My DVR decided recently that I needed to watch a documentary about Paul Simon and the making of his “Graceland” album. It was a happy accident—I’ve loved those songs for years. They accompanied me on a long-ago train ride that wound along the edge of the country from Seattle to Washington, D.C., days and nights of staring out at snowfields, swampland and kudzu until my face looked back at me clearly from the glass and told me that what I’d left behind was broken, but I wasn’t.
It was no wonder I couldn’t get enough of lyrics like these:
There is a girl in New York City Who calls herself the human trampoline And sometimes when I'm falling, flying Or tumbling in turmoil I say Oh, so this is what she means She means we're bouncing into Graceland….
I’d always just assumed that some logical process had produced those words—a pilgrimage to the land of Elvis, perhaps a break-up. The writer was sparked by something he wanted to express and searched for the words to say it, artfully. Isn’t that how such a song would come to be?
Actually, not at all. Simon explains that as he worked to match lyrics to pieced-together tracks of music recorded with African musicians, he played with “certain sounds that became words. Sometimes those words formed a phrase and the phrase was interesting. Sometimes the phrase was banal. Sometimes it didn’t make any sense, like ‘I’m going to Graceland,’” which he used as a placeholder because it fit the music well.
“I kept singing this chorus, “I’m going to Graceland, I’m going to Graceland,'" Simon says. "And I kept thinking, ‘Well that will go away, because this song is not about Elvis Presley…. But it wouldn’t go away.
“Finally, I said ... I’d better go to Graceland—I’d never been. I’d better make that trip and see if maybe there’s something about this that I’m supposed to find out.”
Slowly, it came clear that “the song was about a bigger meaning,” he says.“It was a metaphor for a state of grace. I was taking an absurdist lyric for which I thought I had no place … and finally saying, Well, maybe it does….”
I find this account comforting and inspiring. Sometimes, we back into meaning. It glimmers around the edges of a phrase or image that sticks in the mind and won’t let go. Inconveniently, it doesn’t make sense. The opposite of the “lightning through the pen” image of creativity, it’s not delivered fully formed. Or half-formed, even. It’s a wisp, a problem, a distraction. You can easily it brush off, push it away.
Or you can give in and follow it to Graceland.
(The documentary, if you’re interested is called “Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey: Under African Skies.” Some segments are available on YouTube, and a 1997 documentary, “Paul Simon: Graceland,” parts of which are used in the new one, is streaming on Netflix. It’s worth a look, even if you’re not a fan, for Simon’s articulate account of what it’s like to be drawn toward a beautiful mystery, then—with a mixture of willingness, doubt and persistence—to find out what it wants to be. Lyrics above are copyright Universal Music Publishing Group.)
Image by Whatnot (Jack Keene) via Flickr