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Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

How singer-songwriter’s landmark LP set off an international firestorm

Paul Simon‘s joyous, vibrant Graceland, released 30 years ago today, remains one of the most beloved albums in pop history. And also one the most controversial. Simon had ventured to South Africa to record the album with local musicians, ignoring an international boycott set in place by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee. “What gives [governments] the right to wear the cloak of morality?” he railed at the time. “Their morality comes out of the barrel of a gun.”

Though striving to make art that transcended politics, Simon quickly found himself at the center of a dire human-rights crisis. To some he represented a rebellious hero taking a stand against bureaucracy and totalitarian regimes; to others he was a naïve fool who undermined the anti-apartheid cause. Still more felt he was a little more than a common thief. “The intensity of the criticism really did surprise me,” he reflected years later. “Part of the criticism was ‘Here’s this white guy from New York, and he ripped off these poor innocent guys.'”

The fundamental debate hinges on a double-pronged query: Was Simon right in breaking the boycott, and did he have the right to make the album at all?

The latter question is made more complicated by the passage of time. Terms like “cultural appropriation” barely existed when Graceland was recorded. Whether you call it “borrowing,” “paying homage to,” “riffing on” or “stealing,” white artists had been incorporating traditionally black music into their work for most of the 20th century. But Graceland was groundbreaking for wearing its influence for all to see. South African musicians and singers were invited to share the spotlight with Simon, giving many of them mainstream international exposure for the first time. Still, some elements of the project remain problematic. Famed South African trombonist and anti-apartheid activist Jonas Gwangwa summed up the thoughts of countless black artists when confronted with Graceland‘s success: “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?” Simon’s insistence that the album was a true collaboration is arguable, but at the very least Graceland provided a platform to a group who were legally prohibited from participating on an international stage. 

There are many who would argue that the South Africa cultural boycott was a deeply flawed strategy that did more harm than good for the black population it was put in place to support. This view was shared by practically all of the musicians who played with Simon on Graceland. “In South Africa, we had no opportunity,” recalled saxophonist Barney Rachabane in 2012, “You could have dreams, but they never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.”

Yet this uplifting revelation is countered by Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid, who felt that Simon put the showbiz ambitions of a handful of local musicians above the struggles of a nation. “We were fighting for our land, for our identity,” he told The New York Times. “We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned … by the liberation movement.”

The Graceland saga is a tale of black, white and a sprawling gray area. As the album turns 30, here is the story of its creation as told through 10 little-known facts.

1. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels was the patron saint of Graceland.
A wealth of underrepresented people and cultures contributed to the innovative music Simon made on his 1986 masterwork, but there’s one figure who seldom gets recognized for his role in the Graceland odyssey. Surprisingly, the album probably never would have happened without television titan Lorne Michaels.

In 1980 Michaels moved on from Saturday Night Live, the landmark comedy series that he helped create. His next project, aptly titled The New Show, failed to connect with viewers and ran for just nine episodes before being cancelled in the spring of 1984. A short time later he received a visit from the defunct show’s bandleader, Heidi Berg, who bad been lured away from her prior role in the SNL band. When Berg inquired about possible music opportunities, Michaels suggested she visit his good friend Paul Simon, who kept his offices just down the hall in New York City’s Brill Building. It was Berg who would introduce Simon to the sounds of South Africa.

Two years later, after Michaels had returned to produce SNL during the show’s 11th season, he invited Simon to perform tracks from the yet-to-be-released Graceland. Backed by his South African band and the Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the memorable appearance on May 10th, 1986, gave the public its first sample of Simon’s new sonic stew. In the 2012 documentary Under African Skies, Michaels referred to the occasion as “a revolution in taste” in the United States. “It was the synthesis of two cultures, and the obvious affection they had for Paul, and that Paul had for them. It was the perfect moment.” What’s more, it set the scene for recording one of Graceland‘s standout tracks, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”

Simon also used the time on SNL‘s Rockefeller Center stage to film a music video for the album’s first single, “You Can Call Me Al,” but he was ultimately displeased with the result. Michaels alluded to this when hanging out with old friend (and former leading man) Chevy Chase. “Paul had a test pressing of the album and Lorne Michaels had a copy at his summer house,” said Chase in Laura Jackson’s book Paul Simon: The Definitive Biography. “We all live out in Long Island in the East Hampton area and Lorne said, ‘Have you heard it?’ I said, ‘I hadn’t yet.’ He said, ‘It’s great.’ And Lorne played a couple of songs for me and then told me, ‘Paul’s unhappy with this [first] video. Why don’t you do something?'”

The video of Chase ferociously lip-syncing “You Can Call Me Al” became a mainstay on a budding MTV, no doubt contributing to the song’s enormous success.

2. It all started with a mysterious bootleg cassette tape.

When Heidi Berg took Lorne Michaels’ advice and ventured down the hallway to Paul Simon’s office, she couldn’t have realized that they had more in common than music. Both were at a professional crossroads. While Berg was newly unemployed, Simon had been at a low ebb for years.

After dominating the Seventies with a string of critical and commercial hits, he entered the new decade with One Trick Pony, a film written by and starring himself, plus an accompanying soundtrack. Neither made much of an impact. His fortunes improved during a Simon and Garfunkel reunion tour, but relations between the old friends were tenuous and a proposed album fell through. When the solo disc Hearts and Bones – filled with allusions to his troubled relationship with actress Carrie Fisher – was released in its place, it was the lowest charting record of his career. By the spring of 1984, he was wondering what to do next.

The answer arrived in the form of the young singer-songwriter standing at his office door. Having been briefed by Michaels, Simon asked to hear some of Berg’s songs. He found himself impressed by the music, and soon offered to produce an album for her. They met frequently at Simon’s Central Park West apartment, where Berg would play fragments of songs and discuss how she wanted the record to sound. For reference, she handed her soon-to-be producer a homemade cassette bearing the hand-written label “Accordion Jive Vol. II.”

Berg had come across the tape, a collection of South African pop bands, while cruising New York City in a friend’s car. It was mbaqanga, or ‘township jive,’ street music from Soweto, a poor black suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She was enthralled by the sunny sounds of accordions, saxophones, jangly guitars and supercharged rhythms, and it quickly became her favorite music. She lent the cassette to Simon, on the condition that she could have it back in a week. It was, after all, her most treasured tape.

It would take a few days before he listened. At the time he was making regular drives from Manhattan to the East Hampton town of Montauk to supervise construction on his beach house being built a short distance from Lorne Michaels’ summer residence. One day, to liven up the journey, he popped in the tape. Just like Berg, he was bewitched.

“It was very good summer music, happy music. It sounded like very early rock & roll to me, black, urban, mid-Fifties rock and roll, like the great Atlantic tracks from that period,” he remembered. “I was listening to it for fun for at least a month before I started to make up melodies over it. Even then I wasn’t making them up for the purpose of writing. I was just singing along with the tape, the way people do.”

Aside from the nondescript title, the tape bore no hint of the music’s origins. He knew it came from South Africa, but to Simon that might as well have been another planet. “After a couple of weeks of driving back and forth to the house and listening to the tape, I thought, ‘What is this tape? This is my favorite tape, I wonder who this band is.’ And that’s when things started to perk up.”

He called Warner Bros. label chief Lenny Waronker, who got in touch with South African producer Hilton Rosenthal. Despite the limited information, Rosenthal was able to peg Simon’s favorite track as an instrumental called “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys. Simon spoke excitedly of buying the rights to the song and putting his own melody and lyrics overtop, as he had done with an Andean folk song for the Simon and Garfunkel tune “El Condor Pasa.” But Rosenthal suggested that Simon record a full album of South African music. Simon liked this idea very much.

Unfortunately, Berg did not. Weeks went by and her prized tape had still not been returned. Though Simon was touring through much of the summer of 1984, she got the distinct feeling that he was avoiding her. When they finally connected backstage at one of his shows, Simon told her about his plan to record a whole album of mbaqanga sounds. According to an interview with Peter Ames Carlin for his upcoming book Homeward Bound, Berg extended her palm and angrily exclaimed, “Where’s my end?” Their working relationship deteriorated shortly after.

3. Simon entered the studio without a having single song prepared.
When Paul Simon heard music that sent his spirit soaring, he was not content to approximate the sound with session pros and studio tricks. Instead, he wanted the very same hands to play on his records. Two decades of pop music superstardom had given him license to make a number of musical field trips. When he wished to explore the emerging reggae genre on his 1972 track “Mother and Child Reunion,” he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to record in the famed Dynamic Sound Studios. When he sought to add an extra dose of funk to the album that would become There Goes Rhymin’ Simon the following year, he decamped to Alabama and hired the services of the Muscle Schoals Sound Rhythm Section. “I learned pretty early on if you want to get the music right you should probably travel to where it’s being played as opposed to asking musicians who are not familiar with it to copy it,” he told National Geographic in 2012.

To get the sounds he heard on the bootleg “Accordion Jive” tape, he knew he would have to go to South Africa. “At first I thought: it’s too bad [the tape] isn’t from Zimbabwe or Zaire or Nigeria,” he said. “Because life would be simpler.”

“Simpler” would be an understatement. Recording in South Africa in the mid-Eighties was not only dangerous – it was prohibited by the United Nations. The South African government had been globally condemned for the unjust and immoral practice of apartheid (or “separateness”) that ensured white minority rule and stripped black individuals of their rights and citizenship. In December 1980, the U.N. General Assembly passed resolution 35/206, which forced “all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa” and ordered “writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott” the nation. Even working with South African players elsewhere in the world was forbidden.

Paul Simon refused to be told what to do – by the U.N. or anybody else. The headstrong artist would record where he wanted, with whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Determined to chase his muse, he resolved to venture to South Africa whether the politicians liked it or not. “I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government … or to perform for segregated audiences,” he told The New York Times. “I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired.”

He sought the advice of Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, whose reputations as civil-rights activists rivaled their prodigious musical output. Both encouraged Simon, but Belafonte urged him to pause until he could speak to contacts in the African National Congress, South Africa’s anti-apartheid opposition party that had been led by Nelson Mandela before his imprisonment in 1964. But Simon was far too excited to wait. “It’s like having your dad tell you not to take the car on a date you really want to go on,” he admitted in Under African Skies. “You take the car anyway.”

Accompanied only by longtime engineer Roy Halee, Simon arrived in early February 1986, less than a year after first hearing the music. With Hilton Rosenthal on hand to bridge the cultural gap, they holed up in Johannesburg’s Ovation Studios and called in a steady stream of local musicians. Instead of having a specific song in mind, Simon just wanted to play and see what happened.

“My typical style of songwriting in the past [had] been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track,” Simon said in a New York Times profile. “With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio I would sing melodies and words – anything that fit the scale they were playing in.”

Rosenthal contacted many of the bands who were heard on the “Accordion Jive” tape. The band Tau ea Matsehka gave “The Boy In the Bubble” its urgent beat, while General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters provided the distinctive backing to “I Know What I Know.” The Boyoyo Boys ran through a blistering version of their own “Gumboots,” the unofficial theme song of the project. With Simon as an active participant, they would engage in lengthy, unstructured jam sessions as a way to get to know one another, and potentially stumble across a usable idea for a song. “Here we were going in there with nothing on paper,” recounts Halee in Under African Skies. “It was an idea, a concept. I know they thought we were both nuts.”

By the second week of recording, Simon and Halee had homed in on a core group of musicians to form the backbone of the Graceland players: Chikapa “Ray” Phiri of the band Stimela on guitar, Tao Ea Matsekha bassist Bakithi Kumalo and Stimela’s Isaac Mthsli on drums. With a revolving cast of locally famous musicians from nearby Soweto, the jams continued. “It was a concept of getting good grooves and coming back and re-writing it. There was nothing really written,” continues Halee. “It was a gamble, I guess.”

Simon, the consummate perfectionist, took the approach of letting go, leaning back and letting the spirit move him. “Instead of resisting what’s going on, I’ll go with it and I’ll be carried along and I’ll find out where we’re going. Instead of assuming that I’m the captain of the ship, I’m not; I’m just a passenger.”

In just under two weeks, he had the raw music for eight tracks from which he could tease out usable riffs and instrumental passages to manipulate at will. The technique was not unlike a modern hip-hop producer chopping pre-existing songs to create new beats. “The amount of editing that went into that album was unbelievable,” says Halee. “Without the facility to edit digital I don’t think we could have done that project.” With everything in the can, Simon returned home to Montauk to piece it all together and compose lyrics.

4. The evils of apartheid could be felt in the recording studio.
Simon went to great lengths to ensure that his South African musical colleagues were treated as equals throughout the sessions. He offered the band almost $200 dollars an hour – triple the scale wages for top players in New York City – at a time when the going rate in Johannesburg was around $15 a day. Moreover, he promised to share writing credits for any musical or lyrical input. The deal was fair enough that the justifiably suspicious South African black musician’s union passed a resolution to formally invite Simon to record in their country. When sessions were shifted to New York City and London, the maestro made sure his musicians flew first class, stayed at the top rate hotels, and dined in five-star restaurants.

While Simon’s recording sessions in the rest of the world were generally cheerful and relaxed, the early dates in Johannesburg had an undeniable edge. “There was a surface tranquility, but right below the surface there was all this tension,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1986. “For instance, we would begin recording sessions at noon, and we would stop when we got a finished track. So a session could go past dark. But once it gets past dark, the musicians have to figure out a way home. They couldn’t use public transportation. They are not allowed to be on the streets of Johannesburg after curfew. They would have to show papers, and it was something they clearly didn’t want to have to do. So always around six or seven o’clock, there would be an uncomfortable time when the players couldn’t concentrate until they knew there might be a car to take them home.”

In a 2012 interview with NPR, he recalled a particularly distressing incident from an early recording date. “I was putting a saxophone on ‘Gumboots’ with Barney Rachabane and I wanted him to play a harmony to a part that he wrote. He said, ‘I have to go. I have to be out of the garage by five o’clock because I don’t have a permit to be in Johannesburg after five o’clock. And if I don’t have a permit, I could be arrested.’ So in the middle of the euphoric feeling in the studio, you would have reminders that you’re living in incredibly tense racial environment, where the law of the land was apartheid.”

5. “You Can Call Me Al” got its title from a misunderstanding at a party – and its bass solo is technically impossible to play.

While the irresistible riff came flowing out of Ray Phiri’s guitar one day in Ovation Studios, the inscrutable lyrics of “You Can Call Me Al” stemmed from an incident that took place at a party Simon had attended years before with his then-wife, Peggy Harper. During the evening they had chatted with fellow guest Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor. As Boulez prepared to make his exit, he tapped Simon on the shoulder. “Sorry I have to leave, Al,” he said with utmost civility. “And give my best to Betty.”

Simon found the faux pas extremely funny. “Ever since then, Peggy would call me Al, and I would call her Betty,” he said years later during a seminar at Rollins College. “It became a running joke.” When penning lyrics for Phiri’s riff back in Montauk, he remembered the moment.

While the story helps demystify the perplexing lyrical content, the song’s stunning bass breakdown continues to dazzle. It was performed by Baghiti Khumalo on May 10th, 1986 – his birthday. “I wasn’t slapping the whole thing, but when it came to that break, I just used my slapping because in the studio, the fretless sounded unbelievable!” he recalled in For Bass Players Only.

Simon loved the sound so much that he decided to artificially extend Khumalo’s solo by playing the tape backwards. The result is a musical palindrome with a one-measure descending phrase mirrored by the reversed ascending portion. It was enormously effective, and technically impossible to reproduce live exactly as heard on the record. “That kind of thing was always happening – ‘Let’s try it in reverse,'” Halee explained to Sound on Sound. “We would wild-track all the time. Anything to make it sound more interesting.”

6. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was a last-minute addition to the album.

Graceland was originally due out in June 1986, but Warner Brothers decided to push back the release until the end of August. So when Simon reconvened with the Soweto rhythm section and Ladysmith Black Mambazo for an appearance on SNL that May, it seemed like a great excuse to get together in the studio. “Well, we’re all here, we might as well do another track,” he thought at the time.

Simon’s relationship with the a cappella choir had been cemented months earlier when recording “Homeless” at London’s Abbey Road Studios. The group’s leader, Joseph Shabalala, adapted the words of a traditional Zulu wedding as an introduction for the song. To the surprise and delight of the close-knit group, Simon joined them around the microphone to sing the delicate vocal takes. “I nearly fainted!” Shabalala said in Under African Skies. “I’m thinking, who is this guy?’ He is my brother. Why is he hiding himself in America? I call him ‘brother.'”

This feeling of intimacy and camaraderie carried over into that May’s sessions at New York City’s Hit Factory. They began with an extended vocal tag in the traditional African mbube style. The Zulu dialect of the refrain roughly translates to “It’s not usual but in our days we see those things happen/They are women, they can take care of themselves,” but perhaps Simon’s imagination was triggered by mbube’s history as the music of migrant coal and diamond miners.

Regardless of its precise lyrical origin, the stunning “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” became the 11th song recorded for the album. The vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo were accented by percussion work from Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, marking the first time they had blended their voices with instruments.

7. Linda Ronstadt’s appearance on the album also sparked a major controversy.

With her string of soulful hits, Linda Ronstadt hardly seems like a lightning rod for controversy. Yet her vocal cameo on the Graceland track “Under African Skies” caused nearly as much of a firestorm as Simon’s decisions to employ South African musicians and record in Johannesburg.

The trouble stemmed from her six appearances at a South African luxury resort called Sun City in May 1983. She had been approached to appear as a last-minute replacement act for the strange duo of Frank Sinatra and boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Bookers apparently told Ronstadt that the venue was located in the semi-independent (and semi-fictitious) territory of Bophuthatswana. Though nominally integrated, this area was effectively the South African equivalent of a North American Indian reservation, where many displaced black individuals were relocated. Either Ronstadt misunderstood the geopolitical complexities of the region, or had fallen victim to a promoter’s ruse to lure international superstars to their resort. In any event, she accepted the $500,000 fee.

While conscious of South Africa’s abysmal human-rights practices, she claimed that she was unaware of an official boycott until she had already arrived at Sun City. “I had two days to decide [to come],” she told Rolling Stone at the time. “I talked to everyone. I called friends of mine at Motown. Their story was: ‘Black artists go, so we can’t tell you not to go.'” Even after learning of the cultural ban, the singer remained defiant. “The last place for a boycott is in the arts. I don’t like being told I can’t go somewhere.” Though she repeatedly maintained that her appearances were not an endorsement of the South African government, Ronstadt received worldwide condemnation for the concerts. 

Simon himself had turned down prior offers to perform at Sun City. But given Ronstadt’s troubled relationship with South Africa, his choice to feature her prominently on Graceland comes with conflicting implications. The lyrics to “Under African Skies” were composed with Ronstadt’s direct input, contrasting her youthful memories in the American Southwest with the natural serenity of an African sunset. “He called me up one day and said, ‘I’m having a hard time writing. Give me some images from your childhood,'” she later recalled. “I said, ‘OK, I grew up in Tucson near the San Javier Mission.’ I’ve loved that place and considered it my spiritual homeland. I told him about the mission, and he included that part in the song.”

To Simon, the purpose of the track was to both celebrate music’s power to nourish the soul and also illustrate how we are all united under the same sky. But not everyone viewed it with such tenderhearted optimism. Nelson George of Billboard likened the choice of Ronstadt to “using gasoline to put out birthday candles.” Legendary rock writer Robert Christgau was another cynic. “Even if the lyric called for total U.S. divestiture, Ronstadt’s presence on Graceland would be a slap in the face to the world anti-apartheid movement,” he wrote at the time. “A deliberate, considered, headstrong slap in the face.”

8. The only Graceland musicians to openly accuse Simon of plagiarism were Americans.

The final two tracks on Graceland bucked the mbaqanga theme. “I didn’t want it to be just an African album,” Simon said in Rolling Stone. “I wanted to say, ‘Look, don’t look upon this as something so strange and different. It actually relates to our world.'” The rollicking “That Was Your Mother” featured zydeco dance band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters, and the closer, “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints,” included backing from Chicano rockers Los Lobos. While Simon weathered accusations that he went to South Africa to “steal” their music, these two North American bands were the only Graceland players to openly complain of plagiarism.

Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters reacted with little more than annoyance. Listening closely to “That Was Your Mother,” one can hear certain similarities in chord structure and accordion passages to a zydeco song called “My Baby, She’s Gone,” registered to Alton Rubin Sr. (a.k.a. Good Rockin’ Dopsie). His name failed to appear on the Graceland writing credits, but Rubin decided that the exposure was all the payment he needed and did not make any further claim.

On the other hand, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos wasn’t interested in exposure. His band was already hot following the release of their third major label album, 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive? The disc drew the attention of many industry notables – including Simon, who put out word that he wanted to record with the band. But according to Berlin, the collaboration was fairly one-sided.

“We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing,” he said in 2008. “I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, ‘Well, let’s just jam.'” One full day of playing failed to yield any results, but something caught Simon’s attention on day two. “Paul goes, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ We start playing what we have of it, and it is exactly what you hear on the record. So we’re like, ‘Oh, OK. We’ll share this song.'” When Los Lobos found no trace of their names on the album’s writing credits, they initially assumed that it had been an honest mistake. But when months went by with no restitution, the band’s bemusement turned to anger. “It was not a pleasant deal for us,” maintains Berlin. “I mean he quite literally – and in no way do I exaggerate when I say – he stole the song from us.”

He claims that he brought to matter to Simon’s attention and was met with the less-than-conciliatory response of, “Sue me. See what happens.” The guitarist holds a grudge to this day, dubbing Simon “the world’s biggest prick.” However, Simon says it’s all a case of opportunism. “The album came out and we heard nothing. Then six months passed and Graceland had become a hit and the first thing I heard about the problem was when my manager got a lawyer’s letter. I was shocked.”

9. Steven Van Zandt got Paul Simon taken off an African hit list.

Graceland stirred up controversy even before it was released on August 26th, 1986. While no one could deny the album’s brilliance, some critics felt it amounted to a kind of musical colonialism: a white man going to Africa, strip-mining raw materials, and bringing it home to the West where it could be refined and sold at a massive profit. While the question of cultural appropriation can be considered a gray area, violating the cultural ban against South Africa was much more concrete. The act could be – and often was – interpreted as tacit support of a brutal racist regime.

Not that this was his intention. Simon insisted that all of his fellow musicians were there on their own free will and paid fairly. They split food, lodging, transport and songwriting credits. “I wasn’t going there to take money out of the country,” he explained to The Washington Post. “I wasn’t being paid for playing to a white audience. I was recording with black groups and paying them and sharing my royalties with them.” Guitarist Ray Pieri agreed in the documentary Classic Albums: Graceland. “We used Paul as much as Paul used us. There was no abuse. He came at the right time and he was what we needed to bring our music into the mainstream.”

Simon also cited the invitation from the South African black musician’s union, and the encouragement from Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte. But for anti-apartheid sects, it was not enough. “When he goes to South Africa, Paul Simon bows to apartheid,” declared James Victor Ghebo, the former Ghanaian ambassador to the UN. “He lives in designated hotels for whites. He spends money the way whites have made it possible to spend money there. The money he spends goes to look after white society, not to the townships.”

Still others expressed outrage that Simon’s lyrics didn’t directly address the human-rights violations and make some kind of overt stand against apartheid. “Was I supposed to solve things in a song?” he sputtered in his own defense. While admitting that he simply wasn’t any good at writing Bob Dylan/Bob Geldof–like protest anthems, he claimed that the mere existence of Graceland was a political statement in itself. “I never said there were not strong political implications to what I did,” he told Rolling Stone. “I just said the music was not overtly political. But the implications of the music certainly are. And I still think it’s the most powerful form of politics, more powerful than saying it right on the money, in which case you’re usually preaching to the converted. People get attracted to the music, and once they hear what’s going on within it, they say, ‘What? They’re doing that to these people?'”

The debate intensified when Simon announced a six-month world tour entitled “Graceland: The African Concert,” which would feature a front line of South African session players, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, and South African exiles Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. As 1987 dawned, Simon found himself on the UN Anti-Apartheid Committee’s boycott violator’s list, putting him in unsavory company. Obviously distressed by this, he undoubtedly would have been much more disturbed to know that he was also at the top of a hit list.

Bizarrely, Simon was unwittingly saved from a tragic fate by Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band deputy, Steven Van Zandt. The guitarist had been active in the South African freedom movement for many years, founding the Artists United Against Apartheid organization. He wrote, produced and performed on the 1985 all-star protest song “Sun City,” a rock & roll denunciation of all artists who dared to perform at the titular resort. Van Zandt had originally asked Simon to participate in the recording, but he refused after being shown an early draft of the lyrics that called out his friend Linda Ronstadt by name. The pair apparently shared a rocky relationship for some time after that. In a recent Sirius XM interview with Dave Marsh, Van Zandt claims that Simon questioned his pro–Nelson Mandela stance around the time of the Graceland sessions with a scornful, “What are you doing, defending this communist?”

Van Zandt’s anti-apartheid activities took him into Soweto to meet with a group of militant black radicals known as the Azanian People’s Organization, or AZAPO. They were so die-hard that they had a lengthy discussion with Van Zandt about whether to kill him on the spot simply for showing up. “That’s how serious they were about violating the boycott,” he said. “I eventually talked them out of that.”

He soon gained their trust. “They showed me that they [had] an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it. And in spite of my feelings about Paul Simon, I said to them, ‘Listen, I understand your feelings about this; I might even share them, but … this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so … to try and do this a different way. I’m trying to actually unify the music community around this, which may or may not include Paul Simon, but I don’t want it to be a distraction. I just don’t need that distraction right now; I gotta keep my eye on the ball.’ And they took him off that assassination list.”

10. Paul Simon was the first major international artist to perform in a free South Africa – and it nearly killed him.

The political instruments of apartheid began to deteriorate by the end of the decade, culminating in Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison in 1990. The symbolic victory sparked dramatic results in the fight for majority rule, and by December 1991, the cultural boycott was finally lifted. With artists now free to tour South America as they pleased, it seemed appropriate that Paul Simon be welcomed into the nation to perform his greatest work for the very people who influenced it. At the invitation of Mandela and with the full support of the African National Congress, promoter Attie van Wyk booked Simon and his band for a series of five shows, beginning at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium.

The multi-national touring party was treated to a formal reception at an upscale hotel on January 9th, 1992, with Mandela himself in attendance. The future South African president locked hands with Simon for photos and wished him “a real success indeed.” An ebullient Simon echoed the goodwill, seemingly putting aside any misgivings about Mandela’s alleged communist leanings. “I hope my presence here and the concerts will bring people pleasure as a musical evening and that for those few hours at least people can put aside their differences and simply enjoy the pleasure of the music.”

Mandela’s public support should have been a peak moment Simon considering the years of controversy and public scorn he had endured because of his African sojourn. But the victory was tainted later that night when three hand grenades were tossed into Van Wyk’s office. The premises were completely destroyed, but no one was hurt. Still, Simon was understandably shaken.

AZAYO, a sect of the militant AZAPO, claimed responsibility. Presumably Van Zandt’s influence was enough to dissuade AZAPO from murdering Simon outright, but the act sent a very clear message: They did not want the concerts to take place. A terrified Simon paced his bedroom, fretting that someone could be hurt or killed. He considered cancelling the African leg of the tour altogether, but local security forces insisted that AZAYO consisted of “three guys and a fax machine.”

Simon held a clandestine meeting with representatives of AZAYO to negotiate a truce, but they were unwilling to settle for a portion of the tour’s proceeds. Later they appeared at a press conference to deliver unveiled threats. “We have always pointed out that should his show go on, there is the potential for violence.” Nearly a hundred demonstrators congregated outside the venue before the show on January 11th, many brandishing placards promising blood on the soles of Simon’s shoes. But they were no match for the 800 policemen and the shows went off without further incident.

Though the risk of AZAYO an attack put a serious dent in ticket sales, Simon was finally able to perform for the people who inspired his music and rejuvenated his soul.  

In This Article: Paul Simon, Steven Van Zandt


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