Boys in the Trees
By Carly Simon
384 pages, $28.99
By Robbie-Ann McPherson
In the mid-’90s, I was a “recording studio gopher” for a well-respected, very successful music producer in Los Angeles. It was fun, but more mundane than it sounds.
One of the few times I was actually starstruck came when I answered the front door buzzer and there stood English music arranger Paul Buckmaster. I couldn’t believe I was opening the door for the man who put the sassy strings on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
“You’re So Vain” is one of the most impeccably produced songs released in pop music. Simon’s done-with-you vocal, sneering over some of the best musicians ever to play, mixed with dynamic finesse, all of it overseen by prolific producer Richard Perry. It was a career-defining song for Simon.
Later I breathlessly told my record producer boss how in awe I’d been of Buckmaster, and my boss said in his clippy Texas accent, “If you wanna go to ‘Hit Makin’ School,’ put on a pair of headphones and listen to ‘You’re So Vain’ on (volume) 10.”
Regardless of how you might feel about the song, “You’re So Vain” is arguably a perfect piece of pop music. A rare pop musical vortex when an artist makes the right record at the right time in the right way with the right players.
As Carly Simon released that song in the fall of 1972, she was already a star with two hit albums under her belt, and newly wed to superstar James Taylor. Carly was the “lite” entry in the parade of solo female singer-songwriters emerging from the late ’60s. She wasn’t as “prolific” as Carole King, she wasn’t “political” like Joan Baez, trying to fight and change the establishment.
Carly was the establishment.
The public relations yarn at the time said she was the silver-spoon fed trust-fund baby of Richard Simon, of Simon & Schuster publishing. She was a Manhattan townhouse-raised, Vineyard-vacation fancy-school kid who flitted from Daddy’s easy chair to James Taylor’s tour bus.
In her new autobiography, “Boys in the Trees,” it feels both exhilarating and depressing to find that all of that, and yet almost none of that, is true.
The first half of the book reads more like Joyce Carol Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys” than a rock star tell-all. It’s a study in family pathology, written in the distressingly calm voice of someone for whom dysfunction and painful anomalies are “normal.”
Her legendary silver spoon yarn is true but not necessarily accurate; she never wanted for material things and lived an idyllic life for a while, but her father died when she was in her teens, forever dividing her life into the “before” and “after” that comes with that kind of loss.
Her father’s sad descent into mental illness and depression helped him lose everything: his claim to the Simon & Schuster empire, his wife’s affections, and eventually, his life. She remembers him heartbreakingly as a “half-vanished man.”
Simon’s first sexual encounter was with a neighbor, “Billy.” At age 7. How she doesn’t wail about this as child sexual abuse is a mystery locked in her psyche somewhere, but she recounts without hyperbole these experiences that continued into her teens.
She spends many anguished pages confessing shame over a stutter that has plagued her throughout her life. Shame recurs over and over in her recollections, from her father’s assertion that her nose is “fat,” to her mother’s bizarre affair with their male 19-year-old nanny, to Carly’s legendary crippling anxiety attacks onstage, to her inability to save her famous marriage to Taylor.
Like her music, her prose is lovely, subtle and quiet, at times confident and fun, hurt and sensitive, then she squares her shoulders and tosses her great mane of hair in unassuming defiance.
“You’re So Vain” may have infamously been written about her short-term lover Warren Beatty and two other mystery men, but her relationships with men were plagued with having to cater to their vanities in order to gain their affections.
“My only halfway decent talent was for loving people,” she writes of her low feelings of self-worth at 15.
Her meeting Taylor backstage at one of his own shows (there’s that vanity thing again), and their whirlwind courtship reads more like a shrug and a nod from him than sparks and fireworks. He just seems to mumble his way through the marriage while she gazes at him, stoned by love.
Almost a quarter of the book is devoted to him: their first date, which was basically him taking a nap and Simon lying there enraptured, their initial golden love affair which consisted of trying to build their house on Martha’s Vineyard, churning out records and tours, marriage, children and divorce.
Taylor comes off as something of a narcissistic, moody, incredibly talented, drug-addicted, somewhat spoiled rock star who at some point just gave up on their union, and Simon almost sounds as if she is still trying to figure out why. She lives in the Vineyard house they shared during their marriage. Although, true to Mulvaney form, her language about him is never bitter or vulgar.
She doesn’t really trash any of her lovers, or anyone for that matter, except for her constant, quiet self-deprecation. She shares a funny story about Jack Nicholson, who delivers possibly the funniest “line” ever spoken to a woman he is trying to bed; as they sit in her living room sipping coffee, he offhandedly asks her, “Do you ever drink coffee in your bedroom?”
There is a benign, complimentary tone even when she describes Beatty; in an eye-rolling move, he makes a booty call disguised as a desperate visit on a quick layover between flights. The next day she finds out she was one of three women he was with. Somehow, she still has the grace to describe him in the book as ”irresistible” and having exceptional skills as a lover.
For as much as Beatty was a cad, the man who seemed to spark the most confidence in her via his glittery reflection is undoubtedly the most notorious tomcat around: Mick Jagger. Simon’s chapter about her dalliance with Jagger is probably the best in the book. Clearly, from her description of their crackling dynamic, he left a powerful impression on her psyche, and unlike most of the other men in her life, this was a good one. She is vague about exactly what went on there, but he sent flowers to her hotel in Japan, and she rhapsodizes about him 30 years later, so I guess we can do the math.
Jagger unexpectedly dropped in on the 1972 London recording sessions for “You’re So Vain,” and ended up chiming in on the chorus background vocals. Simon excitedly recounts the two facing each other at the mic in a London studio, inches apart, and feeling the “electricity” between them. Perhaps her defiant vocal on that song was the result of having the fabled Jagger’s attention validating her.
She also mentions being excited to work with Buckmaster, having admired his string arrangements on the Rolling Stones’ album “Sticky Fingers.”
For fans of Carly Simon, pulling the curtain back on her might be a dose of disillusion; she is really not the easy-breezy precious, privileged socialite that her record company sold us, but she let us think it was true when it served her so long ago. Nor is she simply the lighthearted songbird with the flashy grin, who was so cute in love with James Taylor, but she sort of was, at least for a while. The toothy, beautiful grin threw out some blinding wattage to hide a lot of anxiety – “The Beast,” she calls it.
Very little of the book sheds light on her long-underrated songwriting, those perfect recordings, or her singing, with that magnificent flinty alto that is one of the most recognizable voices in music. Her gift for pathos is what made her a superstar.
The book ends after her divorce from Taylor, as if there was nothing that important after that. But in 1990 she won an Oscar for the theme song for the anthemic “Working Girl,” which she also wrote, and she released a dozen other albums, including the huge hit “Coming Around Again.”
Carly Simon definitely had more to say, but it’s curious – and for her fans a little disappointing – why she chose not to say it now.
Robbie-Ann McPherson is a longtime contributing News reviewer and former TV news reporter.