Former LA Times critic chronicles Paul Simon’s effect on music, culture


Robert Hilburn’s “Paul Simon: The Life” is a searching biography of the renowned songwriter, well known for his melancholic songs and competitive, perfectionist nature.

The former longtime critic for the Los Angeles Times, Hilburn (“Johnny Cash: The Life,” 2013) ranks high in the firmament of writers on popular music, a fitting match for a subject who himself is very nearly — but perhaps not quite — the equal of Lennon, McCartney and Dylan, on all of whom Paul Simon (born 1941) modeled himself. “They wouldn’t settle for just good,” said Simon of the famous competitiveness between Lennon and McCartney. “That was me, too.” In public high school in New York, he teamed, fatefully, with the pure-voiced Art Garfunkel, who would be both his sounding board and his bête noire for decades to come, the subject of constant tension and the agent of transcendent musical moments. When, after several years of constant hit-making, Garfunkel took an interest in acting, the duo began to drift apart. However, writes the author, the story is a touch more complicated, for Mike Nichols offered Simon a part in “Catch-22” as well only for it to wind up being cut before the film was shot. Former spouse Carrie Fisher recalls the difficulties that ensued when her own star rose as a result of the “Star Wars” films, when leaving him to go off and film led Simon to think of the job as “being more important to me than he was.” The gossipy stuff is all nicely juicy, especially as concerns Garfunkel, with whom, it would appear, Simon will never really make peace. But what are more important are the music and Simon’s contributions to popular culture through his songs; it’s telling, in that regard, that Simon took Elvis Presley’s death to be a warning about “the danger of not making music your top priority.” Throughout a career that stretches back seven decades, Simon has clearly never forgotten where his priorities lie.

With train-wreck moments and tender interludes alike, this is a book that delivers a sharply detailed Kodachrome of a brilliant musician.

Mexico’s influence on America

No border wall can impede an inescapable fact: Mexico and the United States are inextricably joined to one another culturally, economically, and politically.

Most Americans, by Migration Policy Institute President Andrew Selee’s account in “Vanishing Frontiers,” have positive views of Mexico, Mexicans, and indeed immigrants in general. Yet, even if immigration from Mexico, legal and otherwise, has dropped substantially since 2007, there are still a sizable number of gringos who fear the southerly “other” — and the farther from the border, all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, the more the fear grows. The author examines economic, political, and cultural trends that might allay their worries. In an instantly comprehensible note, Selee observes that everywhere in the country people celebrate “Taco Tuesday,” even where there is no other Mexican influence to speak of, and non-Hispanic Americans love their salsa and nachos. What’s more, the Mexican-owned Sigma Foods concern has captured a big chunk of market share of low-cost hot dogs after having discovered that on this side of the border, “segmenting off Latino customers” was more difficult than simply appealing to a mass market. It’s not just Mexican food: Mexico’s economy is growing overall in such a way that it could surpass Canada’s by 2050 and thereby “become one of the top ten economies of the world.” One interesting gauge, writes Selee, is the growing prevalence of Mexican filmmakers in Hollywood, as witnessed in the results of the last Oscars. It would seem ill-advised from a purely commercial point of view to alienate that audience, but the author is optimistic that even if the current administration manages to do so, the effects will be temporary, since “the forces driving Mexico and the United States together will ultimately be stronger than any decisions made by politicians in Washington, DC, or Mexico City.”

“Frontiers” is an evenhanded, reasoned contribution to an overheated discussion.



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