With One Trick Pony, had you reached a stage where writing great songs was no longer enough or not as fulfilling as you’d hoped?
I wanted to try something that was on a larger scale. And I did, and it wasn’t very good. I shouldn’t have thought I would be good at writing a movie, by doing it once. That was a privilege given to me because of my popularity. Usually you have to go and learn how to do that.
By the time I finished it, I knew a lot more about how hard making movies actually is. At first, I still partly couldn’t get over the fact that I was starring in a movie that I wrote. It didn’t occur to me that my acting and directing talents might prove to be quite so minimal.
The same was true later, writing the musical, The Capeman. It seemed appropriate for me to do at the time. I didn’t have a great desire to make another album. Each album that I make is compared to everything I ever did. Making a movie, I guess, was a way of avoiding that.
Do you wish you’d been given the chance to make another film?
No. I don’t think I’m really good enough. You know, The Capeman was done last summer in Central Park, to rave reviews, one of them by the same guy who killed it the first time around. I think that piece was way ahead of its time. It was maybe not a great piece of work, but pretty good. The album was an interesting record, too. It was an interesting cross-cultural experiment, bringing Latin music to Broadway and mixing it with doo-wop I thought was really interesting. Was it a hit? No, it wasn’t a hit. Was it really bad? No, it really wasn’t bad. That’s why I allowed it to come back, because I thought it would still work. Whereas if somebody said they’d like to re-release One Trick Pony, I’d tell them not to bother.
How bad did you personally feel when The Capeman flopped?
That hurt a lot. Not because the play failed but the criticism of it was vindictive and it was personal. I was surprised that so many people thought I was such an asshole. Maybe we’re all assholes and we just don’t know it. I mean, yeah, it’s rough when they come at you personally. But six months later, it’s gone. In any career, you have to have failures. That’s how you learn. Success can be an enormous load to carry, because people over-praise you and they want you to just go on doing the one thing.
I remember that people were disappointed with The Rhythm Of The Saints after Graceland and that’s because they wanted me to do Graceland again. But you can’t do an album like that again. And what would they say if I’d done Graceland again? “Oh, you’ve just done Graceland again. That’s disappointing.”
Graceland had its critics, not of the music, but because you went to South Africa to record it.
Yeah, and that reached a level I didn’t anticipate. But I think it only reached that level because the record was a big hit. If Graceland had been a flop, they wouldn’t have said any more to me than they’d said to Malcolm McLaren who went to South Africa the year before to do Duck Rock with South African musicians. And he didn’t even pay anybody, he didn’t give anybody any credit.
Anyway, I think Graceland was remarkable in two different ways. One, it was a very interesting artistic leap that combined cultures in a way that was accessible and gave people great joy and insight into another country. It was very successful as a marriage of different cultures, which is not easy to do. The other thing is it provoked a really interesting political discussion, which really came down to how effective is a cultural boycott if the people that it’s affecting most are the people who are being oppressed? And that eventually turned people away from the cultural boycott as a tool of fighting that particular kind of oppression, because it wasn’t an efficient tool. It didn’t do the job. It did the opposite. Graceland was the catalyst that got people into that discussion. It was really Hugh Masekela who focused that discussion and said, “Hey, this is a good thing for South Africa. We want our music out there.”
What did you think when people said you should have used the opportunity to write an explicit anti-apartheid song for the album?
Well, the statement that I was making was a far bigger statement. I was doing what the songs were telling people to do. I actually went there, dealt equally with other musicians. I didn’t condescend. I wasn’t condescended to. We became friends. There were friends I made then I still have to this day. Hugh Masekela and Joseph Shabalala. Bakithi Kumalo and Tony Cedras, who’re still in my band. And, you know, when I listened to what popular music was in South Africa, it wasn’t political music.
Also, I think if you have the gift of writing a political song, like those early Bob Dylan songs that were political, it’s a gift to be able to write that kind of song. Phil Ochs had it, too. But most other people really couldn’t. So you get “Eve Of Destruction” or other imitations of those really good songs and it makes it seem like it’s frivolous. So you stay in your own world.
Somebody said, “If I went to South Africa I certainly wouldn’t come back and write a song like ‘You Can Call Me Al’.” But “You Can Call Me Al” was a pretty interesting song. It starts off and it’s about somebody who’s completely self-involved and travels to a place where he becomes aware of the universe and the whole world from the experience he has. And essentially that was the gift of Graceland, as opposed to it tearing down the walls of apartheid. It showed people, it was inspiring without being didactic. And the criticism was, “You have a responsibility to be didactic.”
And it’s not that I’ve never been didactic. I have songs in my repertoire that are more pointedly political, like “American Tune”. There are always references in my songs to what’s going on, and So Beautiful Or So What is no exception. When you’re writing songs about one subject, the people who agree with you are already there, and the people who don’t agree don’t even want to listen. So if you wanted to convert somebody from one mindset to another, coming at them straight ahead with blunt force probably won’t work as effectively as another approach. And Graceland was instinctually the other approach.