Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I don’t know whether you’d call “Paul Simon: The Life” an authorized biography, but it sure is polite.
Simon did sit down with author Robert Hilburn for many interviews, but according to Hilburn, he didn’t have final say over the result. Nevertheless, Hilburn frequently pulls his punches, giving Simon the benefit of the doubt even when he’s being a prick.
The controversial journey to apartheid South Africa, then being shunned by many artists, to record songs for “Graceland”? Simon ran it by a number of interested parties, including at least one group that stabbed him in the back. Later, when Hilburn talks with Steven Van Zandt – still opposed to the trip years later – Van Zandt comes off as angrily wrongheaded. (Update: And Van Zandt helped save his life!)
The writing dispute with Los Lobos over “The Myth of Fingerprints,” which was credited solely to Simon? The band from East L.A. is still angry, but the incident is shrugged off.
The relationship with Simon’s father, Lou, which came off as difficult in a 1990 “60 Minutes” interview with Ed Bradley? Well, he could be hard to please, but he was still Paul’s hero.
I’m not saying Hilburn got it wrong. I think Simon went out of his way to do the right thing in South Africa, and I wasn’t in the studio with Los Lobos (though what Steve Berlin describes in the link above sounds plausible). Nor did I ever meet Lou Simon.
But boy. Hilburn’s Simon is admired by almost everybody – I can’t tell you how many times Quincy Jones is quoted when Hilburn needs a reference to an “artist on a challenging path” – and though Simon is lightly criticized for his perfectionism (to which, frankly, he’s entitled), he’s also overly praised for his generosity. I mean, the guy actually gave Warner Bros. their money back when the film “One Trick Pony” tanked, according to the book.
Still, you can’t deny Simon’s artistry, and Hilburn – who’s been writing about popular music for decades – captures it well. Simon did not emerge fully formed with “The Sound of Silence”; he was a fan of doo-wop who lucked out on a middling, early rock ‘n’ roll hit, “Hey, Schoolgirl,” with a grade-school buddy, Art Garfunkel, and never really strayed from the music business, scraping by for years.
Some of Hilburn’s most interesting stories are in the period between 1957’s “Hey, Schoolgirl” and the sudden takeoff of “The Sound of Silence” in late 1965 after producer Tom Wilson added electric instruments to an acoustic version off the failed album “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” Simon was a hustler, writing and song-plugging for music publishers in Manhattan with little success while halfheartedly attending Queens College. He worked Village coffeehouses – awkwardly – and kept hustling when he got his shot with Columbia Records, bringing Garfunkel along with him. (Art actually stayed in school well after the duo became stars, earning an M.A. in mathematics from Columbia in 1967. You know, in case the rock ‘n’ roll thing didn’t work out.)
Simon also benefited from connecting with the right people. He made friendships, and improved his chops, during a 1965 stint in England that paid dividends for years. Later in 1965, with “Sound of Silence” rising on the charts, he asked Columbia’s debonair president Goddard Lieberson to recommend a manager. Lieberson suggested either Albert Grossman (who already represented Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary) or a man named Mort Lewis. Simon went with Lewis, who turned out to be a scrupulous guardian.
And the songs. There’s no question Simon is one of the great American songwriters, capable of clever melodies, haunting lyrics, and unusual ideas. If his work had ended with Simon and Garfunkel, he’d still be considered one of the greats: “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – that’s a career, right there. Add in “American Tune,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Stranded in a Limousine,” “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” even several songs from the unfairly maligned “The Capeman,” and he’s up there with the legends.
Hilburn has a fondness for quoting entire Simon compositions, something I thought would be tedious – Look! Poetry! – but turns out to be wise, as Simon’s later work, in particular, offers a delicacy and care often missing from capital-S Songwriting. His lyrics take unexpected turns and actually work as verse, though the music does help.
But Hilburn could have been sympathetic to Simon, who sounds like a mostly decent guy, and still been more dispassionate. I can’t help comparing Hilburn’s book to the recent biography of Mike Nichols, a Simon friend who had his own long, successful career. Nichols biographer Mark Harris is hard-pressed to find an actor who doesn’t praise Nichols to the skies, but at the same time what comes across is a sometimes-tortured gentleman who really could be an asshole and make poor decisions – and yet it makes him all the more human and sympathetic. I seldom got that feeling with Simon. He’s an artist, usually a gentleman (and certainly generous), but Hilburn buffs his flaws to a fine sheen.
However, Hilburn does seem fair about one characterization in particular: Art Garfunkel, who comes across as smart, but also petty and truculent, holding grudges for 50 years. Simon earns our sympathy at those times. He seems almost saintly.
Though maybe I’m just being polite.
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