Paul Simon’s Graceland was my quintessential road music for about fifteen years. Any substantial road trip would start with that on my car stereo, an increasingly worn-out cassette tape. So the opening horns in Boy in the Bubble sound like the beginning of something delightful to me. I remember it most clearly from long trips from Ohio to South Carolina to visit my parents. Sometimes it had the blue light of pre-dawn to go with it, always the thrill of hitting the gas to get out of town.

The rest of the album is less that way for me, but I can still sing along with almost all of it. It’s borne up really well with bunches of friends from different backgrounds, including one school friend who was surprised to see it in my car and even more surprised, I think, that I wasn’t beat-boxing along with it.

I love the self-deprecating humor in I Know What I Know.

she looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right
all right in a sort of a limited way for an off night

That theme comes back with Myth of Fingerprints, which may be my favorite thing on the album, shifting metaphors of dwindling fame from a talk-show host to an army post out in the Indian Ocean somewhere.

It’s sparked great conversations. My mother pointed out once to a baffled me that a poor boy might be fulsomely praising a girl who was sweet as an apple on Christmas day. It seemed weak to me. But it was an important privilege check for me.

Everyone loves the saxophone in You Can Call Me Al, and I do, too. It was flirting music for me and my first girlfriend, all about hints and allegations.

I remember being horrified to discover the lawsuits by African musicians alleging poor pay…but I know the music business better now and so am less concerned.

Graceland was my intro to Paul Simon–all the Simon and Garfunkel stuff I know from after. I have the anniversary edition of Graceland sitting in its CD case, but the real version of it for me will always be the cassette that rode around in my first three cars.

 Writing 101 Day 3: Three Favorite Songs

Letna Park

I took a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic over the holidays in 2004, partly to see the path the student demonstrators took the night the Velvet Revolution started. (I’ve written about the Velvet Revolution here before). But I also wanted to see Letna Park, mainly because that’s where the protests which brought down the Communist regime were. But also because it was the former home of a mammoth statue of Stalin the Czech Communists built.

Apartment buildings around Letna Park
Apartment buildings around Letna Park

It’s a big park in a residential district, leading up to a cliff which faces the old city of Prague across the Vltava river. The apartment buildings which flank one part of it looked very familiar to me, like places I’ve driven through in Cleveland and Montreal: rectangular and non-descript and anonymous, but not badly kept. The design you need for snow is apparently similar architecturally. The park itself is a bit of a hike to get through, but it was a pleasant day for early January…and much, much warmer than I’d planned for. I brought my full Arctic survival gear, not really trusting my ability to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit or that average temperatures in Central Europe in January are that mild. I would have been fine in a light jacket. At the height of the protests, over a million people packed into the park. That’s well over ten percent of the population of the country. Even a dictatorship can’t stand up to that kind of pressure for long.

Stalin statue, before
Stalin statue, before


The statue of Stalin was intended to be a monument and a warning, and it was built on Sovet scale, which is to say, shockingly unbelievably unnecessarily massive. So massive that they completed it a few years after Stalin fell out of favor. So massive that when they decided they needed to get rid of it they discovered that they couldn’t budge the concrete with tools. So massive that they ultimately ended up dynamiting it in the middle of the night.

Stalin statue, after
Stalin statue, after


When I was there the plinth the statue sat on was still implausibly huge, and it had a giant metronome sitting on top of it. The metronome was a public art project, and it had been a working sculpture during the Czech Republic’s very close referendum on joining the European Union–I was told it was a running joke that the metronome represented “Yes” and “No” on the referendum.

Metronome and plinth of Stalin statue
Metronome and plinth of Stalin statue

From the plinth you can see all the major sites of Prague from a different and lovely angle: The Castle, Charles Bridge, the old city, the river. It’s gorgeous, and a short tram ride from all those places. And the hotels in that neighborhood are also pretty inexpensive. Worth a side trip.

Vltava River and Charles Bridge viewed from a cliff
Vltava and Charles Bridge from Letna Park