Paul Simon has never had much use for drugs beyond a brief flirtation with LSD in the 1960s. But in early 1998 when his Broadway musical The Capeman closed after a mere six-week run, he turned to a powerful South American hallucinogenic, ayahuasca, to numb the pain. He'd first encountered it nearly a decade earlier when he went to South America to record The Rhythm of the Saints, but it had never been quite so useful to him. He'd dumped millions of his own dollars into the musical only to see critics tear it to shreds. He needed an escape. "The feeling was almost indescribable," Simon told biographer Robert Hilburn. "You couldn't imagine feeling any better, and the afterglow would last for days. It also enabled me to hear new sounds in my head, which led to me being able to write songs much faster than before."
Simon had rarely talked about his ayahuasca use before sitting down with Hilburn, and it was just one of many revelatory things he told the veteran Los Angeles Times writer during their extensive interviews for the upcoming book Paul Simon: The Life. All in all, they spoke for more than 100 hours across the course of a year. Hilburn also interviewed numerous friends and associates of Simon, including the late Carrie Fisher, Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin, his wife Edie Brickell, childhood best friend Bobby Susser, his brother Eddie Simon and many, many others. It's the first time Simon has ever cooperated on a book about his life. "He's very private," says Hilburn. "So there were a lot of areas to explore."
Hilburn, 78, first remembers hearing Simon's music around the time he began freelancing for the Los Angeles Times in 1966, though they didn't actually meet until the singer's first solo tour took him the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1973. "He wasn't like a lot of other people I interviewed at the time," says Hilburn. "He was very articulate. He wasn't very chummy, but he wasn't nervous talking about his creative process. He was very forthcoming." Their paths crossed many other times over the next few decades, most notably in 1987 when Hilburn was the only U.S. journalist who accompanied him to Zimbabwe on the Graceland tour. "We had a bit of a relationship," says Hilburn. "But we weren't friends by any means. It was professional."
Hilburn retired from the L.A. Times in 2005 and turned his attention to writing books. "I said to myself, 'Who is going to be important 50 years from now?'" he says. "My list only had seven people on it." The first one was Johnny Cash, which lead to Hilburn's book 2013 book Johnny Cash: The Life. The next name on his list was Paul Simon, though he got cold feet when he learned that Peter Ames Carlin was working on his own Simon biography. He mulled it over for several months and eventually reached out to Jeff Kramer, Simon's manager. "I said to him, 'Are you cooperating with this other writer?'" says Hilburn. "He said, 'No, we're not. Not at all.' And I said, 'Would you consider talking to me if I did a biography?' He said, 'Let's discuss that.'" (It should be noted that Peter Ames Carlin's 2016 book Homeward Life: The Life of Paul Simon is absolutely excellent.)
Simon agreed to meet up with Hilburn in 2014 while he was visiting California. They threw the idea of a book around for about four hours, but Simon was noncommittal. "He said to me, 'Why do I need a biography?'" recalls Hilburn. "'My life doesn't matter. It's the songs that matter.' I said, 'Well, it's the creative process. Paul, it's fascinating. People would like to know about it. It ought to be part of your legacy and your history.'" After a few tense weeks, Simon phoned him and up and agreed to cooperate. "He still had a certain reluctance," says Hilburn. "But I think vaguely he saw that there is a certain value in having a serious book about him."
They agreed to meet once a month and talk for five hours over the course of the next year. Hilburn figured that 60 hours of discussion would give him all he needed, but progress was frustratingly slow at first. Simon was in the middle of recording Stranger to Stranger and was much more interested in that than talking about events from his past. "I'd ask him about an incident in his life," says Hilburn. "He'd just say, 'Oh, that's not important. Let's talk about my new music.'"
Realizing Simon would be unable to focus on anything but the album until it was done, Hilburn put the interview sessions on hold and began tracking down other subjects. Simon had reached out to many of them to say they could talk, making the process much easier. They included Simon's first wife, Peggy Harper; Simon and Garfunkel manager Mort Lewis (who passed away in 2016); his longtime producer Roy Halee; and Carrie Fisher, Simon's second wife. "A coupe of months before Carrie died I visited her at her house in Beverly Hills," says Hilburn. "She was just fabulous and such a funny woman. She was seductive in a nice way. They weren't right for each other, but they just kept coming back to one another."
Unsurprisingly, Fisher was an open book when it came to their brief marriage. "It would usually be me who would get back to him," she said, "but he finally said we just couldn't see each other anymore, which meant I couldn't keep trying to get back into his life. I felt terrible that I had never been able to give him the peace that he wanted."
Art Garfunkel proved to be a much more difficult get. The two old friends are no longer on speaking terms and Garfunkel wasn't psyched about the idea of reliving their tortured history. Initially he told Hilburn that he didn't want to talk because he was working on his own book and his publisher didn't want him contributing to a competing project, but later he said that he'd talk for a Simon and Garfunkel book, but not a Paul Simon one. "The impression I got was that he didn't want to do anything that would help Paul," says Hilburn. "I said to him, 'Look, I will treat you with the equal respect that I give Paul. I'm not taking sides.'" Garfunkel wouldn't relent despite Hilburn's two-year attempt to change his mind. "Finally he wrote me a letter," says the author. "It basically said, 'Please don't contact me anymore. I just don't want to do it.'"
Simon has said virtually nothing about his falling out with Garfunkel following their aborted 2010 reunion tour, which was called off due to Art Garfunkel's severe vocal problems. Their final gig took place at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Garfunkel struggled to hit his notes throughout the entire set. Simon told Hilburn that Garfunkel was less than forthright about the extent of his vocal issues, which cost them nearly 1 million dollars in cancellation fees. "He could have said that he couldn't do this after New Orleans," Simon told Hilburn, "but he didn't. There was all this denial. He let us all down. I was tired of all the drama. I didn't feel I could trust him anymore."
Hilburn covers the 1970 breakup with Garfunkel in extensive detail, and the author has his own theory as to why it happened. "Like so many of those 1960s guys, he would have just started recycling himself if he had stayed with Garfunkel," he says. "He was able to move in new directions without him. If they would have stayed together, Garfunkel would have been a ball and chain around his leg. He couldn't have moved that way."
When Hilburn finished his reporting and Simon finished Stranger to Stranger, they sat down for another long series of interviews. This time, Simon was ready to really dive into his past. "I sensed that he wanted to tell certain things," says Hilburn. "He became as eloquent talking about his life as he was about his music." One of the few episodes he wouldn't discuss was the evening in April of 2014 when he and Brickell were arrested at their home in New Canaan, Connecticut for disorderly conduct after a physical altercation where someone at the house called 911. "He said to me, 'I'm not going to talk about it,'" says Hilburn. "I said, 'Paul, if you don't talk about it, every time people think of your marriage they will think of that night.' He said, 'Well, so be it.' He's very into protecting his family."
Near the end of the process, Hilburn took a deep breath and let Simon read a draft. It was a risky move. Simon didn't have the ability to alter a word, but he could stop cooperating, tell everyone else in his life to cease all communication with Hilburn and revoke his agreement to let him quote his song lyrics at length. But Hilburn felt that if Simon saw the book wasn't a hit job he might relax and let his guard down even more for the final round of interviews. "It really made him relax," says Hilburn. "He started talking much freer after that and saying, 'I should tell you more about this and there's more to that story.' It was prefect, though I was very tense the night before."
Now that the book is done, Hilburn plans on writing another one about someone on his list of seven artists that he feels will still be revered in 50 years. "It'll be about someone significant," he says. "But I can't tell you who."