THE ROCK BIO has, at this point, become a color-by-numbers formula. It begins, invariably and exuberantly, with the requisite early triumphs, followed by salaciously readable exploits of success (drugs! groupies!), then an analysis of the difficult middle period of misunderstood artistic experimentation, concluded by a pat victory lap. That Peter Ames Carlin’s new biography, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, successfully sidesteps this pattern is indicative of both the weird trajectory of Simon’s career and Carlin’s aptitude for shedding new light on a very familiar figure.

Some bones of the rock-bio formula remain, but even from the get-go, Simon’s path—and Carlin’s recounting of it—bears intriguing abnormalities. The Portland author pays particularly careful attention to the New York songwriter’s formative years, which included a one-off hit with Art Garfunkel as the duo Tom and Jerry, then practically an entire solo career of failed novelty rock ’n’ roll singles and a fruitful period as a folksinger in England before Simon and Garfunkel made it big. It’s an often-overlooked period that’s crucial to understanding the rest of Simon’s career, but whereas Carlin’s previous book, Bruce, was dominated by its account of Springsteen’s pre-fame years, here Carlin achieves a satisfying balance across every decade of Simon’s life.

Carlin also diagrams his subject’s personality in a way that fully informs and illuminates the music. As Carlin understands him, Simon is the short, bright, forceful son of a loving but demanding musician father; he’s a quick study who reached pop success through intelligence and dogged determination—only to find himself shackled to his best friend from childhood. Simon’s hunger to stake out new musical territory exacerbated a rupture with Garfunkel whose origins Carlin carbon-dates to the wake of the duo’s initial flush of success with their 1957 teenybopper hit “Hey Schoolgirl.”

Carlin also illustrates Simon’s voracious appetite for new sounds, which led to tremendous success in the ’70s and ’80s, but also ran him afoul of the African National Congress during the controversial Graceland period, and resulted in at least one abject failure: 1998’s Broadway musical flop The Capeman. Simon’s story is almost too large to be contained within a single book, but Carlin provides a rewardingly complete picture in his briskly readable narrative. Be advised: You’ll want to have Simon’s recordings on hand as you read Carlin’s engrossing account of how they got made—and with the road map he provides, you’re bound to hear something you never noticed before.

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon
by Peter Ames Carlin
(Henry Holt)