After splitting from Art Garfunkel in 1970, Paul Simon thrived as a solo artist throughout the early ’70s, peaking with the Grammy-winning 1975 LP Still Crazy After All These Years and the 1977 compilation Greatest Hits, Etc. But after Still Crazy, Simon had difficulty coming up with enough material for a new album, and then he got distracted, making the flop 1980 movie One Trick Pony and its sketchy soundtrack. Simon followed that up by reuniting with Garfunkel for a massive concert in Central Park and a world tour, but the duo squabbled, and sessions for a new Simon & Garfunkel album were scrapped, with the material reworked into Simon’s poor-selling (albeit very good) 1983 LP Hearts And Bones.
So it’s fair to say that by the time Simon began recording his 1986 album Graceland, he was in a slump. At the time, few would’ve expected that Simon’ s comeback vehicle would be a buoyant, inspired collaboration with a group of South African musicians that much of the world had never heard before. Yet Graceland sold millions, won awards, helped kick off the “world music” craze, and introduced songs like “You Can Call Me Al,” which became pop-radio standards.
The four-disc deluxe version of Graceland’s new 25th anniversary edition adds a few demos and alternate takes, plus a full concert from Simon’s Graceland world tour, a collection of videos, and—most significantly—Joe Berlinger’s documentary Under African Skies, which tells the story of how the album came to be. Simon heard a tape of South African accordion music in the summer of 1984, and started improvising lyrics around one track, finding the process so creatively liberating that he decided he had to travel to South Africa and just jam for a while. Simon arrived with no songs prepared; instead he and his staff wrangled together some of the top local musicians, and as Simon played along with them he arranged on the fly, isolating riffs and runs that caught his ear. Only after he returned to New York and started working with producer Roy Halee did Simon start assembling these pieces into songs, to which he then added lyrics.
Graceland touched off more than a little controversy about whether Simon’s arrogant violation of the UN cultural boycott of South Africa hurt the anti-Apartheid cause, and about whether Simon had swooped in and stolen the sound—and even the songs—of some poor, unknown musicians. There’s valuable debate still raging over both those topics, but one thing remains clear: Graceland’s overall sensibility is Simon’s, as he swings easily between lines about everyday neurotic people in turmoil and lines about “the days of miracle and wonder.” In songs like “Under African Skies” and “The Boy In The Bubble,” Simon takes sounds that are rooted deep in a specific culture and weds them to lyrics that are both folkloric and modern. This approach coalesces most sublimely in the title track—Simon’s greatest song—which gracefully threads together Afrobeat, rockabilly, and West Coast singer-songwriter music, aptly accompanying the impressionistic story of a broken person journeying into the literal and metaphorical heartland, seeking healing.
Under African Skies doesn’t delve deeply enough into the enduring questions over Simon’s methods of cultural appropriation. In particular, there’s a conspicuous absence of Los Lobos, who have accused Simon of failing to pay or cite them properly for their work on the song “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints.” But to Berlinger’s and Simon’s credit, Under African Skies doesn’t completely avoid the topic; if nothing else, it’s obvious from the old video of Simon in South Africa that he let the local musicians do a lot of the heavy lifting, at least in the early stages of recording. The film is also remarkably even-handed when it comes to the subject of Apartheid and the cultural boycott, letting the people who protested Simon have their say, and getting the perspective of the musicians he worked with, too. There’s a moving anecdote in the documentary about how when Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to New York to perform on Saturday Night Live with Simon, they asked for a permit to visit Central Park, unaware that they would be free to come and go as they liked. Unsurprisingly, the members of that group—who subsequently traveled the world, spreading the word about Apartheid—now feel that Graceland was a positive experience overall, however questionable it might’ve seemed at the time.
The music of Graceland is as stirring as always, whether heard on the remastered album or in Under African Skies (which supplements the archival footage with rehearsals for a recent reunion concert in Johannesburg). But what’s most exciting about Under African Skies in particular is how it engages with the issue of whether artists have social and political responsibilities, and if so, what those might entail. Though Berlinger takes the criticism of Simon seriously, the film ultimately comes down strongly on the side of the artist’s right to move and work freely, and thus to retain the capacity to surprise. A more sensitive Simon would’ve stayed in New York and tried to approximate the sound of the Boyoyo Boys with local session men. The self-serving Simon ignored the political and cultural implications of his actions, and the result was “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” a song that continues to uplift and inspire people decades after the initial furor subsided. Sometimes the process has to be ugly to produce something truly beautiful.