Published May 09, 2018Paul Simon himself has largely avoided publicly conflating his personal life with his six-decade career as a songwriter and musician; in his revealing, authorized biography, Robert Hilburn too eschews gossip to focus on the legend's artistic drive. That's not to say there are no juicy bits here; Simon's life has crossed into controversy, celebrity feuds and resentments, failed partnerships with Art Garfunkel and Carrie Fisher, and musical innovation through appropriation. But just as Simon has endeavoured to live a respectful, private life, Hilburn gets into the personal and political aspects of the man's makeup by delving headlong into his songs.
Paul Simon is very competitive. Hilburn tells us this has always been the case, as Simon was raised by a proud yet sensitive mother and an accomplished, Larry David-y tell-it-like-is father. Self-conscious about his short stature, Simon's dreams of being a pro baseball player were dashed early, but the sport means the world to him; he and his friends still view an in-game triumph of his when he was a boy, as one of Simon's greatest accomplishments.
Simon loves to win — baseball games, Billboard chart slots, Grammys, what have you — and maybe even more than that, he seems to need to win.
When he gets into songwriting, he's an anonymous, minor talent, writing tunes for others for years, hunting for a hit. When Bob Dylan alters music forever, first as a folk singer, Simon and soon his childhood friend, Art Garfunkel, find their voices together and begin an ill-fated, on-and-off again relationship that goes on for decades, even after Simon establishes himself as a bona fide solo superstar.
In Hilburn's book, Garfunkel is a lot like the shark in Jaws: always lurking, occasionally appearing to unsettle Simon for one-off reunions, and then disappearing again until the need to feed returns. It is a strange, acrimonious relationship, mired in gamesmanship and ego, that Hilburn explores in revelatory detail.
The author also speaks to Carrie Fisher, Simon's late, second wife, who tells him that she understood how Simon couldn't quite handle her level of fame, her various addictions, how all of those things exacerbated her mental health, and that's ostensibly why they drifted apart. But tellingly, while Hilburn — who served as the Los Angeles Times' first pop music critic between 1970 and 2005 — is granted rare access to Simon and all manner of people in his orbit, he is never permitted to speak with songwriter Edie Brickell, Simon's wife of almost 30 years. It's her call apparently and she, like her husband, has a deep desire to fortify their lives from their works.
As such, Hilburn does focus on Simon's songs, lovingly publishing some of their lyrics in full to help get into the mindset of the man who wrote them. From his first solo record in 1972, Simon was travelling — down to Jamaica to explore reggae or years later, to Africa and Brazil to immerse himself in polyrhythms and tones and sounds that, surprisingly, led to some of his greatest America chart successes like Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints.
And though he's reverent, Hilburn's book is no hagiography. He presses Simon about the long-standing accusations the singer has faced for entering Apartheid-era South Africa and stealing other people's culture, and he addresses feuds he's had with everyone from Columbia Records, Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, Bob Dylan, Los Lobos and many more. For his part, Simon considers and responds to each question, but his perspective is what it is.
He is a man at peace with himself and his life and Hilburn presents a strong case that his catalogue — right up to Simon's astonishingly strong round of recent albums, Surprise, So Beautiful or So What, and Stranger to Stranger — represents the upper tier of great American songwriting. And when you pull up that discography to soundtrack this book, it's hard to argue. Paul Simon really wanted to win and he did. (Simon & Schuster)