The Continuing Digitization Project hasn’t been continuing much recently. But I finally decided I needed to rip the vinyl my friend Ron left with me months ago, a pair of Paul Simon albums: Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) and Graceland (1986).
Converting those LPs into my iTunes library would double my total of Simon albums — sort of. I own There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Negotiations and Love Songs, but the latter is a hits compilation that includes four cuts off Rhymin’.
I’ve always liked those four songs, and most of the rest, on Simon’s 1973 effort. It was a No. 2 on the Billboard album charts that produced two No. 2 singles, “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” — unsurprisingly, two of the four the cuts included in the compilation.
But I’ve sometimes felt that Rhymin’ was a bit of a rip-off, barely 30 minutes of music, including “Was a Sunny Day,” which borrows lyrics from the Cadillacs’ “Speedo.” But considering the quality of the rest of the music, maybe you can say that Simon just cut out the fluff and filler.
When it came time to put a platter on the digitizing turntable, I chose to start with Graceland. The title tune from Still Crazy was part of one of the best Saturday Night Live shows and skits of that program’s classic era, but not much from the album stuck in my head otherwise.
Graceland, though, included several interesting songs that got FM airplay, were familiar to me, and that I enjoyed. And the title tune has that wonderful allusion in its opening lines: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.” So that went on the turntable first.
The liner notes for the album are interesting. The project was inspired by an audio cassette Simon received from a friend, which he thought sounded like 1950s early rock and roll. Turns out it was a bootlegged compilation of South African street music, which sparked the artist’s interest in the apartheid-era popular music of that country.
So Simon went to South Africa and recruited a bunch of musicians and groups — the list of credited performers runs to about 50 names — from different genres and styles within that country’s popular music. For good measure, he brought in L.A. Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos — to do a zydeco-influenced cut!
The musicians performing included the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which gained worldwide attention following an appearance on SNL. Also among them was Ray Phiri, the jazz fusion guitarist who passed away last year.
Simon’s lengthy liner notes detail the South African influences and styles in the album’s cuts, with the exception of the zydeco number. And the music is indeed exotic, with rhythms and chords that we don’t typically hear in American popular music.
That music is juxtaposed with lyrics that for the most part have more to do with Simon’s state-of-mind at the time. Coming off the dissolution of his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher, and a couple albums that were commercially unsuccessful, the writer of songs like “The Sound of Silence” penned lyrics that were introspective and reflective.
Not many of those words seem to have much to do with South Africa, whose official policy of segregation and white supremacy fueled protests at home and abroad. The exceptions are “Homeless,” which was co-written by a South African musician and includes lyrics in Zulu; and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” The title of “Under African Skies” doesn’t have much to do its words; “Boy in the Bubble” seems to refer to political violence, but doesn’t put it in context.
Simon’s personal lyrics on the album sometimes work, but sometimes seem scattered and distracted. As noted above, the title cut paints some nice pictures, but the juxtaposition of going to Presley’s Memphis mansion/museum/shrine with the writer’s failed relationship is a bit head-scratching. “You Can Call Me Al” had always been fun, and the storyline is more coherent than some of the other songs.
The album was a No. 3 on the Billboard charts, and won the “Best Album of the Year” Grammy in 1987. The LP was credited with helping to bring South African music to the world.
But Simon also took some heat politically, with anti-apartheid groups in South Africa and elsewhere whacking him for breaking a cultural boycott of the white-controlled country, and for cultural appropriation. Unsurprisingly, considering the the songs he had written over the years, Simon rhetorically flipped the critics the bird, saying that he didn’t need to ask the permission of political groups to do his art, and pointing out that the album was about blacks and whites working together.
Those issues aside, the album is a pretty good listen, although although some of the songs still need to grow on me. Can’t say it’s Paul Simon’s best; that judgement will have to wait, at least until I digitize that other LP.