music writer Randy Lewis and pop music critic Robert
Hilburn worked together at The Times for a
quarter-century before Hilburn retired in 2006.
pair sat down recently to talk about Hilburnís latest
book, "Paul Simon ó The Life," published by
Simon & Schuster Tuesday, just ahead of Simonís
farewell tour concerts at the Hollywood Bowl on May 22,
23 and 28.
is Hilburnís third book since leaving The Times and
follows "Johnny Cash ó The Life" (Little,
Brown & Co., 2013).
You chose Johnny Cash as the subject of your first
biography. Why Paul Simon?
When I first went to the L.A. Times in 1970, the
question I had was "Who should I write about?"
When I began to interview people from the í60s, my
first question was always "What was your favorite
record?" They would always say Elvis Presley, Chuck
Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and maybe
when I started interviewing people from the í70s
generation and asked, "What was your first record
ó who influenced you?" it was always the Beatles,
the Stones, Bob Dylan, maybe somebody else ó and Elvis
Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little
I thought, maybe thatís what you do ó you donít
try to follow whoís No. 1 every week, because thatís
often somebody maybe nobody cares about. So Iím going
to try to think of the artists who, 10 years from now,
the musicians are going to say, and the fans are going
to say, "Thatís the person who was
Still, a number of artists could fit that description.
While I was writing the Cash book, I saw Simon at the
Fonda Theatre across from the Pantages [in Hollywood].
He was doing the "So Beautiful or So What"
tour [in 2011]. I listened to that album and I thought,
"My God, thatís a great album." I love the
song "Questions for the Angels." I was
thinking, "Who else is active today who is writing
music that can stand up to their earliest, best
stuff?" Paul McCartney canít, Brian Wilson canít,
Joni Mitchell canít. Even Dylan ó Iím not sure.
after the Cash book, I tried to think "Whoís the
best songwriter I can think of that would make an
interesting book, and who would tell me about the whole
issue of artistry: how artistry comes about and how you
have to protect it?" Thereís the issue of fame:
Look at Elvis ó he was destroyed by fame and
womanizing and drugs and stuff. All these artists have
these [hurdles]: marriage, divorce, changes in public
taste, laziness, running out of talent.
why I talked to people like Quincy Jones and Allen
Toussaint, people who have worked with a lot of great
talent, to see what characteristics they found [in Simonís
work]. And again, I thought Paul is so articulate, this
would be fabulous. He could tell me about the songs.
You had Simonís cooperation ó something heís never
granted any other biographer ó but you retained final
approval. How did that sit with Simon?
There was this huge thing early on ó in the second
month, third month, fourth month. He said, "If youíre
going to London, here are some people you ought to talk
to," and he had a whole list of names. He had
people he had his secretary send notes to saying Iím
going to be calling them. But then he said, "Now
Kathy Chitty [his girlfriend during his early years
living in England] is off limits." And I thought,
"Here we go."
waited maybe five minutes ó this was in a series of
emails. I thought, "What do I do? I canít let
this go any farther." So I said, "Paul, I
understand your concern and respect for Kathy and you
donít want to invade her life. But nobody can be off
limits. If Iím talking to a reporter, and they say,
"How come you didnít talk to Kathy Chitty?"
Iíve gotta be honest and say, "Because she was
off limits." That canít work, and it makes the
whole book in question.
told him, "You donít have to help me find her. Iím
not asking you to have your secretary contact her. But
if I find her, and she wants to talk, you have to be OK
with it." Twenty seconds go by. Then he says,
"I understand." That really set the tone, and
he never violated that.
He often comes across as a sober, even somber guy, yet
there is a lot of subtle humor in his songs. How did his
sense of humor come out during your time with him?
He and his son are big baseball fans, and they have the
All-Fish Team ó all-time players with fish names [Mike
Trout, Jim "Catfish" Hunter]. One day he said,
"Of course, one of my favorite players on our team
is Minnow Minoso." Iím thinking, "No, Paul,
itís not Minnow Minoso, itís Minnie Minoso" [of
the Negro League and the Chicago White Sox].
was shaving the next morning, and I realized, "That
was a joke!" Itís subtle like that ó he doesnít
set it up. I sent a note back to him and said,
"That was a joke, wasnít it?" He sent the
word "smile" back.
But he does have a reputation for being aloof.
Heís had this reputation of being prickly, kind of a
stuck-up guy. Even in the book, he says that when Edie [Brickell,
the singer-songwriter he married in 1992] meets him, she
says, "I heard you werenít a very nice guy."
He says, "No, I never meant to be a bad guy, I try
to be nice." But heís so focused.
the thing people donít understand: If Bob Dylan is
sitting here, and you sat down with him and started
talking, he wouldnít sit there and say, "Hey, how
ya doiní!" Heís got his own world. And Paul, if
heís thinking about a song, heís not going to talk
to you; Neil Young, heís not going to talk to you. Now
Bruce [Springsteen], he would try to talk to you.
[Laughs again] Bono would try to talk to you.
some of these guys are just so into their world. I
remember I was doing an interview with Neil Young one
time, driving around his big ranch up there [in Northern
California], and he said, "I write a lot of songs
in the car." I said, "What if you start
writing a song now?" He said, "The interview
would be over." Thatís what they are. Thatís
their artistry. Itís the focus, the obsession they
Speaking of artistry, you spend as much or more time in
the book examining his music as you do raking over the
details of his private life. You donít gloss over his
tempestuous relationship with Art Garfunkel, or his
celebrity marriages to Carrie Fisher and more recently
singer-songwriter Edie Brickell.
I think of it as two train tracks going in [parallel]:
Youíve got to tell the personal story, because thatís
what a biography is. But I think whatís important ó
beyond the personal story, which is essential ó youíve
got to build on that and tell why heís important. Thatís
the art part. And it went deeper into the art part than
you almost ever see in a biography because, again, I
wanted to stress the significance of it ó why heís
remembered: those songs.
you think of all these songs he wrote Ö itís almost
like I wanted it to be a case study in songwriting. But
I didnít want to do it to the exclusion of his private
a casual fan will pick it up for the story. But for the
person who wants to know about his significance and
about the whole process of songwriting, thatís the
second train. Iím fascinated by both of them ó but
the second train is what gives the book its
Paul Simon has been the subject of controversy over the
years ó especially his run-in with the African
National Congress over charges that he violated a
cultural boycott of South Africa when he collaborated
with musicians there for his "Graceland" album
while apartheid was still in effect.
"Graceland" is the significant thing, and his
philosophy is he doesnít think anybodyís got the
right to tell [an artist] what you can do. His view was,
"The ANC is a political party. I donít want the
Democratic Party or the Republican Party [here] telling
me what I can do. I donít want to ask their
was in essence what he said. He was defending artistry
ó he even wrote a column in the New York Times about
donít try to make his case, but he would say,
"Thatís what artists do: You fight battles; youíre
going to find record company presidents who donít like
what you do and try to change you. Youíre going to
find all kinds of [obstacles] and youíve got to fight
through that." Whether itís writing a song and
not giving up, in his mind he was justified. He talked
to Quincy Jones, he talked to Harry Belafonte. He wasnít
unaware of the potential for problems. But the musicians
wanted to work with him, and that was fine. So I think
heís pleased with that chapter [of his life]. He
thinks he did the right thing, and I think he did the
One of my favorite sections is the one where he talks
about writing "Darling Lorraine," which he
considers one of his best songs. Itís fascinating when
the man who wrote it says he was surprised when the song
about two people long into their relationship takes an
unexpectedly dark plot turn.
Thatís the big thing I learned: He writes in an
unusual way. He doesnít pick a theme and write about
it; he plays the guitar until something resonates. Then
he tries to figure out what that feeling is and write
about that, taking one line at a time, until he
discovers what heís writing about. Thatís the
said when he was writing [the song] "Graceland"
ó that line [emerged] that just took the breath out of
me: "She said losing love is like a window in your
heart / Everybody sees youíre blown apart." Those
things come out. Itís partially subconscious.
why he left Simon & Garfunkel. He was probably
burned out by the í70s. He knew he had done all he
could with those three [fundamental rock-pop] chords, so
he set out to educate himself about other kinds of music
so he could make more music: gospel music, Latin music,
Cajun music, South African music ó something else that
would inspire him.
Did you reach a conclusion about how he has continued to
make music that compares favorably to his early output?
Fame never became more important, money never became
more important, nothing became more important than his
music. And for much of his life he suffered because of
that; his relationships suffered.
after "Graceland," he starts opening up his
life, and with his marriage to Edie, now heís found a