Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Accurate Sounds – Robert Hilburn's Paul Simon: The Life

Paul Simon in a promotional photo for his 2018 farewell tour. (Photo: KeyArena)

With his farewell tour ending September 22 in Queens, NY and a new album coming out this Friday, Paul Simon remains current. To coincide with the tour, Simon granted L.A. Times music writer Robert Hilburn more than 100 hours of interviews for a new biography released last May, according to the press release from Simon & Schuster. But rather than hook a new album and a farewell tour to a book for commercial purposes, Hilburn goes much deeper by writing a balanced study of his subject. His focus, and it’s a good one, is to identify and explain the driving impulses behind Simon’s creativity. Naturally that’s an easier task with the co-operation of the person you’re writing about.

According to Hilburn, Paul Simon is a sensitive soul, and that sensitivity is always present in the creative decisions he makes about his music. Consequently it’s best to understand how Simon ticks through his work and working methods and this is where Hilburn’s interviews have paid off: when asked about his abrasiveness in the studio, Simon replies, “That’s my job: to protect the music. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks of me. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to a piece of work.” Simon said this in response to his efforts on the last Simon & Garfunkel studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia), released in 1970. Simon’s “The Boxer,” one of the best songs on the record (and, for that matter, in popular music), took 100 hours to produce, including the explosive drum sound in the “Lie-la-lie” chorus. Hilburn writes, “It was this kind of dedication that would eventually lead some to accuse Simon of being a perfectionist or a control freak, but he wasn’t intimidated.” As Wynton Marsalis keenly observes, “His artistic objectives have always been greater than his commercial objectives.” Marsalis's is one of many secondary interviews Hilburn conducted while putting together this portrait.

And when it comes to Paul Simon’s turbulent friendship with Art Garfunkel, Hilburn excels as a biographer. He traces the career of the duo with good insight and interesting facts even though Garfunkel wasn’t interviewed for this book. I was particularly impressed with his reporting on their artistic relationship from the time they were kids singing in high school, their years as teen idols Tom & Jerry, and later their five studio albums for Columbia, which changed the musical landscape in the late sixties. While they were creatively agreeable at first, the friction between them started in 1968, when Garfunkel sent Simon “a long, deeply emotional and profoundly sad letter outlining his frustration over their relationship.” Petty jealously can do a lot to ruin a band and the Simon & Garfunkel experience was no exception. In Hilburn’s tome Garfunkel looms large as a dynamic force in Simon’s life that came and went with equal strength, reunion tours notwithstanding. To quote my colleague Donald Brackett, Simon & Garfunkel were “a team of mutual muses.” They recorded five studio albums, toured the world and won multiple Grammy Awards, including one for Bridge Over Troubled Water. But in the end, Simon was the better songwriter and Garfunkel took that personally and couldn’t let it go. Simon, on the other hand, felt snubbed when Garfunkel took a role in Mike Nichols’s movie, Catch-22, just as the duo's success had peaked.

Hilburn’s narrative carefully traces the story of Simon’s solo career, after the pair broke up in 1970. This engaging part of the story includes his triumphs and failures in music, such as the Broadway musical The Capeman, based on the story of convicted murderer, Salvador Agron. (It closed after 68 performances.). It’s an exhilarating read as Hilburn gets into specific song analysis and how Simon was able to conceive and execute his musical ideas. In particular I was fascinated by the simplicity of Simon’s inspiration on “Graceland” and how a trip through the cradle of the Civil War turned into one of his most cherished songs.

Hilburn also takes a stab at explaining the political commentary regarding Simon’s recording of the album Graceland featuring South African musicians. At the time Simon was seen as appropriating the culture of the country in spite of a cultural boycott of the then apartheid regime. To this day Simon remains steadfast in his claim that what he did had nothing to do with politics and that he "went as a musician to interact with other musicians.” Hilburn backs him up on this: “Simon planned the entire Graceland tour as a salute to the full South African musical experience . . . even if he avoided political statements as a songwriter, and he wanted the tour to be a strong statement against apartheid.” Although I was familiar with the controversy and the tour, having seen the show in Toronto, Hilburn’s chronicle put the whole affair into its proper context.

Hilburn’s book also reveals new details in Simon’s personal life. For instance, I did not know that he got hooked on an organic, hallucinogenic mixture from South America called ayahuasca. Simon’s use of this drug, which is often brewed and consumed as tea, not only lifted him emotionally but also cleared his head and calmed his anxiety, particularly after the failure of The Capeman on Broadway. Simon told Hilburn what it was like to drink the substance: “The afterglow would last for days. It also enabled me to hear new sounds in my head, which led me to being able to write songs much faster than before.” One result was a song called “Quiet” from the Warner Bros. album You’re The One released in 2000.

Organic drug use aside, I was most interested in learning about Simon’s songwriting methods and in this case Hilburn peels back the layers with strong passages about “The Sounds of Silence,” “The Boxer,” “American Tune” and “The Boy in the Bubble.” By the end of the book Simon tells us how he sees himself as a composer": “I don’t really have a whole lot of choice about what it is I do because my mind keeps writing another song. That’s what I am, and if the work is valued in any way, that’s great. If it isn’t, then someone else will make that donation . . . I make up songs, and I try to make them as interesting as possible.” Having recently reread my essays on two of the artist’s best records in the past ten years, Stranger To Stranger and So Beautiful So What, it seems to me that Simon is honoring his own convictions. As he says in Hilburn’s book, “You are looking for truthful emotions.” For Hilburn, having a sensitive soul is a key to finding those emotions.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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