Peter Ames Carlin has done it again. His Bruce bio shed more light on Springsteen than any previous book, was eminently readable and enjoyed the participation of its subject. Now here comes rhymin’ Simon, 75, in the pages of Homeward Bound (Henry Holt and Company; hardcover; $32.00), a book filled with over 100 interviews including ex-girlfriends, disgruntled musicians, managers, friends, acolytes but not Simon or Garfunkel.
It matters not. The man who emerges after 415 pages is complex, neurotic, self-serving and a total bona-fide genius (also a “total prick,” according to Steve Berlin of Los Lobos). Arguably, America’s greatest living songwriter (although cases could be made for Bob Dylan, John Prine or Willie Nelson) doesn’t listen to anyone…and doesn’t have to. He learned the hard way, having had a 1957 hit with Garfunkel when they were 15 as Tom & Jerry with a boppin’ little novelty called “Hey Schoolgirl.”
The Garfunkel and Simon families knew each other in Queens, NY since they both were in fourth grade together. When this one-hit wonder of a duo lip-synced their hit on ABC-TV’s American Bandstand, they didn’t know they’d have to turn their paychecks over to Dick Clark.
Simon played the guitar. Simon wrote the songs. Simon, behind Garfunkel’s back, signed a solo deal for himself. Garfunkel, practically to this day, never forgave him. They didn’t speak for five years. So much for Tom & Jerry (named after the cartoon).
Queens College was a seething beehive of political dissent when Simon went to school with civil rights activist Michael Schwerner. He had already written “He Was My Brother” about the death of a freedom fighter when Schwerner, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were murdered by the KKK for helping African-Americans register to vote in Mississippi, helping to kick-start the American struggle for civil rights. It was a case of life imitating art.
The stories fly by in a kaleidoscopic haze to the point where you almost have to stop reading and go “holy shit!” Al Kooper, Graham Nash, Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels, actress Carrie Fisher and Frank Zappa have bit parts but the relationship between S&G is always simmering between the lines. One comes away with the distinct impression that Simon is a bit of a jerk but that’s way less important than the fact that his artistry is unparalleled.
Carlin digs deep to fathom just how Simon constructs the songs that have sold over 100 million albums. Apparently, he writes in the almost hip-hop style of keying in on the music he loves and cutting and pasting it together, only adding the lyrics much later. Field trips to Kingston, Jamaica, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, South Africa, Brazil and New Orleans preceded each genre that he borrowed from. He could care less about politics so he didn’t seem to mind crossing South Africa’s apartheid lines which caused an international uproar. The controversy was so profound that it took Steven Van Zandt to stop Simon from being assassinated. Plus, he had nothing prepared when he invited Los Lobos to jam at Graceland sessions while he took notes in the control room. In retrospect, I bet he now wishes he would have at least given Los Lobos credit for the riff they invented that he took credit (and millions of dollars) for writing. He did the same with Good Rockin Dopsie but Dopsie was content with the exposure.
It’s all here. The nightmares; the constant bickering with Garfunkel; the commercial failures of One Trick Pony (which was supposed to be a Simon & Garfunkel album until Simon stripped all of Garfunkel’s vocals off the record) and The Capeman, his Broadway musical which critics savaged so badly it had to close after only 68 performances. (For the record, I thought it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on Broadway but, then again, I have loved everything this man has ever done.)
Through it all, there’s a dogged determinism at work in his art. He’s still vital (listen to “Wristband”), still has his voice and still can play the guitar extraordinarily (a talent overshadowed by his poetry). Yeah, Peter Ames Carlin has done it again and it only makes one anticipate his next project.