Looking back at Paul Simon, Graceland and the end of apartheid
by Gordon Campbell
Even though there is strong circumstantial evidence that Paul Simon is an arrogant prick, its hard to be a simple hater of someone who could write a lyric like say, this one :
Side by side
They fell asleep
Decades gliding by like Indians
Time is cheap….
Or plenty of other Simon songs that come to mind. By now, two and a half decades have glided on by since Graceland was first released. A special 25th anniversary edition has recently been issued, and several of the South African musicians involved will be going on tour with Simon again next month, this time to Britain. In the World Cinema Showcase festival earlier this year, New Zealanders also got a chance to see Joe Berlinger’s documentary Under African Skies, which revisits the controversy about how in making the album, Simon broke the UN cultural boycott then in place against the apartheid regime. By and large, the Berlinger film confirms that (a) Simon is still a prick, and that (b) Graceland is still a great album.
Do we need to like artists in order to like their art? Hardly. Beethoven would never have won any popularity contests either, but with some others it is not such a straightforward question to answer. Speaking personally, the circumstances of the death of (at least) one of the wives of Jerry Lee Lewis have made it impossible to listen to his music with the same pleasure, and ditto goes for Phil Spector after he murdered Lana Clarkson. Obviously, Simon is nowhere near as extreme a case, yet some misgivings still endure. As reviewers have noted, the Berlinger documentary didn’t touch at all on the question of whether, on the “All Around The World/ Myth of Fingerprints” track, Simon may have culpably borrowed the track’s foundation from Los Lobos without proper attribution, let alone adequate compensation.
Steve Berlin of Los Lobos is on record, as recently as 2006, still sounding highly pissed off about the experience. Here’s Berlin’s account of working on Graceland in an interview on the Jambase site, and his version (and Simon’s response) are both worth reading in full. If only because the modus operandi that Berlin describes does seem consistent with how many of the other Graceland tracks were assembled, bit by bit, from what were essentially studio jams :
Steve Berlin : Oh, I have plenty of recollections of working on [Graceland.] I don’t know if you heard the stories, but it was not a pleasant deal for us. I mean he [Simon] quite literally — and in no way do I exaggerate when I say — he stole the songs from us….And you know, going into it, I had an enormous amount of respect for the guy. The early records were amazing, I loved his solo records, and I truly thought he was one of the greatest gifts to American music that there was.
At the time, we were high on the musical food chain. Paul had just come off One Trick Pony and was kind of floundering. People forget, before Graceland, he was viewed as a colossal failure. He was low. So when we were approached to do it, I was a way bigger fan than anybody else in the band. We got approached by Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin who ran our record company [Warner Bros.], and this is the way these guys would talk — “It would mean a lot to the family if you guys would do this for us.” And we thought, “Ok well, it’s for the family, so we’ll do it.” It sounds so unbelievably naïve and ridiculous that that would be enough of a reason to go to the studio with him. We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing. I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, “Well, let’s just jam.” We said, “We don’t really do that.” … Not by accident, not even at soundcheck. We would always just play a song.
… Paul was a very strange guy. Paul’s engineer [Roy Halee] was even stranger than Paul, and he just seemed to have no clue — no focus, no design, no real nothing. He had just done a few of the African songs that hadn’t become songs yet. Those were literally jams. Or what the world came to know and I don’t think really got exposed enough, is that those are actually songs by a lot of those artists that he just approved of. So that’s kind of what he was doing. It was a very patrician, material sort of viewpoint. Like, because I’m gonna put my stamp on it, they’re now my songs. But that’s literally how he approached this stuff.
I remember he played me the one he did by John Hart, and I know John Hart, the last song on the record. He goes, “Yeah, I did this in Louisiana with this zy decko guy.” And he kept saying it over and over. And I remember having to tell him, “Paul, it’s pronounced zydeco. It’s not zy decko, it’s zydeco.” I mean that’s how incredibly dilettante he was about this stuff. The guy was clueless.
It was ridiculous. I think David [Hidalgo] starts playing “The Myth of the Fingerprints,” or whatever he ended up calling it. That was one of our songs. That year, that was a song we started working on for [the] By the Light of The Moon [album]. So that was like an existing Lobos sketch of an idea that we had already started doing. I don’t think there were any recordings of it, but we had messed around with it. We knew we were gonna do it. It was gonna turn into a song. 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.”
Jambase : Good way to get out of the studio, though…
Berlin : Yeah. But it was very clear to us, at the moment, we’re thinking he’s doing one of our songs. It would be like if he did “Will the Wolf Survive?” Literally. A few months later, the record comes out and says “Words and Music by Paul Simon.” We were like, “What the fuck is this?” We tried calling him, and we can’t find him. Weeks go by and our managers can’t find him. We finally track him down and ask him about our song, and he goes, “Sue me. See what happens.”
Jambase : What?! Come on…
Berlin : That’s what he said. He said, “You don’t like it? Sue me. You’ll see what happens.” We were floored. We had no idea. The record comes out, and he’s a big hit. Retroactively, he had to give song-writing credit to all the African guys he stole from that were working on it and everyone seemed to forget. But that’s the kind of person he is. He’s the world’s biggest prick, basically. So we go back to Lenny and say, “Hey listen, you stuck us in the studio with this fucking idiot for two days. We tried to get out of it, you made us stay in there, and then he steals our song?! What the hell?!” And Lenny’s always a politician. He made us forget about it long enough that it went away. But to this day, I do not believe we have gotten paid for it. We certainly didn’t get songwriting credit for it. And it remains an enormous bone that sticks in our craw. Had he even given us a millionth of what the song and the record became, I think we would have been – if nothing else – much richer, but much happier about the whole thing.
Jambase: Have you guys seen him since then?
Berlin : No. Never run into him. I’ll tell you, if the guys ever did run into him, I wouldn’t want to be him, that’s for sure.
In a subsequent public response (on radio station WFMU, New Jersey) to Los Lobos, Simon did not directly address the issue of authorship – about which the onus of proof, in his view, is clearly on them, not him – and indicated his belief that money was the motive for the complaints :
I just said at this stage I don’t care whether the album comes out without Los Lobos on it. I was getting really tired of it—I don’t want to get into a public slanging match over this, but this thing keeps coming up. So we finished the recordings. And three months passed, and there was no mention of ‘joint writing.’ 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. They sent this thing to my manager, not me. If there was a problem, they could have contacted me direct. They’ve got my home number; we talked a lot. If you ask me, it was a lawyer’s idea. You know, ‘The record’s a hit, and there’s $100,000 in it.’ They had nine months from the recordings to talk to me about all this, but I heard nothing. And it’s still not sorted out, because they still keep bringing it up—I heard they’d done this interview for you. I don’t want to get into a public slanging match with them, because I really like their music.”
At the time Paul Simon went to South Africa in the mid 1980s, the apartheid regime’s fate was still in the balance. A variety of boycotts – economic, sporting and cultural – had been called for by the African National Congress, and endorsed by the UN, and these had been put in place in order to isolate the regime, and help force it to the bargaining table. At the time, the boycotts were controversial. The same year the Graceland album was released, the New Zealand courts put an effective stop to the so called “Cavaliers” rugby tour to South Africa, which had been a local attempt by a group of renegade rugby players to break the UN sporting boycott.
Without rehashing the whole controversy over a boycott that became a mere footnote to history quite some ago, it is worth recounting how Simon came to make his classic album. The genesis was a tape called Gumboot Accordion Jive Hits Number Two sent to Simon in 1984 by a friend called Heidi Berg in the wake of the relative failure of his solo album Hearts and Bones. Simon played it constantly in his car – an instrumental track called “Gumboota” by the Boyoyo Boys particulary appealed to him – and he sent word to the Johannesburg producer Hilton Rosenthal to send him more samples, and booked time in a studio in that city. Eventually, he also recorded samples of other accordion based music from oppressed cultures closer to home; namely, the music of Los Lobos from East L.A., and a Louisiana Cajun band.
From then on, things get murky, and some of the anger later directed at Simon was inspired by the way he kept changing his story. First, he claimed to have sought and received the blessing of the ANC for the Graceland project, which the ANC denied. It transpired that at most, Simon had talked to the musician Harry Belafonte, a leading figure in the US anti-apartheid movement, who gave him conditional encouragement – provided that Simon first contact the ANC, which didn’t happen.
By January of 1987 in the wake of the album’s release, Simon was offering a different version, and claiming a mandate that had nothing directly to do with the ANC. “ In a way, I had to be a spokesman for the South African musical community. That’s why I was allowed to go there…. After I got there I found out that the musicians had voted to let me come…” No evidence of any such vote has ever surfaced. A month later, Simon told Britain’s New Musical Express a version that tends to be the position he has offered ever since, and which was well captured by the Berlinger documentary : that as an artist, he felt beholden to no-one. “ I don’t feel that as an artist I have to consult with anyone. I didn’t ask permission to do the project, nor did I want any restriction on what I might think, or say or write.”
Prior to Graceland, Simon had refused to perform at Sun City, apartheid’s flagship entertainment centre. By the same token, he had also refused to perform on the Sun City protest album against apartheid – and he pointedly included a cameo performance on the Graceland album by his friend Linda Ronstadt ( who had been a prominent Sun City boycott violator ) on “ Under African Skies” a track where she alternated verses with Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s leader, Joseph Shabalala. Ronstadt’s presence and the way the song presents her as a sister-in-song to the black African was a deliberate and considered slap in the face, the US music critic Robert Christgau wrote at the time, for the anti-apartheid movement.
By February 1987 though, Simon’s basic position – that his rights as an artist should trump all other issues – was no longer tenable. Therefore, he sought to defuse the criticism by staging (and filming) a concert in neighbouring Harare, featuring long time anti-apartheid musicians Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba alongside some of the musicians ( eg Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri) who had performed on the Graceland album. It was largely left to the black artists on stage to make the political statements against apartheid. This may have created something of a secondary problem for Ladysmith – an a capella group from Kwazulu Natal who were strongly opposed to apartheid, but who were also supporters of the ANC’s fierce political rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party. Standing on stage in Harare singing what was then simply the ANC’s anthem “ Nkosi Sikelele iAfrica” may not have been an entirely enjoyable experience.
If Simon had thought that taking the musicians out of South Africa would defuse the issue, it only seemed to compound it. “ No grace in Graceland,” the Harare Herald concluded after the show, before attacking Simon as a ‘musical coloniser” who had “discovered” South African music solely for his own benefit. The ANC office in Lusaka then called for boycotts of the Graceland US and European concerts. At this point, Simon changed tack a little. Up until then, he had tended to dodge questions about whether he supported the ANC by saying he had no quarrel with them, which isn’t quite the same thing.
Now, with the fate of the Graceland tour potentially in the balance, Simon wrote a letter to the UN stating that he was “ working for the end of the apartheid system…in the context of the UN cultural boycott.“ The letter then went on to say that ANC leader Oliver Tambo would shortly address a Los Angeles press conference and announce a re-definition of the cultural boycott that would absolve Simon. Apparently irritated by this attempt to force their hand, the ANC deferred making such a statement – though when they eventually did announce an amendment to the UN cultural boycott that would exempt those artists who were clearly working for the end of the apartheid regime, this concession rang down the curtain on the Graceland conflict. In that respect, Simon could genuinely claim to have won at least a partial victory – in that the vast popularity of Graceland had made the UN’s blanket ban on South African culture no longer sustainable, or on balance, desirable.
At this point, we are left with the music on Graceland – a still extraordinary melding of South African township pop with US singer/songwriter sensibilities. If Steve Berlin of Los Lobos is correct – and the format of the Graceland rehearsal sessions in South Africa does confirm his story – only some of the contributing musicians ever got publishing credit (and royalties) for their creative inputs. By the same token, Simon added immeasurably to what he found in Johannesburg and elsewhere. Only a couple of workaholic perfectionists like Simon and Roy Halee could have worked on those studio jams as long and creatively as they did, in order to create what the Graceland music eventually became.
Due admiration for the album aside, it is still possible to feel ambivalent about Simon’s claim that the needs of art should trump all other concerns, short and long term. No one is arguing that art should automatically defer to politics, any more than to commerce – but any claim for art’s total detachment from its socio-political context is dubious. Late in 1986, Simon explained to the Village Voice :“I’m no good at writing politics. I’m a relationship writer, relationships and introspection.” Fair enough. Yet Simon’s apparent humility, as Robert Christgau noted in the Village Voice, concealed an underlying egotism, that an artist has no responsibility – personal or political – to anything beyond art itself. That stance is convenient more often than it is true. As Christgau indicated, the Western artist’s distrust of politics is the last refuge of every liberal out of their depth.