What does You Can Call Me Al mean?

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Paul Simon: You Can Call Me Al Meaning

Song Released: 1986


You Can Call Me Al Lyrics

A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don't want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon...

  1. 1TOP RATED

    anonymous
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    Apr 4th, 2007 4:03am report


    During the ramp-up for the 2004 remastered re-release from Warner Records, Simon granted a rare interview, excerpts of which were supposed to be included in the liner notes of the album. (Unfortunately, the publishers decided to drop the liner notes and the interview excerpts from the production package just before pressing, as the shipping-case would have to be expanded to hold all the paper note pages.)

    Paul said he got the idea for the stanzas' opening line "a man walks down the street . . ." as a reference to the bad jokes that always seemed to start with "a man walks into a bar . . ."--he was trying to say that this whole thing was really just a bad joke, the man trying to find himself.

    It seems that Paul was, indeed, referencing a middle-age drunk, unhappy with his current life situation. The first stanza introduces us to the man, bemoaning his fate and foolishly wishing for his "photo opportunity" and "shot at redemption". He has realized that his alcoholism ("Mr. Beerbelly, Beerbelly") and his problems (the "mutts") are quickly doing him in, and that he's "soft in the middle"; he doesn't have the self-will to get out of the situation himself. Also, no one seems to take him seriously "cartoon in a cartoon graveyard", and that his problems (again referenced by the "dogs in the moonlight") will be his ultimate undoing if he doesn't change his ways.

    The second stanza takes the man to the far-off land ("far away from my well-lit door", which also could symbolize the poverty and/or crime, of this new land he's now in), but he can't seem to find what he's looking for--he's rushing things, trying to find an answer ("short little attention span"), but worrying all night if he's done the right thing ("wo my nights are so long") by leaving his "wife and family" ("what if I die here?"). What he realizes he really needs is a new "role model", now that his old life is gone. However, instead of doing the *right* thing, he instead "ducks back down the alley" of alcoholism, making the same mistakes again--even falling into hiring prostitiutes (referenced by the "roly-poly little bat-faced girl") to try to assuage his fears and doubts. Many other "incidents and accidents, hints and allegations" follow, worsening his already-dire situation.

    The third (and last) stanza finds him in a "strange world". It's completely different than anything he's ever experienced, and he's disconcerted by what he sees: people speaking a language that he can't understand, the sound (and, no doubt, smell) of livestock ("cattle") in the marketplace, and the "scatterlings" of orphan children. Ironically, though, it's in this simplistic setting that he finally seems to find himself, seeing the "angels in the architecture" (a possible double-entendre, with "architecture" referencing both the physical fresco he's looking at and the metephorical *architecture* of his life), causing him to shout "Amen! And Hallelujuh!"

    Though not directly, Simon seemed to confirmed that "Betty" and "Al" used in the chorus are both references to alcoholism. "Betty" may represent the Betty Ford Clinic, a well-known alcoholism clinic in the US made famous for its treatment of some well-known celebrities. Betty becomes Al's savior (his "bodygaurd"), and "Al" (a play on the world alcoholic) becomes Betty's long-lost pal (perhaps referencing that this isn't the *first* time this situation has occured to "Al").

    Many have speculated that "Betty" and "Al" were actually misnomers given to him and his wife (of the time) Carrie Fisher from a diplomatic party they both attended. Simon confirmed this, saying it started the process for creating the song: The "accidental" names that are sometimes given to us that we don't want. "Al" doesn't want to be seen as an alcoholic, that's why he enlists "Betty's" help, in the first place.

    Also, and in a more subtle fashion, the character's names reference the apartheid that was practiced at the time in South Africa, where Simon sojourned for the 3-months that he and Ladysmith Black Mombazo recorded some of the songs.

    "Al" (supposedly a white man) needs a "bodyguard", a "role model" in this land he's in. His savior, "Betty" (a black man), is that person. Since it's apartheid South Africa, if anyone asks why they're together, Betty's supposed to say that Al's just a "long lost pal". It was Simon's low-key way criticizing apartheid by highlighting the ridiculous ruse the two men had to fabricate, just so they could sit together, most likely.



  2.  

    anonymous
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    Jan 9th, 2013 1:41pm report


    Wow, lots of interesting thoughts here.

    To me it's simple, the song is about longing,regret and the promise of redemption.

    The rest is just Paul Simon and his way of melding what he's seen and heard into lyrics that fit into the music he writes. He has a very interesting take on the world he inhabits and an even more interesting way of taking those little fragments that happen to all of us, like the bungling of his name, and showing us that they're not really little fragments at all, they're what we are.



  3.  

    anonymous
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    Jun 22nd, 2012 6:33am report


    In Response to Eure22:

    "I actually saw an interview many years ago with Paul Simon where he was asked where he got the lyrics for this song.

    Paul Simon and his wife at the time Carrie Fisher were throwing a party (or attending a party I can't remember). There was an aquaintance at the party that kept calling Paul - Al and Carrie - Betty. At least that is how I remember the story. " ...so Betty when you call me...""

    This is true. And interestingly enough, the man who was mangling Paul and Carrie's names was none other than the prolific French Conductor and Composer, Pierre Boulez (who was clearly a bit out of touch with the American pop music world.)



  4.  

    anonymous
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    May 7th, 2012 5:03pm report


    I'd just like to point out that in the second verse, the lines "He ducked back down the alley / With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl" are talking about the narrator's former ROLE MODEL, not the narrator himself. Whether the "role model" is actually a person, or just a metaphor for old habits or old values or cultural expectations, etc., etc., the gist of the second verse is that the narrator is throwing off corrupt influences. And he realizes he should have done so long ago ("All along along / There were incidents and accidents / There were hints and allegations").

    The result is that in the second verse he is in transition, unnervingly ungrounded. ("Who will be my role model, now that my role model is gone?") In the third verse he finds grounding again, in a new environment that he finds completely authentic.



  5.  

    anonymous
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    Feb 29th, 2012 2:25am report


    I really want to tell someone who commented before thqt it wasnt Carrie whp was called Betty by somepne: it was Peggy. Obviously. How is "Carrie" similar to "Betty"?



  6.  

    anonymous
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    Nov 2nd, 2011 11:30pm report


    Is it possible that the chorus is a comical, nonsensical reference to Chevy Chase's Caddyshack dealings with Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) and Danny Noonen, to whom Chevy says, "I like you Betty." Or was his comical turn in the video mere coincidence?



  7.  

    anonymous
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    Jun 27th, 2011 6:19am report


    I'm here because I heard earlier today when I listened that Paul's vocal track drops out completely between amen and hallelujah, and I have a theory that it was originally "amen, fuckin' hallelujah" and he edited it out for airplay. I did not hear the word "and," but maybe that's what made me imagine the "in'".

    Gotta go listen in headphones.



  8.  

    sth
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    Jun 25th, 2011 6:51am report


    I think there may be another layer of meaning added here that I haven't seen mentioned - and that is the allusion to Dante's "The Divine Comedy" that is loosely woven throughout the song. "Al" may very well be Dante Alighieri and "Betty" his ideal woman Beatrice who orchestrates a pilgrimage for Dante to Heaven through three books - Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. In the first two books Dante is led through Hell and Purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, who early on rescues him in the woods when he is attacked by various beasts including wolves and throws sand in Cerberus'(Hell's watchdog) face in order to gain entry to Hell. "Dogs in the moonlight...Get these mutts away from me". Because Virgil is not a Christian, he cannot lead Dante into Paradise. Virgil had a profound influence on Dante, even being called in the "Inferno" his "master and mentor". In the second stanza of the song (representing Purgatory) – he is looking for "Who will be my role model, now that my role model is gone?" In steps Beatrice as his "Bodyguard" and she guides him through Heaven. The song ends with “…Angels in the Architecture, spinning in infinity / He says Amen and Hallelujah” From the end of Paradiso: “But already my desire and my will were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars” The Divine Comedy as a whole can be seen to be an allegory on redemption, as Dante struggles with the knowledge of his sins and failings until he finds salvation at the end. These themes also seem apparent in the song. I think this interpretation can be added on top of some of the other insights, adding an additional layer of complexity and meaning to the song.



  9.  

    Jeremiah-Marie Arouet
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    Jan 11th, 2011 1:02pm report


    Watch Carrie Fisher's one woman show (it is currently on HBO, if you have "on demand").

    Then listen to this song. I dare you not to find their marriage as both a tonic and poison to him.

    The poetry has multitudes of interpretation (as well as more than a single point of inspiration) but don't forget that the poet cannot divorce HIMSELF from his WORK.



  10.  

    VirginiaCreeper
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    Oct 16th, 2010 10:48am report


    I always understood this song as SEMIautobiographical. (It's art after all. You can't analyse it too closely) Paul had just had his first real flop (One-Trick Pony) and was feeling at loose ends, probably not as bad off as Al in the first two verses but you get the mood. Then on a personal, noncommercial whim, he heads off to southern Africa (Third World at least for the Bantu population) and hooks up with this vibrant music scene that gets him going again.

    As usual with almost every Paul Simon songs there are references in spades. "Amen and Hallelujah" probably refers back to Ladysmith Black Mambazo who are, still, primarily a Gospel group in the local Zulu/Xhosa tradition of Solomon Linda and his Evening Birds. "Al" could well have reference to "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" as that was a "folk" standard at the hootenannies when Paul was in high school and had been recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and others.



  11.  

    anonymous
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    Jul 29th, 2010 7:29pm report


    I feel like the end of the song gives it away, this song was on "graceland" which was greatly influenced by South America. Paul may have written this about himself going to a "third world" and not speaking the same language? maybe, I don't know.

    This interpretation has been marked as poor. view anyway


  12.  

    anonymous
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    Mar 16th, 2009 3:24pm report


    The short little span of attention is a penis joke, I recall hearing an interview with paul yrs ago where he addressed this.



  13.  

    anonymous
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    Oct 20th, 2008 10:11pm report


    Is all about "Simon and Garfunkel", S implying that G was an egoist not a musician.

    And that is bitchy.

    This interpretation has been marked as poor. view anyway


  14.  

    sma1968
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    Oct 9th, 2008 10:38am report


    Paul Simon is a genius. Any and all interpretations of this song are, I'm sure, not far off base.

    That said: I was stunned just now, listening to "brother can you spare a dime".

    There is no way that can be coincidence.

    Maybe it's the current economic situation, banks closing, etc... but wow...



  15.  

    polarpaul
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    Sep 6th, 2008 9:44pm report


    Does anyone else think this song from a Broadway musical influenced Paul Simon when he wrote, "You can call me Al"?

    "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

    They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
    When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
    They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
    Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

    Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
    Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
    Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
    Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

    Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
    Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
    Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
    And I was the kid with the drum!

    Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
    Why don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

    Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
    Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
    Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
    And I was the kid with the drum!

    Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
    Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?



  16.  

    pinebath
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    Aug 14th, 2008 8:11pm report


    I looked up this dialog to get some insight into the song. The strongest image for me was the roly poly little bat-face girl, whom I saw as Yoko Ono.

    The whole song seems to me about congealing in midlife and finding refuge in an easy, settled-for marriage.

    The progression is backward, from the current, stagnant situation through the fear of facing life to the innocence of first coming to the world without many former lives and no experience. A picture throughout of Hoffer's "true believer."

    This interpretation has been marked as poor. view anyway


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