A Fireworks Display Made in Heaven: Looking Back at Graceland, 25 Years On

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“There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows. The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.”

The words carried the urgency of a dispatch from a war-zone, but they fell with languid grace to a melody that swooned, buoyed by the kick of the drums and the pop-and-slide of the fretless bass.

I first heard these sounds at a house-party in Kensington, Johannesburg, deep in the heart of the State of Emergency in 1986, and they stopped me in my tracks.

This was the album everyone had been talking about. This was the man who had come from New York City on a pilgrimage to the roots of rhythm. This was Graceland.

Now it is 25 years later, and Paul Simon and his entourage – including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri, Barney Rachabane and others from the old crew – are touring the world again, starting with a concert in Hyde Park in London this weekend. This time, alas, we don’t appear to be on the map.

It feels like a letdown, an affront even, but it seems churlish to complain, because Graceland itself is the map: the epicentre, the point of embarkation, the cradle that keeps on rocking.

Every good poet is a prophet too, and Paul Simon, more than many of us, imagined the kind of society that would be born when the shrapnel stopped raining, and the bright light turned out to be a rainbow in the sky.

“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” he sang. “This is the long-distance call.”

The distance of memory is bridged with music, and even today, when I hear the opening chords of that piano accordion, and the mortar-thuds of percussion on The Boy in the Bubble, my heartbeat trips and the blood rushes to my head.

This music is an act of alchemy, a combustion of cultures and contradictions, energies and ideas sparking off each other and spinning in infinity. Graceland is a fireworks display made in heaven.

Our long lost pal is 70 now, and still he has to justify and defend what he did in 1985, coming to Johannesburg not to perform, but to play in a studio with singers and musicians who had to carry passes in their pockets and hurry home to the townships when darkness fell.

South Africa was an island in the mid-80s, ringed by razor wire, cold-shouldered by the world. Paul Simon had slipped beneath the barricades, a foreign man surrounded by the sounds that had seduced him when he first heard that bootleg tape of accordion jive by the Boyoyo Boys.

Beyond the waters, the air was toxic and laced with seething. Bruce and Bono and Bob Dylan and the gang were singing “We ain’t gonna play Sun City”; the Special AKA were singing “Free Nelson Mandela”; and an Irish duo called Microdisney released an album with a title that shocked me when I thumbed across it in the racks at the Hillbrow Look & Listen. We Hate You South African Bastards.

Then I realised that they probably didn’t hate each and every one of us; just a select minority. But I had heard Graceland, and in an odd way it felt good to be connected to something that was loved and worth loving. The music of South Africa.

So when Paul Simon came back to Africa, on Valentine’s Day in 1987, I was there at Rufaro Stadium in Harare to greet him.

It was the Graceland Concert, a jubilation, a revival, an almost-homecoming, with only the Limpopo and the Apartheid regime to stop the music from seeping back to its roots. Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba were on the bill too; they hadn’t been back home in more than two decades.

The night before the gig, there was a Press conference at a smart hotel in the city. A South African journalist opened by asking Paul Simon how he felt about bringing the show to Zimbabwe, on the doorstep of South Africa. “Very excited,” said Simon. Then the real questions started.

As I listen to the tape now, through all the hiss and warble of the years, I can hear the exasperation in Simon’s voice as he outlines his understanding of the UN-backed cultural boycott he was accused of breaking. Technically, he did break it, by venturing into South Africa to make music without the formal blessing of the ANC-in-exile.

But he felt he could make a stronger, “more real” statement against Apartheid by working with South African musicians, and composing songs that would fit with their music.

He said that people who viewed the world through a political spectrum,  rather than a cultural spectrum, had advised him not to go, no matter how good his intentions were. And if he had gone, he should have made music that was strictly, specifically anti-Apartheid. “And there,” he said, “is where the disagreement occurred.”

Was Paul Simon naïve about the politics of the cultural boycott? Was he simply arrogant? Was he wrong to make Graceland in the country of its genesis, rather than by remote control, in New York? Were all the musicians wrong to accept his invitation? Were Hugh and Miriam wrong to join him on the tour?

Then a foreign correspondent stood up, and under the guise of asking a question, made a statement.

He said he found it very strange that an artist of Paul Simon’s stature would name an album of South African music after a mansion that was associated with the slave trade of the American South.

Paul Simon looked stunned. He explained, slowly, that the home of Elvis Presley was never a slave mansion. It had been built by a Greek chiropractor, who had named it after his wife, whose name was Grace. The next day, there was music.

Paul Simon wore a white tee-shirt and black jeans, and he cradled a semi-acoustic guitar that shone under African skies. All around him was the blare of brass and the trill of the pennywhistle and the galloping of congas, and the voices, soaring in song. The beatific smile almost never left his face.

Hugh Masakela strode onto the stage, put a trumpet to his lips, and parped a fanfare into a chant for freedom: “Bring back! Nelson Mandela! Bring him back home to So-we-to!” Then he did a little dance with his elbows at his sides, shuffling the way Madiba would, just three years down the line.

The air was filled with hope and longing. Miriam Makeba sang a duet with Simon, twirling the line about the girl from Tuscon, Arizona, into a wistful memory of the girl from the township of Mofolo.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo snaked in from the wings, waving their hands, stepping lightly, as if they had diamonds on the soles of their shoes. “Hello my baby,” they sang, over and over. “Hello my sweet.”

The other day, I played Graceland on the car stereo, and my travelling companion, my 14-year-old son, wrinkled his nose and said, “What’s this weird music?” I told him, and he went back to fiddling with his BB.

Later in the week, I heard You Can Call Me Al pumping from his bedroom. He had downloaded the album onto his phone. I was astounded. He could have just asked me for the CD.

This music has swirled inside my head for 25 years; it has occupied my heart and soul. But only recently have I heard it for what it really is: an album of Gospel music, about a man trapped in a mid-life crisis, searching for his state of grace, his shot at redemption, his reason to believe. He found it here.

Graceland is its own best argument against the politics and the politicians, the boycotts and the protestors, and as much as we may say that Paul Simon came to take the music that gave life to his songs, he left behind as much as he took.

An album that helped to open South Africa to the world, and in its own small way, helped to make the world a more joyful and noisy place. These are the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain.

*This piece was written for the Mail & Guardian onlinehttp://mg.co.za/article/2012-07-11-the-path-to-graceland

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“I ache in the places where I used to play”: An Evening with Leonard Cohen in Sydney, Monday, November 8, 2010

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The lights go down and the ceremony begins.
They stride onto the stage, briskly, with purpose, a procession in black suits and black felt fedoras.
You wonder which one of them could be the Master, but as they take their places at their microphones and instruments, the lights fade back up and he is nowhere to be seen.
A few heartbeats go by, and then he walks in from the wings, with a wry smile and a doff of his Humphrey Bogart hat.
His jacket and trousers are hanging a little baggy, his grey shirt is buttoned up to the neck. But he looks dapper, urbane, like a Sicilian patrician, or the Man from Prudential.
He steeples his hands in greeting, he bows his head, and the band begins to play.
He is three-score-and-ten-and-six now, and when he drops to one knee at the feet of the seated guitarist, to sing the opening line of Dance Me to the End of Love – “Dance me to your beauty like a burning violin” – he looks prayerful and beseeching in his posture of atonement.
But we are sitting in judgement, on a cool November night in the Acer Arena at the Sydney Olympic Park, and all he has to do to win our forgiveness is to sing.
He is standing in the pool of light, his shoulders hunched, his knees bent, bird-like, bird-on-the-wire-like. His hands enfold the microphone and his eyes are shut, hooded by the brim of his hat.
His voice seems to have dropped a register over the years, but it is still as strong as the mountains, as dark as the night, and the songs are monumental.
They have been chiselled in places, dressed and embellished to tease us out of their familiarity, even though we have grown to love them as they are.
He caresses a wandering arpeggio from the strings of a black electric guitar, and then he shepherds it into the soft, silken serenade to Suzanne.
The six-piece band jams a smoky swirl of keyboards and guitar, like a Gospel song reborn, and it breaks into Bird On A Wire: “And I swear by this song, and by all that I have done wrong, I will make it up to thee.”
The guitarist, sitting alone in his world, plays an intense Flamenco-style overture on a 12-string mandolin, the licks dancing like flames, high up on the fretboard, and then there is a hush that beckons the opening question of the Yom Kippur liturgy, Who By Fire.
But when he sings Hallelujah, he just sings Hallelujah from the start, getting up off his knees at the minor fall and the major lift, as the stage is bathed in a white glow of redemption.
He lifts his shiny black shoes a little during The Future, as if stepping on hot coals, and when he sings that there’ll be “fires on the road and white girls dancing”, his backing singers, the willowy Webb Sisters, suddenly step back and execute a perfect cartwheel in sync.
After the interval, he says “Thank you for coming back, I know that it’s a school night”, and he stands on his own at an old keyboard, hitting a button to kick-start a synthesised drum pattern.
“Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey,” he sings. “I ache in the places where I used to play.” He is singing about life in the Tower of Song, and making it sound like Heaven.
In the audience there are old couples with grey hair, and Goths with torn cardigans and black eyeshadow, and hippies and bikers and Buddhist monks with shaved heads and saffron robes.
He sings for three hours, and comes back for three encores, the greatest singer-songwriter-poet of his age: who else, at 76, can command an Olympic arena with a body of work that spans five decades, and covers every genre from pop to rock to folk to jazz to blues to cabaret?
But the image that stays with me, at the close of a sublime, transcendent evening, is of an old man in a charcoal suit, his hat in the air in an Arabesque, skipping into the wings, into the darkness, with his final words of the night resonating in my ears: “Thank you, my friends, for keeping my songs alive.”
*Leonard Cohen’s 2010 World Tour started in July in Zagreb in Croatia, and runs until December in Las Vegas in Nevada, covering 22 countries in Europe, North America, and Australasia. If you can’t make it, the Leonard Cohen Live in London double-CD is an excellent substitute.
By gussilber Posted in Music

Song of Songs: Is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah the Greatest Pop Song Ever Written?

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Nechama Brodie…a voice, a guitar, a Hallelujah. Press Play.


Sometimes I think about a world where all music has vanished or been forbidden, with the exception of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and the cover versions thereof.

I wouldn’t mind living in such a world, because Hallelujah is the Songs of Songs, a song about the singing of songs, a song about sin and redemption, a song about the primal link between music and sex and religion, a song about…

Well, there are many interpretations.

It is a simple song, almost classical in its composition, easy to fingerpick or strum on a guitar, with a structure that loops into infinity, as if it has been around since the beginning of time and will be around until the end.

It is a universal song, capable of being adapted into any language, and adjusted to suit any shade of meaning from the sacred to the profane.

It lends itself equally well to waltzes and quicksteps and marches, to introspective arpeggios and grandiose orchestral movements and candle-lit choral acapellas.

It has become such a standard over the years, a backing track to so many montages in so many movies and TV shows, a show-stopper in the repertoires of so many artists in so many genres, that it can be a jolt to track the concept back and listen to Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah in its genesis.

He voices the song with a jaunty gravitas, like an Old Testament prophet holding court, and the arrangements now seem eccentric: a plodding bass upfront, a rhythm guitar that stutters like gunfire, a Hallelujah chorus of Gospel crooners who pause exquisitely at one point, catch their breath, and majestically reconvene.

In retrospect, while the song’s multitudes of interpreters typically sing Hallelujah with a liturgical reverence, Cohen doesn’t sing it that way at all.

Unjustly stereotyped as maudlin and depressing, his music is actually shot through with pitch-black humour, showcased here in the way he declaims, “but you don’t really care for music, do you?”

But the beauty of the song is that it can be sung as a pure and simple hymn, or as a raw and earthy ballad of lust, and no version needs to hold the original version sacred.

This is the only song I can think of that is so safe in its world, that it can survive an attack by an aspirant Pop Idol intact, and can even emerge with its dignity unsullied after being smothered with strings that drip like melted cheese.

I’ve never heard a version of Hallelujah that didn’t bring tears to my eyes for some reason, and even the wrong reason can be forgiven, because, well, “you don’t really care for music, do you?”

But some versions are better than others.

Which begs the question: what is the greatest cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah? What is the most emotionally intense version? What is the most Operatic version? What is the most Titanic version? What is the most seductive version? What is the sweetest version? What is the most soulful version? What is the most Gleeful version? What is the most rosy-tinted, delirious, crazy-in-the-head version? What is the dreamiest, drowsiest, sexiest, brassiest version?

I don’t know.

But I keep discovering new versions, and I keep falling in love with them, and I keep wanting to evangelise them to the world, because this is the Song of Songs, perhaps the greatest pop song ever written, and I, for one, can never grow tired of it, no matter how often it spins and sways and dances around in my head.

Thank you King David, thank you Leonard Cohen, and thank you, Hallelujah.

*My gratitude to Nechama Brodie, 88 Kilos of Sunshine, and Matt du Plessis for introducing me to new versions that have quickly joined the ranks of my favourites.

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88 Kilos of Sunshine…a baritone, an electric guitar, a Hallelujah

By gussilber Posted in Music

“Bloody Agent”

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