When I read about people whose work I admire, I am almost always reminded of the Buddhist admonishment, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”; which in this instance I think of as reminding us that the person is not the teaching or the product, and it lives independently of them.
To say that I admire Paul Simon is an understatement.
I’ve seen him perform three times: during the 1991 Born at the Right Time tour, in Birmingham, Alabama; in 2011, during the tour behind So Beautiful, So What; and then in 2014 during the On Stage Together tour with Sting. I haven’t seen anyone more than that, and although there’s a few other acts I’ve seen that many times—Concrete Blonde, King Crimson, Adrian Belew are the only ones I can think of right now—none of them hold quite the same place in my heart.
I have memories associated with his music—both as part of Simon and Garfunkle and as a solo act—that are so strong that when I listen to some tracks, it’s like being transported back in time. One of the first two albums I ever owned was his Greatest Hits, etc., and I still have it, though it probably hasn’t been played in 25 years. For that matter, I realized on my birthday last year marked exactly 30 since my parents had bought me Graceland.
So of course when I saw there was a biography of Paul Simon, especially one published just last year, I was going to read it; I didn’t consider it terribly dangerous, given that I already knew that he was an imperfect person—the truth is, his failures as an individual are well-documented; his tempestuous relationship with Art Garfunkle, his long but ultimately broken relationship with Carrie Fisher, questions of credit with Los Lobos and others.
If you look beyond, or perhaps just around, those imperfections, his life is fascinating; being a teenager at the beginning of rock and roll, finding a temporary niche in the folk movement, which parlayed into pop stardom, which led to an unexpected prominence in world music, which led to spectacular failure on Broadway.
The number of people he has worked with—whether their partnership panned out or not—the number of people he was associated with early in their careers, the number of people he got to know, the sheer breadth of his place in music, it’s all fairly breathtaking (I will note for at least one person’s benefit that there is a citation for The Real Frank Zappa Book, regarding one encounter between Frank Zapp and Simon & Garfunkle).
Anyway, Carlin strikes me as even-handed: while he’s unstinting in recording the places Simon seems all too willing to act without regard for his partners and collaborators—a pattern that starts at the very beginning and continues on to pretty much the present day—he leaves you wondering if the sort of drive it takes to excel in this field isn’t all too likely to lead one toward this sort of behavior; not excusing it, but explaining it.
Maybe you don’t actually need to kill the Buddha—maybe you just need to cross over to the other side of the road, and let him keep his distance.