Note, August 2015: This is the birth of a new theme — first conceived nearly three years ago. I was consumed with creating playlists for all occasions. I envisioned my blog would be about music and nothing else. Each post would feature a favorite song, and I would present it ‘in all its glory.’ And now, here it is … Everything in its own good time, right? I hope you’ll share your thoughts, including those about your favorite songs — particularly ones that speak to your hearts and souls.
“Graceland,” the song, first played across the airwaves in November 1986. I’m sure I first heard it in my car because that’s where I learned of a lot of new music then. Paul Simon, of course, was not new to me, but he – as a solo artist – had essentially been MIA since his upbeat 1980 hit “Late in the Evening.”
Although Simon and Art Garfunkel had scored success with their free benefit concert in and for New York City’s Central Park (September 1981), there was discord between the duo and a subsequent second parting of the ways; the first being in 1970. More blues followed Simon when his sixth solo album, “Hearts and Bones,” failed in 1983, and his second marriage to actress/writer Carrie Fisher ended in July 1984 – less than a year after it began.
Then in 1986, “Graceland” (the album and the song) was released, and it signaled a rebirth for Simon both personally and professionally. Not only his die-hard American fans but also the greater world audience were eagerly awaiting this fresh, vibrant blending of world music. Since its release, “Graceland,” the album, has sold over 15 million copies worldwide. In 1987, it won both Album and Record of the Year Grammy Awards. Critics hailed it as “the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured.” In 2007, it was added to the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
Still, it hasn’t been without controversy. During the time Simon was conceiving of and recording the album (1985 – 86), there was a cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world against South Africa’s policy of apartheid. He not only recorded music in Johannesburg, but he also collaborated with African musicians and faced criticism from Artists United Against Apartheid and the African National Congress, which voted to ban him from the country. For a short time, he was on the United Nations blacklist.
Simon, however, was unapologetic and blunt in his criticism of the politicizing that he felt ultimately “screwed” the African artists who had agreed to work with him, and who would eventually embark on a world tour with him — the tour Rolling Stone magazine, July 1987, called “Paul Simon’s Amazing Graceland Tour.” In another statement to his critics, Simon said that “Graceland” represented “the essence of anti-apartheid because it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed.”
Eventually “Graceland” — conceived during a time of depression in 1984, when Simon became energized by a bootleg cassette of South African Zulu a cappella singing and Zulu music akin to African jazz — would go on to be recognized as 71st in a Rolling Stone list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” In interviews, Simon has said the album and song are his favorites, “the best I ever did.” I agree. As much as I love Simon’s earlier music — “The Boxer,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and “Late in the Evening,” just to name a few — “Graceland” is my favorite Simon album and song. (Although, “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” on the same album give it stiff competition.)
“Graceland” is a song that makes me want to both dance and cry. There’s sadness in its mournful lyrics: She comes back to tell me she’s gone, as if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed, as if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead. And she said losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart. Everybody sees the wind blow.
And yet, there’s hope in its rhythm and its repeating refrain: I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland. Graceland, in Memphis Tennessee … The King of Rock and Roll’s estate … where Simon could be reborn both musically and spiritually after his professional and personal disappointments. Simon said he started calling his song “Graceland” after he composed it because it reminded him of the Sun Records sound where Elvis recorded. And, he actually drove to Graceland from Louisiana with his son: My traveling companion is nine years old. He is the child of my first marriage.
Simon has said, “There was an almost mystical affection and strange familiarity I felt when I first heard South African music.” I believe this mystical/spiritual connection is what people all over the world — including me — felt when they heard “Graceland” and rushed to buy the CD. The Zulu music and singing resonate deep within our hearts and bones, which makes perfect sense when you consider that Africa is “the cradle of humankind.”
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received