Notes on Robert Hilburn's exit from The Los Angeles Times, how he approached biographical writing and choosing his subjects.
Why did you leave the Los Angeles Times, where you chief pop music critic for more than 30 years?
I loved writing reviews and doing in-depth profiles, but I wanted a change of pace. The exciting thing at the paper was the non-stop nature of your job; always looking for promising new talent and chronicling key moments in the careers of the influential talents of our time. But you rarely had more than a week or so to write even the longest profile. After 30 years, I wanted to explore the key figures in greater detail. With a biography, you have two or three years to learn about and reflect on your subject.
How did you go about picking your biography subjects?
At the Los Angeles Times, my goal was always to focus on the most important artist of the period, artists who I thought people would still care about ten years in the future. With biographies, it's the same general principle, only the bar has been raised significantly. I now try to imagine which possible musical subjects will still be relevant fifty years from now.
Did you read many other biographies before you started on your own? Did you use any authors as models?
Absolutely, at least indirectly. I wanted to write about great musical figures as important artists and cultural figures rather than simple celebrities. I read a few musical biographies that fell into this pattern, but mostly I read biographers who wrote about statesmen, especially David McCullough. What I respected about his books on Truman and others was how he captured what was important about these people with storytelling that was always delightful.
How did you pick Johnny Cash and then Paul Simon?
I was surprised when I started thinking about great artists how few of them seemed to me to be likely to live up to that 50-year requirement. In addition to that test, I always wanted to be interested in the person's story, both his or her music and creative process. There were probably only seven or eight names on my original list. Cast was fascinating because I wanted to find out how someone from a cotton field in Arkansas could develop such a deep sense of artistry and purpose in his music. Simon appealed to me on several levels, including the unparalleled brilliance of his songwriting over some fifty years and the way his fondness for privacy left a lot to be explored.
How important is the subject's co-operation?
For what I wanted to do, I feel it's essential. Access is important because you want to know as much as you can about who you're writing about. There have been some great biographies written from a distance, but it helps to have the person, in the case of Paul Simon, or the family/estate, in the case of Johnny Cash, open door for you. But you've got to make sure, in that process, you don't sacrifice final creative control
How much time did you spend with him?
I first asked Paul about the book in 2014. There had been several books about him or Simon and Garfunkel, but he had never spoken to a biographer. The idea originally was to meet for five hours one day a month for a year, which would have given us sixty hours on tape. But we ended up doing more than one hundred hours of interviews over more than two years in settings that ranged from his recording studio/cottage in Connecticut, his office in Manhattan and hotel rooms when he was on tour. We also spent a lot of time talking via email. From the start, he agreed that the editorial control would rest with me.
How many other people did you interview?
I interviewed well of one hundred people, including Paul's brother, Eddie, his best childhood friend, Bobby Susser, and friends/musicians who knew him at various points in his life. In most cases - including that of his first two wives, Peggy Harper and Carrie Fisher - I was the first biographer the sources ever granted interviews.
Will Paul Simon really be relevant fifty years from now?
I believe his reputation will grow because the songs reach beyond his own generation to reflect the human condition in ways that will make them affecting. In addition, his blending American pop music with musical styles from other countries was so bold and original that it will have a major effect on musicians as the world becomes more and more a shared community.
What impressed you about his personal story?
The struggle involved in making that great music and finding some kind of comforting baland in his life. From a distance it all looked so easy. He'd release one great album, then go away for four years or so and then return with another great album. Because of his private nature, we didn't sense his struggle and his eventually finding balance and happiness in his personal life.
What are some of your favorite stories from the book?
There are so many. During the interviews, Paul spoke with the same eloquence and passion that he puts into his songs. One of my favorite stories from his childhood was how he loved baseball, but was so worried that he wouldn't be tall enough to compete (he was only 5-foot tall in junior high school) that he used to try and look up the heights of major league players to see if he could find someone short enough to give him hope. The shortest player he could find was a pitcher named Bobby Shantz, who was five-six. Paul never even reached that height.
Was Simon a born songwriter
Not at all. He spent six years writing one mediocre song after another until, through a series of pinpointable events, he finally became the artist who wrote "The Sound of Silence".
Besides telling Simon's life story, does the book have a subtheme?
I was intrigued how so many of the great songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s lost their creative edge as time went by. In fact, most of them haven't written a good song in twenty years. So what was different about Simon? So, my subtheme became: how true artistry is achieved and how you then need to protect it against distractions such as fame, wealth, drugs, marriage, divorce, ego, rejections, changes in public taste, and fear of failure. He wasn't immune to any of them - yet he never lost his grip on artistry.
Hilburn's Simon Favorites
Five Favorite Paul Simon Albums
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)-- There are wonderful individual moments in each of the Simon and Garfunkel albums, but this remains the duo’s ultimate achievement. Looking back, it also shows Simon was moving in so many different directions that it was inevitable he would want to move beyond the early “folk-rock” style and, thus, Garfunkel. Creative highpoint: “The Boxer.”
“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (1973)—While Simon’s first post-S&G album gave us enticing hints of Simons new direction, this is the collection in which Simon demonstrated the importance of leaving the restrictions of Simon and Garfunkel. The music ranged from the good-natured hijinks of “Kodachrome” to the classic eloquence of “Something So Right.” ” Highpoint: “American Tune.”
“Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975)--Everything about this album, from the songs to the vocals to the arrangements, reflected an artist in peak form. The music was inspiring and the themes revealing. The collection showed he had pretty much mastered the American pop music form, which explains why he would soon move on to an even broader musical canvas. Highpoint: “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
“Graceland” (1986). Simon’s masterpiece. The accessibility and charm of the music made the album seem almost easy, but the achievement was extraordinary as Simon blended American and South African pop traditions in ways that gave us something startlingly new, a mix that is likely to influence musicians for generations to come. Highpoint: “Graceland.”
“So Beautiful or So What” (2011). This package represents the culmination of everything Simon had learned and found valuable in music and in life. The album mixed pieces of gospel, blues, doo-wop, pop and rock with international percussion touches and songs whose themes sparked with warmth, empathy and passion. Highpoint: “Questions for the Angels.”
Five Paul Simon Non-Hit Songs and Favorite Lyrics
“Kathy’s Song”: And so you see, I have come to doubt / All that I once held as true/ I stand alone without believes / The only truth I know is you.
“Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”: The Penguins / The Moonglows / The Orioles / And the Five Satins / For now and ever after / As it was before / Rene and Georgette Magritte / With their dog / After the war.
“The Cool, Cool River”: Who says, “Hard times? / I’m used to them / The speeding planet burns / I’m used to that / My life’s so common it disappears.” And sometimes even music / Cannot substitute for tears.”
“Love”: Love…We crave it so badly / Makes you want to laugh out loud when you receive it / And gobble it like candy.”
”Stranger to Stranger”: Still believing / That love endures / All the carnage / And useless detours.
Ten Great Songs and Favorite Lyrics
“The Sound of Silence”: And the sign read, The words of the prophets / Are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls / And whispered the sound of silence.
“The Boxer”: In the clearing stands a boxer / And a fighter by his trade / And he carries the reminders / Of every glove that laid him down / Or cut him till he cried out / In his anger and his shame / ‘I am leaving, I am leaving’ / But the fighter still remains.
“American Tune”: Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower / We come on the ship that sailed the moon / We come in the age’s most uncertain hours / And sing an American tune.
“Something So Right”: Some people never say the words / “I love you” / It’s not their style / To be so bold. / Some people never say those words / “I love you / But like a child, they’re longing to be told.”
"Still Crazy After All These Years”: Four in the morning/ Crapped out / Yawning / Longing my life away / I’ll never worry / Why should I? / It’s all gonna fade.
“Hearts and Bones”: The arc of a love affair / Waiting to be restored / You take two bodies and you twirl them into one / Their hearts and their bones.
“Graceland”: And she said, ‘Losing Love / Is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart.
“The Boy in the Bubble”: These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long distance call / The way the camera follows us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all.
“Darling Lorraine": All the trees were washed with April rain / And the moon in the meadow / Took darling Lorraine
“Questions for the Angels”: If every human on the planet / And all the buildings on it / Should disappear/ Would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah / Care enough to shed one zebra tear?