top of page

Accurate Sounds: Paul Simon the life by Robert Hilburn

When his farewell tour ended September 22 in Queens, NY and a new album dropped September 28 Paul Simon maintained his currency. To coincide with the tour, in a new biography released last May written by LA Times music writer Robert Hilburn, Simon granted the author “more than 100 hours of interviews” according to the press release from Simon & Schuster. But rather than hook a new album and a farewell tour to a book for commercial purposes, Hilburn the journalist, goes much deeper by writing a balanced study of his subject. His focus, and it’s a good one, is to identify and explain the driving impulses behind Simon’s creativity. Naturally that’s an easier task with the co-operation of the person you’re writing about.

According to Hilburn, Paul Simon is a sensitive soul and that sensitivity is always present in the creative decisions he makes about his music. Consequently it’s best to understand how Simon ticks through his work and working methods and this is where Hilburn’s interviews have paid off: when asked about his “abrasiveness” in the studio, Simon replies “that’s my job: to protect the music. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks of me. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to a piece of work.” Simon said this in response to his efforts on the last Simon & Garfunkel studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia) released in 1970. Simon’s “The Boxer”, one of the best songs on the record, (and for that matter in popular music) took 100 hours to produce, including the explosive drum sound in the “Lie-la-lie” chorus. Hilburn writes, “It was this kind of dedication that would eventually lead some to accuse Simon of being a perfectionist or a control freak, but he wasn’t intimidated.” As Wynton Marsalis keenly observes, “his artistic objectives have always been greater than his commercial objectives.” Marsalis is one of many secondary interviews Hilburn conducted while putting together this portrait.

But when it comes to Paul Simon’s turbulent friendship with Art Garfunkel, Hilburn excels as a biographer. He traces the career of the duo with good insight and interesting facts even though Garfunkel wasn’t interviewed for this book. I was particularly impressed with his reporting on the duo’s artistic relationship from the time they were kids singing in high school, their years as teen-idols Tom & Jerry and later their five studio albums for Columbia that changed the musical landscape in the late sixties. While creatively agreeable at first, the friction between the two started in 1968, when Garfunkel sent Simon “a long, deeply emotional and profoundly sad letter outlining his frustration over their relationship.” Petty jealously can do a lot to ruin a band and the Simon & Garfunkel experience was no exception. In Hilburn’s tome Art Garfunkel looms large as a dynamic force in Simon’s life, one that came and went with equal strength reunion tours notwithstanding. To quote author Donald Brackett Simon & Garfunkel were “a team of mutual muses”. Yet they recorded five studio albums, toured the world and won multiple Grammy Awards, no least of which for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. But in the end, Simon was the better songwriter of the two and Garfunkel took that personally and couldn’t let it go. Simon, on the other hand, felt snubbed when Garfunkel took a role in Mike Nichols’s movie, Catch-22, just as the duo had peaked in success.

Hilburn’s narrative carefully traces the story of Simon’s solo career, after the pair broke up in 1970. This engaging part of the story includes his triumphs and failures in music, such as the Broadway musical The Capeman, based on the story of convicted murderer, Salvador Agron. (It closed after 68 performances.). It’s an exhilarating read as Hilburn gets into specific song analysis and how Simon was able to conceive and execute his musical ideas. In particular I was fascinated by the simplicity of Simon’s inspiration on “Graceland” and how a trip “through the cradle of the Civil War” turned into one of his most cherished songs.

Hilburn also takes a stab at explaining the political commentary regarding Simon’s recording of the album Graceland featuring South African musicians. At the time Simon was seen as appropriating the culture of the country in spite of a cultural boycott of the then, apartheid regime. To this day Simon remains steadfast that what he did had nothing to do with politics and that “[he] went as a musician to interact with other musicians.” Hilburn backs him up on this, “Simon planned the entire Graceland tour as a salute to the full South African musical experience…even if he avoided political statements as a songwriter, and he wanted the tour to be a strong statement against apartheid.” Although I was familiar with the controversy and the tour having seen the show in Toronto, Hilburn’s chronicle put the whole affair into its proper context.

Hilburn’s book also reveals new details in Simon’s personal life. For instance, I did not know that Simon got hooked on an organic, hallucinogenic mixture from South America called, ayahuasca. Simon’s use of this drug, which is often brewed and consumed as tea, not only lifted Simon emotionally but also cleared his head and calmed his anxiety particularly after the failure of The Capeman on Broadway. Simon told Hilburn what it was like to drink the substance. “The afterglow would last for days. It also enabled me to hear new sounds in my head, which led me to being able to write songs much faster than before.” One result was a song called “Quiet” from the Warner Bros album You’re The One released in 2000.

Organic drug use aside, I was most interested in learning about Simon’s songwriting methods and in this case Hilburn peels back the layers with strong passages about “The Sound of Silence”, “The Boxer”, “American Tune” and “The Boy in the Bubble”. By the end of the book Simon tells us how he sees himself as a composer, “I don’t really have a whole lot of choice about what it is I do because my mind keeps writing another song. That’s what I am, and if the work is valued in any way, that’s great. If it isn’t, then someone else will make that donation...I make up songs, and I try to make them as interesting as possible.” Having recently reread my essays on two of the artist’s best records in the past ten years, Stranger To Stranger and So Beautiful So What it seems that Simon is honoring his own convictions. As he says in Hilburn’s book, “you are looking for truthful emotions.” For Hilburn having a sensitive soul is a key to finding those emotions. Review first published on criticsatlarge.

bottom of page