Portland, Oregon-based journalist Peter Ames Carlin has written lengthy biographies of Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney but those three world famous artists have had numerous books and countless articles written about them. Coincidentally, both Springsteen and Wilson must have tired of having others write about them as both have just recently released autobiographies.
The same can’t be said however of the most famous musician to hail from Queens, Paul Simon. In spite of all of his success, there has not been a definitive book penned about him until now.
Carlin was unable to get access to either Paul Simon or his longtime up-and-down partner and childhood friend, Art Garfunkel, but he did speak to hundreds of other friends, musicians, relatives, and business associates of theirs.
The author displays his through research early in the book as he goes into painstaking detail about Simon growing up in Kew Gardens Hills with emphasis on how attending PS 164 affected his life as he performed in plays and talent shows. It was there that he met Arthur Garfunkel.
Artie and he would remain classmates at Forest Hills High School where they would taste their first bit of pop chart success with a song Simon wrote called “Hey Schoolgirl” and was recorded not under the aegis of Simon & Garfunkel but rather the pseudonym, Tom & Jerry, in honor of the famous cat and mouse cartoon tandem.
Surprisingly the boys were not the most successful teen act to come out of Queens in 1958. Fourteen- year old Fresh Meadows guitarist Al Kooper was a member of the Royal Teens who had a top ten hit with a novelty tune, “Short Shorts.” Kooper would go on to co-write “This Diamond Ring” which was a #1 hit for Gary Lewis & the Playboys in 1965 and three years after that would help form Blood, Sweat & Tears. Simon and Kooper crossed paths early in each other’s lives and have remained friends to this day.
While Paul was always a talented musician his first love may have been baseball. Carlin makes it clear that in spite of his diminutive size, he was always a very good athlete. He would not shy away from fistfights with bullies and he was a very good outfielder. Forest Hills High School baseball coach Chet Gusick employed Simon as his lead-off hitter and he batted a very respectable .296. The two have remained friends until this day for years attended Yankees games together.
Paul and Artie went their separate ways for a short time after high school as the former attended Queens College and the latter studied mathematics at Columbia. They would starting singing together again in 1964 and hit paydirt in 1965 with Simon’s composition, “The Sounds of Silence,” and have a terrific chart run right through the end of 1970.
Their relationship has always been complicated as has been evidenced by their many reunions and bitter breakups. The reasons are manifold. Paul has always been a sharp or ruthless businessman depending on one’s viewpoint. When they were getting their first taste of fame as Tom & Jerry, Simon signed a publishing and recording artist as a solo artist and neglected to tell Garfunkel. Simon was the composer and skilled musician but the handsome Garfunkel had the stage presence and angelic voice.
It would be Garfunkel who got to star in a few Hollywood films with the most famous being “Carnal Knowledge.” Paul did get to star in the 1980 bomb, “One-Trick Pony,” and had a supporting role in the 1977 Woody Allen Academy Award-winning movie, “Annie Hall.” Simon would also contribute original music to one of my favorite films of all-time, 1975’s “Shampoo.”
Queens is known as the “world’s borough” and Peter Ames Carlin notes how Simon has always had his ear attuned to music from all parts of the world. One of S&G’s last hits together was 1970’s Peruvian folk song, “El Condor Pasa.” In his solo career Simon would utilize South African musicians for his 1986 album, “Graceland,” and Jamaican players for his reggae-influenced 1972 smash, “Mother and Child Reunion.”
Carlin supplies ample entertainment industry insider stories and gossip. Clive Davis was long a champion of Paul Simon’s when he was the president of Columbia Records but his successor, Walter Yetnikoff, couldn’t stand him. “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels tapped Simon to host the second-ever show back in the fall of 1975 and a lot of the cast were resistant because of Simon’s brooding persona. He surprised them by showing a genuine flair for comedy. Michaels is arguably Simon’s best friend today according to the author.
Just about the only weakness is that we don’t learn a lot about Simon’s three marriages nor his relationship with his oldest son, Harper.
That criticism aside, this is the definitive life story of Paul Simon and it’s told in a way that should please both casual and die-hard fans of his.