Don’t Go to Graceland

I have spent the last several days’ bus rides listening to the later works of Paul Simon. I, like most young people, always loved Simon and Garfunkel, in my case thanks to the ever-present “Best Of” album that seemed to have hung around my parents’ house for twenty years metamorphosing from record to tape cassette to CD along with the technology of the times. I found their harmonies compelling, but what human being doesn’t have a strong reaction to harmony? Harmony is to music what a prat fall is to comedy: an easy crowd-pleaser that cuts right through to the part of the brain that, in dogs, makes their leg twitch involuntarily when you rub their bellies.
Beyond the harmonies, the lyrics of those early songs were incredibly evocative of a certain time and place. It could almost be the soundtrack of Catcher in the Rye, if that movie had been made in the late sixties: the disaffection, the feeling of wandering around a city (The Sound of Silence, The Boxer) and a country (America) that they didn’t belong in; the criticism of the cold, austere intellectual life (The Dangling Conversation, I am a Rock); the false-ish embrace of an ethnic insouciance to which they clearly had no claim (Cecilia, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard); an adoption of and an application of passion to issues that weren’t really theirs (A Church is Burning). They were Holden Caufield. Like Holden Caufield, however, they are really a thing of youth.
Things of youth tend to not age well. There’s always the temptation to imagine what Holden Caufield would have turned out like in the end, and most people’s imaginations create more or less conformist Holdens who’ve abandoned all the loveable disaffectedness of youth in favor of something approximating happiness. The imagineer typically views this less interesting, older Holden Caufield as a tragedy. It is, however, too much to ask us all to remain loveable losers forever. Let your Holden Caufield grow up, adjust, and find happiness, and be happy for him.
Paul Simon is what happens when Holden Caufield never grows up. Over the last week I have been repeatedly listening to the 1986 album Graceland. The album is, like the music of The Hold Steady, compelling like a car crash. I don’t like it, in fact I hate it, and yet I can’t stop listening to it.
So much went into Graceland, and yet nearly nothing comes out. According to Wikipedia the album contains Simon’s own musical style fused with zydeco, Tex-Mex, heavy South African influence as well as contributions by Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos themselves and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and yet the end product is worse than elevator music. It’s worse than no music at all.
The Boy in the Bubble is another Simon song about an issue he will never experience for himself, a rehash of his old civil rights song, a doughy rich liberal lament from afar, set apart only by the great line “These are the days of lasers in the jungle.” Graceland paints the picture of an American pilgrimage to Elvis’s home. Simon is going there with “the child of [his] first marriage”. Simon says losing love is like a broken window in your heart. He fears being obliged to defend his every love and every ending, but perhaps not if he goes to Graceland. Graceland becomes the Paul Simon state of mind: a place where no sin goes punished, no mistake criticized. I view Simon as a person who likes to talk about feelings but neither experiences many nor cares much about those of others. In other songs women play a role. He less feels things for them than simply enjoys them. In I Know What I Know Simon meets a woman whom he reminds of money. He’s chatting her up at a party. The constant refrain is ‘who am I to blow against the wind?’ A fatalistic sentiment for a man who seems more or less compelled through life. I remind you of money? Whatever gets me laid. Same goes for Gumboots, in which he tells a woman ‘You don’t feel you could love me but I feel you could”. You love: Simon enjoys. The less said about Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, Under African Skies, The Myth of Fingerprints, and Homeless the better, in my opinion. In You Can Call Me Al Simon tips his hand. He’s an out of touch middle-aged man, for sure, walking the streets of a third world country for the first time, thinking deep thoughts about . . . his beer belly. Looking for cheap African intrellectual property to buy low and sell high, no doubt.

The nadir of western civilization (4’35”)

But the key to the album, in my opinion, is Crazy Love. Crazy Love is about ‘Fat Charlie the Archangel” getting divorced. You see, Charlie doesn’t want any more crazy love. In the first verse he breaks the news to his kids. He says “I don’t claim to be happy about this, boys.” and he doesn’t seem to be happy about it either, to all outward appearances. Finally

Fat Charlie the Archangel
Files for divorce
He says well this will eat up a year of my life
And then there’s all that weight to be lost
She says the joke is on me
I say the joke is on her
I said I have no opinion about that
Well, we’ll just have to wait and confer

That Was Your Mother continues the guilt-free divorce train. It’s a father telling his son about the good old days in Lafayette, Louisiana, the time he met the boy’s mother, as pretty as a prayerbook. In the middle of the song he makes one thing perfectly clear. “You are the burden of my generation”. By the last verse he’s in action again on the streets of Lafayette, Louisiana, looking for another piece of Cajun tail.

Graceland is at its core divorce rock.  Simon has given up on the hard things.  He’s branded his children as burdens and companions.  Burdens when he’s required to drop his guitar, momentarily leave his girlfriend, and do something for them; companions when they’re not bothering him so much.  His only divorce-related concern is that he’ll be called to task for getting divorced, that some buzzkill is going to give him a bunch of stress.  He’s trying to Afro-pop out, people, leave the man alone!

This analysis of Paul Simon the human being has all but ruined Simon and Garfunkel for me.  My only recourse is to gain an even greater offsetting admiration for Art Garfunkel, which I will be using Wikipedia to develop shortly.

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~ by Joshing on February 5, 2008.

One Response to “Don’t Go to Graceland”

  1. I experience this album completely differently, and I think you’re lambasting Simon here based solely on his personal life and the bitter taste that disillusionment leaves in your mouth.

    But disillusionment is valid, real, and can be the subject of beautiful art. As, I think it is, on Graceland.

    “Boy in the Bubble,” by the way, might be sung by a liberal from afar (well, except that it’s sung by a liberal in Africa, although he flew there in a nice jet), but: so what? In America, we’re basically all “from afar” if by the way mean separated from the truly troubled places on the globe. Does that mean we can’t think, write, and talk about them? In fact, we can and do, using those staccato signals of constant information (incidentally, a great line you conspicuously dismiss.)

    “That was your mother” is a pretty awesome song that actually brought a tear to my eye. (Contrarywise, “Father and Daughter” on Surprise makes me want to yack.) Ir really brings to life the idea of the rhythm of generations passing… how my parents went through all the same stages of life I will. How my youth will, in too short an order, be a memory I will be recalling for my grandchildren. I think about how my life was paid for at the cost of my parent’s youth: what a gift and a sacrifice! They love me, but I am the burden of their generation. Let’s get that straight.

    I could go on, but it’s late, and I need to put on Graceland.

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