No matter how much musicians reveal in their songs, their performances, and their interviews, it’s never enough. We want to know more, to get farther behind the music.
How else to explain why the past few years, in sync with a culture that encourages us to broadcast every detail of our day, have been such a fertile period for rock biographies and memoirs?
Last year saw an important surge of autobiographies by female rock musicians, from Chrissie Hynde and Grace Jones to Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein. In September, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” sprinted up sales charts and raked in rave reviews. And just last week Bob Dylan redefined the relationship between songwriting and literature when he won the Nobel Prize.
Two new books shed light on a pair of rock icons whose music played as a soundtrack to the 1960s. Peter Ames Carlin’s “Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon” is staggering in its breadth, a beautifully written chronicle of Paul Simon’s long and winding road. Brian Wilson’s “I Am Brian Wilson” tells his story in all its guts and glory in a voice intimate enough to suggest you might be reading his diary.
As much as his life has unfolded in the public eye for five decades, Simon hasn’t had a definitive bio — until now. He has declined to collaborate with biographers, including Carlin, but in 2014 he announced that he would be working on his memoir with famed music critic Robert Hilburn.
Like he did with his 2012 biography of Springsteen, simply titled “Bruce,” Carlin burrows into Simon’s legacy with a journalistic sense of duty. Drawing on vast research and original interviews, he follows the 75-year-old’s journey from Queens, N.Y., all the way through to his latest album, this year’s acclaimed “Stranger to Stranger.”
Carlin did his homework. He traces Simon’s Jewish lineage back to Austria, where his grandfather, also named Paul, was born and raised before emigrating to the United States and becoming a successful tailor. He examines Simon’s deep-seated insecurities, including his lifelong hang-up about his height and a contentious relationship with his father, a musician who only late in life recognized Simon’s achievements. Carlin is also fearless in his depictions of Simon’s less savory qualities, especially accusations that he has a habit of ripping off ideas from other artists.
Carlin’s prose is notably scintillating when he goes behind the scenes of Simon’s seminal albums, such as “Graceland,” which not only revitalized his career but also ignited a worldwide backlash over his decision to record in a South Africa gripped by apartheid. “As far as Paul was concerned,” Carlin writes, “the only person in the world with the power to tell him where he could make music or whom he could make music with was Paul Simon.”
To no one’s surprise, Carlin makes a strong case that the most profound relationship in Simon’s life has been the tumultuous one he’s had with Art Garfunkel, even before they became a platinum-selling, hit-making duo. Carlin focuses on their chemistry, which was apparent as early as grade school. On a fateful day in 1952, Simon first heard Garfunkel serenade their classmates, and he was enthralled.
And yet their connection has forever been defined by friction. “There was always something off when they talked about each other in public — the faint praise, the patronizing observation, the elbow in the gut, the constant switchback between their lifelong bond and the urge for escape.”
Simon wasn’t interviewed for “Homeward Bound” (nor was Garfunkel), and his distance is palpable, right up until the final few pages. When Carlin shows up early to a lecture Simon is giving at Emory University, it’s practically a duel out of an old spaghetti western. Carlin spots Simon, who knows Carlin is writing a book about him, and the two lock eyes. “He didn’t look angry. Stern, maybe. Impassive, definitely,’’ Carlin surmises. “Eventually, he raised his hand and turned away. Not just sort of away, but 45 degrees away, like, ‘I’m not looking at you anymore. I’m looking this totally different way.’ ”
Meanwhile, in “I Am Brian Wilson,” the erstwhile Beach Boy’s personality shines through with conversational ease. If you’ve ever seen him in concert or interviews, you know he’s plainspoken to the point of sounding disinterested.
But here we get a taste of Wilson as a headstrong survivor, a damaged musical genius who overcame insurmountable odds — fame at an early age, incapacitating mental illness, drug abuse, a long stretch of lost years compounded by a psychologist (Dr. Eugene Landy) who manipulated and nearly destroyed him. Wilson enlisted Ben Greenman, a New York-based writer, to pen the book based on numerous interviews over several months.
This isn’t Wilson’s first attempt at a memoir. Published in 1991 with collaborator Todd Gold, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story” was immediately discredited for its inaccuracies and charges of plagiarism, and even Wilson has disowned it. This time he gets to expound on several storylines raised in “Love & Mercy,” the 2014 film that explored two eras of his life. “Having the real story out there was very appealing to me,” he writes, “because it did a job that was hard for me to do in conversations or interviews.”
A bit meandering and at times flat, his candor is nonetheless refreshing. Here’s how he ribs Mike Love, his cousin and fellow Beach Boy: “He always had a slightly different idea about who we needed to be as a band. He wanted to be at the center, and he had the energy to do it. Sometime during that tour, I socked him. He didn’t like what I was wearing. It was a blue-and-silver pleated cape, like an Elvis thing. Mike told me I looked silly and I just started slugging him.” (It’s probably no coincidence that Love’s memoir, “Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy,” came out last month and tells his side of the story.)
“It’s been more than 50 years now, and I wonder all the time about what let me think I could write something of my own, that I could build something on top of the foundation I got from other singers and groups,” Wilson muses, as if still in disbelief. “But there was something deep down in there that wasn’t in other people.”
The Life of Paul Simon
By Peter Ames Carlin
Henry Holt, 415 pp.,
IAM BRIAN WILSON
By Brian Wilson
with Ben Greenman
Da Capo, 312 pp.,
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.