David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 169: Paul Simon (Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes)

July 30, 2022

Library Sale Find #2

In addition to Amy Winehouse (see Day 165), my next favorite find from our library's media sale was Paul Simon's Graceland on CD. Simon's album reminds me of my first years in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1986 and 1987, racquetball with my friend Joe, who turned me onto the absolute quirkiness of the record (I reciprocated with XTC's Mummer, probably a little closer to strange than quirky). On Day 89 of this series, when writing about The Replacements, I noted that my copy of Graceland on cassette was one of about 20 cassettes stolen from my car. I never went back and re-purchased Graceland in any form. Not sure what I was(n't) thinking.

Within a single hearing of my re-acquired Graceland, I questioned my sanity in forgetting about it. The zydeco, the accordion, the Adrian Belew guitar synthesizer, the African chants, the Linda Ronstadt melody on "Under African Skies, even images of Chevy Chase with "You Can Call Me Al," all remind me of the spiritual nature of beautiful song-writing that I undervalued to the horns and chants.

However, the ultimate joy is in "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes," conjuring for me not just memories of the song, but like Chevy/Al, the visual joy of Simon performing the song with Ladysmith Black Mombaza (either from his Saturday Night Live appearance or in the charming video for the song, the link below is to the video). Bakhiti Kumalo's stunning fretless bass line, Ray Phiri's delicate guitar picking, and the brazen oomph of the brass section carry the song effortlessly, accentuating the melody and ambiance provided by Ladysmith Black Mombaza on backing vocals.

Meanwhile, as Simon has always been able to do, the lyrics cast a complex story in a simple way: the merging of two very different worlds in rich girl with "diamonds on the soles of her shoes" and poor boy "empty as a pocket with nothing to lose." Given that the song (and the entire album) was infused by Simon's recognition of the injustices of Apartheid South Africa, that recurring image of "diamonds on soles of shoes" fantastically captures the difference between walking the world barefoot while others walk around not caring about the commodity that they are willing to ground (back) into the earth. It's a global phenomenon, not just South African.

Attacked viciously for supporting the South African government by crossing the cultural boycott, Simon must have figured too many people didn't understand the method to his madness. After all, the song wasn't set in Johannesberg, but in New York City, the ethnic melting pot of the world. The irony is that "everybody [with a brain] here [does] know [what Simon's] talking about" with diamonds on the soles of shoes. Promoting more than a dozen native South African musicians elevated the awareness of Apartheid as much as any protest could do. Probably better. It certainly did to a bunch of clueless kids on college campuses all over the country.

However, what the hell the lines "she makes the sign of a teaspoon/he makes the sign of a wave" mean is much different. Paul, I ain't got a clue what you talking about there. My favorite online answer so far is from some schmo who thinks teaspoons reference cocaine and waves the high one gets from cocaine.  You may be rhymin' Simon, but might miss your old partner, discernable Garfunkel.

Less than a decade later, Jarvis Cocker will deliver his more cynical view of a rich girl and poor boy with Pulp's "Common People." Was the difference the decade, 80s versus 90s, the passing of the ten years, American or British perspective, London or New York setting?  Both songs are memorable for their own reasons, but I'd rather smile at the outlook of Simon's than laugh at Cocker's.

There is something to be said about how music can unify. As the Zulu lyrics in the refrain translate: "it's not unusual but in our days we see those things happen." In these days of frightening division, I have to keep hoping to see these kinds of things happen.

Simon, Paul. "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes." Graceland.  Warner Brothers, 1986. Link here.

Day 168: The Beach Boys "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"

Day 170: Rod Stewart "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy"

See complete list here.