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.
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You were 15-years-old when your father passed away. Over the years, did you and your mother continue those conversations about your father, so you could reach a better understanding of the impact that relationship had on you?
It became an argument that had been given too many times and so it wasn’t explored further. The story about our family was that my father adored Joey for the first four years, and then when Lucy came along he adored her, and then when I came along, it was too much to have another girl. I didn’t look the way he wanted and I wasn’t a boy. It was like he’d had enough. Hard times really hadn’t begun yet at Simon & Schuster, but I didn’t have much of a chance with him before they did.
I also have such enormous compassion for him. I feel so much like him in a lot of ways. It’s like a concentric circle. That’s the way I felt when my father died. I swallowed him so that I could become him.
You write how you and your father share some of the same qualities, like shame, inadequacy, ambition, and depression. You also share a sense of “twirl”, which you define as “a certain kind of sexy flourish”.
When I was married to my second husband Jim Hart, we were having troubles in the marriage and we went to see this woman who was kind of a clairvoyant. She said to Jim, “You’re the gorgeous one, but Carly has the twirl.” That’s where I learned the term “twirl”. It was in reference to myself.
While attending Sarah Lawrence College, your friend Lani created her own version of twirl.
We decided we both had “shvank”. You can’t have shvank or twirl if you’re beautiful in too much of a deliberate or an organized fashion. You have to be a little off-center. It’s just like being a little bit off the note or off the beat.
I’d be curious to know what traits you carry from your mother.
Not enough. She was very shy in front of the camera. I remember when she was being honored for her 75th birthday and she had to get up and make a speech at the Riverdale Neighborhood House. Her official status was the president of the Riverdale Neighborhood Mental Health Association. She was so scared and I actually wrote the speech for her. She had to sit down even before the speech was over because she couldn’t do it … so that reminded me of guess who? [Laughs]
My mother was also very glamourous. I think that whatever glamour I’ve put across in photographs or in my stage performance, it’s the glamour in her.
The way you write several scenes in the book is like a painter brushing a canvas. One of my favorite passages is, “The night was a series of dark corners inhabited by couples swinging branch to branch, lost in music and rapture. The night was a wildcat, stalking from garden to garden.” This particular scene is so visually arresting and yet, to readers, it’s also somewhat disturbing because it’s the backdrop to your first sexual experience. You were only seven-years-old and the boy, Billy, was 16-years-old. In writing about that relationship, how did you reconcile what seven-year-old Carly saw and felt with what you know now?
Such a good question because of course, I didn’t know that it was the wrong thing to do. I knew inasmuch as he was trying to hide it, but I didn’t know that what we were doing was an absolute no-no because nobody had told me about child abuse. I’d been told by my mother not to go up to a man who stopped me if he was in a car and wanted me to get in his car. I imagined that was kidnapping, but I felt safe with Billy. Even though I may have been shy about certain things or questioned certain things, I was more in my passionate mode. Even as a seven-year-old, I had those interests and those desires. I didn’t have shame about them.
It was only when about two years into it that I told my sisters, “Well I have a boyfriend, too.” They told my mother because they heard the bells go off. My mother didn’t permit Billy to come for a couple of years. That hurt me terribly because I just missed him so much. He was my love. Now in the days of political correctness, I’m sure every child knows by the time they’re seven or eight that that’s a no-no, but for me, it was like being like my older sisters.
I was very jealous of Lucy because Billy would follow her with his eyes all over the place and yet he was sort of having physical love with me. It was one of the majorly hard things to understand in my life, (adds drolly) but there were so many of them. Just join the crowd.
You weave humor through a number of stories, including the time when you and Lucy performed your first gig at the Moors in Provincetown on Cape Cod. It was a gay bar whose clientele wore leather and rode motorcycles. You write how they probably thought you were “twin milkmaids from Switzerland, or escapees from a nearby carnival.” Though you and Lucy signed with Kapp Records in 1964, what would you say was the forecast, initially, for the Simon Sisters based on that first performance at the Moors?
In the first place, when we hitchhiked up there, I had no idea that we’d get the job or a job. We went up there with the idea that if we didn’t get a job as singers we would just spend our summer learning more about the guitar. Lucy would teach it to me. We would just have a musical summer walking up and down Commercial Street.
We got to Provincetown and shared a room. We hitchhiked up to the Moors with Lucy’s guitar. We didn’t get a lift. That was the beginning of the expression (hisses angrily) “We’ll see you at the Moors!” We made our way up to the Moors. It was Vietnam time and the man who had been entertaining there had just been drafted into the army. It was like the very next day. We got the job.
There are certain things that happened that are epiphanies and so Forrest Gump-like that you just can’t believe that it happened or that the transits crossed, just as it happened that Mick Jagger walked into the studio the night I was recording “You’re So Vain” or that I saw the picture of James and I said, “I’m going to marry him.” There were certain things that just clicked.
I love how you describe living with Joey when she had that apartment on 55th St. and First Ave. during the late-’60s. She’d become a member of the New York City Opera and was “traveling fast in the corridors of sophistication.” You write that living with her “was like watching a movie called Joey!” What was your role in that particular movie?
I was like the indentured servant. [Laughs] I couldn’t keep my shoes in the room that she was in or that was our shared living room. She’s very neat and I wasn’t. I was much more of a bohemian. I couldn’t quite get it all together. I couldn’t make my bed every day. I tried. I remember my room was in the back of the building. It looked out onto other buildings that were very close by. Joey tried to put a positive spin on it by saying, “Look at the birds outside. Isn’t that sweet? Let’s feed them.”
And they were pigeons! I watched a television segment from 1981 about you and your sisters. The three of you are singing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” a cappella to your mother on her 72nd birthday. When you sing with your sisters, what do you hear in that blend of your three voices?
Three girls who were brought up speaking very much with the same voice, the voice of my mother, the way she pronounces words. We all pronounce words pretty much the same.
What’s fascinating to watch in that clip is how Joey has an operatic voice, Lucy retained a bit of that Joan Baez folk influence that you write about in the book, and then the tone of your voice is like …
It’s easy to single out each of your voices and yet there’s this perfect blend that you only get in family singing.
It really is something that only sisters and brothers can get, or probably parents and children. I get a really great blend with Ben and with Sally. They have a great blend together. There’s also something in the genes that has to do with the way the throat is attached to the inside of the cavity. I will always be connected to James because of the cavities of my children. I mean there are a lot of other things that are similar, but sometimes I comfort myself with that knowledge.
I just heard something that was pretty interesting. This was in Scientific American. As the mother’s gestating, the father’s genetic material gets into the placenta wall and the placenta wall goes into the child, which then goes into the mother’s brain. Therefore, the mother actually has some of the genetic material of the father. I’ve gained some of the genetic material of their father from having given birth to both Sally and Ben.
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In fact, you, Ben, and Sally recorded an exquisite rendition of “You Can Close Your Eyes” on Into White (2007).
Isn’t that a beautiful version? Teese Gohl, the pianist on that, was so brilliant. We just said, “Let’s try it in a 4/4.” It had been in a totally other guitar / folk mode when James recorded it. This was a very different version with three parts. It made us very happy and misty to be singing it together. Did you notice that it leaves off the last word? It doesn’t have the word “gone” on the last verse … because I’m never gone. They’re never gone.
When you first ventured solo in 1966, Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman suggested that Dylan re-write the blues song “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” as a duet between you and Richie Havens. That led to what you call “the first of many difficult experiences with men in the music business.” You share the story about how the producer of the session made thwarted sexual advances towards you. You responded, “I’m sorry. I’m greener than that!”
That’s a great malapropism.
I chuckled knowingly when I read that because so many of us have fumbled words in similar moments of defiance. You explain that what you meant to say was, “I’m sorry, but I’m not that green.” Continuing from that experience, and then another experience where Grossman himself made overtures to you, male chauvinism reared its head in so many different instances.
Before political correctness, it reared its head a whole lot, like the Marvin Gaye experience. I was brought up to be the strangest little girl because of my experiences, so somehow that (Billy) felt okay, but Marvin Gaye sticking his tongue out and asking me to put it in my mouth was really not okay. Of course, that’s when I was 23, so times had changed. I knew that that was repulsive.
Beyond the demeaning sexual aspect of chauvinism, you’ve also endured the sting of men in suits having no regard for women in the music business or cheating you out of money. What tools have you developed to combat that spectrum of behavior?
I try to speak up. Sometimes my energy peters out or my thinking I can do something about it peters out before it actually comes to a conclusion. I’ve been robbed of so much money and I’ve tried to sue the people at hand by getting the best, most expensive lawyer in the world. He was a man and lost interest. It’s very disheartening. If at some point it’s revealed what happened, I’ll be able to teach something, that it can be won by a woman. Maybe I need the lawyer with the most conviction.
Fortunately, there were some princes among the lot, especially Elektra President Jac Holzman and the label’s A&R Director Steve Harris. They both championed you with the release of your self-titled solo debut in 1971. How did the image of “Carly Simon” evolve throughout the ’70s, in terms of the way Elektra marketed you?
That’s interesting. When my brother took the picture of me for the first album, it was at his house in Vermont. I was sitting with my arm back like that. It is what is chosen by the record company, so that picture was chosen.
I think from the earliest age, three or four, the only way that I could win my father’s attention was through being sort of goofy and so I would make faces for my father. I knew I couldn’t be prettier than my sisters, or more lovable to him, but I had certain faces or gestures or little moves that would make him laugh. When I was in front of a camera, I tried to be outstanding in some way. Because I couldn’t be outstanding to compete with my sisters, I was outstanding in a way that was all my own. Maybe I had a creative face or creative expressions, or something that compensates for not being pretty. I would do things that were a little off-center.
I was always copying Lucy. She would wear tight sweaters and sexy skirts to school, so I started to, too. I thought, That’s how I can be noticed. A little bit of the seductiveness of my older sisters played into the hand of my being intriguing and sexy. Some boyfriend of Lucy’s said, “Your sister’s really sexy.” I remember that must have taken hold and I must have thought I was sexy. I must have looked at a movie magazine of the girls in sexy poses and so that’s probably where I learned some of the insinuating chromosome stuff! (laughs) Of course, I have a lot of legs to play with so I had to put them somewhere, whether they’re beneath me or astride in the gates of Regent’s Park.
Yes, I love your brother’s photograph of you on the cover of Anticipation (1971). It’s alluring yet classic. When you called your friend and frequent co-writer Jake Brackman to say that you were marrying James Taylor, he quoted “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” back to you and said, “What about tearful nights and angry dawns?” What do you think prompted that particular response? Do you think he had a premonition about the marriage?
I would have to guess that anything subconscious was probably hidden from him, whatever it was. There was something about it that was too clever to pass up.
In having that first Christmas dinner with James and his family, you observed that the Taylors were like “an island tribe who spoke a private, loving language that only they knew.” Did the Simons have some analogous language or behavior that was unique to your family?
The Simons, led by my mother, in conversation were much more analytic. It was much more why somebody did something. In the Taylor family, it was just that somebody did something, not looking for the reasons. I always felt the reasons were happening in another sphere, especially with James. Ben has the same thing. He was born knowing things and then accumulating them and putting them out in the universe in a new and very poetic language. They found out what the deeper part was through their poetry, through the art itself.
I’m fascinated by the passage where you describe recording “You’re So Vain”. You write how, musically, “Everything in my life had led me to this moment” and then note all of your musical influences: Odetta, southern blues singers, your Uncle Peter, jazz and folk roots, the “nearly impossible blending of Lucy and me and our guitars”, your sister Joey and opera, the Great American Songbook, and all of the musicals of the ’40s and ’50s that you studied and sang. How did those musical influences actually crystallize on “You’re So Vain”?
(Producer) Richard Perry certainly had a very significant part. That song would have been “Bless You Ben” and it would have been much slower. It would have been almost a ballad. (Sings “Bless you Ben / You came in where nobody else left off.”) During that time, I was re-writing the lyrics. It all happened to emerge at the same time: the finishing of the lyrics, going in the studio, playing it on the piano. It was Richard Perry who could feel the pulse behind it. He kept on saying, “Faster, Carly, faster.”
There were three different drummers who played on that. Andy Newmark, who was with me as a part of my band over in London, and then Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon were both flown over to play on it because Richard wasn’t satisfied with what Andy played. Jim Gordon came over first and he ended up having all of the fills. If you listen to the fills, they’re the same every time (drums the rhythm underneath “clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee”). They’re all Jim’s fills inserted each time just before the chorus in the pre-chorus.
“Clouds in my coffee” is still such a unique, surreal kind of image.
It was my friend Billy Mernit who was sitting next to me on the airplane. He said, “Look at your coffee. Doesn’t it look like you can see the clouds in the coffee?” It was the clouds actually reflected from outside through the airplane window into the coffee cup. Billy’s a songwriter too, so he had the sensibility to see things like that.
“You’re So Vain” went to number one and No Secrets (1972) topped the albums chart for five weeks in 1973. However, you confide in the book that you weren’t able to enjoy that success because of an unspoken competition with James as well as the pecking order in the Simon family. You wrote, “For me to come out ahead was senseless and wrong.” Over the years, have you been able to enjoy the success of “You’re So Vain” in other ways?
I’d say I’m really quite hung up on it, but I’m aware of being hung up on it, so it’s not like some unconscious thing brewing and therefore festering. I’m aware of it, that I feel that you shouldn’t be here interviewing me, you should be interviewing her (Joey). I really do feel that way. I feel like they deserve all of the credit and all of the interest. I feel guilty about almost everything. If not guilt, then at least great empathy to the extent that I hope I’m not the cause of somebody’s ill feelings about themselves.
It’s so corny, but I think the time that I experienced success without guilt, for a little while, was when I won the Oscar (for “Let the River Run”). For a year, I felt immune to all my guilt, but then my mother, who was probably more jealous than either of my sisters, said to me, “Carly, isn’t it wonderful that you won it? So many people did so much harder work and better work, but you won it.”
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Do we call that a backhanded compliment?
That was too obvious to be even a compliment, but she thought it was. She thought that I’d bested people who worked long lucubrations into the night! Do you know what a lucubration is?
I was just going to say, that’s a new word for me.
It’s a work by candlelight — “lucubration”. It’s a word that I put on the refrigerator. Every day I used to put words on the refrigerator for my kids to learn.
Throughout the book, you return to this idea of the Beast, defined in part as “my envious feelings about everything I worried about not being. The Beast was, and is, whatever feels insurmountable in the moment.” Going past the timeline of this book, have you been able to tame the Beast and keep it at a distance?
No way. I wish. The Beast is an ever-present presence in myself. There are times that are significant when I just feel goddess joy — “Don’t let any thoughts intrude upon this perfect feeling that I’m having right now” — but most of the time, probably more of the time than not, there’s some element of the lurking Beast and I can get there much too quickly. The roots are so well-honed in me now that I’d have to be hypnotized for years to undo that particular traveling of the nerve to the thought process of the Beast. In the book, when I see the Beast in the mirror, which is when I go visit Evey’s apartment, the Beast is so kind then because the Beast has turned into anger, which is so much more direct.
Are there times when you’ve been able to use the Beast to your advantage?
Oh yes, definitely. I’ve tried to use that to my advantage in a lot of the wars that I’ve had with various men. Until probably very recently, we’re still enslaved by a self-defeating attitude that we’re not as strong as men or that we don’t deserve as much as men or we have to be the one to stay home and clean the house. The Beast will kind of be there in the background — “I can’t do this (Yes I can!), I can’t do this (Yes I can!)” Then the fight becomes the Beast. Then I overcome it. It’s a constant war.
You title one of the chapters “Heat’s Up, Tea’s Brewed”, a chapter that includes that moment in 1976 when you realized James had been unfaithful to you in Knoxville. It’s also the opening line on “After the Storm” from Playing Possum (1975). I’ve always considered that to be a very sensual kind of song and yet that particular chapter also covers a rupture in your marriage. Did the meaning of that song change from when you first wrote it for the album to the way it’s used in the book?
No, not really because that was kind of a very warm phase. It was after Sally was born and just before Ben was born.
James and I were born during a period of women’s liberation, we were brought up in families that were supposed to be monogamous. Our parents were monogamous, or were supposed to be. We thought we were, too. Of course, if I’d been realistic, I would have thought, A rock and roll star going on the road being faithful to his wife? How many people do I know who are? It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was and it burst a bubble, whether it was a fantasy that I was hoping would exist in reality.
I never thought that either of us would ever be unfaithful to each other. That was the beginning of a different phrase: of living without the bubble.
And a metaphorical storm taking place between the two of you?
Yes, but even after that, we’re coming back to that wonderful moment of when (quoting “After the Storm”) even “clothes are strewn around the room”. We still got back under the eiderdown.
I appreciate how you incorporated your song lyrics throughout the book and also created a companion CD, Songs from the Trees (2015). People who have always followed your work now have this deeper appreciation of where these songs come from, but also the significance of them to you throughout the process of reviewing your life. They’re as meaningful to you as they are to listeners, even if we personalize them for our own uses. I was so happy to see “After the Storm” represented because it’s one of your best recordings, the way your voice rides the melody, those flourishes of saxophone …
Thank you so much. I love that song. Jack Nitzsche visited the house we were renting in L.A. He asked whether I thought of those chord changes myself. I said, “Yes I did.” He said (excitedly), “What did you do? What did you do?” He actually asked me to explain where I put my hands. (Sings chords underneath verse melody).
In the book, you discuss how a healthy competition would naturally occur whenever you and James performed onstage together. It’s a joy to watch the two of you sing “Mockingbird” at the No Nukes concert (1979), especially since you explain how that was one of his most animated performances. It’s delightful seeing the two of you dancing …
From the viewer’s perspective, it’s easy to get the impression from watching “Mockingbird” that one of rock’s greatest couples had this idyllic life, onstage and off. For you, with the distance of decades, what does that performance mean to you within the reality of your marriage at that time versus what the public might have perceived or projected onto you and James?
I think I always had a way of not expecting anybody to love me that much, that they would give up other opportunities. Somewhere in my brain that feeling had occurred, maybe from the time with Billy, maybe from a time with my father, maybe it had to do with (college boyfriend) Nick and the first time that I found out that he was unfaithful to me. I never thought, I’ll be unfaithful to somebody unless they’re unfaithful to me. Then I would see that that bubble was broken and that we wouldn’t have those rules like before.
I was very dependent upon James in the years that Ben was small. I loved him twice as much and thought we’d learn from our mistakes. I was probably lying to myself but I had to keep those lies from myself.
Throughout the ’70s, a lot of your songs reflected different aspects of your marriage to James. I’m thinking of a song like “Love You By Heart” (from Spy, 1979), which could be interpreted as you singing directly to him. The song is painfully honest yet he’s also singing background on it.
I sang on “B.S.U.R.”, too, and there were songs of his that were clearly about me. I think we were, remarkably, able to allow each other that space in our writing. I’m not going to do anything to clip his wings as far as his writing. He can write about anything he wants. Our fantasies are our own and they can only add to the richness of our relationship.
I listened to songs like “You Make It Easy” and, yes, they would hurt a little bit, just as I’m sure that songs that I wrote, like “Waterfall”, which was about somebody in the past, also hurt, but James sang on “Waterfall” and he sang on “Fairweather Father” … and I did go to a “seedy Greek diner” in reality. That was on Charles Street.
For years, I’d heard reports about that night in October 1980 at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh during your Come Upstairs (1980) tour. Towards the end of the book, you devote a whole chapter to it and describe that concert in such harrowing detail, from having heart palpitations to hemorrhaging onstage. What sort of ripple effect did that experience have, personally, but also in your career?
I was desperately afraid that it was going to happen again. Once I had the memory of that having happened, I felt, “It’s in there and it could happen anytime.” That’s when my sister Lucy said, “You’ve already proven that you can do all of these incredible things, that you never thought you’d be able to get out in front of an audience in the first place. You really shouldn’t put this much pressure on yourself.” I certainly was looking for any excuse never to have to do that again.
I was also sued by a couple of the concert promoters for gigs that I didn’t show up for because we canceled the tour. Ben had just been operated on. The breakup of the marriage was at the same time. I went into the hospital. That was the hardest period of my whole life.
You certainly proved your resiliency because some of your greatest victories onstage, offstage, and in the studio, were yet to come, including this book! Boys in the Trees was published in November 2015. A year later, it’s now in paperback. How would you describe the initial response to the book?
I was very angry, at first, that the press picked up on who “You’re So Vain” is about. Then people started really reading it and I started getting comments like “She’s incapable of a boring sentence” (The Sunday Times). “This is a book about somebody who’s genuinely interested in connecting with an audience and connecting with herself. She’s making her own voice heard through literature.”
That critique is perfectly stated, Carly. I couldn’t agree more.