Paul Simon doesn’t just weave words around beautiful melodies; he glides through them. “It’s actually very difficult to make something both simple and good,” he once said. However, there is one point in his discography that he croons, “I don’t know why I spend my time, Writing songs I can’t believe, With words that tear and strain to rhyme,” and it follows a piece of perfectly tessellated poetry that fits the rhythm with such seamlessness that this utterance almost seems like a meta declaration of his brilliance—he finds it too easy.
Thus, unlike a lot of songwriters who squirrel away in the studio hoping to churn out something that could cling to his coattails, Simon left folk dive bars behind and set out into the world in search for something else, something more perchance. This wove new colours into his back catalogue and filled his life with more experiential wisdom. This, in turn, informed his songwriting.
He searched to mix poetry with words “written in the vernacular”. Thus, when he had his own “extraordinary spiritual experience” he wanted to reflect that apropos to the everyday for everyone else to relish within the balm of his music. As he says in the documentary Under African Skies: “’You Can Call Me Al’ is really the story of somebody like me, who goes to Africa with no idea and ends up having an extraordinary spiritual experience.”
There is a hint of absurdity to this confused little man wandering about rather manically, but wouldn’t you say that’s closer to how it would be in real life if you’d just had your mind walloped on the doorstep of the Serengeti? As such, the upbeat, sunny boon of ‘You Can Call Me Al’ is a symbolic representation of Simon’s own experiences in South Africa.
Even the bewilderment that the little songwriter felt in foreign surroundings were woven in. “’You Can Call Me Al’ starts off very easily with sort of a joke: ‘Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?’ Very easy words,” he explained to SongTalk. “Then it has a chorus that you can’t understand. What is he talking about, you can call me Betty, and Betty, you can call me Al? You don’t know what I’m talking about. But I don’t think it’s bothersome. You don’t know what I’m talking about but neither do I. At that point.”
Importantly, although it isn’t stated, you also get the sense that this is the epiphany of a man passed the spring of his years too. This element helped to enamour the record to Joe Strummer who commented: “I don’t like the idea that people who aren’t adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for Graceland. He’s hit a new plateau there, but he’s writing to his own age group. Graceland is something new.”
The reason for this is that he wasn’t trying to write for anyone, he was just searching out new experiences and putting them into songs. By no means was Simon the first artist to tackle more mature forms and new melodic sensibilities with Graceland, but the success of the record in every sense made it very notable. Adolescents are often innovative in their music because they are reckless with their progressiveness, but this is not a look that sits well on older shoulders. Simon, however, proved you can pen odes of great maturity and move forward with innovation all the same.
As Simon said of making the record, “My typical style of songwriting in the past has been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track. With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio, I would sing melodies and words—anything that fit the scale they were playing in.”
Thus, it came to pass that during the sessions, Simon would transpose old folk toplines on classic African contours and rhythms. This might sound jazzy, but in actual fact, the recording process was quite similar to some sort of primitive live version of sampling. This gave songs like ‘You Can Call Me Al’ a musicological freshness, but the footloose nature also opened the door for new experiences to find a foothold within the music.
With this epic anthem, you can almost feel that essence, as it zips along on the cognisance of a changed direction in life like the Robert Frost poem ‘The Road Not Taken’, and the booming brilliant up-front toms bouncing from Isaac Mtshali’s drumkit.