Sunday, October 12, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 285): "GRACELAND" (1986) Paul Simon

Tomorrow is the birthday of Paul Simon, so it seems fitting to go from “Memphis, Egypt” to Memphis, Tennessee, specifically Graceland, the mansion of Elvis.

Mind you, I wasn’t such a Paul Simon fan into the Eighties. I liked the Simon & Garfunkel stuff well enough, but I also found it a tad precious, a tad too earnest, a tad too what is now called “emo.” I think it had to do with Garfunkel’s pretty singing and strident emoting. Simon I liked, especially when he got satiric—as in a “Simple Desultory Phillipic”—or morbid, as in “Patterns.” But Simon’s solo stuff only rarely made me listen—“Slip Sliding Away” comes to mind—and most of it was just radio tunes.

Typically, the album I really liked by him was the one that marked his lowest point, commercially. Hearts and Bones (1984) was an accomplished record, in my view. In an era when my search for complex songwriting found its answer in Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Springsteen, Robyn Hitchcock, Morrissey and The Smiths, Simon made me take him seriously with that record. It showed him surprisingly rich in his topics and his arrangements. But, no, there really wasn’t “a hit” on the thing.

That all changed with Graceland. To others it was the album that got him out of the slump. To me, it was the superb follow-up to Hearts and Bones. Infectious, well-produced with that professional cleanness without being too slick, thanks mostly to all the South African musicians and singers the album incorporates—not only into the sound but, in several cases, co-composition. In other words, it’s a very collaborative album, and it showcases some of Simon’s finest songwriting.

Today’s song is a case in point.  Upbeat in tone and feel, the song is about a pilgrimage of sorts. An effort by a dad who is losing his wife to spend some quality time with his kid—“the child of his first marriage”—on a trip to Elvis’ legendary spread. And the song makes it clear that chasing the legend is what this is about. “For reasons I cannot explain, there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.” As if something about the entire mythos of rock would be laid bare simply be walking and being where the King once lived.

The song is complex in its evocation of how a myth like Graceland—and Elvis, generally—plays off against the self-involved fantasies we mostly live with and by. Paul Simon is no Elvis, and he knows it; he’s willing to situate himself with “Poor boys and pilgrims with families / And we are going to Graceland.” He’s just another American character out there on the road—“riding through the cradle of the Civil War.” Traveling, in other words, through history, trying to discover something about that originary moment—the time when Dixie fell, sure, but also that fabled time when Memphis gave birth to rock’n’roll. “I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received / In Graceland.” It’s a hope for a benediction, a blessing. And it's in the way he rides Bakithi Kumalo's friendly bassline on the refrain "I'm going to Graceland," that sounds so funky and carnivalesque.

And the secondary refrain that rides along on this hopeful quest is the core of the song: “Losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody feels the wind blow.” The rhythmic structure of the song is such that this refrain, suitable to a blues, feels upbeat, feels like a fate accepted and understood. But it gives justification for the large gesture of the trip. His life is unsettled, his wife is leaving—so he takes his kid and heads to the place where Elvis began (Memphis) and the place where he ended (Graceland). He wants to touch the aura to be reassured that he hasn’t wasted his life.

And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

While riding with a nine-year-old kid, it’s a bit much to say “there’s no obligations now”—but we get what he means. There’s no obligation to the marriage that ended. And there’s no reason to have to defend the fact that it was love, for a season, and the fact that it ended. That’s the wisdom and resolution he’s chasing through the Mississippi delta, to be “received” in Graceland as though the King himself were still there to welcome the pilgrim with open arms, to bless and forgive and console. And that need needn’t be defended either. When he extends the “we all” to us all, the singer brings us into the quest and its accomplishment. Graceland—rather than a kitschy temple of indulgence—becomes a place of rejuvenation because one must feel humbled there, rather than ironic and condescending.

And for our purposes it’s to be noted that Simon says “My traveling companions are ghosts and empty sockets / I’m looking at ghosts and empties.”  Ghosts and empties. More of that “greatest is behind” vibe that suits so well the late Eighties. Simon’s album was a shot in the arm not just for his career but for a certain sense of what “adult rock” might still manage to be. Maybe not make us fully believe in what we, as youth, wanted to claim, but at least a mature accounting—a desire for a mature reckoning. To lay to rest, where the King was laid to rest, those ghosts and empties.This isn't rock'n'roll as fetishized commodity. This is rock'n'roll as saving grace.

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