When Little Steven got Paul Simon’s name off a hit list

The making of Paul Simon's "Graceland" album was controversial. But it seems we didn't know the half of it if Steven Van Zandt is to be believed.

Steven Van Zandt, then with Artists Against Apartheid, with Coretta Scott King, left, and Julian Band, behind him, in 1985.

Later today in Cape Town, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band start off a four-date concert tour of South Africa, the first time ever Springsteen and his band will perform in South Africa. (This is not Springsteen’s first time on the continent; in 1988 he performed in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and Harare, Zimbabwe, as part of the Human Rights Now! tour organized by Amnesty International.)

Springsteen’s Cape Town tour dates are in Bellville, a mostly white Afrikaans-speaking suburb to the north of downtown Cape Town that looks and – given Springsteen’s own cultural references – feels a lot like somewhere in New Jersey. The South African tour will end with a concert in Soweto next Saturday (in the same mega stadium where the World Cup final took place in 2010). To coincide with this historic moment, Backstreets.com, a site focusing on New Jersey music, posted the transcript of a long radio interview with Steven Van Zandt (also known as Little Steven), Springsteen’s longtime guitar player, who is also making the trip.

In the interview, Van Zandt (who younger readers know more for his role as a gangster on “The Sopranos”) recalls his longtime involvement with South Africa, and his role in uniting American musicians against Apartheid. The highlight of that work was the 1985 song “Sun City,” which featured at least 50 odd musicians, including Springsteen of course, Run-DMC, Pete Townsend, Joey Ramone and Afrika Bambataa, and which introduced a whole new generation of Americans to what was going on in South Africa. MTV and BET basically blew up the song. Commercial radio didn’t want to play it: “It was too black for white radio, too white for black radio.” A lot of this history about the song is told in the book, Sun City: The Making of the Record (1985), written by Dave Marsh, a Van Zandt collaborator.

While this all was happening, Paul Simon’s career was in decline when he discovered South African music and traveled to South Africa in defiance of the UN cultural boycott against Apartheid. There Simon met and rehearsed with South African musicians who he later flew to New York City to record his now legendary “Graceland” album. (EDIT: Elsewhere, I’ve already summarized the debate around “Graceland”; what was bad and good about its politics and mostly good about the music.)

The Backstreets.com interview is conducted by Dave Marsh. The result is that Little Stevie is quite relaxed an eager to talk. A lot gets covered in the interview, but we perked up when Van Zandt starts talking about what he made of Paul Simon’s going to South Africa for “Graceland.” That’s the section of the interview that I copied below.

Basically, the set up is this: Van Zandt, as part of his antiapartheid work, had traveled to South Africa in the mid-1980s. He met up with black activists from the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), which claimed the black consciousness mantle of Steve Biko.  AZAPO was a rival to the UDF, which dominated internal antiapartheid protest and was effectively the internal wing of the ANC of Mandela. The ANC and the UDF supported the cultural boycott too; in fact they pushed for it initially and helped it to be set up. But now they appeared to make exceptions for Simon.

For non-South Africans: Van Zandt’s description of AZAPO is a bit off; he exaggerates their impact. “They were actually on the front lines blowing shit up and stuff like that.” South Africans will laugh at this. But that doesn’t take away from his recollections. Marsh and Van Zandt are also off (you can’t blame them) about when South Africa got TV. They mention the mid-1980s. The truth is a public TV service was introduced in 1976. It was more like a state propaganda service and catered to white viewers, but it did exist. Then in the early 1980s, the government added two regional channels for black viewers.

But back to Van Zandt’s story. AZAPO comrades had taken Van Zandt around and he witnessed the effects of Apartheid first hand. In one moment, he goes to Soweto, the largest township in South Africa which is on the outskirts of Johannesburg. He is quite vivid in his recollections. Check his description of 1980s Soweto: “… you’d see, like, two or three feet of fog all over the ground. No lights.” There he meets more people and talk about the cultural boycott.

You can go read the whole thing at the source, but we decided to copy the relevant section here. The interviewer’s contributions are in bold:  The original interview is here. The excerpt starts with Little Steven telling how he linked up with AZAPO.

Steven Van Zandt: 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]

Dave Marsh: 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. [In 1986, Paul Simon recorded tracks for his Graceland album in South Africa, in direct violation of the cultural boycott–Ed.] 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?”


“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!

You’re the only person who’s ever met Paul twice who thinks that’s surprising. [laughter]

I mean, at this point, you still think you were right?! Meanwhile, that big “communist,” as soon as he got out of jail, I see who took the first picture with him. There’s Paul Simon and Mandela, good buddies. I’m watchin’ CNN the other day. Mandela dies, on comes a statement by Bono and the second statement’s by Paul Simon. I’m like oh, just make me throw up. You know, I like the guy in a lot of ways, I do; and I respect his work, of course. He’s a wonderful, wonderful artist, but when it comes to this subject, he just will not admit he was wrong. Y’know, just mea culpa. Come on, you won! He made twenty, thirty million dollars at least, okay? Take the money and apologize, okay? I mean, say “Listen, maybe I was wrong about this a little bit.” No.

Well…unfortunately we live in a country where the money means you don’t have to apologize, and let’s leave that there.

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