Saturday, June 15th 2013
Angels In The Architecture

I’m not a musical person.

Never have been. I can’t sing AT ALL. My ability to hear and retain anything musical is about as good as my ability to remember faces. A musical element would have to be deliberately, methodically  seared into my brain before it is in there to stay.

I hardly discuss or mention music. As you can imagine, it’s like it’s not my first language. Or second. Or third. I’ll never be fluent in the sounds and components and workings and patterns.

But when I was 11, I became quietly obsessed with a certain musician. And a certain album. Lots, if not all, 11 year old girls do this. Yeah, I know.

I’ve never really discussed it before because I’m so out of my depth in anything musical I doubted I could even adequately communicate anything about this obsession. And it was really too special to mess up. So I left it alone. Almost never ever discussed ever. It’s not a secret. It’s just…. too personal and important to miscommunicate.

But I’ll try.

At the end of my sixth grade year (a horrific year in which I became very aware of my many social shortcomings), my parents were divorcing. It was sudden. To me, at least. Not to them. But to me… very.

The object of my complete musical fixation was Paul Simon. His Graceland album, more specifically. I’d halfheartedly liked all the Simon and Garfunkel stuff. But Graceland grabbed me and held me very tightly for years. It was unexplainable. It still is.

The cassette tape was often played in my mother’s Volvo. And when everyone else tired of it, I took it off to my room, and never returned it. I still have it today. It was the soundtrack of my adolescence. My hero was the beautiful, short man with the soulful eyes who had somehow managed to write those lyrics that had me so utterly transfixed.

If I’d had internet access, I would have researched every last word I didn’t understand – and there were many. I would have looked up why and how that album came to be. Everything about apartheid and South Africa, and how Paul Simon and this album played a role – was completely unknown to me. I didn’t have a clue. All I had was the music. And the creamy little paper album cover that had all the lyrics written in tiny print. I studied them. I memorized them. I adored them. I would take a phrase I didn’t understand and quietly hold it closely for weeks or months until i thought that maybe, just maybe, I understood. (“who am I to blow against the wind?” )

It wasn’t that the lyrics were all that confounding to anyone else, probably. But I was just 11. I didn’t know what a ‘cinematographer’ was. But if Paul Simon could toss that unwieldy word into a song…. I wanted to know everything about it. I learned a lot of words that way. I took a lot of phrases that seemed so complex in meaning… and waited until they made sense. I filled my hours with his phrases and patiently waited until I understood.  The sheer number of syllables he managed to squeeze into a song astounded me. I admired immensely what he did with words. The amazing musical sounds that accompanied it all were less interesting to me, but not by much.

I didn’t like to ask questions. I was the youngest in a very smart family, and I didn’t want to show everyone else how little I understood. Maybe I didn’t want anyone else to explain to me what those words meant… when surely they meant not as much to them as they did to me, regardless of their literal meanings. So mainly, I just waited until the meanings revealed themselves in their own time.

And when they did, they were already a part of me. They found their way into my way of thinking and seamlessly slipped into my own vocabulary.

Every line, every inflection, every odd mystical sound and foreign syllable uttered by the various African artists on that album… I internalized all of it the way some children learn Scripture. We were not a religious family. But up in my second floor bedroom, the quiet kid whose parents were divorcing had found her own sort of religious experience. The lyrics and the music and the blending of American and South African sounds and talents gave me something huge and complicated to consider for weeks and months and years…. it was so much bigger than my messed up little world. It was lively and fun and joyful and sad and endlessly thought provoking in a way I’d never heard or expected music to be.

Even though I can’t sing at all, I still hold in my heart every precious syllable of that entire album. Even the ones in various African languages. I know them each well, like old dear friends. They never sounded quite right whenever i sang them, but it never stopped me.

My resources were limited to the music and the cream paper with the tiny lyrics, since I was reluctant to ask questions. I studied the credits given for each song. I wondered how it had come to be that Paul Simon had written a song with someone with an African name. So many different times.  I wondered at all the credits and what they represented and how it had all come together. I wondered what all the instruments were and what all the foreign sounding syllables really meant. Some of it sounded like animals, but was it supposed to, or did it mean something else? Who were all those people? How did they meet? Why did he suddenly go to South Africa and do all of this and what do those people look like, those people whose African names I’ve memorized off the little white paper….? How….?

I had a thousand questions I never asked. I had a thousand more questions I didn’t know HOW to ask, because my musical understanding and fluency is so poor. Instead, I just soaked in the music. Night and day, on and off, for years. I still listen.

My mom sent a text last week telling me that there would be a television show on the Making of Graceland, as it’s the 25th anniversary of that album, and how I should record it.

I did.

I intentionally waited until tonight when I had no interruptions, to watch it.  I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to share any of it with anyone, still.

A huge number of my questions were answered. The ones I never asked. The ones I never thought I’d know. I laughed and cried and sang and danced and I kept having to reminding myself to blink. I didn’t want to blink and miss anything. As soon as it was over, I tried to figure out if there was a way I could be certain my kids would never ever accidentally delete it. And then I started watching it again, from the beginning. Finally. A new resource. I hadn’t expected it.

This probably didn’t come across nearly as well as I’d like. But it was time. It’s okay.  I adore Paul Simon and Graceland in more ways than I will ever, ever be able to articulate.

I just wanted y’all to know.


Because apparently I’ve kept him to myself for 25 years and maybe it’s time I shared.


7 Comments on “Angels In The Architecture”

June 15th, 2013
7:13 am

I think it comes across better than you imagined. It’s beautiful. And I have reason to believe it will be well received.

June 15th, 2013
12:28 pm

You speak this language!!!
I shoulda known! : )

June 16th, 2013
8:26 am

One of my earliest memories of you is you and me going back and forth in my comment section with the lyrics of “Call Me Al.” I think we agreed that I could call you Betty and you could call me Al. Or was it the reverse?

June 16th, 2013
8:56 am

Music is like that. If you were to hear the words alone they may or may not mean anything to you, but put them to music and suddenly it sinks into your soul and means more than the words alone could ever mean.

Beautiful post. I think you articulated your thoughts perfectly. Thank you for sharing them.

June 17th, 2013
4:30 pm

i FORGOT THAT!!!? you can call me anything. : )

yes!! thank you. ‘sinks into your soul.’ exactly.

June 18th, 2013
8:16 pm

What Jeana did not mention is that she came home from school one day wildly excited waving a cassette tape that she wanted us to listen to IMMEDIATELY if not sooner, and then was vastly disappointed to learn that we had been listening to that music since before she was born. ;)

August 30th, 2013
4:58 pm

She comes back to tell me she’s gone.
As if I didn’t know that.
As if I didn’t know my own bed.
As if I never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.

And they say losing love is like a window in your heart.
Everybody sees you’re blown apart.
Everybody feels the wind blow.
In Graceland.

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