Esteemed music writer/New York Times Best-Selling author Robert Hilburn turns his critical eye to chronicling the life and legacy of Paul Simon, one of music’s most accomplished and artistically vibrant artists in his new book, Paul Simon: The Life. Enjoy a conversation with Hilburn about the book below.
Rock Cellar: What made Paul Simon an attractive subject for you to write a book about his career?
Robert Hilburn: I was drawn to Paul Simon by his seriousness as an artist and his spectacular body of work. Besides telling his life story, I wanted the book to be a case study of artistry: How artistry comes about at the highest level and how you protect it against the distractions that have caused so many artists, including songwriters, to lose their direction. I’m talking here about such distractions as fame, wealth, drugs, marriage, divorce, laziness, changes in public taste and fear of failure.
Rock Cellar: What were the greatest challenges you faced working on the book?
Robert Hilburn: The biggest challenge in doing the book was getting Paul’s cooperation. For what I wanted to do, I had to speak to him at length, which is something he had never done for a biography. All the previous biographies were done from a distance. Speaking with him, I got the sense that Paul saw a biography as another one of the distractions to avoid. Plus, he is, by nature, very private.
Rock Cellar: You’ve you spoken about how Paul was not as initially forthcoming as you desired with his participation in the book. How did you win him over?
Robert Hilburn: Even though I had done several interviews with Paul during my years at the Los Angeles Times, he was still wary of a biography. I stressed that the book would be a serious look at artistry, not a typical “celebrity” biography. I think that appealed to him and, finally, he read my Johnny Cash biography and, I think, saw that it was indeed a “serious” book.
Rock Cellar: For you, when did you first recognize Paul Simon as a special talent?
Robert Hilburn: I’m drawn to songwriting and I loved some of the Simon & Garfunkel songs (including “The Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer”), but not all. It really wasn’t until the release of Paul’s second solo album that I realized he was indeed a songwriter for the ages, and that he was going to have a long, productive career. “American Tune” and “Something So Right,” in particular, were the songs that thrilled me in that album.
Rock Cellar: In an interview I did with Paul, he cited “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley as being the high water mark moment for him. Did you have any discussions about this song with Paul and how Elvis’ deep influence informed his music?
Robert Hilburn: Without question, Elvis was Paul’s first rock ‘n’ roll hero, but I’m not sure Elvis’ style was that major an influence. He knew right away he couldn’t compete with someone that charismatic and larger-than-life, so he decided he had to do something different, something softer if he was going to have a successful career. Regarding “Mystery Train,” it was the song and the seductive arrangement that hit him so hard.
From our conversations, I got the impression he loves the Junior Parker version on Sun Records as much as Elvis’s version — the rhythm of the tracks and the mystery of the song itself. Why is it a “mystery” train? If you listen closely, you can hear the spirit of that song running through some of Paul’s most memorable numbers, including the song “Graceland.”
Rock Cellar: As a songwriter, when did Paul first find his own singularly unique voice as a tunesmith?
Robert Hilburn: One of the most surprising things about Paul, I found, is that he wasn’t a “born” songwriter. He has written so many great songs that it’s easy to believe songwriting came naturally, but he spent the first five or six years of his career writing songs that didn’t have even a slight glimmer of excellence or promise. Like so many young writers, he was just copying what he heard on the radio. Finally, desperately, he realized he needed to do better, to reach deep inside for something of his own to say, and that’s when he came up with his first great song, “The Sound of Silence.” After that, he never looked back.
Rock Cellar: And while Paul is rightfully considered one of our most brilliant songwriters, for me his equally brilliant work as a guitar player is often overlooked. Can you offer perspective on his talents as a guitar player?
Robert Hilburn: The important thing about Paul is he works unbelievably hard at writing songs, going over them, sometimes for weeks, from every standpoint to make sure each one is saying something fresh and, hopefully, noteworthy. In the process, he is always questioning himself. But he works equally hard at every aspect of his music — from the guitar playing to the recording to the live show. These are things a lot of songwriters take for granted. As long as they’ve got a good song, they tend to think everything else will take care of itself.
That’s not Paul. While he has worked hard at improving his guitar playing, even more impressive to me is the advances he has made as a singer. If you listen to his last few albums, he has a remarkable ability to express tenderness and vigor and humor and empathy. And, his style is his own. I’d love for him to record an album of covers someday so we can hear more clearly the excellence of his vocal accomplishments.
Rock Cellar: Artistically, speak about the arc of Paul’s career and how he has been able to consistently create at a peak level?
Robert Hilburn: That really is the amazing thing about him — how he has been able to make great music from “The Sound of Silence” through “Stranger to Stranger.” Most of the great writers from the 1960s and early 1970s have long ago lost their creative touch, and I’m taking here of about 95 percent of them.
Rock Cellar: From your perspective, is there an album or period of Paul’s career that deserves a deeper investigation from music fans?
I’d suggest anyone who wants to explore Paul’s body of worth in depth should most definitely spend time with “Hearts and Bones,” the Capeman album (the play had lots of problems but the music itself was exquisite) and his last two albums, especially So Beautiful or So What.
Rock Cellar: How did the dissolution of Simon and Garfunkel open up new vistas for him as an artist/songwriter?
Robert Hilburn: The primary reason Paul left Garfunkel was that he needed to explore new musical terrain. The first step in his songwriting process is writing the music. Once he comes up with some passages that feel evocative to him, he starts focusing on the words. In most cases, he is trying to explain in words what feelings he gets from the music. He (almost) never begins with a theme. That emphasis on the music is why he needs to keep finding new musical strains (from gospel to reggae to Latin to South African and beyond). He needs new inspiration. If he had never left Garfunkel, I can’t imagine him being able to explore that music as freely.
His audience would want him to keep writing in the Simon & Garfunkel style and Paul was simply tired of it.
Rock Cellar: The Graceland album proved to be a watershed moment for Paul. Discuss its importance both as a musical and cultural touchstone.
Robert Hilburn: Graceland is clearly Paul’s masterpiece, a work that will become more important as time goes on. As the world shrinks more and more, songwriters from around the world start looking for common threads. The more you think about the album, the more impressive the achievement — blending the American pop tradition with the spirit of South African music. It was purely an artistic move, something Paul believed in.
Though the album has become such a success, it was not considered a good commercial move by any stretch of the imagination at the time because American pop fans generally aren’t open to “foreign” sounds. Secondly, the blending of the two cultures is remarkably difficult. And the images in songs like “Graceland” and “The Boy in the Bubble” sound as true and provocative today as when the album was released. It’s just a landmark work, and “The Rhythm of the Saints” is a worthy companion piece, though it was overshadowed at the time because it wasn’t as immediately warm and inviting as “Graceland.” But “Rhythm” continued the cultural empathy and grace, if you will, of “Graceland.”
Rock Cellar: Over the years, there has been controversy about Paul’s involvement with Los Lobos and their assertions that Paul did not credit them for their songwriting contributions. How do you assess the situation?
Robert Hilburn: I spent a lot of time looking into this matter, including talking to people involved in the recording and I ended up devoting less than three of the book’s 400-plus pages to it because I feel it is such a minor piece of Paul’s career. Los Lobos, who worked with Simon on a track that eventually became one of the songs on Graceland, believe they deserved songwriting co-credit on the number (“Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints”).
Paul has shared songwriting credit on a few songs (including some on Graceland), but he didn’t feel Los Lobos’s contributions during the session warranted it.
Rock Cellar: Art Garfunkel ultimately chose not to be involved with the book. What was his reasoning? Had you elicited his involvement, how would that have affected the narrative?
Robert Hilburn: I spoke with Art soon after I started the book and he made it clear that he would do an interview if it was a book about Simon and Garfunkel, but not, for whatever reasons, a book about Paul Simon. I told him it was my book, not Paul’s, and that I would treat his words with equal respect, but he still declined to do an interview. I did, however, speak to numerous people who knew and worked with Art, during the Simon and Garfunkel years and afterward.
Rock Cellar: Paul and Art’s relationship is complex. From a distance and with a critical eye, what’s your assessment of that often-volatile relationship?
Robert Hilburn: There is a long history of brother “feuds” in pop music, going back to the Everly Brothers (who were such a huge vocal influence on Paul and Art’s harmony) up through Noel and Liam Gallagher, so it’s probably easiest to simply think of them in that tradition. They knew each other from the sixth grade, so there was a history that started early and they disappointed each other over the years. But, again, the main reason Paul left Simon and Garfunkel was to pursue his artistry. He was too talented and ambitious to keep writing those folk-styled songs for Simon and Garfunkel records.
Rock Cellar: Eschewing all his best-known material, pick three Paul Simon songs that stand among his most accomplished work as a songwriter and explain why you chose them.
Robert Hilburn: Sidestepping the hits, three of my favorite Paul Simon songs are “Kathy’s Song,” an early Simon and Garfunkel-era tune about the first girl Paul fell in love with, a song with such heartwarming innocence and vulnerability:
Also “Darling Lorraine,” whose lyrics about a relationship employ wonderful and constantly surprising emotional shading over a wide canvas:
And “Questions for the Angels:”
That one expresses Simon’s feelings about the urgency of saving the planet from human indifference and greed that it has the ring of a protest song, but without an ounce of strident commentary.