The most striking aspect of the new biography, “Paul Simon: The Life,” is the extent to which self-doubt has both plagued and propelled its subject. As veteran Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn documents, Simon became one of America’s foremost songwriters largely because the world so dependably inflamed his inferiority complex.
This process began with his father, a professional musician who encouraged his son but was brutally honest about his deficits as a songwriter. The younger Simon was kicked out of a rock band because of his height — he barely tops five feet — and later dismissed by denizens of the Greenwich Village folk scene because he hailed from suburban Queens.
Even after having penned some of the most iconic tunes in the American songbook, Simon remained convinced that executives at his record label believed his erstwhile partner, Art Garfunkel, would emerge as the bigger star after their split.
These persistent insecurities are what set the new book apart from the standard rock and roll biography. Rather than a raunchy account of hedonic excess, the real drama resides in Simon’s struggle to maintain his creative mojo.
The work gets a major lift from the fact that Simon, who had previously refused to cooperate with biographers, granted Hilburn about 100 hours of interviews.
Simon’s struggle begins, remarkably, just three days after his 16th birthday, when he and Garfunkel head into a Manhattan recording studio to record a Simon original. “Hey, Schoolgirl.” The track becomes a minor hit, and the pair soon find themselves on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” under the moniker Tom & Jerry. When asked where he’s from, Simon (a.k.a. Jerry) replies Macon, Ga. Why Macon? He figures rock and rollers should be from the South, like his hero, Elvis Presley.
But Simon, a diminutive and cerebral Jew, soon recognizes that he’ll have to find his own path: “I realized I had to get as far from what Elvis was doing as I could with my music,’’ he tells Hillburn. “I wasn’t going to compete with him because I knew I couldn’t beat him. But I still felt I could make it. I just had to go softer.” The quote captures Simon’s defining characteristics, his outsized ambition and his practicality.
What keeps Simon afloat in periods of doubt is the natural high of an instinctual composer. “It’s as if there’s this chemical feeling, the creating of something that is so exceptional it’s addictive,” he explains. “It’s one of the things that keeps you writing your whole life — you’re trying to get to that place again.”
Accordingly, Hilburn goes to great lengths to document how Simon composed particular tunes, noting, for instance, how a late-night jam session that featured friends dropping drumsticks onto a parquet floor led directly to the snappy syncopation of “Cecilia.” Hilburn not only quotes Simon’s lyrics at length, but parses them.
This kind of exegetical detail will likely wear down those who aren’t familiar with the Simon oeuvre, in particular because his career has taken so many turns — from his early years as a folkie through his soft-rock seventies heyday to the critically acclaimed world-music excursions of “Graceland’’ and “Rhythm of the Saints.’’
Unlike rock gods such as David Bowie, who consciously crafted new personas, “Simon’s changes were organic, dictated largely by his constant pursuit of new musical expression.”
Hilburn does best when he moves beyond the role of chronicler and helps readers plumb the depths of Simon’s creative process, in particular how he synthesizes his multifarious influences.
“Think of all the hours Simon spent working on songs, especially with ‘Graceland’ and subsequent albums, as a kid with dozens of building blocks — some of which consist of the instrumental tracks that served increasingly as the foundation of the music; others representing the musical refrains that have stayed with him since his teens; and the remaining blocks representing the new ideas inspired by all of the above,” Hilburn writes. “By the late 1980s, he had hundreds of such blocks. Simon may only use one or two of the old blocks, but they would provide a crucial shading. No one is likely to think of Elvis Presley’s recording of ‘Mystery Train’ when listening to ‘Late in the Evening’ or ‘Graceland,’ but it’s there. For Simon, the link with some of those early, accessible musical passages helped keep his music connected to the sounds he loved as a boy.”
It comes as something of a shock when we learn that Simon, for a time, used the South American hallucinogen ayahuasca to help cope with professional disappointments, such as his Broadway flop “The Capeman.”
But it’s equally clear by the end of Hilburn’s book why Simon has persevered as an artist into his seventies, where so many other rockers of his vintage burned out, or faded away. It’s not because he found the right drugs, or the right therapist, or even God, but because he divined early on that the only way to cope with his towering self-doubt was to keep writing new songs.
By Robert Hilburn
Simon and Schuster, 439 pp., illustrated, $30
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