A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks over and says, "What is this, a joke?"
"Call Me Al" is the song that put Simon back on the map-- all over the globe. And yet it is not only one of the sunniest, but one of the funniest songs in his entire catalog.
It starts off like a hundred other songs, from Fats Domino's "I'm Walking" to Huey Lewis' "Do You Believe in Love"... to "The Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady. It could also be the set-up for a joke: "A man walks down the street..." (Probably the most common song opener is: "Well, I woke up this morning...")
The song then continues with a question the man asks himself about his physique: "Why am I soft in the middle?" The question contains the answer; "soft in the middle" is a phrase that might appear in the ad for a snack food. Then there is a pun on the word "hard" in its dual meanings of "not soft" and "not easy."
A "photo opportunity" is a staged setting in which photographers are invited to come take pictures of a celebrity, often of a politician or candidate, making a speech, opening a mall or kissing babies. And then another pun: "shot" means both "chance" and "photograph." "I want a shot at redemption," refers to the idea that such a redemption, actually a private spiritual matter, now takes place at photo opportunities, through public apologies and grand gestures meant to assure the public that a new leaf has been turned over. This is to avoid ending up as a "a cartoon/ In a cartoon graveyard,” presumably a political cartoon showing that his career is dead.
The next word, "bonedigger" can either be a metaphor for the kind of journalist that digs up old scandals and finds skeletons in closets of celebrities... or a kenning for the "dogs" in the next line (a kenning is a kind of metaphor found in such poetry as Beowulf, in which the sea is called a "whale-road").
Yet, it does not seem that the man is actually famous. He lives a building superintended by, or at least located past beyond, a man who is even softer in the middle, who does not have pastries to thank but alcohol ("Mr. Beerbelly") and also has a whole pack of noisy, pushy dogs.
"You know, I don’t find this stuff/ Amusing anymore." This can be a continuation of his comments his alcohol-loving neighbor, or a "this stuff" can be the kinds of shenanigans he feels he has put up with too many of already in life.
The chorus seems to be a conversation not involving the "man" at all. The song started with a narrator, who now seems to turn to the listener and draw us into a closer relationship: "If you’ll be my bodyguard/ I can be your long-lost pal." This role-playing is indicative-- the speaker seeks protection, and in turn offers friendship. One can't offer protection in return, if one already feels vulnerable.
Then the speaker reveals more-- he is talking to a woman, and he suggests they take on pet names: "I can call you Betty/ You can call me Al." According to Simon, the names come from a mistake the French composer Pierre Boulez made at a party, calling Paul "Al" and and his then-wife Peggy "Betty." So even this line is an in-joke.
The next verse kicks off with another pun, this time on the word pair "short" and "long." (Simon's website is again incorrect. The line is "whoa, my nights are so long," while the site has it as "woe.") The man (which could be the same one or not) now has a problem, a "short little span of attention" but "long" nights to fill.
"Where’s my wife and family?" It's odd that he doesn't know, even if he is divorced. If they had in fact run off or been taken away by surprise, he would have contacted the police! So a better interpretation is neither "Where is the family I have" nor "Where is the family I once had" but "Where is the family I should have by now?"
And what if he never finds love? What if he should "die" before it happens? And worse, he has no one to turn to for guidance, as his "role model is gone." Panicked, he grabs the first opportunity at any sort of relationship or connection, with no standards or thought for consequences: "He ducked back down the alley/ With some... girl." Something that happens too often with politicians and others, one might add.
Well, the consequences happen anyway, even to the non-famous: "There were incidents and accidents... hints and allegations." His reputation, whatever it was, is ruined. (The phrase "Hints and Allegations" has since become the title of a poetry collection, a novel, and a Collective Soul album.)
The final verse takes the man away from familiar streets and local alleys. It sets him down "in a strange world." There is the Old World, or Europe... there is the New World, or the Western Hemisphere (which is old, too, but not to Europeans) and then there is the "developing world"-- mainly Africa and southern Asia-- which used to be called "The Third World" until that expression was determined to be demeaning. ("Maybe it's his first time around" could be a reference to reincarnation, in that he is a new soul, one with no past lives and so no experience.)
This time, the man is entirely out of his element-- "He doesn't speak the language/ He is a foreign man." Wait, where's the pun? In the second line: "He holds no currency," which means that he has no local form of money... but this is also an expression that means he "has no importance" here, no weight or influence.
The man is not surrounded by the concerns of notoriety or self-fulfillment that he was at home. No, he is "surrounded by the sound" of this new-yet-older place, with its "cattle" instead of cars, "orphanages" instead of families, and "angels in the architecture" instead of corporate logos or gargoyles.
His response? To be received in grace-land, actually. His head starts "spinning." Then he has an epiphany, a religious awakening: "He says, 'Amen!' and 'Hallelujah!'"
The word "scatterlings" also appears in the song "Scatterlings of Africa," by South African singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg. The album Third World Child came out the year after Graceland did, and the song hit England in 1987, then was used in the 1988 American movie Rain Man. It is possible that Clegg picked up the word from Simon, or that they both took it from a third source, or the local dialect. Most likely, the word means "rootless people, exiled from their land." Clegg uses it to mean all of humanity, which began in Africa and scattered from there.
Back to our speaker, who is a foreign man, yes... but so is every one else! Here, he is just another one of the "scatterlings," not like in his home country where everyone has to live under the twin pretenses of stability and upward mobility. He finally comes to a place where no one has a place, and so everyone does. Even him.
There is a wonderful song by Dar Williams called "What Do You Hear in These Sounds?" about therapy. In it, her realization feels like this: "The wall came down/ And there, they stood before me/ With their stumbling and their mumbling/ Just like me."
The secret is that there is no secret. The epiphany, what he has found, is that everyone is lost. Everyone is "soft in the middle" and vulnerable. Everyone is "short of attention" that they can pay, and that is paid to them.
The last verse can be seen as Simon's version of "Amazing Grace"-- A sweet "sound" brings salvation and inner peace to a lost wretch. As for Simon himself, he had forever been searching for the origins of the music he loved as a child-- early rock, doo-wop, and gospel-- and he seems to have found it. Amen and Hallelujah indeed.
This upbeat song remains one of Simon's most popular, a quarter-century on. It is used as a fanfare for everyone from athletes named Al to once-VP-candidate Al Gore.
The musicians are from his South African ensemble, made of up members of several local bands. The famous bass solo is by Bakithi Kumalo, first played forward then backward.
Also, Adrian Belew sits in on guitar synthesizer, Randy Brecker plays one of the driving trumpets, and jazz flutist Morris Goldberg has a solo on penny whistle.
It went to #23 in the US charts and #11 in Canada, but all the way #6 in New Zealand, #4 in the UK, #2 in Australia and also #2 in Ireland, where they know a well-played penny whistle when they hear one. The song has been covered by a few acts, but none whose names I recognize.
The seemingly offhand line "hints and allegations" has become something of a catch-phrase. It is used in the title of an album by Collective Soul, as the title of two books of poems-- one each by William M. Kunstler and Amanda J. Bradley-- and a book by Kimberly Dascenzo. Even more books use the phrase "Incidents and Accidents" in their titles.
Next Song: Under African Skies