Morris Goldberg (Graceland Musician):
South Africans almost look down upon the music that came from South Africa. I guess because of the political situation we were made to sort of feel embarrassed about the music. Growing up in South Africa, you had to grow up … if you were white you had to grow up with blinkers on. But if you took them of you could see what was going on. I heard this Penny Whistle music on every street corner. Every kid was playing a Penny Whistle along with a guitar player. When I was a teenager, I used to go to the Townships and there was a hole in the fence and we’d spend hours there. This was how I absorbed a lot of the music. It was only when Paul Simon came out with the Graceland album, then people said ‘Wow! We’ve got all this gold here!’. I think somebody used that phrase once. And then people started realising that there’s such a great fountain of music that comes from South Africa.
It took me a long time before I could even begin to write, I loved the track so much (You can call me Al). For a long time I thought ‘You should just put the tracks out because you can’t do any better than this. Anything I put on here now is just going to make it worse’. So it took a while before I even had the courage to begin to write over these tracks.
Paul (In studio at control board, listening to ‘You can call me Al’ – listens to himself singing solo voices and sounds)
Not that I particularly wanted to solo! But a lot of voices singing instruments to create a smoother rhythm sound. Here comes the bass … well that’s the background sample. Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The bass part – I’ll solo it here –
Bakithi Kumalo (Graceland Musician):
That bass solo break, it was my birthday, it was May 10th. So I said to Paul ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do to this part but, you know, I have an idea. I would like to play something and it’s my birthday today’. Paul was like ‘Wow! Okay!’. So then you know, I came up with this bass line (demonstrates).
Paul (listening to bass part):
Oh see, there’s an over-dub on the bass. Two basses happening. It’s not that conventional so what we did was we took the first bar of the solo, spliced it, flipped it around and made the second half of the solo the backwards tape of the first half of the solo. (demonstrates). Backwards …. okay.
Isaac Mtshali (Graceland Musician):
Most of the time I listened to the bass guitar and if I feel the bass guitar is going somewhere else, I listen to the lead guitar. In fact, in this music I was listening to a lead guitar and a bass guitar. So it was necessary for me to cover the last piece of … what the bass is doing (demonstrates) so I feel great if I do the exit on the last bit of the bass (demonstrates).
Paul (still listening to You can call me Al):
Oh here’s another backwards ….
If you can go out the door whistling a tune or tapping your foot, that’s the signal. That’s what they listen for. ‘You can call me Al’, well I mean, what a great hook! Period! That’s a great hook!
They said ‘Well you just have to make a video!’ and it was bad! It was really bad! And I said ‘Can’t put this out! You just can’t put this out!’ and then Lorne Michaels, who was the Producer of ‘Saturday Night Live’ said ‘You should do one with Chevy. Chevy knows all the words. Let him sing it’. So we organised it quickly and we did that. I do think this about the Chevy Chase video, that because it was funny and very, very light, that you tend to think of the song as funny – which it is, but with something much more important to say. So in a certain sense it under-cracked the power of what that song meant. ‘You can call me Al’ – (sighs) – I mean, lyrically, if I can remember ….
‘A man walks down the street’ – that’s, it’s a version of ‘A guy walks into a bar’ or ‘There was a Rabbi, a Minister and a Priest’. It’s an old set-up – a man walks down the street ….
‘He says “Why am I soft in the middle? The rest of my life is so hard”.’ - it’s a joke.
‘Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard’ – well that was me. You know, I mean, I was writing about myself. I guess I was saying, like any artist, I don’t want to be an irrelevancy. Hope I’m not irrelevant! And then from there, there was associative thinking ….
‘cartoon in a cartoon graveyard … bone diggers … graveyard … bones … bone diggers …. bone diggers …. dogs … dogs in the moonlight …. moonlight is in a lot of the songs. It was scary. In my mind there’s a graveyard out there and I can hear dogs howling at night. But it’s cosy in the house and there’s lots of lights. It’s not scary here. (looks vunerable and worried)
Mr. Beerbelly, Beerbelly, get these muts away from me,
I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore – you know, enough of this garbage thinking. You know, I’m afraid – uh oh! Death is coming! Uh oh! Like, okay!
Second verse is a variation on the first.
Short little span of attention – that was, that was like a pe*is joke. Short little span of attention.
Woe, my nights are so long,
So where’s my wife and family? – which at the time I didn’t actually have. A lot of fears, you know?
Who’ll be my role model? – just fears, guys with fears, you know? Now he’s piling up all these fears and from my perspective as the songwriter, in a certain sense I didn’t have any sympathy for the guy by the second verse. Too many complaints, too many complaints.
And then, by then I think I had, you know –
If you’ll be my bodyguard, I’ll be your long lost pal – so, if I can make an alliance with you, then maybe I wouldn’t be in so much trouble. I’ll look out for you, you look out for me, I’ll call you Betty, you call me Al. We’ll make a deal. That will be our deal against all of these modern things that we have to fear.
By the third verse, now it’s time to say ‘What is this song about?’.
A man walks down the street,
A street in a strange world,
Maybe it’s the third world – well you know, this is pretty obvious stuff. I’m talking about Africa.
Maybe it’s his first time around,
Doesn’t speak the language – that’s me.
Holds no currency,
He is a foreign man,
Surrounded by the sounds – I was in an amazing place!
Cattle in the market place – it was just a far-away place. I mean you can imagine cattle in the streets and in the market place!
He looks around,
He sees angels in the architecture – it has become a spiritual journey now. A spiritual adventure. So that’s what that song is about. And that was a pretty accurate description of my journey. The whole process of this writing came from a deep analysis of what was going on in the tracks. Because the African musicians were playing what they normally play in a way that was different from the way American musicians that I was familiar with, would play. I was coming out of folk-rock. That was pretty symmetrical, didn’t change from verse to verse. Their patterns altered in some subtle way and I was either playing in the studio when it happened or in the control room and wasn’t aware of what the pattern was at all. Didn’t realise that there had been a variation in the pattern either intentional or unintentional until many months later when I was writing and I’d work on songs and then I’d say ‘Well everything is good. The first verse is good. The second verse, well it’s not so good. The third verse, that’s good. Well! Things are good! Except …. Why doesn’t the second verse work?’ I mean, okay! Now I’m putting aside my assumption that it’s exactly the same so it should work which I stayed with, stubbornly, for a long time. Well, it should work so that’s it! I’m not gonna change ‘cos it’s supposed to work! Then I would begin to listen and I would say ‘well sure enough, there’s a variation in here. There’s a variation that I’m not taking into account’. And that degree of listening was my education. That’s what I learned. I learned to listen on a level that I had never experienced before.
He pulled it off. He did it. He did do it. He slaved over it. He sweated blood over it. My gums bled over it! Unbelievable! Unbelievable!
‘Diamonds on the soles of her Shoes’ was a phrase that I had written down but I hadn’t used anywhere. And ‘Diamonds on the soles of her Shoes’ was the last song that we recorded and it was never intended to be on the album. The album was originally supposed to come out in June ’86 and we were going to play ‘Saturday Night Live’. So everybody was here. The whole band was here. We were all going to do the show and then Warner Brothers said ‘We would prefer to release this in the Fall’. So Roy and I said ‘Well, we’ll try another song!’.
It was more for a (inaudible) than a song. Then the following day we went to the Hit Factory and after two takes it was in. Because we were having so much fun. Already we have developed a working relationship that said something. Hence you find that even by this lick (demonstrates) it is in reply to (demonstrates).
(Bakithi Kumalo demonstrates)
That’s what makes it very exciting. It’s just a conversation.
Paul (At control Board):
And the thinking is very relaxed too. It just feels like everybody was very comfortable. I tried to write a part over here (points), the words. Couldn’t think of anything. So we left it as a horn solo. Not even a horn solo. Probably wrote this part as a background. Nothing here …. Just letting it go I guess. Letting the band play really….
(Paul explaining over the record):
[She makes the sign of a teaspoon,
he makes the sign of a wave] – domesticity
‘Aftershave’ – is a word from another era.
And I loved that – ‘He compensated for his ordinary shoes’.
Finishing the record and going to play it back for the executives at Warner Brothers, having them look at each other and wonder what this was all about (laughs). It was a lot of fun! And then to see the success. Man! Woooo!
What if it hadn’t worked? I thought that sometimes, thinking ‘What if they laugh? What if it doesn’t work?’ And you’ve put all this into it, you know? And you have to have the confidence in the work to hear it right through to the end. Even though you don’t really know. I think that was particularly true for Graceland. In retrospect it seemed like an instant classic. What was the big deal? What was to worry about? But we didn’t know that. I don’t think Paul knew that.
Graceland was, you know, going to college for me. Rhythmically …. but also just in the sense of playing the world, the larger world. The ability to interweave the cultures. To me it’s obvious to interweave them musically anyway because we’re just taking songs and having a musical discussion across a language barrier without any problem. Understanding each other. And that’s like Graceland. That’s what that album was. That’s what that album had – an unusual degree of understanding amongst people who had just met.