Inside the head of Paul Simon lies one of the most beautiful, creative minds that a songwriter could ever dream up. In the span of his storied 60-year career, Simon had collected accolades and respect as one half of the most iconic duos in music. Simon & Garfunkel are often listed at the top of music publications as forerunners for folk-rock music. The poetic spinning of Simon’s music paired well with the haunting falsetto vocals of Art Garfunkel. With hit singles such as: “The Sound of Silence”, “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” the duo dominated the 1960s. It seemed like nothing could stop their continued success and no artist could get in their way. Except themselves. A series of creative differences had reached its boiling point as the duo finally split in 1970 thus marking the end of an era. But for Simon, this was the new beginning that he longed for as his solo career would lead to the creation of a masterpiece.
During the 1970s, Simon had enjoyed a brief stagnant of critical and commercial success. But as the new decade approached, Simon would fall into a steep decline. Both his personal and professional life had fallen apart completely after a dismal reception from his sixth album. The career setback drove Simon into a deep state of depression as he had no inspiration left. After working with up-and-coming singer, Heidi Berg, Simon was introduced to the roots of Zulu music. He had become entranced with the percussive sounds and upbeat feel to its music. As he recalls, “it was very good summer music, happy music that reminded me of rhythm and blues.” The songwriter would leave his home state of New York to create a new album in Johannesburg, South Africa. A city that saw one of the most toxic, political turmoil’s in history during the height of apartheid.
After arriving in the country with fellow engineer, Roy Halee, Simon created an ensemble of local musicians that inspired his new favorite genre. The raw sound and eclectic mix of styles during production allowed Simon to be at his creative peak away from the major labels. While the recording sessions went well, the racial tension of apartheid still loomed as segregation officers were always around the corner. Simon would also face some hostility outside the studio as the public saw the songwriter as a trespasser. But the artists and musicians of the area all supported Simon who strove to complete the album. After returning home, he would finish the tracks with the added features of Linda Ronstadt and The Everly Brothers contributing to them. Despite lack of promotion, Warner Bros. released Simon’s album in the fall of 1986 titled as Graceland. A homage to Simon’s biggest idol, Elvis Presley, who greatly inspired the songwriter’s musical journey.
The album was lauded by critics and fans alike who praised Simon’s lyrics as one of the best written works in the history of music. The single “You Can Call Me Al” went straight to the top of international markets and gained significant airplay in the US in later years. It would become one of Simon’s biggest hits in his extensive catalog and remains as a pinnacle for his solo act. The album’s self-titled track became noted as a centerpiece for Simon’s overall direction of the record. The shifting dynamics in mood from serious to playful subjects represented his yin yang view on politics and social issues. The albums popularity grew with each passing week and would culminate with over 6 million copies sold worldwide by the following year. This fanfare for an album had not been seen in South Africa since the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. But the hype and praise for Simon’s album would not shield the onslaught of criticism he would soon receive.
The Artists United Against Apartheid denounced Simon’s intentions on creating an album in South Africa. Other artists weighed their criticism on the songwriter for being “naive” to break a cultural boycott against the regime that had spread throughout the country. But Simon stood by on his work stating, “I’m with the artists. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed.” Though, Simon found his own life to be at risk in certain times as radicals targeted the songwriter on more than one occasion. Regardless, outside voices couldn’t stop Graceland from winning Album of the Year and Record of the Year honors at the Grammys.
It’s been estimated that the album has sold between 14-16 million copies worldwide up until this point. The album is credited for its usage of traditional music bringing African roots style into the mainstream. Publications across the globe list Graceland as one of the best albums ever made and hail it for its African collaborations. While Simon followed-up the album with several more record releases, Graceland remains as his bestseller 35 years later. In what seemed like the end of a career for a legend was only the start of a visceral experience.
Written by Trenton Luber