Claude Gassian’s cover photograph of Paul Simon does more than identify the subject of Robert Hilburn’s new biography. It suggests how we should read it. By photographing Simon full-faced but shadowed, serious and pulsing with importance, Gassian rejects the rougher, often louche images he’s created of other rock icons. Instead, the photograph of Simon reminds us of the portraits by John Singer Sargent, who painted the societal titans of the late 19th century society.
Hilburn could hardly discourage such a comparison, given that his thorough, balanced and insistently chronological biography, “Paul Simon: The Life,” reminds us how titanic this musician is.
Simon didn’t start out a titan. He began his career singing in a duo named for two cartoon characters, Tom & Jerry. Art Garfunkel, who Simon befriended in sixth grade, was Tom. By 1964, they had renamed themselves Simon and Garfunkel, and within a few years they had become a musical sensation, selling millions of records and touring widely. They went on to win multiple Grammys over their long but fragmented career. As a solo performer, Simon’s awards are even more eye-popping: more Grammys, the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor and the first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Simon has also lectured at colleges and befriended famous intellectuals and artists, including philosopher Peter Singer, painter Chuck Close, Nobelist Derek Walcott and Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman.
These awards and associations substantiate Simon’s most visible personality traits: ego and the propulsive pursuit of his art. He learned early from his competitive father, a successful bandleader, who told him that “music was something to be treated with respect.”
As a teenager navigating New York’s dicey music business, Simon made friends with Carole King, another teen songwriter, was paid to sing on demo records and was savvy enough to ensure that he retained total publishing rights to his own songs. In the early 1960s, while in college, Simon played folk music in Greenwich Village clubs, but he was more comfortable, and successful, singing in England, where he was received as a talented newcomer.
The he said/he said history of Simon and Garfunkel’s half-century collaboration is well known, and Hilburn supplies enough examples of their kvetching to wear down any reader. It’s the songs that matter, beginning with their megahit, “The Sound of Silence.” First recorded in 1964, by the beginning of 1966 it was No. 1 in America. By his mid-20s, Simon was a millionaire with many productive years ahead of him.
Hilburn is not an exciting writer, though Simon chose him as his biographer. Instead of feeling suspenseful, this version of Simon’s life story seems inevitable, and reading the long history of his career never quite zings as it should, despite his many accomplishments. Simon is widely quoted in the book. He hates being short, sometimes gets depressed and loves his family, but when he does take us into the shadows, he reveals nothing unexpected or particularly dark. Not much drug use, though beginning in 1994 he started using ayahuasca, a South American hallucinogenic. He views his time with Garfunkel as “merely the first stage of his career,” yet it’s a stage he habitually repeats. Readers are apt to wonder why.
Simon’s comments about his own lyrics, many of which are printed in full throughout the book, are informative, but explaining the intricacies of poetic creation seems to elude him. Perhaps, “Four in the morning/ crapped out/ yawning” is explanation enough. It’s a great line.
Simon does discuss his exploration — some would say exploitation — of cultural rhythms from Africa and South America and how these new sounds made him rethink his songwriting. He was vilified for not crediting other musicians, and in 1985 he refused to honor a U.N. boycott against performing in South Africa while working on his album “Graceland.” He believes that no one should tell an artist what he can or cannot do, or whom he can work with.
History has been on Simon’s side, and today his contribution to modern culture is indisputable. The London Times has called Simon “the godfather of world music.” Those who disagree can take pleasure knowing that Simon’s 1998 Broadway musical, “The Capeman,” shut down after 68 performances — and only lasted that long because Simon insisted. Despite that fiasco, the musical, albeit much edited, was reprised in 2010, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
Whether we prefer Simon full-faced or shadowed, he certainly can write great songs. We’ll have to wait and see if he ever writes another now that he’s announced his Farewell Tour. But titans seldom stop, so why would Simon? Silence does not become him. He’s always liked the sound of his own voice, as do millions of others.
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, writes frequently about culture and the arts.
By Robert Hilburn
Simon and Schuster. 439 pp. $30