Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al

Paul Simon made a great comeback with the Graceland album. This was the first single off Graceland, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1988. It was Simon’s first hit since 1980, when “Late In The Evening” went to #6 in the US. This song is strong on its own but I do remember the video really well.

When they recorded the tracks for this song in South Africa, Simon and his producers were sure they had a hit with this song. Even though the Graceland album did very well, this song was a slow starter. The single did well in the UK, where it made #4 in September 1986, but in America, it stalled at #44 in October. After the album and video gained momentum, the song was reissued with more promotion in March 1987, and this time it went to #23 in the Billboard 100. It was Simon’s last Top 40 hit in America.

From Songfacts

Simon started recorded this song in South Africa, where he worked with local musicians and experimented with their sounds. He recorded with many different musicians while he was there, and he loved the work of the guys from a local group called Stimela, whose guitarist Ray Phiri came up with the riff for this song during one of their jam sessions. These recordings were edited together in New York by Simon’s producer Roy Halee – a monumental task in the age of analog recording, since in South Africa, they rolled a lot of tape that Halee had to sort out with a series of splices.

The lyrics contain some intricate wordplay that Simon wrote very carefully around the track, and the character in the song symbolic of his South Africa experience. At the time, South Africa was divided by Apartheid, a policy that separated blacks and whites, and a cultural boycott was in place (check out the Songfacts on “Sun City”). Simon defied this boycott and went anyway, taking a lot of heat for his actions – even though his intentions were good, many black leaders in South Africa felt that any violation of the boycott hindered their cause. Because of the boycott, music from the area was secluded, and when Simon released Graceland, he brought the music of the country to the world. In the documentary Under African Skies, Simon explained: “‘You Can Call Me Al’ is really the story of somebody like me, who goes to Africa with no idea and ends up having an extraordinary spiritual experience.”

This song is about a self-obsessed person becoming aware of his surroundings. In a 1990 interview with SongTalk magazine, Simon explained: “‘You Can Call Me Al’ starts off very easily with sort of a joke: ‘Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?’ Very easy words. Then it has a chorus that you can’t understand. What is he talking about, you can call me Betty, and Betty, you can call me Al? You don’t know what I’m talking about. But I don’t think it’s bothersome. You don’t know what I’m talking about but neither do I. At that point.

The second verse is really a recapitulation: A man walks down the street, he says… another thing. And by the time you get to the third verse, and people have been into the song long enough, now you can start to throw abstract images. Because there’s been a structure, and those abstract images, they will come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song.

So now you have this guy who’s no longer thinking about the mundane thoughts, about whether he’s getting too fat, whether he needs a photo opportunity, or whether he’s afraid of the dogs in the moonlight and the graveyard.”

So where did “Al” and “Betty” in this song come from? That stems from a 1970 party that Simon hosted with his wife, Peggy Harper. Simon’s friend, the composer Stanley Silverman, brought along another composer named Pierre Boulez, and when he made his exit, Boulez called Simon “Al” and his wife “Betty.” Boulez was French, and he wasn’t being rude – it was just his interpretation of what he heard: Paul=Al, Peggy=Betty.

Silverman’s son is Ben Silverman, a television mogul who was executive producer of the American version of The Office. In 2011, Ben commissioned a work composed by his dad called “Les Folies d’Al,” which includes variations of “You Can Call Me Al” and is a send-up of the incident.

The best we can tell, this is by far the biggest hit containing a penny whistle solo. It was played by Jy Morr (Morris) Goldberg, a white South African who was living in New York.

Simon arranged for some of the musicians who played on this song, including guitarist Ray Phiri, bass player Bakithi Kumalo and drummer Isaac Mtshali, to came to America, where they worked on some other tracks for the album and backed Simon when he appeared on Saturday Night Live, where he performed this song on May 10, 1986, a few months before the album was released. These musicians later accompanied Simon on his worldwide tour for Graceland.

The video featured Chevy Chase lip-synching the vocals while Simon pretended to play various instruments. Most videos at the time were “performance videos,” meaning the bands would pretend to be playing the song. This video did a great job mocking them. The clip was also notable for its simplicity – it was shot in a small, unadorned room using a single camera.

Al Gore used this while he was running for Vice President in 1992. Simon has played at various Democratic fund raisers.

This echoes a line from the folk song, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” about a guy who has fallen on hard times:
Say, don’t you remember?
They called me Al
It was Al all the time.

Say, don’t you remember?
I’m your pal.
Brother, can you spare a dime? >>

The University of Florida band plays the tune to “You Can Call Me Al” at every basketball game and has done so for a number of years. It serves at an unofficial theme for the basketball team. The student section at the O’Connell Center (where the basketball team plays) is called the Rowdy Reptiles and while the song plays students sing along with “Da da da da, da da da da…” waving their hands with the music.

You Can Call Me Al

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 wo 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
The sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and 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
Call me Al

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

19 thoughts on “Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al”

    1. As much as I heard it then…I thought it would have been higher. Since doing these posts…I’ve come to realize nothing is as you remember exactly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is the truth- a year or two ago when I saw that Sympathy For The Devil and Street Fighting Man didn’t even make the Top 40- I was stunned….

        Liked by 1 person

    1. No problem… I got to see Paul a few years later and then again…when he toured with Dylan. Dylan and him did Sounds of Silence togther…fantastic.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. 10th row is great. I saw him from the 5th row in Melbourne. In fact I saw I saw him two nights in a row in Melbourne. I shelled out big time for that tour! Haha. Glen Hansard who opened for him was magnificent. Glen later received the Oscar for best song from the excellent indie movie ‘Once’ . Funny enough, I saw Dylan in Sydney the night before he got his Oscar for Things Have Changed.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh cool…man… The 5th row would have been great. What was that post you had about being a Dylanholic? It’s a great thing to be

        Another time Isaw him he had an unknown opening act…all of a sudden this older guy comes out with a hat on…it was Elvis Costello and he did a complete acoustic set unannouced…then when Dylan played… Jack White…who lives here…came out and played with him… That was the biggest surprise I ever got at a Dylan concert.

        I’m going to get to the bio this weekend you sent the link to

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Yes and he was in great form both those nights I saw him. I also saw Patti Smith open for him In Sydney in 1998. She was fantastic. I remember one part where she got stuck into a heckler. It was priceless. You’re right… being a Dylanholic definitely has its perks!

        Elvis Costello! What a surprise. That is some opening act, but I’m afraid he is another well regarded artist whose music I haven’t had the pleasure to delve into. I haven’t heard of Jack White, but I imagine it must have been surreal seeing a hometown lad perform with Bob.
        I hope to also soon watch one of those movies you recommended. I’ll probably start with Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Jack was in the White Stripes…good guitar player.

        I’ve never seen Patti Smith before…I would like to see her. She would be a great opening act.

        I do think you will like it. Many film historians do…Ronald Colman is great in it.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Back in the day I heard almost all of ‘Graceland’ repeatedly on radio and it didn’t do much for me. But over time I’ve gotten to like this song quite a bit – not as much as some of his 70s material, but still, pretty good! Never knew what the heck the lyrics were, interesting to find out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I probably liked The Boy in the Bubble the best but this one is probably the best pop song on the album.
      Oh yea I like the 70s stuff better. It did take me a while to get used to the different rhythms.

      Liked by 1 person

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