Paul Simon is a poet of solitude, of the sounds of silence; even when out on the road and in company, as in his glorious anthem “America,” he is the man who keeps his own counsel, with his books and poems to keep him company. His loneliness, paradoxically, has earned him plenty of company. With and without erstwhile partner Art Garfunkel, he has sold millions of albums, and some of his songs—“Bridge over Troubled Water,” to name one—are now pop standards, known to one and all. That’s no surprise, for Simon has always considered his competition to be other standard-setters—Dylan, Lennon, and McCartney—and has aimed to equal or outdo them with every new song.
Robert Hilburn, former pop music writer for the Los Angeles Times, left the newspaper in 2005 and began to write books about songwriters who, more than merely penning hits, had somehow become cultural icons in recognition of their art and ability to read the zeitgeist alike. He began with a greatest-hits survey of the pop landscape, Cornflakes with John Lennon (2009), then turned to the darkest, loneliest songwriter of them all in Johnny Cash: A Life (2013). Cash was an easy choice, he tells Kirkus, though it was a mystery how “someone from a cotton field in Arkansas could develop such a deep sense of artistry and purpose.”
Hilburn returns with a new, comprehensive biography of Simon, Paul Simon: The Life. Simon was appealing in several ways, Hilburn says, “including the unparalleled brilliance of his songwriting over half a century and the way his fondness for privacy left a lot to be explored.”
Simon is a private man indeed, but that did not deter Hilburn, who approached him after the Cash biography had earned enough critical accolades to be inarguable. Several books had appeared in which Simon and Garfunkel figured, but they were always written from a distance; Simon had gone out of his way to resist biographers and had instructed his friends to do the same. Still, Simon read Johnny Cash, and he consented to taking part in a book that would be about his work—fittingly, since the great lesson that Simon took away from the untimely death of Elvis Presley was that Presley’s dissolution happened when one gave things other than the music priority status. “He was most interested initially in talking about his music,” says Hilburn, “but he gradually spoke about his personal life with equal eloquence, knowing the two were ultimately interwoven.”
In the end, Simon spoke with Hilburn for more than 100 hours; perhaps ironically, Hilburn notes, it was the more public-minded Garfunkel who refused to participate in the project, proof that the long-estranged partners are as distant now as they were half a century ago. More important, says Hilburn, Simon surrendered editorial control, with a result that the occasional wart and hushed-up subject turns up in Hilburn’s pages—which also deliver a nuanced portrait of an undeniably soulful and thoughtful man.
Asked what surprises he turned up in his conversations with Simon, Hilburn unhesitatingly replies, “The biggest surprise to me is the struggles Simon has had to go through to achieve and maintain his artistry, things we didn’t know about largely because of his private nature. It all looked so easy from a distance. He’d deliver a great album, then disappear for three or four years until he would return with another one. But that time in between was often extremely difficult.”
Well into his eighth decade, Simon has successfully protected his art from the private hobgoblins of fame, an example, by Hilburn’s reckoning, of the fruits of discipline and hard work. And while there are plenty of episodes in which those private distractions appear, in the end Hilburn’s biography is resolutely and unstintingly about the music. “At his best,” Hilburn says, “Paul Simon combines the discipline and craft of the Great American Songbook era of writers, including Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and the personal experience and commentary tendencies that have been reflected in the best writers of the rock era. It’s an extraordinary, almost magical combination.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.