Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon review – Bond, Warren Beatty and the ‘Beast’

The You’re So Vain singer’s fabulous memoir lays bare her love life and her depressive streak

No need for a review, folks: it was Warren Beatty. The first giddy avalanche of press about Carly Simon’s memoir wasn’t about her, but about him, the sole subject, according to the papers, of her biggest hit, You’re So Vain. But what’s this? The “walked into a yacht” line came from a friend, Kim, at a party the previous year, duly entered by Simon into her songwriting notebook. The lyric “clouds in my coffee” came from an observation by her piano player, Billy, on a cute reflection from a plane window. This is what the book actually says.

“And no, the song is not just about one person,” Simon continues. “Warren Beatty played second base in this particular infield…[but] in all seriousness, the subjects of the first and third verses don’t know… so it would be inappropriate and a rude awakening to disclose their identities”. And that famous chorus line (“You’re so vain/ You probably think this song is about you”)? “A genuinely daft piece of original cleverness,” she shrugs. A line coming from her and her alone.

Complex, quick-witted and stack-full of raw talent: this isn’t how people like to see Carly Simon. After all, this multimillion-selling singer-songwriter was also the long-legged, hyena-mouthed lover of many famous men (William Donaldson, writer of the Henry Root letters, Kris Kristofferson, Mick Jagger and Jack Nicholson, for starters), and the wayward daughter of a publishing icon Richard, the Simon of Simon & Schuster. These boys in the trees, and many more, follow her, dog her and haunt her. Her process of shaking them free forms the foundations of this brilliant memoir.

Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.

We begin, cinematically, in 133 West 11th Street, where a three-year-old, youngest daughter of three is desperately trying to make an impression on her family. She was meant to be a son, she says, a male successor for Daddy, called Carl: “He and Mummy simply added a y to the word, like an accusing chromosome.” Father dies in 1960, after a period of depression, breaking her heart; by then, her mother has been not so secretly seeing a family babysitter, Ronny, for years. Developing a bad stammer and a black feeling she still refers to as “the Beast”, Simon’s only escapism comes through local teenager Billy, who sexually abuses her from the age of eight. She talks about the experience with brutal, direct honesty: “[I] was too young to know any better, and too infatuated to bust him.”

Simon’s tone throughout is surprisingly heavy for someone who often appeared like a carefree, music biz boom-time girl. It can get overblown over matters of the heart, too: her tumultuous relationship with ex-husband James Taylor is likened in florid detail to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. But for the most part, the book reveals her experiences clinically and compellingly, subtly showing us how canny and clever she is.

Sexism in the music business is laid bloodily bare, for example. Her first producer at Columbia, who expected sexual advances: “[I] assumed my most audacious look, as if to say, if you’re the kind of person who takes inordinate pleasure in insulting women, well, distance yourself, asshole.” Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, “damp and sweaty”, did the same, “caught up in his own grandeur”. Simon’s far fonder of Mick Jagger, describing the studio tension when he recorded backing vocals for You’re So Vain with a very funny line: “Having sex would have actually cooled things off.” Still, “he would not have been interested in me, I believed, if there hadn’t been an insurmountable obstacle between us,” she writes. “That is true for most men.”

There are also enlightening passages about Warren Beatty (Simon discovers in an 11am appointment with her psychoanalyst that she’s not his first patient that day to have spent the previous night with the actor) and Sean Connery, who Simon and older sister Lucy meet on a ship in 1965 (they end up slow dancing primly in his cabin and discussing whether Prince Philip was circumcised). The sisters sang together back then, their partnership being fatally severed when Lucy inveigles herself into Connery’s cabin, alone. The next day, Carly starts daydreaming about singing a Bond song, presumably as revenge; 12 years later, Nobody Does it Better soundtracked The Spy Who Loved Me. Anecdotes such as this gleam throughout, but melancholy pervades them too.

The book is just as good when Simon is talking about her songwriting and singing and the peculiar mixture of confidence and terror that still lurks within her. On her debut album, this “tall, unknown girl with an overbite” mixed half of the songs, but only wanted her compositions there for other people to record them. Simon also writes movingly about the stresses of raising young children, when her marriage to a drug-debilitated Taylor was falling apart, but blames herself as much as him. Such self-effacement sounds like her downfall.

The memoir stops, short, in the mid-1980s, just as Chrissie Hynde’s recent biography did, after fame waned. This is a shame; as the Slits’ Viv Albertine’s bestselling biography proved, fame’s afterlife is often as interesting. But two crushing incidents serve as Simon’s last statements on her career: a collapse at a Pittsburgh gig with severe anxiety and a visit with her children to the Simon & Schuster offices, where owner Dick Snyder quashes her family’s legacy (“If your grandfather had been smart, this could have been yours”).

An epilogue set in 2015 washes over what came in between. “I am not the type of person to let go of my past easily,” Simon says. Hopefully Boys in the Trees has helped her let it go far enough. Certainly, she emerges in its pages as a fully formed character at last.

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir is published by Constable (£20). Click here to buy it for £16


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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