Sopranos In Graceland - How Silvio Saved Paulie Simon From Gettin' Whacked

in #music6 years ago (edited)

On October 13th, 1941, a bouncing baby boy was born to a couple of Jewish-Hungarian immigrants in Newark, New Jersey named Louis and Belle Simon. Although Jewish, his parents were fairly cosmopolitan, far enough from observance to give him the name of Paul Frederic. When he was 4, his parents moved across the Hudson River into New York City, not stopping in Manhattan but crossing the East River as well to settle in Kew Gardens, Queens.

Musician Donald Fagen once described the young Simon's early years as "a certain kind of New York Jew, almost a stereotype, really, to whom music and baseball are very important. I think it has to do with the parents. The parents are either immigrants or first-generation Americans who felt like outsiders, and assimilation was the key thought—they gravitated to black music and baseball looking for an alternative culture."

Simon in response said this description "isn't far from the truth", although his father was a college professor, contrabass player and dancehall bandleader, so perhaps the family was already more assimilated than Fagen gave them credit for. Be that as it may, There were indeed two things the young Paul cared about as a kid: Baseball ("I used to hustle kids in stickball," he recalls, and listen to Yankee games on the radio with his dad) and music.

Like another talented Jewish boy born in the same year, albeit over a thousand miles away, two of his greatest idols and influences were the great storyteller Woody Guthrie, and the man who wedded the storytelling of folk to blues guitar virtuousity, Lead Belly. Another musical love and inspiration, the rocknroll pioneering Everly Brothers, was shared with a buddy named Arthur Ira (or just, ya know, "Art") Garfunkel. Together they scored a "neighborhood hit" at age 12 or 13, with the song "The Girl For Me" - written by Papa Louis, the bass player. The piece of paper on which Louis Simon wrote the lyrics and chords is now on display at the Library of Congress, as a culturally significant item.


Lead Belly - Where Did You Sleep Last Night


Woody Guthrie - You Gotta Go Down And Join The Union


Everly Brothers - Bye Bye Love

Another Quintessential Kid

But before this, when Paul was nine years and one month old, some 200 miles north of Queens, another boy was born who would go on to do some memorable stuff himself, in popular music and other arts as well - and perhaps more importantly, would one day save Paulie's life. The date was November 22nd, 1950, the place is Boston, and the boy's name at birth was Steven Lento. Seven years later his mom Mary remarried, and the boy received the surname he is better known by, becoming Steven Van Zandt.

If young Paul Simon was the quintessential New York Jew of the era Woody Allen pines for, young Steven Van Zandt ("100% Italian, despite the Dutch name," as he points out) was also a gentile youth of a quintessential type in his generation - half a generation later than Simon's teens - the working class dude whose life was irrevocably changed by the musical and social changes that washed like a tsunami over America in the 1960s.

When Steven was 14, the tsunami hit the shores of America with the British Invasion, following the Beatles and their fateful decision to turn left at Greenland. It is an anomaly, on par with California gold miners sending their laundry to Hawaii by steamship, that white Americans needed white Brits to remind them of the existence of the blues, born and bred literally in their midst.

But anyway, that's what it took, and it took root indeed with millions of young boys like Stven Van Zandt, who by his senior year in 1967 was committed enough to rocknroll and all it stood for, musically and otherwise, to keep his long hair - even if it meant getting kicked out of high school for it. Years later, long after he proved he did quite alright without it, he would go back and complete his HS degree, just to make mom happy.


Best of the British Invasion (waves 1&2)

Tom Wilson's Magic

But before Steven gets to live his counterculture life, Paul Simon (by virtue of that nine year head-start) gets to make the first mark on music history, along with the aforementioned angelic-voiced Art Garfunkel. They first release a moderate hit in 1957, when little Steven still thinks girls are yuck, with "Hey Schoolgirl", a sort of Everly Brothers tribute song, recording under the name "Tom and Jerry".


Teeny-bopper stuff, but hey - a first hit

In 1963 folk is hot, and Paul and Art start making music again and sign with Columbia, this time with America changed just enough that no slick all-American name is foisted, and they release a debut album as "Simon and Garfunkel" named "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM". It flops badly and they disband. Paul tries to break as a solo act in England (where there is likewise a vibrant folk scene), and Art goes back to Columbia University, where he pursues an architecture degree and joins the inclusive, Jewish-majority fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi.

While at Columbia, Art earns some good karma by helping a fellow student. Art's roommate Sanford Greenberg contracted glaucoma and went blind. Art would read Sanford his text books, so Sanford could do his homework. Sanford goes on to graduate with honors, and lends Art 500 dollars so that he and his buddy Paul could record a demo of a song called "Sounds of Silence".


Almost the same, just lacking that... touch.

As initially recorded, the song goes unnoticed and unloved as the rest of their debut album. But in 1965 legendary producer Tom Wilson, who was busy revolutionizing music, producing songs such as "Like A Rolling Stone" and others, picks up the tune from the album. Wilson does his magic, which in this case simply involves dubbing some electric guitar onto the song, and the shit explodes, going all the way to #1 on the Billboard pop chart.


By 1965, people wanted that electric guitar sound.

Paul hurries back from England to reunite with Art and capitalize, and the duo hit the road, becoming better and smoother musicians through performing almost nightly, pounding the college circuit and becoming the darlings of the generation that's creating the new America. Album #2, Sounds of Silence (1966), sells very well. #3, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (also 1966) is an album no young white person's collection is complete without, going triple-platinum. The soundtrack to The Graduate (1968) charts at #1. And if Bookends (late 1968) is merely OK by the duo's new standards, going "just" double-platinum, Bridge Over Troubled Water brings them to new heights of radio and sales dominance, going 8x Platinum in the US and 10x Platinum in the UK.


A Multi-platinum classic

It's not just commercial success, either. The two men continue to get better at what they do with each new release, especially Simon if we're being honest. The son of the professor and bass player evolves from a verbally gifted kid with a touch for cute schmaltz to a complex and interesting wordsmith, a songwriter some (not me, but some) put on par with the Dylans and Lennons and Jaggers of the world. (I think he's just a rung under, not far but not quite in that league, mainly due to not being as interesting or ballsy a thinker).

Anyway, by now it's 1971, a year after the two childhood friends sat their asses athwart the pop world, and they've grown tired of each other, just as countless successful acts before and after - just as their counterparts as kings of American rock, CCR, were to do a year later. Paul goes solo, Art does all sorts of things, from acting to some music projects to academia (he would eventually earn a PhD in Mathematics Education). But while he leads an interesting and varied life, aside from the occasional reunion with Paul, he is never again a significant figure in popular music.

Out-And-Out Rocker

At this point, Steven Van Zandt is 21, trying to make the whole rocknroll thing work. He's playing anywhere they'll let him up and down the Garden State of New Jersey - which at this point is mostly dive bars, rather than the more genteel college circuit where Paul and Art cut their teeth. This, combined with innate inclination, produced an out-and-out rocker, rather than a pop artist of the rock generation.

Throughout the early 70s Steven bumps into a cool cat with some mean guitar skills, a perfect raspy rock voice, and shared great loyalty to rock as a genre, a sound, a way of life. Said cool cat's name is Bruce Springsteen, but it isn't until 1975 that Steven is invited to actually work on an album with the man and his E Street Band.

Initially, Steven was asked just to arrange the horns on the album. But by the time it's ready to spin, Steven's playing lots of guitar, arranging much of the album, and in general playing a major part in creating a sound that propels his frontman to stardom and heir-apparent-to-Dylan status, as the ballsy rocker with the socially conscious message - something Bruce didn't need Steven for, but which Steven was 100% down with.


In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream / At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines...

By this point Paul has a very decent career on his own. Back in 1971 he releases Me And Julio Down by the Schoolyard - one of the first tunes outside of Jamaica to use reggae, definitely by a white artist. The song appears on his solo debut "Paul Simon" which charts at #4 in the US and #1 in the UK. The next album has a lead single that charts #2 on Billboard, and by 1975, when Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band are reclaiming rocknroll for the blue collar crowd, Simon reaches new heights with his first and only (and most deserved) #1 single - 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover - and a grammy for best album, for Still Crazy After All These Years.


Still fresh, after all these years.


So I'll repeat myself, at the risk of being crude - a most deserved #1 single.

For the next decade or so, Steven Van Zandt's career trends up while Paul Simon's trends down (aside from the timeless Sliplidin' Away (on 1977's Greates Hits, Etc.) and 1983's album Heart's and Bones, which can be regarded as the beginning of his comeback.) Van Zandt continues to be the backbone of the E Street Band, especially on stage (where a rock act's name is truly made) and on albums from the breakout Born To Run (1975), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980), Nebraska (1982) and finally 1984's Born in the USA, which smashes all previous levels of success for the band and makes the sole-credited-frontman, at that moment in time, the #1 rocker in the whole damn world.


Ronald Reagan wanted to use it at rallies. The Boss - King of Rock at that point in time - told him Fuck NO.

Having helped lead Bruce to the promised land, Steven Van Zandt leaves the E Street Band to concentrate on his many concurrent projects - Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the Miami Horns, Little Steven and the Soul Disciples - projects in which he could be a bigger fish, even if in a smaller pond, dictate even more of the sound, and get some actual credit too.


Left to his own devices, "Little Steven" makes sweet soul music.

The Heidi Game

Simon, who's life has been crumbling around him since the late 70's, including his marriage to Princess Leia, is by the early 80's suffering from depression. He scores critical success with 1983's Hearts and Bones, but commercially the album is a flop. Simon realizes that polished texts are all well and good, but musically he needs something fresh.

One day in the spring of 1985, Paul is driving someplace with Heidi Berg, a young songwriter whom he was acting as sort of mentor to, behind some matchmaking by Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels. Heidi slips a tape of South African Township music in the deck - accounts differ on whether it was Boyoyo Boys, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, or a mix of both.

Heidi Berg.jpg
Heidi Berg. Hipped a depressed Paul Simon to Township music.

Simon loves it at first chord. By late summer he's deep in the stuff, walking down the streets of New York bopping scat to himself over the melodies. He decides that the ladder out of his depression goes through these sounds, which he can do the white middle-class benefactor thing with and bring to the mainstream, the way he kickstarted his solo career with reggae almost 15 years prior.

Now Simon doesn't know jack shit about South Africa. In fact, when he meets Van Zandt at a party around that time, his insight is to puff in bourgeoisie incredulity: "What, you support Mandela? That commie??"

He figures it'll be a very simple thing to go down, find these bands he's been grooving on, record some songs and come back with an album's-worth of tunes ready to mix and cut. Which shows how politically clueless he was.

AZAPO Is Not Amused

See, it's 1985, and South Africa is under international boycott due to its brutal and repugnant apartheid regime. Simon, who as mentioned above is at this point in time more concerned about Mandela being a "commie" than his being locked up on a prison island, doesn't care about any of that. He just wants to make music.

Now, as the reader can discern, I'm not a fan of Simon as a person, but let's get one thing straight: He wasn't taking advantage of anyone, wasn't exploiting the natives for a pittance, none of that shit. At the time, the going rate for black studio musicians in South Africa was equal to about 15 dollars a day. Simon payed Ladysmith and all the other players who graced his eventual masterpiece the going rate in NEW YORK - 200 dollars an hour. Anyone who put in a full day for him made about four months worth of their regular earnings - if they were lucky enough to work every day. Ok? Ok.

But technically, he was violating the boycott, and non-technically he was giving the finger to all the people who cared about the boycott, because the issue had been brought to his attention once he landed south of the equator and he blew it off; and it's not like he could show how he was on the right side of history with his songs, cause they ain't had shit to say about apartheid, racism or anything of the sort.

Whether this was on purpose so the Afrikaners won't kick him out before he was done, or because Simon is such a thorough square, mainstream centrist type of person that it truly never occurred to him to slip in some statement about the vile shit he finally got to see with his eyes - hard to say.

Point is, he had no ready defense beyond "I'm paying really fair wages", which smacks as buying-off, when he was accused - rightly, in a technical sense - of violating the boycott. He was briefly included on a UN blacklist, from which he was removed only after he proved that actually, his activities benefited black people in SA almost exclusively.

But the UN could only give him some short-lived agita, and the majority-supported African National Congress could only issue a stern denunciation; but the ANC by then were about (mostly) non-violent resistance. There were groups that were a hell of a lot more militant.

One such group was a small marxist movement known as the Azanian People's Organization, AZAPO for short. They were not amused by Simon's cavalier attitude towards the boycott - of which they were leading advocates - and they put out a contract on his head. Yeah, for real.

I Feel Ya, But Ya Can't Do That

Enter Little Steven, who at that very time is leading a mind-blowing lineup of legends from rock, pop and jazz (Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Clinton, Afrika Bambaataa, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Queen Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Kurtis Blow, Gil Scott Heron... and that's just some of the names it includes) in the recording of Artists United Against Apartheid's album "Sun City" and attendant benefit concerts. Paul Simon is not included in this effort.


23 million can't vote cause they're black / we're stabbin' our brothers and sisters in the back! You gotta say I! Ain't Gonna Play Sun City!

Steven Van Zandt, who as we said is a serious activist and therefore has contacts and ears on the ground, gets wind of said hit ordered and catches a plane to Jo'burg, where he calls in some IOUs to get a meeting with Curtis Nkondo, AZAPO's leader (who's leading a campaign to free Mandela, the leader of the rival ANC, even as his men and the ANC's are clashing bloodily in the streets.)

Basically, Steven's pitch went along the lines of "Listen, I feel you. I do. Dude's a fucking dick. But seriously fellas, YOU CANNOT DO THIS. This will be VERY VERY BAD FOR THE CAUSE. I know you wanna lay down the law, but this WILL NOT END WELL. PLEASE TRUST ME ON THIS."

Somehow, be it because this scraggly-ass white man has earned mucho cred, be it because he's talking sense and it gets through, or likely a combination of both - Nkondo and Co. relent. The hit is called off. The talented fucking dick gets to complete his recording sessions and go home to mix, arrange, cut and release what many (yours truly included) consider his finest, most interesting album: GRACELAND.

Po' Boys and Pilgrims and Families

As mentioned, in terms of lyrics, the absence of the oppression suffered by the people whose music he was out here "discovering" is shocking. But the music is varied and delightfully poppin', and while the lyrics are silent on "controversial" topics like apartheid, they are exquisitely crafted and interesting enough - excluding the treacly, patronizing "Under African Skies" perhaps.

Apart from that number, the songs aren't about Africa at all - which is perhaps a good thing, because they're about America, which is something Simon (for all his squareness) actually knows a thing or two about. I couldn't find a single "full album" link, and playlists don't get shown in a player here, so I'mma link each song separately, in order, cause this here is an album like they used to make, that you listen to start to finish for best effect. Even Under African Skies is gorgeous musically.


BOY IN THE BUBBLE: Nothing like a loud, major-scale yet ominous horn to start things off and make people snap to attention at your new joint.


The title track. The sound is Africa. The words are about the Mississippi, not the Limpopo.


I KNOW WHAT I KNOW: "She said there's something about you that really reminds me of money / She was the kind of girl to say things that weren't that funny..." Dude can write


GUMBOOTS: "I said, hey, you know, breakdowns come and breakdowns go..." The wisdom of a man on the upswing.


DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF HER SHOES: When a song makes the whole damn world go a-wa-a-wa and make all sort of other sounds it has no clue as to the meaning of, you know it's a hit for the ages.


YOU CAN CALL ME AL: The lead single/clip. Angels in the architecture and other flights of lyrical fancy.


UNDER AFRICAN SKIES: Make up your own mind about the lyrics (some of them are pretty too - give her the wings to fly through harmony), but this is gorgeous tune-craft


HOMELESS: Somebody sing!


CRAZY LOVE, VOL II: Fat Charlie the Archangel - that's a Dylan-worthy image.


THAT WAS YOUR MOTHER: Get a little conversation, drink a lil red wine, check out the cajun girl dancin' the Zydeco


ALL AROUND THE WORLD (or The Myth of Fingerprints): I could not find this song sung by Paul Simon, but this is a nice rendition

Do you not have a bigger smile on your face now? Sure you do.

For Simon, Graceland is the pinnacle of his career. Sure, "Still Crazy" charted #1 at home, whereas Graceland "only" makes #3 (still x5 platinum), but unlike that previous high-point, Graceland spreads like Islam in the desert all over the world. #1 in the UK (x7 platinum), France, Australia (x8 platinum), Canada and New Zealand, among other countries, #2 in Germany... "Boy In The Bubble", the title track, You Can Call Me Al, and "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes" become huge hit singles and are radio faves to this day. Graceland also gives Simon his second Grammy award for best album, with the title track losing narrowly to Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager's "That's What Friends Are For", as sung by Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight & Stevie Wonder. (Tune was originally released in '82, on the Night Shift soundtrack).

Despite the lack of a single word of politics or protest, the fact that the world's favorite album of the year is made by black disenfranchised South Africans probably does the cause of ending their disenfranchisement even more good than Steven's ballsy and star-studded protest record.

Four years later Simon tries to do the "find a music genre in some underprivileged part of the world and ride it to mainstream first-world success" thing again, this time with samba and other Brazilian sounds in "The Rhythm of the Saints." It sells very well on the coattails of Graceland, but is a far inferior effort. That year, incidentally, South African President F.W. de Klerk repeals the ban on the ANC, apartheid begins to die, and four years later "that commie" turns out not be a commie, just a great historical figure who is elected President and shepherds all South Africans, black and white, into a new and better future (for the vast majority, anyway).

Simon doesn't experience serious commercial or critical success again until his last two studio releases, 2011's So Beautiful or So What, and 2016's Stranger to Stranger.

Winning At Life

Steven Van Zandt, who only approached such dizzying heights of "big-time success" with Bruce and the E Street Band, still does perhaps the better job of winning at life on his own terms, and finally reaches household recognition not through music, but through the role of Silvio Dante, Tony's loyal, Godfather-quoting mafia underboss on HBOs TV masterpiece The Sopranos.


Gotta love Silvio.

Little Steven, one of rock and roll's truest, coolest, unsung cats, is still rocking out here and there with one of his bluesy, horn-y lineups or the other, and doing other great screen projects, whereas Paul Simon, one of America's greatest songwriters but never really a rocker - musically or by nature - has just recently announced his retirment and is currently on tour playing what, until further notice, are to be his last concerts ever - so hurry up if you wanna catch it. I hear he's putting on really great shows.


Goin' out in style. Homeward Bound: The Farewell Tour

So Paulie got to quit on his own terms, but only because Sil saved the little schmuck from getting whacked, which is one more thing to be grateful to him for.

This has been a GangstaYid Music Storytime production. Thank you for reading and please show love - be it by upvote or comment. Till next time - may The Goddess be with you and bring you much groove.

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