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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Even for fans who are well-acquainted with the work of Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, his new book, My Adventures with God, is a bit of a surprise: an exploration of his midlife return to the Jewish faith.

Tobolowsky 2017My Adventures with God







PHOTO: Jim Britt

Tobolowsky is a graduate of Justin F. Kimball High School and Southern Methodist University. In the past three decades, he has become a beloved character actor who displays both comedy and drama chops in more than 100 films as diverse as Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning. He’s been on more than 200 TV shows ranging from Deadwood to Glee, most recently Silicon Valley and The Goldbergs. He also tells stories on the popular podcast The Tobolowsky Files.

Tobolowsky, who lives in Los Angeles, will return to his hometown to celebrate the publication of My Adventures With God (Simon & Schuster, $25) on Tuesday, April 18, with an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. He answered questions by email; here are highlights.

Like your 2012 book The Dangerous Animals Club, My Adventures with God is a memoir with a lot of Dallas and many laugh-out-loud moments. But the spiritual aspect often takes it into a more serious realm. 

Simon and Schuster asked me if I could write a book on faith. When I was grasping for a premise for My Adventures with God, I came up with something that turned out to be truer than I first imagined: Our lives often fit the template of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

We all have a Genesis. This is usually what we talk about on a first date: who we are, where we came from, our aspirations. Then, like in Exodus, we go into slavery. Instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in the desperation of first loves, first jobs. Some are trapped by drugs and alcohol, others by graduate school.

Then we escape and have our Leviticus moment. We stop and say, “This is what I am.” This is when I married Ann. When I became a father. When I returned to Judaism. Then we are shaped by mortality, as in the Book of Numbers, as we lose family and friends. And finally, we get to a place of perspective: Deuteronomy. It is here when we tell our stories to our children and try to make sense of the journey.

You were in seventh grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and you write that “for those few days, history pulled back the curtain and showed us all how close we are to the edge of nothing.” Have you had any other occasions like that, such as 9/11?

Once you are aware of how delicate civilization is, you see its potential downfall everywhere. Usually in lies. They can be big lies from people in power — or the lies we tell ourselves. It doesn’t take anything as cataclysmic as 9/11. As my mother said, “Don’t break your word. You only get one. When you break it, it’s hard to get it back again.”

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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)


Dallas at night, if not from a DC-9.

Dallas at night, if not from a DC-9.

A conversation today on Facebook reminded of a column I wrote back in 2002, about the classic Jimmie Dale Gilmore tune “Dallas.” It’s probably the most famous song ever recorded by The Flatlanders, a Texas trio of lifelong friends from Lubbock: Jimmie Dale, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock.

I’ve always thought the song nailed the character of Dallas in a number of telling ways. So here’s the column again… and if you want to hear the song sung by Jimmie Dale himself, here’s a YouTube link.

Published: May 19, 2002
(c) The Dallas Morning News

The topic at lunch (and don’t ask me why) was: What kind of a beautiful woman would Dallas be?

Dallas is like a beautiful woman … with a hangover?

With a Bible?

With Manolo Blahniks in a Neiman Marcus bag?

We never quite decided. The conversation moved on to what the members of the Algonquin Round Table would talk about if they were around today.

After lunch, however, I realized that one Texan has already described the kind of beautiful woman Dallas would be. He did it 30 years ago, in fact. I heard him sing about it just last autumn.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s song “Dallas” never made it to the top of any charts in 1972. It was the lead-off tune and lone single from an album by a Lubbock trio called Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders. The project got a dismal, half-hearted release in eight-track format and promptly vanished from all commercial view.

But Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his fellow Flatlanders, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, did not vanish. They went on to become three of Texas’ favorite singer-songwriters, each with his own cultlike following.

Meanwhile, fans in England rediscovered the trio, and the word spread back home. Eventually the Flatlanders album, a neglected stepchild of corporate Nashville, became the darling of music collectors.

Years later, the album – aptly retitled More a Legend Than a Band — was re-released on CD, in slightly reconfigured form, by Rounder Records. (Sun Records, which had produced the original release, also released the album on CD but called it Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Flatlanders “Unplugged.”) Jimmie’s song “Dallas” probably got its widest exposure when he sang it as a duet with Natalie Merchant on Jay Leno’s Tonight show.

Today, the Flatlanders’ music is widely recognized for the traditional jewel it always was.

The band began performing together again in 2000 and at last has another CD, Now Again, being released Tuesday.

The trio is scheduled to play the Granada Theater on June 26 and will also be part of the “Down From the Mountain” tour at Smirnoff Music Center on July 20.

I saw the Flatlanders play at the Texas Book Festival last year in Austin. The literary crowd loved them; historian David McCullough, among dozens of others, two-stepped up a storm.

But a clear favorite among the Flatlanders’ tunes was “Dallas,” for the fans hummed and sang along with that one. This is how the opening chorus goes:

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
Dallas is a jewel,
Yeah, Dallas is a beautiful sight;
Dallas is a jungle,
But Dallas gives a beautiful light.
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?

A careless listener might mistake this song as a hymn to our fair city. In a way it is, for if anything, Dallas is even more spectacular by night now than it was 30 years ago.

But the reference to “a jungle” should tip you off that something darker is coming. And sure enough, it does.

Now Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down,
 But when you are up, she’s the kind you want to take around.

Now Dallas ain’t a woman to help you get your feet on the ground,

And Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down.

That’s the kind of a beautiful woman Dallas is, according to Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Any number of local heroes and has-beens would likely agree with him that Dallas dearly loves winners and is mighty tough on losers.

The “middle eight” verse of the song could be sung by many Dallas newcomers, legal or otherwise:

Oh, I came into Dallas with the bright lights on my mind;
I came into Dallas with a dollar and a dime.
Then the song gets really dark:
Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes,
A steel concrete soul with a warm-hearted love in disguise;
A rich man who tends to believe his own lies.
I say, Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes.
And all this, mind you, was written years before anybody invented J.R. Ewing or the savings-and-loan scandal.
Ever since I first heard “Dallas,” I’ve thought it really should be our unofficial city anthem.
Of course, it never will be. It is much too dark, too subversive, for a city that habitually directs its feet to the sunny side of the street.



If we do have an unofficial anthem, it’s probably Frank Loesser’s 1956 Broadway hit, “Big D,” from The Most Happy Fella.

You’re from Big D,
My, oh yes,
I mean Big D, little a, double L, A-S.
And that spells Dallas,
my darlin’, darlin’ Dallas;
Don’t it give you pleasure to confess
That you’re from Big D,
My, oh yes!
 Of course, the talented Mr. Loesser caught the way we Dallasites like to think of ourselves — my, oh yes.


But I suspect our fellow Texan, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, may have caught more of the way we really are.