album earns as few words as possible, while richer pieces of work like Setting Sons or Dig Me Out deserve a more complete analysis.

This probably isn’t the only review I’m going to revisit, but I decided to start with this one because: a.) with all the political tension in the world today I thought it would be nice to listen to something completely apolitical;  b.) Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler formed a highly simpatico duo, and; c.) with people all over the globe are feeling pretty grumpy these days with this bitch of a pandemic, I figured we all need something to make us smile—and Neck and Neck is an absolute hoot!

The concept of “feel” in music is usually associated with the style of music in play: this song has a Latin feel; that song has sort of a jazzy feel. In that sense, the most obvious “feel” on Neck and Neck is American Country (with the exception of their cover of the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grapelli number “Tears”). But there’s another aspect of feel that has nothing to do with style but is much more important—the feel that involves the relationship between the musician and the music (if soloing) or the relationship encompassing the music and multiple musicians. It has nothing to do with “playing the right notes,” but playing the notes in ways that resonate with emotions and spirit.

Since jazz and rock aren’t terribly concerned with the right notes, the contrast is best demonstrated in classical music, where sounding the right notes is more important. When I listen to Herbert von Karajan’s take on Schubert’s No. 9 Symphony (also known as the Great or Great C Major), the musicians play all the right notes but the music sounds cold and dead to me. On the other hand, the same work conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is a bona fide aesthetic experience that thrills me to the depths of my soul. Somehow Sawallish managed to inspire a rather large group of professional musicians to not only nail the notes but imbue the music with the same passion he felt for the work.

Though the guitar work on Neck and Neck is best-of-class, it’s the feel of the album that is most impressive. Both Atkins and Knopfler had already achieved recognition as guitar masters, so neither had anything to prove to the other. Knopfler grew up listening to Atkins, but Chet wasn’t the type to put on airs and welcomed the opportunity to play with someone as committed to guitar excellence as he was. Though each displayed a signature style, both men were finger-pickers, in itself a distinctive approach to the electric guitar that allows for more precise string muting and the opportunity to pluck strings with a distinctive snap. All of these varying influences—combined with superb song selection and a fabulous supportive cast of music pros who left their egos at the door—merged together to make Neck and Neck an album that . . . well, it just feels damned good to listen to it, from beginning to end.

The festivities kick off with “Poor Boy Blues,” an upbeat country tune based on an old blues number, modified by a British emigré named Paul Kennerly whose primary claim to fame involved producing and marrying Emmylou Harris. The vocal is a duet featuring Chet and country star Vince Gill, both men adopting a tone of shy melancholy reflecting the modesty of a poor country boy asking for the hand of his best girl, knowing his bank account balance is equally modest. The first distinctive guitar sound you hear comes from neither Chet nor Mark but steel guitarist par excellence Paul Franklin, who had done some work with Dire Straits. Our first Chet-Mark duet doesn’t begin until 1:22 when Knopfler starts picking on his Pensa Suhr in the center-left position; Chet responds at about 1:43 in the center-right position (one billion thank yous to Ingo Raven and Jean-François Convert, who sorted out all of the album’s guitar work on Ingo’s Mark Knopfler Guitar Site). As Ingo points out, those positions remain constant throughout the album, so you can easily identify who is playing a particular solo and study the stylistic differences between the two guitarists. The back-and-forth continues throughout the song, delighting the listener with remarkable displays of clean finger-picking (Knopfler also deserves credit for the overdubbed rhythm guitar and strumming). Regular readers know I am prone to bitch about the excessive use and misapplication of reverb in popular music, but I’ve got nothing to bitch about here—the reverb on all three guitars is as clean and clear as a mountain stream, a clarity obviously facilitated by the talent of the guitarists. “Poor Boy Blues” is not only a great opening number but a sort of overture anticipating the good times still to come.

The legendary Don Gibson-Patsy Cline “Sweet Dreams” follows, the opening notes reserved for Floyd Cramer’s lovely piano, which will provide counterpoints and fills throughout the piece. With Paul Franklin supplying the dreamscape through his lovely slides, Mark’s solos emphasize the bluesier aspects of the song while Chet explores the melodic side. The result is a perfectly sweet and respectful cover of a country classic, much sweeter and gentler than Roy Buchanan’s more aggressive but equally superb take on the song.

The album’s good vibes are most apparent in the remake of the frequently-covered jazz classic “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” with Knopfler playing the role of Doubting Thomas to Chet’s desire to transform himself into an ’80s teen idol:

There’ll be a change in the weather and a change in the scene,
I’m gonna start wearin’ leather and change my routine,
I’ll wear dark glasses, maybe a toupee,
I’ll get down and boogie and become risqué.
I’ll start wearin’ makeup, like Jackson and Prince,
You’ll see me riding in my Mercedes-Benz.
Nobody wants you when you just play guitar,
There’ll be some changes made tomorrow; there’ll be some changes made.

Oh, man, I do NOT want to even imagine Chet Atkins in drag. Thankfully, Knopfler responds: “You know, Chet, you’re never going to get to play that rock ‘n’ roll.” “Well, why is that?” Chet queries. “You’re kinda country . . . just a little bit old?” “That hurts!”

Chet then continues with a reference to a famous Dire Straits song: “Want your money for nothing and your chicks for free.” In response Mark suggests that “them groupie girls ain’t what they’re cracked up to be,” but Chet is determined: “Well, I’d really like to find out . . . for myself, don’t you know? I’ve had a kind of quiet life down here on Music Row.” At this point, Mark backs off and allows Chet to keep his fantasy, opening the way for some competitive fun between the two great finger-pickers, seasoned by laughter and playful banter (“I learned this in summer bible school” . . . (Chet to Mark): “Pretty good but you’re no Mark Knopfler” and “Don’t make me look bad now . . . respect for your elders!”) The comedy is superb and the guitar duet even better—“There’ll Be Some Changes Made” is an absolute gas.

The boys tone it down a bit for another Don Gibson classic, “Just One Time.” It’s the perfect song for Mark Knopfler’s very limited vocal range, and with a bit of help from Chet on the harmonies, he gives us a sincere and subtle performance. “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” written by longtime country songsmith Randy Goodrum won the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Poor Boy Blues” took the complementary vocal award). The arrangement has classical overtones, with fiddler Mark O’Connor tilting his performance towards that more formal approach, and the sweet tones coming from Atkins and Knopfler combine with that mournful fiddle to create a show-stopping moment of melancholy serenity. Absolutely beautiful.

My only complaint regarding Neck and Neck has to do with the placement of “Yakety Axe,” a remodeling of Chet’s 1965 hit featuring a new arrangement and lyrics courtesy of Merle Travis. After “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” there I am feeling all snuggly, cuddly, safe and warm and WHAM! Chet’s sharp-toned picking ejects me from dreamland long before I was ready. I have no problem with the song (the picking is pretty damned hot), but jeez, give me a moment to get out of my comfy little corner of the world, for fuck’s sake!

We return to dreamland courtesy of the sound of acoustic guitar and violin in a cover of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s “Tears.” I’m delighted that they chose this version of the song as opposed to the Django-only rendition, which features some of his most aggressive guitar work; the Grappelli version replicated here is grounded in a slower tempo, allowing the listener to better appreciate the melody and counterpoint coming from both guitar and violin. It’s also nice to hear both men apply their exquisite finger-picking skills to the acoustic guitar, still creating beautiful tones without internal wiring.

“Tahitian Skies” combines acoustic, electric and steel guitar, with Knopfler doubling up on acoustic guitar and electric guitar solos. Mark O’Connor adds a touch of mandolin to yet another dreamy and delightful track. Speaking of dreams, next up is “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a remake of the 1924 hit that spent seven weeks on top of the charts. The highlight here is Knopfler’s amazing arpeggios in his first solo—I’m absolutely convinced the man used all eight fingers and both thumbs to pull it off.

The good times had to end sooner or later, and here they end with the only original contribution on the album, Mark Knopfler’s “The Next Time I’m in Town,” a song about a guy saying good-bye to his long-distance lover as he gets ready to climb into the cab of his big rig or grab a cab to catch the last flight out. Featuring a larger cast than any of the other numbers on the album, it forms a perfect farewell number that gives O’Connor and Franklin a chance to take their bows along with the two leads and Vince Gill to participate in the three-part harmony on the stop-time rendition of the chorus—which also serves as a nice farewell to the listening audience:

Now it’s been something seeing you again
In this time we’ve had to spend
You’ve been so good to be around
I thank you for that special thrill
Keep me going on until
The next time I’m in town

Let me close with a little tip for you: Instead of fretting about Election Day in America, this fucking relentless and oppressive virus and the fact that all life on the planet may be wiped out in oh, fifty years or so . . .  put aside a measly 39 minutes of your crummy day to listen to Neck and Neck. Even when things are going to hell and a handbasket, we all have the right to smile every now and then . . . and I can’t think of a better reminder that there is a lot of good in this world of ours than Neck and Neck.

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