Ever since I made the mistake of moving away from New York a couple of summers ago, I haven’t been able to spend more than a day or maybe two in the city or in Brooklyn without thinking of the dancing in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Of course there isn’t any actual dancing in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”—it’s a plan they abandon, the diamond-soled girl and the poor boy—but who would come back to the city a little bit older and sadder and think of the long nights on rooftops and not of the way that time collapses when you’re young in New York and in love? She said, “Honey, take me dancing,” and they ended up sleeping in the doorway. Time passes in that line from the start of the night to its aftermath, and the night itself is lost to memory in the way that everyday whimsy and arguments are, especially with wine, especially with pulls as relentless as those of the city’s excitement and of the comforts of new love and home. The doorway is a compromise between the worlds that put them off-balance—the world inside the doorway, and Broadway. She said, “Honey, take me dancing,” and they ended up sleeping in the doorway / By the bodegas and the lights of Upper Broadway.
Wealth: you couldn’t have a story like this of Upper Broadway and not describe the shames and trappings of wealth, the extravagant ludicrousness of having diamonds on the bottoms of your shoes, the thin pretense of trying to hide anything. She’s like a fable, the rich girl. You can hear her playing and taunting, fun and vain, eager to please and anxious to be reassured of what she knows is hardly true.
She said, “You’ve taken me for granted
Because I please you
Wearing these diamonds.”
If she pleases him, it’s not with the diamonds that he has to compensate for, and because she knows this but wishes that she didn’t, she says please in two syllables and diamonds in seven, as if to say how silly—how crazy—it would be to want her wealth, as at least part of him does.
He gets there in the end, wearing diamonds, but not without denial, resentment, and envy. It’s this self-consciousness, if not self-awareness, that rounds the song out into drama. She makes the sign of a teaspoon / He makes the sign of a wave. She plays at doing something, and he, drawn inward, just plays at reaching out to her, but his self-consciousness makes it just the sign of a wave, shy of what he feels is real communication. (Maybe his version of play is a pun like “sine wave,” which, being a pun, feels too embarrassing to say.)
She makes the sign of a teaspoon
He makes the sign of a wave
The poor boy changes clothes
and puts on aftershave
To compensate for his ordinary shoes.
The rhyme with aftershave feels right, but it’s hard to say why. Our ineffable certainty is like that of the poor boy reacting to his anxiety by fixing himself up—likely because it feels right and not because he thinks the uncomfortable thought that he has to compensate. It’s the narrator who thinks that. His interpolation helps to set the characters off-balance with themselves and each other, excited and anxious, ready for the dancing that never happens.
After the twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration of Graceland last year, I worried that the album was dead. I had grown up with it, but I had grown up. There were new heroes on the pop charts, and what you found in the anniversary reviews wasn’t the exploration of genius but a kind of acknowledgment of it, almost a guilty pleasure, followed by the admission of guilt over Simon’s having played in South Africa during apartheid or over the album’s sounding, on closer inspection, a little bit glib and self-satisfied, as if to say that they loved the album even if they didn’t like why. It was an oldie.
But what about beauty, I thought. Were people hearing without listening to the musical poetry of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”? It’s hard to think of something less glib than that compressed and balanced story (set with the dark undertone of the diamond trade). To my surprise, when I listened to the album again after the anniversary, I found it hard to find other songs that were good in the way that “Diamonds” was, and this surprised me because the songs were all fluid in my memory. I suppose that this is because the music is fluid. The stories, however, are anything but, from the triumphal horns and drums at the start of the first song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” to the bomb in the baby carriage and the chorus that tells us that these are the days of miracle and wonder / this is a long-distance call. It’s assonance and cognitive dissonance. One could understandably think that there are no reasons in the stories of the songs to justify this sort of reassurance, no reasons at all besides Simon’s desire for grand reassurance which, acted on, would show a profound satisfaction with himself.
You could say this of most of the great characters in Graceland, Al and Joseph and even Fat Charlie the Archangel. Their epiphanies stand apart from their stories, unwarranted, unearned. Al walks around middle-aged and disoriented and somehow sees angels in the architecture. Joseph walks around at night in Africa and we hear that this is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. “I Know What I Know” and “Gumboots” also have this disparity between the emotional muddles of the stories and the clear passion of the choruses, between, say, the banalities of a taxi ride and You don’t feel you could love me / But I feel you could / Don’t feel you could love me / but I feel you. It’s one thing and often a good thing that Simon doesn’t explain the road to musical epiphany, another that after a number of listens there comes to seem like no resolution but the music itself. Call it aestheticism or shallowness, it’s not a profound take on our problems.
What if that’s the point, though? What if his subject wasn’t pain resolved by music but the disparity between the everyday pain of our lives and the joy we still feel in them somehow? Or between the fullness of that joy and the clichés we describe it with, or even the places crosshatched throughout the album. You shouldn’t be able to explain the route from pain to clarity any more than “The Boy in the Bubble” can explain how, despite the terrorism and all the technology that would rob the world of miracle and wonder, it still feels as though these are the days of miracle and wonder. The question Simon poses by putting that song first in the album is how to reconcile those emotions, if we can.
What follows “The Boy in the Bubble” are varieties of failed love, from the failed marriage and lost love of “Graceland” to Fat Charlie the Archangel’s divorce, the unrequited love of “Gumboots” to the child handed off to God in “Under African Skies.” In this light, the chorus of “You Can Call Me Al” is less a revelation than the vulnerable side of the same cornball middle-aged sentimentalism Al spends the verses whining in, from Mr. Beerbelly, beerbelly to 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. (The names are antiquated for a reason; this is the guy who told us that Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away (Hey hey hey, hey hey hey).) To all this tumbling in turmoil, “I Know What I Know” is a kind of prelude, with all the smart guarded bullshit of courtship (She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight / I said, “aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?” [Get it—full bright?]). The happy coda is “That Was Your Mother,” where a father talks to his son about how pretty his mom was before you was born, dude, but that’s boring. The song all the others are balanced against, the fullest story and the most reasonably optimistic, the emotional heart of the album, is “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
In an album of disparities and disjointedness, “Diamonds” is a model of coherence and qualified, tempered hope—slow, sad, suspect and nebulous, off-balance but redemptive nonetheless. You know why you feel the miracle and wonder of it all. The song may not have the dancing of the rest of the album, but what it has is something else.
Adam Plunkett has written for n+1, Bookforum, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He is a low-level editor on the literary half of The New Republic and the poetry editor of Design Observer.