First Major Paul Simon Biography Is a Real Whopper
Photo by Myrna Suarez/Courtesy of Concord Records
Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon
By Peter Ames Carlin
Henry Holt & Co., 415 pp., $32
In 1984, Paul Simon’s career wasn’t going so well. His semi-autobiographical feature film debut as an actor, One Trick Pony, had tanked at the box office. He decided to turn a surefire-success Simon & Garfunkel reunion album into a solo effort – wiping all of Art’s vocals off after completion – and the resultant Hearts and Bones didn’t fare so well either. And his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher was in the throes of divorce.
Full of self-doubt, could this huge name of the ‘60s and ’70s compete with the likes of contemporary chartmakers like Bruce, Michael, Madonna and Prince?
The unlikely next chapter in Paul Simon’s ever-evolving career came when a musician acquaintance, Heidi Berg, handed him a homemade cassette tape hand-labeled Accordion Jive, Vol. II. It was a compilation of upbeat South African pop music, dance tunes in the mbaqanga style. Simon was entranced, then obsessed, about finding the source of the music and incorporating it into his own.
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The result, of course, was Graceland, one of the unlikeliest hit records of the 1980s and a career-saver for Simon, who watched somewhat bemusedly as it sold millions of copies, thousands of concert tickets, and made him an icon of the then-burgeoning “world music” category.
It also put him in the center of a political firestorm that involved the South African government, a United Nations cultural boycott, charges of musical “theft” and even worse. In one case, African protesters upset at Simon's very presence in their country lobbed some grenades into a hotel room very close to his own.
This compelling period in Simon’s career is expertly detailed – along with the rest of his life, musical and otherwise — in Peter Ames Carlin’s exceedingly well-written book. And while Paul Simon has been the subject of several, more slender bios, this is incredibly the first actual detailed tome, with the author conducting in-depth research and more than 100 original interviews (though its subject declined to participate).
Simon has been married three times, since 1992 to singer (and Texan) Edie Brickell. But as the book posits, his most important, close and tumultuous relationship has been the bromance with former (and future? Who knows…) singing partner Art Garfunkel. Carlin digs deep into the symbiotic relationship between the two men, whose incredible successes together during their fairly brief partnership would set the tone for and — in some ways — eclipse what they did apart.
The pair knew of each other since the fourth grade and became friends at the age of 12, when both were cast in a non-musical school play of Alice in Wonderland. Paul was the White Rabbit; Artie the Cheshire Cat. Over the decades they’ve loved and hated just as real brothers would throughout their many breakups, reunions and breakups that even then still sent mixed messages. When they were on good terms, they could still snipe; and when they weren’t, they could still wax fondly.
Ultimately, each wanted a bit of what the other had as they sort of filled each other out: Simon could write and play guitar, but Garfunkel had that angelic voice. Humorously, when some writers noted early in their career that the tall, slim, fluffy-haired Artie was the “sex symbol” of the duo, it drove the shorter, stockier, balding Simon bonkers.
Through it all, the pair’s affection and resentment run like parallel streams of a river, their boats each crossing the body of water constantly. Carlin also discusses Simon’s sometimes strained relationship with his hard-to-please father, rock-solid ambition and ongoing musical education efforts, sometimes cold, off-putting behavior, and his own mental anxieties.
When Simon completed “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he knew it would be his magnum opus, and even he realized it would take Garfunkel’s voice to make it great. But when Garfunkel told his partner that maybe he should sing what was clearly his best work ever, Simon could only see it as an insult – was his “best song” not good enough for Artie to sing?
Later concert appearances would find the pair trading verses, and in ensuing years Simon has done everything to try to claim the song as his own, even performing a somewhat warbly version at the recent Democratic National Convention.
Today, at 75, Paul Simon has a musical legacy that's rich, deep and secure. Yet he is still a seeker, creating albums like 2011’s So Beautiful…or So What and 2016’s Stranger to Stranger, not so much for fans of “Mrs. Robinson,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” or even “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes,” but for himself and those who want to take the journey with him. Both of those efforts contain plenty of gems.
Toward the book’s end, Carlin recounts his one and only (sort of) encounter with Paul Simon, which occurred when the singer was onstage preparing to give a lecture and the author found himself in the mostly empty seats before the doors opened.
Carlin says that Simon — who had already been told that the writer might be in attendance — saw him, locked eyes and gave an uncomfortably long, cold stare. Not saying anything, and not acknowledging anything either, Simon made a hand gesture that seemed (to Carlin) to say the word “don’t.”
The moment between subject and biographer passed, which Carlin says left him a bit unsettled. Though he doesn’t say if he took Simon’s own well-worn advice to just slip out the back, jack…
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