Biography is widely regarded as one of the most difficult forms of nonfiction to write, especially if the living subject is uncooperative. In that case, it’s a one-on-one struggle between the writer and the subject in a process that can get ugly on a personal or cosmic whim.
That’s part of what makes journalist-biographer Peter Ames Carlin’s four biographies (two with no access to the subjects) so impressive. Writing about musical superstars Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon seems glamorous at first. And it is, to an extent. However, there is also the not-so-jolly reality of research, travel, interviews, unreturned phone calls and email, organizing the material and the actual alone-in-a-room writing. An investment of years.
Carlin’s latest biography is “Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon,” called “a story with the scope and power of an epic novel” (Henry Holt, $32, 432 pages). Carlin reveals the behind-the-scenes dramas of a cultural giant who has “sold more than 100 million records, won 15 Grammy awards and been installed into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice.” Beyond that, Carlin reveals a “brilliant artist” whose privacy is paramount, whose insecurities are rife, and whose personal relationships have been tumultuous.
The book is The Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for February.
Carlin, 53, was a free-lance journalist (New York Times, Los Angeles Times) before his 4 1/2 -years as a senior writer for People magazine in New York. He segued to the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, where he was a features writer and TV columnist. He left the newspaper in 2011.
“(My subjects) are incredible artists, and I try to write about them respectfully and not try to embarrass them,” he said by phone from his Portland home. The more touchy details are included “to the extent that someone’s personal life has an effect on them as an artist, or how the art impacts their lives. At the same time, if somebody did something crappy, you have to call them on it. That seems fair game, but I don’t linger over it.”
The early years
Carlin dives into deep detail in “Homeward Bound,” providing a miscroscopic look at Simon’s life from childhood to the present. Of course, one cannot mention Paul Simon without conjuring Art Garfunkel. “Paul and Artie lived a couple of blocks apart in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens,” Carlin said. “They started hanging out at age 11 or so. Paul more than Artie was an explorer when it came to music. His father was a professional musician, so he had it in his blood.”
In high school, the friends kept trying to crash the local music scene and were unsuccessful until promoter Sid Prosen heard a demo of ‘Hey, Schoolgirl” by Tom and Jerry – Tom Graph (Garfunkel) and Jerry Landis (Simon). In 1957 Prosen signed them to his Big Records label, the song became a regional hit, and the boys appeared on “American Bandstand.” “But their follow-up singles flopped,” Carlin said.
Tom and Jerry parted ways after Simon confessed to Garfunkel that “he had secretly leveraged their (possible) joint success into a solo contract with the Big Records label,” Carlin said. “Artie bitterly resented it, and it chilled their friendship for a while. The (issue) continued as a real foundational problem between them, and Artie brought it up during a variety of the arguments they had over the years.”
College was the next step – Queens College for Simon, Columbia University for Garfunkel. Over the next few years they caught the folk-music wave (and later folk-rock), landed a contract with Columbia Records and cut their debut studio album “Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.” (1964). Then they split up and reunited again, a recurring theme.
“They evolved together as musicians,” Carlin said. “Like so many bands in the ’60s, their growth from album to album was astonishing. It was just blam! blam! blam!” – “Sounds of Silence,” “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” (both released in 1966), “Bookends” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970).
By the close of 1970 the partnership was over, each man taking his own career path but reuniting at various events. Their landmark get-together came in 1981 at the Concert in Central Park, where the childhood buddies sang for more than a half a million fans. Several world tours followed during the next three decades.
In retrospect, who was the “leader” of the duo? “Paul was the more sophisticated songwriter and the one who played guitar,” Carlin said. “Artie sang harmonies, and was no slouch as a musician himself. His ability as an arranger was profound, and he had a fantastic voice that Paul was hugely impressed by and a little envious of.
“Paul was sensitive about many things (including) his voice and his height (5 feet 3 inches),” Carlin continued. “He didn’t feel he was handsome, so having this tall, golden-haired, beautiful-voiced (partner) performing with him made him feel a lot more confident. But to the extent they needed each other, they also resented each other.”
Art Garfunkel was busy with his own book during Carlin’s hunt-and-gather phase for “Homeward Bound,” so “those (interviews) didn’t come together,” but was Simon himself cooperative?
“No, he was remarkably hostile to the project,” Carlin said. “Many people (in Simon’s orbit) wouldn’t get back to me, even if we had already established a dialogue. Eventually, I learned Paul had asked them not only to not cooperate, but to not ever respond to me. A lot of them did that, but (some didn’t). …
“Paul has always been sort of insecure and enormously self-critical, and I think he could not tolerate the idea of someone who is not in his control trying to tell his story.”
Beach Boys on land
Carlin’s first biography was “Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson” (2007). It was based on earlier articles Carlin had written for People and American Heritage magazines and the New York Times.
“At the time, Brian was reviving the (originally unreleased) “Smile” album, so that created a demand for the book,” Carlin said. “(Plus) I had complete access to him and his people.
“There was something about manifest destiny and the Beach Boys that I found intriguing – their story of wanting to be empire-builders and then not being able to (because) of the sourness that fell over the Wilson family,” Carlin said. “Brian was this beautiful exception to that, a symbol of the lost inner child – knowing you’re special and brilliant, but the world slowly beats it out of you.”
Carlin had no access to Paul McCartney, the subject of his second biography, “Paul McCartney: A Life” (2010).
“The story of Paul was the unrequited love story of him and John Lennon, and the incredible puzzle Paul has had to live with of trying to protect his own reputation vis-a-vis the Beatles, while his friend and partner has been elevated to secular sainthood,” Carlin said.
“Their relationship hadn’t been resolved when John died, and Paul has had to compete with his ghost. How do you rebuild and establish yourself after having been one of the four coolest people in the world for 10 years?”
Boss opens door
Carlin was on “book leave” from the Oregonian to write “Bruce,” his biography of Bruce Springsteen (2012), when he “got a call out of the blue from Bruce’s manager, who basically said, ‘We’re ready to cooperate with you,’” Carlin recalled. “I was a year and a half into the book at that point, and from then on they kicked open doors that had never been opened, and Bruce got involved personally.”
Though Carlin had “admired” Springsteen for years and “it was cool to get to know him,” the writer was also clear on why the rocker “was giving me any attention at all. He wanted an honest book about himself and knew I wasn’t writing a whitewash. Toward the end of the process, he would say, ‘Look, if you learned anything about me that you wouldn’t include because you thought it would embarrass me or make me feel bad, just put it in.’”
Is there a fifth biography on Carlin’s horizon? “I’ve got a few things I’m trying to invent that involve music and musicians, which will probably involve me playing music,” he said. “I’ve played music my whole live and have been getting more serious about it the last few years. Let’s say I’m the most marketable as a keyboard player.”
Bee Book Club
Peter Ames Carlin will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club in conversation with The Bee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, Jack Ohman. The event will be at 6 p.m. Thursday in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online at www.sacbee.com/beebookclub. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “Homeward Bound” for 30 percent off the list price (Henry Holt, $32, 432 pages).
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
“Homeward Bound” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Thursday at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.