Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form
Art and Artifice. (December 2016)
Normally in an assembly I have something to say – a clear idea I wish to impart. I may approach it elliptically and dress it up in anecdote and joke but I generally get to the end clear in my own mind about the take-home message and I think that most of you get it too. This week, though, I’m experimenting with something woollier, an assembly from which there are several possible messages, a talk that you can each approach from your own point of view and take away something different from your neighbour. An assembly of maybe. I’m not sure how it will go but that’s the way with art and, if I’m talking about anything this morning, then I’m talking about art, and artifice, and creating and appreciating beauty.
Because my favourite forms of being clever are self-reference and intertextuality I shall be using my artifice to construct for you a prose poem (and I realise that I’m overstating things a little here but one of Grayson Perry’s rules of thumb for telling whether something is art is whether or not it claims to be art ) so I’m claiming this is a prose poem which is anyhow based on another piece of art – in this case the artifice of Paul Simon.
In the days of downloads, iTunes and Youtube I’m not sure how often you listen to a whole album of music by the same artist but back when I was young it was all the rage and I would like to explore with you this morning what is so great about the finest of my favourite artist’s albums. I’m doing this without musical illustration which is a restriction I willingly embrace for the sake of art.
The album opens with a jaunty, African sounding tune played on an accordion, shortly joined by the boom of a solitary drum. Then the first verse – “It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers at 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. These are the days of miracle and wonder.” It’s an amazing beginning – the hairs on the back of your neck prick up – and it contains a lot of the things that I think are brilliant and interesting about the album. It’s not an easy song to pin down – the first verse, as you heard, describes a terrorist attack, the second verse speaks of drought and famine and yet the chorus comes back – these are the days of miracle and wonder and the title of the song, “The Boy in the Bubble”, comes from a line in the bridge “Medicine is magical and magical is art. The boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon’s heart”. Is it a song of hope or one of dread?
The boy in the bubble was David Vetter born in 1971 with a severe immune deficiency disease who could only live in a sterile room in a hospital, with human contact only through plastic gloves which he did until he died in 1984. The baby with the baboon’s heart was a baby called Fae, born with a severe heart abnormality and given the transplant of a baboon’s heart. She lived for a month, which was a month longer than expected and a month longer than anyone had survived with the heart of a different species, and then died, also in 1984. What do you make of that mixture of tragedy and medical magic of two lives cut short or two lives miraculously extended? In 1985, Paul Simon and the accordionist, a Lesotho based musician called Forere Motloheloa made that song.
Track two is the eponymous “Graceland” – it describes a journey to Memphis Tennessee where lies the erstwhile home of Elvis Presley (it’s now a museum). It’s a journey that never reaches its destination, a journey of self-discovery and a journey taken with the nine-year old child of his first marriage. Like many of the tracks on the album it mixes upbeat music with darker lyrics – “losing love is like a window in your heart – everybody sees you’re blown apart”. My favourite lyric from this song, however, is either nonsense or it has a deeper meaning than I’ve ever been able to fathom. Maybe both: “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself a human trampoline and sometimes when I’m falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil I say hey, so this is what she means.” Honestly, I don’t know what she means and so we move on.
Track three – “I know what I know” – opens with the lyric “she looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright – alright in a sort of a limited way for an off night.” I love the putdown there but the great thing about this song is neither the lyrics nor Paul Simon’s voice but the backing vocals and the bass line. I’ll come back to the bass line later and talk for now about the backing vocals which were provided by the Gaza sisters, singing in the Tsonga language of South Africa. The interesting thing, from a creative point of view, is that the backing vocals and the instrumental accompaniment were recorded before the song was written. This is an approach which is quite unusual: there are, in fact, two schools of thought: everybody else thinks that you should write the songs first and Paul Simon, in this album doesn’t : to understand why you need to know a bit more about how Graceland came to be.
Paul Simon was a pop-star of the 1960s with his musical partner Art Garfunkel. They split up in 1970 and he continued as a successful solo artist through the decade but by the early 80s he was not doing so well – older, more melancholy, his records weren’t selling, his first marriage had failed. Meanwhile South Africa was also not doing so well – it was under an increasingly oppressive apartheid regime and under an increasingly restrictive series of cultural, sporting, and economic boycotts: it was illegal, immoral, and antisocial to trade with South Africa. In 1984 Paul Simon got hold of a bootleg copy of a tape of black South-African music and became obsessed by the sounds and rhythms he heard – particularly a track called “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys. In 1985 he defied the ban and, with the approval of the black musicians union of South Africa, travelled to Johannesburg where he recorded with a number of artists, including General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza sisters whose session was worked into “I know what I know” and the Boyoyo boys with whom he recorded a version of “Gumboots” which, with the addition of some lyrics and an alto-sax became the fourth song on the album.
The fifth song is called “Diamonds on the soles of her shoes” – it was written by Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala and includes backing vocals from Joseph’s band: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male vocal choir who sing in Zulu. The song is, inasmuch as it’s about anything, about a love affair between a rich girl and a poor boy. She makes the sign of a teaspoon, he makes a sign of a wave – the poor boy changes clothes and puts on aftershave to compensate for his ordinary shoes. It is also as good an opportunity as any to talk about the ethical controversy of the rich white man going into a country to record with musicians whose rights are restricted on the basis of their skin colour.
I love Paul Simon’s music but am I right to support the breaking of UN sanctions? Was he right to go against the cultural boycott and record there? I don’t know – I will tell you my thoughts on the matter but I will also tell you that I think I have a blindspot – I really love Paul Simon’s music and this album in particular and it could be that this love has led me into an ethical argument that supplies a convenient justification for my own actions. I don’t think so – but then I wouldn’t. Anyway, the argument against the album is obvious: South Africa was an awful, racist, undemocratic regime and the only way to make the leaders see sense was to isolate them from the rest of the world: breaking the boycott was granting them unwarranted approval – it also made Paul Simon a lot of money. The argument in its defence is more tenuous but it goes something like this: the white government repressed black artists and made it difficult for them to create, to express their own culture – by going there and recording with them, recording their sounds, their songs, by crediting them on the album and giving songwriting royalties, by publicising them to the wider world, performing with them Paul Simon strengthened the black South-African culture. Ladysmith Black Mambazo are now a globally recognised band – before Graceland they were unknown. This provided a trickle of money and a larger chunk of self-belief that may not have accelerated the end of apartheid but didn’t extend it and at least supported a confidence that allowed a peaceful transfer of power when the time came. Maybe it’s possible for the cultural boycott to have been the right thing to do and for breaking it to have been the right thing for Paul Simon to do. Maybe ethics is complicated.
Track six is “You can call me Al” – probably the standout hit. It has an impressive penny-whistle solo and an amazing palindromic bass run played by Bakithi Kumalo as well as a music video that is well-worth youtubing. The bass line has its most prominent appearance here but it is, as I mentioned before, the heart of the album, the centre of every song, at least according to Simon’s genius sound-engineer Roy Hallee who somehow put the album together building backwards from the sounds of Johannesburg and who devised the palindromic bass by taking Kumalo’s improvisation and playing it once forwards and then backwards. He deserves a lot more credit than he gets. Anyway, you can call me Al starts off with a man having a midlife crisis – possibly because he’s been blown apart by the loss of love, and possibly because a girl looked him over and thought he was merely alright in a limited way for an off night. The song begins, “a man walks down the street and says why am I soft in the middle now, why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard,” and continues in this beautifully scripted but entirely self-absorbed way until the third verse takes you to Africa and a revelation. A man walks down the street – it’s a street in a strange world, maybe it’s the Third World, maybe it’s his first time around. He doesn’t speak the language, he holds no currency, he is a foreign man. He is surrounded by the sound, the sound, cattle in the market place, scatterlings and orphanages. He looks around, around, he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity, he says Amen, Hallelujah.
I’ve run out of time and so I can’t tell you about the beautiful duet with Linda Ronstadt on “Under African Skies”, I can’t tell you about the acapella singing on “Homeless”, the sad story of Fat Charlie the archangel that become “Crazy Love, Volume 2”, the honest and ambiguous take on parenthood in “That was your Mother” or the sheer insanity of the words to “All around the world or the myth of fingerprints”. It takes more than one assembly to talk through the album, more than one listen to appreciate the depth of the songs but maybe this is part of what makes Graceland a great piece of art: I was in an English class the other day and one of the Year 13s said she liked Hamlet because it was a real meaty text that you could dig your teeth into and draw out ideas and subtleties that you wouldn’t have seen on a first reading. Art, it seems to me, like much of life, is something where the more you invest, the more you get out of it and the greater the art, the greater the investment it rewards.
And so, my final paragraph – a summary, a final rounding up except that you know I don’t have one, I don’t know if I’ve been talking about music, art, collaboration, ethics, the history of South Africa, heartbreak, ambiguity or all of those things and so the only way I can conclude is to offer you one last quotation from Graceland – from the song “Diamonds on the soles of her shoes” – it’s Paul Simon at his most enigmatic and it goes “I could say oo oo oo as if everybody knows what I’m talking about. And everybody here would know exactly what I was talking about.”