Paul Simon: The Life is as close as we’re likely to get to the full story of one of popular music’s greatest songwriters and creative visionaries.
Paul Simon is one of those rare celebrities who has largely managed to maintain a reasonable separation between his public and private lives. Despite having been a towering fixture in popular music for more than half a century, he’s rarely granted a truly candid interview, instead directing the conversational focus towards the music he creates. This can often read as standoffish or aloof. But, in fact, this approach is largely what has allowed Simon to continue to flourish and create as an artist well into his 70s. And it’s not that his personal life hasn’t cropped up in the press from time to time or, more cryptically, his own songwriting, it’s just that he somehow manages in the age of oversharing to maintain an air of mystery.
Robert Hilburn’s Paul Simon: The Life looks not to correct this, but rather fill in some of the hazier details within a chronological, contextual look at Simon’s life and career. From his early years as a budding baseball star to his first brushes with fame as Tom and Jerry with perennial on-again-off-again singing partner Art Garfunkel through his poetic reimagining of popular music in the 1960s to his continued experimentation and implementation of assorted world music, Simon is shown to be a constant innovator who rarely – if ever – looks back. That Hilburn managed to get as much as he did from Simon in a series of interviews over a number of years is nothing short of remarkable.
Candid and often wistful, Paul Simon eschews hagiography by getting both Simon’s take on a given time or situation as well as those closest to him at that particular time. From childhood friends to musical collaborators and beyond, Hilburn has conducted an exhaustive series of interviews in order to create the most three-dimensional portrait of Simon to date. His contentious relationship with Garfunkel looms large over the narrative, their constant competitiveness and hot-and-cold relationship dynamic directing the course of both men’s lives.
For Simon, success post-Simon & Garfunkel comes across as richly deserved after years of toiling literally and figuratively in the shadows of others (Simon’s short stature comes up time and again). That Garfunkel failed to reach the same glorious heights becomes a clear source of contention throughout, one that often found him lashing out at Simon in the press. And while Simon does at times border on being cold and unforgiving with regard to Garfunkel, his refusal to engage in any sort of public back-and-forth is not only admirable, but shows how one can be truly successful as an artist when able to shut out the myriad distractions of celebrity and all its trappings.
His controversial move to record in South Africa despite the restrictions in place at the time is given a greater contextual overview, history and hindsight showing Simon to have simply been following his creative passion and recruiting the musicians necessary to produce the sounds in his head. Simon is quick to point out that his going to South Africa to record Graceland was not cultural appropriation, but rather no different than like-minded artists seeking a cross-cultural collaboration that goes above and beyond social constructs and well-meaning but ultimately ill-informed political posturing.
In essence, throughout, all Simon has wanted to do is continue to push himself creatively rather than relying on the tried and true. And while this hasn’t resulted in continuous success, it has made for an artistically diverse and compelling catalog. From the folk rock of S&G to the more introspective experimentations on albums like the overlooked Hearts and Bones to his seemingly ill-conceived but ultimately vindicated Capeman saga, Simon shows an almost pathological need to keep pushing himself. It comes as no surprise that, even in the midst of tours, he is constantly rehearsing his bands, rewriting established classics along the way to better suit his particular musical proclivities at any given moment.
And while the music is (understandably) given the bulk of the focus, Simon’s assorted love affairs both public and private are touched upon. Somewhat surprisingly, his notorious 10-year on-again-off-again relationship with Carrie Fischer is essentially granted limited space, her voice only cropping up on several occasions while her untimely death goes unremarked upon. His current marriage to Edie Brickell is merely touched upon within the context of his musical career. Even when granting full access, Simon still maintains an arm’s length with regard to his personal life. There is at least one instance when Simon bristles at Hilburn’s line of questioning, the conversational push-pull finally ending with a resigned Simon saying in effect, it’s your book, write whatever you’d like.
With Simon refusing to write an autobiography (why bother looking back?), Paul Simon: The Life is as close as we’re likely to get to the full story of one of popular music’s greatest songwriters and creative visionaries. Thankfully, Robert Hilburn has delivered a largely objective look at a life that has existed within the public eye to varying degrees, yet has always been lived in private. Paul Simon: The Life is about as good as one can expect from a fully authorized biography of a living artist who prides himself on his privacy.