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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Music > Rock > Soul > World Music > Albums > Classic Albums: Paul Simon - Graceland

Classic Albums: Paul Simon Ė Graceland


Picture: C†††† Sound: C†††† Extras: B-†††† Program: A-



Thereís a dream I have of a journey that Iíll one day take.In the dream I travel by train, other times by car.Always, though, Iím moving southward through sun and the sound of rushing water.Thereís a radio that plays and the landscape is floating.Iím moving through this country: road signs and TV towers, fruit stands and children.Dogs barking outside of crumbling shacks.Iím traveling to Memphis searching for Graceland.Dreaming high gates and shiny cars.And all the time there is the music.


In 1986 Paul Simon was a dangerous man because he made that same journey, only his train traveled by way of South Africa.Crossing the line of international borders and cultural boycotts and landing on the minefield of apartheid, Simon embraced the musical forms of black South Africa.Although it garnered him quite a lot of negative press, the typical Elvis put-down of the white man co-opting black music and making millions while the black artists toiled in penniless obscurity, the resulting album also won Grammys and critical acclaim.More astounding for a record that could have been a politically charged disaster, Graceland went on to sell over 14 million copies arguably doing more to advance the cause of black South Africa than all of the handwringing and tongueclucking of sympathetic western governments.


But that was the late 1980s.Where does this landmark album stand now in our post-Mandela age?Eagle Visionís excellent new entry into their Classic Albums series goes a long way in providing a basis for understanding Gracelandís cultural moment.Itís genesis, recording, and impact are all discussed in length by the responsible parties.As I have come to expect from this series, the interviews are interesting and cogent.The examination of the recording process is a fascinating dissection of the record, exploring its birth in the lengthy jams that took place in South African studios, and then the fine-tuning and tinkering that took place back in New York as Simon set about creating songs out of the mass of new music.


Again, though, I have to wonder what does Graceland mean today?Is it merely an artifact of its day, or does it continue to speak to us now even though the cultural landscape has changed so drastically?Had Paul Simon simply intended to make a sort of anti-apartheid protest album, then yes, Graceland would now exist as little more than pop curio; a collection of songs that served its purpose, a demarcation of how it was way back when.Graceland, however, is not an overtly political record, even though its circumstance is swimming in harsh politics.


Graceland is a record about personal crisis.Itís an evocation of a desire to rise above the sterile emptiness of a life lived in relative privilege.And while the songs often use imagery pulled from global culture, such ideas of medicine and warfare are used as examples of the larger forces that impede upon and interject into our rather small, everyday concerns.The love songs are interrupted by visions of science and magic, commerce and religion.Lyrically and musically, Graceland is so richly textured it offers a world, violent and touching, that Simon lovingly explores.


Which returns me to my recurring dream, archetypally American, which crystallize for me so much about the experience of living in America.Elvis Presleyís Graceland is such an over-the-top example of American excess, of an ostentatiousness that borders on camp and that in the end is self-devouring.At the same time Graceland is a familyís home, a place for meals and quiet contemplation, of small moments shared with loved ones.Graceland is both amusement park and homestead, success and tragedy.More than any other location in this country, I believe that Graceland says everything there is to say about America.


And Graceland, the album, is itself still offering pertinent observations of who we are as individuals and as a country.How could an album that begins with a drumbeat as thick and heavy as a missile blast, and the following lyrics:


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



Önot be relevant today?




-†† Kris Collins




Kristofer Collins is the owner of Desolation Row CDs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and can be contacted at desolationrowcds@hotmail.com



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