Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

This week, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” from 1986. I remember enjoying the video for “Call Me Al” because it was silly. Other than that, I’ve not been much of a fan of Simon. His music came across too pleasantly adult contemporary to me, especially during my teens. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to enjoy some of his work, but I don’t get excited about it. This week allowed me to get to know these songs much better. I came to appreciate his songwriting, even the recordings themselves are still too pleasant sounding.

This album has a rather controversial background story. A guitarist friend had lent Paul Simon a bootleg tape of music from South Africa. Simon loved it. He wanted to incorporate the sounds and rhythms in his own music. He traveled to South Africa to find out who the musicians were on this unlabeled tape. This search led him to the Boyoyo Boys. He hired members of the band, as well as other South African musicians, to work him on this album. Bakithi Kumalo’s basslines stand out as particularly notable. I don’t really like the mwah sound of fretless bass, but his work is incredible. Really adds a lot of the character to the music.

At the time, many musicians had an active boycott of South Africa in protest of the apartheid. The boycott specifically prevented performing in South Africa. A performance there meant playing before segregated audiences. Simon was recording with primarily black South African artists. However, the fact that he was working there during the boycott looked to many as a statement of apathy. These were contemporary controversies. A modern perspective also opens questions of cultural appropriation; That’s a complex subject, and I’m actually here to listen to the songwriting. Let’s also ignore all the accusations against Simon the he failed to give credit to his collaborators.

The title track “Graceland” provides a great example of good songwriting. Before this week, I’d not really paid attention to the lyrics. I wrongly assumed it to be some fatuous song about tourist destination for Elvis Presley fans. Simon uses the narrative of a man and his son on a pilgrimage as a window to the actual topic. This song deals with the complex mixture of emotions, especially unresolved turmoil, in the midst of a breakup. The second verse leaves me awe-inspired by how the tremendous writing. Keep in mind that this verse introduces the topic of the breakup, like an unexpected slap in the face. This is a great example of use of visual imagery to express thought and emotion. Also notice the use of repetition and rhyme:

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

The track “Gumboots” is more than inspired by the Boyoyo Boys; Apparently the music started as a direct copy of one of their instrumental tracks. From what I understand, Simon wrote the vocals and added the horns. I like the non-stop jittery groove of the music, though without the vocals I feel it would be annoying repetitive. A sort of rhythm background music. What grabs my attention about this song are the lyrics. The song fades out with Simon singing a repeat of the first line “I was having this discussion in a taxi heading downtown.” It’s a great generic line, not necessarily interesting on its own but rife with possibilities. The speaker could take the story anywhere. But like the breezy music, the storyteller seems have a lot more to say than they actually do.

Another song I enjoyed was “I Know What I Know” which also incredibly derivative of a song on that bootleg tape. This time a song by M.D. Shirinda & Gaza Sisters. Lyrically, the song has a humorous opening and continues from there with a vignette of pseudo-intellectual high-society. It’s difficult for me to separate Paul Simon from this crowd enough to completely see this as an outsider criticizing. To me, it feel more like a silly look at the world Simon roams around in.

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night
She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party
I said who am I to blow against the wind