For the longest time, I always associated Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” with Sesame Street. How that happened, I’m not quite sure. I’m assuming one of my older brothers must have turned the channel to MTV when I was watching Sesame Street as a kid. I vividly remember watching the video with Chevy Chase, and pretending to play the saxophone during the song’s chorus. Twenty some years later, I would occasionally do the same move under entirely different circumstances.
After not having seen the video for years, I looked up it on Youtube and was shocked to find that there were no Muppets in the video. Apparently, my mind had intertwined both Sesame Street and the video into some kind of hybrid. In my state of confusion, I finally sat down and listened to the lyrics for the first time:
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
Contrary to the song’s joyous melody and music, Simon’s lyrics come off as quite desperate. When he admits that he “doesn’t find this stuff amusing anymore” it seems as if Simon has finally unleashed his inner-crank. This is a man, who seems on the verge of having a mid-life crisis, or at the very least some kind of identity issue. ”Where’s my wife and family?” Simon asks. ”What if I did here? Who’ll be my role model?”
Whether the song is autobiographical or not, there’s no denying that up until Graceland, (which “Al” appears on) Simon was in a bit of a creative slump. Recording much of the album in South Africa and using South African musicians, Graceland ended up becoming one of Simon’s biggest hits and is recognized as one of the greatest albums of all time for its mix of pop and world music. Allmusic has described the album as “presenting listeners with that magical combination: something they’d never heard before that nevertheless sounded familiar.”
This is certainly true of “You Can Call Me Al”. On the surface its melody and chorus are quite catchy. And of course, the saxophone hook plays a huge part in the song’s success. But South African influences are layered throughout the song – from the rhythm to the background singing. South African musicians Morris Goldberg (penny whistle) and Bakithi Kumalo (who plays the impressive bass track) are also featured prominently on the track.
As a kid, I thought that “You Can Call Me Al” was a novelty song, though one I absolutely adored. It’s a song that is forever linked to my childhood, and makes me happy every time I hear it. But after learning about its origins, I love it even more. It’s one of the many reason why music so great and appealing: a song can mean bring back memories but still manage to inspire as you get older.