The Biographer in the Bubble

Robert Hilburn’s authorized life of Paul Simon.

Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel performs on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 16 1967 in Monterey, California.
Paul Simon performs at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, in California. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

About midway through Robert Hilburn’s Paul Simon: The Lifethe book’s subject embarks on a remarkable description of what went into the title track from Graceland—the loss, the beauty, the redemption, the Carrie Fisher divorce. It all poured out when he was writing the song. “I thought someone had punched me in the heart. I just sat down… Eventually, I understood that the song is about why we are traveling to Graceland—to find out how to get healed—and that’s why I named the album Graceland.” It was not an easy thing to live the life that produced this song or this revelation. Fisher put it this way in her memoir: “Poor Paul. He had to put up with a lot with me. I think, ultimately, I fell under the heading of: Good anecdote, Bad reality. I was really good for material, but when it came to day-to-day living, I was more than he could take.”

For all of his artistic and commercial triumphs, day-to-day living was often too much for Paul Simon, and he is often prone to second thoughts. He is currently on a farewell tour—although with Simon, you never know. Right after a joyous reunion with Art Garfunkel, they recorded an album together; Simon later removed Garfunkel’s vocals. “I was writing a group of songs that seemed very special to me… I felt it was my piece of work. It didn’t have to do with Arthur.” That quotation is from a Los Angeles Times interview with Hilburn from 1983. Hilburn has since spent more than 100 hours talking to Simon for this book, and he often strikes gold. Not only is there no one else who can write a Paul Simon song, there is no one else who can talk about writing a Paul Simon song. I have been on the receiving end of it myself, and it is astonishing: Simon is usually at his most voluble about the most recent thing he wrote. Generating that level of enthusiasm for archival material is more of a challenge, but when Simon decides to engage, he delivers a master class in songwriting.

“America,” a lovely, unrhyming, and enigmatic song that name-checks his girlfriend Kathy Chitty, gets unpacked and clarified: “That line about marrying our fortunes together was a joke, of course, because the couple had nothing. The ‘real estate in my bag’ was grass.” “The Boxer” was less directly autobiographical, but emotionally vivid and raw: “Looking back, I don’t recall thinking I went through years of struggle. I was never poor, and I had a family that loved me. But I have to say singing ‘his anger and his shame’ still makes me feel uncomfortable, so there must have been some anger and shame.” “Darling Lorraine,” a deep cut from You’re the One that Simon has called his favorite, is given a line-by-line exegesis almost as compelling as the song itself. The song is a third-person story about a couple who get together and break up a couple of times until Lorraine dies of cancer, all set to a complex rhythmic premise. As Simon tells it, the story unfolded as he was writing: “They’re soon fighting again, and suddenly he says, ‘I’m sick to death of you, Lorraine.’ As soon as I came up with that line, I stopped and took a deep breath. I thought ‘Oh my God, she’s going to die.’ ”

When Simon shows the microtonal thinking that goes into every rhyme, every beat, and every chord, he also shows how much he is observing about life. Simon fought against cliché and banality over and over again in his music. (“I loved her the first time I saw her, I know that’s an old songwriting cliché,” he sang, before repeating the line anyway.) What happens when life disappoints? Simon once described himself as “neurotically driven,” and Randy Newman concurs: “Paul wants to be better than anyone else—better than Bob Dylan or Stevie Wonder or whoever you want to name—and so do I. Competitiveness is the nature of what we do.” Paul Simon did not become Paul Simon without an enormous amount of static. Someone like that needs a biography.

Simon and Garfunkel emerged after Dylan had already established—way, way before the Nobel—that folk music could become rock music, and that all of it could become literature. Simon, the son of a jazz bass player turned linguist, knew that pop could outgrow its limitations in rhythms, in chords, and, most famously, on the global sphere. He wanted to be as great a melodist as George Gershwin and a better lyricist than Ira. He wanted to battle apartheid while tangling with anti-apartheid activists. One doesn’t write “The Boxer” and then agonize over every detail of its recordingwithout being a pugilist. He broke up his duo at the peak of their success and then had to prove himself all over again, and did that, too.

In Hilburn’s book, Simon’s quotations never disappoint and often dazzle. But when we are in Hilburn’s prose, we are in a holding pattern: waiting for the next gem from Simon or Randy Newman or Carrie Fisher. The writing is always clean and clear. There is not a single bad sentence. But this is a prosaic account of success and failure and celebrity and money and accolades and breaking up with Art Garfunkel and having a midlife comeback while dodging charges of colonialism and, you know, being short and wishing he had more hair. (Picasso was short and bald and didn’t seem to care, but he didn’t have to compete with Jagger and Lennon.)

Biography is a presumptuous genre. I know what my subject is thinking, says the biographer—and if the biographer is persuasive, you keep reading. Paul Simon is exacting about every last syllable, every beat, every line, and even when something is a hit, he sometimes questions it (even the third verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”). Is this same Paul Simon going to let a writer into his head? Not one that makes him uncomfortable. So we never really feel that static because we never really feel our subject being challenged by his interlocutor. Hilburn’s interviewed pretty much every major figure in pop music for the past 40 years for the L.A. Times. What happened? Did the official-ness of it all—the book is “authorized” by Simon, though the advertising copy insists he exerted no editorial control—tilt the veteran rock critic toward hagiography? (Any book decorated with full reproductions of lyrics is not getting those goods for nothing. A biographer not working for the subject learns how to stretch fair use.)

We learn that he loved the Yankees. He cried when Nixon was elected. He was sad when an audience seemed to think that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was Art Garfunkel’s song. He had all the right positions on apartheid except for his loyalty to Sun City offender Linda Ronstadt—whose blurb decorates the book jacket. “You Can Call Me Al” is based on a joke he and his first wife had about the time when Pierre Boulez, leaving a party they were throwing, turned to Simon and said, “Thank you, Al, and please give my best to Betty.”

But all of this is exterior. “Man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” Simon told us way back in “The Boxer.” A good book about a great artist would also show us what the man doesn’t want to hear. Who does he disappoint? Who does he piss off? Does he have anything to regret? We learn very little about Peg, that first wife. She’s pretty, she’s a couple of years older, she gives him a modicum of security, she has his baby, and suddenly Simon is depressed in the shower coming up with “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Why? We don’t really know.

We learn more about the tsuris with Carrie Fisher, but we are not inside that marriage: We are on the outside, getting fragments of the anecdotes better delivered in Fisher’s monologue Wishful Drinking. There were some musicians who were not thrilled with Simon’s work practices, some girlfriends who did not walk away happy, but Hilburn mostly muffles the dissent unless it’s in the official narrative. The guy who wrote, “She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright” or “I met my old lover on the street last night” or “Love emerges and it disappears,” or, hell, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” left some unhappy customers.

Even the debate over Graceland—and Nelson Mandela and I are both on Simon’s side—is limited to canned quotations, and the reader never gets the feeling of what apartheid South Africa really felt like. We learn about a drug problem, but in Paul Simon fashion, it’s the obscure South American hallucinogenic ayahuasca—sort of the World Beat of drugs. He talks about how it was a crutch through the failure of his musical The Capeman, then an inspiration for some of the playful songs on You’re the One, but we never get inside his head to know how it feels other than what Simon describes. Paul Simon speaks for himself quite eloquently, of course, but who is guiding us?

I’m not suggesting that a biography of a major artist should be dominated by gossip, but I am insisting that it be filled with life: flawed, messy, and brilliant. Instead, Hilburn describes Simon’s sublime mixture of political strife and insomnia, “Peace Like a River,” as “exquisitely personal.” What Paul Simon song is not? Is this book exquisitely personal? Does the subject’s heart splash inside his chest?

Paul Simon’s best songs—and he has so many of them—are idiosyncratic, yet loved by millions. A Paul Simon song trots the globe, maps the brain, and opens the heart while making you feel for the brilliant jumble of neuroses who came up with them. He wrote not one but two songs with the chorus “Maybe I think too much.” He is soulful and self-conscious at the same time. This is a difficult guy, the one who keeps giving us so much pleasure. Hilburn’s book, with its unprecedented access, is still not nearly enough for Paul Simon. Listening to the stunning body of work reminds you why. Thank you, Al, and please give my best to Betty. Pass the ayahuasca.

Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn. Simon and Schuster.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.