Graceland Revisited – Philip Martin’s comments on the release of 25th Anniversary Graceland Boxed Set

CRITICAL MASS

Don’t look past the words when revisiting Graceland

PHILIP MARTIN

“She comes back to tell me she’s gone. As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed. As if I’d never noticed, how she brushed her hair from her forehead.”
— Paul Simon, “Graceland”
Growing up is learning to understand that the world does not exist for you and that your problems really don’t matter. If you wind up underemployed or homeless or addicted to prescription drugs or riddled with cancer, there may be a handful of people who will feel bad about it, but not so many as you think.
I thought I was all grown up in August 1986, when Paul Simon’s Graceland was released. I bought it the day it came out. I was at a point in my life when I didn’t have to worry about having money to buy records. I was 27, living in my own two-bedroom apartment on Stoner Hill, across the street from the syndo-anarchists. I was writing for a newspaper, playing in a band and had a girlfriend.
(Twenty-fifth anniversary editions of Graceland have been re-released by Columbia/ Legacy, including a four-disc boxed set that includes a DVD of Joe Berlinger’s documentary Under African Skies and a 1987 concert in Zimbabwe in which Simon was joined by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. The suggested retail price is $119.99. Graceland also is available as a single CD with bonus tracks and a CD/DVD combo with the Berlinger documentary.)
Back in 1986, there didn’t seem to be so many Simon fans. His previous album, 1983’s Hearts and Bones, hardly made an impression and for years it was out of print, though it remains one of my favorites.
There was a period around 1980 when Simon almost quit. He left Columbia Records for Warner Bros. amid much acrimony; painful calcium deposits in his hands made it difficult to play guitar and he was suffering from writer’s block. That year, he wrote and starred in One-Trick Pony, a lightly fictionalized movie version of some of his professional experiences. (Rip Torn plays a record company executive presumably modeled on CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff whom Simon alleges threatened to ruin his career after he left Columbia.)
The movie wasn’t bad. Roger Ebert called it “one of a lousy movie year’s few good films.” Its soundtrack produced a hit (“Late in the Evening”), but it wasn’t the zeitgeist-altering moment Simon expected. Compared to The Clash’s London Calling, Simon’s music seemed enervated and overpolished.
“It was a period of great depression for me,” Simon told Playboy. “I was immobilized.”
ARC OF A LOVE AFFAIR
Hearts and Bones was supposed to be a Simon & Garfunkel album. Their 1981 reunion concert in New York’s Central Park had drawn more than 500,000 people — almost twice as many as the organizers had expected and more than Woodstock. It produced a concert film, a platinum-selling album and a world tour.
But the sessions for the studio album did not go well. Garfunkel thought Simon’s songs were too intensely personal for him to sing and Simon agreed. The problems that had led to the duo’s breakup a decade before resurfaced. So Simon wiped Garfunkel’s vocals off the tracks and made a daring record about the dissolution of a love affair, throwing in lessons about the possibility of happiness cloaked as a double tribute to doo-wop and surrealist painter Rene Magritte. The title song — about how his relationship with Carrie Fisher was dissolving even before they married — is perhaps the most beautiful and grown-up love song about a doomed relationship ever rendered.
So of course it flopped, in part because as lovely and tenuous and superbly realized as it was, you couldn’t dance to it.
LASERS IN THE JUNGLE
Much has been said about the origins of Graceland. In the mid-1980s, Simon acquired a cassette of the South African pop compilation Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II. Simon was taken by the gliding harmonies of “township jive” artists like the Soweto-based Boyoyo Boys Band, which reminded him of the ’50s R&B he’d grown up with. He contacted the album’s producer, Hilton Rosenthal, who immediately sent Simon more “mbaqanga” — the exuberant pop flourishing in the black townships.
This led to Simon recording tracks in South Africa with local musicians and, later, sessions with the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in New York and London, and with guitarist Ray Phiri in Los Angeles.
Some people at the time condemned Graceland as an act of cultural appropriation or worse: By recording much of the album in South Africa, Simon violated the United Nations cultural boycott against the country’s apartheid regime. Though it showcased many black South African performers — fretless bassist Baghiti Khumalo, drummer Isaac Mtshali, Phiri, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, expatriates Makeba and Masekela — the African National Congress opposed Simon’s working in the country.
None of the songs were overtly political; there were only a few vague hints that Africa was not a land of sunshine and shiny happy natives.
In “Boy in the Bubble,” the accordion-driven, open chord fever dream that opens the album, Simon alludes to a “bomb in a baby carriage, wired to the radio” and there may be some buried context to the diamonds the chick wears on the soles of her shoes (though I’m disinclined to believe the smutty explanation by the online Urban Dictionary).
When you grow up you discover that politics isn’t ultimately as important as art, that all art is political and that you ought to trust art more than the artist. Simon doesn’t need to apologize for Graceland, and to nitpick his technical violation of a bureaucratic boycott is to miss the larger point.
We should have no illusions about Simon being a nice guy. Maybe he is. There is a beautiful YouTube clip where he brings a young lady up on stage to play his song “Duncan,” which she says was the first song she ever learned on guitar. While there is joy and magic in that video, there are plenty of stories about him being a prickly jerk.
Members of Los Lobos claim he stole the backing track for “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints” from them.
ANGELS IN THE
ARCHITECTURE
What people forget about Graceland is that it’s not entirely African, though the bubbling spirit of mbaqanga informs the tracks Simon performed with Los Lobos and zydeco king Good Rockin’ Dopsie (the remarkable “That Was Your Mother,” which gave Joe Strummer reason to reconsider his opinion that the best rock records were made by adolescents).
While Linda Ronstadt (who also violated the cultural boycott by accepting $500,000 to play Sun City in 1983), the Everly Brothers, the avant garde guitarist Adrian Belew and other Western artists appear on it, Graceland is sonically a mbaqanga record. For the first time, Simon built his songs from instrumental tracks, scribbling lyrics lightly over the textured surface.
Simon’s lyrics were conversational and freighted with meaning; what he believed were provisional lines acquired gravity. He never intended the lyrics for the title song to be permanent — he meant to rewrite it as something about Africa. Yet the lines, especially the opening verse, have a literary resonance — “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” sounds like the first line of a great American novel. In some ways it is just that.
Ernest Hemingway believed that if you had a profound understanding of a thing and you wrote about that thing in a simple, straightforward way, your intended audience would be able to discern the deep knowledge beneath the surface of your prose. That is how the song “Graceland” works for me.
It’s a story of a sophisticated man retreating from another busted romance, making a pilgrimage to Memphis to, for reasons he cannot explain, take the tour of Elvis Presley’s kitschy palace. However gaudy and cheap it feels, Graceland is more than the sordid and circumscribed place it sometimes feels like. It is the realization of Presley’s conspicuously modest dreams; it is a reminder of the limits of his imagination as much as a shrine to his person. Graceland is like that statue of Ozymandias, a well-tended ruin preserved for tourists.
Graceland is where adolescent dreams go to die. You can’t visit it and not be touched.
Simon’s protagonist — the singer himself, along with his then 9-year-old son Harper — has come to Graceland to refresh himself after that most common, most adult of experiences: the end of a love affair.
When I heard Graceland, I loved its lively strangeness, the bounce and boing-boing of its bass lines, the honks of the accordion, the slippery harmonies that curled and sighed and Phiri’s tinky-tink guitar. But what I really loved was the language — the mode of expression Simon achieved with his words.
Graceland features some of the best pop music lyrics ever written.
Maybe I say that because Simon is writing the way I think — or the way I like to think I think — when he juxtaposes little jokes with poetic images. And he’s singing in that wonderful, conversational style that values rhythm over tone. I don’t know what “You Can Call Me Al” is about other than some well-fed Westerner’s dislocation in the Third World, but I love the moment when he confesses: “You know, I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.”
This stuff — apartheid, bombs in baby carriages, women who were recently offered Fulbrights, what have you — wears away at the adult persona, the grown-up rock ’n’ roller who thinks he might could sometimes use a human trampoline.
Lots of things are overrated, kid — Graceland isn’t.
E-mail:
pmartin@arkansasonline.com

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