It feels sometimes like I’ve lived with this album for so long. I’ve had the horn riff from “You Can Call Me Al” stuck in my head for probably twenty years—I hum it to myself or tap it out on the steering wheel when I’m alone, or bored, typically without even realizing I’m doing it, without even making any conscious connection to the album, or the song. It’s soaked down deeply enough into me that it seems its own elemental thing, idependent of me or any other association.
I only knew “You Can Call Me Al”, though, until I was fifteen or so, and the church I attended got a new pastor. He and his wife were both young—I’d guess maybe in their early thirties—and had two small children, and were definitely not bound to remain in the small town they’d settled in. Our church was very small, and populated mostly by elderly people, and of course very conservative, which contrasted greatly with Charlie and Angie, who probably in all honesty were not all that radical, but compared to the congregation in general probably came off as a couple of hippies. They remained at the church for a year or so, I think, and then left to become missionaries in Africa.
I was pretty close to Angie, and she gave me a copy of Graceland—and also The Joshua Tree: they were those kind of Christians—and I just let it wash over me. There’s no telling how many times I’ve listened to it. Enough times that I don’t have to listen to it to hear it. I just know it.
I let some time pass, though, without playing the album. I almost forgot about it, I think. Then one late night on my way home from work, “Homeless” was on the radio, and it absolutely went right through me, the hair literally standing up on the back of my neck.
There was a documentary on PBS about the album on TV last night, and watching it, I was struck by how, apart from Graceland, I’m pretty ambivalent about Paul Simon. I wouldn’t argue that he’s a great songwriter, and his hits are all good, but there’s always seemed a kind of coldness to his work, almost an overintellectualization, that keeps me at a distance. Really, even his presence on Graceland might be the thing I’d miss least, and I suspect that it’s because the best songs on the album are the ones that are based—to what exent I’m not entirely sure—on the existing South African songs Simon was accused of pillaging for the album.
I never knew all that much about the whole “colonialism” thing, and I shrugged it off as kneejerk PC liberalism. But watching the footage and interviews with Simon, I felt myself sliding the other way. There really was something disquieting about watching Simon on Saturday Night Live, front and center, while Ladysmith Black Mambazo dance around him, a man on vacation grinning for a photograph. And then finding out that some of the songs—“The Boy In The Bubble”, for example, one of the best songs on the album, and one of Simon’s best songs ever, by far—are more than “based” on popular South African singles, but rather are those singles, with Simon’s words and melodies on top, my own suspicions of Simon and his motives grow darker. But I don’t have any problem with sampling, and Simon gives credit to his cowriters, so what’s my problem?
What’s my problem? I don’t know. I think the album and its music is bigger than whatever controversies do or do not exist, and bigger even than Simon or of myself. Which of course is some kind of rationalization, probably even the worst kind.
I remember that, for awhile, if was almost unusual to not hear “One Way Or Another” by Blondie or “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones in commericals, but either these two songs have been almost entirely exhausted by advertisers or I just don’t watch enough TV, but I hadn’t heard either of them being used in ads for awhile, until the other night, when I saw a Coppertone commerical that used “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and all I could think of was how odd it was, not because they were using punk rock in a commerical setting—that’s a horse I think has been beaten plenty—but because it was a sunscreen commerical using music by four guys who looked like they’d never once been outside.
Man, I just don’t get these guys who try so hard to pretend that the absolute main reason for the Civil War wasn’t slavery, but rather some kind of bullshit about “states’ rights.” Sure, that was certainly an issue, but the South ultimately seceeded because they demanded their rights to slavery.
Listen to this shithead defend “individual choice” and “the consent of the governed” while completely ignoring the reality of the millions in unconsenting bondage.
“You’re not born with it. Nobody’s born with it. That’s something you develop that’s like a— I compare it to a bricklayer who goes and studies with a journeyman for five years to learn how to lay those courses. And the reason I say that, is because if you coulda seen all the early stuff that I wrote, like the first five miles I wrote, about a hundred short stories, you would have to say that I had no talent. You wouldn’t have any other choice. It was that bad. So I think it’s something you just develop according to how bad you want to. You know, if you’re willing to hurt enough you can have it.”
I’ve only read a little of Larry Brown’s work—one of his novels, The Rabbit Factory, which I thought was okay, and one of his short story collections, Facing The Music, the title story of which is just incredibly devastating—but I like most of it a lot. It is unquestionably and deeply Southern, but without a lot of the grotesques and gothic weirdness that so often seeps into Southern literature. I’m thinking in particular of Facing The Music, whose characters are completely, absolutely real—“if I could…make my way home without getting thrown in jail, I’d be okay. I had some catfish I was going to thaw out later”; “she said something about the saw I bought. It was eighty-nine dollars. But good saws cost good money. And if I don’t have a saw, I don’t have a job.”—I’ve seen and known people just like them all my life, and Brown captures them perfectly.
I love that nothing about Brown’s voice or manner suggests any kind of artistry. He sounds exactly like any middle-aged man from his time and place, self-effacing and taciturn, his speech peppered with “ums” and “you knows” and coughing, his hands holding that plastic insulated cup that’s more than likely got sweet tea in it, or bourbon and Coca-Cola. You don’t see it, whatever force is there inside the man, and that makes it all the more moving.
Deckard: Jason Statham Rachael: Anne Hathaway Batty: Paul Bettany Leon: The Rock Pris: Blake Lively Zhora: Cameron Diaz JF Sebastian: Steve Buscemi Bryant: Kris Kristofferson Tyrell: Morgan Freeman Hannibal Chew: John Cho Gaff: Antonio Banderas