Paul Simon – Graceland

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

Wow. The history and legacy of this album is far more complicated than I originally knew. It makes listening to it a slightly different experience for me. The problems start with its birth. Apparently, a young singer-songwriter named Heidi Berg had secured Paul Simon’s agreement to produce her album; in anticipation of the work, she provided him with a bootleg mix tape (allegedly titled Gumboots:  Accordion Jive Hits No. 2) of South African music to give him a sense of the sound she wanted. Captivated by the music, Simon decided to use the tape as the basis for an album of his own. The Simon-produced, mbaqanga-influenced Berg album obviously never materialized.

Having decided to record with South African musicians, Simon was aware of the United Nations cultural boycott on South Africa in response to apartheid. He ultimately was not deterred. On the one hand, he consulted with Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, while on the other: a) so what; and b) he ignored Belafonte’s advice anyway. Also, Simon had already shown antagonism towards Nelson Mandela, according to Steven Van Zandt, and had refused to perform on Van Zandt’s 1985 “Sun City” protest song because of his allegiance to Linda Rondstadt, called out in the song for having performed at the titular resort also in defiance of the boycott. But he himself had refused to play at Sun City.

Simon’s decision was condemned by musicians like Billy Bragg and Terry Hall (the Specials), while the South African black musicians’ union voted to let Simon visit. The musicians on the album have all been nothing but supportive of Simon’s decision, while other African musicians have been critical. Simon was generous with pay and fair with royalties, while at the same time the very fact of the recording sessions endangered the musicians (e.g., risking being out past curfew) and forced them to risk their well-being for the promise of exposure and payment. And the question has been raised as to how the musicians could have been on equal footing with Simon in the studio when they were legally obligated to treat him as superior while he was in their country. Relatedly, Simon obviously benefited from apartheid while in South Africa even when not recording simply by being a white person participating in the societal framework.

Gallingly, Simon invited Rondstadt to sing on “Under African Skies,” knowing full well about her own transgressions (which Rondstadt pleaded ignorance to at the time) and in the midst of the criticism he was subjected to. This decision is difficult to interpret as anything but deliberate and petulant nose-thumbing. 

Moreover, two artists have accused Simon of plagiarism in connection with the album (not counting Berg, from whom Simon lifted the idea and executed with the privilege of his superior resources). First, featured artist The Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters averred that the tune “That Was Your Mother” was based on one of their other songs but let it slide, figuring that the exposure from being on the album at all made up for it. On the other hand, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos is adamant that Simon stole “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” and defied the band to sue him when they complained. As to why they did not, Berlin claims that label president Lenny Waronker talked them out of it. 

Finally, at the time the album was released, there was little to no mainstream (i.e., white) recognition of appropriation. There is now. Where does Graceland fall? Simon was voluble about the origins of the music and instead of mimicking it and passing it off as his own (though his original impulse was close to if not exactly this), he went out and found the native musicians and worked with them. He also gave credit to those musicians, including for songwriting. This sets him closer to David Byrne as opposed to, say, Vampire Weekend. But he also capitalized and profited from music that he has no organic connection to and, as he admits, he only relates to because it reminds him of 50’s American roots music.

What I Think of This Album

This is a wonderful album, regardless of all the baggage. The music is a revelation, and Simon delivers a set of lyrics that avoid pandering and pretentiousness. The bass lines, in particular, are a wonder to listen to.

“The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio” lyric would be enough for me to declare “The Boy In the Bubble” a classic, but consider also the accordion intro and those huge drum hits and frankly the rest of the lyrics and this is a tremendous opening song. It was cowritten with Forere Motloheloa and the African musicians were the members of Tau Ea Matsekha.

The title track is a gentle shuffle and while some of the lyrics are a bit overcooked, the bass line is fucking killer and the guitar work is excellent, as is the druming. The Everly Brothers sing backup on this. Ray Phiri was the guitarist, while Bakithi Kumalo played the fretless bass.

The opening of “I Know What I Know” reminds me of “La Bamba.” The song is based on the work of General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Singers, and Shirinda gets a co-writing credit. Frankly, Simon’s lyrics kind of suck on this one, but the music and the backing vocals are divine.

“Gumboots” is essentially a rerecording of one of the songs from the infamous mix tape that started it all. The tempo and delicate accordion work are fantastic. Not sure the saxophone overdubs add anything special. The synclavier is an admittedly nice touch by Simon. Songwriting credit and backing by the Boyoyo Boys.

Listening to the gentle vocal tones from Ladysmith Black Mambazo on “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” is like the most peaceful drowning imaginable. The rest of the arrangement is out of this world – the horns, the guitar, the bass, the percussion. Youssou N’Dour played percussion on this track. LBM’s leader Joseph Shabalala got a credit for this tune.

The big hit was “You Can Call Me Al,” propelled in part by a goofy, celebrity-guested music video. But the fact is the music is unstoppable and Simon’s delivers a set of lyrics of relatable disillusionment and displacement. The bass solo is palindromic – the second half is just the tape of the first half played backwards – which doesn’t make the first half any less goddamn impressive.

My least favorite track is “Under African Skies,” as it sounds like Simon is trying too hard for something transcendent. And then there is the Rondstadt element, which is difficult to ignore. But for the most part it’s just that you can see the seams on this one. There is no better parody of a Paul Simon song title than “Crazy Love, Vol. II.” This one feels a little slight – I don’t like the glassine guitar figure and the melody is fairly mediocre. These are really the only weak tracks.

Shabalala also co-wrote “Homeless,” featuring another performance by LBM, who again provide soul-stirring vocals. Notably, Simon is only minimally present on this track, which was a wise decision and one I am surprised he was capable of. The wash of LBM’s voices is wonderful.

The final songs are a bit anomalous. I get (or assume) that Simon was trying to draw some connections to American roots music but it throws the album off and makes it seem like more of a school project than a labor of love. That said, both “That Was Your Mother” and “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” are great songs. I have a minor soft spot for zydeco – I just can’t listen to much of it at once.

Adrian Belew also played on the album. Ray Phiri died in 2017, while Joseph Shabalala passed in 2020.

The Best Thing About This Album

The bass work.

Release Date

August, 1986

The Cover Art

I hate this medieval tapestry bullshit. Zero out of ten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑