Paul Simon’s Graceland, plus 25

When the Graceland album comes out in the fall of 1986, there are a lot of positive reviews, though there is some discussion of cultural imperialism, talk Simon occasionally faced directly,

On June 5, the 25th-anniversary edition of the landmark Paul Simon album Graceland will be released. It has a few demo or alternate tracks, plus something described as “The Story of ‘Graceland’ as told by Paul Simon,” which could be interesting. But what is really intriguing is the DVD that comes with it, Under African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, which I saw on A&E a few days ago. It not only discusses the making of the album, and shows the reunion of many of the artists; it also addresses the huge controversy over the album and the subsequent tour.

There was a United Nations cultural (and other) boycott of South Africa at the time of the recording of Graceland, because of the oppressive apartheid policies of the government. Paul Simon’s record label guy Lenny Waronker said that the African music Simon had been listening to could have been produced by studio musicians; Warnoker says that Simon looked at him as though he were crazy.

From HERE:
“I was very aware of what was going on politically,” Mr. Simon says in the film, though later he admits he really wasn’t. Harry Belafonte had urged him to get the blessing of the African National Congress before going, which he didn’t do. Mr. Simon bristled at such constraints and decided that the welcome and cooperation he got from black musicians was all the approval he needed.

The album gets made, but the release date is pushed back. Simon is already scheduled to appear on Saturday Night Live, and does so, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, performing “Diamonds on the Soles of Their Shoes”, to thunderous applause.

When the record comes out in the fall of 1986, there are a lot of positive reviews, though there is some discussion of cultural imperialism, talk Simon occasionally faced directly, as shown in the film. Then he decided to go on tour:

From HERE (And check out the videos):

Nearly 25 years ago Paul Simon staged one of the most controversial pop shows in history. When he performed in April 1987 his Graceland concert was seen by some as an affront to a United Nations and African National Congress (ANC) cultural boycott on the apartheid-era in South Africa.

Others saw it as a celebration of the country’s rich musical diversity. At the time Simon was joined by South African musicians Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But outside leading musicians joined protestors which included Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and Jerry Dammers, famous for writing the anti-apartheid anthem, Nelson Mandela. Together they demanded an apology from Simon.

Graceland ends up winning the Grammy for best album. Moreover, Simon eventually gets invited by the Mandela government to perform in South Africa after the boycott was over.

From HERE:

At the end of the film, Simon reflects on the controversy with Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo. He is still convinced Simon was wrong to break the cultural boycott, and Simon remains firm in his belief that art and music are a force for good that should never be repressed.

They end their debate with a hug, but you can see that this debate may never be resolved.

Lots of good insights in this film from Belafonte, Masakela, Paul McCartney, and Oprah Winfrey, who initially supportive of the boycott of the album until she heard the music, which transformed her life. I also had a bit of ambivalence over the album at the time, and I was really happy to see Simon’s rationale at the time.

I’m always loath to get an album that I’ve gotten before, in this case, on both LP and CD. But if you haven’t gotten the CD, or your LP is starting to skip, the documentary Under African Shies makes the purchase worthwhile. the film is also available separately, on Blu-Ray, for a price twice that of the CD/DVD combo.

The Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon

Kennedy Center Honors 2010

Paul has become the legacy Beatle, as opposed to Ringo’s All-Starr gigs, which, no disrespect, always felt like the oldies-tour Beatles.

I’ve been watching the Kennedy Center Honors every year for decades, possibly since they began offering them in 1978. And while, in the early days, at least one performer per year was a bit obscure to me, as time passed, the awardees became much more familiar, in general. And there is usually at least one very moving segment such as Libera singing Love and Mercy to Brian Wilson in 2007, or Bettye LaVette singing Love Reign O’er Me to Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry of the Who in 2008. The celebration of “the Careers of Five Extraordinary Artists” took place on Sunday, December 5, 2010. The gala will be broadcast on CBS-TV on Tuesday, December 28, 2010, at 9:00-11:00 p.m., ET/PT.

For a long time, I knew Merle Haggard only for his song Okie from Muskogee, about which I had, at best, mixed feelings. But I subsequently discovered a wealth of tunes of Americana that transcended the narrow political box I had placed him in.

Jerry Herman wrote a wealth of Broadway musicals, but he is probably best known for Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles. Both of these have made multiple visits onto the Great White Way, and La Cage is in revival presently. Both of these productions were also turned into movies.

Though born in Florida, Bill T. Jones was raised in the Southern Tier of upstate New York, probably an hour from where I grew up, “the tenth of 12 children of migrant farmworkers, ‘poorer than poor, one of two black families in a town of 10,000.'” He studied at SUNY Binghamton, the college in my hometown, “a theater major on an athletic scholarship,” where he discovered ballet and modern dance, and love “with Arnie Zane, a Jew from the Bronx studying art and photography.” By 1982, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company “was well on its way to becoming a living treasure of American culture,” but Arnie died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1988. Jones subsequently choreographed a wide range of well-received pieces, eventually winning two Tony awards, for Spring Awakening and Fela! I know him best for a dance he choreographed for a production based on the life of Abraham Lincoln, which my wife saw last summer at SPAC.

Oprah Winfrey. What’s to say? She’s a “producer, television host, actress, major player on Broadway and in Hollywood, author and self-made billionaire philanthropist” who overcame a very tough childhood. I must admit that I have seldom watched her program, particularly in recent years, but one episode I did see definitely stood out: the nine black kids who integrated the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, and some of the white kids who taunted them, 50 years later. It was a healing moment that made for great television.

Finally, Paul McCartney. He’s Sir Beatle Paul, FCOL. When Paul left the Beatles in 1970, he worked really hard to avoid even playing Beatles songs. Eventually, he started putting a few in, but he seemed to want to make sure that his new stuff wasn’t overshadowed. I recall that Elvis Costello had to push him into using the Beatlesque bass line of My Brave Face. Now that he’s 64-plus, he seems comfortable with his place in history, playing the last concert at Shea Stadium in 2008, and the first concert in the new Citi Field in 2009, echoing the Beatles at Shea in 1965. He’s become the legacy Beatle, as opposed to Ringo’s All-Starr gigs, which, no disrespect, always felt like the oldies-tour Beatles. Good Evening New York City, from that 2009 gig, might be the best live album he’s ever done, and I recommend it, especially with the DVD. In particular, Here Today, his tribute to John Lennon from the early 1980s, always felt a little cloying, but here, with Paul describing John’s love for NYC, quite touching.

And Macca seems to have developed quite the sense of humor about himself, as evidenced by his recent appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – Scrambled Eggs!- and Saturday Night Live.

An American Need

Listening to the podcast of Arthur@AmeriNZ recently. He noted that Rachel Maddow of MSNBC apologized to US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for calling him Bernie. Arthur, an American now living in New Zealand was amused/bemused by this apology. In his adopted nation, the prime minister is first among equals, and is referred to by the first name; the same tends to be true in the UK and in other countries that used to be called the British Commonwealth.

So what do they have that the United States doesn’t have?

They have a queen. Queen Elizabeth II, or her representative.

Whereas the United States, the anti-monarchical nation, has a much formal structure for addressing its leaders, “Mr. President,” and the like.

I had to laugh when Michelle Obama, speaking about Hillary, referred to her as “Senator, er, Secretary Clinton — almost said, President Clinton.” Whereas the UK, NZ, Australia use up their formality quotient on royalty.

Like John Oliver, the Senior British Person on the Daily Show noted a couple of weeks back, “the Brits have actual royalty, which is ‘why we can treat our political leaders like the disposable bureaucrats that they are.'”

So it’s obvious: the United States needs royalty.

Seriously, I thought that Ronald Reagan should have been king. For reasons I don’t need to get into, I was not crazy about his politics. At the same time, I recognized the positive impact his optimism had on certain segments of the populace. I decided around 1984 that I did not want him as President, but that he would be great as monarch. He said warm and fuzzy things about “morning in America”; we could feel good about ourselves without him having to have real power that could turn into Iran contra or the like.

So who should be our royal now? I’m not sure. Maybe Queen of All Media Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps a popular Olympiad from the most recent games. Or the mirror ball winner on Dancing with the Stars.

It’d be like king or queen of the prom. We can get all pomp and circumstancy with a royal. Then Rachel Maddow can call senator Sanders Bernie, like, he told her, everyone else does.

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