Monday, January 30, 2012

You Can Call Me Al

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


  1. Paul has said in a documentary interview that this song is partly autobiographical. After writing the first two verses, he thought, "Who is this guy?" And he says "That's when I realized, well, it's me!" He goes on to talk about how he was going through a sort of midlife crisis, experiencing those doubts and fears, at a low point in his career ("don't wanna end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard...") etc. Then of course, the final verse is even more obviously autobiographical. Simon travels to "a foreign land" (Africa), wanders in the streets, finds "angels in the architecture" and "says Amen and Hallelujah" -- a metaphor for the artistic/spiritual rebirth he experienced.

    I always took the "ducked back down the alley" section to refer to Al's "role model," not Al himself. That's why his role model is "gone, gone" -- there was some kind of sordid scandal that tarnished his reputation, so now Al has nobody left to look up to.

  2. When Bakithi Kumalo tried to replicate what had really been an electronic reversal effect in the studio (though not many people realized that), he kept failing to produce the right sound. Eventually Simon told him, "You know what, I like it better when you just play it your way. So don't bother trying to copy the studio version."

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  4. To the first Anonymous: I'd love to hear that interview. I imagine all songs and other artworks are to some degree autobiographical. While I try to interpret Simon's songs in a way that relate universally, sometimes there is no escaping the self-references, and it is interesting to know that they are elsewhere in this song aside from the "Betty/Al" business.

    But I disagree that the role model is the alley-ducker. Rather, I feel it means that without the anchor of his role model, the speaker exercises poor judgement.

    To the second Anonymous: That's a great story, thanks! It really embodies to the point Simon made in an interview with Hank Shocklee (a Public Enemy producer) about the importance of the human element in performance over the mechanical.

  5. Actually, I'm Anon 1 and 2, I just had the two thoughts separately---sorry. :D

    That interview comes from the Classic Albums: Graceland DVD. You can buy it on Amazon here. It's full of fascinating BTS stuff:

    Hmmmmm... still not sure about who's doing the alley-ducking. It seems like a really sudden shift from the monologue to the past tense third person. But maybe you're right. Still, he's obviously not offering to make an alliance with the "roly-poly little bat-faced girl..." is he?

  6. I have the DVD. I'll have to watch it again, thanks. I don't have the new documentary, "Under African Skies," yet... but it's on my list!

    "He" is probably not the role model, as the role model is only referred to... and also is "gone." The "he" is probably the "man" in question, consistently throughout the song. I did not notice the tense shift, though, but even so, if it were the role model, the line would read (as if to explain where the role model had gone) "He'd ducked..." or "He had ducked."

  7. I was thinking of it as Al himself explaining it. "Who'll be my role model, now that my role model is gone? (He ducked back down the alley...)"

    If you re-watch the video with Chevy Chase, look at Chevy's facial expressions and body language carefully through the passage. I think (and this is just my opinion), that Chevy at any rate understood it to be all Al speaking, because the way he presents it makes it seem continuous from the one phrase to the next. He spreads his hands and makes a comical face of despair like "Boy I'm sunk, my role model's gone..." then a knowing look and nod for what seems like a parenthetical to elaborate on what happened to said role model. However, it is possible that your reading is closer to what Paul himself meant:

  8. Well, I think we can at least assume that the "incidents, accidents, hints, and allegations" are about whichever-- Al or the role model-- had the dalliance with the "bat-faced girl".

  9. Great post! I stumbled across this because I'd just noticed the use of the word "scatterlings" in You Can Call Me Al (it's crazy it took me so long to notice, given how many times I've listed to Graceland!) and wondered if anyone else had made the Johnny Clegg connection.

    One quick note about that: Clegg and his band, Savuka, did indeed release "Scatterlings of Africa" on the album Third World Child in 1987. However, it was a rerecording of one of his old songs—Clegg originally recorded it with his first band, Juluka, and released it in 1982 on an album that was itself called Scatterlings. So it seems likely that Simon got the word from Clegg.

    We know that Simon was at least aware of Johnny Clegg and Juluka, because he worked with their producer, Hilton Rosenthal, when he went SA to record Graceland, and I have heard that he thanks Rosenthal, Clegg and Juluka in the liner notes, although I can't confirm that because I only have the MP3 album! Just mentioning all this because if Paul Simon did indeed slip a reference to Clegg into one of his most famous songs, that would make this Johnny Clegg and Paul Simon fan very happy. :)

  10. Emily M.-- Thanks for telling me about the earlier recording! It's my favorite Clegg song and I'd like to hear how the earlier band handled it. And it would be very fitting that Simon would drop in that word as a shout-out to Clegg.
    I finally looked up "scatterling" and Merriam-Webster says it is an archaic word for "vagrant." So my guess was close, but it means more a "homeless" person than a "refugee," as I had thought.
    For years, not knowing that "scatterlings" was even a word, I heard the lyric as "a scattering of orphanages," which made sense to me-- there was no real system for dealing with orphans; they were just scattered about to whomever would take them. Nice to have more a handle on what the line is and what it's really about!

  11. I've often heard the song described as a metaphor for a celebrity alcoholic's journey to sober. The "I can call you betty" referring to the Betty Ford Clinic and "you can call me Al" for Alcoholic. The first verse talking about how his alcoholism has ruined his career and he wants it back (I need a photo opportunity, I want a shot at redemption)

    The second verse I think refers to a previous failed attempt to be sober. The part about needing a role model now that his role model is gone, referring perhaps to a sponsor or friend who "fell off the wagon" themselves.

    The last verse is when he finally ends up at Betty Ford and is welcomed. He arrives there and it's a strange place but, having attempted sobriety before, it feels slightly familiar (maybe it's the third world, or maybe it's his first time around) The part I really like is (he doesn't speak the language, he holds no currency) Anybody who has lived or worked in any kind of institution will tell you the people their have their own language and currency but having just arrived he doesn't know that language or currency yet. He is surrounded by other "refugees" like himself and he looks around and feels like he's finally come to a place of healing and just exclaims "Amen and Hallelujah!" in relief and joy!

    1. The addiction theory is really well thought out - I certainly got this feeling.

      Such a great song.

    2. Anon-- We know from several interviews who "Al" and "Betty" are. But any story that moves from confusion and misery to clarity and redemption would find a metaphor here.

  12. Anon-- Thank you for that comment. I suppose anyone who has underdone such a journey-- whether from addiction to sobriety, or doubt to faith, or intolerance to acceptance-- could find an apt metaphor herein.
    Take the Passover service-- it has been be adopted and adapted by groups ranging from Christians to immigrants to feminists to labor unions. Each has found meaning in the Israelites' journey from bondage to freedom.

  13. ""Wait, where's the pun? In the second line: "He holds no currency," which means that he has no local form of money...""

    I'd like to call attention to the pun in the third verse.

    "Maybe it's the third world,
    Maybe it's his first time around"

    The pun being that 'world' sounds like 'whirled'. The third 'whirled', the man is spinning and spinning, but it's his first time around.

    If you look at the verses, this pun comes at the exact time as the other two puns from the first two verses. The puns all occur in the third and fourth lines of the verses. The lyrics to this song are so well thought out and well structured that I imagine this placement had to be intentional and that this line was meant to be a bit of fun word play.

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  15. Hello There-- The other pun, or at least wordplay, is "THIRD world... FIRST time."
    As to the world/whirled idea? Maybe. And by that, I mean a 10% chance. I have seen the T-shirt that says "Visualize Whirled Peas" instead of "world peace." Later, he does say he feels like he's "spinning in infinity."