Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.
Graceland was released two years after I was born but was a critical part of my musical upbringing. Early memories of car trips through Northern Michigan are filled with the lyrics and sounds of this eclectic record. A full comprehension of the album’s cultural importance during Apartheid-plagued South Africa would come later, of course, not to mention its feat at bridging the gap between mainstream pop and what was perplexingly called, “world music,”–a truly Westernized label that ignores the obvious fact that all music is worldly since the language of music is universal.
The music of Graceland is diverse in its instrumentation, with Simon drawing from influences from all over the globe, but for a boy at four or five years old, it simply sounded great. As kids I can distinctly remember joining my sister and cousins in trading vintage-style tennis rackets, which we fashioned in our minds as the funky guitars and the slap bass that we heard blaring through the stereo speakers. There were countless hours of dancing to “You Can Call Me Al,” the album’s breakaway hit, and the soothing A cappella words from Ladysmith Black Mambazo was enough to lay our tired heads to rest after a long day of innocent play.
My naïve age made the lyrics of Graceland hard to comprehend. Lines like, “the bomb in the baby carriage,” “the automatic earth,” or “staccato signals of constant information” off the album’s triumphant opener, “The Boy in the Bubble” meant nothing to me in a social manner but were nevertheless intriguing sounding. The manner in which Simon delivered words like staccato, or combinations like cinematographer’s party curled off my tongue with ease that first summer and for many years to follow.
If I had to pick one song off Graceland that truly sums up what this album means to me in turns how I appreciate and listen to music today it would be the record’s title track. I knew that “Graceland” was referencing Elvis, who was an artist who, even if I wasn’t entirely familiar with, I understood was important, much like how I understood the importance of The Beatles long before I ever seriously listened to its music.
There is a level of sadness to “Graceland” that even the youngest of minds can pick up on. Sure lines like, “there is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” sounded silly to a boy with a primitive understanding of vocabulary and wordplay, but the way Simon sings on “Graceland” is full of sorrow.
Listening to the song then I can recall thinking that Graceland was this mysterious and foreign place, almost biblical. “Pilgrims with families / and we are going to Graceland” is a line that particularly stood out.
Many years later I often come back to Graceland. I make it a habit of listening to it at least once a month in its entirety. During my sophomore year of high school one of my favorite history teachers, Owen Hein, would start each day off with a song from his collection of music from around the world (he also introduced me to the french duo, Deep Forest). On one particular morning he launched into his lesson with Graceland. I remember feeling proud that I knew all the words by heart and instantly gained a new appreciation for the record when we discussed South Africa’s rocky past.
A single listening of Gracelenad is usually followed by several repeats of its title track. It’s probably the album’s most restrained and atmospheric sounding offering. With its ghost like echoes of background singers, tender electric guitar riffs and thunderous percussion and drum interludes, there is soul to the sound. “Graceland” is also easily one of Simon’s greatest songwriting achievements and clearly one of his most personal explorations of love and loss thereafter. It’s a song that will undoubtedly stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s a heart song, a song to take to a desert island, one that can comfort a soul and also make a soul weary of the highs and lows of true love. It’s a masterpiece in every definition of the word.
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow