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. Read More