In my last post, I wrote about how identity "needs tangible, measurable, concrete products to hinge itself to, such as apple crumble and custard, or films."
Music is one of these concrete products which forms of our sense of who we are. I usually write about film and memory, but I want to turn my attention to music because August 25th 2016 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Paul Simon's album Graceland; an album which has consistently been meaningful to me since 1986. How does an album like this work on our memories, on our sense of identity, and our social and cultural interactions? Considering the impact of Graceland, I can only address these questions by delving into my memories, my sense of identity and my cultural interactions.
I'm now in my mid-thirties; Graceland is the first album I remember listening to in my parents' car, the soundtrack to our long journeys. It's the first encounter with pop music I remember, as well as trying to learn to whistle along to The Beatles' "Love Me Do". Now I can whistle along to that and to the tin whistle in "You Can Call Me Al", and teach my children to do the same.
Graceland is undoubtedly one of the most important American pop music albums. But Simon's collaboration with South African musicians was also one of the most politically controversial, due to his breaking the cultural boycott against Apartheid South Africa. Much has been written about Graceland and its legacy from this political point of view, such as here and here recently.
"I know what I know, I'll sing what I said"
As a child, I was oblivious to the politics. Graceland was simply great music. The lyrics are amazing, with complex phrasing and surprisingly pleasing clunky combinations of words ("Rearranging my position on this friend of mine who had a little bit of a breakdown"). I may think I know every word on the album, but the lyrics are hard to catch and there's always something new to hear, or a misheard lyric which has stuck for years.
I remember my brother telling me sagely about the words to "You Can Call Me Al": "Do you think it's 'roly poly little fat-faced girl'? Because it's not, it's bat-faced." How brotherly.
What other album gave birth to such a wonderful cast of characters? On realising that the anniversary was also my brother's birthday (happy birthday!), we discussed a Graceland party where we'd all come as characters - I would be the "girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline"; who would be Fat Charlie the Archangel ("sad as a lonely little wrinkled balloon"), or The Boy in the Bubble? Who would get to have Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes? They are like Roald Dahl characters mixed with the Jewish American sadness and neuroticism of Woody Allen. We haven't had the party - maybe in another ten years.
"Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee"
Graceland is an album of journeys, which takes us from New York, "the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway"; to the Mississippi Delta; Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee; Tucson, Arizona; Louisiana and of course to South Africa - underscored by the rhythms and voices Ladysmith Black Mambazo. As a child, the place names filled me with wonder, for then all travel was exotic and all music was "world" music. Listening to the songs now, I am still transported to that early sense of exoticism.
So many lines stir memories each time I hear the songs. I can feel my memory at work, a sensory memory linking me to places and people.
At age 11, I remember walking around school with a friend who always had an air of sadness about her. I remember the exact spot where I sung the line from Graceland; "Losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you're blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow". She asked me to repeat the words so she could memorise them; she found them a perfect solace.
The rhythms are infectious. The force of the beats and vocals implore us to tap our toes and get up and dance, often inciting my father to speed on the motorway, resulting in our chorus of "O! O! O!" (from "I Know What I Know"), our coded speeding warning.
"This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein"
Graceland continues to produce memorable moments for me. Under African Skies, a 2012 documentary directed by Joe Berlinger, follows Simon as he returns to South Africa on the 25th anniversary of Graceland. The film explores the cultural and political climate of the 1980s and explains how the album was made. Now when I hear the reverse guitar riff, or The Everly Brothers on backing vocals, or the tin whistle, I have a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the music, and the political realities at the time of its composition.
If you haven't heard Graceland, if you don't know the music; what will you make of it? What would it mean to me if it were devoid of memories? How does it stand the test of time?
Graceland is objectively a masterpiece, and this has been proven over the past thirty years. I stood with tens of thousands of other Paul Simon fans at his packed-out Hyde Park concert in 2012, where he performed the songs from Graceland with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Although listening to the album is for me a deeply personal experience, millions of people share a similar connection to the music. The power and success of the album is its ability to hit each of us in the heart and to unite us with a shared aspect of cultural identity.
Despite the knowledge that I am not alone in my love of Graceland, and being aware that the album is held dear to million of fans, I was still pleasantly surprised on my first date with my now-husband when he professed his love for Paul Simon. The album has provided us with a language, a code of reference, which is not secret or unique to us, but nonetheless feels personal and soulful.
As I now listen, write and read about the album, I discover there is ever more for me to learn and for me to hear. And joyfully, Graceland will continue to make more memories for me. "These are the roots of rhythm, And the roots of rhythm remain".