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Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn


Paul Simon: The Life – If Paul Simon had not become one of the greatest singer/songwriters to come out of the 1960s, he probably would have chosen to become a professional baseball player.

Those dreams of glory on the baseball diamond (which could have led to wearing the famed pinstripes of the New York Yankees) were put in the mind of the young Paul Simon as early as 1958, when he did the impossible and stole home at a game, which led to victory for his Forest Hills High School baseball team.

However, as the 50s progressed into the 60s, Simon decided to put down the bat and glove and pick up the guitar and pen instead. The end result is a career in music that has spanned over six decades, in which his penchant for high standards in composing, singing and recording music has produced some of the most unforgettable (and still much listened-to) songs that have been produced during the last half of the 20th century – whether it be on his own or together with Art Garfunkel – such as “Sounds of Silence”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “The Boxer”, “Boy in the Bubble”, “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Graceland”. These songs have not only found a place in our ears and our hearts, but also in our conscience as well, which is why Paul Simon’s music has transcended so many generations of artists and fans alike.


But just as fascinating about Paul Simon’s life and career is not only what he has produced musically, but what has motivated him and drove him to create such memorable tunes that earned him countless Grammys, a Kennedy Center Honours, two inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame. This is what pop music critic Robert Hilburn has explained in his absorbing biography Paul Simon: The Life.

What the reader gets from this biography is a portrait of Paul Simon as a rather low-key, yet intense musical genius. A native New Yorker who virtually had music in his blood (his father, Lou Simon, was a renowned band leader and upright bass player during the big band era, and was a fixture at the legendary Roseland Ballroom). Simon’s impatience at getting a college education, and somehow being unable to break through the thriving folk music scene in Greenwich Village, he crossed the Atlantic to England, where he found his niche in a nascent folk music scene, not to mention a relationship with one Kathy Chitty, who became his muse and inspiration for many of the famous tunes he would record with Art Garfunkel throughout the mid and late 60s (including “Homeward Bound” and “America”).

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the on again, off again professional relationship with Garfunkel (who performed together since 1957, and had a minor hit that year with “Hey, Schoolgirl”, which was recorded under the stage name “Tom and Jerry”). This was the story of two distinct personalities with two distinct working habits. The end result was a very tempestuous relationship that not only produced a catalogue of timeless songs, but a great deal of professional and personal clashes that resulted in a series of breakups and reconciliations (one of the best known was in 1969, when Garfunkel abruptly left the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album recording sessions for roles in the films “Catch-22” and “Carnal Knowledge”).


Then there’s Paul Simon the musician as musical re-inventor. Somehow no matter what personal or professional triumphs or setbacks he experienced, Paul Simon can give himself credit for having the uncanny ability to bounce back and come up with a new album that further strengthens his artistic reputation at times when his contemporaries were ready to write him off as a thing of the past. This was quite evident with the work he committed towards the creation of his two landmark solo albums “Graceland” and “The Rhythm of the Saints” – which he did to recover from the musical debacles that were “One Trick Pony” and “Hearts and Bones” – and the end result was not only two best-selling and Grammy Award winning albums, but also helped to expose two aspects of world music (South Africa and Brazil) for the first time to North American audiences.

Hilburn has done an exceptional job crafting Paul Simon’s story into such a highly readable biography. And he has accomplished it by getting Simon to open up to him thanks to over 100 hours of personal interviews, and as an added bonus, gives the reader a chance to peak into the creative process of how Simon got the inspiration to develop many of his best known songs; when he is finished telling the story behind the song, he furnishes us with the complete lyrics, so that we can marvel at what came about from such an arduous process. It’s almost like viewing a famous painter’s masterpiece in a museum, and getting all the hidden messages behind it to why it is such a work of art.

Paul Simon: The Life is the closest thing we will ever get to a memoir from this important voice in modern music. Thanks to Robert Hilburn, we get to know the many faces and voices of this multi-faceted and multi-talented individual, so we don’t have to mournfully proclaim out loud a la “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” For the sake of those who grew up with Paul Simon’s songbook – and the subsequent generations who will discover him – they now know.

By: Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca
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