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The time Steven Van Zandt called off a hit on Paul Simon

Jan 28, 2014

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked off their first-ever South African tour this week. It’s a new post-Mandela era in South Africa. Apartheid is officially over, though plenty of social problems persist. It may be the band’s first tour to the country, but Steven Van Zandt, guitarist and and mascot of the E Street Band, has been deeply involved in South African politics for years.

Van Zandt was already on the scene in South Africa  fighting against Apartheid when Paul Simon came up with the idea for “Graceland.” Unlike Paul Simon, Springsteen and his band respected the “cultural boycott” on South Africa. Van Zandt helped create a record called “Sun City” that united American musicians against Apartheid. Simon’s notion was to break the boycott and work directly with South Africans to make a record that would throw their conflict onto the world stage.

Simon’s move was controversial at the time, and apparently the more militant faction of the South African resistance was angry enough about his breaking the cultural boycott to put a hit out on him.

To coincide with the tour this week, Backstreets—a New Jersey music site—points out an interview Van Zandt did on Sirius/XM radio last month with Dave Marsh where he talks about his experiences on the ground in South Africa in the 1980s, and how he actually got the AZAPO to call off their hit on Paul Simon.

Van Zandt doesn’t sound like Simon’s biggest fan, and actually calls him out for siding with Henry Kissinger and doubting Nelson Mandela early on.

It’s a pretty interesting. And we should all thank Steven for getting Paul Simon’s assassination waved off during “Graceland,” because “Rhythm of the Saints” turned out pretty great.

Relevant excerpts below—read more at Backstreets.

Yeah, they were surrounded.
So I snuck in and met with AZAPO, the Azanian People’s Organisation, who were like a more radical, violent version of our Black Panthers. They were actually on the front lines blowing shit up and stuff like that. And I had to plead my case to them, because they were sort of the hard line. And I said to them, “Look, all due respect, man, you’re not gonna win this fight. I don’t blame you for picking up guns and defending yourselves.” Because it was brutal; the regime down there was brutality. “I don’t blame you, but you’re not gonna win. You cannot win this way. Let me please try my idea, and I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.”

Now this already would’ve been a stretch for most people, but when you’re trying to tell this to people who don’t have electricity, that you’re about to win their war on a box that you plug in somewhere, they looked at me like, “This guy is really nuts.” [laughter]

If you thought Stevie’s kidding… the truth of the matter is that South Africa, for a very, very long time, well into the ’70s or early ’80s, did not have television for exactly this reason. There was no television if you’d been talking to a white South African.
Yeah, because when you’d go into Soweto, which was this huge area — I mean, it’s huge — you’d see, like, two or three feet of fog all over the ground. No lights. And it just had this very, very surreal feeling to it, because that was all from the coal-fires and whatever they were burning for heat. So it was like a really interesting movie-scenario sort of thing.

And I met with AZAPO, who had a very frank conversation — I was talking to the translator — about whether they should kill me for even being there. That’s how serious they were about violating the boycott. I eventually talked them out of that and then talked them into maybe going kinda with my thing.

They showed me that they have an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it. [NOTE: In 1986, Paul Simon recorded tracks for his Graceland album in South Africa, in direct violation of the cultural boycott.] And in spite of my feelings about Paul Simon, who we can talk about in a minute if you want to, I said to them, “Listen, I understand your feelings about this; I might even share them, but…”

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.
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?”

“Yep.”

“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!

Read more here.

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