You Can Call Me Al

AngelsInThe Architecture

I am a wedding singer. At the last wedding where I sang, I offered as usual to sing a song of the couple’s choice, which is often their first dance. In this case the song was “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, from his wonderful album, Graceland. As I repeated the words over and over again for a week, I formed an opinion of what the song is about, and thought I’d share it with you. The lyrics and my interpretation are under the second heading, if you’re in a hurry, but here’s some background.

It needs explaining?

You might think, why would I need someone to tell me what some words mean; I’m sure I know what what most words mean. However, interpret we must, because it is a common writing style of song writers including Paul Simon to allude poetically to things, just to crate an impression without stating an unambiguous single and definite point. The listener is left to associate the ideas with events or people from their own experience, allowing the song to be re-imagined as personal to each individual in a powerful way to everyone who makes the effort.

Some other songs have specific but hidden aspects. For example, “Perfect Love Gone Wrong” by Sting 1999, or “You’re Kind” by Paul Simon 1975, are in the voice of disgruntled pet animals. It’s not spelled out, but there’s a reward for the attentive listener in discovering these love songs to be not what they seem superficially.

Graceland itself has a theme of synchronicity across the ages and cultures of man. Our lives and experience vary hugely between Africa and America, between the modern age of science and the prehistoric ages of superstition, between the total absence and the total domination of technology that introduces us to miracles and wonders of radio, explosions, and medicine, but separates us from the wonders of deep experience of each other,  and even from the sky at night. “The Boy In The Bubble” goes straight into this theme from the outset.

And yet, a man is a man, we look the same. We are the same in the ancestral gift of our primeval body, mind and spirit.  Graceland captures this ambiguity in an eponymous word which is the home of Elvis Presley, but might be read literally as a land of grace, a garden of Eden, a place so far from modern habitat in time and space and spirit.

You Can Call Me Al

To me this song is about the historic psychology of religion. I explain..

In verses one and two, a man walks down the street and notices a contrast between his soft sensitive fearful interior and his hard harsh environment. He’s worried about death, and and his concern about being small and soft “in the middle” might even have echoes of virility anxiety? To assuage these fears and fill the need for the kind of love that might erase some additional guilt he’s picked up (I want a shot at redemption) he announces the terms of a self penned contract to which he invites assent from an imaginary friend, “you can be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost friend”. The ridiculousness of his choice of bodyguard, and his imagined personal connection with a superior being is accentuated in the familiar title with which he christens his partner in this unlikely asymmetrical relationship. Betty?

Paul Simon relates that when Mr & Mrs Pierre Boulez visited him and his wife, they left thanking them for a great evening, but addressed Paul and Peggy as Al and Betty. Getting good friends’ names wrong is a great way to question if a name is just a name, or in fact more deeply symbolic of “knowing”.

Verse two springs the ancient relationship into its 21st Century corporate structure, where religion goes horribly wrong. His role model (a TV evangelist?) betrays the projections of the faithful’s idealistic aspiration by abandoning hero status for the very sins his flock were escaping. Our man is left perusing the signs he missed all along before everything got ruined in “Alleygate”.

In verse three modern man is bounced back in space or time. He can’t tell which, but he’s plagued by the feeling of disconnection. His environment has smells and sounds that he recognises with neural patterns set millions of years ago. He walks among and in association with cattle and lost children when suddenly he sees a vision. “Angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity”.  He sees them! Now he is left, and we are left with him, exclaiming Amen Hallelujah, and wondering what just happened. In a moment, in a lifetime, across the millennia, did he invent God? or discover Him? Good question.


A man walks down the street, he says, why am I soft in the middle now?
why am I soft in the middle?  the rest of my life is so hard!
I need a photo-opportunity, I want a shot at redemption!
don’t want to end up a cartoon, in a cartoon graveyard
bonedigger, bonedigger, dogs in the moonlight
far away, my well-lit door.
Mr.Beerbelly, Beerbelly, get these mutts away from me!
you know, I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore
if you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal!
I can call you Betty, and Betty, when you call me, You can call me Al

A man walks down the street, he says, Why am I short of attention?
got a short little span of attention, and whoa, my nights are so long!
where’s my wife and family? what if I die here?
who’ll be my role-model? now that my role-model is
gone. gone, he ducked back down the alley, with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl – all
along.. along.. there were incidents and accidents, there were
hints and allegations…
If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal!
I can call you Betty, and Betty, when you call me,
You can call me Al! (call me Al..)

A man walks down the street, it’s a street in a strange world.
maybe it’s the Third World. maybe it’s his first time around.
he doesn’t speak the language, he holds no currency.
he is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the
sound, sound,cattle in the marketplace.
scatterlings and orphanages…
he looks around, around he sees angels in the architecture,
spinning in infinity, he says, Amen! Hallelujah!

If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal!
I can call you Betty, and Betty, when you call me, You can call me Al

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