Song of the Day: Travel in Music (Day Two). “My Travelling Companion is Nine Years Old, He is the Child of My First Marriage”.

Paul Simon released his seventh solo album, Graceland, in 1986.  Prior to the album’s release, Simon’s career had hit an all-time low.  Following a reunion with former partner Art Garfunkel, which had been successful but contentious, Simon’s marriage to actress Carrie Fisher had fallen apart and his previous record, Hearts and Bones (1983), had been a commercial disaster.  In 1984, following a period of depression, Simon became fascinated by a bootleg cassette of South African township music.  He planned a trip to Johannesburg in the New Year with producer Roy Halee, where he spent two weeks recording with South African musicians, who most famously included Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The album was recorded between 1985 and 1986 and featured an eclectic mix of styles ranging from pop and rock to a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya and andmbaqanga.  Simon faced much controversy for seemingly breaking the cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world against the apartheid regime in South Africa at the time.  Furthermore, some critics felt that Graceland was an exploitive appropriation of African cultures.  Despite the controversy, Graceland was a major commercial hit, becoming Simon’s most successful solo album.

During the recording of the album, Simon would remain unsure of the album’s thematic connection.  He kept dozens of yellow legal pads with random words and phrases which he would combine in an attempt to define the album.  The album’s title was taken from a phrase written on one of the pads, “driving through wasteland”, which was changed to “going to Graceland”, a reference to the Memphis home of Elvis Presley.  In doing so, Simon believed that it represented a spiritual direction.  Just as he had taken his trip to Africa to collect ideas, he also took a trip to Graceland in order to revitalise his love for music.

The album’s title track tells of the singer’s thoughts during this journey following the failure of his second marriage.  As the song opens, we find the lines, “The Mississippi Delta was shining, Like a national guitar” in which the singer romanticises the spiritual home of the blues and the birthplace of modern music as we know it.  In the following lines, “I’m following the river down the highway, Through the cradle of the civil war”, the singer is driving through the area where many civil war battles were fought.

Following the chorus of the song, the second verse introduces us to Simon’s travel companion with the lines, “My travelling companion is nine years old, He is the child of my first marriage”.  Simon’s first marriage was to Peggy Harper from 1969 to 1975.  They had one son, Harper Simon.  However, Harper Simon was born in 1972, which would make the year of Simon’s trip to Graceland, 1981.  We know that the trip took place later, somewhere between 1983 and 1986.  Therefore, the child that Simon is talking about is more likely to be a metaphor for the emotional baggage which he carries from his first marriage.  With Simon’s marriage to Peggy Harper ending in 1975, we can date his journey to Graceland to 1984.  The idea of the “child” being a metaphorical one is made more apparent by the later line, “And my travelling companions are ghosts and empty sockets”, with the “ghosts” and “empty sockets” being the reminders of Simon’s failed relationships.  In several lines of the song, such as “But I’ve reason to believe, We both will be received in Graceland” Graceland is portrayed as a spiritual place, somewhere which the singer and other imperfect sinners can be unburdened of their troubles and regrets.  This can also be seen in the line in the chorus, “Poor boys and pilgrims with families”.

In the third verse of the song, Simon speaks of Fisher, describing the way “she” had physically left him but had then returned to let him know that she was leaving: “She comes back to tell me she’s gone, As if I didn’t know that”.  Simon also tells of how his sense of observation has been insulted by his wife telling him she has left him in the lines, “As if I didn’t know my own bed, As if I didn’t know that”.  In the same verse, Simon drifts into daydreaming thinking about his estranged wife with lines such as “As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”.  Following this, Simon speaks of how vulnerable love makes people and the devastating effect his marriage break up has been on him with words spoken to him by Fisher:  “and she said, “Losing love, Is like a window in your heart, Everybody sees you’re blown apart, Everybody sees the wind blow”.

Some of the most curious lines of the song are found in verse five:  “There’s a girl in New York City, Who calls herself the human trampoline”.  Simon explained the meaning of “human trampoline” to SongTalk magazine, saying:

“That line came to me when I was walking past the Museum of Natural History.  For no reason I can think of.  It’s not related to anybody.  Or anything.  It just struck me as funny.  Although that’s an image that people remember, they talk about that line.  But really, what interested me was the next line, because I was using the word “Graceland” but it wasn’t in the chorus.  I was bringing “Graceland” back into the verse.  Which is one of the things I learned from African music: the recapitulation of themes can come in different places”.

As the Simon’s travelogue draws to a close, he sings of how the beauty of Graceland is the way in which “pilgrims” are received without question and do not need to explain themselves:  “And I may be obliged to defend, Every love, every ending, Or maybe there’s no obligations now”.

Musically, Graceland is notable for featuring guest backing vocals from Simon’s childhood heroes, Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.  Simon had previously paid tribute to the duo on Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bring Over Troubled Water (1970), which features a cover of the Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love (The Everly Brothers, 1958).

In The Story of Graceland as Told by Paul Simon, released by Legacy Recordings on the 25th Anniversary of Graceland, Simon stated, “I always heard that song as a perfect Everly Brothers song”.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Seven).

“When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness”.

– Nick Cave, Introduction to The Gospel of Mark, 1998.

In a career spanning nearly four decades, Nick Cave has continually pushed the boundaries of the written word in song, literature and screenplay.  One of the many striking things about Cave’s literary skills is the ever-present Biblical and Christian influence.  In terms of his music output, this has been a mainstay of his work since his days in pre-Bad Seeds outfit The Birthday Party.

In Cave’s 1985 single, Tupelo, from the album The Firstborn Is Dead, he uses Biblical imagery in order to describe the birth of Elvis Presley during a heavy storm in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The title of the album simultaneously refer to both Elvis, whose identical twin brother, Jesse Gardon Presley was delivered stillborn 35 minutes prior to the birth of Elvis, and to Exodus in the Old Testament:

“Moses said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  Moreover, there shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again …”

– Exodus 11: 4-6

Cave’s next album, Kicking Against the Pricks (1986), takes its title from a passage in the King James Version of the Bible, which reads “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes:  it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).  The phrase refers to the pointlessness of an ox kicking at the sharpened wooden rod, known as a prick, when the driver is tilling soil.  One of Cave’s heroes, Johnny Cash also used the phrase to great effect on his song The Man Comes Around from the album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, a song also packed with Biblical imagery.  Cash had covered Nick Cave’s song The Mercy Seat on his previous album American III: Solitary Man in 2000.

The Mercy Seat, from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1988 album Tender Prey, as is the case with a majority of the writer’s work is laden with double meaning and Biblical imagery.  The Mercy Seat is a vivid first person narrative of a man on death row about to executed by the electric chair.  The term “Mercy Seat” refers to both the electric chair and the throne of God which the song’s protagonist knows he will soon be visiting.  In the Old Testament, the mercy seat is the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant.

“And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold:  two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof and a cubit and a half the breath thereof.”

– Exodus 25:17

In the chorus of The Mercy Seat, Cave sings:

“And the mercy seat is waiting

And I think my head is burning

And in a way I’m yearning

To be done with all this measuring of truth.

An eye for an eye

And a tooth for a tooth

And anyway I told the truth

And I’m not afraid to die.”

This refrain, repeated fifteen times over the course of the song with a number of variations on the lyrics was inspired by Leviticus 24: 17-12, which states:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.  Whoever kills an animal shall make it good and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.  You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord, your God.”

At the start of The Mercy Seat, we see the convict suffering from apophenia, an unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by an abnormal meaningfulness, seeing “a ragged cup, a twisted mop” but also “the face of Jesus in my soup”, the only image of forgiveness for the convict’s actions in the song, whilst the convict remains adamant that he is “nearly wholly innocent, you know”.   The image of “Those sinister dinner deals …” is suggestive of the convict’s last meal, a special meal provided for those on death row shortly before execution but in relation to the Biblical imagery within the song, also makes a connection to The Last Supper in the Bible.  The image of “a blackened tooth” in Verse 3 of the song suggests isolation but also martyrdom as if the convict is the tooth chosen to be blackened.  In Verse 4, Cave sings:

“I hear stories from the chamber

How Christ was born into a manger

And like some ragged stranger

Died upon the cross

And might I say it seems so fitting in its way

He was a carpenter by trade

Or at least that’s what I’m told.”

Religion is a subject that is frequently encouraged in prisons and this verse tells of how the prisoner hears Biblical stories from his cell.  This verse sees the prisoner finding it ironic that Jesus was a carpenter but was crucified on a wooden cross.  Here, we see another link with Johnny Cash, who was imprisoned on a number of occasions, and recorded the song Jesus Was A Carpenter on his 1973 album, The Gospel Road.  Jesus’s trade is said to be that of carpenter in the book of The Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, just as the prisoner in The Mercy Seat is by society:

““Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And not His sisters here with us?  And they took offence at him”.

– Mark 6:3

As the song continues, the convict becomes more anxious about his impending death and reckoning.  In the lines “And like the moth that tries To enter the bright light”, we see the narrator drawn towards the light of God as he approaches death.  This not only diminishes the importance of the song’s character but also shows his spiritual longings to be a compulsion.  We are given various suggestions of guilt before his final admission in the song’s closing line, “And anyway I told the truth but I’m afraid I told a lie”.

The Good Son, the album that followed Tender Prey in 1990, continued the use of Biblical imagery in Cave’s work, most notably in it’s title which was coined from The Parable of the Good Son (Luke 15: 11-32).  The sheer amount of inspiration that Cave has taken from the Bible continues to this day, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, most recently on albums such as Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008).    Speaking about the Biblical influences on his music, he said:

“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian, but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a God.  It’s kind of defending against the indefensible, though; I’m critical of what religions are becoming, the more destructive they’re becoming.  But I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some sort of divine element going on within my songs”.

– Interview with Nick Cave, Los Angeles Times, 2010.