Written by Carly Simon
Audiobook read by Carly Simon
Published by Flatiron Books on November 24th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Music, Entertainment & Performing Arts, Personal Memoirs
Source: public library via Overdrive
Simon's memoir reveals her remarkable life, beginning with her storied childhood as the third daughter of Richard L. Simon, the co-founder of publishing giant Simon & Schuster, her musical debut as half of The Simon Sisters performing folk songs with her sister Lucy in Greenwich Village, to a meteoric solo career that would result in 13 top 40 hits, including the #1 song "You're So Vain." She was the first artist in history to win a Grammy Award, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award, for her song "Let the River Run" from the movie Working Girl.
The memoir recalls a childhood enriched by music and culture, but also one shrouded in secrets that would eventually tear her family apart. Simon brilliantly captures moments of creative inspiration, the sparks of songs, and the stories behind writing "Anticipation" and "We Have No Secrets" among many others. Romantic entanglements with some of the most famous men of the day fueled her confessional lyrics, as well as the unraveling of her storybook marriage to James Taylor.
I said this when I talked about the last musician’s memoir I read, and I think it may apply at least as much to Carly Simon as it did to Elvis Costello:
“Because we hear their own words in their own voices, we may feel like we know these musicians as people…but we’re wrong. We know the work. We can forget that songwriters are storytellers as much as novelists or screenwriters are, and those stories aren’t necessarily revealing to us who they are as people. There may be truth in them, but it’s usually more likely to be emotional rather than factual truth, and that’s where the sense of intimacy resides.”
Most of Carly Simon’s best-known songs tilt toward the personal/confessional end of the singer/songwriter content continuum, which ramps up both the literal and emotional truth components and the sense of connection between listener and artist. Her memoir Boys in the Trees, which shares its title with a 1978 album, reveals some of the facts and more of the feelings behind Simon’s truths.
Some of the facts may already be familiar to anyone who listened to popular music in the 1970s. Carly Simon was the youngest daughter of Richard Simon, co-founder of publishing house Simon & Schuster. (It’s been decades since the Simon family was involved in the company–Richard Simon was effectively forced out by partners while Carly was a teenager–and Simon & Schuster isn’t this book’s publisher.) The Simon children’s upbringing mixed prosperous trappings with arty-bohemian-intellectual leanings; music and culture were important, but so were secrets and maintaining appearances. Carly dropped out of college to join her older sister Lucy as a musical duo for a couple of years before striking out on her own. Struggles with anxiety and insecurity have marked her entire life–crippling stage fright has kept her from live performances for extended periods throughout her career–and neither problem was helped by her decade of exhilarating, aggravating rock-royalty marriage to James Taylor.
Taylor seems to have had the most lasting impact of all of Simon’s “boys”–with the possible exception of their son Ben (the couple also have a daughter, Sally)–and the story she tells in Boys in the Trees concludes not long after their marriage does. Simon is notably generous toward Taylor in writing about their lives together. Perhaps that’s because he’s her children’s father; perhaps she wants to honor and respect his influence on her life and work; perhaps she still has a soft spot for the man. As someone who’s sometimes had trouble seeing her ex’s less-winning qualities clearly, I can relate…but given some of the details Simon shares about their relationship, I felt that she was far too hard on herself and not hard enough on him (and I can relate to that too).
Simon writes of other “boys” and men besides Taylor and acknowledges here in print, for the first time, which one the second verse of “You’re So Vain” is about (the whole song isn’t about him, and she still won’t name its other inspirations). But the first man in Simon’s life, and the one whose influence has outlasted even James Taylor’s, was her father, and the “daddy issues” she reveals in Boys in the Trees are almost textbook.
Parts of Carly Simon’s story are much like that of other white, female, upper-middle-class Baby Boomers riding the shifting cultural waves of the 1960s and ’70s–but as she was living that story, and experiencing it in a way that was uniquely hers. she was chronicling it and making it the soundtrack for the lives of many women a lot like her. I grew up with Simon’s music, and was engaged and enlightened by the woman who created it and emerges to talk about it in Boys in the Trees. Simon’s years of struggle with a stammer don’t seem to complicate her reading of the audiobook version of the memoir, which also includes original music and clips from the companion album Songs From the Trees. If you’re interested enough in Carly Simon to read her story, I highly recommend letting her read it to you.
from Chapter One:
“This day may have been the day, the very day my identity was born. Before the incident occurred, I didn’t think about who I was. After, I would spend the rest of my life testing to see if I had been right.
“The whole family was gathered after dinner to make the acquaintance of a possible nurse for Peter, my brother, just born five months before. Lucy and Joey, my two older sisters, and I were all under the age of eight. We lived in the top floor of a six-story town house on Eleventh Stteet.
“‘Quick, girls, it’s almost eight, the plane got in an hour ago. Get dressed and wear shoes and socks and brush your hair.’ Mommy was holding a cigarette between her lips. She tried to get a brush through the tangles of my feathery hair and finally grabbed a barrette, attempting to ge tmy hair to go somewhere it stubbornly wouldn’t go. She left it in a web of blond knots and went on to an easier task: brushing Lucy’s hair.
“Andrea Simon still had to neaten up her chignon, don her black calf heels, and apply a new layer of lipstick. She always wore bright red.”
I considered using one of my Audible credits for this but her narration didn’t wow me in the sample I listened to. I might have to go back and reconsider it.
I’d say it’s worth reconsidering.
I’m not usually drawn to celeb memoirs, usually reading / listening only for freelance assignment. But I was always a James Taylor fan (I’ve seen him in concert a few times), so I might skim through the print version. I’m not sure I’d want to listen, even though the audiobook is nominated for an Audie.
It is? Thanks–I didn’t know the nominations were out! Off to see what needs to be bumped up the TBR/added to the wish list…
Great review! Sounds like there’s some nice complexity in her story — not the usual celeb memoir. I’m tempted.
Then my mission is accomplished :-).