Review: ‘Paul Simon: The Life’ by Robert Hilburn

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.

View all my reviews

Sunday read: The book of forgetting and forgetting

Image by Peter Fordham © Yoko Ono via UDiscoverMusic.com.

Do you remember Fred Allen?

You probably don’t. You probably have never heard of Fred Allen. But at his peak, in the 1930s and 1940s, he had one of the most popular radio shows on the air, was hailed as one of America’s foremost humorists, and influenced everybody from contemporaries Jack Benny and Groucho Marx to future talk-show host Johnny Carson (the “Mighty Carson Art Players” was a take on the “Mighty Allen Art Players”). One of the characters on his show, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, was the inspiration for the Warner Bros. character Foghorn Leghorn.

Do you remember Harold Robbins? James Michener? Fannie Hurst? They were some of the best-selling authors of their day. Robbins was greatly responsible for the kind of sex-dripping novel we now think of as an airport potboiler. Michener wrote doorstops, such as “The Source” and “Hawaii,” that tried to sum up centuries of history through a handful of characters. Hurst, who is name-dropped in Mel Brooks’ song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” wrote some of the best-selling books of the 1920s and ’30s. She was, perhaps, the Jodi Picoult of her day, seizing on social themes and getting hooted at by critics.

Do you remember “Imagine”? The 1971 John Lennon song?

Of course you do. It’s practically an anthem. As recently as last year, Gal Gadot rounded up a bunch of celebrities to sing it in the face of Covid. It didn’t go over well, but it wasn’t the song’s fault.

But if you asked one of Cesar A. Hidalgo’s students at MIT about “Imagine,” she would be clueless, as Hidalgo found out while listening to the song one day.

“Is it Coldplay?” the student asked.

Continue reading

Sunday read: How not to be shameless

We are living in a world of shamelessness.

I mean that literally. Somewhere, sometime — probably around the time that iPhone apps made publicity-seeking as easy and instantaneous as posting a tweet — many people stopped being bothered by behavior that, in other eras, would have prompted an apology and a temporary drop off the map.

Now? People double down. (And I’m so sick of the phrase “double down,” except in its original blackjack-oriented form. Make “Double Down” Obscure Again, please.) Refuse a reassuring Covid test? It’s an invasion of freedom — and you can’t let those socialists take away our freedom. (And won’t someone think of the grandmother?) Accosting a school-shooting survivor in the name of the Second Amendment (among other things)? Use the publicity to raise $1.6 million.

Oh, and that whole botched coronavirus thing? “Not my fault.”

I know there’s an irony here, that bogeyman, “cancel culture.” I once wrote a story about public shaming, and holier-than-thou Twitterers piling on people for one stupid remark can also be stupid, in the fashion of shooting a fly with an elephant gun. But (usually) there’s a sense of morality at play. And (usually) the offender tries to show remorse.

But that requires a sense of shame, a knowledge that you have wronged somebody and want to make amends. Perhaps the other party doesn’t want to forgive; that’s a whole different conversation. (Forgiveness is generally good for you, though.)

I’ve been thinking about all of this — brazen politicians and cable hosts and an unwillingness to give an inch — and it made me think of David Carr. An excerpt from his brilliant book, “The Night of the Gun,” is my Sunday read.

Continue reading

Review: ‘Answers in the Form of Questions’ by Claire McNear

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Claire McNear’s history of “Jeopardy!”, “Answers in the Form of Questions,” is about what you’d expect: amiable and breezy, optimistic and self-deprecating, with a few nice insights but also few surprises.

Continue reading

Review: ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Perhaps some spoilers to come. You’ve been warned.)

I shouldn’t have read the review.

Now, I regularly read reviews before reading a book. I like to get an idea of what other people think, and they rarely affect my own opinion. At the least, they’re often good for a laugh – those 1-star Amazon reviews in which people complain about the book because it arrived late. Folks, it’s not the author’s fault that UPS took too long to get the book to your door.

But this review, on Goodreads, stayed with me as I read “Station Eleven,” the generally praised novel by Emily St. John Mandel. And as it forms at least part of my own criticism, I’ll hold back on it for a few paragraphs.

Continue reading

Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

Continue reading

Review: ‘That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound’ by Daryl Sanders

That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde by Daryl Sanders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclosure: “Blonde on Blonde” is my favorite album.

In the 39(!) years since I first bought Bob Dylan’s 1966 classic as a curious 16-year-old who’d read about it from best-of lists, it has rarely failed to seduce me. There’s an energy about it that is equaled by few other records in my estimation – “Revolver,” “Moby Grape,” maybe Television’s “Marquee Moon” and the Clash’s “London Calling.” As with those albums, there are unpolished instances where things threaten to go completely off the rails, but that unpredictability only makes the music more powerful and transcendent. I can think of few moments more sublime than, say, the big G chord near the end of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” or the headlong rush into the last chorus of “Brand New Cadillac.”

But “Blonde on Blonde” has something more: Dylan’s lyrics. Opaque, imagistic, funny – “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” always makes me laugh – I don’t read into them as much as the budding A.J. Webermans of our time, but there’s no question that they provide a bottomless well of metaphor for those who seek that kind of thing. (For the rest of us, they just sound good.)

I wish Daryl Sanders’ chronicle of “Blonde on Blonde,” “That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound” – the title comes from Dylan himself, expressing a yearning for what he was hearing in his head – had the same kind of energy and unpredictability. Instead, it’s an adequate biography with some interesting detours, but on the whole simply an extended magazine article.

Sanders does do a service by pointing out that the key to understanding the sound of “Blonde on Blonde” is Nashville, where Dylan relocated after some abortive New York sessions after the success of “Like a Rolling Stone.” That single had peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Dylan an unlikely hitmaker after years of others, such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Byrds, streamlining Dylan’s voice-guitar-harmonica songs into Top 40-friendly pop hits. Though “Stone” was produced by Tom Wilson, Dylan had switched afterwards to Bob Johnston, a Columbia Records staff producer who both gave the bard more freedom and had a better sense on how to record his roughest rock ‘n’ roll edges. (Compare the clanging “Maggie’s Farm,” off the Wilson-produced “Bringing It All Back Home,” with the richer Johnston-produced “Tombstone Blues,” from the follow-up, “Highway 61 Revisited.”)

Johnston had a feeling Dylan would mesh well with some of Nashville’s top session men, including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, drummer Kenneth Buttrey, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Henry Strzelecki, and guitarists Joe South, Wayne Moss, and Mac Gayden. With some established Dylan sidemen, notably organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson, in the mix, “Blonde on Blonde” ended up making Nashville more than the country music capital it had been, with other rock musicians visiting town to get some of the Dylan magic.

In the detail that surprised me most, that magic often came at the end of long – very long – nights. The Nashville session guys would gather in the afternoon at Columbia’s Studio A and Dylan would arrive, usually with songs unfinished. So the session men would get paid for one three-hour session, then a second, sometimes more, as they waited in the canteen, smoking cigarettes or playing pool but not actually playing music. Finally Dylan would emerge and recording would start in earnest, the group, in Sanders’ telling, palpably exhausted.

This is how we got “Fourth Time Around,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” among others. It’s as if the group flicked a switch and the electricity flowed through them.

Another surprise, to me, was how young the Nashville pros were. Perhaps because Music City didn’t seem rock ‘n’ roll friendly in the mid-‘60s, I’d pictured McCoy, Buttrey and the others as mildly grizzled guys in their 30s and 40s, Hank Williams veterans resistant to Dylan’s style. Instead, McCoy was the leader of Nashville’s top rock band, the Escorts, and all of 24 when he started recording “Blonde on Blonde.” Buttrey was 20. The others were only slightly older. (Dylan was 24.)

For all this, Sanders’ book somehow lacks the same electricity – or even the ghost of electricity — that the album has. He goes into minutia about takes and studio chatter, great for a Dylan completist but adding little to the story. He quotes from clippings and other memoirs in a way that seems separate from his story (this is what sometimes makes the book feel like a long magazine article). He turns to people like Robyn Hitchcock and Dave Marsh for commentary; Marsh, who is very much capable of investing his prose with electricity, would have been better off writing his own book.

And the Nashville cats themselves are a rather modest bunch. Dylan surprised them and stretched them, but they are, at bottom, professionals – not wild-eyed Keith Moons shoving TVs out of hotel windows. Making music was, and for many still is, their job, as regular as punching a clock at a factory. They just happen to be very, very good at it, but they’re less good at talking about it.

The phrase “that thin, wild mercury sound” brings to mind a medieval alchemist, combining ingots of rare earth, the fur of feral dogs, and bits of Scripture an igniting it with a literal fiery passion. Perhaps that’s what makes “Blonde on Blonde” so special, a chemistry that can’t be recreated, and Sanders – as the old comparison claims – may as well be dancing about architecture in trying to write about it.

Dylan, of course, doesn’t need to say anything. “Blonde on Blonde” has said it all for him already. Sooner or later, we all know that.

View all my reviews

Sunday read: What it takes

Image from the Associated Press/Andrew Harnik via NBCnews.com.

I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer.

I met Cramer, a legendary journalist who died in 2013, in May 2004, when he was on a book tour for his work on the Middle East, “How Israel Lost.” If my faulty memory recalls correctly, our interview was supposed to be a brief conversation about the book, but Cramer never encountered a fellow journalist who didn’t immediately become an old friend, and he invited me to an event he was attending that evening.

Being the starstruck putz I am, I tagged along as he drank and smoked and talked and glad-handed and talked and smoked and talked some more, an entertaining companion with endless stories. At one point, I asked him who he thought would make a good president. He didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve always liked Joe Biden,” he said.

Continue reading

Review: ‘The Body’ by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a famous line by the screenwriter William Goldman about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

Goldman’s statement seems even more apropos to Bill Bryson’s most recent book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.”

Over and over again, despite talking with leading experts and immersing himself in who knows how many books, Bryson has to revert to uncertainty. “We are not quite sure how solid that advice is,” he writes about the proper amount of fat in a diet. “Today [asthma] is common and still not understood,” he says about the respiratory ailment. “Meaningful definition [of pain] is impossible,” he offers.

And, of course, “The field of sex studies has a long history of providing dubious statistics,” Bryson says after reeling off some of the more improbable (“Men think of sex every seven seconds,” “The average amount of time kissing in a lifetime is 20,160 minutes [336 hours].”) That may express a lack of trust about sex, but at least a lack of trust about sex isn’t surprising. Just think of all the jokes about penis size: “What are the three sizes of condom? Small, medium and liar.”

None of this is bad, or even off-putting. But it is surprising, especially from a guy who wrote “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a book about astronomy and cosmology that, for me at least, provided some real answers — or, at least, pretty well-supported theories — about earth and space. Heck, “Nearly Everything” even got into quantum physics, practically the definition of “uncertainty.” (Just ask Erwin Schrodinger.)

Now, I love Bill Bryson. I particularly love “Nearly Everything,” because it has a wide-eyed curiosity about a subject that, by its nature, invites awe — a nice combination. But for “The Body,” you get the feeling that the author, who’s probably more famous for his books about language (“The Mother Tongue”) and traveling (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “In a Sunburned Country”), decided to turn inward to biology and anatomy and was met with more confusion and frustration than he got from quantum physicists.

Still, “The Body” makes for a typically entertaining read, with Bryson’s love of knowledge and tidbits forever breaking through the “We’re not sure” shrugs.

For example, did you know that Theodor Escherich, who examined our excrement and found a number of microorganisms, including the one now known as E. (for Escherichia) coli, called it Bacteria coli commune? Or that apes don’t have an Achilles tendon? Or that Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian medical instructor, helped eliminate what was called childbed fever simply by recommending doctors wash their hands before doing examinations? Semmelweis, who sounds at least as important as Joseph Lister, was a prophet without honor in his lifetime, losing his job, being committed to an asylum, and beaten to death by his guards. And that was just a little more than 150 years ago.

Medicine has come a long way since then — even if we human beings remain notoriously unpredictable on an individual level. “The Body” came out at the end of last year, so there is no mention of Covid-19, but the reaction of our bodies to that disease is another one for the books, literally: some people asymptomatic, others violently ill, too many dead. It would likely have been a whole chapter in a later edition, but it’s provided no reason to laugh — and laughter is one reason “The Body” makes for a good read.

I wouldn’t say the book is among Bryson’s best. There’s just too much aggravation on the part of the author, who must have wondered what he got into. (It was probably more fun to write about black holes or weird Australian insects.) Moreover, some of the material has already been ably chronicled by Mary Roach, whom Bryson — to his credit — acknowledges when appropriate.

But Bryson is always a welcome guide, so if you’re looking for a breezy tour that takes you from head to toe, “The Body” is a winner. And if you’re still unsure? You know what they say: Ask your doctor.

View all my reviews

Review: ‘The Silent Patient’ by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beware the book that is known for its twist.

There’s nothing wrong with twists, of course. The concluding pages of Robertson Davies’ “Fifth Business” are a master class in inducing gasps. Stephen King has been known to pull off a few in his short stories. (I can still remember the shock of the ending of “I Am the Doorway” from “Night Shift.”) Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” left me wondering in a good way.

But if the twist is all you have going for you, then the rest of the book is going to fall to pieces under its weight.

Continue reading