Graceland and Google

Dear Mailing List,

It’s been quite a while. The usual excuses, I’ve been busy etc., travelling a lot. Rajasthan for research on the book (about World Music, no title yet), Toronto for a Kate McGarrigle tribute concert and Australia (with Way To Blue) and South East Asia at the end of last year. A kind of pathology builds up – falling behind on the book, I feel guilty if any peaceful creative time at the computer is devoted to something other than the Primary Task At Hand! I have also, you may be pleased to hear, been working on Live CDs of the Way To Blue and Kate McGarrigle concerts.

But a couple of recent events have prodded me to sit down and write to you, my treasured Mailing List. One involves a present-day madness and the other a reminder of madness from the not-so-distant past.

Let’s start with the latter. Stuart Jeffries, reviewing “Under African Skies” (a film about the making of Graceland) in the Guardian, reprised the attacks on Paul Simon – “the flouter’”-  for his “disrespect to the black men and woman of the ANC and Artists Against Apartheid”.

His review took me back to a time in my own life, before Graceland, when I got involved with a musical play called Poppie Nongena. I had seen it off-Broadway and was so inspired by the music, the cast and the story (an anti-Apartheid drama about the insanity of the Bantustans project) that I ended up bringing the show to the Edinburgh Festival on my credit card. That led to a run at the Riverside Studios in London (April 1984), rave reviews and a move to the Donmar Warehouse in the West End. Working with that (mostly Xhosa) cast and (white) director Hilary Blecher was a joy, an experience to treasure, to say nothing of seeing audiences on their feet in tears every night, singing Nkosi Sikel Iafrica along with the cast.

We didn’t get any Jeffries-like attacks, but why not? The play was based on a book by a white South African writer; it had been created at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre; the cast was a mixture of actors still resident in South Africa and others in exile. In other words, a walking, talking violation of the Cultural Boycott. But its subjective credentials as a rebuke to apartheid gave it safe, hypocritical passage.

Which leads me back to Graceland. The UN and the ANC condemned it when its release was announced, but both withdrew their condemnation when they realized what a profound boost it gave the anti-apartheid cause (and just in time for the Grammy ceremonies). There is a lot of credit to spread around for the world-wide surge of sympathy that led to Mandela’s release from prison and the first free elections in 1994: Tony Hollingsworth and the Mandela Birthday concert at Wembley and Jerry Dammers’ great Free Nelson Mandela single, for example. But it must not be forgotten that the US Congress over-rode Reagan’s veto of the bill enshrining the Boycott in U.S. law an intriguing 8 months after the release of Graceland. I remember feeling at the time that the work of activists over decades might never have succeeded without that final, emotional push fuelled by the inexorable power of Graceland’s message that the culture being suppressed in South Africa was far more rich, interesting and exciting than the culture of those doing the suppressing. I am convinced this shift in attitudes was fatal to the Boer cause. It certainly wouldn’t have unfolded as it did without Simon’s ‘treacherous’ trip to Johannesburg.

(The film, by the way, is very much worth seeing. Good as it is, I was relieved to see that it didn’t touch on a number of fascinating aspects of the Graceland story I have included in the South African chapter of my book!)

The Cultural Commissars eventually found a way to torpedo Poppie Nongena. As we were preparing our move from the Riverside to the Donmar, an official from Actor’s Equity came to see me. We would have to re-cast at least two of the leading roles with black, UK-based Equity members. I explained that the cast had created the play with Blecher – many of the lines were their own improvisations. The English dialogue was surrounded by Xhosa asides, while the music was all traditional songs full of clicks impossible for a non-Xhosa to replicate. Replacing my cast with Anglo-Caribbean or Nigerian-born actors would kill the show. Too bad, he said, that’s not my problem, it’s yours.

In desperation, I persuaded one of Thatcher’s ministers to write to the Employment Secretary about the matter, thereby kicking the issue of our Work Permit extensions into, as they say, the long grass. We were able to run for four months at the Donmar before it reached the top of the pile at the Department of Employment and they confirmed Equity’s dictum – replace members of the cast with locals or close the show. We found a refugee from the cast of Ipi-Tombi (a ‘70s “happy natives” musical that had a run in London before being shut by anti-apartheid pickets) who spoke a bit of Xhosa (but was a hopeless actor). It was too dispiriting, so we packed it in. (We went on to runs in Australia, Canada and Chicago.)

I have often reflected on the irony that if Labour had been in power, they would have been far less willing to defy, however briefly, the actors’ union and we probably would not have been able to move to the West End at all. In so many countries today, the Left is on the back foot, out-manoeuvred by the forces of Reaction. Could this have something to do with the rigidity of thought represented by the likes of Jeffries’? Do his ilk really believe it would have been worth more years of apartheid, more deaths, more blighted lives, rather than allow for flexibility in the struggle? I suspect many of them do.

An issue occupying at least as much attention as apartheid did 25 years ago, is the Internet. I took part one recent Saturday, in a panel discussion (in a tent in Glastonbury) about the Internet’s effect on music. I think the delegate from Google was expecting accolades for the resulting ‘democratization’ of music and was a bit shocked by the push-back from panellists and audience. Moderator Kirsty Lang was relying on me to be the nay-sayer (a role I was, as you can imagine, happy to fill) but the other panellists also expressed reservations. What was most interesting was that my little injection of bile got such a hearty round of applause!

I voiced three gripes, starting with the quality of sound. The notion that a generation has grown up listening to music via Mp3 files on ear-buds is depressing, and it has the knock-on effect of encouraging recordings in dead rooms with close mic-ing, sampling, and all the other modern scourges of the kind of sonic richness people now pay £75 pounds for in the ever-growing vinyl racks of music shops.

Another obvious complaint involves remuneration. Piracy and free downloads are just part of a general de-valuing of artists’ (and producers’) right to be paid for the music people enjoy and share. This is, to my mind, part of a downward spiral involving ever thinner, shinier, digital recording, the lowering of prices, the ease of purchase (or theft) and the reduction of quality in the music and sound that gets released into the avalanche of new music every week.

Which brings us to the third point. The man from Google proudly showed us clips from a YouTube site of a classical pianist of moderate talent whose entire career has been based on viral internet distribution. The fact that she had circumnavigated the stuffy, closed world of classical promoters, agents and record labels was, we were told, something to be celebrated. I confess to not being certain we should celebrate the fact that this mediocre talent is now better known and perhaps better paid than Murray Perahia. This leads to my central curmudgeonly point – is the avalanche of mediocre music on the Internet a good thing? As we Americans say in support of good lawyers and rigorously fair trials in capital cases, better to let a few killers walk free than to execute an innocent man. Is it likewise true that it’s better to endure so much mediocrity so that one Laura Marling (who is good, I admit) gets her big break?

Playing King Canute to the tides of modernity is obviously pointless, but it is worth noting a conundrum. The ‘60s “record label / A&R man / expensive studio” filter may have been hard to break into, but for whatever reason, it seems to have produced a lot more artists whose box sets are piled by the register than any decade since.

A bizarre punch line to this panel was provided by the man who raised his hand to express his gratitude to YouTube for providing him with an annual income of £200,000 a year. We were all so stunned that no one had the presence of mind to ask him what was on his lucrative (thanks to sponsorship) YouTube channel. The same fellow approached me later outside another tent to say he appreciated my comments etc. I asked him what his content was. Looking around furtively, he leaned close to me and muttered…. “fox hunting videos”.

So there we have it. Musicians’ creations are valued ever lower, none I know makes any kind of a living off the Internet and a bunch of right-wingers in Barbour jackets get their companies to sponsor footage of beagles tearing foxes apart. (This is conjecture – a cursory look on Google for ‘fox hunting’ failed to produce any evidence – but how else would someone make £200,000 from fox hunting videos?)

This seems like an admirably hypocritical moment to announce that I am in the process of launching a “White Bicycles” YouTube Channel. I’ve trawled the Internet looking for decent footage of the artists and the music I describe in the book. It will be organized by Chapter and is tied to the upcoming (this autumn) release of the White Bicycles audio book, read by Yours Truly.

More news to follow in a forthcoming letter – I have tried your patience enough.