October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

In 1980 singer Paul Simon starred in the movie One-Trick Pony; it flopped. In 1983 he released an LP, Hearts and Bones; it flopped. That same year he married actress Carrie Fisher. A few months later the marriage flopped. Taken together, those are the sort of setbacks that send lesser men to drink—or worse, to an oldies tour before their time.

Not Simon. After three years of silence he has reemerged with a critically acclaimed LP, Graceland, inspired by music from an unusual source: South Africa. Intrigued by Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Vol. II, a tape of “township jive” music popular with South African blacks, Simon traveled to Johannesburg in 1985 to investigate. The music’s clangy guitar and accordion sound reminded him of “the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50s—simple, happy, with lots of energy. There are no drum machines or synthesizers, yet it is very fresh, very modern.” Although language differences proved imposing—Simon says political discussion was limited to an agreement that “the situation is horrendous”—he found common musical ground with such local stars as General M.D. Shirinda and the Boyoyo Boys Band, with whom he later recorded half of Graceland’s music. The resulting LP, according to a Washington Post critic, is “tremendously impressive” and Simon’s “best work in a decade.”

Simon reenters the music world warily but determined to be more than a blast from the past. “The entertainment industry is easier when you’re younger,” he says. “Eventually someone comes along who’s younger, who has just as much talent and wants it more.” But the singer, who will be 45 on Oct. 13, plans to record for at least a few more decades. “If I’m healthy I’ll still be doing what I’ve done since I was 13—writing songs,” he says. “It’s as exhilarating now as ever. I get a very satisfied feeling that I never get in any other part of my life. But most of the time you’re walking around having little temper tantrums, waiting for it.” He admits that might make him difficult to live with. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “People haven’t been living with me for quite some time.”

Simon, who has a 14-year-old son, Harper James, from his first marriage, notes with a bemused smile that, “I’ve had difficulty with both my marriages. Carrie and I lived together for years. The marriage lasted three months.” More wistfully, he adds, “We really never settled into a peaceful groove. We’d have really good times and really bad times. That was characteristic of our relationship. She’s still a very important person in my life. But we can’t be married.”

Simon splits his year between a large duplex apartment overlooking Central Park and a clifftop summer home on Long Island where he entertains guests such as Paul McCartney, who visits annually. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are friendly acquaintances, “nice, fun” fellows. Billy Joel, who lives in Simon’s New York building, “is a good friend.” So do the guys ever get together for a hoot? “In my world,” Simon laughs, “there isn’t much interchange between musicians. It’s probably too much of a big deal for these people to say, ‘Hey, let’s sit around and sing.’ I did spend an evening with Annie Lennox and her boyfriend about a year ago. But we just played tapes for each other.”

Simon has helped promote Graceland with two videos and is considering a December concert tour. “I don’t really like to go on the road,” he says. “It’s not what it was in the early days with Simon and Garfunkel. Then I really liked it.” And not just because of the groupies, the glamour, the endless highway of standing ovations. “I’d get very excited about spending the night in a Holiday Inn,” says Simon. “It was a treat to put a quarter in the bed and have it vibrate.”

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