“Great, now I have to buy the White Album again.” That’s an old joke that circulates every time audio platforms change. With today’s 25th anniversary reissue of Paul Simon’s Graceland, I wonder how many copies of that album I’ll have to buy over the years.
Actually I don’t think I’ve ever actually bought Graceland. My first copy was my dad’s cassette. I “borrowed” it after seeing a television commercial for a local radio station that was promoting their format using the song You Can Call Me Al. I was probably around 15 and I hadn’t heard the song in a while but I remembered liking it. I remembered watching the music video with Chevy Chase. So I listened to the cassette and found that actually, Graceland had a lot of good songs on it. Like, all of ’em. I played through that tape over and over again until it broke.
For my birthday, I asked for and received the CD version. I still have that copy. It’s a good thing I caught that commercial, because Graceland wound up being the most influential music of my life. I loved the album so much I took a college course about African music, which led to some other ill-advised classes, which led to me writing my senior thesis about the album. When I was writing the paper, unbelievably happy that I’d actually figured out a way to turn listening to Graceland into homework, I wrote to Paul Simon and asked him for a phone interview that I could incorporate into the paper. Much to my amazement, I received a response.
The response was no. But as a consolation prize, I was sent some materials about Graceland, including a copy of the album on CD with “enhanced” content. (Requirements to view enhanced content: Windows 3.1, double-speed CD-ROM drive and 486 DX processor.) I remember promising to send the Paul Simon people a copy of my thesis when I finished. I never did and I’ve always sort of regretted it.
I have a third copy of the CD with bonus tracks, including a beautiful demo of the song Homeless, which I like better than the version on the album. The demo has Paul’s intended minor chords and harmonies, which Ladysmith Black Mambazo could not reproduce. I do not remember how or when I acquired this version of the album, which is probably the only thing I don’t know about Graceland.
Graceland wasn’t the only thing of Paul Simon’s I loved. I loved Simon & Garfunkel and I loved There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and I loved all the introspective lyrics and I loved the man himself. Still do. He takes his time between albums but his body of work is brilliant. In the last 12 years, he has made three very different albums that are all excellent. So many artists today release album after album of songs that sound the same, that sound like that one song that hit, and it’s clear they don’t know what they are doing. Even older artists that were once great often snowball downhill after a certain point. (Yeah, I’m looking at you Paul McCartney.) But Paul Simon continues to reinvent and restructure and experiment with music and sounds and he does it incredibly well. Just last year he released a song called Rewrite (from So Beautiful or So What), which is one of my favorite songs he has ever done. Not bad for an old guy.
I know there was a lot of controversy surrounding Graceland. Believe me, I know. I wrote about 50 pages on it. Some accused Paul of exploiting the South African musicians and stealing their music. Please. Look at this man’s career. There is no dearth of creativity or imagination here. Graceland was, exactly as Paul and the South African musicians have said, a collaboration among musicians who respected each other.
So, am I going to have to own four copies of Graceland now? Yeah, probably. Maybe some of the people in the picked over music industry of today should buy it too, and see the types of things they could be doing with a little imagination.