Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hillburn. Simon and Schuster. 449 pages. 2018
I’m a long-time fan of Paul Simon and was excited to see this major new biography of him by respected rock music writer Robert Hillburn. Unlike the recent new biography of Tiger Woods, Simon fully participated with the author via more than a hundred hours of interviews and did not insist on editorial control. The well-researched book saw the author interview Simon’s friends, family and colleagues. The result is a fascinating look at one of America’s greatest songwriters
Simon was born in 1941 to Lou, a musician and Belle, a teacher. He played baseball through high school and is a die-hard New York Yankees fan. The family was Jewish, but not very religious, nor is Simon, though references to the Bible have appeared in some of his more recent music, and he has written about science and faith.
Early musical influences for Simon were doo-wop music, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brother and folk music. Simon met Art Garfunkel in the 6th grade. They had some early success as Tom and Jerry, even appearing on American Bandstand. Paul would write some of the songs they played and his father tended to be judgmental of them.
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BOOK REVIEWS ~ More of this review…and reviews of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Thornbury; Who is Jesus? by R.C. Sproul; Anchored in Hope: Security in the Storm by Donna Marie England
BOOK NEWS ~ Links to Interesting Articles
BOOK CLUB ~ How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman
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One of the recurring themes in Simon’s story is his on again and off again personal and musical relationship with Garfunkel. They would break up several times, the first being in 1958. Simon would record as a solo artist under the name of Jerry Landis, and would have some early success in England, which remains a special place for him, releasing The Paul Simon Songbook there. Art had hard feelings about this for years. Their musical partnership was on again and off again as they pursued music and their college education.
Simon and Garfunkel were signed to Columbia Records in 1964. They had a key relationship with engineer Roy Halley. The author takes us through each of their albums through 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, pointing out their painstaking process in recording, always slower than the record company wished.
The rivalry between the two and Art’s acting career caused tension in their relationship, and the duo broke up after the 8 million selling Bridge Over Troubled Water. They would get together occasionally over the years to play concerts until Garfunkel wasn’t open about throat problems he was having in 2010. After a disappointing concert at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, a planned tour had to be cancelled, costing each a significant amount of money. Simon felt a lack of trust from Garfunkel’s denial and lack of candor. There has sadly been no personal or professional relationship between the two since that time.
Simon’s solo career allowed him to expand his musical vision with such albums as Graceland (which was controversial for some) and The Rhythm of the Saints. I enjoyed attending an incredible concert on the tour supporting the latter album.
Among the few projects that didn’t live up to expectations were Simon’s movie One Trick Pony and his Broadway musical The Capeman.
The author discusses Simon’s romantic relationships with Kathy Chitty (with whom Simon is still friendly, first wife Peggy (with whom he had son Harper), Shelly Duvall, second wife Carrie Fisher and current wife since 1992 Edie Brickell, with whom he has three children, Adrian, Lulu and Gabriel). We also hear about his friendship with Lorne Michaels and the many times he has appeared on Saturday Night Live.
These days, Simon states that he is grateful for his life, and his passions include family, philanthropic and environmental efforts. He is currently on his Farewell tour and has plans for a Revisit album, new interpretations of some of his previously recorded songs.
Throughout, Simon is vulnerable with Hillburn, at times sad, lonely and depressed. Hillburn does a nice job of including a lot of Simon’s lyrics in the book. I enjoyed listening to Simon’s catalog as I read the book.
Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Thornbury. Convergent Books. 284 pages. 2018.
This is a fascinating book about the singer/songwriter who was known as the “Godfather of Christian Rock”. The author was able to uniquely reconstruct Norman’s story through his letters, diaries, files, and tapes that he was given access to by the Norman family.
The author writes that Norman, who died in 2008, was often misunderstood and harassed, mostly by fellow Christians, and was often involved in controversy. He tells us that Norman pretty much did as he pleased. He sang about what he wanted to, made a living doing what he loved, was subject to no local church authorities, and died a cult hero whose followers and family had to clean up the messes he left behind.
I found the story of Norman to be a very sad one, one in which he was looked up to by many publicly, but had very few close personal or professional relationships (example: Randy Stonehill, the band Daniel Amos and his managers), that did not end well, including two failed marriages. The author states that a mistake that Larry Norman would make repeatedly was not separating business from friendship.
Norman did not start out in the Christian music subculture and then break out into the mainstream as is the normal pattern. Instead, he originally signed with Capitol Records, releasing three albums on major record labels while starting his own underground record company. He was credited with what would be known as the “One Way” sign of the Jesus Movement. He was a member of the band People! which had a hit single “I Love You”. He envisioned his One-Way Records, Solid Rock Records and the Street Level Artists Agency (which still exists today, and includes artists such as Michael Card), as an American version of Francis Schaeffer’s Swiss retreat center, L’Abri.
His marriage to model Pam was nothing short of bizarre. They barely knew each other when they got married and neither were ready for marriage. Outwardly they were the perfect couple, but the author tells us that the marriage was troubled from the beginning. Just three months into the marriage, Pam would claim that Larry wanted a divorce.
Norman would later marry his former girlfriend and Randy Stonehill’s ex-wife Sarah. They had a son Michael in 1985 but would later divorce. Still, they partnered in raising Michael together, and stayed close friends, even traveling together.
I enjoyed the author’s writing about Norman’s music, which was very different from what would become known as Contemporary Christian Music, often quoting his lyrics. Norman started a bible study, which would later become the Vineyard Church denomination of more than four hundred churches.
The author gives us a portrait of Norman, warts and all, showing us contradictions in his life. In addition to the many negatives of his life, he writes that Norman’s family discovered that Larry had given thousands of dollars of monthly support to various artists, poets, and homeless people.
A turning point in Norman’s life was on April 15, 1978, when on a United Airlines flight, a ceiling panel came loose and hit him on the head. The author tells us that whether real or psychosomatic, the “plane accident” emerged as a line of demarcation for Norman. His creativity, organizational ability, and drive vanished. In addition, Norman would suffer a major heart attack in 1992.
The author writes that Norman’s main-stage performance at the 2001 Cornerstone Festival could be considered the last time he could perform with a band and still sound like Larry Norman. I saw him in a solo concert late in his career. He lived his remaining years in Oregon in failing health, with his last official concert being on August 4, 2007, in New York City, at Calvary Baptist Church, the same venue he had played thirty-five years earlier at the height of the Jesus movement.
The author tells us that Norman died amidst a brewing and very public scandal about fathering a child back in the late 1980’s.
This is a very interesting book, though I found Norman’s story ultimately very sad. He truly loved God, but lacked in discipleship, and it was heartbreaking to read of his many failed relationships.
Who is Jesus? by R.C. Sproul. Reformation Trust Publishing. 72 pages. 2019.
This book is from Dr. Sproul’s Crucial Questions series, a series of short books or booklets on important issues for the Christian. The books contain information that would be helpful to a mature Christian, as well as someone interested in learning more about the Christian faith. The e-book versions are free and the paperback versions are only $2 each. This particular book about Jesus would be an excellent one to give to a friend as we approach the Easter season.
The author writes that we need Christ, the real Christ. He writes that it pleased God for His own reasons to give us four biographical portraits of Jesus, all looking at His person and work from slightly different perspectives. The gospel narratives do more than tell about Jesus, His life, and His work. They also tell us how people responded to Christ. Scripture also gives us Jesus’ own testimony of His identity. The author tells us that beyond what we find in the Gospel portraits, Scripture also gives us the testimony of the Apostles. We find that Jesus is the theme of the Old Testament as well. From Genesis to Revelation, we find the story of Jesus, the Christ.
The author addresses some of the heresies about Jesus throughout church history. He tells us that Jesus is both truly human and truly divine.
He then looks at some of the more prominent titles ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament. Although some think that Christ is Jesus’ last name, it is actually the title applied to Jesus more frequently than any other title in Scripture. The second most frequently used title for Jesus in the New Testament is Lord. The third most frequently used title for Jesus in the New Testament is Son of Man. Though it ranks third in frequency of usage in the New Testament as a whole, it is far and away the primary title that Jesus used for Himself. The author tells us that is significant. Every name and title given to Jesus in the New Testament has significance. Each one reveals something to us about who He is and what He has done.
The author tells us that theologians typically speak of the life of Jesus as following a progression from humiliation to exaltation. The ultimate goal is His final return and the consummation of His kingdom. The ascension catapulted Jesus to the right hand of God, where He was enthroned as King of kings and Lord of lords. He tells us that the kingdom is yet to be consummated. That will take place in the future. However, the kingdom has been inaugurated.
The author finishes the book by looking at Jesus as our Prophet, Priest and King.
Anchored in Hope: Security in the Storm by Donna Marie England. Greenfield Center Press 2019
In her latest book about her faith journey, Donna England assures us that God is in control, and encourages us that getting to the place of relying on Him is a worthy life goal. She has a very pleasing writing style, which gives you the feeling as you read this short book that you are having a conversation with her over a cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop. The short chapters are really meditations on various subjects – doubt, Bible studies, an eternal perspective, Christmas, how God has worked in her life, etc. She liberally sprinkles scripture verses and lyrics from hymns in between stories from her life as a child, mother, grandmother, nurse and wife.
The author writes about attending a week of church camp as a fifth grader. When she returned home, she was certain she was ready to confess Christ and be baptized. Her parents attended church each Sunday when she was growing up, and she writes of having mentors that she has had throughout her life that have helped her to continue to grow in her faith.
She writes of losing her first husband Dave to a heart attack in 1984 and being left to care for their three children. She tells us that the kindness of many friends, family and total strangers gave her strength and confidence when she had no clue as to what to do. She states that without her faith, she would not have been able to go forward, reflecting that there is no easy way to reconstruct after loss.
She writes of well-meaning friends who encouraged her to date, leading her to meet Dan, to whom she has now been married for 33 years. Their plan is to seek God’s plan each day for as long as He allows them to live. They hold onto the responsibility to center on Jesus Christ, as He is the anchor in the storm.
I enjoyed reading these stories and insights from the author, who I have known in both the workplace and in the local church.
- Free Audiobook for March. The Christianaudio free audiobook download for March is Absolute Surrender by Andrew Murray. “This book, simple and powerful, is the result of Murray’s passionate exploration of surrender: why it’s seemingly impossible and yet completely necessary.”
- Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story. Kevin Halloran writes “I found Holy Sexuality and the Gospel to be a breath of fresh air. Yuan skillfully and appropriately explains how the Bible story relates to sexuality and what it means for each of us. He also dismantles false views many claiming the name of Christ import from psychology or other non-biblical frameworks.”
- Girl, Follow Jesus. Jen Oshman writes “If you follow Rachel Hollis you may indeed gain the world. But what about your soul? I’m here to beg you to reject Hollis’s teaching, because it’s both exhausting and damning.”
- Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Sexual Revolution We Need. Reviewing Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Alisa Childs writes “We all have, in one way or another, messed up “God’s plan,” and I’m thankful to God for his grace and mercy to me. This is the beauty of conviction, repentance, and the forgiveness and restoration God offers his children. Yes, we need reform. But what Bolz-Weber offers is not reformation. She has recycled a sexual ethic as old as paganism itself and rebranded it as Christian. True reform wouldn’t be to abandon the Bible’s teaching, but to actually start living it.”
- A FAQ on a Spiritual Classic: The Valley of Vision. Justin Taylor shares this helpful information about The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Poems and Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett.
BOOK CLUB – Won’t you read along with us?
We conclude our look at Jonathan Leeman’s book How the Nations Rage with a few Final Thoughts:
- None of us knows what’s ahead for the nation. We should not be naïve about the forces of darkness arrayed against us. But fear and withdrawal make no sense for the church. We press on as we always have.
- God’s common grace grants many a nation better than it deserves, but I have little confidence that America will long remain strong, prosperous, and free without any concept of God’s righteousness and justice somewhere in the background.
- If there is hope for the nation, it’s through the witness and work of churches.
- Our congregations have the opportunity to live transformed lives as a transformed culture through a transformed politics in their own fellowships right now—all for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good.
Next time we’ll begin looking at John MacArthur’s classic book The Gospel According to Jesus.