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You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon

Album: GracelandReleased: 1986Charted:
23
4
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 US. It was Simon's last Top 40 hit in America.
  • 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?" (thanks, Andy - Los Angeles, CA)
  • 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. (thanks to Gator fan and alumnus Sarah Burchfield)
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Comments: 63

As an afterthought I also wanted to mention the part about the angels in the architecture and cattle in the market place. The mans consciousness moves out to, not just himself, but the world around him and how confusing and mundane it all really is. I picture this being in NY City, (just my personal picture) and seeing the place you have lived your whole life as a mystery for the first time. Cattle in the market place are in my mind wall street stockbrokers and businessmen in the marketplace, mooing and following whatever their basic low level needs are, where ever they might land them. Once seen we live in a different world. A foreign land, viewed from a holy place.Kevin - Auburn, Ny
I remember studying poems of Paul Simon's in an American Literature course in college. He is a precise poet and every word is crafted for a particular reason. I consider this song as well written as Robert Frost's, "A road less traveled." To me the song is obviously about a man in full flight of himself. The man, (who is all of us at one time or another), come to an "aha" moment in his life (like the song Water, by the Talking Heads, "this is not my car, this is not my beautiful wife, how did I get here!) He sees himself as he really is, and questions everything. Why do I have a short span of attention? The moment he has this awakening, he "ducks back down the alley way with a rolly poly little fat faced girl." The key word is ducks. He runs from the truth about himself, down an alleyway,(an undesirable place), with a rolly polly little fat faced girl, (also undesirable). I have had moments in my life where I had a glimpse of myself, and got into a relationship with someone who was completely wrong for me, and part of me knew it was wrong at the time, or I went back to school or any number of ways people use to hide from the reality of themselves. There were hints (another key word) and allegations, accidents and incidents, all signs clearly ignored. The song doesn't just stand alone. There is a theme to the whole album. The other songs on the album talk about the serious tragedies of life, (Homeless) or Graceland, a trip to Elvis's home, being a complete distraction from the trauma that the singer is experiencing. The line I like the best is when he describes his son as "a ghost with empty sockets, I'm looking at a ghost with empties". It is the way most of us live our lives from cradle to grave. I recall discussing Hotel California with a friend of mine who was not too deep. He told me the song was about a prostitute and that was all it was about. The song and album are about much more than that, but I am sure he has missed many "aha" moments in his life besides that one, but there is always hope.Kevin - Auburn, Ny
In an episode of the 1968 TV series "It Takes a Thief," the lead character, Alexander Mundy, says to a woman, "Hey, if you can call me a thief, you can call me Al." Coincidence?Glenn - Austin,
Can't believe this song was written by the same man who wrote the classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water"!Adrian - Johor Bahru, Malaysia
So Gore wanted me to 'call him Al?' I thought of many far more appropriate names.Esskayess - Dallas, Tx
I don't think the song is necessarily about anything so specific as alcoholism or mid-life crises. The man in the song is just experiencing general existential malaise about how his hum-drum life is meaningless..maybe he's middle aged or maybe he's just in a rut. His mind is filled with petty fears about whether he's self-actualized enough, and he's afraid of the constant wolves at his door.

The second verse I think reflects the same thing only he's farther down the path and now he's acting out in surreptitious ways - maybe it's drugs or alcohol or prostitution. Again, I don't know if he's a full fledged junky at this point or just dabbling in vices out of his desperation to feel alive. All the while he's being scrutinized and judged by the society around him.

In the third verse I think he breaks out of his rut. He leaves his life (permanently or temporarily is not clear) and goes to a foreign land to turn over a new leaf. He feels the weight lifted from him shoulders and he shouts out "Hallelujah". I think it's possible too that he's not physically in a foreign land, but his new state of mind is like he's in a totally new place, and what were once dogs in the moonlight are now scatterlings and cattle in the marketplace.

My interpretation of the chorus is that Simon is drawing a parallel between kids' imaginary friends and adult relationships. Kids choose to believe in imaginary friends because it makes them feel more secure and that they have control over some aspect of their environment. Maybe that's true in some way about the relationships we commit to as adults as well - how much of our understanding of those relationships is "imaginary" (ie. in our own heads)? The names Al and Betty to me are just cute - the kind of names your kid would apply to his stuffed toy. "OK you be Betty now, and I'll be Al", reflecting a make-believe but comforting sense of control & security as a child-like reaction to the harshness of the real world.
Steve - Ottawa, Canada
The University of Alabama's marching band, The Million Dollar Band, plays this at all football games. Their mascot is an elephant named 'Big Al'. Roll Tide!Stephanie - Mobile, Al
This is a great song , I love it .
Just visit this track and more in my personal blog.
belfordmusic.blogspot.com
Belford Music - Barcelona, Spain
I always thought it was about a celebrity on the downswing of his/her career...perhaps going into re-hab (Betty - Betty Ford Center) under a false name "Al"...looking for a photo-opportunity - after all any publicity is good publicity.Jason - Dallas, Tx
The 1st verse is about a man who feels his life has not turned out well. He's hounded by never-ending depression. His life is a joke, so he'll end up in a cartoon graveyard.
In the 2nd verse, the man has become a substance abuser. His AA sponsor has fallen off the wagon and the man has no one to guide him. He is as low as you can go.
In the 3rd verse, the man has removed himself so far from his predicament that it feels like heaven -- or maybe it is.
The chorus is a plea for friendship and the protection from the cruel world friendship provides. Friends don't even have to know each other well (not even their names) to help one another.
Norman - Santa Monica, Ca
A friend of mine somehow got a "preview" clipping of this album before it was officially released. Knowing how much I like music and am open to hearing new stuff, she said that it was African music (that's all she really knew about it). The track she played me was actually "Homeless" from "Graceland". In the middle of the song, I asked her, "Is that Paul Simon I hear?" She didn't know. When "Graceland" came out I, being a life-long Simon fan, snagged it. Imagine my surprise when I heard "Homeless"!!! I got my friend a copy of the album as well, out of gratitude.

Anyway, being 5' tall myself, I love the "You Can Call Me Al" video for incorporating a couple of my favorite visual short jokes.

Paul STILL rocks; his latest, "Surprise" is wonderful.
Karen - Manchester, Nh
I love this song. I think you have to just let the music do it's job and take you places. Don't try to think too hard about it.

I have to say that I DO NOT agree with - Ronnie,of Huddersfield, England who said "Paul Simon is technically a dwarf"
Paul Simon is 5'2" that does not make him a dwarf. I am 5' tall exactly and I not been refered to as a dwarf, besides, what difference does that make? People are people no matter how tall (or short) they are.
It is one of the things that makes the video great. I love his deadpan expression.
Veronica - Albany, Or
This video was not one continuous shot. His hands switch between camera angles during the tin whistle solo.Mike - Saugs, Ca
There were actually two videos done for this song. The one with Chevy, and I believe the other one featured just Paul. I love the way Simon appears to be upset with what Chase is doing during the video. It really cracked me up.Robert - Denver, Co
I just got married and this song was the song played for the "father daughter dance." It's always been our song...dancing around the living room to it pretending to play the trumpet!Sarah - Nashville, Tn
Love everything about this song except the Betty bit.
Soft in the middle - mmmmm E disfunc?
But come on a beer belly has gotta be a beer belly
Thanx for all the comments
clear as mud but dats the way uh huh uh huh I like it
Davie - London, United Kingdom
The "Al" in Paul Simons song "You can call me Al" is Albert Tancredi a former employee of Chevy Chase's. Al Tancredi has a 18 inch neck and was Chevy's chef. When Paul Simon was introduced to Al Tancredi as Chevy's chef Paul Simon said "your chef he looks like your body guard". Any way several months later the song was released. The rest is history Thanks Mike TMike - Philadelphia, Nj
Paul Simon has always been my favorite lyricist. The lyrics to this particular song can stand on their own as fine poetry.

"He is surrounded by the sound, the sound.
Cattle in the marketplace.
Scatterlings in the orphanages.
He looks around, around.
He sees angels in the architecture.
Spinning in infinity . . . ."

The words create a powerful and joyful tension-shattering contrast between the mundane and the sublime. The same device is found in many great lyric poems including "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins and "Sailing to Byzantium" by W.B. Yeates.
Kevin - Syracuse, Ut
Well, I don't really give a rat's ass just what the song is really about. It's a playful song nonetheless...and a true standout on Graceland (one of my all-time favorite albums).Miles - Vancouver, Canada
I would go with the mid-life crisis theory, or any of life's main junctures or turning points for that matter. I can't imagine anyone who's lived a little and fears they might be a bit off-track not expressing the song's angst-ridden introspective sentiments in one form or another.Marc - Perth, Australia
whoops! His wife was called Peggy not Patty: just made the same errorAndrew - London, England
The "Al" in the song is Paul Simon. He & his then wife patty threw a party and the famous conductor Pierre Boulez attended. As Boulez left he turned to Simon and remarked "Great party Al! Say hello to Betty". Thus Simon received th eultimate put down from a world famous musician!Andrew - London, England
Paul Simon shared a flat in London with Al Stewart.Does anyone know if he''s the Al in the song "You can call em Al " ?John - Richmond, England
If you ever get a chance, watch the music video. You will notice that although he is shown playing a tenor sax, the sound of a bari (aka baritone) sax is heard.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=qZS3Q61OhPc&feature=PlayList&p=6E7BD6AD47050D36&index=49

Let me know if it is just my imagination. Others I've shared it with agree that it is true.
Christina - Tacoma, Wa
Paul said in an interview once that the line "short little span of attention" was a joke about a man feeling inadequate about his penis size.Madison - Los Angeles, Ca
Paul Simon & Peggy were guests at a party thrown by Pierre Boulez. Boulez couldn't remember their names and kept calling them calling them "Al" and "Betty."Rik - Houghton Le Spring, England
No matter what everyone else on this site is saying about this song, the song is fricking sweet!Jimmy - Twinsburg, Oh
I' ve always thought that this was about someone searching for an identity soulmate. Someone who is completely alone even though they have a family, and the problems of modern life is worrying at them like a pack of "mutts". He feels he's been landed with an identity that isn't his, represeneted by the name everyone in his daily life calls him (Alfred? Alan?).He wants his true self (his 'Al') to be recognised by someone (his 'Betty,'who everyone probably calls Elizabeth). If they meet, they should immediately recognise each other as a soulmate and move to a special level of intimacy "I can call you Betty / you can call me Al". Don't we all want someone to call us by a name no-one else does?Claire - Portsmouth, England
Well, according to other places..
His first wife was Peggy Harper..and they were married from 1970-1975
Kelly - Houston, Tx
I saw a documentary on the making of the Graceland. Paul explained the lyrics of the first two verses being a stream of conscience. It starts of like a joke, but instead of saying "A man walks into a bar? he says "A man walks down the street", from there he's just tying words together. "soft in the middle" to "why are my nights so hard", or "cartoon graveyard" to "bonedigger" to "dogs in the moonlight". See the links? It doesn't make perfect sense, but it's just word play. The final verse is definately about him being in Africa and his wonderment of the culture and religion.Kevin - Fredonia, Ny
According to artistfacts, he's only had 2 wives and the other one's name is not Peg.Peter - Tacoma, Wa
While listening to this song through headphones, eat some really sour candy. It has an awesome effect.


Also when listening to this song, listen for rhe background guitar, it has a really cool sound.
Peter - Tacoma, Wa
Absolutely no doubt its about the betty ford and alchohol thing. Every lyric confirms it. The song is triumphant in nature, and actually is about Alchoholics Anonymous. "Beer belly", "shot at redemption", "short attention span". "hints and allegations" is because of the anonymity thing at the level of press and radio. Bodyguard and long lost pal, c'mon? no other theory works completely throughout the song.Justin - Little Egg Harbor, Nj
Oh, and he's 5'3''Kelly - Houston, Tx
Ah, correct you are..his wife's name is Edie..but he did have a wife named Peg..(He's had three wives..)Kelly - Houston, Tx
I have been listening to this song all day nonstop. I think I'm addicted to it.Peter - Tacoma, Wa
The bass aolo is played on a 6-string electric bass by Paul Simon. The background vocals are also done by Paul.Peter - Tacoma, Wa
Uh, Mark, his wife's name is not peg, it's EdiePeter - Tacoma, Wa
Where did "roly-poly little bat faced girl" come from?Peter - Tacoma, Wa
I like the dinner conversation idea, but where did the verses come from.Peter - Tacoma, Wa
The theory about the bass solo is correct, I have listened to it many times.Peter - Tacoma, Wa
The alum info for Graceland says that the pennywhistle solo was played by Morris Goldberg, probably the english name on the african.Peter - Tacoma, Wa
Paul simon for viagra. i dont think soAdrian - Kingston, Canada
The last verse about "a stranger in a strange land" is supposed to parallel the Robert Heinlein book of the same title. James' comment is interesting, and I would think that it could very well be part of Paul's midlife "crisis."Seth - Snohomish, Wa
One other thing. Paul Simon was subjected to a lot of criticism saying he was using South Africa's music without protesting against Apartheid enough. Paul Simon did more for South African blacks by exposing Americans to their music and culture through his Graceland CD that the rest of the do-gooders in the music industry combined.Steve - Fenton, Mo
I always thought this song was about blacks living in South Africa in the world of Apartheid and trying to disquise their communications with each other by constantly using aliases so as to keep from being identified by the government. But then that was based mostly on the refrain, I couldn't make much of the verses.Steve - Fenton, Mo
Paul is all of 5'2". Woody Allen says he cast Simon in "Annie Hall' because he finally wanted to lose a girl to someone shorter than himself.
--Mad Marlowe, SF, CA
Ira - San Francisco, Ca
Wow the alcohol interpretation is neat, the mid life crisis is a more obvious interpretation, and the dinner coversation could be a possibility.

I think that's what makes this song amazing. Everyone has their own interpretations. Most songs today are so straightforward, that it's nice to get these surreal songs where we have to guess the meaning, and ever person interprets it differently in some way.
Steven - Arlington Heights, Il
Paul Simon is short, but rather over five feet. That doesn't make him a dwarf, does it?Aylin - Montreal, Canada
Paul Simon is technically a dwarfRonnie - Huddersfield, England
Anyone have the video code for the Paul Simon/Chevy Chase video? Or know where to obtain it?Kim - Sacramento, Ca
I heard Paul Simon talk about this lyric. He indicated that the names came from a dinner party when they were inventing alternative names for each other. 'Betty' was the alternative name for his wife (Peg).Mark - Hereford, England
Paul met Chevy in the early days of Saturday Night Live. Simon appeared on the show at least 5 times over the years where he demonstrated an extremely deft deadpan style- often played with a subtext of being greatly irked by the situation- which he demonstrates with great effect in the video for this song. He plays it like Chevy's shanghaied the video and he's powerless to stop it. If I recall it correctly the video was also filmed in one shot which is super odd on Mtv. For such a simple video- 2 guys, 2 chairs, and a few instruments in an all white room- it posesses a remarkable amount of subtlety that, as I proved when it was in constant rotation, held up to repeated viewings. Also one of the first videos to mock the practice of lip-synching.Craig - Madison, Wi
This song should be used in a viagra ad The best song ever written about erectile dysfunction "Why am I soft in the middle now" and "Got a short little span of attention" Puts "Bonedigger Bonedigger" in an entirely different light!It goes into an more generalized ode to middle aged male afflictions both physical and spiritual,but it starts with the more specific and "ribald" Metaphor!David - Ft Myers, Fl
The alcoholism interp works okay, I guess, but a less specific reading is possible. I think of it as a couple of people who are scared to be really honest with each other and with other people. "What will we say if we run into someone we know?" Well, I'll tell them you're an old friend. I'll tell them I invited you along since I couldn't go out alone... "If you'll be my bodyguard, I can be your long-lost pal." I look at the names "Betty" and "Al" as random. Or, perhaps, since both are nicknames (for Elizabeth and Alexander or Alan), it shows the two are trying for a false sense of intimacy--it's all part of the little charade they're playing.Fred - Abilene, Tx
This song is indeed about alcoholism, and the phrase "I can call you Betty" indeed is a reference to the Betty Ford Clinic. If you look throughout the song it has references to typical problems encounterd by a alcoholic.Shannon - Indianapolis, In
The bass guitar solo in this is impossible to play live - the second half of it is the first half played backwards at the same speed on a tape deck.Kian - Dublin, Ireland
I've developed an unfortunate addiction to this song. I just like it too much.

I subscribe to the mid-life crisis interpretation. As for the chorus, Paul went a little nuts, maybe we can attribute it to that?
Luke - Martin, Tn
Uh, Dave, Paul IS about a foot smaller than Chevy. Paul is 5'5" or 5'6" and Chevy is 6'4 1/2". Paul is actually quite short, rather than the other way around.Shell - Riverdale, Ga
The song is also an oblique reference to comedian Billy Seluga's "Raymond J. Johnson" character on TV in the '70s. His gag was to have the show's host call him "Mister Johnson," to which he would reply "You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me RayJay, or you can call me JayJay, or you can me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny, or you can call me RJ, or you can call me RJJ, but ya doesn't have to call me 'Mister Johnson."Keith - Slc, Ut
Chevy Chase was a great choice for the video - many people have claimed in the past that they dislike filming videos with Paul Simon because he's quite tall and dwarfs tham, but in the video for "You Can Call Me Al" he looked about a foot smaller than Chevy Chase!Dave - Cardiff, Wales
My wife has a theory that it's about an alcoholic -- "I can call you Betty" means Betty Ford, and "You can call me Al" means being an alcoholic. I thought it was nonsense at first, but it does make a certain sense.
Anyone know (or think) anything about this possible interpretation?
James - San Bernardino, Ca
Written about Paul's midlife crisis. The last verse about "a stranger in a strange land" refers to his time recording in Africa.Shelli - Madison, Wi