Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn
As a creator and lover of story, I have always idolized Paul Simon, a man’s whose songs often have sweeping narratives crammed into four elegant lines. In addition to being musically brilliant, his songs are studded with phrases or lyrics that light your imagination on fire and speak straight to the human experience. He’s a storyteller for the ages.
Well I’m on my way, I don’t know where I’m going
I’m on my way, I’m taking my time, but I don’t know where
Goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona
Seein’, me and Julio down by the schoolyard
– “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” Paul Simon
Somewhere in a burst of glory
Sound becomes a song
I’m bound to tell a story
That’s where I belong
– “That’s Where I Belong,” You’re the One
Simon’s career has spanned six decades, amassing cross-generational fans most of the way, and even more impressively, he’s managed not to self-destruct, pulling off the magic trick of living a long, thriving artistic life. For those reasons and more, I was thrilled to have this deep dive into Simon’s life and thoughts, and award-winning biographer Robert Hilburn delivers with Paul Simon: The Life. Interest in Simon is high at the moment since in 2018, he both released a new album, Into the Blue Light, and announced his retirement — from touring, he’s quick to note, leaving his options open. The book hitting the scene at the same time is surely the work of some marketing genius, but the confluence is a welcome trove of all things Paul Simon for a fan like me.
In fact, I loved being able to listen to the new album in tandem with this new biography — likely the only biography Simon will ever authorize. Into the Blue Light and the book are complementary because the album is composed of new perspectives on 10 of his previous, less-familiar songs, many of which Simon addresses in the book. One of my favorites is “Questions for the Angels,” which is lovely and poignant with an edge of playfulness:
If you shop for love in a bargain store
And you don’t get what you bargained for
Can you get your money back?
Says Simon, “Well, it’s kind of a funny line, but it’s also talking about making choices, including right and wrong choices in love.” In this way, the singer and songwriter seems happy to drive into his music, speaking freely about the inspiration for specific songs or lyrics and offering tons of secondhand inspiration to other artists. As a fan, I also adored all the (silly? who cares?) trivia from throughout his career. For instance, The Boxer was composed mostly on the back of an airline sickness bag. And, to create the signature crash in the chorus, they placed a snare drum in an elevator shaft to, as Simon says, “make sure it would sound explosive.” I’m giving little away with those two gems because there are more gems to be had about “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Graceland” and so many more.
About the music, that is. Despite those “right and wrong choices in love” drawn with such care in his work, the professionally extensive biography is limited in terms of Simon’s private life. The star has always been an actively, passionately private person, and the tension between the author and Simon in terms of how much to share is visible on the page. I respect that boundary setting, though, and considered the tension a part of the experience. Privacy seems to have been one key to Simon’s longevity and relative health compared to many of his peers lost too early to drugs or scandals and should be respected.
That said, like many people, I wanted more Carrie Fisher stories! If you didn’t yet know that Paul Simon and Carrie Fisher were married for 10 years, now you understand how good Paul Simon is at keeping his private life quiet. The book includes interviews with Fisher and many new details but nothing “juicy” or remotely TMZ-worthy. No new Carrie zingers from the past, sadly. I also wanted more about Simon’s tumultuous relationship with Art Garfunkel, which the public has never fully understood. Garfunkel also sat for interviews, and again, despite lots of interesting added context, the books turns up nothing dramatic. Simon and Garfunkel both managed to remain mature and respectful of one another. How dare they!
I tease, of course, because again, I think Simon’s boundaries themselves are an important and interesting part of the biography. His artistic and musical insights are indeed worthy of note, but the way singer and songwriter lives his life is instructive in and of itself. Despite the lack of juicy personal details, any Paul Simon fan will appreciate reading the ultimate life story of this ultimate storyteller.