Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Myths of "Fingerprints"

We all know that Paul Simon's epochal Graceland was a collaboration with some amazingly gifted African musicians, plus two other songs: "That Was Your Mother," cut with some zydeco cats from Louisiana, and "All Around the World, or the Myth of Fingerprints," recorded with Los Lobos. I had heard rumors that the latter song was a Los Lobos song that they brought in to the collaboration, and that Simon ended up taking sole songwriting credit for it. I assumed he had done something on the song to earn that credit, but I recently read an interview with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, on a site called JamBase, that made it sound even worse than that.

Some juicy excerpts from Mr. Berlin:

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."... We go into the studio, and [Simon] had quite literally nothing. I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, "Well, let's just jam."

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.

Somehow or other, we got through the day with nothing. I mean, literally, nothing.... 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.... 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."

A few months later, the record comes out and says "Words and Music by Paul Simon." We were like, "What the f&%* 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."

The whole thing is very much worth checking out. And if you think I stole much of the content for this post from JamBase, let's just consider it a metacommentary on the actions of Mr. Simon.


Gavin said...

I remember hearing this at the time (via the Dave Marsh newsletter Rock n Roll Confidential, I think). I assumed Los Lobos were going to sue the pants off Simon and I'm sorry to hear they were dissuaded.

It not only puts the rest of Graceland's songs in a different light, but the musical backing provided by experts to Simon all the way back to "Mother and Child Reunion." There is a gray area between backing someone up and composing a significant part of a song, and I suspect Simon has spent a lot of his career living there.

T. Nawrocki said...

It goes even further back, to "El Condor Pasa." At least Simon only took credit for the lyrics, but the original composer, Daniel Robles, had written the tune in 1913 and died in 1942, leaving him in no shape to raise a fuss over songwriting credits. Simon probably learned his lesson on that one.

Kinky Paprika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kinky Paprika said...

You can also tell Simon is a dilettante by the way he name-drops "dancing to the music of Clifton Che-NEER."

It's prononunced in the French style.
I had to dig out my copy of "Bogalusa Boogie" to refresh myself, but Clifton himself prononunced it "che-NYAY."
(Paul would have known this had he actually, y'know, danced to some Clifton Chenier.)