Early in Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon, the rambling and compelling new audiobook from Malcolm Gladwell and co-writer Bruce Headlam, veteran singer-songwriter Simon tells a story about getting lost on the way from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to Malaco Studios in Mississippi. Adopting a rube’s Southern drawl, Simon convincingly imitates a gas station attendant who offered directions.
“I tell you what – you take that there road, go about two miles up, come to a golf field. You go past there about a mile and a half, you make a U-turn to come back, you take a right turn, and it’s right there.”
Sounds complicated enough.
The gas station attendant was then asked, why not just take a left turn at the golf field? “Well,” he replied, “you could do that, too.”
The point is, there are different ways to get where you’re going. I thought about that when I read something the Canadian journalist and Tipping Point theorist Gladwell wrote online about his project with Simon. “Stories about musicians, to my mind, should only be told in audio form,” he explained. “Which is why Miracle and Wonder was imagined and created as an audiobook alone. Why would anyone read a book about a musician? It would be like following the ballet on the radio.”
Well, no, it wouldn’t be like that at all. And Gladwell knows that. In Miracle and Wonder, he mentions that there are at least two “very good” Simon biographies out there already – presumably, Robert Hilburn’s epic, definitive Paul Simon: The Life being one of them.
Gladwell’s “ballet on the radio” snark comes off as sanctimonious and dismissive, just like the oft-repeated witticism that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which has been attributed to both Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello. Not that it matters who said it. It’s enough to know that eggheads can come on much too strong.
We’ll chalk up Gladwell’s comment to hyperbole, just as we will allow his point that audio has advantages over print has some merit. Over the five hours-plus of Miracle and Wonder (available Nov. 16, released by Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries) we hear snippets of the original recordings of beloved songs, along with new off-the-cuff demonstrations by Simon. He plays guitar – sometimes his Martin; other times his Gurian model – as he breaks down The Boxer here and Mrs. Robinson there. “It’s an old snatch of blues,” Simon says of the latter song’s opening riff.
With Canadian journalist Headlam (who worked with Gladwell and Rick Rubin on the music podcast Broken Record), Gladwell interviewed Simon in four-to-five-hour chunks, whether on a Hawaiian mountain, at a Connecticut recording studio or Simon’s backyard cottage in Manhattan. The musician is meticulous, invested and adroit. He’s as committed to demystifying Paul Simon as Gladwell is.
What Gladwell isn’t interested in is touching nerves. With a reputation as a calculating and domineering artist, Simon is hardly a sympathetic figure. Gladwell never gets heavy, though – he’s into Simon’s craft, not the drama. Breathlessly, our star-struck narrator relays the experience of “sitting just a few feet from a maestro.”
This is no linear biography. It’s more an engaging tapestry, with random cameos from the likes of Sting, Rosanne Cash, Herbie Hancock and opera star Renée Fleming breaking up chapters devoted not to Simon’s life and times, but to his creative process. “It’s all trial and errors,” Simon explains. “There’s no reason to be upset about the errors.”
Things get interesting in the chapter titled “The Partner,” about the hit Simon & Garfunkel song Bridge Over Troubled Water, in which Simon recalls that his mother preferred Garfunkel’s singing to that of her own son’s. “You have a nice voice, Paul, but Arthur has a fine voice,” she said. In an admission which Freud would have understood, Simon says the remark stuck with him for “another decade or two.”
Segments are dedicated to 1986′s landmark album Graceland and the Afro-Brazilian follow-up The Rhythm of the Saints. The philosophical final chapter is about the death of Simon’s father, creative mojo and the surprise disclosure that more new music – a project called Seven Psalms – is expected from the 80-year-old artist, who in 2018 said he was finished writing new songs.
With Miracle and Wonder, Gladwell dedicated himself to demystify Simon’s process. But in the final interview, Simon suggests that the wondering is what keeps an artist going – and that finding the answers is not an end, but the means. It takes the meandering Miracle and Wonder more than five hours to arrive to an excellently unanswered question. Gladwell’s long way there turns out to be the right way.
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