Monday, July 30, 2007

No. 81: Graceland

Band: Paul Simon
Album: Graceland
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: There isn't much world music influence on the list, but "Graceland" has tones of world music tinges on it. Recorded in South Africa (during apartheid, for which Simon took a great deal of heat), Simon found the best South African musicians he could and tried to expand the sound in the studio.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I guess I'm not as big a world music fan as I thought I was. "Graceland" is a nice record, but it's mostly forgettable.
Best song: "You Can Call Me Al" is my favorite song on the record, hands down. Simon has claimed "Graceland" is the best song he has ever written.
Worst song: "Homeless" is entirely held up by the African singers.
Is it awesome?: I'd say no.

I understand the draw in Paul Simon's work. He's clearly a literate songwriter and knows his way around world music to the point of having African singers on nearly every song on this record. He's a bright guy. I get that.

But, musically, he swings from the middle of the road and typifies, to me, a very boomer quality of bohemian bourgeouis. His white guilt, to me, hurts his concept of bringing Africans into his music (that's why he's doing it, right?) and his quasi-philosophical ramblings barely say "rock and roll" to me. "The Boy in The Bubble" sounds like half-hearted reporting, while "Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes" is a mediocre love song. Certainly, "Cecilia" is a wonderful song, but what does it say? It's a song about music, self-referential as it is pretty. As smart as his records are, there's a real emptiness that I see.


While I don't agree with nearly any of the premises (mostly of deistic justice), I find Dante's "Divine Comedy" to be absolutely fascinating. There has been speculation on the Internet that "You Can Call Me Al" is based on the "Divine Comedy." My own thought is that a connection like that is genius, especially since the song is clearly about a mid-life crisis, also.

With that said, I wanted to put those connections together. So, line-by-line, is how "You Can Call Me Al" corresponds to the "Divine Comedy."

A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard.

Dante's work starts with these lines:
"Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
or the straight way was lost."

So, the simple idea of a midlife identity crisis is a theme in both works. That Simon's man is walking down the street is similar to Dante walking through the woods, as well. The journey, as it were, begins here.

I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don't want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard

Similarly, the theme of mortality is the central one to the "Divine Comedy." Dante's work is divided into the three sections ("Inferno," "Purgatory" and "Paradise"), each named after a portion of the afterlife according to his theology.

Bonedigger Bonedigger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my well-lit door
Mr. Beerbelly Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
You know I don't find this stuff amusing anymore

The bonedigger/dogs in the moonlight are a reference to the dogs Dante encounters in "Inferno." Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of hell in Greek mythology, punishes the gluttonous. As well, Dante encounters a she-wolf before meeting up with Virgil.

If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al

Al: Short for Alighieri, Dante's last name. Betty: Short for Beatrice, Dante's childhood love who guides him through paradise. Obviously, the bodyguard is the one who protects him from the dangers in these foreign places and "long lost pal" is a reference to the fact that Dante only saw Beatrice when they were both children.

"A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention
And wo my nights are so long"

"Inferno" takes place at night, hence the night being so long.

Where's my wife and family
What if I die here
Who'll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone

Virgil is a Greek pagan, so he cannot ascend to paradise, as the Catholic Dante can (and does). Hence the fear of death while in his trip through the afterlife, especially after his idol, Virgil, is gone.

He ducked back down the alley
With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
All alone alone
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations

I have no idea how these particular lines correspond.


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
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man

Simon is referencing the uneasiness of Dante, as he is is presented as a man lost. Paradise is strange place and Dante spends the first 30 lines of "Paradise" praising it with detached bliss.

He is surrounded by the sound
The sound

Again, the sound of heaven.

"Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and Hallelujah!"

The main line in this portion of the song is "He sees angels in the architecture/Spinning in infinity." In "Paradise," Dante describes the ninhth circle of heaven as such:

"'This sphere, therefore, which sweeps into its motion
the rest of the universe, must correspond
to the ring that loves and knows the most,
'so that, if you apply your measure,
not to their appearances but to the powers themselves
of the angels that appear to you as circles"

(Actually Beatrice describes it to Dante, but you see what I mean.)

The angels spinning in infinity are the last step before staring into the face of God himself.


"You Can Call Me Al" suffers from some really bad production choices. The vocals aren't great (Paul Simon isn't a great singer) and the horns sound absolutely ridiculous. Still, it's a pretty great song.

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