‘We both will be received in Graceland’: Dad rock and fatherhood
Paul Simon makes sense to me now and so does my father’s nostalgia. It is something we share
“What is fatherhood, exactly? What does it mean to have a son? Why does the word ‘dad’ seem to ruin everything as a prefix, from jokes to rock?”
I can’t remember anything. Names. Dates. Lyrics. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure where I’m parked.
That’s why I was stunned by the clarity of a memory that came to me a few months ago, pristine and unbidden; something I could have sworn I recorded over years ago.
I am standing in my grandfather’s living room, late in the evening, where my father is setting up a CD player. This is the first CD player that any of us have ever seen, with its promise of flawless sound, and it stands in the middle of the room, like an object of worship. My father, true to form, is busy committing sacrilege, fussing over the amplifier with a manful, dynamic range of swear words, a wide vocabulary of profanities that I will happily inherit.
The mission is to bring his own father, a tall and dapper classical music enthusiast with a mellifluous Cork voice, into the late 20th century. But my dad is not his father’s music. To prove it, the CD that will inaugurate this futuristic device – which accepts it, majestically, with an automatically extending tray – is one he has bought for himself; not Mozart, or Schubert but something awesomely new. It is 1986, I am eight years old, and we are listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Up until recently I couldn’t think about Graceland without curling inwards with embarrassment. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly. The album is, almost touchingly, a product of its time; brash and sheeny and commercial. I remember, though, how strange Boy in the Bubble first sounded, a wheezy accordion over a queasy rhythm, convinced the new machine was going haywire, despite my dad’s best swear words. Weirder still, in the vanity of childhood, I was convinced the song was somehow about me. (Am I the boy? What is the bubble?)
But You Can Call Me Al was bright and fun, an eruption of celebratory horns and amusing doggerel. Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes sounded heavenly, crisp and clean in this new digital format. My father explained it all to me, the clever references, the adult allusions. He luxuriated in it, head back, as though seeping in a warm bath. This was grown-up music, sophisticated and forbidden, like the woody aromas of the drinks cabinet.
My new jam
I was never a rebellious kid, but when I got to university, in the late 1990s, whatever rage I had found critical-cultural theory. This, I discovered, was my new jam. A wearying, pugnacious language, steeped in the indignations of post-colonialism, globalisation, cultural appropriation, and the exploitative power dynamics of what we were obliged to call “late capitalism”, it could be applied to everything: the prole-bashing phobias of modernist literature; the patriarchal appeasement of ads for skin cream; and in the frowning words of The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, “The Paul Simon Paradigm”.
The overthrow of Graceland – and with it childhood – was complete. I was into alternative rock, New York Hip Hop, brooding electronica, Scandinavian jazz, Swedish pop and futuristic Minidisc technology. I was not my father’s music.
For an expectant father, parenthood is an idea that steadily gathers in realness
This time last summer, my wife presented me with a small decorative box, quickly repurposed and filled with ruffled gold paper, a handful of foil-wrapped chocolates and a pregnancy test with a solid blue plus sign in its small round display.
I can’t claim to know much about the psychology of expecting parents, but my guess is that it’s different for dads. Joanna switched into the fast lane of impending motherhood with a drive I found both admirable and slightly intimidating. (Returning home one evening, I found her manufacturing a baby gym from scratch, using salvaged wood and a newly acquired power drill.) Without the benefit of a turbo-nesting instinct, I had to think myself into it: What is fatherhood, exactly? What does it mean to have a son? Why does the word “dad” seem to ruin everything as a prefix, from jokes to rock?
For an expectant father, parenthood is an idea that steadily gathers in realness. We are having a baby, a boy. I am trying to gain a bluffer’s appreciation for sports just in case. We are whittling down a list of names to two contenders, and one of them, at my insistence, is Wladyslaw, after Joanna’s favourite grandfather. Non Polish-speakers can make a fist of its pronunciation by reciting the lyrics of Haddaway’s dance hit, What is Love?, with a lisp. (Wladyslaw, Baby don’t hurt me.)
But the song I listen to incessantly throughout the pregnancy is Graceland.
I pick it up, almost unthinkingly, from the bargain bin of a Galway music shop, hunting for CDs because my car stereo is a relic; a cumbersome anachronism with a shuffle function.
But the speakers are brilliant. Through them, Simon sings sweetly to me of love and loss and pilgrimage. And, I appreciate, of his son. “My travelling companion is nine years old,/ He is the child of my first marriage./ But I’ve reason to believe/We both will be received in Graceland.” There is nothing ironic now in my love for the music, no shiver of embarrassment, no critical reflex. I am hungry for insights, and besides, he seems to know what he’s on about. “We both will be received in Graceland.” Sounds promising.
Jacob comes into the world, silent as a mime, at 3.12am on March 14th. He is flawless. Joanna is so incredible through it all that, by the end, the midwives want her autograph. Our kid is co-operative, a deep sleeper (at first), a lusty eater and a prodigious pooper. Takes after the old man, I’ll tell anyone. Dad jokes, they’ll respond.
Our son’s name is Jacob (baby, don’t hurt me) and if he has any thoughts on Paul Simon, he has yet to make them known. But the enthusiasms of his father, like the LCD Soundsystem album that accompanied our drive into the hospital, and the Radiohead record that escorted us home, regularly lull him to sleep. (I’m 40, if that wasn’t obvious, older than my dad when he had me.) Joanna swears that our son’s favourite song is Yacht’s Psychic City – Classixx Remix, a summery tune as unpolished and compulsive as a jump-rope rhyme. It’s a good choice.
The other day, 2½ months after he was born, we were in my parents’ sittingroom. As my son stretched out in a carrycot, I set up his grandfather’s first Spotify account, oblivious to the symmetry. My father, at first sceptical, marvelled at the ease with which Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash could be instantly summoned from the ether, without wires, amplifiers or heavy duty curses. But he sought out a different song to play over and over again – White Rabbit, a marching thrum of paranoid psychedelia by Jefferson Airplane. It’s a little too much of its time, if you ask me. But I get his nostalgia now. And his music. It’s something we share.