Acclaimed music writer Robert Hilburn’s “epic” and “definitive” (Rolling Stone) biography of music icon Paul Simon, written with Simon’s full participation—but without his editorial control—that “reminds us how titanic this musician is” (The Washington Post).
For more than fifty years, Paul Simon has spoken to us in songs about alienation, doubt, resilience, and empathy in ways that have established him as one of the most beloved artists in American pop music history. Songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and “Graceland” have moved beyond the sales charts and into our cultural consciousness. But Simon is a deeply private person who has said he will not write an autobiography or talk to biographers. Finally, however, he has opened up for Robert Hilburn—for more than one hundred hours of interviews—in this “brilliant and entertaining portrait of Simon that will likely be the definitive biography” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
Over the course of three years, Hilburn conducted in-depth interviews with scores of Paul Simon’s friends, family, colleagues, and others—including ex-wives Carrie Fisher and Peggy Harper, who spoke for the first time—and even penetrated the inner circle of Simon’s long-reclusive muse, Kathy Chitty. The result is a deeply human account of the challenges and sacrifices of a life in music at the highest level. In the process, Hilburn documents Simon’s search for artistry and his constant struggle to protect that artistry against distractions—fame, marriage, divorce, drugs, record company interference, rejection, and insecurity—that have derailed so many great pop figures.
“As engaging as a lively American tune” (People), Paul Simon is a “straight-shooting tour de force…that does thorough justice to this American prophet and pop star” (USA TODAY, four out of four stars). “Read it if you like Simon; read it if you want to discover how talent unfolds itself” (Stephen King).
Paul Simon PROLOGUE Ever since his debut on Saturday Night Live in 1975, Paul Simon looked forward to walking the narrow hallway to the stage at NBC Studios in Midtown Manhattan. Whether alone, or with Art Garfunkel, or with the high-stepping, show-stopping South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he enjoyed the well-wishes of the cast and crew as he made the walk—their smiles, shouts of encouragement, and even pats on the back.
This time—the night of September 29, 2001—it was different.
As soon as Simon stepped into the hallway, he saw a row of New York City firefighters and police officers, their heads bowed, still mourning the deaths of more than four hundred of their comrades in the World Trade Center terrorist assault eighteen days before. It made Simon wonder whether this tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks—some nine thousand killed or wounded—wasn’t premature. Many in the SNL cast of comedians asked themselves the same question. Would people really be ready for jokes?
Simon had already joined nearly two dozen musicians—including Bruce Springsteen and U2—in performing on a September 21 telethon that was broadcast around the world and raised more than $200 million for families of the victims. In one of the show’s emotional highlights, he sang his most famous composition, the gospel-edged “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But that night wasn’t quite the same. The telethon was designed as a worldwide expression of solidarity and support. Artists performed on candlelit stages with no studio audiences, giving the event an intimacy that was somber and inspiring.
For SNL, Lorne Michaels, the creator of the culture-defining series, wanted to aim directly and unmistakably at the residents of New York City—opening with Mayor Rudy Giuliani standing with some thirty fire and police personnel who had just come off duty at ground zero, the dust of the site still visible on their uniforms. The plan was for the mayor to say a few words about the glory and resilience of New York and then have Simon sing a song, which would serve as a crucial step in Michaels’s goal of lifting the city’s spirits.
Michaels believed Simon was the perfect choice—the only choice. He was one of the all-time great American songwriters, inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (twice) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the only artist to receive Album of the Year Grammy Awards for records made in three separate decades. His tunes had been recorded by a treasure chest of vocalists, from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles.
Simon was also a New Yorker whose career reflected the triumphs and struggles of the city itself. He had come out of the borough of Queens with his schoolboy chum Art Garfunkel to enjoy superstar status around the world, and then exhibited the guts to walk away from the duo at the height of its popularity in 1970 to follow his own musical dreams. The first solo decade proved to be an even more creative period for him than the 1960s, thanks to his wider musical range, and the 1980s were equally commanding, including his masterpiece, Graceland. At the same time, Simon had felt the sting of defeat. He’d never been forgiven by a lot of Simon and Garfunkel fans for breaking up the partnership. He had also gone through two divorces and had failed in his ventures into movies (One-Trick Pony) and Broadway (The Capeman).
To Michaels, Simon had one other vital link to this special evening: he had been in the city on 9/11, and he knew the fear that gripped it. On that morning, he had walked two of his children—Adrian, eight, and Lulu, six—to school, about fifteen minutes along Central Park West. It was a lovely day with just a trace of prefall chill in the air. By the time he returned to his apartment just after nine o’clock, his wife, Edie Brickell, was at the door with the news that an American Airlines plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
As Simon stared at the television screen, his first thought was that it was a tragic accident—only to watch in horror as a second plane, this one from United Airlines, smashed into the South Tower. There was now no question that the city was under attack. In panic, he raced back to the school to bring home Adrian, Lulu, and the children of some of his friends. To keep the kids calm, Paul and Edie turned off the television so they could play without hearing the frightful details of what was happening downtown, just a few subway stops away.
President George W. Bush soon confirmed the attack, and city officials closed the bridges and tunnels leading into and out of the city. Within minutes, a plane attacked the western façade of the Pentagon, and yet another crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. By the end of the day, there was a strange smell in the air in New York—not a normal smoke smell but all the chemicals from the crashes. “It was like we were all trapped, all helpless,” Simon said. “You wanted to help, but what could you do?” Days later, he got his answer with requests to perform on the two broadcasts.
Even with his concern about the timing of Saturday Night Live, there was no way Simon would turn down Michaels, who was one of his closest friends and whose judgment he trusted implicitly. Plus, Simon had been around the SNL set so much that he was like an honorary member of the cast. Still, it was daunting. As soon as he stepped into the hallway, he began to worry about maintaining his composure. Simon had sung at funerals and memorial services for friends and musicians, and he knew how difficult it was to look at grieving faces.
Giuliani, as solemn as the fire department and law enforcement officers at his side, opened the show with a statement about the city’s resolve: “Our hearts are broken, but they are beating, and they are beating stronger than ever. New Yorkers are unified. We will not yield to terrorism. We will not let our decisions be made out of fear. We choose to live our lives in freedom.”
As he finished, the TV audience heard a few gentle guitar notes, and the camera slowly panned from the mayor to Simon. Dressed in black and wearing an FDNY cap, Simon stood in front of a huge American flag as he began singing the song Michaels had chosen for him: not “Bridge Over Troubled Water” but “The Boxer,” a story of Simon’s own struggle and resilience, complete with New York City references.
Though recorded more than thirty years earlier when Simon was just twenty-seven, “The Boxer” was a song of remarkable craft and depth, its early verses written in the first person, but its final verse shifting dramatically to the third person to add a compelling ring of universality. That final verse:
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
Lie-la-lie . . .
The audience remained silent during the first two choruses, giving the moment an added poignancy. As Simon ended that final verse, however, scattered members of the audience whispered the “Lie-la-lie” chorus with him, adding to the emotion in the studio. Fifteen years later, Lorne Michaels called Simon’s performance the most moving musical moment in the history of Saturday Night Live.
“I was so proud of Paul and the show and the city,” he said, acknowledging his own tears that night. “The strength he showed with that song—standing in front of those firefighters and law enforcement officers and knowing what they had gone through, what the city had gone through—was just incredible. Even after all this time, I think he’s the only one who could have done it. He is as much a symbol of the show and of New York as there is.”
It was a defining moment for Simon because it underscored what had long been one of his quintessential qualities as a songwriter. Like “The Boxer,” so many of his songs moved past any inherent darkness to express consolation, optimism, and even faith. In a rock ’n’ roll world forged by rebellion, his music—from “America” and “Mrs. Robinson” to “American Tune” and “The Boy in the Bubble”—was founded on empathy.
Despite melancholy and self-doubt at points in his personal life, he avoided despair or hostility in his songs. “If all I have to say is how disappointed I am about whatever there is in life, then I don’t see what the contribution is,” Simon said. “There’s already plenty of that out there. I really don’t believe philosophically that’s my job. But I’m not lying when I go the other way. Love is amazing, and like I say on the You’re the One album, it’s something you want so desperately that it can make you laugh out loud when you get it. It’s like medicine for us.”
Indeed, Simon’s first great song was born during a period of trauma when he was in need of comfort himself. After years of toiling at the lower levels of the music business trying to write teen pop hits largely by copying what was on the radio, he felt in the fall of 1963 that he was at a dead end. Inspired by the emergence of the folk movement in New York’s Greenwich Village, he vowed to reach inside to find out if he truly had anything of his own to say in a song. If he was going to be a failure as a songwriter, he told himself, he was going to be a proud failure.
As he often did, Simon took his acoustic guitar into the family bathroom, where the tile made the sound all the more alluring, and he turned off the lights so that he could relax and feel totally at one with the music. “Ever since I was thirteen or fourteen, songwriting has always been a great place of security and comfort,” he said. “Songwriting never turned around and stabbed me in the back. I remember times when I was really sad, and I’d sit and play an E chord for a half hour. I wasn’t writing a song. I was just comforting myself with this instrument I loved.”
Night after night in November, he sat in the bathroom with his guitar, alone with his music and his future. Then his world changed with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Simon, who’d just turned twenty-two, was on his lunch break from his job at a publishing company in Manhattan when he heard the news. His mother, Belle, remembered that he spent hours despondent in his bedroom.
Not long after the tragedy, Simon returned to the bathroom, switched off the lights per his custom, and started softly fingerpicking on the guitar. It was around then that he hit some warmly evocative notes that he played over and over again. Slowly, he began reflecting on thoughts that had been nagging at him for months: the way people ignored the words of those, from musicians to religious leaders, who preached against injustice and excess materialism.
As he sat alone, these words eventually burst forth: “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
For the next five-plus decades, Simon wrote with such ambition and craft that it looked easy from a distance. He’d deliver a prized album, tour, and then largely disappear for the three or four years it took to write and record another collection. Through it all, he rarely shared his personal story in interviews or engaged in the tabloid-ish episodes that contribute to many artists’ personas, which rival their music in the public eye. Yet Simon, too, had to deal with the struggles and challenges of a life in the pop world. He wasn’t a born songwriter. He spent six years writing one mediocre song after another until, through a series of pinpointable events, he finally became the artist who wrote “The Sound of Silence.” This evolution makes Simon an ideal case study of pop music excellence and longevity—how true artistry is achieved and how you then need to protect it against distractions such as fame, wealth, drugs, marriage, divorce, ego, rejection, changes in public taste, and fear of failure. Simon wasn’t immune to any of them.
Robert Hilburn was the chief pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for more than three decades. Author of the bestselling biography Johnny Cash: The Life, which Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times selected as one of her top ten books of 2013, Hilburn has reported extensively on most of pop music’s giants, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and U2. He lives in Los Angeles.
“Epic . . . Definitive . . . Paul Simon offers unprecedented access into the private life of the singer-songwriter.” —Rolling Stone
“Hilburn evokes the singer-songwriter here in all his melancholy and sweet-natured splendor. Stories of Simon’s hits and flops, insecurities, three marriages, perfectionist dad, and frenemy Art Garfunkel make the book as engaging as a lively American tune.” —People magazine
“A straight-shooting tour de force . . . Like Simon, Hilburn’s passion is music, and he makes clear that Simon’s is very much a life in and of music—a drive for aesthetic achievement, deeply serious in the studio and onstage. . . . Hilburn does thorough justice to this American prophet and pop star.” —USA Today (four stars out of four stars)
“Every now and then—rarely!—a book casts a little light on the creative development of a gifted artist. Paul Simon: The Life is one of those few. Read it if you like Simon; read it if you want to discover how talent unfolds itself.” —Stephen King
“Absorbing . . . . Hilburn’s biography flows smoothly along on the river of his liquid prose. He excels at telling stories because he pays attention to details and facts, never overwhelming readers with the mundane, but always making sure that the stories rest on a solid foundation. . . . A sprawling, sparkling narrative of a songwriter who has shaped the canon of popular music with his inventive, sometimes playful, and discerning poetry.” —No Depression
“Up-to-date and scrupulously researched . . . The timing is perfect . . . . I grew more sympathetic with Paul Simon the deeper I got into this book.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Eloquent and comprehensive . . . Not only examines the personal life and professional career of the great American singer-songwriter, but also the artistic process at work.” —The Globe and Mail
“Paul Simon is not an autobiography but it might as well be. . . . The result, happy to say, is the biography an artist like Paul Simon deserves; it takes its subject as seriously as Simon takes himself. . . . It is filled with more than enough anecdotes and factoids to please any fans.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Thorough, balanced . . . Paul Simon reminds us how titanic this musician is.” —The Washington Post
“Fans will relish reading the stories behind some of his most iconic tunes (he wrote "The Sound of Silence" with the lights out in his bathroom, mourning the assassination of JFK) and taking a deep dive into his remarkable career.” —AARP Magazine
“Energetic and elegant . . . Hilburn’s brilliant and entertaining portrait of Simon will likely be the definitive biography.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“With train-wreck moments and tender interludes alike, a book that delivers a sharply detailed Kodachrome of a brilliant musician.” —Kirkus Reviews
"Engrossing . . . Simon is revealed as sensitive yet tough, spontaneous yet controlled, as well as reflective, perceptive, and empathetic, but also judgmental, insecure, and extremely competitive. As a songwriter, he has earned a spot in the canon alongside Gershwin, Lennon-McCartney, and Dylan." —Booklist
“In this detailed recounting of the life of Paul Simon, veteran biographer Robert Hilburn delivers a lively, eye-opening tale of the evolution of a doo-wop kid from Queens into an international musical phenomenon. Best of all, Hilburn’s telling runs at just the right pace as it brings us inside Simon’s personal life, as well as inside his music—often song by song—while illuminating Simon’s ingenious adaptations of music from all over the world.” —Billy Collins
“Master storyteller and interviewer Robert Hilburn knows how to draw the best from an artist. The intimacy of these interviews gives Paul Simon: The Life the feel of Paul Simon’s best work, generous and witty and so rich in detail. It’ll send you back to the music with all these soul-stirring stories still in your heart.” —Cameron Crowe
“There are two great storytellers colliding here. There’s no tougher a mind, no more tender a voice than Paul Simon, and there’s no better man than Robert Hilburn to decipher the hardwiring of this hyperintellect. From the prologue I was sucked in, suckered into a sense that I too might discover the genetic code of some of the greatest songs of any century. By the epilogue, you realize the great songs can never be fully explained, but the great man on his way to find those songs surely can.” —Bono
“When it comes to writing songs, no one does it better than Paul Simon. Robert Hilburn’s is a wise and winning account of our most nimble, nuanced, and numinous poet-musician.” —Paul Muldoon
“A tantalizing look into the mind and writing process of the man who is arguably the finest craftsman of the American popular song since the Gershwin brothers, this book will delight any Paul Simon fan or student of popular culture.” —Linda Ronstadt