As decades begin to accumulate after an album’s release, the historical context can fade, especially for those not even born when it hit the market. Paul Simon’s Graceland arrived four years before South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist, was unconditionally released after 27 years in prison, five years before apartheid was finally abolished, and eight years before Mandela himself was elected president in South Africa’s first multiracial general election.
Before Graceland, South Africa’s long and distinctive musical heritage was largely unknown beyond its borders, aside from occasional glimpses provided by records such as the 1952 Weavers song “Wimoweh” (based on South African artist Solomon Linda’s “Mbube”…or Lion), which The Tokens, in turn, heavily revised for their 1961 pop hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (reaching #1 on the Billboard Top 100). World music aficionado Peter Gabriel has this to say about Graceland’s cultural impact:
Prior to Graceland, the music of South Africa was largely unknown outside the country, except to a small minority of world music fans… The music at its best brimmed with life and emotion and was charged with a blend of spirituality and sensuality. With his elegant composition and diffident observations, Paul Simon fused these elements with his own extraordinary songwriting skills. He produced an irresistible and classic album which I have played many, many times.
Simon, at this point in his career, had already ventured into world music with Peruvian folk instrumentalists Los Incas on “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” from the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water…and with members of ska and reggae artist Jimmy Cliff’s backing group on the 1972 single “Mother and Child Reunion,” recorded in Kingston, Jamaica (interestingly, the only country where this single reached #1 was South Africa, fourteen years before Graceland). But Simon’s career had been in decline in the 1980s. Hearts and Bones, the album which preceded Graceland, was a commercial and critical disappointment, and Simon has said about this period in his life that he felt he’d irretrievably lost his inspiration.
But a singer/songwriter named Heidi Berg, with whom he’d been working at the time, made him a cassette of an instrumental album entitled “Gumboots: Accordion Jive Volume II,” a compilation of South African mbaqanga music. As Billboard Editor-in-Chief Timothy White writes in the liner notes for the tenth anniversary edition of Graceland:
Simon was fascinated by the gliding, harmony-laced tumult of the Boyoyo Boys Band and other township jive artists from the dusty lanes of Soweto. He contacted Johannesburg producer Hilton Rosenthal, who mailed him another 20 albums’ worth of the segregated work camps’ best acts. The sessions that ensued in London and in New York with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and in Los Angeles with South African guitarist Chikapa “Ray” Phiri’s popular Gallo Records group, Stimela, lent shape to the Graceland epic.
Like he’d done with “Mother and Child Reunion” years before, Simon laid down the tracks first and then, back home, created lyrics to fit. It took him quite a while to find the right words for the complicated syncopation of the layered tracks. “Lyrics like ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party’ were written,” Simon says, “not just to tell a story but to carefully scan with the rhythms.”
This thoughtful collaboration is the heart and soul of Graceland. As White comments in the liner notes:
The essential prayer of all those downtrodden or captive to injustice is that their predicament might resonate in the hearts of honorable people, however distant, as if compassion were a rhythmic sonority that no obstruction could impede or subdue. For the black citizens of Soweto, as well as those elsewhere who were touched by their suffering and resilient spirit, the sincerity of superstar Paul Simon’s interest in the proud messages of South Africa’s proletarian music seemed a miraculous gesture of respect in synch with many of the country’s deepest longings and convictions. Unpolitical in its agenda and unconditional in its enthusiasm, Simon’s reflex passion for [this] music…signified a turning point in the modern appreciation of black South Africa’s hybrid rural/ghetto heritage, cementing its worth at home as well as abroad.
The album starts off with the lone, exotic sound of Lesotho musician Forere Motloheloa’s accordion, followed up immediately by the shocking timing of Vusi Khumalo’s initial drum licks and the freedom in Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass. Here was an opening sound like no other Paul Simon project, compelling from its first measure, and when Simon begins to sing about “the days of miracle and wonder,” the listener feels fully admitted to the epiphany to come. This opening track, The Boy in the Bubble, provides a dramatic catalogue of contemporary images:
It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio…
It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
—“The Boy in the Bubble” ©1986 Paul Simon (BMI)
The title track, Graceland, comes next, featuring backing vocals by the Everly Brothers and extolling the mysterious virtues of a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee:
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending,
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
—“Graceland” ©1986 Paul Simon (BMI)
Ray Phiri’s guitar is particularly inventive on this track, and the rhythm section provides an irrepressible energy. The lyrics are again far-ranging and yet startlingly introspective.
The Gaza Sisters provide backing vocals in the Shangaan language on the third track, I Know What I Know…and theirs is a strangely beguiling jolt of sound, coming in unexpectedly to catch the listener off-guard, an effect Simon planned. Gaza Sister Sonti Mndebele explains: “It’s different because it’s like you’re singing out of tune sometimes, but that is how it should sound.” The tempo is fast, the lyrics providing snatches of conversation at a party where hollow posturing is the order of the day.
The Boyoyo Boys are featured on Gumboots, a track as fast-paced and unpredictable as a New York taxi ride, and the a cappella singers of the Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo introduce the opening bars of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, which Simon co-wrote with group leader Joseph Shabalala. This distinctive vocal sound has become familiar now, but in 1986 it was as exotic and compelling as a first hearing of the female singers on Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”), an album released in the US a year later.
Fifty-seven seconds in, the choral intro ends and Ray Phiri’s animated guitar introduces the next part of this song, blending lyrics about life in New York with the irrepressible vitality of the South African musicians. Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass is particularly memorable here, bouncing free and feckless, irresistibly upbeat.
The biggest single from the album is its sixth track, You Can Call Me Al, which Al Gore used in his 2000 presidential campaign and, speaking personally as someone who named himself Al in the fifth grade (from my initials), I love my association with this song. The names “Al” and “Betty” in the lyrics came from a party attended by Simon and Peggy Harper, his wife at the time, during which French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez mistakenly referred to the couple as “Al and Betty.”
Unlike most of the album’s tracks, this song was recorded completely in New York. The session date was in April 1986, which is not only my birth month but the month and year my son Graham was born. It reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the Top Five in seven countries.
From the track’s opening bars, Rob Mounsey’s synthesizer and the guitar synthesizer played by King Crimson’s Adrian Belew are key components in a compelling riff later picked up by horns and woodwinds. The syncopated township jive in the rhythm section is impossible to resist, with standout work by drummer Isaac Mtshali (his emphasis on the last beat in the four-beat measure is particularly effective) and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose bass run at Time 3:44 is palindromed by engineer Roy Halee, who only recorded the first half and then played it backwards to make the second half. There’s even a pennywhistle solo by jazz musician Morris Goldberg, which is a perfect sound for a song with such sheer exuberance.
Under African Skies provides a duet with Linda Ronstadt, vocals recorded in LA, instrumentals in New York, its lyrics looking for commonalities in the lives of two musicians, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabalala and Ronstadt herself. While the melody is wistful and affecting, Simon’s lyrics here are perhaps the weakest on the album, particularly how little is offered about Shabalala: we learn he’s black, his eyes reflecting “the pale yellow moon”…that he likes to take nocturnal walks…and has lived in Africa all his life. Sometimes, scant detail can be productively suggestive, but in this case not so much. There are more details about Ronstadt: her childhood in Tucson, Arizona, her own ethnic musical heritage, and how musical aspiration might lead her away from both. But in the end, for me, this song is far more compelling for its sounds than for any universal truths it tries to conjure up.
Homeless provides another duet with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the music from Shabalala, adapting a Zulu wedding song. The bilingual lyrics offer the album’s most generous sampling of Zulu words, which are themselves a kind of music to Western ears. In the “somebody say” sections, the African singers articulate a distinctive sonic effect, equal parts heartbeat, breath, and determination, rendered in the printed lyrics as “ih hih ih hih ih.” Once you hear it, you never lose its echo.
The last three tracks offer another collaboration with Ray Phiri (his skittering guitar opens Crazy Love Vol. II) and new collaborations with the Cajun zydeco band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters (That Was Your Mother) and the East LA Chicano rock of Los Lobos (All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints). Placed at the end of the album, these two songs are heard with fresh sonic perspective after our extended exposure to the African sounds and arrangements on the first nine tracks.
In a documentary on the 10th Anniversary edition, Ray Phiri says, “Paul was the one who was brave enough to say, ‘Listen, man, it’s all about music at the end of the day. Let’s have fun.’” That spirit shines through every song on this Grammy-winning album.
In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.
At the moment during Holy Week when Jesus redefined
two common objects from the dinner table,
we were cracking open fortunes at a Chinese restaurant down the street,
your daughter and her friend on the manic side of mid-teen life,
full of laughter and the secret language of confidantes,
while we three elders—you, me, the friend’s mother—absent-
mindedly twirled Asian aphorisms around arthritic fingers.
None of the fortunes spoke of nails.
When on that evening Jesus gathered up his befuddled eleven
for a stroll through the streets of the old city to the eastern gate,
seeking the road to the foot of Olivet, the path to that famous garden,
we were sorting out whose house the girls might sleep over,
there being no chance they should face this night alone.
The mother of the friend pushed hard
to bring them to her home, saying she
hadn’t seen her daughter all week, though you
could say the same. It was the hour for finding solace
in whatever remnants of family could be arranged.
When he brought them to Gethsemane to support him as he prayed,
at that dark hour you’d already released her, and you and I
returned home to talk about your difficult week at work
and keep watch with each other through the night.
At about the hour the crowd entered the Garden, carrying swords and torches,
your son, so soon college-bound, suddenly arrived
in the full array of high school fashion,
mumbling sidekick in tow, here to pick up something and be off. Tomorrow
he and his girlfriend board a train to Boston to check out schools,
returning sometime Sunday. You pressed for more details: when Sunday?
You know it’s Easter, you reminded him.
But he wasn’t thinking of Easter tonight, nor did the disciples
who ran up the dark slopes in selfish fear, abandoning their messiah.
At least your son did not betray you with a kiss, nor did he run away naked,
like the mysterious young man in Mark’s Gospel.
It was a workday; the weather uncertain.
You had a meeting; I had inspections to make.
In Jerusalem that day, Jesus endured a whirlwind of trials,
before the Sanhedrin, before Herod, before Pilate.
Passover was coming at sundown. That was the deadline.
I’d stopped at the hardware store, running an errand,
and had my hands in a drawer full of nails
when I realized with a shudder it was the hour
the nails were pounded into his flesh.
I threw my silver coins on the counter and hastily withdrew.
The skies darkened but no curtain I know of
was torn today. I found it difficult to pray
with that paper bag of nails on the backseat of my car.
My son’s gone to his mother’s in Virginia; my daughter
drives down here from Syracuse later today
to go with me to church in the morning. This is a day of waiting.
I have taxes to do, and straightening up around the house.
The body was brought to the tomb and left there,
vague prophecies not clearly understood. You prefer
the Easter Vigil service, you tell me on the phone,
but I’m expecting my daughter at that hour. We can’t agree
on the details. You have things to do, too, you say.
It’s best to keep busy when you’re waiting.
I’m not a morning person. Let the other disciples get up early.
But I don’t dispute the resurrection, or the account of the women
who ran back from the place where the body had been taken.
If it were a fiction of the time, a more convincing narrative
would feature the men making the crucial discovery.
But the story’s subsidiary details strike me as authentic. I have my hands
on the knot of my tie, ignoring the clock
for a second, until my daughter calls up to me.
The church will be more crowded than was that garden at that hour.
You and your daughter have made other plans. We’ll try for lunch later.
The miracle prompting the occasion remains embedded in my soul,
but whatever prayers it may inspire will have to be postponed.
© 2013 Al Hudgins
When the Showtime series Billions premiered its second season opener earlier this year, the first music heard (on a show that prides itself on its insider trendiness) was Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” a 46-year-old track from his seventh and most commercially successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson. I imagine most viewers had no idea how old this music was or that the man who’d written and performed it had been dead nearly a quarter-century. But I knew this piece from its opening heartbeat and bass riff, and I realized how much I wanted to hear the album again.
A few weeks later, facing a seven-hour drive south to my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, I brought along some CDs, including this one. Since I was traveling solo, I could crank it up as loud as it deserved. How quickly the miles slipped by!
The progression of ten songs (seven of which Nilsson wrote) presents the events and moods of a day chronologically, starting with the ebullient Gotta Get Up, a wakeup call I’ve always wanted to wire into my alarm clock. Just piano at first, banging its insistence into a groggy subconscious, then backed by bass and a vocal that provides context. The singer’s waking up somewhere other than home, telling himself to get up and get back before the morning comes…before the sun comes up. The demands of the day urging him on, he offers a quick goodbye: Got a big day, sorry, can’t stay—I gotta run, run, yeah, gotta get home, pick up the phone, gotta let the people know I’m gonna be late. By now horns and an accordion have joined in, and when we hit the bridge, things take a wistful turn and the lyrics speak of how much harder it is now to stay out late than it used to be (we never thought we’d get older, we never thought we’d grow cold). When the bridge comes around again, it tells the story of a sailor and a seaside girl that’s sweet in its nostalgia but succinct in its details, as much in a hurry as everything else in this song.
The first track fades out under the start of the second track, Driving Along, guitar, bass, and drums setting an agreeable pace as a car door shuts and an engine is turned over a few times. His car seems as worn out as he is…eventually starting, sending him off into the traffic with everyone else. He muses about the lives of the people in the other cars, how isolated they are and how stressed (faces so tired of facing each other), but at the bridge, his mood shifts and he’s tripping now (driving along at fifty-seven thousand miles an hour, look at those people standing on the petals of a flower) and before you know it, he’s doing Beatlesque harmonies and an arrangement straight out of Sgt. Pepper. This is, my friends, how all commutes should go.
As before, the next song overlaps slightly, a lightly-played organ rising up from the fade-out. The lyrics of this third track, Early One Morning, delve a little deeper into what went wrong the night before, how desperately he’d like to fix things, and how haggard he’s looking (Harry, you sure look beat, says the waitress serving him breakfast). In contrast to him singing, over and over, I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues, the organ chords are in a major key and relentlessly persist to the end. These contradictions work, providing a kind of threadbare hope.
Track Four, The Moonbeam Song, is the sweetest tribute to rubble and ruin you’ll ever hear, and once again the mood is captured perfectly in the lyrics Nilsson croons and its languid, mesmerizing arrangement. The haunting mellotron that ends the piece hearkens back once again to the psychedelic euphoria of Sgt. Pepper, released only four years before, which seems both present and past.
Introspection done, the album moves into resolve. A boogie piano starts Down (Track Five), punched up by drums from Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos) and Nilsson’s wailing instructions:
Well, you gotta have soul to wash your sins away,
& you gotta have hope—it’s the price you gotta pay,
& you gotta give love, or your love will walk away,
& you gotta stay loose—it’s the only way to stay.
Down, you got me goin’
Goin’ round, you got me goin’
Down, d-d-down, d-d-down.
By now, the horns, Klaus Voorman’s bass, and reverb on the vocal have kicked in, and the song revels in its swagger, its assurance, and also a kind of whimsy woven into the mix. By the end of the track, something in the lively mix almost suggests a crowd has gathered, an audience of all those people from the morning commute now gathered in one place, trying to do the best they can.
Opening Side 2 of the vinyl record is the biggest of the album’s three hit singles: Without You, which reached #1 on two Billboard charts: Pop Single & Adult Contemporary. Penned by a couple of members from the British group Badfinger, the song begins with solo piano (played by Gary Wright, four years before he released Dream Weaver) and a heartbreaking vocal that Richard Perry, the album’s producer, claims was done in a single take. Nilsson, a tenor with a three-and-a-half-octave range, performs perfectly here, every note richly nuanced with pain, regret, and longing. The song won the 1973 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal, an award it richly deserves.
What do you do when you’ve lost the love of your life? The next two songs offer options. Here’s the prescription provided by Coconut, a playful calypso number:
Brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime;
His sister had another one, she paid it for de lime.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put the lime in de coconut, she called the doctor,
woke him up & said, “Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take,
I said, Doctor, to relieve this bellyache?”
At Perry’s suggestion, Nilsson sings all four characters in this tale: the narrator, the brother, the sister, and the doctor, and his vocal dexterity is remarkable, but what really wows the writer in me are Nilsson’s lyrics—how spare they are and yet how complete (Nilsson was #62 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time,” a list released in 2015). “Coconut” went to #8 on the Billboard Pop Single chart in 1972. Once you’ve heard it, you never forget it.
The other option? Let the Good Times Roll, recorded by Shirley and Lee in 1956 (they also wrote it). In Nilsson’s version, the carefree abandon in his vocal, especially as the song goes on, is a perfect antidote to all the heartache in the earlier tracks. His nonchalant harmonica solo underscores that attitude, and the multi-track vocals that end it are a fitting sendoff.
But the party is interrupted by that percussive heartbeat triggering the all-out rock of Jump Into the Fire, another Nilsson original and the album’s third hit single in as many styles. No matter what feats you accomplish, he sings, you’ll never be free. Great band on this one, including a hypnotic Jim Gordon drum solo that recalls Ringo Starr on The Beatles’ The End or Ron Bushy on Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, my holy trinity of classic rock drum solos, actually. Herbie Flowers’ bass joins in and works an inspired solo of his own, and then the guitars return: John Uribe (lead), Chris Spedding and Klaus Voorman (rhythm). On piano, Nilsson handles electric, Jim Webb acoustic. Nearly seven minutes of pure energy, this one.
The day is done at last with Track Ten: I’ll Never Leave You. Some nights, I go to sleep without you, he sings over a solo piano and the slightest touch of a triangle (by which I mean the percussion instrument, but a romantic triangle would also work here, a subtlety in arrangement not beyond Nilsson’s powers). It’s a plaintive cri de coeur from a moment of longing in the dark night, and as the song nears its three-minute mark, the singer’s voice is multiplied and echoed as he repeats I’ll never leave you alone, almost as if he means to haunt her soul. It’s been a long day, and, in the end, she is all that matters.
In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.
There is a cathedral
those soaring columns,
sturdy enough to shoulder heaven,
raise high a vault
of evergreen thatch
to shade this unexpected sanctuary
the trail reverently enters.
I hear the undertones of evensong
when the wind stirs the highest boughs,
dropping tiny cones at my feet,
like so many mustard seeds,
the ground swept clear of weeds
by fallen needles woven together like prayers.
The impenitent glare of the sun
has been politely ushered out
and everything that echoes inside me
is suddenly hushed,
as if a service
were about to start
or the voice of silence
about to speak.
© 2006 Al Hudgins
In France, it’s just an ordinary name:
. it means “red mill,”
. a place to bring your grain;
. back then, the massive millstone’s rumble
. thundered to the rafters,
kicking up a storm of dust that plastered
sweaty skin with shards of grain and dimmed
. the lamplight’s shine
. and made the shadows spin.
. Back then, a different bump and grind
. brought patrons there:
a meal inviting them to taste, not stare.
Now, faster than it takes the feminine
. farine to rise
. into the masculine—le pain—
. lithe dancers swirl before our eyes.
. These graceful nudes
bake up a more exhilarating food.
© 2008 Al Hudgins
The recent discovery, in a cave near the Sinai desert, of what appears to be new source material concerning the composition of the Ten Commandments has caused considerable stir in rabbinical and ecclesiastical enclaves around the world. There is no dispute that it is authentic to the period…the object, a voluminous parchment made of cured goatskin, has been certified as being of sufficient antiquity, and the substances utilized in making the inscriptions upon it have been carefully analyzed and confirmed to be part human blood, part the juice of a berry indigenous to the region. There is a subsidiary flurry of excitement in some circles about the possibility that this blood, and the DNA it contains, might actually have belonged to Moses himself, for so the text strongly suggests…and the idea that the venerable prophet might one day be cloned has theologians at certain seminaries and universities in considerable uproar as to the ethical and religious ramifications of resurrecting Moses in this way.
But others have focused on the insights provided in the text itself, which appears to take the form of notes of a conversation between Moses and this deity with a divine name so holy an acronym was required—YHWH, or Yahweh—to avoid speaking the name out loud. One of the accounts in the Old Testament book of Exodus reports that Moses was away on the summit of Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights,” although other accounts, including the material adjacent to the text of the Commandments themselves in the book’s twentieth chapter, indicate that Moses was on the mountain for a shorter duration and may have also had his brother, the priest Aaron, along with him when the text of the Commandments was first revealed. However, this newly-acquired text appears to favor that more familiar tradition, written, it is quite clear, during a longer period of isolation, as is immediately suggested by its opening entry:
After all this time here, all these countless days of talking with you, I am burdened by a great turmoil inside my head and feel I must attempt to preserve some of these ideas by writing them down.
You do not need to, said YHWH. I will help you remember. But if it helps to calm the tempest within you, I will bring a wild goat into your midst, which you may slay and offer as sacrifice, and then its skin, which I will cure, may receive your words.
And what shall I use to write upon the skin?
Crush the berries of that shrub beyond you and use your finger as a stylus.
You think of everything, I said and then did as I was told. So it is that I hold in my hands this skin, which YHWH has cured, and I will write down with my finger, dipped in the crushed juice of the berries I have collected, the words that pass between us.
Are you ready now? I was asked.
I have tried to be subtle in my influence over you my chosen people, and even though I knew it wouldn’t work, I tried it anyway, so you could realize that I did.
Are all the things you say going to be this complicated?
You see? That’s part of the problem. Your human need to simplify everything.
We are a people easily distracted. Why did you not give us the concentration and dedication you gave even to the lowly ants? They are never idle and always so intent upon the task before them.
Well, yes they are, but tedious to watch for more than a few minutes. There are no surprises. I like surprises. Why would I have created humankind otherwise?
This is something the priests continually discuss: the unworthiness of man.
Humankind. Be more inclusive.
I do not know what you mean.
Yes, I know. But let us not ourselves become distracted by such trivial matters as what preoccupies priests. I will address that problem later.
Well, yes, that can be difficult sometimes. At least you do not have one for a brother.
You are going to run out of berries before I can even begin.
Yes, let me go crush a few more.
I rose up and performed the necessary tasks and then once again sat before the presence of the LORD, awaiting his holy word, my finger dripping with the juice of the new berries I had crushed.
So, I said, you were telling me that you had tried to be subtle and that this had not worked.
I see now what I saw before but did not want to accept: that humankind often needs things summarized more simply. While I know that actually there is a need for as many laws as there are individual human beings—for each person requires a unique combination of laws unlike that for any other person—still I know such an arrangement would just be confusing to you all…at least for the time being.
Yes, I am afraid I am already confused.
So I am prepared to summarize things with a few general laws that should apply to everyone. Let’s start with what is simple and hope humankind might yearn for what is not.
“Yearn for what is not?”
I am sorry: my head is as thick as the blocks we used to haul back in Egypt.
Let us hope humankind yearns, one day, for what is not so simple.
Oh, yes. I see now. All right. I have that down. Simple first. Complicated later.
Something like that.
So you are going to give me a few simple laws that everyone must follow?
Yes. You don’t have to write them down. I shall make you a copy.
That would be good. I am running out of berries.
Let us begin. These are the things I command you as my chosen people.
So, not “laws” then, but “commandments”?
They are the laws I command you to follow.
Which should I call them, though?
What matters is what they say, not what you call them.
Still…I have to call them something. Would it be all right with you if I call them “commandments”?
If that will allow us to proceed.
Fine. Thank you. I am ready now to receive the first commandment.
You do not need to count them.
I am sorry. Just my way. I am always counting things.
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…
Oh, I see, like a little preamble, that. Let me get it down…
I will make you a copy. Just listen.
It helps me to focus if I can see it on the skin. I think I have it down so far.
Very well. Let me get to the point: you shall have no other gods besides me.
Did you say besides or before? There was a bit of wind kicking up at that moment and I did not hear…
Do you wish to provoke the wrath of the Almighty? Concentrate on what is being told to you.
No other gods. I understand. Well, that would follow, certainly. Why should you want us to divide our attention amongst all the competition?
There IS no competition.
Yes, I take your point. You are to be preeminent. First among all gods.
You are missing the point. There are no other gods.
Right. Quite right. It is good to be forceful about such a thing. I will make sure I place the proper emphasis when I proclaim this to the people below.
Look. You shall not make for yourself any of these invented gods. Not idols. Not statues. Not fetishes to wear around your neck. Not images from the sky over your head nor anything wandering on the earth at your feet nor anything that swims in the seas.
I think I have all that. Just let me grab the last of the berries.
There will not be enough. You should prick your finger when you run out of berries.
Ah. What a good idea! No wonder you are the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and I am but a mumbling Midianite shepherd.
So, do you understand what has been spoken to you? You are not to make up gods when you have the real one to worship already.
Right. No bird gods, like the Egyptians. No water gods—carvings of Leviathan or a giant octopus or some incredibly long eel or something. No gods carved to look like animals. Do you really think we would do that?
They are talking to Aaron right now about fashioning a god out of gold, and they want him to make it in the form of a cow.
They want to worship a gold cow?
They miss drinking milk.
They are doing that now? Should I go down there and knock some sense into them?
We are not finished here. I will deal with the cow presently.
So, no idols. Got it. Do not make them. Do not worship them. You do not want any competition for our devotion. You are a jealous god…
When did I say that? The point is that no other gods exist.
Yes, you have been quite forceful on that matter. I do understand. If we worship these other gods, we will be punished, oh, say to the third and fourth generations…because you alone are the one we should worship. We worship you alone and things are good for a thousand generations.
You do have a weakness for numbers. It is clouding your wisdom to be so preoccupied by them.
I am as you made me, LORD. I will try to let you show me how to grace my wisdom with understanding.
There are no other gods. Do not make any.
Yes, I have that. Should that be one commandment or two?
You are doing it again.
Ah. Sorry. I will sort that out later. Should we move on?
Do you understand about the holy power of my name?
Yes, I have all that about the Y.H.W.H. standing in for what you told me at the burning bush…“I am that…”
Why are you speaking out loud the holy name?
Right. Sorry. You were speaking about its power.
You must not misuse it. You must not say it in trivial situations…or use it when you make your curses.
That will not be an easy commandment for us, I can tell you already. It is so apt at times. Nothing else quite expresses what that expresses.
Do you not understand how that makes me feel to hear it? I am the author of compassion, the one who instructs my chosen people how to care for one another. It is only natural that I would feel deeply this lack of respect, for that, essentially, is what constitutes the offense.
We should not use your name for the purposes of our own vanity. That the idea?
If you do not show me respect in your speech, it suggests you do not know me in your heart. If you truly knew me, you could not speak so casually my holy name. I should have thought YOU, above all others, would understand this.
I do understand…profoundly… what it means to be in your holy presence. I do not have any idea how to communicate what that is like to anyone, even my brother Aaron who speaks for me. I do not know any words that make such a communication understandable.
Yes. I believe you have known me. And yet even in your own speech there are times when you misuse my name.
Well, when you parted the waters for us to cross, I could not help exclaiming “Oh, my God!” We do not have a vocabulary to describe the awe-inspiring. I meant no disrespect. The words leapt out of my mouth before I had even realized I had given them voice.
Work on that. Think before you speak.
Yes, I see. That makes sense. I wish it were not so easy to say whatever comes into my mind. We all do. All right, so is that the third commandment? Or the second?
Why must you enumerate them? All you will wind up with is a book of numbers…and no wisdom.
“Book of Numbers”…hmm…I like the sound of that.
Let us speak now about the Sabbath. You should always keep it holy. Work six days and offer the seventh day to me.
No work on the seventh day?
Keep it holy. Use the time to think.
You are not understanding the point again.
If I am not to fix my own meal on the Sabbath, and no one else, likewise, is to work at such preparations, how are we then to eat?
This is about your belly being full?
Well, maybe if we prepare something the night before…
I rested after six days when I created the world…so should you after your more humble labors. Human beings function better if your routine is interrupted now and then…and if you do not set aside this time, you will not grow in wisdom, for you will not otherwise devote the time to it that you should.
Thinking is not working? What if you are a priest? Or a philosopher? Or a judge?
All days should not be alike. Humankind does not do well when one day is the same as another for weeks on end.
I can see I will have to give this matter more thought before I try to explain it to the people below.
Let us talk about your parents.
What about them?
Honor them. You will live longer if you do.
What does that mean, exactly? I do not still have to take their advice on all matters, do I? They have had some rather peculiar notions in the past. They did not want me to run off into the desert, for one thing, back the first time I did it. And you should have heard—well, I suppose you did hear—what they had to say about that business of the burning bush. I know they thought I hallucinated the whole thing. My mother wanted to know what I might have eaten before claiming to have seen it. Or if I had consumed too much of my father-in-law’s wine.
If you treat them as lesser beings, you yourself will be diminished in time, at the hands of your own children.
Well, could we have a commandment, then, that says they cannot give out advice after the child reaches a certain age? Or gets married? So many opinions my mother had about Zipporah, my wife. It caused such strife in my household.
Listen to their wisdom. One of the few things that makes human beings wiser is time. Your parents will always have more wisdom than you if they live by my teachings.
If that is so, why do they often seem so foolish?
That is your own folly you are seeing. You deceive yourself in so many countless ways each day. It is only by growing older that you begin to see this truth.
Some days I just want to kill them.
You shall not murder.
It’s just an expression.
No, this is another of my laws. Killing people is not allowed.
What about soldiers in a war? Are they not to kill?
Wars are such a good thing? I am to make exceptions for those involved in the practice of war?
Are we not to fight for our beliefs at times? Do you not wish us to stand up to our enemies? To your enemies?
Who made the Egyptians perish in the waters? Was it you who did that?
No. You did.
Whatever war that must be fought on my behalf will be waged by me.
This will not be good news for the captains and the generals.
You should not commit adultery.
I am out of berries. Let me find a thorn to prick my finger.
I will inscribe all these laws on tablets of stone for you. Do not worry about writing everything down. You do not make so competent a scribe in the first place.
Ouch! Okay, I am ready once more. You had said something about adultery.
Do not commit it.
What if the husband knows about it and does not mind?
Are you going to take us down the road to Sodom? Permissiveness has never been license.
Yes, that makes sense. But what if someone married too quickly, while in a state of agitation, after fleeing for his life, actually, and then crossing a great wasteland for many days before finally finding an oasis, where all he wanted was a drink of water and was, instead, surrounded at the well by seven beautiful sisters?
This story sounds quite familiar.
So he is given the hand of one of these women in marriage by her father before he’s barely slaked his parched throat? Next thing he knows he’s married and has become a father and the whole situation is so strange to him that he names his son “Alien”?
You would be surprised how similar are the lamentations of the people.
The years go by…his wife gets busy with her family and their children and barely has time for him anymore. He is a full-grown man and his needs are not unlike the instincts of the beasts he tends. Should he not want to go into his wife more than once a season?
There is a time for everything under heaven. A time to go in, and a time to stay out.
And then he becomes the leader of a large group of people, some of whom are quite attractive and look at him with such admiration…even longing…in their eyes. Is he not supposed to imagine what he cannot help imagining?
You know the answers to your own questions.
Why did you make us so? Why did you plant such torment within us?
It is a question of love.
You should not commit adultery unless you can keep it from becoming love? Or you can only commit adultery if you cannot find love within your own tent?
Have you been in love? Do you understand what it means to feel such things?
I have been in love.
Tell me what you felt when you were in love.
It did not start out as love with Zipporah. In time, though, I came to savor her smiles, and the music of her voice…to enjoy the sweet grace of her kindness to me and how that might translate into sighs and longings for us both. All that came about in time…the way I could not pass through a morning or an afternoon without thinking of her and yearning for her…then not even through an hour without wanting her…and then my every thought was of her. This was what I felt when we were most in love, Zipporah and I. But, as I have said, it did not last. And it was not, as I also told you, how we began…but after all, in those first days together I had just come from wandering in the desert all this time, looking over my shoulder for the Pharaoh’s guard every other minute, fearful of being pursued and arrested for murder…
Yes, you have already broken several of my laws.
I killed that Egyptian for his cruelty to your chosen people. Did you not approve of this?
I will myself avenge the wrongs done to me and to my people. Did you not take my law into your own hands?
I acted on impulse. I stopped him from beating my cousin. I did not think anyone else saw me do it.
I saw. I made it known.
What are you saying? That’s how people heard? You told them somehow?
I made it known. And yet you still have not repented of this act against my law.
I did not know I had violated your law.
You know now.
I was suddenly filled with great dread, rising up out of the innermost parts of my body, and I knew how unworthy I was, how unclean I was before my God. I knew I had been wrong to take that Egyptian’s life, even to protect my kinsman. I had never asked forgiveness. I had never renounced what I had done.
I am truly sorry, I said then. I am humbly sorry for the blood on my hands. I repent of this violence in my past, and I beg you to forgive my transgression.
You are forgiven. Do not do it again. Control your impulses. Draw in your rage. You have within you the violence of an inarticulate man—I have seen this often. You cannot speak forcefully with words, and so you speak forcefully with your body instead. In much the same way, you might one day find yourself saying with your body to another the message of love that only your wife should receive.
I have found it difficult to prevent the feeling of desire. I suppose that is why you have made this law, to encourage us to prevent desire?
I do not believe you can prevent desire. But I do wish to prevent love from growing where it should not.
You do not want love to grow?
Where it should not. There is no deeper agony for the human heart than love that has sprung up where it should not.
I have never looked at this matter that way.
The woman in the crowd who enflames your lusts…do you not see how easily she might yield to love? And to what end? She cannot allow her love to flourish into bloom, for she would need to hide it out of view of your wife and your people.
You know about the woman?
I know your heart.
Yes…of course you do.
Did you ever think to consider her agony? To be in love with you and unable to tell those around her? To love you so deeply and be unable to express this love whenever she might wish?
I did not consider that.
And did you consider the agony of another heart? That of Zipporah’s? Did you not think of what this other love might do to her own love for you?
Yes. I have thought about Zipporah. It is why I have not acted on my instincts in this way.
And think of your own heart. It is not possible for love to grow the way I have intended it to do if it is split and tied off in two separate directions. You stake off a tree in this way and a fissure develops in the notch, eventually cleaving the tree in two, killing both halves.
Yes, I have seen that.
The nature of love is what makes adultery impossible. You cannot control the force of love. You cannot hope to contain it. Therefore you must devote yourself to one love. Choose that love wisely…and do not open up your heart to alternatives.
It is the harm that love can do when it is misdirected that makes this law necessary?
Yes. Love is more powerful than the mightiest cataract flowing over the highest cliff. It is more powerful than the great tides of the sea. It is more powerful than the strongest storm or the fiercest wind. You must be careful how you unleash this force in your life. You must not be careless with so great a power as love…for if you are unwise in love, you will find yourself wishing you had never been born.
It seems so obvious when you explain it like that.
You must not take things that do not belong to you.
Are we still speaking of love?
We are speaking of anything that is not already yours…or could not choose to be yours, as Zipporah, on the advice of her father, agreed to do. Possessions, land, livestock… you should not take what belongs to someone else.
Except in war? When you have us enter the Promised Land, will we not be required to possess what belongs to others?
Again this preoccupation with war? When I bring my people into the Promised Land, I will possess what they require and give it to them. They will not take it on their own. I will take it and give it to them.
How would that work in practical terms?
Would you assume to sit upon the throne of the Creator of all things? Would you presume to possess the mind of the Almighty?
I just wondered…
In each instance, the way will be made clear. In each need, I will devise a course for my people to follow. You do not need to concern yourselves with the slope of a path seven days off. Concentrate on what pebbles lie before you where you walk, and trust me to lead you to the way you must follow tomorrow.
So, we should remember that you alone are God. That we should not make copies of other gods to worship instead.
There are no other gods.
Yes, I have that. We should not misuse the holy name or cause it to be applied to matters unworthy of it. We should set aside the Sabbath for rest and reflection. We should honor our parents— although just exactly what that may involve is still a little vague to me. We should not take someone else’s life or commit adultery or steal. That’s eight commandments, so far?
The number is not important.
I am sorry. I keep doing that.
You should not lie against your fellow human being.
Is this more of the adultery commandment? No physical contact?
What you say about someone else should not be false. Do not claim something about another person that is not true.
“…not bear false witness against your neighbor…”
And while we are on the subject of neighbors, you should not wish you possessed what your neighbor possesses.
Isn’t that like the commandment about stealing?
This prohibition is the root of the other: if you do not wish you had something that belongs to someone else, you will not find yourself trying to steal it later on.
So, shouldn’t this one come before the other one? Do we need them both if we satisfy the requirements of the root cause? Or perhaps we should combine them into one commandment? If we gathered together the idea of remembering that you alone are God, that we should not misuse your holy name, and that we should not make any idols…that could all be one commandment about you. If we put together the stealing thing with the envy thing, that’s another. Add in the other five and that makes Seven Commandments! That sounds good.
The number is not important.
No other god, no misuse of your name, no idols…that’s one. No stealing and no envy…two. Keep the Sabbath… three. Honor your parents…four. No murder…five. No adultery…six. No false witness…seven. “The Seven Commandments.” Perfect.
The number seven IS perfect…and for that reason alone there should not be Seven Commandments…for my chosen people are far from perfect.
That’s a good point. I suppose we could break them back down into separate commandments. That would make…oh, let’s see…ten. Ten Commandments. That could work.
Do you not hear me when I speak to you? Do your ears deceive you about the sounds they receive? Will you focus so much on how many commandments there are that you will not follow any one of them?
And you are going to put them on tablets, you said? Two tablets? Maybe five on each side? That would look better when they are displayed.
They do not need to be displayed before the eyes. They need to be written inside the heart.
I stopped writing, feeling faint from the loss of blood, and sorrowful to my soul that I had argued so foolishly with the LORD. I stopped to meditate on what should be written in my heart and how many ways that would change my life. I asked the LORD to help me understand all this. I asked for the LORD to be patient with me…and to explain it again and again until I finally understood what all of it really means.
And so it was I remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.