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.

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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.

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The German language has two words for silence. Stille means there is silence. Schweigen means something is silent. The change of meaning is subtle yet important: schweigen suggests that the silence isn’t incidental: something could make a sound but isn’t. Put another way, stille is meaningless silence, schweigen is meaningful silence.

English lacks this distinction and must modify “silence” into an adverb (see “keep silent” and “remain silent”) to achieve the same nuance. When encountering “silence” in an English translation of German verse I sometimes wonder whether the German contained stille or schweigen.

Purity! Purity! Where are the terrible paths of death,
Of grey stony silence, the rocks of the night
And the peaceless shadows? Radiant sun-abyss.
Sister, when I found you at the lonely clearing
Of the forest, and it was midday and the silence of the animal great;
Whiteness under wild oak, and the thorn bloomed silver.
Enormous dying and the singing flame in the heart.
Darker the waters flow around the beautiful play of fishes.
Hour of mourning, silent vision of the sun;
The soul is a strange shape on earth. Spiritually blueness
Dusks over the pruned forest; and a dark bell rings
Long in the village; peaceful escort.
Silently the myrtle blooms over the white eyelids of the dead one.
Quietly the waters sound in the sinking afternoon
And the wilderness on the bank greens more darkly; joy in the rosy wind;
The brother’s soft song by the evening hill.

Georg Trakl (3 February 1887 – 3 November 1914) loved silence, particularly schweigen. The theme of quietness – deliberate quietness – makes his poems pulse and glow. “Springtime of the Soul” (Frühling der Seele) has three “silences”. The first and second (the animal, and the sun) are schweigen. To Trakl everything can conceivably have a voice. The third silence (the myrtle) is stille, which is actually unusual for Trakl – he often uses schweigen in reference to plants, too. He revered nature, and seemed to view it without the distinctions (sapient/stupid, ambulatory/stationary, alive/dead) that others imposed. To Trakl, it’s easy to imagine a plant talking, or the sun talking. His poems describe nature’s myriad forms as the folds and nodules of a single great throat, pouring out sound or silence.

Trakl died young after living a terrible life. His poems are fragile and often hurtful to read: they actually seem bruised, like flower petals crushed by the pressure of a thumb.

Something about his brain was abnormal. Dr Hans Asperger analyzed Trakl’s writings and declared him an exemplary case of the recently-discovered syndrome which bears his name. Trakl’s poems reflect a very intense relationship with topic matter: read a few Trakl poems and you’ll see him repeating ideas and subjects obsessively – trees, plants, pastoral settings, animals in forest glades, his sister (giving rise to unfortunate rumors about an incestual relationship between the two) – which is a hallmark of autistic “special interests”.

The sensoriality of Trakl’s poems is also remarkable, the way everything is chained to a description of a color or sound. In the above poem you can see how he keeps coloring things that don’t have color – eg, souls are blue, the wind is rosy. It’s possible he had synaesthesia, and experienced the world in a sensorally conjoined way that others didn’t.

Either way, there’s a childlike quality to his verse – in a positive sense. It uses simple words and simple ideas, but they hit hard, particularly the oblique yet awful passages alluding to war. Whenever man-made sound intrudes into a Trakl poem, it’s never good. “Trumpets” is short but memorable: reaching thunderstorm-like intensity that nearly equals Poe’s “The Bells”.

Under the trimmed willows, where brown children are playing
And leaves tumbling, the trumpets blow. A quaking of cemeteries.
Banners of scarlet rattle through a sadness of maple trees,
Riders along rye-fields, empty mills. Or shepherds sing during the night, and stags step delicately
Into the circle of their fire, the grove’s sorrow immensely old,
Dancing, they loom up from one black wall;
Banners of scarlet, laughter, insanity, trumpets.

Trakl’s work is easy to memorize, particularly upon repeated readings – which you’ll have to do, because his collected work is scant. Like the modernists and romantics he took inspiration from (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine), he died long before his time. In World War I, he served as a medical officer, and had scant opportunity to experience either stille or schweigen. After the Battle of Grodek in 1914, he was given a barn full of ninety badly wounded soldiers, and told to care for them. He couldn’t cope, tried to shoot himself. For this he was sent to a military hospital in Cracow. He assumed he was going there as a medical officer. Instead, it as a convalescent. What’s that old joke about how doctors wear lab coats so you can distinguish them from their patients?

Whatever treatment he received didn’t work: his depression was deep and total. Eventually, he tried to kill himself a second time – this time with a cocaine overdose – and was successful. Another man consumed by mechanical violence. There’s something cruelly arbitrary about Trakl’s death – the Great War caused a lot of fathers to bury their sons, but at least most of the deaths have a kind of planned badness – a general decided it was worth the lives of x many soldiers for y tactical salient, or whatever. Trakl didn’t even get the dubious honor of being cannon fodder. His death was completely and finally meaningless – just a cruel incidental byproduct, serving no purpose except to return schweigen to his sound and image filled head. The war robbed a man of his life and the world of the poems he could have written. Here’s one last -“Grodek”.

At evening the woods of autumn are full of the sound
Of the weapons of death, golden fields
And blue lakes, over which the darkening sun
Rolls down; night gathers in
Dying recruits, the animal cries
Of their burst mouths.
Yet a red cloud, in which a furious god,
The spilled blood itself, has its home, silently
Gathers, a moonlike coolness in the willow bottoms;
All the roads spread out into the black mold.
Under the gold branches of the night and stars
The sister’s shadow falters through the diminishing grove,
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, bleeding heads;
And from the reeds the sound of the dark flutes of autumn rises.
O prouder grief! you bronze altars,
The hot flame of the spirit is fed today by a more monstrous pain,
The unborn grandchildren.

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