Tales From the Trees: An Interview With Carly Simon
In her best-selling memoir Boys in the Trees, Grammy and Oscar winner Carly Simon finds Orpheus, fights the Beast, and shares the moment she saw clouds in her coffee.
A sunset over the East River envelops Carly Simon in a soft glow. It's a mild November evening, the kind when Simon lets her tea bag steep languidly before taking the first sip. Simon's older sister Joanna (Joey) has just explained why she uses ice cubes to water orchids. Ten stories below, and several blocks south towards Union Square, Barnes & Noble staff are stocking the newly arrived paperback edition of the singer-songwriter's acclaimed memoir, Boys in the Trees (2015).
"I always live in some kind of anticipation of something good happening," says Simon, perched cozily on a plush sofa in her sister's living room. Her smile is radiant. "Something good" has defined Simon's world ever since Boys in the Trees became a #1 "New York Times Bestseller" in November 2015. "Brilliant" (The Guardian), "dazzling" (The Sunday Times), "intelligent and captivating" (People) are just a few of the duly earned raves she's received for the book, which spans her childhood as the youngest daughter of publishing magnate and Simon & Schuster co-founder Richard Simon, through her divorce from James Taylor in 1983.
Manhattan marks the first stop on Simon's fall book tour of the northeast. The city's pavement maps many of the memories that she explores with an unflinching eye. Simon spent the first six years of her life on W. 11th St. in Greenwich Village. Her father, "a non-professional pianist who played as well as the professionals", filled the home with the melodies of Chopin and George Gershwin alike, while the singer's Uncle Peter and Uncle Dutch nurtured her love of blues and jazz. After the family moved to Riverdale, Simon and her sister Lucy would commute down to the Village, eventually becoming fixtures of the folk scene, strumming and singing at celebrated haunts like the Bitter End and the Gaslight.
Simon would cap the '60s by moving into her own apartment on E. 35th Street in the city's Murray Hill neighborhood, a place where she'd compose the music to her first solo single, "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" (1971), whose melody was originally used in the Peabody Award-winning documentary Who Killed Lake Eerie? (1969). It was also the place where she and James Taylor exchanged wedding vows in November 1972. By decade's end, the Taylors would raise their children Sally and Ben further uptown at the Langham on W. 73rd St., opposite Central Park. That's where Boys in the Trees reaches its heated denouement.
Throughout each of the book's 24 chapters, Simon mixes candor and humor into a gripping and rhythmic language that seemingly dances on the page. As a child, her family's summer home in Stamford, Connecticut became a place of "intrigue and implications, and late-night taboos", but also the nexus for luminaries like Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and family friends that included Benny Goodman and Jackie Robinson. Apple and cherry trees populated acres of sycamores, maples, elms, and a copper beech tree that kept the family's secrets of forbidden liaisons and assignations.
Boys in the Trees, which doubles as the brilliant and haunting title track to Simon's 1978 gold-selling album produced by Arif Mardin, retraces Simon's burgeoning sense of self, which was complicated by an emotionally distant father who favored her older sisters, the "lifelong nemesis" of a stammer that Simon first battled at six-years-old, and a sexual relationship with a teenage boy that followed a year later and continued on and off for another five years. "I sought some kind of freedom in music, in the promise of transcendence and the idea that the purity and the innocence of a mythical god could somehow deliver me from darkness," Simon writes, recounting the summer of 1956 when she discovered a book about Greek gods during her family's vacation on Martha's Vineyard. That same summer, Simon met a young boy named Jamie Taylor.
Fifteen years passed before Carly Simon reunited with James Taylor after she opened for Cat Stevens at the Troubadour in April 1971. Only a month earlier, she'd spotted Taylor on the cover of Time magazine and vowed to marry him. "From the first time I saw a picture of him, James was it -- the ultimate Orpheus of all my fantasies," Simon writes, likening Taylor to the Greek god who valiantly tries to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld and risks losing her forever. In a crushing twist, it is Simon who ultimately becomes Orpheus as she tries to save her marriage from a vortex of infidelity and Taylor's spiraling drug addiction. (He's since been sober for more than 30 years.)
As one of the preeminent singer-songwriters of her generation, an artist who's received an Oscar, multiple Grammy Awards, and an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1994), Simon threads her music through several stories, whether using her lyrics as a narrative device or discussing the root behind some of her most well-known songs. Just like her father sought shelter in Rachmaninoff and Beethoven after his partners bought him out of Simon & Schuster in 1956, Simon found refuge and self-expression through music. “Music brought me closer to the idea of God," she writes. "Music gave me the energy to revise, revive myself; renew, rebirth myself. It was a palliative, a relief." Indeed, her impulse to channel feelings into melodies has created compelling musical snapshots of her life, from romantic bliss ("The Right Thing to Do") to irony that guts the soul ("We're So Close"), from rekindled desire ("Waterfall") to richly detailed character studies ("Legend in Your Own Time").
"Carly's buoyant," James Taylor once said during a 1977 interview with Dick Cavett. "She won't let herself sink." A lifetime of pruning the boys in the trees, and their famous counterparts like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, plus surviving the pin-striped chauvinism of the music industry, has only fortified Simon's buoyancy and resolve. "I have simply found a way of loving through whatever absences or dejections have fallen like tree branches in my path," she writes, bringing the tree metaphor full circle. On the eve of her New York book signing, Simon met with PopMatters for a wide-ranging interview that underscores why Billboard named Boys in the Trees one of the "Top 100 Music Memoirs of All Time".
In May 1971, The New York Times reviewed your solo appearance at the Bitter End. The article stated, “She strikes several emotions at once and makes them feel glad to be struck.” I experienced that same sensation while reading Boys in the Trees. Whether it was amusement or shock or sorrow, all of these emotions happened at once, sometimes within the span of one sentence. While you wrote the book, or went back and revisited certain passages, what kinds of emotions overlapped and intertwined for you?
They're all in one crazy pasta. I don't know what's going to be coming in when, but they're all there simultaneously. I thought that two of the most contradictory, but not contradictory, elements are fear and passion. I have both of them about my music because I've got so much passion to create with, and even to sing it with, but I have so much fear about getting in front of an audience and singing it. That informed the writing because fear and passion both came out very much in the same anecdotal way.
Fear came in so much in my life that it did everything but completely stop me. When I was a little girl, I so wanted to be sociable, but I was scared that I wasn't going to be able to speak a sentence because I had such a bad stammer. There are a few things that were just sheer, unadulterated joy, like the birth of my children, although there was fear because Sally was born with her umbilical cord around her neck.
I could so easily break into tears when I sing almost any song. In fact, recently, we were rehearsing for Channel 4 in London. I was singing "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" in a lower key and just in a slightly different way. I thought of the words. Sometimes, when I'm a singer and a listener, I just can't take it because there's too much energy trying to come out of one place. The heart conflicted with the voice. That's why, when I sing in studio, I have to have a very cool head on and I've got to sing to one side or the other of the emotion but not directly in the center.
It's the same thing when you're directly on the note. It's not as interesting as if you give a little bit to the right or the left direction of the note. You de-entrap yourself from it.
"De-entrap" -- I like that. In the book, you really delve into how your father treated you differently from your older sisters Joey and Lucy. You write how he favored the "Nordic look" in the women he loved but also how, when you were born, he'd hoped for a son to be named Carl. Your parents added a "y" to Carl like an "accusing chromosome" and you became Carly. How did your mother explain your father's treatment towards you?
He had a nervous breakdown sometime after my brother was born and so that affected me because I was three-and-a-half at the time. My mother explained that as he was sick and that he wasn't able to pay attention to me. She gave that part of it to me straight. It wasn't like she was trying to say, "But he really loves you, darling."
When I was born, I had a reflux condition because the lid on my esophagus wasn't developed yet and so I would throw up for the two hours after I ate. That meant that somebody, usually my mother, had to keep me in an upright position. That bothered my father because it was when he expected her to be with him.
One day I remember my mother told me to put on a tutu and dance for him, just go in and do a little pirouette or a bow or a flourish. I did and I don't remember his reaction. It's so funny because my fear and passion were so strong that they didn't let me through.