Peter Ames Carlin is a terrific music journalist, his Springsteen book “Bruce,” while a little heavy at the beginning and light towards the end, is quite as good as the actual autobiography. Peter’s Paul Simon biography “Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon” suffers a little from the same problem and its ending is a nonevent he should have edited out, and he overestimates Simon, and it is still the gold standard for Simon biographies.
Ames follows the Jewish Yankee fan from Forest Hills to Africa and beyond, with a sympathetic yet steady hand, willing to fault Paul where fault there is, but never letting it overwhelm him or the story. For instance, Peter explains once and for sll that Simon paid royalties to British folk singer Martin Carthy for the arrangement of “Scarborough Fair,” it was Carthy’s agent who pocketed the money. And that while the sense is that Art Garfunkel is Andrew Ridgeley, the truth is knottier with Art adding to the arrangements throughout their career together.
In 2017, the elder statesman of pop Paul is seen as a hardnosed guy, who sneered at Los Lobos “yeah I stole your song, so sue me” and Peter doesn’t hide from it for a second, but, equally, he details just how fair and kind Paul was to the musicians he used, how well he paid them, and that it is the person who wrote the song who owns the song and that person was Paul.
Simon began his career very early, listening to Top 40 on the radio as a boy before learning guitar and writing songs with his High school buddy Art Garfunkel. A local hit gave them a career as teens, which Paul betrayed by trying to get a solo contract and thereby set up the following fifty years of fighting. During his college years, Simon went to London to try his hand as a folk singer with some success and eventually met up with Art back in New York, where they recorded an album for Columbia records. The album stiffed but legendary producer Tom Wilson added electric instruments to “The Sound Of Silence,” the song exploded and Paul never looked back.
Carlin is a fine guide through these years , the rush of success, Paul and Art on top of the world, the Clive Davis tenure, “The Graduate,” Art as film star, Paul alone writing Bridge Over Troubled Water, and finally the falling out. Equally capable through the 70s as Paul, in the center of the new York hip social world, wrote the first two giant solo albums, the steady decline (though Carlin likes that mid-career lull more than I do), and the dreaded “One Trick Pony” –a dreadful vanity project which he much prefers than I. Then Paul’s marriages are studied, especially the tremulous Carrie Fisher one.
The highlight of the book, not unlike the highlight of Simons’ career, is the Graceland years and Carlin tackles the complex mesh of politics and music in apartheid South Africa with absolute integrity. The writing about the music is impeccable, the writing about the politics of working with South African musicians deft and intelligent and career.
Equally successful is Carlin on the Broadway musical “The Capeman,” though I disagree with his take. I saw it in previews and after it opened and a musical isn’t just music, it is also a book and the book, let’s say the entire production, was a disaster; performing it “in concert” years later, doesn’t save it. Still, there is no opinion Carlin holds to that he doesn’t back up.
Latter years Paul Simon seemed good for a couple of songs an album and not much more, Carlin thinks his late albums have been triumphs, I don’t think busy and intelligent arrangements excuses bad songs. But even so, again, and again, Carlin makes his case well.
What Carlin does here is win our trust that he is telling Paul’s story accurately, it is well written, well-modulated, the music criticism is first rate and the story enfolds extremely well. The last twenty years are given somewhat short shrift but otherwise all disagreements boil down to taste. Robert Hilburn is writing a biography, and I am guessing he will have access to SImon, Ames didn’t, but it isn’t really necessary: this is the Simon story to read.
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