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Paul Simon's Graceland Turns 25 -- Part Three: The Boycott

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PAUL SIMON: GRACELAND 25TH ANNIVERSARY
DELUXE BOXED SET:
$119.98
CD/DVD SET: $15.98
LP: $24.98

Paul Simon's album Graceland has turned 25 sounding better than ever. Its impact on music and culture is vast and any list of the best albums of all time looks silly if Graceland doesn't appear on it somewhere. The best selling solo album for an artist who continues to produce great music, Graceland is a landmark, but not one that has grown dusty with Importance. It's not just a "significant" work with historical meaning; it's also an exhilarating collection of songs as timeless and current as ever. This is the third of a four part series covering the boxed set, its cultural impact, the story of the boycott and the music itself. You can buy the album in any configuration from Paul Simon's website or any major outlet.

Part One: The Boxed Set Review

Part Two: The Cultural Impact

Part Three: The Boycott

Part Four: The Album, Track By Track

GRACELAND: THE BOYCOTT

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Luckily, Paul Simon had no good intentions when launching into what would become Graceland. Maybe that's why it turned out so well. Paul Simon did not set out with the intention of highlighting the evils of apartheid. Simon didn't set out to shine a spotlight on the South African government that oppressed most of its people. He certainly didn't set out to write a protest song about life in Soweto. Heck, he didn't even set out to nobly embrace the "authentic" artists of that country and give them a platform to reach the world.

Paul Simon simply became obsessed with some music and determined to meet the artists that had created it and collaborate and see what happened. That's all. Joe Berlinger's documentary Under African Skies spells out better than ever before exactly what happened.

Simon was handed a cassette of music from South Africa which contained the instrumental song "Gumboots' by the Boyoyo Boys. (I'm still not clear if this was a mixtape someone created on their own, an album of music solely by the Boyoyo Boys or a legitimate compilation including multiple artists.) Simon couldn't stop listening to it and ultimately started writing lyrics to go along with the track, something he'd never done before in his life. He wasn't even sure who had created the music or whether they were still alive or could be tracked down. But he had to find out more. That led to him reaching out and establishing contact with various people familiar with the music scene in Soweto. That led to a flood of more music, the best that South Africa had to offer. The more he listened, the more excited Simon became.

Thank goodness, because after almost 20 year of uninterrupted artistic praise and commercial success, Simon was at a rare low point. He rather disingenuously says in the film that the commercial failure of his 1983 album Hearts And Bones was fine by him -- it meant his record label suddenly wasn't standing over his shoulder watching everything he did. It seems unlikely that Warner Bros. immediately considered one of their premiere acts to be washed up. And Hearts And Bones wasn't an isolated incident.

In 1980, he wrote and starred in the film One Trick Pony, a flop on every level that produced a soundtrack that surprisingly was also poorly received. Simon surely imagined that the soundtrack was one aspect of the film he didn't have to worry about. ("Late In The Evening" has proven the most enduring tune from it.) It wasn't simply that the movie did not do well. It was an almost embarrassing failure, especially for an artist who had gone from strength to strength for so long. (Simon would repeat the experience to a lesser degree on Broadway with The Capeman in 1997; that music would flourish in a concert setting years later.) He followed this failure with Hearts And Bones, which originally was going to reunite him with Art Garfunkel. At the last minute, he erased Art's vocals and it became another solo album, the first release of Simon's career not to go gold. For an artist used to Grammy awards and hit singles, his career in the past decade since the peak of Still Crazy After All These Years was surely disheartening. Feeling a glimmer of artistic rebirth was exciting and -- let's be fair -- launching into such a crazy, unusual project that upended his entire creative process must have been scary and exciting in equal measures.

But Simon wasn't willing to just recreate the music with studio musicians in New York. He wanted to go to South Africa and get in the studio with these artists, meet them on their own turf as it were. Was this even possible? First he made contacts to figure out who the acts were and whether they would be available. As you can imagine, when an act in Soweto that wasn't even that hot a commodity locally was approached by one of the most famous artists in the world, why yes, they were available.

What about the boycott? Simon went to his friend Harry Belafonte and the singer/actor/activist spelled out exactly what he needed to do. Simon needed to approach the African National Congress (ANC) and get permission to do what he wanted. Belafonte immediately sensed Simon resisted, though Simon didn't tell him so. Go to a political group and get "permission" to make music? That didn't sound like something he wanted to do, his Sixties knee-jerk resistance to authority kicking in at the mention of needing "permission" to make music. In one of the film's most amusing passages, Simon describes what he later did as like a teenager who is told he can't use the car, but he has a date and really wants to use the car and goes ahead and does it anyway.

So Simon approached the artists via the musicians' union in South Africa and asked them directly. Simon says at one point in the film that he was invited to South Africa but the truth is that he asked to be invited. The union met and took a vote and gave its approval for Simon to come and record. That was good enough for him, though he knew it wouldn't be good enough for Belafonte and purposefully said nothing about ignoring the ANC. In effect, Simon did indeed break the cultural boycott intended to isolate the South African government and avoid anything that might legitimize the system of apartheid.

He went to South Africa and recorded for about 10 to 12 days. The basis of a studio group was formed and those musicians would become the core of his touring group for decades to come. In another very revealing passage, Simon says the initial recording session with the Boyoyo Boys was disheartening. Whether due to nerves or whatever, they couldn't deliver musically. One of the white studio engineers dismissively said in effect, see? They say they can do it but they're really not technically up to it. Simon was dumbstruck by the comment, which seemed so condescending, but he also candidly admits he let it color his thinking.

In fact, when he moved on to another musician and tried to record guitarist Ray Phiri, Simon was so wary of Phiri's skills that he discouraged Phiri from doing anything fancy. Let's just try and get the basic track down, he said whenever Phiri suggested an idea. They did it straightforwardly but Phiri kept asking to do overdubs. Simon relented and Phiri dazzled him with his technical skills and artistic ideas; he immediately recognized Phiri for a world class talent. (Phiri still tours and records with Simon to this day.) Simon then understood anew how poisonous prejudice can be and how he'd been momentarily sucked into believing something negative about the musicians he'd traveled the globe to work with.

The core of those 12 days of jamming and recording were taken back to the US and transformed over time into the music of Graceland. Despite knowing he'd broken the boycott and ignored Belafonte's advice, Simon was astonished by the controversy that ensued when the album was released. He was just trying to create some music and couldn't everyone see how terrific it had turned out?

It wasn't as if Simon had played the segregated crowds of Sun City and cashed a big check, for god's sake. He had asked permission of the musicians of South Africa, received it, paid them triple the studio rates that musicians received in New York City and shared more songwriting credits than he'd ever done before in his entire life. (Five of twelve songs featured co-credits.) He toured around the globe with those very same artists and introduced their talents to the world, especially Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Heck, his tour even (wisely) included Hugh Masekala and Miriam Makeba, two exiles from South Africa who had been shining a spotlight on the cruelty of apartheid for decades. Their anti-apartheid credentials placed them on the same level as Nelson Mandela as far as international visibility was concerned. If they supported Simon, how could anyone object?

Here are Simon and Miriam Makeba performing "Under African Skies" live in concert. On the album, the duet is performed with Linda Ronstadt.

But object they did. College students in the film are seen foolishly suggesting Simon couldn't possibly collaborate with black musicians in South Africa, implying he could never "understand" them because he was white. Besides, they said, the process would also be colonialism or otherwise tainted in some way. Spokespersons for the ANC and the boycott, especially the thoughtful Dali Tambo (prominently featured in the film) said no matter how good the music, no matter how well-intentioned, a boycott is a boycott and Simon should have honored it.

Of course, the failure of the ANC to deal with this particular action was influenced by the fact that Simon had ignored them, gone behind their backs and broken the boycott. They were incapable of making any distinction between profiting from breaking the boycott and doing what Simon had done: employing people, working with them, performing on stage with them throughout the world and putting a face on the pain of apartheid while humanizing and celebrating the people who suffered under it. Graceland inspired thousands of news articles and conversations about conditions in South Africa and turned its people from victims to humans worthy not just of dignity and respect (as all humans deserve) but also artists deserving of adulation and praise.

When boycotters tried to insist that the musicians not tour with Simon, the idiocy of their stance became clear. Yes, Simon had done a run-around of their authority, but it was crazy not to recognize a fait accompli and make the best of it. Tell musicians desperate for work not to leave South Africa and go on a concert tour with one of the most famous artists in the world, an artist who was calling attention to apartheid and celebrating their music every step of the way? How could that possibly make any sense or hurt the cause of fighting apartheid in any way? The film is gracious to all sides but it can afford to be: once Nelson Mandela was released, he and the ANC ultimately invited Simon to perform in South Africa as part of the celebration of victory. Vindication doesn't get much better than that.

Here is Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes" on Saturday Night Live. One of the key songs on the album, it was added at a late date when LBM were in New York City recording in the studio. The album release was delayed to the fall by Warner Bros. but Simon was already booked to go on SNL. The documentary film Under African Skies details how they went on the show performing a several tracks long before anyone could hear the music on the radio or buy the album. The audience response was ecstatic. it was the first indication that after a decade of seeming lost artistically (though Hearts & Bones is a very good collection of songs) that Simon was not simply back on track but on the verge of the greatest success of his solo career. This performance is one of the bonus features on the DVD.

Tomorrow: The Album, Track By Track

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with a free copy of the deluxe boxed set with the understanding that he would be writing a review.