The Musical Symbology of Graceland
Reflecting on the songs that provide the soundtracks to our travels
The death of Rock and Roll has been lamented for most of my life, but this genre of music still fuels my many moments of lyrical reflection, and my midnight solo dance parties. As the blues cover band The Rolling Stones put in in 1974, "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It).”
Yesterday I was holding Zoom office hours with a student who probably didn’t notice during our consultation that my eyes kept darting to the poster behind her. After I commented helpfully on the short feature article she was about to submit to my journalism class, she shook her head after I asked if she had any more questions for me. She was about to click the red END button when I told her that I had a question for her: Does she know the primary interpretations of the Beatles Abbey Road album cover poster on the wall behind her?
My student summoned her roommate, the owner of the poster in question, and then I regaled the two of them with stories about The Beatles, Abbey Road Studios, and the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theory that so many of us entertained when the album was released in late September of 1969. The two students listened eagerly, or so I imagined; perhaps they were listening only “politely,” like someone who is stuck on a long flight next to a talkative blowhard who has many lessons to share about irrelevant topics. The roommate said that this fall she is taking “Music 116: Music of the Beatles.” I told her that there was a time when I could have taught that class. She responded, “I believe you. Bye!”
As I write this, my happy ears are filled with my favorite album from the entire 1980s: Graceland by Paul Simon. Back in the late 1980s, before I even knew that I would be moving to California, I enjoyed hearing this album (cassette, really) on perpetual repeat while driving in Washington D.C., Beavertown, Pennsylvania, and many other beloved places in my family’s 1977 Checker Marathon. (See my last mention of this beloved car in my 2004 newsletter, with a remarkable photograph, titled “The Checker Marathon as Status Symbol.”) But the magic of this musical compilation, including the musical stylings of zydeco and mbaqanga, South African street music, sounds all the more magical when every nuance and instrument – the pedal steel guitar, the tin whistle, the backing vocals of The Everly Brothers – come alive in all its “ULTRA HD” complexity and variety courtesy of the sort of headphones that I could never have afforded, or that perhaps didn’t exist, when the album came out in 1986.
I did lots of traveling back east before I moved to California, leaving behind the thick and humid deciduous forests of my youth for the arid scrub and greenbelts of Davis, but I never made it to Graceland. We might wonder, do any of us actually make it to “Graceland”? Paul Simon said that “Graceland” was originally conceived of as just a placeholder word until he thought of something better, the way that Paul McCartney wrote a catchy tune originally called “Scrambled Eggs” (using what in advanced poetry school we learned is an amphimacer, or a three-part rhythm of two strong / long beats sandwiching a weak / short beat). McCartney eventually renamed that song “Yesterday.”
I suspect that much of what I eagerly learned about Rock and Roll and other topics of youthful enthusiasm is fading. In many ways, the album Graceland reflects on that which is lost, or that which we are actively losing. The second verse emphasizes lost love:
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
But the album also promises the possibility of (a place of) redemption. The idea is familiar to many of us who have read widely, for a “promised land” has inflamed the imaginations of travelers as varied as Moses, Woody Guthrie, or the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although I have told many people that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road inspired my first trip to California, the end of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn likely also played a part in my leaving the east for the west. You remember that Huck opted at the end of that book (spoiler) to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest,” just as I moved out west before my dad, brother, and, in the last year, my mom did the same. We made the right decision, I think.
So I don’t regret never visiting Graceland. For me, the idea of Graceland drove me to reach for the horizon. As it was for Paul Simon, “Graceland” for me has been a placeholder, a welcome symbol for a place – for me, that place is my family home here in Davis – where we finally find our way. Although I never knew anyone who had “diamonds on the souls of her shoes,” I agree with Paul Simon when he says “I've reason to believe / We all will be received in Graceland.”
Thanks to all the sustaining patrons of the Pub Quiz including, as of this last week, Mercedes and Vincent. I love that we still get to connect this way even when we have no pub in which to congregate. Other terrific supporters of the Pub Quiz include Quizimodo, The Outside Agitators, and especially The Original Vincibles. I invite you to join them, especially now that I have lowered the cost of the monthly subscription to a mere 10 bucks. See you on Patreon!
P.S. Did you know that five Pub Quiz questions appear every week in the Sunday Davis Enterprise? Here are three questions from last week’s quiz.
Food and Drink. What kind of salad includes ingredients which have been chopped to be uniform and then either composed or tossed?
Pop Culture – Music. What American band had #1 multi-platinum hits this century with “Makes Me Wonder” and “One More Night”?
Sports. In baseball, what do we call the accomplishment of one batter hitting a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game?
P.P.S. I acknowledge that Paul Simon’s album Graceland is controversial because of the use of musical traditions outside his own, including his employing Black South African musicians during the time of Apartheid. Nelson Mandela was still in prison as Paul Simon collected his Graceland Grammy Awards. Some have accused Simon of appropriation. For a brief exploration of this controversy by author Brian Kaufman, see his blog entry titled “Paul Simon and Cultural Appropriation.”