Tag Archives: Central Park

Fakin’ It

paul-simon-hb

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt, $32.00, 415 pages)

An ambitious attempt that fails because in the end we don’t know who Paul Simon is.

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s. EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s.
EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

I apply a key test to biographies of public figures. Does the book help the reader to understand who the subject is… What he thinks, what he values, what he seeks to accomplish through his work or art? Does the bio make you feel as if you’ve spent time with the subject? In this sense, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon fails. Writer Peter Ames Carlin presents two quite different – often contradictory, portraits of Simon.

One Paul Simon is brilliantly creative, generous (he pays studio musicians two or three times their usual fees), open to helping others, and quite proud of his craft. The other Paul Simon must borrow from the music of others – what some might term stealing, is spiteful and/or vindictive, is a loner know-it-all, and is the son who failed to meet the role assigned to him by his father. (Louis Simon wanted his son to be a teacher rather than a musician.)

Unfortunately, Carlin does not take the initiative to tell us which Simon is the most real to him. Instead, he relies on a “fair and balanced” approach that tells us almost everything about the musician in 415 pages while revealing virtually nothing. It’s akin to reading a murder-mystery in which the author concludes the work without solving the crime. Thus, this is a frustrating work.

Carlin was hampered by the fact that Simon would not cooperate with this book, which is an unauthorized biography. Near its conclusion, Carlin presents a scene in which Simon – on stage to give a lecture, glares at him. Yes, Simon knows who Carlin is and clearly dislikes what he’s attempting to do.

This being said, the biographer of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson offers some fine insights. We learn about the influence that Simon’s working musician father had on him, and there are parallels with the relationship between Paul McCartney and his father. It’s through Louis Simon that Paul was exposed to the Latin rhythms that he has often used in his music:

Paul could hear the echoes of the Latin dance bands he’d seen sharing the stage with (his father’s orchestra) at the Roseland Ballroom and the Latin rhythms and voices coming from the fringes of his radio dial, the sound of his youth, the essence of the New York that had created him and then, like his youth, slipped away.

As with his prior bios, Carlin examines in detail various recording sessions, songs and the inspiration for particular albums. But there are flaws. Carlin refers to Simon and Garfunkel’s performance in New York City’s Central Park as “a long day of rock ‘n roll communion.” Rock and roll? Paul Simon has produced a great amount of memorable music, but it’s a stretch to call it rock.

simon-and-garfunkel

There’s far too much included about the decades-long feuds and arguments between Art Garfunkel and Simon; so much so that it’s overblown and intensely boring. (Simon himself seems to wonder why on earth people care at this point.) And the case for Simon’s theft of music is pretty much non-existent. Let’s see, he borrowed a cassette tape with African music on it from a young woman who wanted Simon to assist her in recording similar music. She sought to borrow from – or embellish – the sounds of African musicians and was incensed when Simon did so himself. That’s not much of a scandal.

graceland-4ffeb0e4bf91f

A number of readers will undoubtedly find interesting the details that Carlin provides on Simon’s relationship with the late Carrie Fisher:

The divorce from Carrie hadn’t taken. They spent a few months apart, then started talking again, then seeing each other. Then they were back living together… There had always been something perfect about them when they were getting along: the way they huddled together, the way he grounded her, the way she could make him laugh so easily. And he loved her, with a desperation that sometimes frightened him… Carrie had taken herself to rehab to shed her drug habits, but drugs were only symptomatic of the manic-depression she’d suffered her entire adult life… Her depths were unimaginably deep, and Paul’s were nothing to sneeze at, either, so they clung to each other with a passion that could both soothe and abrade.

Beautiful words, but without Simon’s cooperation in telling his story, we have no way to judge their accuracy. One certainly has to wonder how this biography would have turned out if it had been authorized, and written with Simon’s assistance. Sadly, we will never know.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Homeward Bound was released on October 11, 2016.

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Green, Green Grass of Home

Genius of Place (nook book)

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead by Justin Martin (DaCapo, $20.00, 464 pages)

That was his plan – plan being a very loose term at this point. He began casting about. As a sailor-turned-farmer-turned-park maker, later a gold-mine supervisor, there were so many things he had done, more still that he might do. He found himself pulled this way and that by all the possibilities – a tyranny of choices.

If ever there was a frustrated idealist, Frederick Law Olmstead (FLO) certainly fit the type. His boundless imagination and spurts of energy propelled him into a role as a pioneer in America on many fronts. Most people who know of FLO associate him with the design of New York City’s Central Park. But wait, as the reader will discover, there’s more, so much more.

Author Justin Martin does quite well by his subject in this comprehensive and thoroughly annotated biography. The account of FLO’s life begins on a somewhat dry note. This can be forgiven as his family and neighbors in 1822 had no inkling of the greatness that was born that year. In the absence of the means and motivation to document a child’s life in that era, it’s remarkable that Martin was able to find the background information he provides to the reader. A childhood marred by the loss of his mother, but balanced by the loving indulgence of his father, became slightly more dynamic as FLO finally broke away from the confining tediousness of proper New England Christian schooling.

Martin’s narrative takes on a life and charm of its own as FLO finds his passions and motivation. Clearly, there were times when the peaks and depths of emotion chronicled in his letters home and personal notes make a case for some mental frailties, or powerful obsessive qualities in the man’s psyche. Moreover, his strong sense of responsibility and ownership for projects put him at odds with his governing boards. Regardless, the vast number of significant accomplishments achieved through FLO’s persistence, fervor and energy helped to shape the landscape and thinking that prevails today – democratic public parks rather than private sanctuaries in cities, preservation of fragile scenic areas for generations to come, conservation of natural resources, and organization of aid to fellow citizens in the precursor to the American Red Cross.

As a key player in many social movements of the 19th century, including the Civil War, FLO was a husband, father and step-father. He was never able to tailor his life to the demands of a steady income stream. This reviewer was deeply moved by the breadth and depth of this marvelous biography. Clearly, it could easily serve as an engaging textbook for both young and older readers.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Engaging.” The Wall Street Journal

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Homer and Langely

Home & Langely: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

“I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.”

I believe it was John Updike who said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, has a great reputation as a writer and it is well deserved.   In Homer & Langely, he writes beautifully – in a style that often calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger – but there’s simply so little story to be told that the words are wasted.   It’s as if a musician were given a score to play that hid all of his strengths and talents.

This is a 208-page novella that runs on too long; the basic tale could well have been told as a 30- to 40-page short story.   Two brothers, wealthy by birth, become hermits while they’re living in a mansion across the street from New York City’s Central Park.   One brother is blind and the other is either bizarre or mentally ill.   This is not only a summary of the plot, but of almost everything that happens in H&L.   The most interesting scenes come when the brothers are visited by a tribe of hippies.

Doctorow’s latest was, for this reader, a novella that was far too easy to put down.

Random House, $26.00, 208 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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