Last week saw the release of a new 25th anniversary edition of the Paul Simon’s classic album Graceland, coinciding with the new documentary Under African Skies which chronicles the album's production and its effect on global music. The seminal album won Grammys for the Album of the Year (1986) and the title song won the award for Record of the Year (1987). As David Byrne of Talking Heads describes it in the film, “Graceland was a Paul Simon record that kinda rocked a little harder.” Awards and praise aside, the landmark record was seen as an extremely successful cross-cultural experiment and a defining moment in Paul Simon’s musical career.
In the early 1980s, Simon was drawn to the music of South Africa by a local band called the Boyoyo Boys that someone sent to him on a cassette tape. These were the days before the internet and ultimately, YouTube, where the hand-to-hand reach of a mixtape was decidedly more local-minded. Hearing the instrumental that would become the track “Gumboots,” Mr. Simon was immediately inspired to find the source of the music.
Normally this sort of action would be encouraged, but this was not the case of 1980s South Africa. The country was amidst a cultural boycott divided by deep racial troughs. When Simon came to South Africa he was seen as nothing more than a threat. The film shows an encounter between Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, who imposed the cultural boycott. "I think he had a great creative idea to mix his music and his rhythms and his ingenuity with some that he had found in South Africa," Tambo recalls. "But, at that moment in time, it was not helpful ... We were fighting for our land, for our identity. 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."
Amid international controversy, Simon persistently went to South Africa and frantically began recording with the local musicians (which included Ladysmith Black Mambazo) in Johannesburg. He did this instead of replicating the sound in New York, which was initially encouraged by the record company. The results were astounding. What were essentially jam sessions were recorded and edited as Simon worked backwards, adding the lyrics later on; an unusual approach for the singer-songwriter.
Understanding Graceland musically starts with the instruments. The sounds come from acoustic and electric guitar; bass, six-string electric bass, and synthesized guitar; a synthesizer itself; tenor, alto, bass, soprano and baritone sax; trumpet; trombone; accordion; drum kits and their pedal steel cousins; the synclavier; tin whistle; washboards and various off-kilter percussion. Coming off a poorly-received prior album, this change of direction solidified him as an influential solo artist, in musicality as well as lyrics.
What came to fruition was a cultural music exchange. Simon was taking the music of South Africa and adding his American perspective through his lyrics, creating a unique hybrid that reached each listener with a similar level of freshness. As he says in the documentary, "I was taking absurdist lyrics which I thought had no place with this rhythm track, and finally saying … well, maybe it does have a place."
The album begins with a call to action in the anthemic “The Boy in the Bubble.” Pounding drums and an upbeat rhythm immediately notify the listener that something important is about to happen. The lyrics allude to this too, “These are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call” as Paul Simon reaching out to unknown brethren in Africa (and back to us in kind). Not all songs had such an intricate root meaning. Take “I Know What I Know.” When Paul Simon asked African musician General Sharinda what the song was about, the response was about how it great it was in the 1960s when girls wore short skirts. Regardless, the funk rhythms and chanting chorus combined with Simon’s classic storytelling of how two people meet with the use of the lyric “Who am I to blow against the wind” made it an instant hit.
The pinnacle song on the album, fittingly, is the title track. It also has arguably the most layered story of all the songs on the record. Even when Paul Simon figured out that “Maybe it [his absurdist lyrics] does have a place” he struggled with the words that he matched to this song. Simon goes on to say in the documentary, “and I kept singing this chorus ‘I’m going to Graceland, I’m going to Graceland' and I kept thinking, 'well of course that will go away because the song is not about Elvis Presely or Graceland, it’s a South African record.' But it wouldn’t go away. Finally I said, 'it’s not going away, I better go to Graceland.' That gave the song a larger meaning. And in fact it gave the album a larger meaning, and that’s why I used [it] as the title of the whole album.”
Simon drove to Graceland from Louisiana on Route 61 and his used his thoughts along the trip, such as “the Mississippi delta is shining like a national guitar,” as the lyrics. According to some sources, the song is also the story of the end of Paul Simon’s marriage to Peggy Harper. The nine-year-old “traveling companion” refers to their son Harper who would later go on to travel with his father on the Graceland tour. “Graceland” is perhaps one of the greatest road trips ever recorded musically; Simon considers it the greatest song he ever wrote.
Furthermore, “Graceland” gave birth to the celebrated turn of phrase, “There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline.” Relating to the “turmoil” that life makes us “tumble” through we recognize Simon's tapping into the human experience. The painfully accurate lyrics detail this as he sadly sings, “Losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody see’s you’re blown apart / Everybody sees the wind blow.” Is there a better meditation on the importance of love and loss?
Bridging the musical and cultural gap between Africa and America is best seen on tracks like “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Under African Skies.” The former tells a tale of class difference between a “rich girl” and a “poor boy” drawing a stark difference between the West's advantages through the eyes of a South African. The imagery in “Under African Skies” puts the listener wandering in African grasslands, though Simon sings about a child born in Tucson, Arizona. Maybe they aren't as far away as we'd think. African spiritual rhythms, soulful harmonies, and vocal chants build the background and structure for these songs, a trend that is followed on most of the songs on the album. This is especially true of the vocal jam session track, “Homeless.” Simon allows the music of Africa to speak first, politely picking his moments to join in and help the story along.
It would be a crime to talk about Graceland and not mention the one song everyone has probably remembers, the synth-y “You Can Call Me Al.” It was even immortalized in the iconic music video featuring Simon and Chevy Chase. It remains classic because no matter what walk of life you are from everyone wants a bodyguard and someone to be our friend. The song certainly sounds like the 1980s and the upbeat anthem chorus still feels good after 25 years. The fusion of African beats into this pop hit is seamless and features one of the best solo bass lines of all time, kicking in at 3:43. This was one of the iconic songs on Graceland that, as Oprah puts it in the documentary, “Opened up a space in side of you.” While the album may not be for everyone, it certainly has something for everyone, even the five-year old version of myself who first fell in love with this album like millions of people from Arkansas to Zimbabwe.
Every song and character featured on Graceland is on a journey. On the Louisiana-focused up-tempo, Zydeco-based “That Was Your Mother,” the narrator recalls how “When I was single and life was great…” That New Orleans Cajun jive can’t help you from wanting to dance, no matter what path we’re on. We all want time to “get a little conversation and drink a little red wine.” But the trail could get darker, illustrated in “Fat Charlie, the Archangel” who is filing for a divorce on the song “Crazy Love, Vol. II” who still has many long days ahead of him. The iconic album cover alludes to this story with its drawing of a sad looking man staring back at you in red garb from atop a white horse. Is he a soldier? A lost soul? Will he ever find his Graceland?
Graceland exists everywhere: a litany of tiny places in South Africa, New York, New Orleans … hell, Graceland itself. It's a subject tied up neatly by the last track, appropriately titled “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re from South Africa or New York, because we’re all searching for an identity in this life. During this mission you might at times “believe you have supernatural powers and slam into a brick wall.” Other times you’ll soar through life effortlessly to suddenly arrive at your destination. Graceland is a place we may not know we’re coming from, or somewhere we keep searching for. It’s the home where we find inner peace and discover our purpose in the world.
For Paul Simon, “Graceland is a learning of experience of a uniquely elevated level in my life, musically, politically, everything about growing up. It’s the gift that I got.” For the rest of us, Graceland is the gift, a timeless work of art that will continue to play all around the world no matter where we are in our respective journeys.
Image courtesy of YouTube / Saturday Night Live