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Paul Simon: The Life


Paul Simon: The Life

As noted former Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn’s excellent biography of Paul Simon is published, the legendary singer-songwriter has embarked on the first leg of his “Homeward Bound” tour, a series of concerts he says will bring his performing career to a "natural end." At age 76, it’s understandable he would want to give up life on the road, but as Hilburn’s respectful, but far from idolatrous, account of Simon’s life makes clear, it’s too early to think the musician is ready to abandon the restless creativity and talent for musical reinvention that has distinguished his career.

In a recent interview, Hilburn says he envisioned the book as “two train tracks going in parallel.” The first is Simon’s personal story, while the other is what he calls a “case study in songwriting.” Aided by more than 100 hours of interviews with Simon, who nonetheless granted full editorial control over the book’s contents, Hilburn delivers a rich survey of his subject’s life and career --- from his childhood in Queens to the present --- that’s noteworthy for both its breadth and depth. But in his chronological portrait, Hilburn goes well beyond that to offer equally impressive insight into the process by which Simon has created his prodigious body of work, one that includes songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which have entered the pantheon of American popular music.

Even with the Everly Brothers-inspired hit “Hey, Schoolgirl” he and his schoolmate Art Garfunkel recorded as “Tom & Jerry” in 1957, there wasn’t much about Simon’s early years --- ones in which he released a string of solo singles that flopped --- that presaged the course of his later career. It was only after he turned back to folk music and again teamed with Garfunkel that he found the formula for success that produced a string of multiplatinum, Grammy Award-winning albums.

"If Robert Hilburn’s enjoyable account demonstrates anything, it’s that it’s impossible to predict what will come next for Paul Simon."

That phase of Simon's story came to an end in 1970, as he and his partner quietly parted ways. For Simon’s fans, the story of his dissatisfaction with Garfunkel’s blossoming film career and his feeling that he would never satisfy his creative potential writing songs for another to sing are familiar stories. As to the latter, Hilburn explains, “The relationship was too restrictive. Simon wanted the freedom to move beyond the mostly soothing folk strains that lifted Simon and Garfunkel to superstar status in rock. He heard a whole new world of music in his head, and he wanted to pursue it.” Anyone comparing the later work of both performers would have to conclude Simon made a wise choice.

But, for all its post-Simon and Garfunkel success, as Hilburn describes it, the trajectory of Simon’s career hasn’t proceeded in a straight, upward curve. It’s noteworthy that both his major artistic setbacks --- the 1980 film One-Trick Pony, and the disastrous 1998 Broadway musical “The Capeman,”saw Simon venturing into unfamiliar artistic realms, in each case imprudently rejecting the wise counsel of more seasoned professionals.

What makes Simon’s story so fascinating is how, rather than permanently derailing him, these failures spurred him to even higher levels of creativity. Instead of yielding to the temptation of becoming a nostalgia act, after his underappreciated album Hearts and Bones in 1983, Simon began to explore world music, a process that yielded two of the greatest of his 13 solo studio albums: Graceland (1986) and The Rhythm of the Saints (1990).

Following the demise of “The Capeman” after only 68 performances, Simon has produced four varied albums, culminating in 2016’s Stranger to Stranger. In today’s fragmented, youth-oriented pop music world, it would be too much to expect them to reach the level of popularity of his greatest works, but Hilburn brings to bear his well-trained ear to describe their diverse appeal.

When he moves inside the studio to watch Simon at work, Hilburn doesn’t skimp on his account of his subject’s creative process. “For most of his career, Simon’s songwriting would begin with the music,” Hilburn writes. “He would try to find a riff or melody on the guitar or piano that stirred him emotionally. Then he’d try to figure out how to express what he was feeling in words.” Though Simon often has been criticized for his perfectionist tendencies, spending nearly 100 hours recording “The Boxer,” for example, Hilburn offers a capable defense of that meticulousness, a quality driven solely by Simon's devotion to his art.

Those looking to PAUL SIMON for tabloid-style material will be disappointed. Simon’s life has provided little fodder, despite relationships like his decade-long roller coaster ride with his second wife, the late Carrie Fisher. Since 1992, he’s been happily married to fellow musician Edie Brickell, but Hilburn makes it clear that music has always been Simon’s mistress, something that has extracted a price in his personal relationships.

As he approaches the end of his eighth decade, the man who thought it would be “terribly strange to be seventy” is doing anything but sitting on the park bench he imagined in that poignant song. If Robert Hilburn’s enjoyable account demonstrates anything, it’s that it’s impossible to predict what will come next for Paul Simon. His millions of fans have good reason to hope it will be something at least as exciting as the best of his great work.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 25, 2018

Paul Simon: The Life
by Robert Hilburn

  • Publication Date: May 28, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, Music, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501112139
  • ISBN-13: 9781501112133