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Cultural Vampirism, Genuine World Fusion, or Both? 25 Years of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”


I was half-asleep the other night, when the teevee blared out an ad for a deluxe edition of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album – celebrating twenty-five years since it’s release. Though, if I may be Sgt. Pedantic for a minute, it’s actually 26 years old now – having been first released in 1986. The ad got me thinking about that time. I used to own the cassette of “Graceland” and listened to it quite a bit back then.

Growing up where I did, you were pretty much stuck with the local radio stations for your musical discoveries. Unless you had a cool older brother or sister, which I didn’t. The local radio stations consisted of a couple of “Top 40” ones…and then further down the FM dial, the AOR/MOR ones. That was it – not counting the local college stations, which I hadn’t started listening to that year. From what I remembered (initially), 1986 seemed pretty dire, at least from a ‘mainstream’ U.S radio perspective. The Billboard List of ‘Top 100 songs’ shows I’m not too far off. Sure, there were some decent records – Peter Gabriel‘s So showed he could make the charts and be intelligent at the same time. “Sledgehammer“, surprisingly, for a tune about bonking, was played everywhere – very sneaky, Pete! Yuppie prog? Maybe, but at least he made clever videos.

Elsewhere on the list, though, it’s all Madonna and her various clones, 70s R&B singers still hangin’ on with watered-down soul and ‘rock’ bands that don’t really rock much. Yes, I did buy Genesis‘s “Invisible Touch” LP and Stevie Nicks‘s “Rock A Little” – both pretty much nadirs of their respective catalogues. In fact, I disliked “Rock A Little” so much that I didn’t buy any of Nicks’s records after that…sadly, I did buy the follow-up to “Invisible Touch”, hoping with a new decade that they’d have ditched some of the 1980s gloss. Nope. “Invisible Touch” does have one cool moment – the closing instrumental, “The Brazilian“. It’s never been verified if the title refers to a native of the country, or a waxing technique.

I digress – Simon was having problems of his own in the 80s. His cache as “singer-songwriter” seemed to have been usurped by James Taylor and a thousand other ex-folkies, brandishing acoustic git-tars and singin’ about women and stuff. His 1980 film, One Trick Pony, was largely a flop – as was his 1983 album, Hearts And Bones, which in part chronicled his (ultimately doomed) marriage to Carrie Fisher.

He hears a South African instrumental – builds a song around that…then decides to de-camp to South Africa and record with local musicians. So far, so good, right? Well, not so much. The apartheid regime was being scrutinised and there were calls, particularly among musicians, to boycott the country. Simon picked the wrong time to do his musical exploring. Was it his fault? Maybe and maybe not. Surely, he could have been aware of what was happening there. Soon after the album was released, the charges of exploitation were being levelled and while I strongly suspect that wasn’t Simon’s intent, his position didn’t look good. Particularly as Queen had caught a lot of flak for playing the Sun City resort in 1984.

The album itself ? Well, I must admit that the South African crew that Simon gathered around him were top-notch. Some pretty tasty bass-lines and guitar licks. Lyrically, he could still catch a phrase here and there, like “cartoon in a cartoon graveyard“, from the earworm single, “You Can Call Me Al“. The video for that song featured Simon and Chevy Chase (still sorta fresh from his “Fletch” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” success) goofing around in a single small room. Chase mimes the lyrics, leaving Simon to try and grab attention from Chase. Amazing – no phalanx of dancers or costumes or crowds of people jumping around.

The album opener, “The Boy In The Bubble“, begins with a lone accordian riff – it then mutates into a kind-of slowed-down, psychedelic zydeco tune. There’s some funky fretless bass lines and a drum beat that should be more up-front in the mix. Simon sings in a somewhat wary tone about technology, but somehow when he gets to the line “these are the days of miracle and wonder“, you almost believe him. I dunno, perhaps he was trying to reassure himself, along with his listeners, that despite the Reagan/Thatcher axis of trickle-down bullshit, things were getting better. It also had a pretty nifty, stop-motion animated video – though, it must be said, not as cool as Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” one.

“The Boy In the Bubble”, to me, seems one of the best tunes on the record – I’ll hand it to him, he knew how to sequence the album. The rest varies. While the title track has a lovely melody and some nice guitar work, Simon’s forlorn baby-boomer-discovering-time-has-passed-him-by lyrics seem forced and desparate. He’s taking his kid to Elvis’s mansion, see….everything’s gonna be alright, after all! It’s all about everyone taking a journey and at the end of it, you feel like you’ve done something, dammit! Some great turns of phrase again, like “The Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar…” and “She said “losing love is like a window in your heart”…‘ For all that, though, Simon feels sadly out of touch, especially when, a couple of years later, Public Enemy would proclaim “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, a straight-up racist that sucker was, motherfuck him and John Wayne.

This sentiment also informs some of the other songs, like “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes“. The music’s nice and breezy and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s acapella intro is pretty impressive. The lyrics, again, let it down a bit. They center on a “rich girl” who “don’t try to hide” that she’s rich. This chick’s so loaded that, dig this, she has actual fucking diamonds on the soles of her shoes – y’know, to “beat those walking blues”. That’s madness! It occurs to me, though, that if she’s that rich, perhaps she’d be in a chauffeur-driven vehicle? Sometimes I think Morrissey wrote “Panic” for just this kind of tune – it definitely says nothing to me about my life. “I Know What I Know” seems in a similar vein – Simon meets dazzling women at various parties and such. We get it, Paul, you’re famous….you get to converse (and maybe more) with hawt chicks wherever you go. I realise he may have been writing fictional accounts, but the man did marry Carrie Fisher, so I suspect the lyrics aren’t that fictional. Again, the music’s infectious and so catchy that you can almost overlook the lyrics.

He gets a bit more reflective on the album’s second side, apart from “That Was Your Mother“, an up-tempo zydeco stomp. “Homeless” has another Ladysmith Black Mambazo acapella performance that seems even better than their intro to “Diamonds….”. “Under African Skies” is another contender for best song on the record. The closer, “All Around The World, Or The Myth Of Fingerprints” closes ‘Graceland’ on a somewhat low-key note – though I never realised there was a dispute by Los Lobos, the L.A. band who appear on the track, over a co-writing credit. They claim Simon never bothered to ask if they wanted one and that he outright stole one of their songs for the album. That, coupled with the exploitation charges, didn’t do him any favours.

Twenty-six years later, how does it stack up? To me, comparing it with other American mainstream music of the time – it definitely seems bold, considering the ‘roots-rock’ efforts of Springsteen, Mellencamp and even Bob Seger (who had a radio hit with the title track to his Like A Rock album). “Graceland” also defies the dance-y pop of the time and the last gasps of new wave. Some of it holds up pretty well – some of it not-so-much, especially when removed from the context of the 1980s.

For all of Simon’s conceits and fumbles with crediting – he did make audiences more aware of South African music. Well, at least American audiences – dragging them a step closer to the ‘global village’. That not really a bad thing, in my view. He even made some of us Nawthenahs aware of zydeco – no small feat. It’s still arguably the man’s best solo album (for me, he has yet to top the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel LP, “Bookends“). Tellingly, he tried to repeat the process in 1991, swapping South Africa for Brazil, for “The Rhythm Of The Saints“, with diminished results.

It’s made a lot of “Best Albums Of The 80s” lists and the inevitable position on Rolling Stone’s “Best Albums Of All-Time….Ever…Ever” list. Deserving? I suppose so. There are, to me, better albums from that time – namely The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead“, Gabriel’s “So” and Cocteau Twins‘ “Victorialand”. Even Kate Bush‘s “best-of” collection, “The Whole Story“, delivers far more brilliant moments. He does get points for staging an amazing comeback, which carried him well into the 1990s. He duly turned up with his old sparring chum Art Garfunkel for some shows and the less said about that Capeman project, probably the better. Undeniably, “Graceland” was Simon’s high-water mark – he was at the right place at the right time.

Will I buy the new edition? Not so sure – maybe when the price bounces down a bit, eh “Human Trampoline”?