Over 50 years ago, Simon and Garfunkel hit the airwaves and Billboard’s Top 100 with “The Sound of Silence,” filled with lyrics that soon echoed down subway platforms and across city parks, naming the restlessness, despair, hopelessness, solitariness of a generation searching to find a new identity in world gone awry. In his new biography of Paul Simon, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon (Henry Holt), Peter Ames Carlin depicts the state of mind Simon was in when he wrote the song: “One evening that fall, Paul took his guitar into the bathroom, locked the door and turned on the sink’s spigot… maybe on this gloomy night in late 1963, he was more interested in getting things out of his head… and then there was everything else in the world. The murder of President Kennedy; fires, bombs, and bullets raining down on civil rights activists in the South… He struck a minor chord and followed it down: Hello darkness my old friend/I’ve come to talk to you again. Then it all started to come, a nightmare tumble of dreary weather, chemical streetlights, throngs of human automatons, ignored wisdom, and soul-sucking isolation -- all of it cloaked in silence, a suffocating hush deep enough to still tongues and deafen ears.”
More an interpretive biography than a definitive chronological one, Carlin draws on interviews with Simon’s friends and fellow artists, as well as on a quite deep well of research, weaving insightful readings of Simon’s, and Simon and Garfunkel’s, songs into a chronological structure. We also follow Simon from his childhood in New York City to his early days with Garfunkel as the duo Tom and Jerry, right on through Simon’s marriages, including the often violent relationship with Carrie Fisher, his meteoric rise to success in the early days, his struggles with songwriting, his selfishness and arrogance, and his generosity and commitment to helping younger songwriters. In Carlin’s chronicle, Simon often comes off as an unlikeable guy, out only for himself, using others to achieve his own ends, and aloof, preferring the company of himself to others. In many respects, Carlin captures accurately this aspect of Simon’s personality: the singer’s short stature turned him competitive very early in life, especially when he played baseball, at which he excelled, and when he and Garfunkel started singing together. “When Paul wove his ordinary voice together with Artie’s dulcet instrument, he knew he sounded better than he ever could on his own. Artie had become so many things to Paul: his best friend, his partner, his musical inspiration, and increasingly his rival, too. On a darker day Paul would examine his friend from afar and feel a hot pulse of bile. Why had Artie gotten to be so blessed, with his height, his voice, his hair? And why did Paul have to be so dependent on him? Paul was the one who could play guitar. He didn’t need Artie to write a song or to face down a real audience.”
At the same time Simon exhibits a generosity, especially with younger songwriters, that often lies deeply hidden beneath the surface of the man who often comes across as a curmudgeon and a misanthrope. He pays his studio musicians three-times the union rate, but Simon excels in his commitment to writing and his willingness to help other writers shape their own writing. In 1970, just after the release of Bridge over Troubled Water, Simon taught a songwriting class at NYU with students that included the now-famous playwright, director, and actor Jeffrey Sweet, Maggie and Terre Roche, and Melissa Manchester. Simon brought in guests such as Al Kooper and Isaac Stern, and at the end of the class he booked an entire day at the studios at Columbia Records in order to show the class how to turn a song into a finished recording. Each week various members of the class would pass around a set of lyrics and perform their work. As Carlin points out, Simon “got bored quickly, and loved being surprised by an odd turn of phrase or a piercing image drawn from real life.” One week, Simon brought in a song on which he was working, talked about how it had come to him and where it might go next. “He’d think for a moment and try a chord or two. Did that sound like the right move?” Melissa Manchester recalls of that day, “My sense was that he was searching himself… he understood that the writer’s mind is a muscle. It had to be trained to know how to play, how to get free.”
Carlin explores vividly the sometimes-on, sometimes-off relationship between Simon and Garfunkel. In their early days as Tom and Jerry, the duo hit with “Hey, Schoolgirl,” but already the cracks in their relationship started to show just underneath the surface, especially toward the end of those days: “They still played a few shows as Tom and Jerry… but their brief spasm of success, and the selfishness Paul displayed once it started, had webbed their friendship with tiny cracks… the tenderness between them had faded. You can love someone who shoves you aside, but you can no longer trust him in quite the same way.” As the duo eventually grows into Simon and Garfunkel, the tensions follow them but their music moves them into an atmosphere in which they become spokespersons of a generation: “Just as the four Beatles seemed to merge into one perfectly balanced system of personalities, intellects, spirits, and skills, Simon and Garfunkel seemed like two halves of one creature. While Paul’s songs explored the outer limits of structure and lyrical meaning, Artie kept his ear on the pop mainstream, making sure their records didn’t fall too far from their audience… They had been called generational spokesmen since ‘The Sound of Silence’ topped the charts. Now they truly were, in a voice so distinctively their own that the comparisons to Bob Dylan had all but disappeared.”
Carlin zeroes in on Simon’s gift: songwriting. Writing songs has never come easy for Simon. He’s muddled through periods of writer’s block. When he spoke at Emory University in 2013, he told the audience: “I’ve only completed two songs in the last three and a half years… people ask quite often, ‘What took you so long?’ as if it were a pizza delivery. The answer is I was trying the whole time.” (368) In spite of such periods, Simon has already left us with songs that are cultural markers, such as “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Carlin describes Simon’s reaction to his writing of that song: “The first time Paul heard what he was singing, when it registered in his conscious mind, tears came into his eyes. The song felt more channeled through him than written by him, as if Jeter’s [Claude Jeter, lead singer of the Swan Silvertones] voice had unlocked a door containing the best melody he had ever written.”
In the end: “Without a guitar in his hands, Paul wears his legend like a heavy cloak: a ceremonial garment embroidered with his many achievements, but woven from a darker fabric of his sorrows and his wounds. It’s so difficult for him to write. When he records his songs, he’s like a molecular physicist, stripping the chemical bonds from each sonic atom, altering their charges and then painstakingly stringing them together into intricate human patterns few human ears could ever detect -- and it takes so long, and nobody understands.”
Carlin excels at telling a rattling good story, and his book is full of plenty of them. After reading Homeward Bound, you might dislike Simon or you might love him even more than you’ve ever loved him. No matter, you’ll certainly discover the forces which drive him and his songwriting, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for his songwriting genius. It’s of course too bad that Carlin wasn’t able to interview Simon for this new book; Simon’s voice would have lent a force to the book it sometimes lacks. Yet, Carlin’s compelling interpretive biography reveals honestly both Simon’s virtues and his shortcomings, it illustrates the brilliance of Simon’s songwriting, it demonstrates the power of music to mark a cultural moment, and it persuasively drives us to listen to Simon’s, and Simon and Garfunkel’s songs, again to discover why they were once important to us. Even-handed and absorbing, Carlin’s Homeward Bound introduces us to a musician whose heart is restless until it rests in a song.