Book Review – Paul Simon: The Life

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – in the rock/soul/pop era, there are many excellent songwriters. But for my money, there are Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon – and then everybody else. And many of the “everybody else” are superior whether it’s Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Becker/Fagen, etc. But those guys I mentioned? Well, they go to 11. For the record, Simon wrote “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” back-to-back. Any songwriter would kill just to have those two songs in their repertoire.

I’ll follow this post up in a few days detailing some of my favorite songs by both Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon solo.

I am a total junkie for reading biographies of musicians. I have absolutely no fucking idea why. I just find it interesting, always have. Where are they from? How did they develop their talent? What is/was their life like? Why can’t I be talented enough that someone writes my biography? 🙂

So when I heard that Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn was coming out, I eagerly got my hands on a copy. “Executive summary”- excellent book, very interesting in a “warts and all” sense. By that I mean, let’s face it, Simon is sometimes a big jerk. And the book doesn’t shy away from that at all. In fact, the author says that Simon encouraged him to interview whomever he wanted and even though their discussions sometimes got heated, Hilburn had final editorial control. “It’s your book,” Simon advised.

The book goes through, as one would expect, Simon’s early life and friendship with schoolmate Art Garfunkel. Like so many of the musicians I read about, Paul’s father Lou was a professional musician, a bass player, and bandleader. And so Paul was indoctrinated early into the world of music. (I think that kids who follow in their parents’ footsteps have possibly not only a genetic predisposition but are also surrounded by music or film or whatever so it just seems natural to them.)

Simon, a life-long New Yorker, was born in 1941. An avid baseball lover and player, he eventually realized his height (5’3″) would likely prevent his ever having a major-league career. But in 1954 he heard the song “Gee” by an R&B band called the Crows. “Immediately, I felt,” Simon advises, “that’s my music. It’s not those big ballads you heard on the radio back then: things like ‘See the pyramids, along the Nile, and all that.”*

Spotify link

Simon got an acoustic guitar pretty quickly thereafter. His father, while appreciating and encouraging his interest in music, didn’t much care for this doo-wop or rock and roll or whatever it was called. One of Paul’s favorite songs was “Earth Angel” which Lou Simon declared to be ‘awful,’ a judgment that hurt Paul. (This scenario was, I’m sure, being repeated at households around the country if not the world. And this is BEFORE Elvis.)

From the book: “Paul remembers first seeing Garfunkel in 1951 at an assembly at PS 164 when they were both in fourth grade. Artie, as Paul grew to call him, sang “Too Young,” a ballad that had been a hit for Nat “King” Cole, and Paul was struck by two things: the loveliness of Art’s voice and the strong impression he had on the girls.”

It wasn’t long before Paul and Artie were harmonizing on the era’s hits like “Good Night Sweetheart.” They even wrote a doo-wop song together, played at talent shows and tried to get record companies to notice them, all to no avail.

When Elvis did arrive with “That’s All Right,” Simon (and, one assumes, Garfunkel), was transfixed by this out-of-nowhere singer. But he knew he’d never be able to compete. But what really galvanized he and Artie was hearing the Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love” coming over the radio. Now here was something they could do, something they could sink their teeth into.

Spotify link

Simon discovered he had a gift for songwriting (not to mention playing guitar) and took over those duties while Garfunkel was more involved in helping arrange vocal harmonies. From the book: “They’d sit nose to nose, looking right at each other’s mouths to copy diction, Garfunkel has said. He wanted to know exactly where Paul’s tongue would hit the top of his palate when he’d sing a certain letter or word to know exactly how to get the harmony right.

Paul and Art both enjoyed singing so much that they rarely had an argument over it. “We would sometimes have a disagreement over something, but we had this thing we’d do where we would say, ‘Let’s just drop it,’ and we would,” Simon said. “We would just completely drop it. I don’t think there was any sense of competitiveness.””

Simon sometimes played as a solo act in Greenwich Village but was never accepted as anything more than a “guy from Queens” by the snobbish Village crowd. One time Dylan attended a show and for whatever reason laughed at some point during Simon’s performance. This pissed the sensitive Mr. Simon off at the time. (Apparently, he got over it. Dylan later recorded “The Boxer” and the two competitors toured together in 1999. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t go see this show.)

Simon & Garfunkel eventually landed a contract with Columbia and their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was released in late 1964. It bombed and so Simon went to England where he – like Hendrix later – was more popular with that country than in his own. There he met a girl named Kathy Chitty who became his girlfriend.

Several songs are written for or mentioning her notably “Kathy’s Song,” one of Garfunkel’s favorites, and “America.” Wikipedia says that “America” was inspired by a road trip Paul and Kathy took. But that particular road trip never happened per Simon. The song is based on his own wanderings and he inserted Kathy into it with a bit of artistic license. “Kathy’s Song” is his longing for his lover when he was back in New York while she stayed in England.**

 Paul Simon Songbook LP with Kathy Chitty

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies

My mind’s distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you’re asleep
And kiss you when you start your day

Spotify link

S&G’s career finally started to take off in early 1966 when – without their knowledge or permission – producer Tom Wilson (also Dylan’s producer), added electric guitar, bass, and drums to “Sound of Silence,” hoping to capitalize on the so-called folk-rock craze.

The rest is, I think, history. The duo – despite not always exactly loving each other – went on to worldwide success due to Simon’s songs and those great, great harmonies. Interestingly, their recorded output is relatively meager quantity-wise having released only five studio albums together. The four live albums are, of course, pretty much the same songs recorded live.

The guys broke up in 1970 and both have gone on to successful solo careers. Both did some acting, Garfunkel notably in Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge and Simon in Annie Hall and a self-made turkey called One Trick Pony. And in the Sixties, they of course famously provided the soundtrack for The Graduate. 

I won’t go into all the detail here as this will then turn into – and probably HAS turned into – more of a history than a book review. But Simon went on to perhaps even greater success, now having released 14 solo albums. (The Paul Simon Songbook, from which I took “Kathy’s Song,” pre-dated S&G.) His crowning achievement of course, was Graceland.

I found the book interesting and compelling all the way through. It’s interesting to read about the judgmental perfectionist streak in Simon that makes him agonize over just the right word. (And, like his father, turn that critical eye on others.) Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live fame is a close friend. I read elsewhere that he recalls going into Simon’s apartment and there were scattered balls of paper thrown on the floor as Paul tried to pull another melancholy poem from his tortured soul.

As mentioned, Simon seems like overall a decent guy whose overweening ambition and ego led him to make some poor decisions with both Garfunkel and in romantic situations. (By all accounts his marriage to the late Carrie Fisher was a nightmare.) For his part, Garfunkel never really forgave Simon for shutting him out of a recording or contract deal. And this goes all the way back to the beginning of their career!

If you’re a Simon fan, this book is a must-read. If you’re not, then it might be of interest to you as an inside look at how stardom (and records) happens one brick at a time. (Simon had done a lot of demo work in studios long before becoming a star and so, knew exactly how to get what he wanted.)

Spotify link

*Wikipedia says “Gee” is a “song which has been credited as the first rock and roll hit by a rock and roll group.” But then they say the same thing about “Rocket 88.” Also, the “see the pyramids” line comes from a great tune called “You Belong to Me” and it puzzles me that Simon wouldn’t appreciate it.

**To this day, Kathy and her husband come backstage to Paul’s shows whenever he’s in England.

Sources: Paul Simon: The LIfe. Copyright © 2018 by Robert Hilburn. Simon & Schuster, Wikipedia.

31 thoughts on “Book Review – Paul Simon: The Life

    1. Yeah. The book does portray him as, in some cases, fast and loose with ideas. Los Lobos recorded with him and felt that he did not give them credit for a guitar riff they came up with. Simon’s contention is that a riff does not a song make since he came up with words and music. I think if I were Simon I would have given them credit. But that scenario is not limited to Simon. I’ve seen this over and over even within bands (witness Robbie Robertson vs. everybody else in the Band.)

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, he admits this in the book. I think again a lot of artists are chased by demons. Garfunkel was asked and said that, yes he believes Simon has a Napoleon complex. But then again Artie has some axes to grind himself. When you think about, zillions of people have personal problems but most of them can’t express those in any sort of artful way. So I guess our artists kinda do that for us.

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits was on of the first of my sister’s vinyl records I listened to as a 10-year-old. I dug that album from the very beginning and still do.

    A couple of years later after I had started taking up the guitar, I began appreciating Simon as a guitarist. I was practicing like a madman to figure out the finger-picking on The Boxer, one of my all-time favorite S&G tunes, together with Mrs. Robinson – always loved the bluesy feel on that one!

    I also paid some attention to Simon’s solo records until his masterpiece Graceland. It was also in the wake of that record’s release that I saw him (in Germany), together with African musicians – pretty much the same guys who were on the Graceland album.

    You wanna experience joyful and humble musicians? Go and see an African band! This was hands down one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.

    After Graceland, I largely lost track of Simon. Occasionally, I listened into a couple of songs from his later albums, but they didn’t grab me as much.

    There’s no doubt Simon is one of the best American singer-songwriters of our time.

    Oh, and I’ve said this before – bassists are cool. They also have good genes, so their kids can become ingenious artists!😆

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    1. “The Boxer” has two guitarists. This is from the book: ““The recording started in Nashville with Fred Carter and me playing the opening guitar part,” he said. “The first line is a lick he wrote while his guitar was in a special tuning. Ever since, guitarists get their fingers all twisted up trying to play that part, and they can’t, because they don’t know the tuning. The two of us played, sitting about three feet apart and completely locked into it.

      Bassists ARE cool, just a little bit less cool than guitarists. I think it’s time for them to take their rightful place in society with normal people. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Suggestion -you might go to YouTube and type in The Boxer guitar lesson. Don’t know how accurate any of ’em are but you never know. I learn a lot of stuff that way, always deferring to how my ear hears it.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. True story: I played for a number of years, pretty much like any amateur – around the house, jam with the occasional friend. Then one day a few years back I got tired of playing, put it down and didn’t really feel like picking it up again. I told people I was passing the mantle on to my son but really I had just lost interest. Didn’t even touch a guitar for at least 1 1/2 years, maybe 2.

          Then one day – I think about 1 1/2 years ago – a friend was taking lessons and wanted me to come over and show him some stuff. So I went over, picked up the guitar and immediately enjoyed it all over again. Just the feel of my fingers on the strings was sufficient to get me charged up.

          And so from that day to this I’ve been playing a lot, I mean at least 5 days/week, often starting at 6am while I’m watching the news. The plethora of great on-line tools has totally changed my world. .

          But here’s the thing – within a week or two I had my dexterity back, within a month I was more fluid (and faster) than I had been years ago! I know they say that laying off for a while is good but holy cow. I’m now in the middle of learning the Free Bird solo which, thus far, I can play pretty close to speed. I NEVER thought I’d be able to say that..

          So, should you decide to get back into it, the dexterity will return and the tools are out there so that you too can be the next Taylor Swift. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. You really think he’s on a par with Bob Dylan and L&M? He pens sweet words, I’ll agree, and his songs have resonated with a broad section of the public, but I don’t rank him that high. I find his songs “pleasant,” but nothing more. That being said, I’m interested in learning more about his England period. Did the bio go into detail about folksinger Jackson Frank, whom Simon produced?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely 100% put him on par with those guys, no question whatsoever. I think you may be in the minority on this, no offense. I know you’re not big on awards but he was the first winner of the Gershwin Award which is definitely not Rolling Stone or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His music is not only great but his lyrics are often sheer poetry. He’s toured with Dylan and he and McCartney are mutual admirers. I think he’s a musical genius.

      As to Frank, yes he’s in there but barely. I had to go look it up in the book as it went by quickly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the Gershwin Award has more standing, in my book, than those others! His music doesn’t do much for me, what can I say? Lyrically, yes, I’d say his words can stand on their own as poetry. But there’s bad poetry, good poetry, and great poetry. I’d rank Simon’s as good, not great (although I’m no poet). Robert Frost was America’s poet laureate at one time, and read at JFK’s inauguration. But his standing has fallen considerably since then. Will Simon’s? Who knows. His songs, for me, are like a bed of pretty flowers. Dylan’s (many of them) are like weird, twisted roots snaking under ground. I prefer the weird, twisted roots to daisies.

        Frank wrote “Blues Run the Game,” covered by people like Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, and Bert Jansch. A phenomenal talent who lived a tragic life.

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        1. I’ve equated listening to music to falling in love. You either fall in love or you don’t – can’t force it. So if that hasn’t happened to you re Simon after all this time, clearly it never will. I know the feeling as try though I might, I just cannot love – to pick one – country music.

          As to Simon’s standing possibly falling over time, who can say? But bear in mind that they gave it to him in 2007, fully 42 years after his first solo album. They clearly felt his music held up that long. Why not another 40 years?

          As to Dylan, like you I’m a mega-fan. Has Simon ever written, say, a “Masters of War?” No, but then again neither did Lennon/McCartney. Beautiful lyrics yes, but I wouldn’t for the most part call their lyrics twisted roots. And their attempts at political songwriting? “Power to the People?” “Give Ireland back to the Irish?: Please.

          Point being that all these greats have their own strengths. I would disagree that Simon’s lyrics are daisies, The Partridge Family he is not. And BTW, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Dylan’s “Chronicles.” By his own admission, sometimes in the early days writing in the Village he’d just slap a piece of paper in a typewriter and type out whatever stream-of-consciousness stuff came into his head. And then laugh when people twisted themselves in knots trying to interpret it . So not every one of his lyrics are inspired. Or for that matter, make sense.

          We clearly won’t agree on this. But I think you underestimate Simon who – for me – traffics in writing about relationships and plumbing the psyche as well as anyone.

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        2. Well, Jim, I admire your allegiance to Simon! I’ll never deny his talent, I just have songwriters that I’d rank higher. Just one last point on this topic: I called Dylan’s lyrics “twisted roots,” not L&M. Those two had their own strengths, and not necessarily political songs. Simon has not only never written a “Masters of War,” but he never wrote a “Gates of Eden” or “It’s Alright, Ma,” or “Idiot Wind,” either. I used the word “daisies,” which was probably extreme (sorry). I guess the best way to put it is that I’ve never sat bolt upright when I hear his songs.

          Shifting gears… I’ve been listening to Marshall Tucker Band lately. What an underrated band. Forget the “Southern Rock” tag, they just oozed musicality.

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        3. Allegiance? Hmm, maybe. Devotion? No. Great appreciation for? That sounds about right.

          We saw Marshall Tucker when we saw Skynyrd. I’m kinda tired of what you hear on the radio but their long jams were awesome.

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        4. Jams are a lotta fun. One of the reasons I like the Tucker band was that, like the Allmans, their arrangements had lots of melody and texture. They stretched out a lot, too. Listening these many years later, I hear some jazz, Western swing, even some mellotron.

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        5. Pete, I realize that one thing got lost in the shuffle in our conversation that I did not make clear and that I should correct. I see Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, and Paul Simon as the Big Three and then all the others. I stand by that. But what I failed to make clear was – in that order. 1. Dylan. 2. L&M, 3. Simon. That may not change anything from our discussion but that’s the way I see it. I’ve done so many posts I completely forgot I did a songwriter series. The first one calls them the Top Three or the Big Three or something. If you’re curious, search on songwriter.

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        6. I will search for it. As far as rock/pop songwriting, I’d have a “Big Two”! As far as singer-songwriter genre, I’d place Simon up there, but a notch below Dylan and Joni, and alongside Neil, Carole King, Jackson Browne, and, of course, the great Dan Hill (“…the honesty’s too much…”).

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