By Hans Ebert
The track “Graceland” came floating out of a racing radio station in Perth today. Where it was coming from added to what is a pretty eclectic record from a musician with a very wry sense of humour, and who, way too often is passed over when discussing those who have changed the course of music. Paul Simon changed the course of music in 1986 when the world was introduced to this extraordinary record.
“Graceland” broke with tradition, and from reading up on it, was an extremely complicated record to make as it brought politics into play with many of the recordings taking place in Johannesburg and apartheid South Africa. To add to the politics, Paul Simon was criticised by some for “stealing” the country’s “township jive music”, not an unusual occurrence when wealthy western pop stars record in poverty stricken countries, and are basically held to ransom. McCartney went through something similar when deciding to record Band On The Run in Lagos. As for Paul Simon and the journey that led to Graceland, there was everything that went into him and producer Roy Halee painstakingly making all the pieces fit- changing, erasing and completing sound bites into fully fleshed out songs that featured a cast of thousands- Los Lobos, Lady Blacksmith Mombasa, and to these ears, the very unique guitar playing of South African musician Ray Pihri. It’s a sound, it’s a style that gives each track on the record a special identity and that inexplicable something which takes the music to another part of the world.
Graceland reinvented Paul Simon, or, more accurately, it was the singer-songwriter taking “world music” where it had never gone before by combining Simon’s always clever and seemingly effortless lyricism and infectious melodies with the joyous music of township jive.
“Gracelands” also made Paul Simon relevant after a few years that have been described as being “fallow”. The record was a long way from the folk pop of the “Sounds Of Silence”, but like every Simon Garfunkel record saw Paul Simon breaking away, and heading for the inevitable solo career, Graceland saw the Renaissance of Paul Simon with him swimming against the tide of what his record company never thought would be a commercial success.
As has been written here before, there’s always a need for inspiration before one decides to pick up a guitar or put words to paper or paint onto an easel, or whatever needs that creative spark to be ignited. The “Gracelands” record is one of those bursts of creativity that is always a reminder of an artist being inspired enough to take his craft to a different level- a wonderful journey of beautifully crafted songs. Very few craft songs these days. Paul Simon is a craftsman.
He has a reputation for being “difficult”, whatever that means. It probably has to do with that restless spirit which refuses to settle for Okay- to work and rework lyrics and melodies and rhythms by surrounding himself with different musicians and different ways of approaching the making of music.
Paul Simon is a fastidious musician. He’s incredibly intelligent and it’s there in his music. Just listen to “The Only Living Boy In New York”, the “Bookends” record with Art Garkunkel, and the fascinating piece of musical intelligentsia that was his introverted “Hearts And Bones” record that chronicled the end of his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher.
Theirs could not have been an easy marriage and neither has been his marriage to singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, two very strong, intelligent women, and, no doubt, the catalysts for many of Paul Simon’s musical stories.
What’s still puzzling is him really not receiving the accolades he deserves. Not really. Maybe it’s his lack of a Rock Star image? Maybe it’s the fact that he tends to flow under the radar. Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to leave us before we remember everything he has given us including the oddity that was the film-cum-record-cum-movie that was “One Trick Pony “.
Let’s also not neglect the music he is still creating- witty, again, not sticking to formulas and, as always, very very clever.