On August 15, 1945, a Japanese schoolboy heard the voice of his god crackling from a transistor radio.
“We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration…”
The Surrender Speech was the first time the Showa Emperor had ever spoken to the common people, and when young Kenzaburo Oe heard that voice it destroyed his faith. He’d thought that God-Emperor was… a god. He’d had dreams of a massive bird, soaring over Japan like a protecting shield, pinfeathers tearing through the sky like blades. To hear the Emperor speak in a man’s voice (which his schoolmates could mockingly imitate) took a hammer to his spirit.
Occupation soldiers rolled into Oe’s mountain village later that year. He expected the Americans to slaughter them all; instead they gave the villagers candy bars. This was cruel beyond words to Oe. He’d anticipated death and had instead received disillusion. Everyone had lied to him: the Emperor wasn’t a god, the Americans weren’t devils, and if he was to die for a noble cause, he would first have to discover one.
The inner turmoil of this moment colors much/all of Oe’s subsequent writing. He became the Patron Saint of the Crushed Hope. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a collection of four novellas, grappling with a past that has proven to be unreliable.
“Aghwee the Sky Monster” is a surrealist tale similar to Gogol. The narrator becomes the friend of the mononymous “D”, a mad composer who is haunted by the ghost of his son Aghwee (who appears to him as “a fat baby in a white cotton nightgown, big as a kangaroo”). Only D can see this apparition, whom he conducts nonsensical conversations with.
Aghwee is obviously a delusion. Or is he? His existence controls and shapes D’s behavior in the same way a real baby would (for example, D will avoid dogs, because Aghwee is afraid of them), so does he exist in a phenomenological sense? The narrator probes D’s past, finds deep and unhealed wounds, and even hints of horror. It might well be D’s deserved fate to carry Aghwee with him eternally.
Shiiku, or “Prize Stock”, is about a black American pilot who crashes in a remote Japanese village. He is chained up and regarded with a mixture of awe and hillbilly racism by the villagers. I’ve seen some people online describe this story as “autobiographical”, although it couldn’t be – there were no black pilots in the Pacific Theater, and the Tuskegee Airmen served only in Europe. I think Oe’s offering some commentary on Japanese wartime propaganda, which would contrast enlightened Japan with the socially backward US. The US had consigned generations of blacks to slavery, a medieval institution that Japan had abolished centuries ago (Japan’s ~20 million Chinese and Javanese “forced laborers” were not regarded as slaves). The IJN also conducted so-called “Negro Propaganda Operations” – covert short-wave radio broadcasts attempting to recruit African Americans to the Axis cause. “Prize Stock” seems like an caustic derision of the idea of Japanese racial enlightenment: here as elsewhere, they were more like Americans than they thought.
“Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” is about a fat Japanese father and his developmentally compromised son Eeyore (this is another repeated theme of Oe’s, whose own son has autism) who have several supernatural adventures. Maybe my least favorite story: it seems to repeat themes expressed more eloquently elsewhere.
The centerpiece is “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away”, a long and intricately constructed story that has to be read carefully: there are tricky perspective shifts. In short, it’s about a man who is dying in hospital of a “cancer” that is almost certainly imaginary. Descending into the story is descending into a tangled web, there’s narratives within narratives, lies within lies, houses built on quicksand, quicksand built on quicksand, etc.
Soon you get the idea: it’s like a Fellini movie, none of the facts in the story are important within themselves: they only matter insofar as they illuminate the mental landscape of a profoundly deluded man. He is arrogant and proud, self-pitying and defensive, and not particularly sympathetic. The madman in “Aghwee” is at least undergoing delusions as a form of penance. The hero of “The Day…” wears his insanity like protective armor. Apparently this is Oe’s veiled roman-à-clef of Yukio Mishima, author and poet turned right-wing nationalist who had committed seppuku two years previously, following a failed coup attempt.
So all four stories are pretty personal, but they’re much bigger than Oe. He shows the way a person can forcibly have the fabric of a nation woven into him, and the pain that results when that fabric is torn away. But what’s the past for, in the end? To contain an accurate record of what happened? Or to guide our behavior in the present? The two goals are seldom fully compatible.
It also asks questions such as “what’s a nation founded upon?” Sometimes, the answer is simply “nothing”. Take Algeria. Algeria doesn’t exist for any particular reason – it’s just there. But then you have the “proposition nation”, which is based (or believes itself based) upon an ideal or belief. I would say that the United States, Israel, and Showa-era Japan fall into this category.
Generally it’s bad to be a proposition nation, because you run the risk of your proposition being proven false. What happens then? What happens if you’re the Independent State of Phlogiston? The Republic of Timecube? You lie, I guess. You deceive your citizens, deceive yourself, because the only other course is ruin. Japan could have never have won the Second World War. But its soldiers in the field weren’t to know that, nor was Kenzaburo Oe. The nation just staggered blindly forward, ever deeper into the disaster, inflicting psychic trauma on its citizens that persists to the present day.
That’s tragic part about state-sponsored falsehoods: they continue in memory long after the state that created them fell to pieces. Japan spent decades downplaying or minimizing its war crimes: writing arrant falsehoods into its history books. Men who had produced mountains of bodies went unpunished and were reassimilated back into society. Oe’s childhood disillusionment could have been worse: he wasn’t told about things like Nanking, Unit 731, and comfort women. D is burdened by an imaginary baby. The protag of “The Day” is burdened by an imaginary cancer. Japan was burdened by an imaginary history. Even in the 70s, there were men like Mishima, who literally killed himself trying to bring the bad old days back.
Thanks to work like Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness Oe achieved fame and reknown, even within his own country. But it’s easier to forgive than to forget, and Oe has a long memory. In 1994, he was named to receive Japan’s Order of Culture. When he learned that he would receive the Order from the Emperor’s hand, he refused.
On paper, Graceland sounds terrible. Folk rock musician in his mid-forties, divorced, losing relevance, dabbling in “exotic” styles that he has no fluency in or understanding of. There’s no barf bag big enough.
But music isn’t written on metaphorical paper, it’s written in air, and Graceland is somehow Simon’s greatest album by a mile.
It’s a stupendous record. Everything wrong with every past Simon solo record is made right: the excess of ballads is pared back, Simon’s occasionally flat-sounding voice is swelled by backing vocalists, and the thin-sounding arrangements are replaced by drums and basslines as massive and powerful as the thrumming steel cables of a suspension bridge. The songwriting is ten times better: normally Simon’s solo discography suspends me on a knife’s edge between mild entertainment and mild boredom while I wait for a classic like “Still Crazy” and “Me & Julio…” to show up. But here, nearly all the songs are that good.
The usual story of Graceland involves Paul Simon, his career failing after a series of indulgent vanity projects, being being given a bootlegged cassette tape by a singer-songwriter he was producing. He’d never heard anything like it. It had an accordion and lots of layered vocals and wouldn’t leave his head: it simply sounded alive in an age when pop music was breaching new frontiers of sterility.
He wanted to hear more; he wanted to make more; but what was it? This is a frustration of pre-internet life most people have forgotten: unlabelled tapes or records full of music you had no way of identifying. After some investigation, he discovered that the bootleg contained South African music by a group called the Boyoyo Boys. And although the particular tape Simon possessed seems lost to time, it probably sounded a little like this.
This is mbaqanga, a South African pastoral style that flourished as much as it could under apartheid. Musicians everywhere have a tendency to die broke and exploited: and for mbaqanga musicians this was nearly a certainty, yet enough of their music made it to Western shores (in defiance of a UN cultural boycott) for Simon to hear it. It picked the lock in his head, allowing him to write songs again.
One of the things about music is how it serves as fertilizer for the flowering of other music. Art never just exists within itself, it also creates the future, and Simon decided his future involved flying to South Africa and working with mbaqanga musicians. The result isn’t timeless in the same way as the greatest Simon & Garfunkel work. The gated snare and chorus-spackled guitars mark it as a creature of the mid 80s. But it’s a monumental achievement, towering over all the solo work Simon did before and after.
“The Boy in the Bubble” contains a catchy accordion riff by Forere Motloheloa, along with a loosely-sung lyric by Simon that almost sounds ad-libbed at the mic (listen to his unstressed delivery on “the bomb in the baby carriage…”) “You Can Call Me Al” sees fretless bassist Bakithi Kumalo stealing the show with an intricate bassline that nearly breaks my left wrist every time I play it (it also contains a slap bass solo that can’t be performed by human hands at all, because Simon reversed the tape in the studio!). “Crazy Love, Vol II” might be my favorite song, particularly the lush, painterly guitar parts in the verses and Simon’s oblique but heartfelt lyrics.
All these songs – even the minor ones – have rhythmic grooves that are dense and compelling. And Simon often seems like a small player within his own songs, which was almost certainly his intent.
By 1986, Simon had grown sick of “three chords and the truth” music in the Bob Dylan vibe, with Mr Wise Musician strumming guitar and mumbling profundities from atop the bandstand. He identified generically “African” music as a counter to that – he wanted its communal feel, its devotional attitude, its erasure of distinctions between bandleader and musician and musician and audience member.
It’s music that raises up the humble, putting everyone on the same level. Yes, African music has room for virtuoso musicians and virtuoso performances (and Graceland has plenty of both), but the sense of interconnectedness always comes first.
This was important for Simon, who is a pop singer who has always had trouble getting out of his own way. Nearly all of his music is both quotidian and personal, focused laser-like on Paul Simon’s stories, experiences, and daily life. Even his most political song, “American Tune”, has its thematic sting (Nixon is president, we all failed) drawn by navel-gazing lyrics that equate to “I’m Paul Simon and I feel bummed out”. For some people, it takes courage to take the stage. Simon might actually be the reverse: it takes him courage to back away, and let others steer his ship.
His usual songwriting approach was to write something, then book session musicians to play it. But Graceland forced him to do something different: capture performances first and then try to turn them into songs. He still knew jack shit about mbaqanga, and constructing Graceland was a long and often painful process, full of second guessing and scrapped takes. But the result is something unlike anything he ever tried before (aside from the reggae-influenced “Mother and Child Reunion”, which was a dry run for Graceland in some respects).
Paul Simon’s past music is him constructing a house – and often finding it to be a lonely, windy mansion, forbidding and alienating to everyone (including himself). Graceland is more like Paul Simon moving in and unpacking his bags in a house already built – a house that’s packed to the rafters with noisy and happy people, raising their voices in song. Thankfully, he’s a small man.
Despite ceding musical authority to dozens of South African musicians, the lyrics still have Simon as a commanding force. He wrote pages and pages of them – long-time engineer Roy Halee recalls that one of Graceland‘s biggest challenge was recording extremely wordy songs with extremely busy instrumentation without having everything collapse into a mess of shards. It speaks to the incredible creative period that Graceland was that Simon had so much to say. But again, it’s more about his own life than anything more cosmic.
The title track “Graceland” is a thrill ride along a lonely landscape with guitar lines shimmering like ripples of heat over a highway. But aside from a few gestures to history (the Civil War, etc), it’s a song about his breakup with Carrie Fisher. Two tracks later, he’s collaborating with the Boyoyo Boys themselves. “Gumboots” is a minor track, and Simon apparently didn’t enjoy working with them, but he left the song on the record, since they were the ones who’d inspired the project. What’s “Gumboots” about? The Boyoyo Boys probably intended a reference to South African “gumboot dancing” – mine owners forbade their workers from speaking when on the job, so miners improvised a system of foot movements to warn each other of cave-ins and so forth. In later years, the gumboots became one more strand of mbaqanga music, and a vivid example of how something as dull as an item of footwear can have profound cultural connections. That historical aspect isn’t present on Graceland‘s “Gumboots”. Simon just delivers a ruminative lyric about him trying to find love in small ways and places. I guess it’s fair for a Paul Simon solo album to be about Paul Simon. But just be prepared for an album that’s a little less globalist and world-spanning than its billing suggests.
Graceland was massively popular. And controversial. Simon had broken a UN embargo by making it. Black musicians accused him of stealing their style. Whites playing black music has always a touchy issue. He was selling out, he was trying too hard, he was appropriating styles, he was supporting apartheid. Disputes over songwriting credits haunt Graceland like restless ghosts. When Simon toured the album he found himself picketed by hundreds of people. Members of a militant South African liberation organization threw grenades into office of his promoter.
But the antonym of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. People have always cared in an obsessive way about Graceland, even those who don’t like. The old radio cliche about “a platter that matters” comes to mind. Graceland might not be universally loved, but for better or for worse, it matters.
I get out of my car after a long, hard, and black day at work. I can’t wait to turn over my paycheck to my wife. We divide household duties 50-50: I earn the money and she spends it. It gives me pride to be a provider figure. The more money I give her, the more she’ll respect me.
My sedan is a mid-grade Asian import. I’ve put a strategic Biden/Harris bumper sticker on it to reflect my political stance. Frankly, if you’re not outraged by what’s happening, you’re not paying attention.
I approach my house. Like the car, it’s tasteful, if understated. Don’t be fooled, though. Inside this house, passion runs like a raging river. Believe me, I’d know – sometimes my wife lets me watch.
I open my front door. Bizarrely, it swings outward, hitting me in the face. It’s like the door isn’t even aware that I’m there. This is the nature of my existence. My family relies on me, I am the only gainfully employed person in the building, and yet often I’m treated like I’m invisible. That’s fine. I don’t need a medal. In any clock, the most important gears are hidden from view.
I enter, and find my infant son Tyrone Jr crawling around on the floor. That won’t do. He might crawl out of doors and get run over by a car or eaten by a dog. The neighbours whisper about TJ, but I don’t listen. Yes, he has a darker skin color than me, and yes, he has less of my genetic material than you’d expect from the terms “my” and “son” but a true family overcomes obstacles like that. When you think about it, being willing to raise another man’s baby makes me even more of a dad.
Honestly, there’s a lot resting on my narrow, sloped, scoliosis-afflicted back. I’m the breadwinner. I cook and I clean. I sometimes feel unappreciated by my family, but I know it’s mostly in my head. I’m important and respected. Truly. Why else would they allow me to live with them?
In mirrors throughout the house, I catch glimpses of myself. I am making the “soyface“, an open-mouthed expression of childlike delight commonly seen among emasculated men as they mindlessly consume media such as Star Wars and Marvel movies. Did you see The Rise of Skywalker? I did. Barely. It was hard to see the screen past my permanently clapping hands.
Outside my house, I hear a schoolbus shifting gears. My other son DeShawn must have come home from school. He’s twelve, and aspires to be a rapper. Once, I told him he’s not a rapper. He said that I’m not his daddy. That stung, but I just smiled. With a quick wit like that maybe he’ll accomplish his dream. I just wish he’d stop stealing my Funko Pops. They’ll be worth a lot of money someday. They’re collector’s items. I know this because the company selling them said they’re collector’s items.
I go upstairs, and find my wife alone with TJ and DeShawn’s biological father, Tyrone Senior. He is a large, muscular black man with an active arrest warrant in his name. I am outraged to find them alone. How dare they? …Won’t they at least allow me to prep the bull?
Apparently that’s not going to happen today. Tyrone tells me to hand over my paycheck and then leave. I ask him how much he wants. He says “all of it”. I guess I haven’t acquired enough good boy points with my wife. I hesitate, Tyrone asks if we have a problem, and I quickly say no. I’d never fight him. He might hurt his knuckles on my face. Anyway, it takes the bigger man to walk away from a confrontation.
Also, I bought a game on Steam called “Cuckold Simulator”. I haven’t played it yet but when I do I’ll tell you what it’s like.