Great Albums of the 20th Century: Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986)

Paul Simon - GRACELAND - 1986

As decades begin to accumulate after an album’s release, the historical context can fade, especially for those not even born when it hit the market. Paul Simon’s Graceland arrived four years before South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist, was unconditionally released after 27 years in prison, five years before apartheid was finally abolished, and eight years before Mandela himself was elected president in South Africa’s first multiracial general election.

Before Graceland, South Africa’s long and distinctive musical heritage was largely unknown beyond its borders, aside from occasional glimpses provided by records such as the 1952 Weavers song “Wimoweh” (based on South African artist Solomon Linda’s “Mbube”…or Lion), which The Tokens, in turn, heavily revised for their 1961 pop hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (reaching #1 on the Billboard Top 100). World music aficionado Peter Gabriel has this to say about Graceland’s cultural impact:

Prior to Graceland, the music of South Africa was largely unknown outside the country, except to a small minority of world music fans… The music at its best brimmed with life and emotion and was charged with a blend of spirituality and sensuality. With his elegant composition and diffident observations, Paul Simon fused these elements with his own extraordinary songwriting skills. He produced an irresistible and classic album which I have played many, many times.

Simon, at this point in his career, had already ventured into world music with Peruvian folk instrumentalists Los Incas on “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” from the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water…and with members of ska and reggae artist Jimmy Cliff’s backing group on the 1972 single “Mother and Child Reunion,” recorded in Kingston, Jamaica (interestingly, the only country where this single reached #1 was South Africa, fourteen years before Graceland). But Simon’s career had been in decline in the 1980s. Hearts and Bones, the album which preceded Graceland, was a commercial and critical disappointment, and Simon has said about this period in his life that he felt he’d irretrievably lost his inspiration.

But a singer/songwriter named Heidi Berg, with whom he’d been working at the time, made him a cassette of an instrumental album entitled “Gumboots: Accordion Jive Volume II,” a compilation of South African mbaqanga music. As Billboard Editor-in-Chief Timothy White writes in the liner notes for the tenth anniversary edition of Graceland:

Simon was fascinated by the gliding, harmony-laced tumult of the Boyoyo Boys Band and other township jive artists from the dusty lanes of Soweto. He contacted Johannesburg producer Hilton Rosenthal, who mailed him another 20 albums’ worth of the segregated work camps’ best acts. The sessions that ensued in London and in New York with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and in Los Angeles with South African guitarist Chikapa “Ray” Phiri’s popular Gallo Records group, Stimela, lent shape to the Graceland epic.

Like he’d done with “Mother and Child Reunion” years before, Simon laid down the tracks first and then, back home, created lyrics to fit. It took him quite a while to find the right words for the complicated syncopation of the layered tracks. “Lyrics like ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party’ were written,” Simon says, “not just to tell a story but to carefully scan with the rhythms.”

This thoughtful collaboration is the heart and soul of Graceland. As White comments in the liner notes:

The essential prayer of all those downtrodden or captive to injustice is that their predicament might resonate in the hearts of honorable people, however distant, as if compassion were a rhythmic sonority that no obstruction could impede or subdue. For the black citizens of Soweto, as well as those elsewhere who were touched by their suffering and resilient spirit, the sincerity of superstar Paul Simon’s interest in the proud messages of South Africa’s proletarian music seemed a miraculous gesture of respect in synch with many of the country’s deepest longings and convictions. Unpolitical in its agenda and unconditional in its enthusiasm, Simon’s reflex passion for [this] music…signified a turning point in the modern appreciation of black South Africa’s hybrid rural/ghetto heritage, cementing its worth at home as well as abroad.

The album starts off with the lone, exotic sound of Lesotho musician Forere Motloheloa’s accordion, followed up immediately by the shocking timing of Vusi Khumalo’s initial drum licks and the freedom in Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass. Here was an opening sound like no other Paul Simon project, compelling from its first measure, and when Simon begins to sing about “the days of miracle and wonder,” the listener feels fully admitted to the epiphany to come. This opening track, The Boy in the Bubble, provides a dramatic catalogue of contemporary images:

It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio…

It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere

—“The Boy in the Bubble” ©1986 Paul Simon (BMI)

The title track, Graceland, comes next, featuring backing vocals by the Everly Brothers and extolling the mysterious virtues of a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee:

For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland
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
In Graceland

—“Graceland” ©1986 Paul Simon (BMI)

Ray Phiri’s guitar is particularly inventive on this track, and the rhythm section provides an irrepressible energy. The lyrics are again far-ranging and yet startlingly introspective.

The Gaza Sisters provide backing vocals in the Shangaan language on the third track, I Know What I Know…and theirs is a strangely beguiling jolt of sound, coming in unexpectedly to catch the listener off-guard, an effect Simon planned. Gaza Sister Sonti Mndebele explains: “It’s different because it’s like you’re singing out of tune sometimes, but that is how it should sound.” The tempo is fast, the lyrics providing snatches of conversation at a party where hollow posturing is the order of the day.

The Boyoyo Boys are featured on Gumboots, a track as fast-paced and unpredictable as a New York taxi ride, and the a cappella singers of the Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo introduce the opening bars of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, which Simon co-wrote with group leader Joseph Shabalala. This distinctive vocal sound has become familiar now, but in 1986 it was as exotic and compelling as a first hearing of the female singers on Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”), an album released in the US a year later.

Fifty-seven seconds in, the choral intro ends and Ray Phiri’s animated guitar introduces the next part of this song, blending lyrics about life in New York with the irrepressible vitality of the South African musicians. Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass is particularly memorable here, bouncing free and feckless, irresistibly upbeat.

The biggest single from the album is its sixth track, You Can Call Me Al, which Al Gore used in his 2000 presidential campaign and, speaking personally as someone who named himself Al in the fifth grade (from my initials), I love my association with this song. The names “Al” and “Betty” in the lyrics came from a party attended by Simon and Peggy Harper, his wife at the time, during which French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez mistakenly referred to the couple as “Al and Betty.”

Unlike most of the album’s tracks, this song was recorded completely in New York. The session date was in April 1986, which is not only my birth month but the month and year my son Graham was born. It reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the Top Five in seven countries.

From the track’s opening bars, Rob Mounsey’s synthesizer and the guitar synthesizer played by King Crimson’s Adrian Belew are key components in a compelling riff later picked up by horns and woodwinds. The syncopated township jive in the rhythm section is impossible to resist, with standout work by drummer Isaac Mtshali (his emphasis on the last beat in the four-beat measure is particularly effective) and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose bass run at Time 3:44 is palindromed by engineer Roy Halee, who only recorded the first half and then played it backwards to make the second half. There’s even a pennywhistle solo by jazz musician Morris Goldberg, which is a perfect sound for a song with such sheer exuberance.

Under African Skies provides a duet with Linda Ronstadt, vocals recorded in LA, instrumentals in New York, its lyrics looking for commonalities in the lives of two musicians, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabalala and Ronstadt herself. While the melody is wistful and affecting, Simon’s lyrics here are perhaps the weakest on the album, particularly how little is offered about Shabalala: we learn he’s black, his eyes reflecting “the pale yellow moon”…that he likes to take nocturnal walks…and has lived in Africa all his life. Sometimes, scant detail can be productively suggestive, but in this case not so much. There are more details about Ronstadt: her childhood in Tucson, Arizona, her own ethnic musical heritage, and how musical aspiration might lead her away from both. But in the end, for me, this song is far more compelling for its sounds than for any universal truths it tries to conjure up.

Homeless provides another duet with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the music from Shabalala, adapting a Zulu wedding song. The bilingual lyrics offer the album’s most generous sampling of Zulu words, which are themselves a kind of music to Western ears. In the “somebody say” sections, the African singers articulate a distinctive sonic effect, equal parts heartbeat, breath, and determination, rendered in the printed lyrics as “ih hih ih hih ih.” Once you hear it, you never lose its echo.

The last three tracks offer another collaboration with Ray Phiri (his skittering guitar opens Crazy Love Vol. II) and new collaborations with the Cajun zydeco band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters (That Was Your Mother) and the East LA Chicano rock of Los Lobos (All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints). Placed at the end of the album, these two songs are heard with fresh sonic perspective after our extended exposure to the African sounds and arrangements on the first nine tracks.

In a documentary on the 10th Anniversary edition, Ray Phiri says, “Paul was the one who was brave enough to say, ‘Listen, man, it’s all about music at the end of the day. Let’s have fun.’” That spirit shines through every song on this Grammy-winning album.

 

In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.

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The Passion

Detail from Vienna Museum - 12Oxvii

The Passion

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Maundy Thursday

At the moment during Holy Week when Jesus redefined
two common objects from the dinner table,
we were cracking open fortunes at a Chinese restaurant down the street,
your daughter and her friend on the manic side of mid-teen life,
full of laughter and the secret language of confidantes,
while we three elders—you, me, the friend’s mother—absent-
mindedly twirled Asian aphorisms around arthritic fingers.

None of the fortunes spoke of nails.

When on that evening Jesus gathered up his befuddled eleven
for a stroll through the streets of the old city to the eastern gate,
seeking the road to the foot of Olivet, the path to that famous garden,
we were sorting out whose house the girls might sleep over,
there being no chance they should face this night alone.

The mother of the friend pushed hard
to bring them to her home, saying she
hadn’t seen her daughter all week, though you
could say the same. It was the hour for finding solace
in whatever remnants of family could be arranged.

When he brought them to Gethsemane to support him as he prayed,
at that dark hour you’d already released her, and you and I
returned home to talk about your difficult week at work
and keep watch with each other through the night.

At about the hour the crowd entered the Garden, carrying swords and torches,
your son, so soon college-bound, suddenly arrived
in the full array of high school fashion,
mumbling sidekick in tow, here to pick up something and be off. Tomorrow
he and his girlfriend board a train to Boston to check out schools,
returning sometime Sunday. You pressed for more details: when Sunday?
You know it’s Easter, you reminded him.

But he wasn’t thinking of Easter tonight, nor did the disciples
who ran up the dark slopes in selfish fear, abandoning their messiah.
At least your son did not betray you with a kiss, nor did he run away naked,
like the mysterious young man in Mark’s Gospel.

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Good Friday

It was a workday; the weather uncertain.
You had a meeting; I had inspections to make.

In Jerusalem that day, Jesus endured a whirlwind of trials,
before the Sanhedrin, before Herod, before Pilate.
Passover was coming at sundown. That was the deadline.

I’d stopped at the hardware store, running an errand,
and had my hands in a drawer full of nails
when I realized with a shudder it was the hour
the nails were pounded into his flesh.
I threw my silver coins on the counter and hastily withdrew.

The skies darkened but no curtain I know of
was torn today. I found it difficult to pray
with that paper bag of nails on the backseat of my car.

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Holy Saturday

My son’s gone to his mother’s in Virginia; my daughter
drives down here from Syracuse later today
to go with me to church in the morning. This is a day of waiting.
I have taxes to do, and straightening up around the house.

The body was brought to the tomb and left there,
vague prophecies not clearly understood. You prefer
the Easter Vigil service, you tell me on the phone,
but I’m expecting my daughter at that hour. We can’t agree
on the details. You have things to do, too, you say.
It’s best to keep busy when you’re waiting.

.

Easter

I’m not a morning person. Let the other disciples get up early.

But I don’t dispute the resurrection, or the account of the women
who ran back from the place where the body had been taken.

If it were a fiction of the time, a more convincing narrative
would feature the men making the crucial discovery.

But the story’s subsidiary details strike me as authentic. I have my hands
on the knot of my tie, ignoring the clock
for a second, until my daughter calls up to me.

The church will be more crowded than was that garden at that hour.
You and your daughter have made other plans. We’ll try for lunch later.

The miracle prompting the occasion remains embedded in my soul,
but whatever prayers it may inspire will have to be postponed.

.

© 2013 Al Hudgins

Great Albums of the 20th Century: Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Harry Nilsson -Nilsson Schmilsson - obt28Rxvii

When the Showtime series Billions premiered its second season opener earlier this year, the first music heard (on a show that prides itself on its insider trendiness) was Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” a 46-year-old track from his seventh and most commercially successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson. I imagine most viewers had no idea how old this music was or that the man who’d written and performed it had been dead nearly a quarter-century. But I knew this piece from its opening heartbeat and bass riff, and I realized how much I wanted to hear the album again.

A few weeks later, facing a seven-hour drive south to my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, I brought along some CDs, including this one. Since I was traveling solo, I could crank it up as loud as it deserved. How quickly the miles slipped by!

The progression of ten songs (seven of which Nilsson wrote) presents the events and moods of a day chronologically, starting with the ebullient Gotta Get Up, a wakeup call I’ve always wanted to wire into my alarm clock. Just piano at first, banging its insistence into a groggy subconscious, then backed by bass and a vocal that provides context. The singer’s waking up somewhere other than home, telling himself to get up and get back before the morning comes…before the sun comes up. The demands of the day urging him on, he offers a quick goodbye: Got a big day, sorry, can’t stay—I gotta run, run, yeah, gotta get home, pick up the phone, gotta let the people know I’m gonna be late. By now horns and an accordion have joined in, and when we hit the bridge, things take a wistful turn and the lyrics speak of how much harder it is now to stay out late than it used to be (we never thought we’d get older, we never thought we’d grow cold). When the bridge comes around again, it tells the story of a sailor and a seaside girl that’s sweet in its nostalgia but succinct in its details, as much in a hurry as everything else in this song.

The first track fades out under the start of the second track, Driving Along, guitar, bass, and drums setting an agreeable pace as a car door shuts and an engine is turned over a few times. His car seems as worn out as he is…eventually starting, sending him off into the traffic with everyone else. He muses about the lives of the people in the other cars, how isolated they are and how stressed (faces so tired of facing each other), but at the bridge, his mood shifts and he’s tripping now (driving along at fifty-seven thousand miles an hour, look at those people standing on the petals of a flower) and before you know it, he’s doing Beatlesque harmonies and an arrangement straight out of Sgt. Pepper. This is, my friends, how all commutes should go.

As before, the next song overlaps slightly, a lightly-played organ rising up from the fade-out. The lyrics of this third track, Early One Morning, delve a little deeper into what went wrong the night before, how desperately he’d like to fix things, and how haggard he’s looking (Harry, you sure look beat, says the waitress serving him breakfast). In contrast to him singing, over and over, I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues, the organ chords are in a major key and relentlessly persist to the end. These contradictions work, providing a kind of threadbare hope.

Track Four, The Moonbeam Song, is the sweetest tribute to rubble and ruin you’ll ever hear, and once again the mood is captured perfectly in the lyrics Nilsson croons and its languid, mesmerizing arrangement. The haunting mellotron that ends the piece hearkens back once again to the psychedelic euphoria of Sgt. Pepper, released only four years before, which seems both present and past.

Introspection done, the album moves into resolve. A boogie piano starts Down (Track Five), punched up by drums from Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos) and Nilsson’s wailing instructions:

Well, you gotta have soul to wash your sins away,
& you gotta have hope—it’s the price you gotta pay,
& you gotta give love, or your love will walk away,
& you gotta stay loose—it’s the only way to stay.
Down, you got me goin’
Goin’ round, you got me goin’
Down, d-d-down, d-d-down.

By now, the horns, Klaus Voorman’s bass, and reverb on the vocal have kicked in, and the song revels in its swagger, its assurance, and also a kind of whimsy woven into the mix. By the end of the track, something in the lively mix almost suggests a crowd has gathered, an audience of all those people from the morning commute now gathered in one place, trying to do the best they can.

Opening Side 2 of the vinyl record is the biggest of the album’s three hit singles: Without You, which reached #1 on two Billboard charts: Pop Single & Adult Contemporary. Penned by a couple of members from the British group Badfinger, the song begins with solo piano (played by Gary Wright, four years before he released Dream Weaver) and a heartbreaking vocal that Richard Perry, the album’s producer, claims was done in a single take. Nilsson, a tenor with a three-and-a-half-octave range, performs perfectly here, every note richly nuanced with pain, regret, and longing. The song won the 1973 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal, an award it richly deserves.

What do you do when you’ve lost the love of your life? The next two songs offer options. Here’s the prescription provided by Coconut, a playful calypso number:

Brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime;
His sister had another one, she paid it for de lime.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put the lime in de coconut, she called the doctor,
woke him up & said, “Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take,
I said, Doctor, to relieve this bellyache?”

At Perry’s suggestion, Nilsson sings all four characters in this tale: the narrator, the brother, the sister, and the doctor, and his vocal dexterity is remarkable, but what really wows the writer in me are Nilsson’s lyrics—how spare they are and yet how complete (Nilsson was #62 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time,” a list released in 2015). “Coconut” went to #8 on the Billboard Pop Single chart in 1972. Once you’ve heard it, you never forget it.

The other option? Let the Good Times Roll, recorded by Shirley and Lee in 1956 (they also wrote it). In Nilsson’s version, the carefree abandon in his vocal, especially as the song goes on, is a perfect antidote to all the heartache in the earlier tracks. His nonchalant harmonica solo underscores that attitude, and the multi-track vocals that end it are a fitting sendoff.

But the party is interrupted by that percussive heartbeat triggering the all-out rock of Jump Into the Fire, another Nilsson original and the album’s third hit single in as many styles. No matter what feats you accomplish, he sings, you’ll never be free. Great band on this one, including a hypnotic Jim Gordon drum solo that recalls Ringo Starr on The Beatles’ The End or Ron Bushy on Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, my holy trinity of classic rock drum solos, actually. Herbie Flowers’ bass joins in and works an inspired solo of his own, and then the guitars return: John Uribe (lead), Chris Spedding and Klaus Voorman (rhythm). On piano, Nilsson handles electric, Jim Webb acoustic. Nearly seven minutes of pure energy, this one.

The day is done at last with Track Ten: I’ll Never Leave You. Some nights, I go to sleep without you, he sings over a solo piano and the slightest touch of a triangle (by which I mean the percussion instrument, but a romantic triangle would also work here, a subtlety in arrangement not beyond Nilsson’s powers). It’s a plaintive cri de coeur from a moment of longing in the dark night, and as the song nears its three-minute mark, the singer’s voice is multiplied and echoed as he repeats I’ll never leave you alone, almost as if he means to haunt her soul. It’s been a long day, and, in the end, she is all that matters.

In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.

Hemlocks

eastern-hemlock-grove-in-tiadaghton-sta-forest-pa-edited-fx-2

There is a cathedral
hemlocks make:

those soaring columns,
sturdy enough to shoulder heaven,

raise high a vault
of evergreen thatch

to shade this unexpected sanctuary
the trail reverently enters.

.

I hear the undertones of evensong
when the wind stirs the highest boughs,

dropping tiny cones at my feet,
like so many mustard seeds,

the ground swept clear of weeds
by fallen needles woven together like prayers.

.

The impenitent glare of the sun
has been politely ushered out

and everything that echoes inside me
is suddenly hushed,

as if a service
were about to start

or the voice of silence
about to speak.

.

© 2006 Al Hudgins