Rock and Roll Book Club: Robert Hilburn's 'Paul Simon: The Life'

Robert Hilburn's 'Paul Simon: The Life.'
Robert Hilburn's 'Paul Simon: The Life.' (Simon & Schuster)

Paul Simon sat for over 100 hours of interviews for Robert Hilburn's new biography. Why didn't Simon just write a memoir himself? "I'm not drawn to making big observations," he told Hilburn. "I really have no complaints. Mostly, I've been lucky. I've been able to spend my whole life in music."

This is the Paul Simon who fills Hilburn's 391 pages: the unassuming craftsman, the gentle wanderer, the precise yet experimental lyricist, a channel for the melodies of the gods. "It just seemed to flow through me," he says about the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" music. "In a way, you don't feel you can really even call it your own, but then again, it's nobody else's."

Paul Simon: The Life was hailed in advance as one of the year's most important music books, and by definition it is — but more as a channel for Simon's on-the-record reminisces than for any new perspective on his art (or his Art). As a book, it's a fairly nuts-and-bolts narrative that pays judicious attention to each season of Simon's professional life.

There have been six of them, according to Hilburn's divisions. The first is "The Boxer," Simon's origin story as a New York City boy whose serious interest in music coincided with the dawn of the rock era. He joined with Art Garfunkel, his neighbor and friend, at first to imitate the stylings of '50s vocal groups and later because a duo could tackle Dylanesque material without being seen as "the next Dylan."

Simon and Garfunkel's heyday provides the basis for the book's next section, titled "The Sound of Silence." The partnership was constantly problematic, with each half having clear reasons for insecurity: Simon wasn't the tall and angelic vocal star, while Garfunkel didn't write the songs. Still, the pairing fundamentally did what it was intended to do. While the two were always seen as a little fuddy-duddy compared to their more outré peers, they bridged Dylan's songwriting ambition with the Beatles' studio craft, weaving everything from folk-rock to world music to R&B into their hit-making mix.

Next came Simon's first decade-plus of solo work, a period in which he found continued artistic and commercial success in the singer-songwriter idiom that caught fire in the '70s. Hilburn faithfully makes the case for every album in this period, while acknowledging the dud film One-Trick Pony (1980) as part of the rebirth narrative surrounding Simon's unexpected breakthrough Graceland.

Simon, ever philosophical, says it was all part of the journey. "I'm not clever enough to say, 'I was defeated. I must come back from this to show everybody. I must go back to my previous state of being on top, and I'm going to do that by going to South Africa,'" he tells Hilburn. "I was just excited by this music."

The 1986 classic receives a far more detailed treatment than any other album in Simon's oeuvre. Hilburn notes the controversy surrounding the album's creation; essentially, it seems, everyone still stands today where they did three decades ago. Simon is adamant that he made a positive contribution to music and to breaking down racial barriers. Critics like Steven Van Zandt ("Sun City") still call Simon "extraordinarily arrogant" for violating the international boycott against apartheid-era South Africa. His collaborators have mixed feelings. Fans adore the album, which finds new listeners in every generation.

Simon's belief that his greatest sin in the Graceland sessions was simply not asking "permission" from activists is analogous to his post-game analysis of his Broadway disaster The Capeman (1998). He didn't play by the rules, didn't work with established talents, didn't listen to what people told him about how to make a Broadway show work. The most positive blurb Hilburn can salvage from the musical's critical reception comes from the New York Times. "As a show," Vincent Canby wrote, "The Capeman is a great album."

Hilburn's final section is titled "Questions for the Angels," a reference to a lyric from the title track on Simon's 2000 LP You're the One. Latter-day Simon is painted as a journeyman: finished with ambitious projects, he's now content to release pristine and low-key albums that subtly buttress his legacy. He's remained active on the road, currently on what he's calling his last tour (it hits St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center on June 8).

Although Garfunkel wasn't interviewed, Hilburn talked with Simon's ex-wives Peggy Harper and Carrie Fisher — in both cases, marking a first for a Simon biographer. Predictably, Fisher gets the best line in the book. "We were the same size," recalls Fisher. "I used to say to him, 'Don't stand next to me at the party — people will think we're salt and pepper shakers.'"

Yes, Simon has feelings about being a short man. Whether as the topic of heckling by Garfunkel or the subject of Simon's own musings, Simon's height comes up (so to speak) again and again. At one point, he explains how he learned to live with it.

I'd pretend God would come to me and say, "If you could be six foot two with a mop of hair, would you pay a million dollars?" I said, "Absolutely." Then God said, "Would you pay five million?" and again, I said, "Absolutely." Then the question changed: "If you could be six foot two with a mop of hair, would you give away ten of your songs?" and that's when I said, "No." That was too much. The songs are really a part of you.

Simon doesn't say which single song he would be most loathe to relinquish, and Hilburn quotes extended lyrics for several. That's a privilege of the authorized biographer, and a nice touch: even, or especially, when we've heard the song a thousand times, it comes alive again on the page.

There's "The Sound of Silence," on which Simon first found his mature voice (and which became a breakout hit after producer Tom Wilson grafted a folk-rock arrangement that Simon's never really loved). There's "The Boxer," an autobiographical allegory that was seen by some as a Dylan slam but which was ultimately covered by Bob himself. There's "Mrs. Robinson," the song given its title by Graduate director Mike Nichols, who swapped it in for "Mrs. Roosevelt."

When Simon dies, though, the song you're going to hear first and most frequently will probably be "Graceland." A transcendent track that merges African rhythms with their American descendants and floats a gorgeously poignant baby boomer odyssey on top, the song is the purest distillation of Simon's particular genius. Someone else could have written "Bridge Over Troubled Water," but nobody else could have gone to Graceland. Should Simon have? Probably not, but he did, and — artistically, at least — he triumphed.

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