Review of Peter James Carlin's "Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon"

Books




Luther Spoehr, an HNN book reviewer and Senior Lecturer at Brown University, teaches several courses on the 1960s.

Paul Simon, age 75, has been writing and recording songs for 60 years.  Such longevity is not unique. (Among others, the Rolling Stones are still holding age at bay, while, at 90, Chuck Berry—may he live forever--has an album on the way.)  But it is still an impressive feat, made all the more so by Simon’s evident ability to adopt new styles and genres as readily as most people change shirts.  The cumulative results—100 million records sold, 15 Grammy Awards, and so on—are impressive.  The life story, as told smoothly and thoroughly by Peter James Carlin, author of a highly-regarded biography of Bruce Springsteen, is consistently intriguing.

In 1957, still in his mid-teens, Simon and his friend Art Garfunkel performed as “Tom and Jerry” (taking the name from the famous cartoon cat and mouse) and had a hit with a prototypically Fifties rock ‘n’ roll song, “Hey, Schoolgirl.”  In the first half of the Sixties, he and Garfunkel took the folk route, then hit it big with folk rock, especially “The Sounds of Silence” (1965).    (Interestingly, that single only went to #1 after producer Tom Wilson added an electric track and it was re-released—while Simon, all unknowing, was touring in Britain, and Garfunkel had returned to graduate school.)  The next five years lifted his career into the stratosphere, with music for the blockbuster movie “The Graduate” (“Mrs. Robinson” and the rest) and albums, including “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” (1966) and “Bookends” (1968), culminating in “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970). 

Leaving the schoolgirl behind, Simon had tracked the zeitgeist for almost a decade:  alienated, rebellious, self-pitying, indignant, and finally seeking to reassure, his lyrics and melodies became less self-consciously literary, less derivative, more complex, and more mature.  Then in 1970, the same year that the Beatles broke up and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died, Simon and Garfunkel broke up.  He was not yet 30 years old.

Carlin devotes over half of his book’s 375 pages of text to those first 30 years.  He didn’t have Simon’s cooperation—an amusing episode at the end of the book recounts the singer’s reluctant half-acknowledgement of the writer’s presence at an Emory University interview in 2013—but he seems to have used just about every other scrap of material available.  And although earlier reviews of this book have emphasized its revelations about Simon’s self-dealing, on the whole Carlin’s take is commendably even-handed and fair to its complex subject. 

Simon has always been hard-nosed.  No sooner had he and his friend Artie had signed their first record contract than he went behind Artie’s back and negotiated an additional solo deal for himself.  He didn’t tell Garfunkel about it for weeks.  Garfunkel understandably felt betrayed, and, Carlin convincingly suggests, the episode has contributed to the trials and tribulations of their on-again, off-again relationship ever since.  When beginning his movie career, Garfunkel didn’t tell Simon right away:  getting a bit of his own back?  In another gratuitously aggressive move, Simon put his name (and Garfunkel’s) on the copyright for “Scarborough Fair,” a folk song that had been around for centuries.  On the other hand—and there was always another hand—he could be generous with credits and often paid his studio musicians far more than scale.   The pattern was set early; if anything, he became more generous over the years, as his wealth grew.

Simon’s post-1970 career--occasionally politically contentious, often musically creative—is treated carefully, if somewhat episodically.  The solo albums of the Seventies, the “Graceland Wars” of the mid-Eighties, the “Rhythm of the Saints” album (1990), and Simon’s disastrous Broadway venture, The Capeman, all receive their due.  Carlin is particularly good in his detailed accounting of the “Graceland” album, which thrust Simon into a political debate over boycotting South Africa and a cultural debate over “appropriation.”  Simon was characteristically stubborn, and Carlin makes clear he gave as good as he got and emerged triumphant when he received the Grammy for “Album of the Year.”  By then, says Carlin, Simon “had ascended to a sphere of fame and influence he hadn’t seen since...‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’….And he had done it in a style so exotic that virtually no one in the pop mainstream had known it existed.”

Then in 1998 he overreached.  A convicted murderer, even one who had apparently rehabilitated himself and received a pardon, only to die of a heart attack, is not the standard stuff of musicals.  But Simon believed it could work and proclaimed that he “couldn’t care less what the theater community, or whatever it is that they call themselves, think about [The Capeman]….I didn’t write it for Broadway, I wrote it for me.”  It crashed and burned.  Says Carlin:  “Paul had reinvented himself continually since he was fifteen years old, and though he had taken himself further than anyone might have imagined, he still could not land the jump to Broadway—possibly because he never really wanted to.”  In a (mercifully rare) attempt at psychoanalysis, Carlin theorizes that “the middle-class honor student Paul [had been] was in many ways the opposite of the impoverished, uneducated ghetto kid [that Simon made the hero of his musical.]  But [Sal] Agron’s look and attitude—at the time [of his trial], he told reporters that he didn’t care if he burned for the crime—thrilled the good boy from Queens.”  Simon admitted as much: “I felt the typical middle-class aspiration to be in [a gang],” he said.  Still, after that debacle, he kept writing and performing—more laboriously than ever, he admitted, but still productively.  His most recent album “Stranger to Stranger,” came out in 2016.

For this reader at least, the first part of the book is more engaging.  That’s at least partly because Simon’s first 30 years provide more opportunity for Carlin to link the personal and the musical, and Simon was still immersed in the American popular culture that had shaped him.  For instance, Carlin probably overrates the early song “He Was My Brother,” about a murdered Freedom Rider, but it’s useful to know that Simon had known both Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, martyred during 1964’s Freedom Summer, when they were all students at Queens College.  And to his credit, Carlin doesn’t lapse into tempting “voice of his generation” clichés.  In fact, Carlin points out, “On the rare occasions when he did talk about current events in the first three decades of his career, he was significantly less radical, or even liberal, than virtually all the other musicians of the era.”  Simon was always more a creature of culture than politics 

As Simon’s music becomes ever more multicultural and complicated, it requires more explication.  And that leads to too many sentences like this one:  “’You Can Call Me Al’ [a ‘surrealist tableau’], teems with dogs, cows, changelings, scatterlings, angels, crimes, and misdemeanors set to Ray Phiri’s towering riff, fast-slapping congas, a bubbling bass, click-boom drums, synthetic twangs and whooshes, all of them merging into a sound that brings heaven down to the dung-scattered boulevard and drapes our man in an ecstasy.”  Oh.  Okay.

For the most part, however, Carlin’s book is highly readable and manages to touch all the bases without sounding like an encyclopedia.  The music is all here, and so is much else:  the marriages (including the rollercoaster decade with Carrie Fisher), the “Saturday Night Live” gigs, the underside of the music business (back in the age of “payola,” “Tom and Jerry” had to return the check for $176.00 they got for appearing on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”), the reunion and solo concerts in Central Park.  And through it all, “Paul’s bizarre public relationship with Artie Garfunkel, by turns his oldest and best friend and a guy he can barely stand to be near, remains one of the essential fables of the sixties generation.”

Indeed, while Simon has played an important role in the globalization of popular music, in the broader perspective of social and cultural history it is the songs that he wrote and then performed with his boyhood buddy that probably will be his longest-lasting legacy, an organic part of the Sixties’ ambience.  Anyone attempting to recapture the spirit of that age will inevitably encounter the brooding “Sounds of Silence” and the soaring “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  And, of course, the names linked to those titles are Simon and Garfunkel.   Sorry, Paul.  




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