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!
A breakthrough album fifteen years in the making . . . the culmination of a long road that wound and unwound several times, snaking off in a myriad of directions . . . a journey of starts and stops that led at least one member to believe “that I’d misspent my youth in a crap retro band when I could have had a proper job.”
Fortunately for posterity, Russell Senior and the other members of Pulp hung in there long enough for the breaks to finally fall their way. The Pulp before His ‘N’ Hers showed flashes of brilliance but also a stubborn inconsistency that cooled major label interest. Two years prior to the album’s release, Pulp finally revealed indications of a signature sound and style in the form of a couple of well-received singles that caught the attention of Island Records, giving the band the opportunity to reach a wider audience—an opportunity multiplied to the nth degree by their good fortune to have stumbled onto the emerging Britpop scene.
The primary weakness of His ‘N’ Hers (as noted in my review of Different Class) is technical—the mix isn’t clean enough to properly separate Jarvis Cocker’s voice and give it the clarity it deserves. A good set of headphones pretty much resolves that problem, allowing the listener to thoroughly enjoy Cocker’s witty tales and keen insight into socio-cultural dynamics. The compositions on His ‘N’ Hers feel more disciplined and intentional than their earlier work, and though the album still retains some of the synth pop/dance sound that marked Separations, there is greater integration of keyboards, guitar and bass to balance things out and give the music more muscle.
“Joyriders” is a composition combining two distinct moods, one in the verses and one in the bridge. I’d characterize the verse mood as “drunkenly playful with underlying tension,” largely formed by Steve Mackey’s growling bass and Nick Banks’ loose drumming. Here Jarvis answers the age-old question, “What do teenage boys do when puberty’s flood of testosterone disables brain cell development?” “Stupid shit,” responds Mr. Cocker, albeit in more insightful language:
We can’t help it, we’re so thick we can’t think,
Can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.
Oh, and we like women;
“Up the women” we say,
And if we get lucky,
We might even meet some one day.
Oh you, you in the Jesus sandals,
Wouldn’t you like to come
Over and watch some vandals smashing up someone’s home?
If I didn’t know that this song was written when the Internet was still in its infancy, I would have assumed that the song was about incels, those “involuntary celibates” who inhabit an ugly corner of cyberspace where discussion is “often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity and self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people (Wikipedia).” While we may laugh at the punch line, “And if we get lucky/We might even meet some one day,” boys like those depicted here and in the incel community embrace their toxic masculinity, representing a real danger to the social fabric.
That danger is expressed best in the music of the bridge, which follows an abrupt halt to the driving music of the verses. Though Pulp has slowed the tempo and adjusted the chord pattern, what’s most important from a compositional perspective is what they didn’t change—the general chord structure of opening with a C major chord while ending with the slightly-off B major chord, one long half-step away from resolution. The tension created by that out-of-place chord is tripled in the various recitations of the bridge, forming moments like those scenes in horror flicks when instead of running away from danger, the dumb ass heads straight for the closed door. Things get really creepy in the last go-round when Jarvis whispers the first two lines then lowers his voice on the truncated closing line (I love Candida Doyle’s eerie piano sequence here). The exhibitionist phrase “don’t you want to come and see?” is gone, placing all the focus on the tragedy:
Mister, we just want your car,
‘Cause we’re taking a girl to the reservoir.
Oh, all the papers say,
It’s a tragedy
We’re not sure what kind of tragedy occurred at one of the many reservoirs surrounding Sheffield, but rape and/or murder would be a safe bet. “Joyriders” may have seemed an odd choice for an opening number, but we live in a world where horror films featuring gruesome murders qualify as “camp” and unspeakable crimes sell newspapers and increase ratings. I hope that more than a few listeners were able to get past the sensationalistic aspects of the song and really take in the more serious underlying message.
Jarvis Cocker offered us two interpretational paths to “Lipgloss,” the first single released from the album. The cheekier comment (“‘Lipgloss’ was specifically about social skills going rusty. That and the fear of large shopping malls like Meadowhall in Sheffield”) isn’t much help. The more sober and meaningful observation is found in Mark Sturdy’s Truth and Beauty: The Story of Pulp:
The title came from a story I heard about an anorexic girl who used to eat only lipgloss. And the rest of the song—about a girl who has her self-confidence bashed down by a bad relationship—is based on someone I know. I think it’s important to express those stories so that victims know they’re not the only ones suffering.
The funny thing about “Lipgloss” is that the music supports the cheekier comment with its almost carnival-like synth-heavy instrumentation creating a devil-may-care, whirling effect. By contrast, the lyrics support Cocker’s more sober and empathetic translation:
And you feel such a fool,
For laughing at bad jokes,
And putting up with all of his friends,
And kissing in public.
What are they gonna say when they run into you again?
That your stomach looks bigger and your hair is a mess,
And your eyes are just holes in your face.
And it rains every day,
And when it doesn’t,
The sun makes you feel worse anyway.
He changed his mind last Monday,
Now you’ve gotta leave by Sunday, yeah.
(Chorus) You’ve lost your lipgloss honey, oh yeah.
Now nothing you do can turn him on,
You had it once and now its gone.
Mark Sturdy saw the contrast differently: “. . . the thrilling, accusatory attack of the verses leads to a chorus that’s a bit over-poppy.” I don’t find the verses “thrilling” in the least—this girl is going through the trauma that always follows a woman’s attempt to base her self-worth on her ability to please a man. The fragility of her ego is highlighted by the not uncommon belief among women that beauty products are essential to attracting men and achieving social acceptance. Her story isn’t thrilling—when these façades collapse, it’s fucking embarrassing and painful. To my ears, the jarring conflict between music and lyrics reflects the jarring conflict between the real self and the fake self we present to the world in our pathetic search for validation from others.
“Acrylic Afternoons” is one of those peek-behind-the-curtains songs that would become a Jarvis Cocker specialty. Here he eschews the role of revenge-seeking voyeur he would play so well in “I Spy,” instead becoming an active participant in the naughty goings-on of the neighborhood:
Can I stay here,
Lying under the table together with you now?
Can I hold you?
Forever in acrylic afternoons
I want to hold you tight
Whilst children play outside
And wait for their mothers to finish with lovers
And call them inside for their tea.
It’s obvious he cherishes his role as lover as well as the delicious secrecy attached to an adulterous afternoon fuck, every sensation seared in his memory—and those impressions are quite poetic:
On a pink quilted eiderdown,
I want to pull your knickers down.
Net curtains blow slightly in the breeze.
Lemonade light filtering through the trees.
It’s so soft and it’s warm.
Just another cup of tea please (one lump thanks).
My only frustration with the song is I wanted more detail as to how he got her out of the green jumper and then from the settee to the floor and under the table. I’m envisioning some kind of “tumble to the ground” moment as in “I Think We’re Alone Now,” but I would have preferred the graphic specifics. Speaking of old songs from the 60’s, a comparison of “Acrylic Afternoons” to the Goffin-King creation “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is illuminating. Mickey Dolenz competently rattled off a stream of superficial suburban stereotypes (how’s that for alliteration?), but for all we know, mom was in the master bedroom banging her teenage son’s best friend while dad was busy slathering on the barbecue sauce. The people who live in Pleasant Valley are caricatures; the lovers in “Acrylic Afternoons” are delightfully wicked human beings forced into secrecy because of social and religious conventions. Evil they may be, but I like them a whole lot better.
Reprising his role as defender-savior of women in shitty relationships, Jarvis urges an unnamed woman to dump her controlling boyfriend in “Have You Seen Her Lately?” While I appreciate the sentiments, this song never really comes together musically or lyrically—the supporting music is too grand in the disco sense of the word and the lyrics lack the incisive wit of “Lipgloss.” To my ears, the arrangement resembles an update of a 60’s Walker Brothers number, so perhaps Jarvis’ admiration of Scott Walker got the best of him here.
Though the guitar duet featured in “Babies” is played by Cocker and Russell Senior, the chords originated with drummer Nick Banks, who was messing around with a guitar during a rehearsal break and strummed a chord combination he identified as “one of them is G, no idea what the other one is” (a Dmaj7, for the record). The combination caught Jarvis Cocker’s ear and “Literally 20 minutes after I’d played those first two chords, we had the entire song, basically.” As would later happen with “Common People” there was some initial squeamishness about “poppiness,” but fortunately for posterity, everyone got over it and a Pulp classic was born. Released as a single in 1992 and virtually ignored, “Babies” reappeared on His ‘N’ Hers and as an EP single that made the UK Top 20.
The arpeggiated chord combination and Russell Senior’s main guitar riff are irresistibly catchy, especially when Nick and Mark Webber kick in with the eminently danceable beat. If you can’t break into a smile during the instrumental intro to “Babies,” you’re either dead or an artistic snob of the highest order (pretty much the same thing). POPPY DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUATE TO LACKING SUBSTANCE. In this case, the lyrics are anything but poppy, for just like the legendary Cole Porter, Jarvis Cocker had the ability to imbue his stories-in-song with both wit and insight.
According to Flavorwire, Jarvis told the audience at Radio City Music Hall “that the song was essentially autobiographical” (although only he knows exactly how much is true).” I can certainly see him as a teen sitting in the hallway with his wannabe girlfriend suppressing giggles as they surreptitiously listened to the girl’s elder sister banging one of apparently many boys she lured to her bedroom. I can also believe that the experience was just an unsatisfying teaser for him and that of course he “wanted more”:
I wanted to see as well as hear,
And so I hid inside her wardrobe.
And she came ’round four,
And she was with some kid called David,
From the garage up the road.
I listened outside I heard her.
If that elder teenage sister was already fucking mechanics, I can guarantee you that she grew up and became an extremely successful dominatrix.
The chorus temporarily interrupts the tale to provide keen insight into the emotional stew of a pubescent teenager on libidinal overload. He simply doesn’t have the words to describe exactly what he’s feeling, so he resorts to a combination of extreme convention and oops-I-didn’t-really-mean-that:
Oh I want to take you home.
I want to give you children.
You might be my girlfriend, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Uh, you got things a little backwards there, dude. You better pray that daddy doesn’t own a shotgun.
The stud of the future doesn’t share his closeted escapade with the girl he intends to fill with babies, but allegedly follows her as she pops into the home of another guy “when his mum and dad were gone.” He claims he heard them laughing, but I think this entire passage is something he made up to provide justification for his closing act of bonking the sister (definitely NOT autobiographical, as Cocker didn’t wet his whistle until he was 19):
We were on the bed when you came home,
I heard you stop outside the door.
I know you won’t believe it’s true,
I only went with her ’cause she looks like you, my God!
That is the ultimate lame excuse—but so very, very true to life. Cocker’s narration is positively brilliant, adjusting his phrasing to express the range of pubescent emotion: embarrassment, denial, misdirected passion and the pathetic guilt of an unpracticed liar. Russell Senior is marvelous on guitar, offering up a varied mix of counterpoints in both the uptempo and quiet passages, and Candida’s multi-pronged keyboard contributions add to the theatre of it all.
The brilliance of “Babies” is sadly missing from the way-too-long “She’s a Lady,” and its resemblance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” doesn’t qualify as a tribute. I can definitely do without “Happy Endings,” a sort of torch song about a failed affair that doesn’t live up to its promise because it never had a promise to begin with.
There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding “Do You Remember the First Time?” largely due to the promotional strategy used to hawk the single. Let’s be clear: the song has little to do with Jarvis Cocker losing his virginity—it’s about a man expressing his frustration that his lover chooses to maintain a sexual relationship with another man. It’s possible that the woman in question was also his initial experience in the sack, but the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous on that score. To promote the song, Cocker came up with the idea of shooting a video filled with various British luminaries recalling their first-time fuck experiences, so a lot of people assumed that the song also dealt with that rite of passage.
Like most first-time bangs, the video is painfully anti-climactic and I can’t believe that anyone who managed to get through all twenty-six minutes of it rushed out and bought the single. The dullness of the film is understandable: the first time is usually a very awkward experience largely because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, and recalling our incompetence isn’t a very pleasant trip down memory lane. I wrote about my first time in my four-part tale of my sexual development (since removed from the blog):
I had my first fuck the summer I turned fourteen. I decided on a guy I knew from school and invited him over to the house one summer day when my parents were at work. He lasted about a minute and a half and I never came close to orgasm. Still, the brief moment of other-worldliness piqued my interest enough to continue my pursuit of erotic pleasure.
The song itself is a showcase for the indirect and snarky communication that accompanies many a secretive affair, where the fundamental dishonesty of the act detracts from its enjoyment. Disappointed that his squeeze has to go home to papa, the narrator takes a few swipes at his rival while indirectly marketing his allegedly superior sexual prowess: “I know you’re gonna let him bore your pants off again” and (the real zinger) “Still you bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes.” There really isn’t much more to the tale than that, though controversy swirled over the line “No, I don’t care if you screw him/Just as long as you save a piece for me.” What’s sad is that the negative reaction to that line in some quarters had more to do with puritanic beliefs that such matters should not be aired in public rather than the more serious implication that the narrator views his lover as nothing more than a piece of ass. Musically, “Do You Remember the First Time?” features marvelously long builds to the repetitions of the chorus and a spirited vocal from Cocker, so I fully understand why it’s earned its status as the opener for Pulp reunion concerts.
I’m not exactly sure what motivated the inclusion of “Pink Glove” on the album, as it virtually repeats the scenario found in “Do You Remember the First Time?” (male competition for pussy) and suffers from muddied production. Even the best set of headphones on the planet won’t help you understand Jarvis Cocker’s muffled and muddled lyrics on “Someone Like the Moon,” and as a song exploring the phenomenon of loneliness, it ain’t exactly “Eleanor Rigby.”
The album proper ends with the largely spoken-word track “David’s Last Summer.” I’m not sure if this David is the same David who slipped it to the elder sister in “Babies,” but if it is, he became a crashing bore in the interlude. Consider this passage:
The room smells faintly of suntan lotion
In the evening sunlight and when you take off your clothes,
You’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini.
And then consider the fact that rather than allowing himself the pleasure of working up a good stiff one and putting it to immediate use, David decides to take the girl swimming. David! Do you know what cold water does to a dick? What the hell is the matter with you? Perhaps David should be forgiven because the iconic Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons” (more popularly known as the “shrinkage episode”) did not air until a month after His ‘N’ Hers hit the shelves.
Fortunately, for me, I bought the album in the Ew-natted Stayts of ‘Merka, so my album closes with the previously-released single “Razzmatazz.” Having been dumped by a girl who wanted to live a more glamorous and showy life, Cocker revels in the schadenfreude occasioned by the girl’s rapid post-relationship decline (Translation: Milk Tray = Box of Cadbury chocolates):
You started getting fatter three weeks after I left you
Now you’re going with some kid who looks like some bad comedian
Are you gonna go out, are you sitting at home eating boxes of Milk Tray?
Watch TV on your own, aren’t you the one with your razzmatazz and your nights on the town?
What makes this terribly bitter song work is Cocker’s full embrace of his bitterness, capturing a moment of sweet revenge that nearly everyone on the planet has experienced at one time or another. Though we may regret those feelings later and hope that we can forget about the experience and move on, we can’t deny that those feelings were real at the time. Cocker was right when he commented on the lyrics (“I don’t think they’re seedy. They’re just true to life”); one of his most endearing qualities is his willingness to talk about the human failings that no one wants to admit.
The music makes for a much stronger closer than “David’s Last Summer,” with its strong forward movement, upbeat tempo and a power-packed rhythm section. Needless to say, Jarvis throws caution to the wind and gives us a bravura performance combing snark and justifiable exasperation.
Though far from perfect, His ‘N” Hers contains more than enough strong material to justify its nomination for the Mercury Prize, though both His ‘N’ Hers and Parklife lost out to the popular dance album Elegant Slumming by the M People. There’s certainly no shame attached to losing to an album featuring Heather Small’s vocals, and Pulp would crush the competition a couple of years later when Different Class took home the gold. I’ve always considered His ‘N’ Hers the album that made Different Class possible, the moment when Pulp worked out most of the kinks and Jarvis Cocker began to receive well-deserved validation for his uniquely honest approach on the subjects of sex, status and adolescence. Validation builds confidence, and on Different Class, Pulp would use that confidence to take their music to another level entirely.