Book Review – Paul Simon – The Life by Robert Hilburn

Book Review – Paul Simon The Life by Robert Hilburn

Simon and Schuster – 4 Stars

When the subject of an auto-biography has had as much of an exciting life as Paul Simon has, the auto-biography tends to fall into one of two traps, either a hatchet job or a hagiography, thankfully Robert Hilburn has avoided both.

Paul Simon is rightly regarded as one of the finest and most influential songwriters of all time, seen in the same company as Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Leonard Cohen, and many others. His early folk work with Art Garfunkel is seen as a high-water mark for close male harmony singing and songcraft, whilst his controversial experiments with African music created one of the best selling albums of all time, in Graceland, and although he is now a music elder-statesman his many tours and concerts still attract sold-out audiences.

So we look at, in almost forensic detail the words and sounds found in Simon’s songs, such as Bridge over Troubled Waters, The Sound of Silence, Mrs Robinson, You Can Call Me Al, Diamonds on the Sole of Her Shoes, and so many others that have coloured the experiences of many generations around the world as they grew up. We examine his love of Baseball and Mickey Mantle, his close relationship to his family and his brother and manager, the fractured, but important relationship with Art Garfunkel, his marriages and relationships with his children.

As the story of Simon’s career unfolds, from the early stories of Tom and Jerry, and the success of Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the success of the soundtrack to The Graduate, we also see the disappointments, from the controversy that surrounded him working with African musicians on Graceland, the failure of his Capeman album and musical, and how he has managed both quality and diversity in his work, as he approaches his eighth decade, and slows down.

Simon didn’t start as a musical prodigy, his talent was delivered through hard work, determination, and an open-minded approach to his craft that saw him, magpie-like taking elements from many different genres. He was also a song-writer of his time, and yet many of his songs have become timeless, sung by choirs, bands, buskers and open mike players the world over.

The Paul Simon that emerges from this book is not a hero, but neither is he a villain. He is a man that is driven to write and produce songs and music of the highest quality, that by dint of their universal appeal have shaped the music of the world, bought new sounds and ideas to radios and listener ears. If you like the music of Paul Simon, or just have a general interest in pop music in its widest sense, then this book is a worthy read.

Ben Macnair

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