Throughout his long career Paul Simon, who is now embarking on his Farewell Tour, has been known as a perfectionist who demands high standards from the musicians he works with, not always in the most tactful ways. He has also acknowledged that his single-minded dedication to his musical career has taken its toll on his friendships, relationships and his three marriages.
As becomes obvious in Robert Hilburn’s compulsively readable authorized biography, Simon really does live and breathe his work. Over a sixty year career he has turned out a steady stream of albums of such consistently high quality and diversity that it is almost tempting to take his talents for granted. But one thing that the book makes clear is that Simon has always been a hard worker, and his odd combination of a competitive ego and relentless self-doubt are what drives him.
As he tells Hilburn “When people asked me if the competitiveness is because I’m short, I’d say, ‘No.’ Simply wanting to make the best music can make you competitive. You have no idea how competitive John Lennon was around Paul McCartney… I almost couldn’t breathe, they were so competitive, and that’s what made them so great. They wouldn’t settle for just good. That was me, too.”
Simon hasn’t cooperated with biographers in the past. For this book he gave Hilburn over 100 hours of interview time and gave his blessing to those close to him to also talk to Hilburn, who was the music critic for The Los Angeles Times for decades and who wrote one of the best music business biographies —Johnny Cash: The Life in 2013. Hilburn isn’t a flashy writer, but he is just as passionate about the song writing process as Simon is and is respectful of the hard work a musician has to go through to make great music.
Simon’s father, Lou, was a hardworking bandleader in New York under the stage name, Lee Simms. He taught Simon that musical talent has to be “handled with respect” and nursed by steady craftsmanship. Simon now says that his father was never quick to give him compliments on his work and could be very blunt in his criticisms, a quality he says he himself has.
Simon famously met his singing partner, the angelic-voiced Art Garfunkel, in Grade Six in Queens. Garfunkel, who did not talk to Hilburn is the ghost that haunts the book. Their famous break-ups and reunions and their petty rivalries and jealousies are given lots of attention and neither artist comes out looking good. They both seem to be champion-level grudge holders.
Paul was a consummate songwriter and Art was a brilliant interpreter of those songs, and this kindled tensions and jealousy.
“Art knew he had a wonderful voice, but he also knew he was dependent on Paul for songs, which meant that Paul had all the power” Hilburn says of their first break-up, during their teen years as Tom and Jerry. “Art realized he would always be in danger of being tossed aside.”
Simon worked in the music business from the start singing demos and writing songs in the fading days of Tin Pan Ally. He also took advantage of his father’s no-nonsense approach to his career.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a common practice for publishers to pressure budding artists into giving up half their future songwriting royalties, or else no deal,” says Hilburn. “Even Bob Dylan and Lennon-McCartney started their careers with the old-fashioned publishing deals, thus surrendering their publishing royalties. Simon was one of the first songwriters to recognize he could publish his own songs and save, literally, a fortune… Over the course of his career, that simple but significant move would earn him tens of millions of dollars. By maintaining ownership, he also controlled use of his songs in commercials and films.”
In the mid-sixties, in the heyday of Simon and Garfunkel, the duo’s image was somewhat artsy and Simon’s songs were often called poetic, but Simon was more level-headed. “I always work on the music first because I like to think that I’m stronger in words, they come easier,” he said in 1968. “But I’m not a poet. I’ve tried poetry, but it has nothing to do with my songs. And I resent all the press-agentry. The lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence, they call you a poet…The people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry.”
Simon is open throughout the book on his ongoing depression and periods of feelings of inadequacy. He seems to be mostly abstemious around drugs and alcohol, unlike his second wife Carrie Fisher. His one major foray into drugs was with the South American hallucinogenic ayahuasca, which he began using during one of his few public flops, the short-lived Capeman Broadway show. He says it made him feel joyful until he decided that he was becoming too dependant on it and quit.
Hilburn did interview Peggy Harper and Carrie Fisher, Simon’s first and second wives, but his current wife, singer Edie Brickell chose not to participate. There is also one incident that Simon preferred not to talk about — an evening in 2015 when the police were called to Simon and Brickell’s home on a domestic dispute. Considering the circumstances Simon’s reticence is understandable.
Hilburn makes good use of the lyrics to Simon’s songs (many of which are quoted in full) to round out the complex picture and Simon’s themes of loneliness, the search for happiness and the joys of life. As Hilburn says, Simon has gone through many musical periods in his career, any decade of which would be enough to put him in the top ranks of American music writers and performers. This biography will certainly stand as the definitive chronicle.
Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn, Simon and Schuster 439 pp.