Saturday, September 7, 2013

81 Graceland (1986) Paul Simon

1. The Boy in the Bubble
2. Graceland
3. I Know What I Know
4. Gumboots
5. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
6. You Can Call Me Al
7. Under African Skies
8. Homeless
9. Crazy Love, Vol. II
10. That Was Your Mother
11.   All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints

I'm quite capable of separating the idea of the the musician from the music. The actions and lifestyle of the person creating the artform doesn't affect my appreciation of it. I know that Miles Davis was a deeply troubled guy who from all reports was hard to like, but it doesn't stop me from loving Kind of Blue. I'm aware that Dylan can be a bit prickly and aloof but I love the guy. Prince is a complete failure as a person but that's not the reason I don't like his music.  But Graceland presents a bit of a problem.

Paul Simon is widely regarded as a difficult guy to get along with. He's always had a reputation for being a bit testy and comes across as fairly arrogant in interviews, all of which is fine. He's got the talent to back up his arrogance and I think it must be an exceptional person who goes through decades of rock stardom without turning into something approaching a bastard. I've known people who became insufferable just because they got retweeted by a celebrity so I can only imagine what it must be like to have a hit single, let alone a successful career.

Simon may be a genuinely unpleasant individual in real life but that doesn't stop me admiring his work with The Funkle or his earlier solo projects.

But Graceland isn't just the product of a potentially unpleasant guy, it came about as a direct result of his unpleasantness, at least if the people lining up to criticise it are to be believed.

The story Simon tells is that Graceland was inspired by a recording of Gumboots by a South African band called The Boyoyo Boys. He heard the song and realised it was similar to the 50's rock and roll he grew up with and the connection inspired him to go to South Africa and record with the Boyoyo Boys and other South African artists. The recordings that came out of these collaborations were turned into the Graceland album.

Others tell a different story.

American musician Heidi Berg claims she lent Simon the Boyoyo Boys tape and was interested in recording some of the material in a similar style herself. Simon never returned the tape or her subsequent phone calls. When they met up again he actually threatened her when she mentioned the incident and claimed he purchased the copyright for his own usage.

Berg and others have claimed that many of the songs on Graceland are essentially Paul Simon cover versions of South African songs which he has taken undeserved writing credit for. They believe the entire venture to South Africa was less about musical collaboration and more about an artist starved for ideas plundering a newly discovered market. She even goes so far to claim that You Can Call me Al, which is exclusively credited to Paul Simon on the album was stolen directly from The Boyoyo Boys without any credit at all.

It's a damning criticism and not the only one levelled at Simon by collaborators. The final track on the album features a guest appearance by Los Lobos whose sax player Steve Berlin is far from Simon's biggest fan. Berlin's story is that Los Lobos went into the studio to play with Simon but Paul had nothing for them to actually record. He hadn't written anything and didn't have any ideas for them to work on. The band were jamming and played a song they had written and planned to put on their next album. Simon liked what he heard and put some lyrics to their music. The Band then recorded the track and believed they'd just co-written a song with Paul Simon. They were therefore surprised to learn that when the record came out, the song they'd written was credited as a Paul Simon song without any input from them at all (except as musicians).

Misunderstandings can arise in any musical setting but in this instance someone is clearly telling an outright lie. Simon claims the first he heard of Berlin and the band's complaint was months later when the album came out and a letter from their lawyer was sent to his. Los Lobos however claim they contacted him much earlier and he personally dared them to sue him. Clearly someone is not telling the truth.

There's no doubt however that All Around the World Or The Myth of Fingerprints (as the song was called on the album) sounds a lot like a Los Lobos song and not much like a Paul Simon song. It's hard not to feel that the band deserve some songwriting credit because the alternative is to believe that Simon wrote a perfect facsimile of a Los Lobos song and then got the band in to record it.

It's especially difficult to take Simon's side when you read more about the album. He was criticised at the time for not approaching the African National Congress and asking for their blessing to defy the UN cultural boycott on South Africa. He claimed he did and didn't get a response but later changed backpeddled and admitted he didn't but didn't believe it would matter.

All of this shouldn't affect my appreciation of the music but I'm afraid it does. It's catchy stuff but I can't help but get set against it by what I know. It doesn't help that it sounds to me like a compilation of African music with a Los Lobos track attached at the end. It doesn't sound like Paul Simon's work before or since. It doesn't have his stamp on it in the way that his other stuff does. I can't see anything of Paul Simon in it.

I'd like not to believe the stories but it's hard to hear Graceland and not think it's the opportunistic dealings of a guy who hadn't had a hit in years and who is fiercely competitive. It's all to easy to think of it as a guy mining a musical heritage that he could take a degree of credit for to revive his flagging career.

Harsh? Possibly but I genuinely can't shake it and I can't appreciate the music because of it. And I'm sorry if telling you all this has had the same effect on you.  I really am.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "dink dink dink dink dink dink dink dink"

-That's the full review. One dink too many or just the right number? You decide.

So can you look past Paul or not? Let me know below.


  1. I disagree. And to be honest I'm not entirely sure how accurate Heide Berg's report is, to be honest. I DO know about the Los Lobos incident, and that is probably true, but in any case, I like it because it sounds good. I just love the sound. It reminds me so much of summer in the olden, golden days. Maybe I'm just nostalgiac, but I also think it's musically brilliant stuff, no matter which way you spin it. It's also a great introduction to world music, especially the sounds of Africa.

    BTW I also like his follow-up "The Rhythm of the Saints." Have you heard that one? If so, could you weigh in your opinions on that album?

    1. I'd like to just love the sound but there is something there that's just blocking me. I haven't heard The Rhythm of the Saints but I'll give it a listen in the next couple of weeks and get back to you. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Love his stuff with the Funkel but as much as I try and want to get into it , it is just not what I expect when I put on Paul Simon. But millions around the world love it. I heard Paul Simon interviewed on 3LO last year and he seemed like a nice guy. But I,m sure when you are in Australia some of our niceness cant help but rub of on you.

  3. David - You don't know how correct you are. Heidi was band leader for the New Show. She worked for Lorne Michaels. She was a guitarist, accordionist, violinist and singer. She went to Lorne when the show ended. She wanted his advice and help making a video. Instead, he introduced her to Paul. And set her up with him as a producer after two flops. He listened to her stuff and agree to take on the role.They worked together every week. For months. One day she lent him a tape for reference. She had been listening to it a lot and wanted to use a lot of the same musical ideas and vibes. He took the tape and basically ran with it. he bought the rights to it. he bought out ALL SIMILAR music. He tried to silence all of it but his. He never told her. When she finally caught up with him after asking for the tape back for weeks, he admitted that he bought it and was going to go to africa to record with them .... she was destroyed. He destroyed her life. He made a fortune by stealing the inspiration of a young up and coming artist. He put his stamp on music that was not his and deftly manipulated the press, the ocnversation, and the music business power brokers. He violated apartheid. He threw some money at african musicians wrote a bunch of songs that were filled with snippets of conversations he had had with Heidi. And other lines he grabbed from other source......He tried to act like a big man, But the truth has a funny way of never having to worry. The truth never changes. Paul Simon is a broken souless evil businessman who used to be a fairly talented musician. Now he is an old broken liar and he will be found out fully soon. The light of day will shine on him and burn his flesh for sure....