Paul Simon remains perplexed by the controversy that stalked 1986's Graceland, his groundbreaking world-pop masterwork that generated three hit singles, a five-year tour, Grammy Awards for best album and best record and sales of 14 million copies.
While the globe swooned to its joyous, rhythmic leaps into zydeco, conjunto and South African mbaqanga, some blasted the singer/songwriter for violating a cultural boycott to protest apartheid.
Now, as Graceland returns in a variety of 25th anniversary editions, Simon again feels vindicated by the work itself.
"The statement I'm making is, of course whites and blacks are absolutely equal," says Simon, 70. "There's no justification for apartheid. Here's the proof of it. Listen to how gifted this culture is, and look how we get along."
Graceland provides ample evidence of healing harmonies, vocal and otherwise. Early in the collaboration, Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo hugged Simon, the only white person he'd ever embraced. When apartheid ended, Simon was the first artist whom freed activist Nelson Mandela invited to perform in South Africa.
"The extent of the opposition was really insignificant," Simon says. "We'd have 10 people with posters and a lot of TV cameras. You could tell right away that Graceland was doing no harm."
The flap is explored in the documentary Under African Skies, bundled in the reissue ($16) along with five bonus tracks, three videos and the 1986 Saturday Night Live clip of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. A two-CD/two-DVD collector's box ($95) adds 1987's The African Concert film, a poster, Simon's audio narrative The Story of Graceland, an 80-page book and other extras.
The documentary, directed by Joe Berlinger, traces Graceland's evolution from loose jams to experimental grandeur. The core South African band of bassist Bakithi Kumalo, guitarist Ray Phiri and drummer Isaac Mtshali "got it pretty quickly," Simon says of his fusion vision, recalling that the reaction of many when he arrived in Johannesburg for recording was "Who is he?"
"People brought up Simon & Garfunkel, and Bakithi said, 'Doesn't ring a bell.' It was just a session with some American pop star."
His earlier reggae-kissed Mother and Child Reunion and retooling of Peruvian song El Condor Pasa convinced him that the Graceland concept was valid. "But I didn't know if the idea would work at such a high level," he says.
After creating a foundation of South African sounds, Simon wrestled with lyrics. The title track's Elvis theme took root in his brain, prompting a visit to Graceland and a revelation that "lyrics had to come out of my consciousness."
"I realized I'm not capable of telling a South African story, nor did I have the right to," he says. "And I'm not particularly good at writing a song like Biko (Peter Gabriel's tune about South African activist Steve Biko). Graceland basically says that life is always going on, even under oppression."
In Skies, Simon takes on old opponent Dali Tambo of Artists Against Apartheid in a cordial debate. Simon gives no ground in his stance that the African National Congress overstepped its bounds. "It was a political party that made a political decision about artists without getting their input … as if art weren't an incredibly powerful aspect of every country's culture," he says.
While Graceland occupies a career high, "I wouldn't say it was artistically more interesting than The Rhythm of the Saints (1990), which was a far greater challenge but not a cultural milestone," he says. "Graceland, Rhythm and The Capeman (1997) all changed how I wrote. So Beautiful or So What (2011) is me putting together all I've learned."
He's not finished. Simon is wrapping up a duets album with his wife, singer Edie Brickell ("It's a variant of Americana, a cross between the Carter Family and swamp," he says), and starting a new solo album.
"I'm watching the clock and thinking I'd like to continue to write while I still have all my powers," Simon says.