Paul Simon: sublime songs, flawed character

Homeward Bound, the Life of Paul Simon, by Peter Ames Carlin, Little Brown, £20 pp415


As it happens, they played a Simon and Garfunkel track — written, of course, by Paul Simon — on this morning’s Desert Island Discs, and it was another opportunity to marvel at how well Simon’s ageless rhymes and music have stood the test of time — and fit almost any situation.

Reading Peter Ames Carlin’s Homeward Bound, the Life of Paul Simon, was also, however, an opportunity to underline how one should almost never learn too much about one’s heroes, lest they turn out to have feet of clay.

And boy, does Paul Simon — according to Carlin — have feet of clay. Hang-ups galore abound in this meticulously researched, but unauthorised, biography, from Simon’s anxieties about his height, his hair, and, most of all, his on-off ,more than half a century long, running feud with his schooldays friend and collaborator, Art Garfunkel.

Carlin has a reputable (sound)track record in writing about musicians: previous people to get the Carlin treatment were Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and the Beach Boys’ troubled genius, Brian Wilson. I haven’t read those books, though they have been critically acclaimed; as far as Paul Simon is concerned, however, one comes away with the distinct impression that Carlin doesn't like his chosen subject very much.

There are too many anecdotes about Simon’s alleged sharp practices, from not giving musicians credits on records to not paying royalties. A forensic reading of the material does yield lines where Carlin exonerates Simon and reveals him to have been the good guy all along, but you do have to search for it.

Paul’s personal life is skated over in a somewhat perfunctory way: we learn about Peggy, his first wife, with whom he had his first son, Harper, then his tumultuous relationship with actress Carrie Fisher, and only in passing about his life with his third wife, Edie Brickell, and their three children.

But — probably correctly — Carlin devotes much more space to analysing the music, from its simple folk-rock roots to its complicated melodies and borrowings from global trends, from South Africa, for his groundbreaking Graceland album, to south America for the Rhythm of the Saints.

Occasionally Carlin takes a mini-swipe at Simon for his lack of interest in his own Jewish background, frequently introducing new characters by referring to their similar Jewish New York roots. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I came away feeling that Carlin somewhat disapproves of Simon.

He reserves the greater part of the book for the at times ludicrous feud between Simon and Garfunkel, with their reunions and endlessly childish break-ups. One indelible image presented by Carlin will, sadly, stay with me forever: that of Paul Simon’s insistence, during one of the reunions, that they both wore hairpieces. And the sight of both such hirsute add-ons, side-by-side wigstands, in the off-stage trailer. Hello, darkness, my old friend…

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