Happy 30th to Graceland
Music and memories — we all know they tie together. It’s pretty much a cliché to say so at this point, but hell, I am going to say it anyway.
That’s because, 30 years ago this summer, I was five going on six, an only child who was still held captive to my parent’s taste in music — too old for Raffi tapes or “Wheels on the Bus” but too young to yet start forming my own opinions. While my mom favored the typical pop of the mid-‘80s (she made the switch to country a couple years later) at the time, my dad had slightly more eclectic tastes. Sure, he listened to standard Boomer fare like James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett and the Beatles, but he also wandered into Warren Devon and Talking Heads territory. Nothing too outlandish, nothing that wouldn’t hit the mainstream airwaves, but stuff that was more interesting, at least to me, than the more generic pop of the ‘80s.
Then Paul Simon’s Graceland dropped. While Simon was already old-hat to Boomers, and already approaching middle age, he was fresh to me — Simon and Garfunkel and The Graduate were before my time. Even Simon’s initial solo works didn’t yet register with me. But Graceland — I can still remember sitting in my dad’s Mustang while we parked in a local park, awaiting a lunar eclipse, with the tape playing, the ebullient horns of “You Can Call Me Al” ringing through the suburban night.
Graceland did more than just provide a soundtrack to my suburban summers. It more or less introduced the world to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African male choral group that appears on tracks throughout the album. Sure, the guys had been doing their thing since 1960, but Graceland made them go viral 20 years before anyone actually used the phrase “go viral.” It also, of course, gave every college band in the nation one more song for their rotation, thanks to the aforementioned “You Can Call Me Al.”
Graceland only came about because Simon was traversing some rough waters. A planned tour with Art Garfunkel following 1981’s Concert in Central Park led to more clashes between the duo, and Simon left Garfunkel’s vocals off of his next album, 1983’s Hearts and Bones, which ended up flopping. Meanwhile, Simon’s marriage to Carrie Fisher (yes, that Carrie Fisher), was collapsing.
In 1984, a singer-songwriter named Heidi Berg handed Simon a bootleg tape called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II. The whole story is over on Wikipedia (what isn’t?) but the short version is that Simon liked the music, which reminded him of ’50s rhythm and blues, and asked the record label to track down the artists — who happened to be Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Recording took place in several places, including Johannesburg, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Louisiana. Guest musicians included Linda Ronstadt, Richard Landry, Los Lobos, and the Everly Brothers. But you probably knew at least some of that already.
What’s always struck me about Graceland is how easily it combines pop, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya, mbaqanga and good ‘ole rock into one solid, cohesive album without sounding like some cheesy “Tour of World Genres” album you’d found in the discount bin at music stores of the day. Every track is different, yet they all hang together, tied loosely, like a blended family that genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
Its songs traverse most of the usual ground of love, life, and loss, with lost love being a key theme of the title track. Even parenting comes into play, just barely, on the title track and on “That Was Your Mother.” But each track comes at the world differently, creating an album that still sounds fresh three decades after it first hit the airwaves.
Graceland doesn’t fuck around, either. The opening track, “The Boy in the Bubble,” hits hard with a strong opening of ominous accordion followed by a thundering drum. It sets the tone for the album, with ruminations on the state of the world in the mid-‘80s, proclaiming the time to be “the days of miracle and wonder.” The term that could apply to any time in history (as well as the present day), but it seems uniquely suited to the ‘80s.
Thankfully the album downshifts away from the heavier themes of turbulent world events to the turbulence of marriage, with Simon reflecting on losing love as he journeys with his child to see Elvis’ Tennessee mansion. “Homeless” took on African poverty.
Then there was “You Can Call Me Al,” with its shouting horns, backwards bass riff, its absurd lyrics based on Simon being misidentified as “Al” at a party as well as his trip to South Africa (and perhaps a reference to mid-life crises), and that entertaining music video in which Chevy Chase shows up and does Chevy Chase things — the kind of comedy a six-year-old would find absolutely hilarious. Thirty years later, the song is probably Simon’s biggest solo hit, but it was the sixth track on an album of 11 wonderful, distinct songs hung together by the loose but universal threads of love, life, and travel.
Graceland wasn’t without controversy. Simon’s trips to South Africa upset anti-apartheid folks who accused him of violating a cultural boycott and thus supporting apartheid (never mind that heavily featuring black South Africans on a major Western album probably did positive than negative from an anti-apartheid point of view), and Los Lobos accused Simon of not giving them credit for the last track — “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” — saying he essentially stole the song.
Perhaps no great album is made without controversy. But the fact that I can sit here in my mid-30s and place every track and almost every lyric from memory, as well as the fact that Graceland won accolade after accolade, shows that controversy aside, an aging Simon could overcome personal and professional setbacks to put together an album that was like nothing before or since — something timeless from a time that’s now alternatively celebrated and mocked by those old enough to remember the decade.
Days of miracle and wonder, indeed.