Paul Simon...is a top-flight artist but not a particularly sympathetic figure. Be that as it may, biographer Robert Hilburn...really makes you want to know what makes this coolly calculating, controlling and ambitious 76-year-old singer-songwriter tick. Hilburn accomplishes this in part by focusing on the work as well as the man — song lyrics are quoted in full, with helpful explications — building a strong case for the composer ... Not since Caetano Veloso’s and Dylan’s autobiographies has there been such a detailed discussion of the layered poetic process that lies behind a great song. Hilburn also offers plenty of juicy stories ... As for Simon’s also precipitous marriages...Simon is less forthcoming than he is about his music, but Hilburn’s keen portrayal of a man who has even described himself as often critical, selfish and career-obsessed makes it clear why it took him three tries to get it right.
Mr. Hilburn didn’t interview Mr. Garfunkel for this biography—one of the few unfortunate gaps in his otherwise thorough investigations. But he works hard to share both sides of the story in a contentious relationship with almost as many breakups as the '50 ways to leave your lover' enumerated in a famous Simon song. Mr. Hilburn wrestles with a lot of other breakups in these pages. Mr. Simon has a history of contentious dealings with others famous in their own right, from Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who worked with Mr. Simon on the ill-fated Broadway musical The Capeman, to actress and ex-wife Carrie Fisher. Both are dead now, but Mr. Hilburn secured interviews while they were still around. Even with all this help, he can only offer glimpses into a well-hidden private life. Some of the revelations here are small, but still shocking ... Most biographers would be tempted to use these incidents to psychoanalyze Paul Simon, probing for inner traumas and deep-seated neuroses. Mr. Hilburn avoids this to an almost extreme degree. Even Mr. Simon’s long history of nightmares is hardly mentioned in these pages. I am no fan of gossipy books about celebrities, but I wish our author had pushed harder to get behind the facade and tell us not just what Mr. Simon says, but what fuels his many fires. Mr. Hilburn makes up for this by offering insights into the artist’s creative process. Mr. Simon is often described as a great songwriter, but Mr. Hilburn grasps that his career longevity required a gradual shift from writing tunes to shaping elaborately constructed recordings ... I grew more sympathetic with Paul Simon the deeper I got into this book. I saw how his stubbornness and willingness to provoke conflict were the price he needed to pay to reach his own artistic potential.
...his thorough, balanced and insistently chronological biography, Paul Simon: The Life, reminds us how titanic this musician is ... The he said/he said history of Simon and Garfunkel’s half-century collaboration is well known, and Hilburn supplies enough examples of their kvetching to wear down any reader ... Hilburn is not an exciting writer, though Simon chose him as his biographer. Instead of feeling suspenseful, this version of Simon’s life story seems inevitable, and reading the long history of his career never quite zings as it should, despite his many accomplishments. Simon is widely quoted in the book. He hates being short, sometimes gets depressed and loves his family, but when he does take us into the shadows, he reveals nothing unexpected or particularly dark ... Simon’s comments about his own lyrics, many of which are printed in full throughout the book, are informative, but explaining the intricacies of poetic creation seems to elude him.