Like most of the Western world I fell in love with Paul Simon’s Graceland album, coming from a household where I’d been exposed to a lot of African music, its mix of extreme pop smarts, great lyrics and African colour was a winner for me. I could still sing every word of it, despite not hearing it for at least the last 18 years*. I picked up The Rhythm of the Saints second-hand a year, or so after it came out, listened to it once, maybe not even all the way through and put it away until this Saturday. My thoughts at the time ran along the lines of ‘Where are the tunes?’, ‘Can I get a sandwich?’, ‘I’m not as keen on Latin rhythms as African ones’, ‘I dig boobs’, ‘Can I get a sandwich?’, ‘This isn’t a patch on Graceland’ and ‘Ooh, Bang Tango have a new LP out’. I’ve also never liked the LP cover.
Moron? Well, if I’m being charitable, maybe a semi-moron.
The Rhythm of the Saints has a few rousing moments, a genuinely tender one and one tune-shaped chunk of greatness. The babble at the time was that it was a straight swop, Simon had ditched Africa for South America in terms of his cultural appropriation** but, as always, things are more fuzzy and blurred when you look at the credits a little closer. Among the various rhythm artistes you can spot J.J Cale adding his guitar touches on a couple of tracks, Ladysmith Black Mambazo make an appearance and one of the main players is the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.
Let us start with a rousing bit, the opener ‘The Obvious Child’ is borne in on a fusillade of Brazilian drums before Simon enters stage left and takes the whole thing sideways into an unlikely sounding Cajun hoedown direction. It works, as do the lyrics which I can’t quite form into a coherent cogent story. On a similar tip, although it has a quieter, more laid-back roll about it is ‘She Moves On’, which sounds rather like J.J Cale goes Latin to me – ironically, given that this is one he doesn’t play on. It really is an excellent track too, the rhythm track is just spot-on nonchalantly strutting the intersection between frenetic and horizontal. There’s an unease in the lyrics too, what starts out as a standard love song, turns a little darker, this lady owns him:
She says “Ooh my storybook lover
You have underestimated my power
As you shortly will discover”
The I fall to my knees
Shake a rattle at the skies
I’m afraid that I’ll be taken
In her cold coffee eyes
Where The Rhythm of the Saints really catches light though is the second track, ‘Can’t Run But’^. The smoky, swampy atmospherics conjured by the percussion takes us straight into Dr John/Tom Waits/Tortoise territory, no really! It serves us up a perfect three and a half minutes of music, Simon sounding his most fragile as he mentions Chernobyl, a dream and the music business in a typically oblique manner. I love this one, J.J Cale adding a couple of gentle guitar flourishes in his own inimitable style is just the icing on the cake for me. I can play it over and over again, that percussion is addictive.
You want some tender? then cue up ‘The Coast’ which is dedicated to the poet Derek Walcott and his children^^. I’m a rocker and a roller and a right-out-of-controller, I don’t often get the mood for tender in my music but this really hits the spot, a gentle melody touched by a splash, or two of melancholy. It is sung really rather beautifully and there is a definite poetry to the lyrics,
We are standing in the sunlight
The early morning sunlight
In the harbor church of St. Cecilia
To praise a soul’s returning to the earth
To the rose of Jericho and the Bougainvillea
Which is rather stunning by anyone’s standards.
But just before you think I’ve gone soft I’ll tell you that I think the second side of The Rhythm of the Saints, bar ‘She Moves On’, is pretty mushy and unmemorable, nothing atmospheric enough, striking enough or rousing enough for me in there I’m afraid. Mind you the first side is pretty damn great – Paul Simon will be so relieved to read that, after all there is nothing that multi-millionaire singer-songwriter legendary recording artiste types value more than the approbation of a penniless cloth-eared blogger hiding behind a pseudonym. Don’t worry Paul, it’s okay, no Graceland but pretty good nonetheless.
Which isn’t a bad place to leave it, I’m off to spin ‘Can’t Run But’ again and maybe again.
* see also Brothers In Arms, Mr Mister Welcome to the Real World and Dream Of The Blue Turtles.
**I’m genuinely still not sure where I stand on the whole issue, which is unusual for me.
^not to be confused with the ailment Can’t Run Butt (CRB), which is a medical condition which affects 24.8% of Western adults.
^^Walcott and Simon had, I think, begun collaborating on the very ill-fated Capeman theatre project by this point.