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Paul Simon: African Odyssey

A conversation about the musical journey that led to the singer’s new album, ‘Graceland’

Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Saturday Night LivePaul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Saturday Night Live

Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform on Saturday Night Live in New York City on May 10th, 1986.

Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

The tape had no label, no credits and no song titles. But Paul Simon couldn’t get enough of it. Throughout the summer of 1984, he kept popping the mystery cassette – given to him by a friend, guitarist Heidi Berg – into his car stereo, singing along to the uplifting rhythms and, in particular, the lusty squeeze of a strangely soulful accordion. He was especially struck by how much this heady, exotic dance music reminded him of the great Fifties R&B hits of his youth.

After a while, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to know where this music came from and who made it. To satisfy his curiosity, Simon embarked on an odyssey that eventually led him to South Africa, where in February 1985 he recorded the bulk of his extraordinary new album, Graceland.

”I never would have gotten into this whole thing if I hadn’t vigorously pursued the origins of a copy of a copy of a cassette,” Simon explains as he absent-mindedly strums an acoustic guitar in the spacious comfort of his midtown New York office, located in the Brill Building, the mecca for pop songwriters back in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Across the room, amid the tasteful chaos of paintings, photographs and baseball memorabilia adorning the walls and windowsills, is a framed copy of his 1957 hit on Big Records, ”Hey, Schoolgirl,” which he recorded with his school chum Art Garfunkel under the name Tom and Jerry. Graceland is an ocean and three decades away from Simon’s humble beginnings as a Queens schoolboy with rock & roll desires. But in the wake of his stormy 1982 reunion tour with Garfunkel, the breakup of his second marriage (to actress Carrie Fisher) and the surprising flop of his 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon was ready for some kind of epic musical journey.

With the help of white South African record producer Hilton Rosenthal, who had worked with the racially integrated band Juluka, Simon set out to discover the players and passions behind this buoyant, hopeful music with the same eagerness that he once tried to peddle his songs in the Brill Building hallways. In Johannesburg, he recorded with some of South Africa’s best black singers and musicians – among them the Boyoyo Boys (the group featured on the mystery tape, which turned out to be titled Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II), Tao Ea Matsekha and the ten-member singing group Lady-smith Black Mambazo. Simon cut two additional accordion-flavored tracks stateside with Chicano rockers Los Lobos and the Louisiana zydeco dance band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters. ”I didn’t want it to be just an African album,” he insists. ”I wanted to say, ‘Look, don’t look upon this as something so strange and different. It actually relates to our world.”’

Simon, who lives in Montauk, Long Island, with his teenage son, Harper, plans to take Graceland on the road in the near future, and he hopes to be accompanied by most of the South African musicians who played on the record. (Also on tap is a new album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which Simon will produce.) Unfortunately, the Boyoyo Boys, the band that first inspired him, have since broken up. ”Other bands like Tao Ea Matsekha, I don’t know where they are. They were obscure little bands to begin with. I don’t even know if word has reached them of any of this.”

You have been unusually active in promoting Graceland, doing press conferences and radio interviews. Given the muted commercial response to Hearts and Bones, is this your way of saying, ”Hey, remember me? I’m still relevant”?
It’s just the reality of making records today. I have to try harder to get it played. Hearts and Bones was an odd record that wasn’t Top 40-oriented, and I didn’t do anything to promote it because of personal circumstances at the time. It just went away. But I learned that if you don’t try to get people to hear it, people won’t hear it unless you have something that is an instant smash.

Are you also concerned about possible charges that you violated the cultural boycott by recording Graceland in South Africa?
I had to explain. In a way, I had to be a spokesman for the South African musical community. That is the reason I was allowed to go there. After I got there, I found out that the musicians had voted to let me come. I don’t know the circumstances of the vote, only that they voted whether to do this or not.

How close was the vote?
I didn’t ask. Once I found out there was a vote, I didn’t ask questions. I just accepted that I was in. So I am out there saying, ”Take a listen to this music, world.” That’s what they wanted me to say. That’s why they voted for me. I feel I owe that to them in exchange for giving me access to the musical community.

When did you first hear the Gumboots tape?
I was listening to it in the car. Quite some time went by before I thought this was something I could write with. 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. It was very good summer music, happy music.

It sounded like very early rock & roll to me, black, urban, mid-Fifties rock & roll, like the great Atlantic tracks from that period. The rhythm was a fairly uptempo, 2/4 feel with a strange accordion in there. But the way they play the accordion it sounds like a big reed instrument. It could almost be a sax.

How much previous exposure did you have to African music?
I knew Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba from South Africa, but that was in the late Sixties. I knew high-life music from Nigeria.

Had you heard Talking Heads’ high-life-influenced record, Remain in Light?
Oh, yeah. It’s my favorite Talking Heads album. I also like David Byrne’s album with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I knew a bit about Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In 1982, on a Simon and Garfunkel tour of Australia, I was listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo tapes. And I was in Kenya in 1981 on vacation with Carrie. We went to some clubs and heard some music.

Did you have any plans for a follow-up to Hearts and Bones before you heard the Gumboots tape?
I had no ideas at all. I didn’t know what to write. I had written three or four songs on Hearts and Bones that I thought were really good. But I was aware that something like ”Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” was not in any form or reincarnation going to be a popular record. It was going to be of interest to a smaller audience. But I wasn’t going to make a record of it again. I had put too much effort into it. So I wasn’t thinking of anything.

You were a vacuum waiting to be filled.
Right. That’s probably why I went to South Africa, why I put my energy there rather than bending that music to what I wanted to do. Instead, I said, ”I’ll just bend to what it does.”

Did you have any experiences there that brought home what apartheid is really like?
It was just before things started to heat up. There was a surface tranquility, but right below the surface there was all this tension. 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.

Did you have a chance to travel outside Johannesburg?
I went to Soweto with a friend, Sipho Mabuse. He’s a big recording star there. He grew up in Soweto, so he took me around. He took me to a shebeen, which is like a drinking club. It’s a gutted house where they set up a makeshift bar and have a record player and speakers. Technically, I guess, they’re illegal. But it’s where people go to dance.

I was in this big supermarket that Sipho’s father-in-law owned. Lots of people would come up to us and Sipho would introduce me: ”This is Paul Simon. He wrote ‘Bridge over Troubled Water.”’ Just about everybody was nice. But this one guy said to me, ”How long have you been here?” I said about ten days. ”How do you like it?” I said it was nice, it was interesting, people had been friendly. And he said, ”Yeah? Well, I think it’s a shitty country.” I thought, ”Okay, I didn’t realize you wanted to know what I really think.”

Then Sipho said, ”Don’t take that personally. The guy just wants to tell you what’s happening on that level.” It was a coded message. He was saying life there really stinks.

In a recent radio interview, you mentioned that when you brought some of the black South African musicians to New York to finish the album, one of them asked on arrival, ”Where do I go to register with the police?” Did that shock you?
Yes. Because we were functioning in a magical world, just making music. That’s what’s so great about music. It makes barriers fall away. While that was going on, everybody was happy and at ease – once they saw I was a decent guy to hang around with. But the realities of life there do come through.

What made you decide to pay the musicians triple union rates? White liberal guilt?
That’s what the top guys here charge. I wanted to be as aboveboard as I could possibly be. So I paid the highest rate possible. Per day, these musicians would get $400 – in cash. It was a lot. But some of these groups didn’t know who I was. There had to be some allure to record with me. To say I’d pay them a royalty was meaningless because they had no idea who I was or if I sold any records. They were going to make a long trip into Johannesburg. There had to be some reward. The royalty check, that’ll be a surprise to them.

Your lyrics on Graceland have a springy, rhythmic quality that is quite different from the more serious tone of previous records like Hearts and Bones. How much did the African flavor of the music influence the mood of your lyrics?
The mood of this music, being ”up,” had a lot to do with the words being very rhythmical. There were a lot of ballads on Hearts and Bones. So it tended to be more serious, and the subject matter was more serious. I know that I tried to write simply here. I didn’t want to compromise the language, but I tried to write simply.

”The Boy in the Bubble,” for example, is an interesting mixture of dread and hope, its images of starvation and terrorist bombing leavened with wit and optimism.
Hope and dread – that’s right. That’s the way I see the world, a balance between the two, but coming down on the side of hope.

That’s the only song where I had any fragment of lyric from the South Africa trip. One night I was falling asleep, somewhere on the edge of consciousness, and I thought, ”The way the camera follows him in slo-mo, the way he smiled at us all.” I had this image in my mind of the films of the Kennedy assassination, that slow-motion thing where you see it frame-by-frame, or the Reagan assassination attempt, where he’s walking along and then all of a sudden everything drops out of the camera, the camera turns this way and that, and then they play it over and over again. I don’t know why I had that image – maybe because there’s so much underlying violence going on in that country that is unspoken about.

”Homeless” manages to evoke both the natural beauty of the continent and the debasing poverty of South Africa’s black majority.
I don’t decide what a theme is going to be until I start to write. With ”Homeless,” I didn’t say, ”I’m going to write a song with political implications for Ladysmith.” I just began to write. I had to find a phrase, and that phrase was originally scribbled in my notebook: ”The sound of the moonlight slapping on a midnight lake.”

None of the songs on Graceland is a direct protest of apartheid. Why not?
My strength is not political writing. As I said, I let my songs emerge from my subconscious. If anything came out with political implications, that was fine. I didn’t say, ”Now I’m going to write my antiapartheid song.” I wasn’t snubbing the issue. I was investigating another area. When politics came up in ”Homeless,” it was natural and it stayed there.

That is an ironic statement – ”My strength is not political writing” – from someone who has long been considered a spokesman for his generation.
I never thought I was writing much on a political level. The best of my generation’s political songwriters was Bob Dylan. He came out of that Woody Guthrie tradition. I passed through the folkie phase, but I was a rock & roll kid. Artie and I used to go around and audition in these little buildings around here. When we first became hits, we came out of the folk movement. But you have to remember that we started to record when we were fifteen. It was rock & roll, Everly Brothers imitations. If you weren’t a spokesman for your generation, how do you explain the political and social resonance your songs had in the Sixties? Those songs were about the mood of the time, but they weren’t political. We did have this infamous television special in 1969, a strong anti-Vietnam War special. ”Bridge over Troubled Water” was first played on that show over footage of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. It was a very political statement, but ”Bridge over Troubled Water” was not a political song.

I’ve always been associated with various political causes in the past. But I didn’t write about them. That’s what I mean – I’m not a political writer, but that doesn’t mean I’m an apolitical person. The few times I tried to write about it, I sensed they weren’t real. It sounded like me trying to make a point, whereas I find that the point I’m making is more real when it just comes out.

Subsequent to your South Africa visit, you were asked to appear on ”Sun City” and you declined. Why?
I turned it down because the original demo named names [of artists who had appeared in Sun City]. You’ve got to give people a chance to say, ”I shouldn’t have done that.” As it happens, it turned out many people objected to that, and it never did make it onto the record.

I was particularly offended that Linda Ronstadt’s name was there. She’s a friend of mine. She played Sun City, and I know that her intention was never to support the government there. She played it. She made a mistake. She’s extremely liberal in her political thinking and unquestionably antiapartheid. There was no way I could participate in a record that was going to do that to her. Also, I was working on my record. My own statement was going to come out.

I actually didn’t play Sun City. I was approached twice, once with Simon and Garfunkel and once by myself. A million dollars for two weeks.

You have a reputation for being a fierce perfectionist. Graceland is your first album in almost three years, and you’ve only released six albums of new material since 1972. What takes you so long?
That reputation is unfounded. All I have to do is show you my records to show you I don’t get there. The three years is not about perfection. That’s how long it takes me to think up an area I’m interested in, to put it together, to write the songs. Maybe in terms of putting out product, it’s slow. But in terms of trying to write my ten best songs, that’s how long it takes me.

Do you labor over your songs? How much time do you allot to a single song?
The two longest songs on this album were ”The Boy in the Bubble” and ”Graceland.” It took three or four months to write each of them.

What’s that, about a word a day?
There would be long stretches where nothing was happening, where I was throwing out stuff. I wrote a whole ”Boy in the Bubble” and threw it out. Some of them come very fast. I wrote ”All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” in about a day and a half. ”Crazy Love, Vol. II” came very fast. But I’d had two attempts at it before. Once I break the key to the song and know what it’s about, I can write faster.

It also depends on the subject matter. If it’s a subject that’s close to me personally, to my emotions or something very tender, it takes longer, because there’s a lot of avoidance going on. I don’t want to write something that is hurtful to myself. I find a way of approaching those areas without becoming a total masochist.

In a 1984 interview, you actually dismissed a number of your biggest solo hits – ”Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” ”Mother and Child Reunion” – as being significantly flawed.
You get tired of songs. You don’t want to play them anymore. That’s one of the reasons I stopped touring. I didn’t want to have to play those old songs anymore. If I go on the road with this album, I think I’m just going to stick with the new stuff. I’m not going to deal with the subject of singing ”Still Crazy After All These Years” with a South African band.

Was your weariness with old hits one reason for the original breakup of Simon and Garfunkel?
No. Simon and Garfunkel breakups, all of them, were about personality conflicts. We would have inevitably come to that if we had stayed together. If we were still together now, I certainly wouldn’t want to have to sing ”Bridge over Troubled Water.” I don’t know about Artie.

How did you overcome your aversion to singing the oldies long enough to do the 1981 Central Park reunion concert and the 1982 Simon and Garfunkel tour?
I had to find reasons to sing those songs. For example, ”Homeward Bound.” Among the other tunes I didn’t feel like singing, that was the one that annoyed me the most. Then I thought, ”Paul, the mistake you’re making is you act as if this is a representation of your work now, instead of a representation of you when you were twenty-three years old. Think of this as a photo of you at 23, up in a railroad station in Liverpool. Then it’s not so bad.”

In retrospect, what do you remember most about the Central Park show? Coming home after the concert, turning on the television and seeing all the news shows talking about it. They interviewed people in the streets singing the songs. It seemed like everything was just right. The rain stopped just before we were supposed to go on. Everything about that experience was great.

Did you enjoy the ’82 tour?
There were several tours. Japan was nice. The least enjoyable was the U.S. It was all outdoor stadiums. It wasn’t appropriate to Simon and Garfunkel as an act. But then we weren’t really a live act. It was more like a spectacle, this thing from the past.

Was there any chance that Simon and Garfunkel would continue after that tour? At one point, Hearts and Bones was supposed to be a duo record.
I didn’t write the songs with Artie in mind. Since we were going to do the tour, Artie made a persuasive case that he could make it into a natural duo record. It seemed to make sense. But he didn’t have his parts ready, and the parts he put down he wasn’t satisfied with. By the time the tour was over, Artie was tired. And this was already six months past where I thought it should be. And it was no longer connected to a tour. And the tour wasn’t pleasant. So who wanted it?

The old antagonisms again?
Yeah, the same old stuff. The rehearsal that preceded Central Park was very stormy. But the Central Park concert was such a blissful event that I forgot what the other stuff was like.

Have you spoken with Art recently?
I’ve seen him quite a bit in the last month. His father died. I saw him at the funeral. He was at a party I had out on Long Island. We didn’t talk about anything. We slipped back into the friendship. We just stay like when we were 10 years old. We relate that way, with that ease. As soon as we bring the other subjects up, you’re in for a tense time.

Aside from writing songs and recording them, what is an average day for Paul Simon like? How much time do you spend in this office?
It depends on what phase I’m in. Let’s say this is all over, the album, the tour. Well, then I’m back in a writing phase. I’m back to listening to music, meeting players. I never come to the office. I only come here for business meetings, which is very, very seldom. I don’t write here. I write in Montauk.

What kind of music are you listening to in your spare time these days?
This summer I was listening to the Atlantic R&B collection (Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974, Volumes 1-7). Just recently somebody gave me some records from Zaire that were nice.

What about contemporary pop?
Nicky Laird-Clowes of the Dream Academy introduced me to the Smiths. I like the Cocteau Twins. The Jesus and Mary Chain is pretty abrasive stuff, but it’s interesting. Rubén Blades gave me some interesting music from Brazil.

Does your son, Harper, bring any new sounds to your attention?
Reggae is his big thing now. He’s basically draped in the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Half Pint is his new thing. I slipped him Yellowman, but he knows way more about reggae than I do. He’s interested in Sixties music, too. I hear him playing Sixties stuff that I hadn’t heard in a long time, some stuff I even missed.

In the aftermath of Simon and Garfunkel revisited, the personal traumas of the Hearts and Bones period and your South Africa project, how do you feel on the eve of your 44th birthday?
I feel very good. This is a good time for me. This musical experience was very cleansing, very pure. The troubles are over. I’m not in any relationships that are troubled. I’m not drained by extraneous stuff. Aside from the fact that I have to go and be a little bit of a salesman for a while, I’m happy.

In This Article: Coverwall, Paul Simon


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