Van Zandt’s murderous road to Sun City
Freedom fight: Van Zandt
E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt has told how he persuaded apartheid-era South African freedom fighters to let him argue their case through music – and, in the process, got Paul Simon’s name taken off a death list.
Bruce Springsteen’s long-time collaborator masterminded the recording of 1985 protest song Sun City, by Artists United Against Apartheid. The track drew large-scale attention to the racist regime in South Africa with the help of those who took part, including Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Michael Monroe and many others.
Many artists and businesses were boycotting South Africa at the time, applying pressure that would eventually lead to the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid.
But when Van Zandt visited the nation to gain the support of radical organisation AZAPO, he put his own life on the line.
He recently told SiriusXM host and author Dave Marsh (via Backstreets.com): “AZAPO were actually on the front lines blowing shit up and stuff like that. I had to plead my case.
“I met with AZAPO, who had a very frank conversation 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 with my thing.
“I said to them: ‘Look, you’re not going to win this fight.’ Because it was brutal; the regime down there was brutality. ‘I don’t blame you, but you cannot win this way. Let me please try my idea: I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.’”
That was a difficult argument for the freedom fighters to accept, because the development of mass media had been suppressed in South Africa, and many areas had no electricity.
He then discovered that AZAPO had a list of people they planned to assassinate – and Paul Simon was at the top of it for having continued to accept work in South Africa despite the global boycott, including the making of his 1986 album Graceland.
Van Zandt continued: “In spite of my feelings about Paul Simon 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 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. I just don’t need that distraction right now; I got to keep my eye on the ball.’
“And I took him off that assassination list.”
The musicians had previously argued over approaches to dealing with apartheid, with Simon asserting many who opposed the government, including Mandela, were backed by communists who had their own agenda.
Van Zandt said of him: “He knew more that me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line was ‘Art transcends politics’ and I said: ‘All due respect, Paulie, but art is politics. I’m telling you right now – go fuck yourself.’
“He had that attitude and he knowingly and consciously violated the boycott to publicise his record. He actually had the nerve to say, ‘I paid everybody double-scale.’ Oh, that’s nice; no arrogance in that statement, huh?”
Simon still refused to accept he’d been wrong 25 years later when he asked Van Zandt to appear in a documentary connected with an anniversary release of Graceland. “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 apologising in this movie?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Okay, I’m not going to 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. And I see the rest of the footage where he’s supposedly apologising to activist Dali 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.”
Springsteen and the E Street Band – who recently released latest album High Hopes – are currently on their first-ever tour of South Africa.