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Tales From the Trees: An Interview With Carly Simon

Photo courtesy of Meghan La Roque (2016)

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.

<i>PopMatters</i>' Interview With Carly Simon: Page 2

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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