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Paul Simon's Graceland - A More Canadian Experience Than You Might Think

Geoff Dennis

whether it was coming home from visiting relatives, or back from a Blue Jay game or just a gingerly jaunt through the Escarpment—whenever it was, my parents' car was constantly playing Paul Simon's Graceland. I can picture my dad's fingers quietly tapping on the steering wheel to the rhythm of his favourite track "Under African Skies," (a wonderful duet with Linda Ronstad) as we swept across the streets. For over ten years I heard that album. And I doubt I am the only person who heard those signature smooth melodies at an early age.

Graceland is one of those irreplaceable, perennially revered albums. Virtually every dad has a copy—notice the word "literally" was not selected as it implies everyone, but let's face it, many of us grew up hearing Paul Simon. When you're under the age of ten though, you probably wouldn't appreciate how good this album truly is even though you could sing every lyric. Put it on again now, and you might be pleasantly surprised, unless the cherished childhood memories—which will flood back—induce self-loathing for suddenly becoming a hopeless sentimentalist. But listen to it, and if you don't own it, borrow it from dad.

The title track speaks of an experience, although universal, that's uniquely Canadian. In the first verse and chorus, amidst a rolling bassline mingled with bluesy guitars and a slightly punchy beat, "Graceland" weaves a tale of traveling to see The King's palace in Memphis, Tennessee. It's not the tourist content that's Canadian, rather when Paul croons about his "travelling companion" who's "nine-years-old" conjures a feeling—something that feels like home. It's about passing down a lineage, teaching that traveling companion (which could be you) about music. About Elvis. And what it means to appreciate music. Canadians adore understanding things alien to them (like why Americans worship firearms and fast food), and what Paul Simon speaks of is no different. We are curious; even when we're driving with dad to get some beaver tails after a hockey game.

Maybe it a stretch to say this, yet it seems that Graceland has the power to teach people things. Young, old… whomever. People attribute their early musical education to bands like Guns N' Roses, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, or Pink Floyd—but those who heard Simon in the car with mom and dad experienced something that's altogether different and subtle. It's like you were brainwashed into knowing Graceland, but after awhile you grew annoyed with it. But subconsciously, it exposed you to masterful songwriting (think "You Can Call Me Al" and try to deny the greatness of that track with it's superior horn section and fat bass solo), and unmatched lyrics (in "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" when Paul speaks of the poor boy who's "empty as a pocket"). When you hear those deep, throaty African singers chanting tribal hymns in the background all over the album, you are being exposed to another distinctly Canadian trait: the integration of culture to a collective that is merely improved because that culture doesn't get erased, rather it enhances our own. Just as Graceland is greatly enhanced by the incorporation of African musical talent—try to picture the album without it. Believe it or not, it taught you something. Listen to it again and you'll certainly understand.

Geoff Dennis is cancon's music editor.

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