I apply a key test to biographies of public figures. Does the book help the reader to understand who the subject is… What he thinks, what he values, and what he seeks to accomplish through his work or art? Does the bio make you feel as if you’ve spent time with the subject? In this sense, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon fails. Writer Peter Ames Carlin presents two quite different – often contradictory, portraits of Simon.
One Paul Simon is brilliantly creative, generous (he pays studio musicians two or three times their usual fees), open to helping others, and quite proud of his craft. The other Paul Simon must borrow from the music of others – what some might term stealing, is spiteful and/or vindictive, is a loner know-it-all, and is the son who failed to meet the role assigned to him by his father. (Louis Simon wanted his son to be a teacher rather than a musician.)
Unfortunately, Carlin does not take the initiative to tell us which Simon is the most real to him. Instead, he relies on a “fair and balanced” approach that tells us almost everything about the musician in 415 pages while revealing virtually nothing. It’s akin to reading a murder-mystery in which the author concludes the work without solving the crime. Thus, this is a frustrating work.
Carlin was hampered by the fact that Simon would not cooperate with this book, which is an unauthorized biography. Near its conclusion, Carlin presents a scene in which Simon – on stage to give a lecture, glares at him. Yes, Simon knows who Carlin is and clearly dislikes what he’s attempting to do.
This being said, the biographer of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson offers some fine insights. We learn about the influence that Simon’s working musician father had on him, and there are parallels with the relationship between Paul McCartney and his father. It’s through Louis Simon that Paul was exposed to the Latin rhythms that he has often used in his music: “Paul could hear the echoes of the Latin dance bands he’d seen sharing the stage with (his father’s orchestra) at the Roseland Ballroom and the Latin rhythms and voices coming from the fringes of his radio dial, the sound of his youth, the essence of the New York that had created him and then, like his youth, slipped away.”
As with his prior bios, Carlin examines in detail various recording sessions, songs, and the inspiration for particular albums. But there are flaws. Carlin refers to Simon and Garfunkel’s performance in New York City’s Central Park as “a long day of rock ‘n roll communion.” Rock and roll? Paul Simon has produced a great amount of memorable music, but it’s a stretch to call it rock.
There’s far too much included about the decades-long feuds between Art Garfunkel and Simon; so much so that it’s overblown and intensely boring. (Simon himself seems to wonder why on earth people care at this point.) And the case for Simon’s theft of music is pretty much non-existent. Let’s see, he borrowed a cassette tape with African music on it from a young woman who wanted Simon to assist her in recording similar music. She sought to borrow from – or embellish – the sounds of African musicians, and was incensed when Simon did so himself. That’s not much of a scandal.
A number of readers will undoubtedly find interesting the details that Carlin provides on Simon’s relationship with the late Carrie Fisher:
The divorce from Carrie hadn’t taken. They spent a few months apart, then started talking again, then seeing each other. Then they were back to living together… There had always been something perfect about them when they were getting along: the way they huddled together, the way he grounded her, the way she could make him laugh so easily. And he loved her, with a desperation that sometimes frightened him… Carrie had taken herself to rehab to shed her drug habits, but drugs were only symptomatic of the manic-depression she’d suffered from her entire adult life… Her depths were unimaginably deep, and Paul’s were nothing to sneeze at, either, so they clung to each other with a passion that could both soothe and abrade.
Beautiful words, but without Simon’s cooperation in telling his story, we have no way to judge their accuracy. One certainly has to wonder how this biography would have turned out if it had been authorized, and written with Simon’s assistance. Sadly, we will never know. This is an ambitious attempt that fails because in the end we don’t know who Paul Simon is.