Book reviews: Paul Simon: The Life, The Woman in the Woods and Time is a Killer
Biographer Robert Hilburn has written about Simon’s life and fame in a new book
Simon and Art Garfunkel formed a duo called Tom & Jerry and in 1957 their first single Hey Schoolgirl made a modest entry into the US charts, peaking at 49.
But the pair were already trading off each other’s insecurities and jostling for pole position.
Garfunkel had the voice, Simon had the songwriting gift.
And Garfunkel felt he had something else over his partner as he pointed out during an early photo session: “No matter what happens I’ll always be taller than you.”
Simon’s 5ft 3in height is just one source of early insecurity, according to biographer Robert Hilburn and Simon himself.
Hilburn was given unprecedented access to the star after Simon read his Johnny Cash biography and he has delivered an extraordinary, thorough and revealing portrait of one of America’s greatest songwriters.
The songs tell their own story. The Sound of Silence, The Boxer, Bridge over Troubled Water, Cecilia, Graceland, 50 Ways To leave Your lover: these are not just a collection of timeless tracks but the enduring results of an artistic journey that encompasses folk, rock, pop and world music.
The journey began in 1941 in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, New York, where Simon grew up with the competing passions of music and baseball.
He met Arthur Garfunkel at the age of 13 when the pair took part in a school musical production of Alice In Wonderland.
Simon played the White Rabbit while Garfunkel took the non-singing role of the Cheshire Cat.
Shortly afterwards they began singing together and the aforementioned Hey Schoolgirl was hugely influenced by the Everly Brothers.
Tom & Jerry split up in 1958. Five years later they got back together and the Simon & Garfunkel journey began.
But constant squabbling meant the partnership lasted just six years.
The biography follows the chronological path of the music with each record reflecting Simon’s state of mind when he wrote the songs.
Hilburn also wisely uses the songs to unpack Simon’s character as he is more fluent when speaking about his music than when talking about his personal life.
Most of the observations about Simon the man come from others, including the late Carrie Fisher, Peggy Harper and his current wife Edie Brickell.
Three marriages, a succession of girlfriends, various addictions, depression and a general air of restless melancholy contribute to a character who has used music to alleviate suffering and exorcise his demons as well as provide comfort and inspiration for himself and his audience.
Hilburn uses Simon’s songs to discover his character
Fascinating anecdotes and unexpected revelations abound. I loved the descriptions of Simon’s early days in London where he was embraced by Brentwood Folk Club as well as the White Swan in Romford.
Hilburn captures the balance between his subject’s straight-talking, sometimes abrasive personality and his generosity to fellow artists.
For example, the Reverend Claude Jeter, lead singer of the Swan Silvertones, came up with the line “I’ll be a bridge over deep water” and when Simon finally met him years later, he “didn’t just thank him for his inspiration”, says a producer who was present.
“He wrote him a cheque to show his appreciation – and I can tell you Jeter needed the money. After Paul left, Claude was so grateful he cried.”
Hilburn devotes several chapters to the recording of Simon’s ground-breaking album Graceland, recorded in South Africa in 1985 amid much controversy.
There was a sharp division between vociferous anti-apartheid groups and South African musicians who saw it as a chance to become part of the mainstream music industry.
He also takes us through rare failures such as the 1980 movie One-Trick Pony and The Capeman, the Broadway musical he wrote with poet Derek Walcott in 1998.
But the overwhelming trajectory of the book is onwards and upwards, out of darkness and confusion into the light.
As an artist Simon has never looked back, never been content to rest on his laurels.
He is an explorer and an adventurer because, to paraphrase a line from The Sound Of Silence, “talent like a flower grows”.
The 16th instalment of John Connelly’s Dark Saga series
4/5 – The Woman in the Woods by John Connelly, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99
The buried body of a young woman is uncovered in remote woods in Maine and it emerges that she gave birth shortly before her death.
There is no sign of the baby so kindly lawyer Moxie Castin engages private detective Charlie Parker to shadow the police investigation and find the infant.
Parker works with FBI contacts to help identify the woman and piece together the traumatic last days of her life.
But as he does so he realises that someone else is following her trail, someone with an interest in more than a missing child and someone prepared to kill without hesitation or mercy.
At the same time a toy telephone begins to ring in a house by the woods and a young boy gets a call from a dead woman.
This leaves Parker facing a race to reach the boy before earthly and supernatural threats close in on him.
The bestselling Dark Saga series, with its unique blend of horror and crime fiction, is now 19 years old and this is its 16th instalment.
But it still feels fresh and intriguing, the creepy, otherworldly elements adding to the murder mystery at its heart rather than detracting from it.
Connolly writes beautifully and has once again woven a riveting yet disturbing tale that will delight his fans for nearly 500 pages until a surprise ending paves the way for the next instalment.
Finished with a twist, Michel Bussi has created the perfect holiday read
5/5 – Time is a Killer by Michel Bussi, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99
Clotilde travels to Corsica with her family for a summer holiday, haunted by a car crash that killed her parents and brother there 27 years ago.
She was 15 when the car came off a sharp bend in a twisty mountain road and plunged into a ravine. She was the only survivor.
She is now 42 and a lawyer living in Vernon, normandy, as she visits the island for the first time since the accident accompanied by husband Franck and their daughter Valentine.
She hopes to exorcise the ghosts of her past and connect with her sulky 15-year-old daughter.
But then Clotilde gets a letter from her mother Palma who is seemingly still alive. It forces her to question the events leading up to the accident.
Clotilde saw the corpse of her mother. But if she did not send the letter, who did and why?
And was it really an accident as the police ruled?
Award-winning French author Bussi switches between events in 1989 and 2016, his highly inventive plot and well-formed, intriguing characters weaving a captivating mystery on the Mediterranean island.
After the initial shock of the crash, Time Is A Killer peels back layer upon layer of subterfuge to reveal a dizzying twist leading to a pitch-perfect ending.
You will read the last 100 pages at breakneck speed. This moving tale of love, loss, vengeance and redemption is the perfect immersive holiday read.
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