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The Soundtrack of my Life

Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes by Paul Simon

Paul Simon released Graceland just as I started high school. Quite a few of my classmates loved the video for You Can Call Me Al, especially the version that featured Chevy Chase. Of the videos, I much preferred Boy In The Bubble because of its side-scrolling animation, reminiscent of both video games and Monty Python (I also preferred the lyrics of Boy In The Bubble).

I remember when Paul Simon guest-starred on Saturday Night Live as the musical guest in the months before Graceland was published. Admittedly, I had to google this, but it was in May 1986, about four months before Graceland was in stores. Paul was on stage, the band behind him, including the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, dressed in identical shirts, pants, and shoes. The song started, and Paul stood silent as the band did the accapella introduction to Diamonds On The Soles of her Shoes, complete with motions (I wouldn’t quite call it a dance as it was supporting the lyrics of the song).

I was baffled by the language. I knew a smattering of French and could recognize several European and Asian languages by the words … but not Zulu, the language LBM sang. The performance was enthralling, the image of them all singing and quasi-dancing remains very much in my mind over thirty years later.

The success of that night on SNL lead to Diamonds being included on the Graceland album release. Which led to me listening to it repeatedly on my portable cassette player. Which led to my ridicule.

I was on the swim team from Grade 9 to Grade 11. I wasn’t the strongest swimmer, by a large margin, but I didn’t do too badly. I got stuck in a lot of long-distance races (such as the dreaded Individual 1600 metre freestyle, which is pretty tiring for the amateur swimmer), so I got used to the music in my head to drown out (no pun intended) the grunting and gasping as I swam.

I joined the swim team kind of “because”: because I liked swimming. I wasn’t an athlete and sports were never particularly interesting to me. I did the junior soccer team one year because my mom thought it was a good idea (and my friend Sonny’s father’s company was the sponsor), I practiced to play hockey but gave up before we played a single game because I hated skating (I’m a terrible Canadian). I loved sailing, which I did for three summers before I started taking jobs. Swimming was just that because my family had a pool and I spent a lot of time in it.

To be fair, I was … average. I could keep up with the best in the team for about one length of the pool. My cockiness allowed that to happen once. After my ass was thoroughly squashed by the senior guy, I learned my spot in the “intermediate” ranks and stayed there, working on my endurance.

Which, honestly, I was okay with. I liked swimming for the sake of swimming, not the competitions. The competitions never thrilled me. In fact, I ended up hating them mostly because of the stupid stress right before I had to up, and the extreme need to pee, regardless of how soon I’d peed just before. I just wanted to swim. Which probably put me in the wrong perspective with a number of others on the team.

One day, my mother picked me up from school along with a couple of other swimmers, including Chris S., who was a swimmer with the Oakville Aquatic Club and eminently better than myself. (Unlike myself, Chris was a competitor. The OAS had the best in town, including my friend Sonny, and a neighbour of mine, Neil.) Chris was one of the cooler crowd at Oakville Trafalgar High School (in Grade 9, I was the equivalent of pond scum), and as such saw himself as better than me. This was present in class whenever we were near each other, and even in my mom’s car.

My mom was driving a few swimmers to a special swim meet that allowed us to use the OAS swimmers. I can’t remember where it was, but mom volunteered to drive us, likely at Queen Elizabeth Park (where my friend Neil attended). As the group of us sat in my mom’s minivan, we pulled out our respective players and listened to music in relative silence. Chris spied Graceland through the clear plastic window, and promptly made sure I knew his distaste for Paul Simon by mocking the introduction to Diamonds. I don’t recall anyone else saying anything, either in agreement or defence. And, really, it didn’t matter.

It was the first time that someone mocked my choice in music, and if you’ve been reading any of these posts so far, you know there’s some questionable choices when it comes to popularity. But I didn’t care. Cool kid or not, I liked Graceland, I loved Diamonds, and that’s what mattered. I didn’t care what anyone else thought. It was my first realization of my own tastes and the relevance only to me. It would also be a foundation of how I would later identify my friends more for the music they loved, which also taught me more about new music than anything else I heard…