A little luck led Robert Hilburn to the Los Angeles Times, but the paper's eventual full-time rock critic didn't take his tryout for granted. In fact, he blew his first freelance assignments out of the water.
"I went and wrote two stories. One turned out to be Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison," Hilburn, 78, told CL. "Can you imagine?"
He was the only music journalist at the famed 1968 gig.
"I was just lucky because Columbia Records did not invite journalists to come up and cover that concert because John, they had scheduled prison concerts before, and he didn't show up," Hilburn added. "He was on drugs, so they didn't want to invite writers in and have it be bad publicity, so I went up there on my own, and it turned out to be so important."
His next story was a profile on Janis Joplin, and that's all it took for Hilburn to set his feet into a career that would find him covering rock and roll for the paper over the next three decades.
Hilburn eventually wrote a book about Johnny Cash, and this week CL spoke with the author about his latest biography, Paul Simon: The Life, where Hilburn enjoyed unprecedented access into the songwriters inner circle only to come up with what is the definitive story of the Queens-born legend's illustrious career.
In May, in conjunction with the release of Paul Simon: The Life, Hilburn shared some of his own favorite Paul Simon tunes with his former employer. You can read the explanations via the Los Angeles Times, but we've interspersed the songs within highlights from our Q&A with Hilburn below.
Read our feature story with Hilburn in the new issue of Creative Loafing Tampa or online via cltampa.com/music. Get more information on Paul Simon's September 7 show at Amalie Arena below.
Paul Simon. Fri. Sept 7, 8 p.m. $50-$150. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Dr., Tampa. local.cltampa.com.
How many times have you been able to see Paul on this farewell tour? What are some of the thoughts that go through your head when you see him on stage during this period? I mean the songs have new life thanks in part to Paul's collaboration with yMusic...
It's a joy to see him. You almost expect the show to be great. If you like his music, he puts so much work into making sure his band is in top shape, and they rehearse two hours a day, every day — it's unbelievable. Most bands have a very perfunctory soundcheck, they go out and just check the sound levels, but he actually works over the songs and tries to find new ways to present them. So the band calls it the matinee because it's like a real show in the afternoon.
What really struck me, Ray, though, was his manner onstage. Paul tended to be somewhat non-flashy, you know, he was a pretty static performer for most of his career. He didn't even talk to the audience much. But these shows he was smiling, he was talking to the audience, and he really is happy. I think he thinks he made the right decision to walk away from touring; he'll still do music, write songs, make records perhaps, he might write another Broadway play. He's got the freedom to do anything he wants, but he's free from what's almost become the burden of touring.
It got to be hard, I think, travel... I was with him in England on the last leg of his last English tour, and he was looking forward to the end of it. He wanted to do other things in his life. He wasn't to spend more time with Edie, his wife, and his children, so he's very happy in a new phase in his life, and it really shows onstage. What I felt best about was that the audience can see more of the natural Paul rather than the kind of stoic figure that they saw most of his years onstage.
It took Paul, who never had that freak out moment some publishers warned you about...
Yeah, and I kept worry about it because it's only natural because everybody, no matter how much the person says they're not gonna try to control the book, no matter how much that person says they're going to be calm about it all, reasonable and honorable — you just don't know. You just keep worrying about that.
And it took him a year a year and probably you showing him a draft of the book to stop talking about and trying to play his new music for you before he started to open up. What did that particular moment, and those extremely productive last 20 hours of conversation, feel like?
Yeah, the thing that surprised me was that Paul was so articulate in the times that I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times. He would just talk for and hour or two, just so thoughtfully and so forth, but when I started doing the book I realized that he was always talking about music, the new music in those interviews.
There's a reason he was a private person. He saw what happened to Elvis, and he was very guarded against being sucked up by fame, so he tried to keep as far away from fame as he could. Once you write these songs, you're a famous person, but he didn't develop or seek the kind of public persona that, say, a Dylan or Springsteen or Neil Young or McCartney. He would try to do his music and then go back out of sight. There was a point to that. That was protecting his artistry. He knew that the important thing about his life, and the thing he loved was the music. It wasn't the fame, and it wasn't the wealth, and it wasn't the drugs or those things which so often impact rock and roll figures. He saw the danger in getting caught up in that lifestyle, so he was very private; he kept to himself.
When I started talking to him it took a long time for him to get passed that, and that surprised me. I didn't realize there would be that period, and I think he just felt, it took him a while before he felt that he could trust me, that he felt the seriousness of what I wanted to do. The fact that I was really interested in his creative process, and it got to the point that... I don't know there's that thing about "time heals." I think, finally, the time — and I was worried that that time would never come, I got past the point of worry about a freak out moment. I got worried about whether or not I was going to learn enough about paul to make the book valid or valuable. The last six months of the interviews we did turned out to be more valuable to me than the first year and a half of interviews because he finally opened up, and once he opened up he was as smart and thoughtful about his personal life as had been about the music.
Do you think Paul missed you when you took a break to let him work on Stranger while you sought out and talked to other people for the book?
I don't know. I don't know why he changed his feeling, but that New Year's Day you mention I felt bad because, being on a newspaper, the deadline is the important thing. You have to get your story done. And when I talked to Simon & Schuster I said, "I don't think we're done, I don't have enough material yet," I was nervous about what they would say, but they said, "Listen we don't care, there is no deadline, work as long as you need to until you feel its finished, and if you're pleased with it." That was really a relief. All those 30 years at the newspaper I'd never really had that kind of option.
Maybe I relaxed more, too. I think Paul, in that time, sensed that he needed to open up. He probably realized that, "Look, if this book is gonna be any good, if the book is gonna be what it should be, then he's gotta be more personable." Even an obligation, if you agree to talk about your life, then you've got to talk about your life. But, again, I don't know exactly what happened. Maybe it was the time, the months, the questions I was asking, maybe he felt a trust.
Both Paul and Kathy Chitty, obviously famously private people. Could you talk about some of the hard parts, from the writer's perspective, treating that tuth with the respect that it deserves?
The thing is. When I read some of the reviews, there were four or five reviewers who said the same thing. There were a lot of music writers writing about the book because Paul was so private, and he had a reputation as somewhat of a tough guy because he wouldn't let people push him around. He was very blunt, he was thoughtful, he was private, he fought against the record companies. They thought there were some ugly secrets in his life.
The earlier book I did on Johnny Cash — there were a lot of ugly secrets in Johnny Cash's life, and they're in the book, so why not this guy Paul Simon? "He's so private, he won't talk to us," reporters said, "there must be something hidden in his life." So when the book came out, and there's not really, to my mind, ugly secrets there, you know, there are things he did, mistakes he made, times he was not the most diplomatic — he made mistakes like all of us do. But there was no ugly secret. The thing that these certain critics felt was that I hid the secrets, or I ignored them in exchange for all the access that Paul gave me. The 100 hours of interviews because he had never talked to a biographer before. But the truth is, Ray, is that there were no ugly secrets. I searched through his life as much as I did the Johnny Cash life. Also, since the book has come out nobody has emailed or written me saying, "Ah, you didn't talk about this, or that."
Paul's life was mainly devoted to his music and the studio. There wasn't a lot of balance in his life until, say, the Graceland period. That's when he meets Eddie, and he starts becoming a warmer person, a more generous person, a nicer person. He gradually starts spending time with his wife and family, and again I think that's what I think is one of the reasons for his retirement from touring. He's got more time to spend with them, he can have more balance in his life.
For Paul, fame never became more important, money never became more important, nothing became more important than his music.
Paul was a learner. You interviewed him numerous times during your Times days and learned so much about Paul, but you also enjoyed his songs. What has your relationship with Paul’s music, not the professional one you had, taught you about yourself that you couldn't have without it?
I don't know. As a music critic, songwriting was what I really loved, I discovered, after all those years at the paper. I did the Johnny Cash book because I was intrigued by what he stood for, the fact that he did stand for something, that we was trying to lift people up and so forth. So I was really drawn by the drama of of John's life. So when I went to write the next book I really wanted to write about a songwriter.
What's remarkable about Paul is that he started in 1963 with "Sound of Silence" and then he's never stopped writing great music. I can't find anybody else. The New Yorker did a great story a few years ago saying that of all these great songwriters from the 60s and 70s, Paul is the one who continues to write the best music. And that's a pretty impressive thing. So I wanted to see how that goes about and use that as a sub-theme of the book. How artistry comes about, and how you protect it, which is very important.
When I was on the L.A. Times, when you review a new album you have a couple days to listen to it, maybe a week. When you do a profile, it's the same thing. When you do a book on somebody you have two years, and I really started listening, in much greater depth, to Paul's music, and I had my favorites before I started writing the book, but then I discovered other songs. Songs that were overlooked, overlooked by me, songs overlooked by radio and fans, and that really gave me a new sense of the depth of his writing and how hard he worked — the determination. And that's what I think struck me the most. And the themes of his music. I hadn't noticed that there was a particular, overriding theme, but I think empathy is that theme. From "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to "Sound of Silence" to "Questions For the Angels," there's a very caring nature about his music that a lot of people probably don't pick up on because they listen to the songs individually.
Paul's music is not protest or revolution. He talked about people. I think it's kind of sweet, actually, that somebody could write that long and have that be the ultimate message. As with Cash, Johnny Cash was inspiring, trying to lift people up. It's a nice feeling to learn that great artists have that caring quality, and I think that's what touched me the most about how much Paul, how hard he worked, how much he sacrificed for that music. It didn't come easy. He was not a natural-born songwriter. It took him years before he wrote a good song. That impressed me. How hard work is so important in life and caring is such a valuable trait.
But it's interesting to read Paul talk about his post music life and what he feels are some of his responsibilities to the human race. On the “Cool Cool River” he talks about how music could never fix the sorrows in his life. Do you feel like the vocation you chose, being a music writer, gave you enough fulfillment to believe that your job could fill the sorrows in your own life?
Oh sure. There's nothing better, Ray, than being able to do what you want in life. There's an old, corny joke. If you do what you love, you'll never work a day. It's kind of corny because there's a lot of days you work at a newspaper, and it was hard, it was tense, it was frustrating, but the joy, in my case, of being able to listen to all of this great music and to write about it, and talk to artists about it, learn about how the songs come about and look what they're like — that is just a joy beyond description. And being able to continue to be able to do it.
I left the paper, The Times, in 2005 because two things happened: One, newspapers were changing. They were losing the power they had; the internet was becoming more important. The type of stories papers wanted, even if they might not admit it, was more, "Can you get clicks on the internet?" I had the feeling sometimes that if I learned that Britney Spears missed her plane, that it would be more important than finding the new Bob Dylan. So they were losing that power, but equally important, and maybe more important was music was changing. American Idol came along, and that changed, I mean, it's not quite understood, but the damage that American Idol did to pop music in America. The songwriter was no longer important. It was the singer, and the performance. So there was gonna be no more Bob Dylans for a while. There was going to be no more Joni Mitchells and Paul Simons and Jack Whites — I mean Jack White is still here, but he's not nearly as big as he would've been had he come along in the 70s or 80s or 60s, but he would've been a huge rock star.
But now rock itself is no longer a dominant cultural force in America, and certainly not songwriters. Jason Isbell is a writer I like, there are others, but it just doesn't carry an importance.
I'm fortunate to have a career when I can write about people I admire. Study them and find out how they became what they are. In the Simon book, it was just amazing. I talked to Quincy Jones, Allen Toussaint, and others about how artistry comes about. How do you define it, and how do you protect it, and they gave me a great roadmap.
Paul turned out to be the perfect subject because, again, he had to teach himself how to write a great song. He had to go through five years of writing and recording demos about the worst subjects you can imagine. There wasn't one ounce of quality in that stuff. For instance, in the book, one of the demos that he did, Connie Francis, a singer in the 50s, had a song called "Lipstick on Your Collar," and so he does a demo of a song, "I Wanna Be The Lipstick On Your Lips." How terrible can that be?
And this is Paul Simon. It took things in his life to lead to the "Sound of Silence," and once he wrote that one great song he never looked back. A lot of people write a lot of good songs, and they write a lot of average songs, but Paul is pretty damn amazing that he's never written... It's hard to imagine him writing a bad song. He might write a song that's a "B." They're not all "As," but he doesn't write "Cs" and "Ds." That's because he works so hard on them. That's the greatest joy in his life. Writing a song, and he had the courage to walk away from Simon & Garfunkel, the biggest group in the world after The Beatles broke up because he know that if he kept writing songs with those three chords and that voice he would burn out, probably, by the middle of the 70s. So he had the courage to go out on his own and pursue his own dream, which was to find new musical sounds that inspired him.
I interviewed with the author of The History of Rock and Roll, I asked Ed Ward if he had any advice for Young Writers looking to get into the industry, specifically music writing, and his advice was ("I’d say consider it carefully, and maybe think about self-publishing. Find a good agent, which will mean you’ll have to have a really commercial book, because the market is saturated, and only excellent ideas stand out. And either be born rich or marry rich if you can, because you’re certainly not going to get rich being an author.") — You've been at this for 30 years or more, and you've seen many of the changes the newspaper industry is gone through. Could you shed any insight on your own journey and provide any advice to young writers?
The thing is you have to be lucky. You really have to be lucky. In my case, I went to college, I got a degree in journalism. That led to a job at a newspaper. I didn't like being a general assignment reporter. I didn't like to be on call every day, 24 hours a day, having to cover murders, water commission hearings. I didn't like having to cover so many things and the things I didn't care about. So, I said, "Hey look, I still love journalism. I love writing. What would I like to write about where I wouldn't resent being on call 24 hours a day?" The two things were music and movies. I loved the movies, but I was intimidated. I didn't think I knew enough about the history of film to be a film critic, you know?
But I felt that I did know rock and roll. I grew up in the 50s, I heard Elvis one time on the radio before I even know who he was. I heard Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, all these guys, and I felt I knew that I could tell what good rock and roll was versus bad rock and roll. That gave me the confidence to start out. I contacted the Los Angeles Times, started there. They had no pop critic. They had a part-time rock critic, and I happened to know... the first paper I worked on, the guy who was city editor of that paper had gone to Time magazine. He was the news editor in Washington, and he knew the entertainment editor to the L.A. Times, so he contacted the L.A. Times, told them he should give me a try. I went there, the guy, Charles Chaplin, was wonderful. He said, "Look we already have somebody covering rock and roll," which meant he did one review a week, it wasn't a full-time rock critic, so I said, "What about writing about country music?" And he said, "Well there's nobody cares about country music in L.A. do they?" And I said, "Yes, L.A. is probably the biggest country music in the country, bigger than, you know, Nashville, and Dallas and all these places." And he says, "OK, well, why don't try a couple stories."
So I went and wrote two stories. One turned out to be Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, can you imagine?
Yeah, what a great story that was.
I knew Johnny Cash, I was a big fan because I loved Sun Records as a kid, and here was the guy who wrote "Folsom Prison" singing "Folsom Prison" to the prisoners at Folsom Prison. So the first thought was, "Well, we don't wanna write about a drug addict," and I said, "Look so much of rock and roll is involving drugs, it's a separate issue to me." So I went up there, and the concert was a huge success, and they says, "Well, this kid's pretty sharp." I was just lucky because Columbia Records did not invite journalists to come up and cover that concert because John, they had scheduled prison concerts before, and he didn't show up. He was on drugs, so they didn't want to invite writers in and have it be bad publicity, so I went up there on my own, and it turned out to be so important.
Then the next major story I did, in terms of proving myself, was Janis Joplin playing the Hollywood Bowl. I just thought she was terrific. I did a story on her, and she was such a great subject. Her quotes, she had to much color. Just following her around for a day, and those two stories kind of convinced them to eventually hire me, but the luck involved in that. Working at that first newspaper, knowing the editor of that paper, knowing the guy who was the entertainment editor at the L.A. Times, him giving me a chance, and then having two great subjects like that.
When I started, to be truthful, Ray, I didn't know how to review records or concerts. I learned on the job. When I started out, I was very shy about criticising someone. I described a concert, mention the songs they did, talk about the people at the concert, if they liked them. And I might sneak at sentence at the end saying what I thought of it. Gradually, maybe after a year, I started thinking that I saw some things that I didn't like at all, and I made the lead of the story that. That I thought this group was terrible and so forth. I was so worried, I thought maybe I'd get fired, or I thought people would march on the paper, but the sun came up and nothing happened. It's your opinion, you know. But how lucky. If I hadn't been on that paper, I may never have gotten to the L.A. Times. And if I hadn't gotten to the L.A. Times, where else do you start. Starting that high, the L.A. Times were probably one of the first two or three papers to have a full-time rock critic.
Aside from luck you have to be passionate. You have to find something that you truly love, and if you love it it, then you'll find a way to make it happen.