Friday, 26 June 2009


What with the sudden death of Michael Jackson, it got me thinking about where he ranked in the heirarchy of popular 20th century (because he wasn't 21st) musicians. You have your Dylans in the list, your Neil Youngs. Leonard Cohen, Bowie, as well. Then of course you have the bands; The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, U2 even. I'm sure Jackson snuggles in somewhere, but one person you never see is Paul Simon. He gets credited for his work with Art Garfunkel, but usually in dialogue with the film it came to embody, The Graduate, which really does him a disservice.

Songs such as Rosemary and Thyme and Scarborough Fair are hauntingly infantile and would sit more comfortably with the Pagainsed mediaevalism of the original Wicker Man then the middle-class insecurities of Dustin Hoffman' character. Yet it works.

The medieval theme continues on the Graceland album cover, a nod to earlier material, but the music within takes its sources from an equally faraway place. The album is phenomenally pioneering in the way it incorporates the African incantations of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a way never explored before. Rooted both musically and in spirit with the deep south of America, Simon fuses the fairytale quality of the region with the equally otherworldly elements of African singers. And moreover he does it with such poetic flair. Diamonds on The Soles of His Shoes neatly defies ideas of rich and poor, whilst Homeless sounds like a funeral dirge composed by an African chain gang. The smash hit, You Can Call Me All has a great video with Chevy Chase in it and the eponymous track Graceland has maybe my favourite lyric of all time, trumping any of Dylan's efforts:

'There is a girl in New York City,
Who calls herself the human trampoline,
And sometimes when I'm falling flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Whoa so this is what she means,
She means we're bouncing into Graceland.'

Later work shows an affinity for reggae which is a bit quaint but so pleasantly catchy (Mother and Child Reunion) and his whole career has seen a willingness to engage with new music. And he is still relevant. The sound he created is being peddled by Vampire Weekend most prominently, by TV on the Radio, and the rest of the Afrobeat heads yet it all stems from him. Let's not forget that he has aged gracefully, never averse to playing new material but always keeping it his own. As he said: “My whole artistic life has always been about change, change, change, move on, move on. It's the only thing I find interesting.”

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