Los Lobos on Paul Simon: "Do you mean zydeco when you say zy decko?"
Say what we will about colleague in blogebrity, Bob Lefsetz, he sometimes serves up interesting and timely memes and insights -- in this case a link to an article from late 2006 in an off-the-rock-critical radar website, Jambase.
It's an interview with Steve Berlin of Los Angeles's own Los Lobos. In it, Berlin puts real teeth to the claim that Graceland-era Paul Simon was nothing but a cultural carpetbagger. Note that Lefsetz included this provocative link in a bit of verbiage about supposed Graceland-biters, Vampire Weekend, who for the record (1) I like a lot and (2) I think sound more like Squeeze than they do Paul Simon. Viz:
In any event, here's a tasty interview excerpt:
Speaking of doing a lot of different records and working with a lot of amazing songwriters, I own a ton of the records that you've done over the years. One, in particular, I'd like to ask you about is Paul Simon's Graceland. I obsessed over that thing when I was young. Do you have any recollections of working on it?
Oh, I have plenty of recollections of working on that one. I don't know if you heard the stories, but it was not a pleasant deal for us. I mean he [Simon] quite literally -- and in no way do I exaggerate when I say -- he stole the songs from us.
The interviewer's softball question leads to an extended rant that rolls on for over 1500 words. There's no clear way to verify Berlin's claims. But it's interesting to consider his characterization of Los Lobos' "collaboration" with Simon at a moment when the latter artist is being trumpeted as the latest hipster influence, like David Byrne and Gang of Four before him. It must be a heady moment for Simon. New York's much respected Brooklyn Academy of Music is feting him with a sold out month-long residency celebrating his post-Garfunkel career -- a tribute fest that finds everyone from Byrne to Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing his songs, a residency whose final week -- starting April 23rd -- includes one of the top 10 ever most unlikely co-bills: Grizzly Bear, Gillian Welch, Josh Groban, and Olu Dara.
After the jump, Steve Berlin's entire diatribe on Los Lobos' "collaboration" with Simon, including a rare dis of legendary former Warner Bros chief Lenny Waronker.
Yeah. And you know, going into it, I had an enormous amount of respect for the guy. The early records were amazing, I loved his solo records, and I truly thought he was one of the greatest gifts to American music that there was.
At the time, we were high on the musical food chain. Paul had just come off One Trick Pony and was kind of floundering. People forget, before Graceland, he was viewed as a colossal failure. He was low. So when we were approached to do it, I was a way bigger fan than anybody else in the band. We got approached by Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin who ran our record company [Warner Bros.], and this is the way these guys would talk – "It would mean a lot to the family if you guys would do this for us." And we thought, "Ok well, it's for the family, so we'll do it." It sounds so unbelievably naïve and ridiculous that that would be enough of a reason to go to the studio with him.
We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing. I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, "Well, let's just jam." We said, "We don't really do that." When we jam, we'll switch instruments. Dave will play drums, I'll play something. We don't really jam. Especially in that era. Louie will be the first to tell you this – he was made to play drums. They forced him to play drums. He's not really a drummer by trade. He's never practiced a moment in his life. Not once in his life did he sit down at the drums because of his love for drumming. The other three guys made him play drums in the early days, so he sort of became drummer by default. He hates playing the instrument, I think. Again, you should ask him, but I don't ever ever, ever get the sense that he was one of those dyed-in-the-wool, John Bonham, let's-play-drums-for-three-days-straight kind of guys. So consequently, as the core band was comprised then, we never jammed - never ever. Not by accident, not even at soundcheck. We would always just play a song.
So Paul was like, "Let's just jam," and we're like, "Oh jeez. Well alright, let's see what we can do." And it was not good because Louie wasn't comfortable. None of us were comfortable, it wasn't just Louie. It was like this very alien environment to us. Paul was a very strange guy. Paul's engineer was even stranger than Paul, and he just seemed to have no clue - no focus, no design, no real nothing. He had just done a few of the African songs that hadn't become songs yet. Those were literally jams. Or what the world came to know and I don't think really got exposed enough, is that those are actually songs by a lot of those artists that he just approved of. So that's kind of what he was doing. It was very patrician, material sort of viewpoint. Like, because I'm gonna put my stamp on it, they're now my songs. But that's literally how he approached this stuff.
I remember he played me the one he did by John Hart, and I know John Hart, the last song on the record. He goes, "Yeah, I did this in Louisiana with this zy decko guy." And he kept saying it over and over. And I remember having to tell him, "Paul, it's pronounced zydeco. It's not zy decko, it's zydeco." I mean that's how incredibly dilettante he was about this stuff. The guy was clueless.
Wow. You're kidding me?
Clue... less about what he was doing. He knew what he wanted to do, but it was not in any way like, "Here's my idea. Here's this great vision I have for this record, come with me."
About two hours into it, the guys are like, "You gotta call Lenny right now. You gotta get us out of this. We can't do this. This is a joke. This is a waste of time." And this was like two hours into the session that they wanted me to call Lenny. What am I going to tell Lenny? It was a favor to him. What am I going to say, "Paul's a fucking idiot?"
Somehow or other, we got through the day with nothing. I mean, literally, nothing. We would do stuff like try an idea out and run it around for 45 minutes, and Paul would go "Eh... I don't like it. Let's do something else." And it was so frustrating. Even when we'd catch a glimpse of something that might turn into something, he would just lose interest. A kitten-and-the-string kinda thing.
So that's day one. We leave there and it's like, "Ok, we're done. We're never coming back." I called Lenny and said it really wasn't very good. We really didn't get anything you could call a song or even close to a song. I don't think Paul likes us very much. And frankly, I don't think we like him very much. Can we just say, 'Thanks for the memories' and split?" And he was like, "Man, you gotta hang in there. Paul really does respect you. It's just the way he is. I'll talk to him." And we were like, "Oh man, please Lenny. It's not working." Meanwhile, we're not getting paid for this. There was no discussion like we're gonna cash in or anything like that. It was very labor-of-love.
Yeah. Don't ask me why. God knows it would have made it a lot easier to be there.
And Lenny put you guys together thinking it would be a good match?
Well, "It would be good for the family." That was it. So we go back in the second day wondering why we're there. It was ridiculous. I think David starts playing "The Myth of the Fingerprints," or whatever he ended up calling it. That was one of our songs. That year, that was a song we started working on By Light of the Moon. So that was like an existing Lobos sketch of an idea that we had already started doing. I don't think there were any recordings of it, but we had messed around with it. We knew we were gonna do it. It was gonna turn into a song. Paul goes, "Hey, what's that?" We start playing what we have of it, and it is exactly what you hear on the record. So we're like, "Oh, ok. We'll share this song."
Good way to get out of the studio, though...
Yeah. But it was very clear to us, at the moment, we're thinking he's doing one of our songs. It would be like if he did "Will the Wolf Survive?" Literally. A few months later, the record comes out and says "Words and Music by Paul Simon." We were like, "What the fuck is this?"
We tried calling him, and we can't find him. Weeks go by and our managers can't find him. We finally track him down and ask him about our song, and he goes, "Sue me. See what happens."
What?! Come on...
That's what he said. He said, "You don't like it? Sue me. You'll see what happens." We were floored. We had no idea. The record comes out, and he's a big hit. Retroactively, he had to give songwriting credit to all the African guys he stole from that were working on it and everyone seemed to forget. But that's the kind of person he is. He's the world's biggest prick, basically.
So we go back to Lenny and say, "Hey listen, you stuck us in the studio with this fucking idiot for two days. We tried to get out of it, you made us stay in there, and then he steals our song?! What the hell?!" And Lenny's always a politician. He made us forget about it long enough that it went away. But to this day, I do not believe we have gotten paid for it. We certainly didn't get songwriting credit for it. And it remains an enormous bone that sticks in our craw. Had he even given us a millionth of what the song and the record became, I think we would have been – if nothing else - much richer, but much happier about the whole thing.
Have you guys seen him since then?
No. Never run into him. I'll tell you, if the guys ever did run into him, I wouldn't want to be him, that's for sure.
That's an amazing story. I can't believe I never heard it before.
We had every right and reason to sue him, and Lenny goes, "It's bad for the family." When we told the story in that era, when this was going down, we were doing interviews and telling the truth. And Lenny goes, "Hey guys, I really need you to stop talking about it. It's bad for the family."
Amazing. Talk about bad for the family.
I know. Again, it's just so incredible how naïve we were back then. You can't even imagine that era of music when you'd actually listen to your record company president who told you to shut up because "it's bad for the family." Now, I'd tell him to go fuck himself.
That's our version of it. I'd love to hear Paul's version of it.
But he's much richer now and could probably give a fuck about it. It's still one of those things where I've not forgiven anyone involved in it. It still remains. I haven't let it go, as you can tell. It was just so wrong and so rude, and so unnecessary. It is an amazing moment in our history.