PAUL SIMON - Graceland

Here’s what I wrote about Paul Simon’s Graceland, the album that arguably rescued his career, in my guide to his music that was published in 1997. I received some help from my friend Chris Allen who knew more than me about African music.

In the summer of 1984, as he faced the problem of furthering a critically successful but commercially waning career, Paul Simon received a gift from his friend Heidi Berg which set him on the road towards what many critics believe to be his masterpiece. The gift was a bootleg tape from the townships of South Africa called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits No. 2, and it changed his musical direction radically.
         Simon spent the rest of the year seeking out similar black African music and, thoroughly inspired by his researches, went to South Africa in February 1985 to spend 17 days recording with local musicians in Johannesburg’s Ovation Studio.
         Graceland, however, was not recorded solely in South Africa, nor did it consist only of South African music, nor was its subject matter African-oriented. The album was recorded in New York, Los Angeles, London and Louisiana as well as Johannesburg, and included tracks with Cajun and Hispanic backing musicians.
While South African mbaqanga and mbube rhythms dominate the music, adding a unique flavour which up to this point was largely unknown in America and Europe, the songs actually fuse South African elements with American pop, thus rendering the unknown more palatable to ears already tuned to Paul Simon. The majority of the tracks were backed by musicians from the townships, and the experience of writing for and in such a different musical tradition was obviously a liberating experience. While the concerns about which Simon chose to write are those of an American writer – and he is too honest a writer to wish or be able to renounce his cultural heritage – his open response to other cultures loosened the bounds of his songwriting and seems to have enabled him to find a new language, both musically and lyrically.
         The release of Graceland was met with as much political criticism as artistic acclaim. In 1986, South Africa was still ruled by the minority National Party regime, and the essentially peaceful “velvet revolution” (to borrow a description more usually applied to Eastern Europe) which followed from the release of Nelson Mandela, and Prime Minister De Klerk’s recognition that Apartheid was no longer sustainable, was some years away. Sanctions still applied, and a major focus of the anti-Apartheid movement was on high profile sporting and cultural events. Although the principal purpose of the boycott as it affected musicians was to prevent middle-of-the-road or pension-seeking rock dinosaurs cashing in at the notorious white playground of Sun City, Simon had clearly broken the letter of the sanctions regulations. Graceland thus attracted more controversy than Paul Simon, eternally quiet, diligent and uncontroversial, had attracted in his entire career.
         In vain did Simon plead that, far from offering succour to the oppressor, he had been popularising (and rewarding handsomely) some of the very “victims” the sanctions were intended to benefit. He had wandered into a political minefield. To those who argued that any breach of sanctions was unacceptable – and this position is understandable both in theory and as a propaganda weapon – any counter-argument based on artistic grounds was irrelevant. In the final analysis, however, the artistic merits of Graceland figure more substantially in the history books than the fierce contemporary denunciations that were, in the event, soon overtaken by the accelerating march of progress.
         The album was a massive commercial success, especially in the UK where, after reaching number one, it lingered in the charts for almost two years. In America, where radio stations are traditionally less attuned to styles of music that don’t comply with their rigid formatting process, Graceland reached number three, though it stayed in the Top 200 for 97 weeks, eventually selling four million copies.
The Boy In The Bubble
The growl of accordion with which the album begins states immediately that this is a different Simon product. With a nod to the Gumboots bootleg which had sparked his first interest in South African music, Simon lets his musical co-writer, the accordionist Forere Motloheloa, signpost the direction the album would take.  It is a direction which, in its dense, churning rhythms, owes little or nothing to the blues, to Chuck Berry, or to the American folk and Tin Pan Alley traditions in which Simon had made his reputation.
         The subject matter – the horrors and insubstantiality which underpins the “days of miracle and wonder” – is less of a radical departure from Simon’s previous work, but he brings a vividness to the lyrics (the juxtaposition of “the bomb in the baby carriage”, for example), as well as a “serious playfulness” (witness the alliteration of “the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart”), which clearly shows the extent to which this new music had irrigated Simon’s imagination. His lyrics add an ironic counterpoint to the upbeat, cheerful swing of the music, but it is not his purpose merely to moan about the awfulness of life on “a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky”. He is more knowledgeable, more compassionate and more of a poet than that, and if you doubt the poetic qualities of the song, try achieving in other words the same concise effect as Simon does in the final lines - “these are the days of miracle and wonder, and don’t cry, baby, don’t cry”.
         ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ was released as a single in the UK, where it reached number 26 with the help of a stunning video which, in 3D, placed Simon in the jungle, surrounded one minute by wild animals and the next by state-of-the-art technology.
Joy and sorrow; history and today; America and Africa – in the album’s title track Simon brews a medley of contrasting ingredients into a song as fine as any he has written. The bubbling, insistent, sinuous playing of Baghiti Khumalo on fretless bass and Ray Phiri on guitar provides a perfect counterpoint to the American music which the song celebrates – the Mississippi Delta, home of the blues, memorably defined as “shining like a National guitar”; Elvis Presley, whose Graceland home is the object of the singer’s pilgrimage; and The Everly Brothers, early influences who repay the compliment with their backing vocals on the fade out.
         But the song is no mere trip down nostalgia lane. Simon’s concerns, and those of the “poorboys and pilgrims with families” who share his journey, are contemporary. The singer is not only divorced (“the child of my first marriage” accompanies him) but also a recent loser in the game of love (the bittersweet phrase “she comes back to tell me she’s gone” tells of a fresh, unhealed wound). Nor is his sympathy reserved for his own misfortunes. His “travelling companions are ghost and empty sockets”; he empathises with the “girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline”.
         The jaunty music, with its traces of rockabilly, might seem callous and insensitive set against the lyrics, with their clear-eyed view of the emotional detritus of modern life, and such a contrast is just the sort of thing Simon excelled at earlier in his career. Simon’s purpose, however, is not to express pity – either for himself or for the other casualties “bouncing into Graceland”. The happy accident of Presley’s choice of name for his famous and magnificent abode allows Simon to play with the religious notion of redemptive grace. Though not previously, nor here, a religious writer, Simon presents music itself as offering a form of salvation. “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland,” he concludes.

I Know What I Know
This collaboration with General M.D. Shirinda and The Gaza Singers is a lighter piece, contrasting the Shangaan voices of South Africa with febrile chatter of the New York party scene. The song itself stands as a tribute to Simon’s self-confidence in his new work. He can afford to quote the party girl’s putdowns (“She thought I was alright ... in a sort of a limited way for an off-night” and “There’s something about you that really reminds me of money”) as well as his own feeble chat-up line (“Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?”). The repeated line, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”, brilliant in its scansion and rhythm, neatly encapsulates the empty socialising of the New York arts crowd.
         Simon, while clearly not averse to attending such parties, is not the prisoner of that scene, and has no illusions about the permanence of fame and reputation. He is, at this stage of his life and career, his own man. “I know what I know, I’ll sing what I said, we come and we go, that’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head.”

As the title indicates, this song is another tribute to the accordion-based music that had triggered Simon’s initial interest in the sound of Soweto. Backed this time by the Boyoyo Boys, he tackles a subject perennially popular with poets and songsmiths – love. Among the challenges which this subject presents is the difficulty of finding anything new to say but Simon rises to this challenge. Three vignettes which show different ways of failing to communicate are separated by a chorus which elegantly sums up a feeling every lover has suffered at one time or another. “You don’t feel you could love me but I feel you could”.  The song ends with a repeat of the opening two lines, as if to make the point that this is a process that goes around and around forever.
         This was the first song that Simon heard on his bootleg tape. It is the style of music favoured by mining and railroad workers in SA; ‘Gumboots’ are the heavy boots they wear at work.

Diamonds On The Soles Of her Shoes
Unlike the previous songs on the album, which were initially recorded in Johannesburg, ‘Diamonds...’ was recorded entirely at The Hit Factory in New York, when Ladysmith Black Mambazo were in town for an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Curiously, the song opens, unlike the “African” songs, with a verse in Zulu. It also features the popular West African star Youssou N’dour, as well as our old friends Baghiti Khumalo and Ray Phiri.
          Ladysmith Black Mambazo open the song a cappella, before the familiar bouncing beat kicks in and establishes a cheerful, danceable groove driven headlong by the startling bass guitar of Baghiti Khumalo. The lyrics themselves are somewhat obscure. The rich girl whose non-standard footwear provides the title seems to be involved both with the singer, who takes her for granted, and, doubtless on the rebound, with a poor boy whose “ordinary shoes” can only walk her to a doorway on Upper Broadway.
         Maybe there are metaphors here, or subtle allusions to New York street life, or a surreal re-working of the ‘Down In The Boondocks’ theme. Maybe Simon is just having fun – “and I could say ‘oo oo oo ...’ as if everybody knows what I’m talking about”.

You Can Call Me Al
Rumour has it that this song has its origins at a party Simon hosted wherein he met the composer Pierre Boulez for the first time. As he was leaving, Boulez called Simon ‘Al’ and the hostess, his then wife Peggy, ‘Betty’.
         Whether or not this is true, the song itself has moved a long way from such a simple social misunderstanding. Its theme is an old Simon favourite – alienation. The three verses depict various instances – the man who feels “soft in the middle [though] the rest of my life is so hard”; the man who, having lost his wife, his family, and his role-model, finds “my nights are so long”; the man lost in “a street in a strange world”.
         Now, though, merely depicting social alienation is not sufficient for the revitalised Simon. As in ‘Graceland’, he offers redemption from such angst. This time it is not music but friendship which provides the means of salvation – “if you’ll be my bodyguard I can be your long lost pal”. A penny whistle solo by Morris Goldberg (a white South African based in New York) offers plaintive support to the music of Baghiti Khumalo and Ray Phiri, underlining the fragility of human relationships which Simon so frequently sees and so sympathetically describes.
         ‘Al’ was a number four hit in the UK, helped by an unusual, slightly surreal, video whose principal attraction was its stark simplicity in the age of big budget, often pretentious, rock videos. Shot with one stationary camera on one set, it featured Simon’s friend, the actor Chevy Chase, appearing as Simon, playing a Fender bass guitar, while Simon himself appears dressed similarly in the same location, almost as a guest in his own video.

Under African Skies
If ‘Graceland’ offers the possibility of redemption through music, then the subject of ‘Under African Skies’ is its achievement – “after the dream of falling and calling your name out, these are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain”.  
         Set to a lilting ‘walking rhythm’ and backed by Linda Ronstadt’s beautiful descant, which seems to echo to the very skies Simon sings about, the song opens and closes with a pen-portrait of ‘Joseph’ (a name undoubtedly suggested by that of his collaborator Joseph Shabalala but perhaps more accurately to be taken as symbolising an African Everyman). In a few deft lines, Simon sketches both man and continent. Listening to the words and the music together, it is impossible not to sense the vastness of the skies under which Joseph walks.
         The middle verse, which shifts curiously from Simon’s own, masculine, gender (“my nursery door”) to the feminine halfway through, contains his clearest statement of the redemptive power of music – “give her the wings to fly through harmony and she won’t bother you no more”.

Co-written with Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, ‘Homeless’ is unlike any of the other songs on the album. Sung entirely a cappella, showcasing the remarkable range and power of Shabalala’s ensemble, the lyrics, alternating between Zulu and English, have no discernible narrative structure, consisting mainly of phrases rather than complete sentences. The theme, as we shall see, is African.
         Simon has said that “[we] wrote in English and Zulu, starting the piece in the middle and working outwards to the beginning and end”. The crux of the song, therefore, is the verse beginning “Strong wind destroy our home, many dead tonight it could be you”. This song is not about homelessness as a social problem affecting affluent western societies (not least London, where the song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios). This is the homelessness of massacre victims in a society where political violence rages. The haunting power of the key repeated chorus “We are homeless... moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake” works not just literally but as a metaphor for the political dispossession of the black South African majority.
         The song ends with a verse in Zulu which translates as: “We would like to announce to the entire nation that we are the best at singing in this style”. What, in another context, might simply be an amusing piece of a performer’s egotism becomes a statement of defiance. We do not accept, Ladysmith Black Mambazo proclaim, the sub-human status to which our oppressors wish to condemn us. We do not merely deserve better – we are better.

With ‘Crazy Love, Vol. II’ Simon reverts to the music and the themes that dominate the album. Guitarist Ray Phiri’s band Stimela provide the backing for the interwoven stories of Fat Charlie and the singer, both of whom seem to be in the throes (sic) of divorce.  (It may be conjectured that this is the “second volume” of the title, divorce being an established stage in the life-cycle of American love affairs.)
         The chorus lines (“I don’t want no part ...”), repeated with subtle rhythmic variation after each of the song’s three verses, shows Simon rejecting the “craziness” of a life “on fire ... all over the evening news” and telling his ex that this time “the joke is on her”.
         Initially recorded in Johannesburg’s Ovation Studios, the song was completed at The Hit Factory in New York. Morris Goldberg, the penny whistler on ‘You Can Call Me Al’, makes another appearance, this time on soprano sax.

As if to make the point that this is a Paul Simon album, not a World Music curiosity, Graceland ends with two songs rooted in specifically American musical traditions. The first of these was recorded in Louisiana with backing from those doyens of the Cajun scene Good Rockin’ Dopsie & The Twisters.
         Opening with the robust accordion of the great Dopsie himself (Alton Rubin Sr.), and thus linking the song to the Gumboots accordion-based style which originally inspired the album, ‘That Was Your Mother’ is a jolly romp, sung by a father to his (implicitly grown-up) son, recalling the circumstances in which the son’s parents met. The singer reminds his son (whom he loves, despite his being “the burden of my generation” – a pun Simon uses to great poetic effect) that, though he might now be a parental authority figure, he was once a young man “standing on the corner of Lafayette” looking for some action. It is an observation few children relish hearing or are capable of fully understanding.
         It is a mark of Simon’s maturity that he can use this subject, and in a song of such danceable brio. (Irony is added by the presence in The Twisters’ line-up of two of Dopsie’s own sons.) It is also remarkable that, in such a seemingly simple song, he simultaneously takes the “child’s” position vis a vis a musical “parent” and pays homage to Clifton Chenier, founding father of Cajun music and “the King of the Bayou”.

The final song is perhaps the bleakest on the album. The second “American” track, this time backed by the Tex-Mex stars Los Lobos, it also features the accordion – David Hildago establishing a rocking tempo which, with the long and beautiful “oo oo oo” vocal melody, belies the unvarnished grimness of the song’s lyrical content.

         If the chorus is melancholy (the sun getting first “weary” and then “bloody” before setting, the lack of any answer to the question “what’s a better thing to do?” in “the black pit town”, and the universality of this condition “all around the world”), then the verses positively drip with ennui. The first verse, in the voice of the cynical, faded “former talk-show host”, defines “the myth of fingerprints” – far from being unique, as criminologists affirm, “I’ve seen them all and man, they’re all the same”. The second verse uses the image of an army post – that it is abandoned only adds to the world-weary tone – as a classic example of the crushing of individuality, in this case of the army’s new recruits. The third verse largely repeats the first but, with no need to repeat his definition of the myth, Simon ends with a bleak conclusion – “that’s why we must learn to live alone”.


Ian Gordon Craig said...

Interesting post and review. I have to confess Gracland was where I parted company with Paul Simon. Title track is undoubtedly one of his finest, Call Me Al has all the humour of Rhymin' Simon, and one can still hear (not surprisingly) those doo-wop street influences at the far edges, I never really connected with it. I think Garfunkel once disparagingly referred to it as a "radio friendly" album. I was always more inclined towards Hearts and Bones, and One Trick Pony. But I shall listen again...

Chris Charlesworth said...

I always thought Hearts & Bones was the great lost Paul Simon album, undeservedly overlooked in his catalogue. 'Rene and Georgette...' has always been a favourite of mine, along with his lovely understated Lennon tribute 'The Late Great Johnny Ace'.

Anonymous said...

A gift? Hahhahahah! He stole the tape and the idea from the girl he was producing! hey...ever hear him do anything like it before or after? duhhhh.... he's a thief. That Heidi Berg chick saved his worthless asshole of a career! Disgraceland