Little Steven at a press conference where Coretta Scott King accepted the first $50,000 check (on behalf of The Africa Fund) from Artists United Against Apartheid, 1985
Perhaps one of my least punk predilections is a weakness for Paul Simon, and the album Graceland, specifically. It’s not that I have any compunction about liking “mom rock,” (moms are awesome, and my love for Carole King is also well-documented), but Graceland is steeped in some pretty nasty history. For one, I’m inclined to believe Los Lobos, who appear on the last track, “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints,” when they say Simon should have given them a writing credit. The album made bank, and he certainly could have stood to give them credit and a little compensation.
But the most well-known controversy of Graceland is Simon’s refusal to cooperate with the cultural boycott of Apartheid—most of the album was recorded in South Africa, but Simon apparently considered himself exempt from the politics of the situation, since he had been invited by South African musicians and didn’t play live shows in the country. I’ll be the first to admit that cultural boycotts can be difficult to understand. From an artist’s perspective, no one wants to be told to avoid an audience or a musical collaboration because their governing body is corrupt. But Paul Simon pulled what we refer to in radical political circles as a “total dick move.”
If he was really committed to solidarity with South Africans (which he insists, to this day, that he was), it would have been incredibly easy for him to just ask the African National Congress if it was cool for him to visit, just to make sure that he wasn’t, ya know… undermining the struggle for liberation of a long-suffering people. He was even explicitly advised by Harry Belafonte to do just that, (and when Harry Belafonte gives you civil rights advice, you’d best just listen). Simon decided he was just going to go, and upon his arrival, he was treated to protests, with signs demanding, “Yankee Go Home” and “Go Back Simon.”
And here’s the thing—he still hasn’t fucking apologized. I’m not sure if it’s because the album was incredibly successful or because it broke South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a larger audience, but he seems to think the legacy of Graceland completely excuses his totally politically unconscionable transgression. In Under African Skies, the 2012 documentary on the album, he’s still a smug dick about it.
And this is why I love Steven Van Zandt. In addition to being a truly brilliant musician, a dedicated and studious curator of rock ‘n’ roll history, and Silvio Dante, Little Steven is down with the people, and a committed activist. In a recent interview with rock critic Dave Marsh on his Sirius/XM radio program Kick Out The Jams with Dave Marsh, he discussed his work with Artists United Against Apartheid. The whole thing was fascinating, but the very best part is Van Zandt hilariously calling out Paul Simon.
Picking up from the point where Little Steven tells the armed resistance movement, the Azanian People’s Organisation, not to just fucking assassinate Paul Simon for his bullshit…
Dave Marsh: I was with you the first time you saw Paul and talked to him about this, at [entertainment attorney] Peter Parcher’s 60th birthday party.
Van Zandt: That’s right, that’s right, that’s right! I’m glad you were a witness, because wait’ll you hear the latest on that. Anyway, I said to them, “Listen, this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so, you know, six months,” whatever I asked for, “to try and do this a different way. I’m trying to actually unify the music community around this, which may or may not include Paul Simon, but I don’t want it to be a distraction. I just don’t need that distraction right now; I gotta keep my eye on the ball.” And I took him off that assassination list, I took Paul Simon off the U.N. blacklist, trying to…
You mean you convinced them to take him off…
Yeah, because this was a serious thing…
Because this was gonna eat up the attention that the movement itself needed.
Yes, and the European unions were serious about this stuff, man. You were on that [U.N. blacklist], you did not work, okay? Not like America, which was so-so about this stuff, man. Over there, they were serious about this stuff, you know? Anyway, so yeah, this was in spite of Paul Simon approaching me at that party saying, “What are you doing, defending this communist?!”
What he said was, “Ah, the ANC [African National Congress, the organization of which Mandela was President at the time of his arrest and imprisonment], that’s just the Russians.” And he mentioned the group that [murdered black South African activist Steven Biko] had been in, which was not AZAPO…
Was he PAC [Pan-Africanist Congress]?
It doesn’t matter [for this story], but [Paul Simon] said, “That’s just the Chinese communists.”
Yeah, yeah. And he says, “What are you doing defending this guy Mandela?! He’s obviously a communist. My friend Henry Kissinger told me about where all of the money’s coming from,” and all of this. I was, like, all due respect, Paul…
I remember it very vividly, because it was aimed at everybody standing in the general direction.
Yeah, but mostly he was telling me.
Well, yeah, you were the one… Everybody knew who to get mad at first. [laughter]
He knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line, of course, was, “Art transcends politics.” And I said to him, “All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics. And I’m telling you right now, you and Henry Kissinger, your buddy, go fuck yourselves.” Or whatever I said. But he had that attitude, and he knowingly and consciously violated the boycott to publicize his record.
Well, to make his record. That’s the violation of the boycott — to make his record.
Yeah, and he actually had the nerve to say, “Well, I paid everybody double-scale.” Remember that one? Oh, that’s nice… no arrogance in that statement, huh? [laughter]
Now, the punchline. Cut to 30 years later, or whatever it is. He asked me to be in his movie [Under African Skies, the documentary on the making of Graceland, included as a DVD in the album’s 25th anniversary boxed edition]. I said, “Alright, I’ll be in your movie, if you don’t edit me. You ready to tell it like it is?”
He says, “Yep.”
“Are you, like, uh, apologizing in this movie?”
“Okay. I’m not gonna be a sore winner. I’ll talk to you.”
I did an interview. They show me the footage. Of course, they edited the hell out of it to some little statement where I’m saying something positive about Paul. [laughter] And I see the rest of the footage, where he’s supposedly apologizing, with Dali Tambo [founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of late ANC leaders Adelaide and Oliver Tambo]. He says, “I’m sorry if I made it inconvenient for you.” That was his apology.
In other words, he still thinks he’s right, all these years later!
You’re the only person who’s ever met Paul twice who thinks that’s surprising. [laughter]
I mean, at this point, you still think you were right?! Meanwhile, that big “communist,” as soon as he got out of jail, I see who took the first picture with him. There’s Paul Simon and Mandela, good buddies. I’m watchin’ CNN the other day. Mandela dies, on comes a statement by Bono and the second statement’s by Paul Simon. I’m like oh, just make me throw up. You know, I like the guy in a lot of ways, I do; and I respect his work, of course. He’s a wonderful, wonderful artist, but when it comes to this subject, he just will not admit he was wrong. Y’know, just mea culpa. Come on, you won! He made twenty, thirty million dollars at least, okay? Take the money and apologize, okay? I mean, say “Listen, maybe I was wrong about this a little bit.” No.
Well…unfortunately we live in a country where the money means you don’t have to apologize, and let’s leave that there.