Saturday 21 September 2019

The real Paul Simon: songs, spats and the spectre of Art

Biography, Paul Simon - The Life, Robert Hilburn, Simon & Schuster, hardback, 448 pages, €23.99

Access all areas: Paul Simon gave author Hilburn over 100 hours of interviews
Access all areas: Paul Simon gave author Hilburn over 100 hours of interviews
Paul Simon - The Life by Robert Hilburn

Tony Clayton-Lea

From the mid-1960s to the late-1980s, there were four major male North American singer-songwriters that set the form's agenda. Bob Dylan had the tongue-twisting literacy that mixed Americana narratives with canny zeitgeist sensibilities. Neil Young had the sweet tunes and the hippies on his side. Leonard Cohen had the impish sense of humour, the spiritual frame of mind and the sensual demeanour. It was Paul Simon, however, who leapfrogged over his most obvious influences, engaging with music genres outside his own country.

With hit singles such as 'Me And Julio Down by the Schoolyard' and 'Mother and Child Reunion' (both released in 1972), and hugely successful albums such as Graceland (1986), Simon brought Latino, Jamaican and South African music to a much broader population. Describing him as the 'Godfather of World Music' might be an exaggeration, but there's little doubt that Simon's New York background, with its cultural melting-pot environment, opened him up to experimentation long before many others of his kind.

Simon also differed from his contemporaries in his songwriting, which from the start was imbued with obvious autobiographical notes and disarming honesty. Where Dylan's lyrics impressed, Young's simplified, and Cohen's charmed, Simon's laid bare his life and relationships. The definitive title of this book should, therefore, hold a potential clue as to what's in store, but there's an additional surprise here. Despite being the true owner of his honesty in song over the past 50 years, and being known for a protective creative control that defined the word 'painstaking', Simon not only allowed someone else to write his life story, but also gave over 100 hours of exclusive interviews to ensure its veracity and authority.

In doing so, he presented author Robert Hilburn (a former chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times) two things that every biographer needs but often doesn't get: an access-all-areas pass to friends, family members and confidantes, and freedom to write the story in whatever way he chose.

Such trust in a biographer (let alone a music critic, from which the vast majority of musicians keep their distance) is unusual, but between Simon's personal testimonies and Hilburn's meticulous outline - neither of which, at times, illustrate Simon in a particularly good light - there is substantial ground covered here. The details of Simon's early years in New York City are particularly evocative. From scurrying around record companies with his childhood friend Art Garfunkel (as the duo Tom & Jerry), to being drawn towards the introspection and artistic expression of folk music in Greenwich Village, you can see the artist forming.

Travelling from New York to London in 1964/65 placed Simon in the enviable position of not only learning anew but also of being in a city where nothing was expected of him. It was in the UK that he developed his prowess as a lyricist, and on his return to New York, more songs arrived, this time under the name of Simon & Garfunkel. Each one of them is a pop classic: 'The Boxer', 'America', 'Mrs Robinson', 'For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her', 'So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright', and the apex, perhaps, of this phase of Simon's career, 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', prefaced a remarkable solo career, which Hilburn and Simon outline in detail.

From start to finish, however, the spectre looking over the shoulder is Art Garfunkel, the sole significant figure in Simon's life that Hilburn didn't interview. The fracture in the pair's fraught relationship occurred some years before they teamed up as Simon & Garfunkel, but it nonetheless ran alongside every subsequent thing they did together until they split in 1970 (and, indeed, for decades after). Subsequent S&G reformations have proved to be anxiety-ridden affairs, with Garfunkel's presence proving to be a constant "red flag", according to Hilburn.

Not that Simon seems too troubled about it ("Artie's just working out his demons" is his casual response) as he negotiates his way out of his former partner's neuroses into a solo career that is extraordinary in its breadth of music styles.

What connects everything, of course, is an exacting, prose-loving songwriter. Driven by self-confessed idiosyncrasies and a keen level of self-awareness, what could have been an ill-judged hagiography is one of the year's best music books.

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