12 August 2011

Graceland at Twenty-Five

Graceland turns twenty-five today, which is how old my mother was when the album came out, and how old I am now. My mother never listened to it, nor did my father, and I found it on my own for a dollar on vinyl at a record store in Santa Cruz. I didn’t have a record player, so I poached the MP3s from a friend’s computer via Firewire, which is how we did things in those days.

A year earlier, as a senior at a private high school in Los Angeles, the most rebellious thing I thought I could do was attend the least prestigious school that accepted me. I would become an environmental studies major. I would get back to the land, bake in the sun, get my hands dirty. It would be an experience. The dream faded, however, when I didn’t find the hippies I met to be loyal friends, I learned the Environmental Studies degree required statistics and policy, and a walk through the garden wore me down, even off the stunning coast of central California. Then I heard Graceland and was redeemed.

There had never been a time I didn’t feel soft in the middle. I walked by an American Apparel party on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and finally understood the line “I don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.” I was enamored of unrequited love, and the plea “You don’t feel you could love me, but I feel you could” became a mantra. This of course went hand in hand with “Losing love is like a window in your heart.” You don’t even need to be divorced to know that.  You don’t need to know what a National guitar is, either—I didn’t until I looked it up just now. I had always imagined some kind of “national guitar of America,” not a guitar made of metal, but both meanings have some potency, I think.


Graceland is more about remaining white than it is about becoming black. Even onstage with twenty-four black South African musicians and singers, even while Simon (half the height of any of them) practically disappears among a choir in orange dashikis and a fortress of drums, even though the music is distinctively South African, Graceland is clearly white people’s music.

My suspicion was confirmed this May when I saw Paul Simon perform at New York’s Beacon Theatre, which caters to the peach-faced and white-haired population of the Upper West Side. “It’s always slightly unnerving and exhilarating to play in your exact neighborhood,” Simon told the audience, which did appear to be composed of his peers. From their seats they bobbed their heads, some clapping, some singing along, and since the sound was mixed at a noise level friendly to all ages and ears, their voices were audible, making the concert, at times, more of a sing-a-long. During the encore, a few mostly middle-aged women ventured out of their plush seats to shake their hips. I felt embarrassed but also included. Their whiteness was my whiteness too.

The Graceland origin story is a tale of redemption won in the midst of what seem like bad decisions. It was 1985, the peak of worldwide campaigns against apartheid (then the main issue on most US college campuses) and a high point of apartheid brutality. Paul Simon was at a slow moment in his career (as folk-rock icons from the ’60s could be in the era of synth) when one day somebody sent him a cassette of umbaqanga music, a bouncy style with Zulu roots and jazz leanings, that inspired him to jet to South Africa to make a record with black musicians, breaking an international cultural boycott of the country. Graceland won the Grammy for Record of the Year and went platinum five times over, and Paul Simon’s voice and poetry over umbaqanga’s upbeat rhythms still will make anyone prick up her ears when it comes on satellite radio.  To this day, Graceland does not sound like much else in English, and as a truly self-aware tribute to the privileged American’s search for authenticity and salvation in a world of ease and plenty, it is pretty much sui generis in the genre called “adult contemporary.” The album was ethically controversial, but also a masterpiece, and eventually the UN dropped Simon from its blacklist.


Umbaqanga was a safe choice for Simon. It was accessible to western ears, and it was, in a manner of speaking, soft in the middle. The singing style featured in “Homeless” is called isicathamiya, which in Zulu means “walking softly” or “treading carefully,” something the musicians learned to do in order to avoid attracting police attention to their performances. The polyrhythms, gentle singing, and harmonies were in sync with both Simon’s tendencies and American popular in the mid-‘80s. Umbaqanga had high production value. The bass was high in the mix, and it sort of sounded like the Seinfeld theme. “Boy in the Bubble” opens the Album with that unmistakable accordion intro that gives way to a minimal but forceful drum-beat, and a very farty synth-bass. Simon’s language swings from poetic to conversational. Even those of us who live in the bubble can have a spiritual experience, he tells us. For those who have not been working on the chain gang, who are enslaved only by our own inferiority, who are nerds with horribly embarrassing dance moves—the journey to Graceland is ours, too.

Graceland appropriately is not just a lofty metaphor but a physical and accessible place, with a signposted admission price demarcated in dollars.  The fashion showcase and airplane display can be visited on the same ticket with the house tour. Salvation is not found with Jesus, or in Jerusalem (or Pretoria), but in a mansion in Memphis where banana pudding is made fresh nightly and Elvis watches three television sets at the same time—within arm’s reach of a wet bar, with a steady supply of sauerkraut and fudge brownies.  I felt that I would be received there too.


Elvis was famous for turning black “race” music into white rock and roll. “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know,” Elvis explained to reporters in 1956. Paul Simon took the different step of sharing a bill with black originators, and extending some co-writing credits (essential for performance and publication royalties), rather just adapting what they played.  On the album, he is clearly the guest vocalist.  And yet he is the owner, the center, the one calling the shots. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s choir sings almost the entirety of “Homeless,” with the occasional gentle interruptions of Paul Simon, telling them what to do. (“Somebody sing.”)  Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs lyrics in Zulu in that song and on “Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes” that still remain the only Zulu you are likely to hear while shopping.


I, too, was produced in the ’80s. The Paul Simon albums that mark my life so far, like bookends, are Graceland and last year’s So Beautiful or So What. Living out the narrative of Graceland in my own life, skipping the albums in between that I don’t like so much, I’ve arrived, with Simon, not at Graceland, but at the sample, which he implements for the first time in his career in So Beautiful. Still blending Afropop and American folk genres, Simon not only records with the musicians that inspire him, but includes the dead ones too. With harmonica parts from bluesman Sonny Terry and portions of a sermon from Rev. J. M. Gates, the old services the new, and authenticity is no longer found in the journey but in the editing. After all, Simon said he was going to Graceland. He never said he actually got there.

Image: Paul Simon with collaborators Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland tour, 1987. From soundonsound.com.

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