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3 Great New Music Books: Paul Simon, N.W.A, Critic Greg Tate

From Paul Simon playing stickball to the secrets of N.W.A’s tour bus, three books this fall promise new insight into long-loved musicians

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A new biography dives into the often-overlooked slow start of Paul Simon's career.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Another side of Paul Simon: ‘Homeward Bound,’ by Peter Ames Carlin
On November 22nd, 1957, a nervous 16-year-old from Forest Hills, Queens, found himself in an absurd position: singing a cute, Everly-Brothers-inspired song he’d written called “Hey, Schoolgirl” on American Bandstand, moments after Jerry Lee Lewis had a studio audience full of girls screaming to “Great Balls of Fire.” Standing next to his pompadour’d singing partner, Tom Graph, the kid – who called himself Jerry Landis – meekly delivered the tune. Then he walked offstage, forked over the payola cash required of some Bandstand performers, and went back to the normal teenage life where everyone knew him as Paul Simon.

It would be eight years before Simon and Graph (real name: Arthur Garfunkel) would land another hit, a wilderness period that’s quickly glossed over in most Simon books. But Peter Ames Carlin – known for biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson – devotes nearly 80 pages of his definitive Homeward Bound to these years of struggle, tracing the singer’s journey from his frat-house days at Queens College to his tenure as a C-list Brill Building songwriter to his time as a Dylan-style folkie bumming around mid-1960s England.

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At the center of the book is Simon’s endlessly tumultuous relationship with Garfunkel. Carlin traces the drama back to October 1957, when Simon went behind Garfunkel’s back to cut a solo deal. Garfunkel was still grumbling about it in 1983, when the duo made a failed attempt at a reunion album. “I was 15 years old!” Simon told him. “How can you carry that betrayal for 25 years?” Garfunkel (who refused to talk to Carlin) wouldn’t budge. “You’re still the same guy,” he shot back.

The portrait of Simon that emerges is that of a musical genius who learned to hustle at neighborhood stickball games and never stopped pursuing his goals by any means necessary, whether that meant violating a cultural boycott to make Graceland in apartheid-era South Africa or firing three Broadway directors in just a few months while spending millions of his own dollars to produce his 1997 musical, The Capeman.

Simon’s personal life, drug problems and marriages are intimately detailed, and figures from Bob Dylan to Woody Allen make cameos. Carlin meets Simon only once, when the author travels to Emory University to see him deliver a lecture. Arriving early at the hall, Carlin finds himself eyeball-to-eyeball with the man he’d spent years researching. “He didn’t look angry,” Carlin writes. “Stern, maybe. Impassive, definitely. Just above face level, his palm flat and perpendicular to the floor, like a traffic cop saying, ‘Stop!'” Instead, Carlin has gone deeper than anyone yet.

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The Reality Behind the Rise of N.W.A: ‘Original Gangsters,’ by Ben Westhoff
The 2015 N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, offered a Hollywood gloss on the West Coast hip-hop legends’ sprawling history. Original Gangstas, from veteran music journalist Ben Westhoff, tells the rest of the story, delving into the early-Eighties prehistory of L.A. rap and adding fresh detail to the oft-told stories of its major players. We learn that N.W.A manager Jerry Heller made sure the band kept its guns on one tour bus and its ammo on another; we trail Tupac during the 1992 L.A. riots; and go inside the Nation of Islam’s last-ditch attempts to save Eazy-E from AIDS, which would kill him in 1995. Westhoff is especially sensitive in reporting on Dr. Dre’s many domestic violence episodes. That clear-eyed attitude toward a music that “helped disenfranchised people gain a voice” makes for history that won’t settle for easy heroes or villains.

Radical Notes on Pop From a Pioneering Critic: ‘Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader,’ by Greg Tate
Since the 1980s, Greg Tate has written about pop music in a whirlwind flow that’s part African-diaspora street poetry, part embedded reporter and part barroom confidant. His early work was compiled in 1992’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Now, Flyboy 2 collects more pieces that prove Tate, a Rolling Stone contributor, hasn’t lost a step, with riffs on young artists like Azealia Banks (“a freaky-geeky, speed-rapping succubus”) and forebears such as Jimi Hendrix (“one of our most agile and adept freedom fighters”). It’s a dive into what Tate calls “Black Cognition,” a cornerstone of the American mind.


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