Somewhere in a burst of glory

Sound becomes a song

I’m bound to tell a story

That’s where I belong.

— Paul Simon, “That’s Where I Belong” (1999)

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris, Special Contributor

For baby boomers, singer-songwriter Paul Simon has always been a part of our world, his music inseparable from our memories. In Homeward Bound, biographer Peter Ames Carlin (who also published a best-selling 2012 bio of Bruce Springsteen) brings the shrewd eye of a reporter, as well as the enthusiasm of a lifelong fan, to his scrutiny of Simon.

This was not an easy task, and Homeward Bound gets off to a slow start. But the story gathers momentum as Carlin, working from the enforced distance of the unauthorized biographer, draws a meticulously reported, often startlingly perceptive portrait.

Here is Simon as an outer-borough striver who became a superstar by virtue of pure talent and unremitting hard work. Here is a man, first famous at age 24, who built and maintained a half-century career in the fickle field of pop by constantly reinventing himself and his music.

He seldom has seemed entirely content with the astonishing success and acclaim earned with his genius for songwriting. The unanswered question running throughout Carlin’s narrative is: Why? Where does Simon’s dissatisfaction come from, and are his dark edges inseparable from his creativity?

Part of the answer may lie in young Paul’s relationship with his father, Louis, a musician and teacher who never seemed to fully appreciate his son’s talent or his success. The younger Simon was academically gifted, a natural athlete and a leader in school, but his father considered his son’s musical achievements unimportant. Lou would have preferred Paul to be a teacher, or perhaps a lawyer; being a singer-songwriter wasn’t serious work, and according to Carlin, Paul carried his father’s judgment around all his life.

Simon’s other major source of dissatisfaction lay in his lifelong friendship with singing partner Art Garfunkel. Paul was the one with the stellar songwriting talent as well as the business smarts. But Carlin says Paul often felt overlooked because he was short, dark and average-looking where angel-voiced Art was tall, blond and more conventionally handsome. For years, the two of them spent more time together than they spent with their own brothers, but the relationship grew strained as their interests diverged.

Simon and Garfunkel split up in 1970 after five years and five albums, ending with the smash LP Bridge Over Troubled Water. While they periodically reconciled and even did a couple of reunion tours over the next 30 years, their friendship has been basically off-again for the past decade and a half. Carlin accurately describes Paul’s relationship with Art as being “by turns his oldest and best friend and a guy he can barely stand to be near.”

Paul’s solo career has lasted 45 years now, and despite its ups and downs, he has never failed to produce critically acclaimed music that has garnered three generations of fervid fans. His 1986 album Graceland, inspired by South African township music, was a landmark on the level of Bridge Over Troubled Water. His third marriage, to Dallas singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, has lasted almost 25 years and produced three now-grown children. He is a philanthropist whose co-founding of The Children’s Health Fund has helped children in Dallas and across the nation.

Paul Simon would seem to have everything a man could want, including a dozen Grammy Awards, the Library of Congress’ first Gershwin Prize for excellence in popular song, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

And yet… and yet. Is he content? Probably not. On Paul’s 75th birthday, his lifelong rival Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan doesn’t even seem to care about the Nobel, and it is clear from what Carlin writes that Paul would have cared enormously.

Six months ago, on his Stranger to Stranger tour, Paul appeared to have a great time with his adoring North Texas audiences, showing no sign of moodiness onstage. But, as Carlin says, “When he’s not making it look easy, he’s nearly buckling under the burden.” The songs come more slowly as time passes more quickly, and as the tour continued, he talked to interviewers about retiring.

In this tough but compassionate examination of his life, his fans will come to understand Paul Simon a little better. Here’s hoping he knows that by working through his darkest moments, something of lasting joy was created – and the roots of rhythm will remain.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who has been listening to Paul Simon’s music for 50 years.

Homeward Bound  
The Life of Paul Simon 
Peter Ames Carlin
(Henry Holt, $32)

 

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