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Review: Paul Simon, “Graceland: 25th Anniversary”

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When Paul Simon travelled to Graceland, he was aware of the mighty contradictions: “And I may be obliged to defend every love, every ending/Or maybe there’s no obligations now…”  Those days of miracle and wonder took place in 1986, and now some 25 years later, the restless artist is still defending Graceland.  The path to Graceland was a circuitous one, with stops in New York, Los Angeles, London, Louisiana and most crucially, Johannesburg.  Though the multi-platinum record picked up Grammy Awards, sold over 14 million copies and was almost universally hailed, Simon’s decision to ignore a United Nations-sanctioned cultural boycott in travelling to South Africa threw the entertainer into the eye of a political firestorm.  This story lends Legacy Recordings’ provocative new 2-CD/2-DVD box set of Graceland (88697 97715 2, 2012) a depth not usually found on such commemorative editions and one which can still inspire passionate discourse today.  It’s told in words, images, video, and of course, music.

For the classic album’s title metaphor, Paul Simon chose a place explicitly tied to the birth of rock and roll.  Not only is Graceland literally the place of Elvis Presley’s residence (“I am following the river down the highway/Through the cradle of the Civil War”) but in the song, it simply represents the state of grace the singer is trying to attain, the place where he “will be received.”  Over a track partially built in Johannesburg with the participation of South African musicians on drums, percussion, bass, pedal steel and guitar, Simon adopted a trans-cultural Sun Records shuffle, and even called in his old heroes The Everly Brothers on vocals.  Sure, Simon had been fascinated with sounds of other cultures as far back as the 1960s when teamed with Art Garfunkel.  He adapted the Peruvian melody of “El Condor Pasa,” then as a solo artist in the 1970s toured with South American group Urubamba.  In the same decade, he recorded reggae in Jamaica for “Mother and Child Reunion.”  But with Graceland, both the song and the album, Simon’s dictum that music is the universal language never before seemed so explicitly put into practice.

That original 11-track album, remastered in 2011, sounds as fresh as it did in 1986, with its big drum sounds the most prominent remnant of the decade of its birth.  The album combined Simon’s dazzling wordplay and ravenous musical curiosity with some of the most talented musicians to come out of South Africa: Bakithi Kumalo on bass, Vusi Kumalo on drums, Ray Phiri on guitar, The Boyoyo Boys, The Gaza Sisters, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Simon required authenticity to bring the enchanting, joyous sounds of South Africa to a mainstream American audience, and found it in these musicians who endured creating their indigenous mbaqanga music despite the oppression of apartheid in their home country.  The often sullen troubadour, producing with longtime engineer Roy Halee, created an album that’s as danceable as it is thought-provoking.  Who would have pegged Paul Simon to write an arena-friendly anthem like the quirky “You Can Call Me Al,” just one of many songs in which he introduces memorable characters with a strong dollop of autobiography?  The compositions on Graceland are all the more striking when one considers that the instrumental tracks were recorded and songs then written around these grooves; Simon’s penchant for transforming the mundane into the fantastic (through lyrics alternately abstract, impressionistic, observational and reflective) was never better utilized.  It’s also easy to make a case for Simon as a pioneer of “sampling,” as he made an art out of building new compositions around existing musical material, from “El Condor Pasa” through Graceland and beyond.

There’s plenty more after the jump!

The manner in which Simon and his musical compatriots kept their sound authentic yet still accessible may be the secret of Graceland’s endurance.  Its sounds are foreign enough to be tantalizing yet familiar enough to be comforting.  Take “I Know What I Know,” for one; The Gaza Sisters’ vocals are unusual by American standards, lacking the smoothness one might typically expect, yet Simon’s sardonic lead brings us back into recognizable territory.  Graceland also connects the dots between the music of South Africa and our own, indigenous American folk music.  “That Was Your Mother,” recorded in Louisiana, draws heavily on the Zydeco style, yet doesn’t feel out of place in the album’s tapestry of sound.  The Chicano group Los Lobos contributed its brand of rock to “All Around the World, or the Myth of Fingerprints,” although they parted on less than cordial terms with Simon over a credit dispute.  Linda Ronstadt adds her soaring vocals to “Under African Skies,” partially recorded with the South African musicians in New York City.  It features some of Simon’s most beautiful poetry: “This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein…These are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.”

But there have been incidents and accidents, hints and allegations in Paul Simon’s road to Graceland.  Of the many extras contained the Graceland 25th anniversary box set, the DVD of director Joe Berlinger’s new documentary Under African Skies is the most substantial.  (It’s also included in the 1-CD/1-DVD deluxe edition, and as a stand-alone Blu-Ray.)  The film features many talking heads, and even a Talking Head: Warner Bros. Records’ Lenny Waronker, Roy Halee, Oprah Winfrey (who calls Graceland “my favorite album of all time”), Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Philip Glass and David Byrne.  But the heart of the film is a meeting between Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, of Artists Against Apartheid.  Tambo was one of the most outspoken critics of Simon’s decision to ignore the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa, and he’s given the luxury of time in Under African Skies to defend his viewpoint.  He’s joined by other notable political figures including Dr. Wally Serote of the African National Congress.  The occasion for the dialogue was Simon’s return to South Africa in the summer of 2011, at which time he reunited with many of the album’s key players.

To what extent should politics dictate music or art?  That’s the question posed by Simon in the film.  Though his face is now fuller and his hairline thinner, he comes to much the same conclusion as he did in 1986, that the ends justified the means.  He’s hardly alone in his assessment; South African musician Barney Rachabane states that “Graceland set a tone of hope in my life.”  The bond between Simon and his multi-cultural cast is evident in the rehearsal footage from the July 2011 reunion.  Ray Phiri, who played on the album as well as the subsequent, far-reaching tour, offers the observation that “music is the closest thing to religion…it can inform and bring people closer…and Graceland did it.”  Bakithi Kumalo honestly avers that, back in 1986, he asked “Who is Paul Simon?” and that Simon and Garfunkel “didn’t ring a bell!”

The film tells the story entertainingly, emphasizing the political risks in Simon’s troubled waters, but also exploring the artist’s process in creating the songs and productions.  He talks about the inspirations for “Graceland” and “You Can Call Me Al,” and the multiple sessions in studios from Johannesburg to London.  In describing “You Can Call Me Al,” Simon says he wrote the song about a “self-obsessed person [becoming] aware.”  Was he writing with an autobiographical eye?  There’s plenty of choice footage to illustrate the record’s journey, including the vintage Saturday Night Live performance of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” filmed before Graceland ever hit stores, and a fascinating discussion at Howard University in which Simon is angrily challenged by a student and vigorously defends himself.

Berlinger is reasonably objective, and isn’t afraid to let Simon come off as both touchingly vulnerable and defiantly arrogant, sometimes at the same moment.  What to think when Simon admits sloughing off the advice of his confidante Harry Belafonte (also an interviewee and still a close friend) and proceeding with his plans to record in South Africa?  It’s hard to argue with Dali Tambo’s assertion that Simon put what was best for the individual before what was best for a country and a people, but it’s equally hard to deny the many claims throughout that Graceland broke the color barrier down and allowed many of its musicians to taste freedom for the very first time.  Paul McCartney candidly offers his belief that Simon’s controversial “appropriation” of South African music was no different than The Beatles’ lifting of black American R&B forms.

Under African Skies is largely unflinching, only shying away from a mention of Los Lobos’ allegations.  Bonus features on the DVD include the iconic music video of Chevy Chase and Paul Simon goofily dancing to “You Can Call Me Al,” videos of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “The Boy in the Bubble,” and the full SNL performance of “Diamonds.”  It’s too bad that the box set’s producers didn’t follow the example of Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, however, and offer the set in both Blu-Ray and DVD editions.  Certainly a good portion of the audience for a box set with a hefty price tag would appreciate having this fine documentary in the best possible quality.

A second DVD is also included in the box set.  Graceland: The African Concert has previously been available on VHS and a long out-of-print DVD, so it’s a particularly welcome inclusion here.  The film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg preserves the Graceland tour’s live performance in Zimbabwe, with Simon leading an ensemble including Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  This was the closest the tour could come to South Africa, and in the documentary film, its participants recall the thrill of seeing blacks and whites co-existing in the audience.  This isn’t a typical Paul Simon show; there are no oldies or fan favorites here.  The Graceland material blends beautifully with Masekela’s “Bring Him Back Home,” “Soweto Blues” and “Stimela,” and Makeba’s “Jinkel E Maweni” and “Iyaluma.”  The spirit is joyful, and quite contagious!

Less impressive is the bonus disc of audio material.  (The original album and complete contents of the box set’s bonus CD fit comfortably on one CD in the 1-CD/1-DVD edition.)  To the producers’ credit, the three bonus tracks contained on past Rhino and Legacy editions of Graceland have been retained: a demo of “Homeless,” an alternate bass-and-vocal take of “Diamonds” and an early version of “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.”  Best of these is the ethereal “Homeless.”  Without the substantial contributions of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it’s a rare look at an early stage in the ravishing melody’s evolution.  New to the 25th anniversary editions are two bonus tracks, both recorded at Johannesburg’s Ovation Studios.  Demos of “You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love” are short, instrumental-only affairs.  They’re both fascinating, but were these two songs the only available material in the Simon vault?  Especially after getting to know the group of musicians via the documentary, more of these rare insights into the process of the album’s creation would have been warranted.  (Simon reportedly recorded five tracks in South Africa.)  The concluding audio bonus is the 10-minute The Story of “Graceland” – as told by Paul Simon.  Reminiscent of a radio special and interspersed with clips of the album’s title track, it features Simon dissecting in detail the genesis of this one song, breaking down the parts and discussing its lyrics and chords.  It’s an interesting listen, but more music would have resonated even deeper.

Housed in the weighty, linen-covered box set is a beautiful 76-page book which includes all of the liner notes one would hope for in such a package.  The centerpiece is a lengthy oral history featuring contributions from most of the major players, culminating in a “Graceland at 25” section with the participants all looking back.  Jesse Kornbluth and Ashley Kahn have supplied essays, and full lyrics have been reprinted along with Simon’s 1986 liner notes.  The softcover book is chock full of gorgeous full-color photos, and makes a perfect companion to the album.  A poster of the album’s cover art is enclosed, too.  A final crowning touch is a reprint of Simon’s yellow legal pad of lyrics that eventually became Graceland.  (It’s reminiscent to the notebook in the aforementioned Springsteen set, and just as rewarding to leaf through and peruse.)  The discs themselves are housed in odd, pentagon-like slits in a tri-fold “book,” not the most convenient or safest means of storage.  Dan Hersch remastered the new bonus tracks, while Graceland itself is heard in its 2011 remaster by Greg Calbi.

Paul Simon followed up Graceland with 1989’s The Rhythm of the Saints, largely inspired by and featuring Brazilian and Latin American musicians.  A more challenging and less accessible album than its predecessor, it, too, is worthy of a deluxe reassessment.  There’s no doubt, though, that Simon’s first long-playing foray into world music will continue to fascinate, inspire and provoke fans in the years to come.  The 25th anniversary box set of Graceland leaves fans wanting more unheard music from the pen of one of America’s most prolific and cherished songwriters, for sure.  But it offers total immersion via the printed word and two insightful films into the world of this transcendent album.  Music is indeed the great unifier, making one thing clear: we all will, indeed, be received in Graceland.

Written by Joe Marchese

June 7, 2012 at 12:52

Posted in Box Sets, News, Paul Simon, Reissues, Reviews

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One Response

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  1. I’d like to see the documentary, and the long of out print DVD is a cool thing indeed (haven’t seen that concert video in ages), but WHEN will 1991’s Concert In the Park finally be released on DVD/Blu? In spite of half a million people supposedly attending, it’s never been made available on DVD.

    I streamed the bonus disc from MSN the other day. What they included was great, but even with the interview segment (which most people will only listen to once) it’s barely over 20 minutes. Like you said, Joe, there had to be more that could’ve been included. At the very least, all five of the tracks recorded in South Africa should’ve been included in some form.

    As for the controversies… It bothers me that it still goes on. Simon may have broken the letter of the boycott, but not its spirit. The music moved him to seek out where it came from, he did, and he reportedly paid the musicians extremely well, hired a number of them to not only record, but also tour in his band. He gave a platform to Ladysmith, Masakela, and Makeba, and playing to a mixed audience in Zimbabwe was a strong political statement. I also think Graceland caused a lot of people (including this 16 year-old kid at the time) to pay closer attention to what was happening in South Africa. That can’t be overlooked.

    The Los Lobos controversy (which saddens me, because I love them too) and having Linda Ronstadt sing on the album (beautifully, I might add) after having performed at Sun City are other matters that probably should be addressed.

    Not sure if I’ll buy the set or not, but, in spite of the paltry bonus CD, it’s tempting.


    June 8, 2012 at 18:58

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