A week or so ago I ran into Greg Grandin, the author of The Empire of Necessity, the new book on Melville and slavery that has gotten a lot of attention, and he told me about an interview with Steven Van Zandt that was published earlier this year in which the legendary guitarist related that during apartheid days, South African boycotters wanted to kill Paul Simon for violating the boycott.
“And people say BDS’s call for cultural boycott is so frightening!” Grandin said– check out what some folks were saying during South African apartheid days.
“And check out what Van Zandt says about Kissinger, too,” he said. Paul Simon’s friend Henry Kissinger called Mandela a Communist…
Here is the interview: Dave Marsh did it on Sirius radio in December and Backstreets published it in January. If you read the whole thing, you see that Van Zandt is a wonderful moral voice. A guitarist who didn’t think he had a political bone in his body, he became politicized by things he heard when touring Europe, and knew that he had a responsibility to act on that knowledge.
Van Zandt went to South Africa in 1984, when he was 34, to research the anti-apartheid song he published the following year, “Sun City.” Notice how he snapped:
I started to witness the brutality. I remember the day, because I went down there completely open-minded. I was reading in the New York Times about the “reforms” they were putting in place, so I went down there giving them the benefit of the doubt. And I remember the day I was in a taxi cab and a black guy stepped off the curb and [the white taxi-driver] swerved to hit him, [muttering] “Fucking kaffir,” which means “nigger” in Afrikaans. And I said [to myself], “Did I just witness that?”, ‘cause I wasn’t really paying attention [at first.] And I remember that moment. It just hit me like, okay, these guys gotta go. This is way beyond another song on my next album. I gotta get some attention for this issue and do something about this.
Talk about responsibility. Now here is Van Zandt telling the Paul Simon story.
Van Zandt: You know, when I went down [to South Africa] the first time, I’m trying to do all these meetings. Then I had to do some secret meetings and get away from anyone resembling a handler or political operative. And I snuck into Soweto, where they were under [military isolation.]
Marsh: Yeah, they were surrounded.
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]
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. [NOTE: In 1986, Paul Simon recorded tracks for his Graceland album in South Africa, in direct violation of the cultural boycott.] 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… 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]
Wow, great. A couple comments. Reflect that boycott became a popular global cause in the South Africa struggle, even though the ANC was not non-violent, even though there were radical elements in the boycott movement that wanted to kill a lot of people. So, can’t we have the same standard for our activism today? Liberation movements aren’t ruined by such associations.
Note Van Zandt’s powerful and brotherly insistence on non-violence: “please try my idea, and I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.”
The BDS movement is non-violent, that is the great thing about it. Even if, for many of its leaders, it means dismantling the Jewish state, or Jewish privilege, it’s non-violent. And even if its application will cause pain, and I am sure it will and already has, no one is talking about knocking off the Rolling Stones or Leonard Cohen for violating boycott. The BDS National Committee didn’t need Steve Van Zandt to understand the media battle we’re in now.
Finally, I need to mention a post I did a few months ago, from Keith Richards‘ book, Life, when he met the late American musician Gram Parsons in England in 1968 and convinced him to abandon the Byrds’ tour of South Africa, because “they’re not being kind to the brothers.”
[W]e started to talk about South Africa, and Gram asked me, “What’s this drift I’m getting since I got to England? When I say I’m going to South Africa, I get this cold stare.” He was not aware of apartheid or anything. He’d never been out of the United States. So when I explained it to him, about apartheid and sanctions and nobody goes there, they’re not being kind to the brothers, he said, “Oh, just like Mississippi?” And immediately, “Well, fuck that.” He quit that night. He was supposed to leave the next day for South Africa.
1968 Gram Parsons. 1984 Steven Van Zandt. Effective movements take years to build. And yes, we can give good advice.