Carly Simon

Carly Simon

Carly Simon (pictured at the Grammys in 1995) called me at home in October 2009, and we spoke for about an hour, mostly about her new album Never Been Gone, a set of her reworked classics produced with her son Ben Taylor.


Carly talked about her boyfriend, a laparoscopic surgeon who let her watch as he sliced people up. That became the angle for my story, which was picked up by one of the New York tabloids.

She also gave me some relationship advice, saying “you have a real warmth, it’s not a fake warmth,” and claiming I was her best interview. Well, I probably soft-pedaled a bit, drawn in by her sexy charm. It’s not easy when she’s singing bits of “You’re So Vain” to me. I deliberately didn’t ask about ex-hubby James Taylor (yawn!), but maybe I should have.

And then the next day, I read in the New York Times that she was suing Starbucks for screwing up her previous album, 2008’s This Kind of Love. She had told me the marketing was an “abortion” and a “fiasco,” but it would have been nice to be told about the lawsuit. Oh well.

IF BEN HADN’T COME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THIS RECORD, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN DOING? 

carlythiskindThat’s very intuitive of you. I was in a really bad funk, because I had put so much of myself into the record that came out on Starbucks, but Starbucks had pulled its music arm four days before they released my record. So therefore my record was basically an abortion. It wasn’t in the stores. It was not promoted by Hear Music, which was the label that it was supposed to be on, and everybody from Hear Music got fired … They’ve reconstituted themselves. They can do that. They’re sort of like Cosmo Topper!

THAT’S BAD TIMING BECAUSE BARBRA STREISAND IS NO. 1 NOW, IN PART BECAUSE OF STARBUCKS! (NOT A GOOD QUESTION: BABS ISN’T SIGNED TO STARBUCKS; IT JUST HAD HER ALBUM FOR SALE)

(A long, long pause) It’s amazing. It is what it is. You’ve gotta grapple with what you’ve been given. I’m very happy for Barbra and that’s great, and other people have done very well on Starbucks too. It’s just that for some reason four days before my record came out they decided to disappear like a ghost and never explain anything to me.

I REMEMBER WHEN YOU RE-SIGNED WITH ARISTA (FOR 2000’s BEDROOM TAPES), CLIVE DAVIS EXITED SHORTLY AFTERWARDS 

I know. It doesn’t have as much to do with me as it has to do with larger forces guiding hands in foreign lands. So to answer your question, if I had done anything I probably would have started a stamp collection or something!

DON’T YOU HAVE A BOUTIQUE ON MARTHA’S VINEYARD? DOES THAT KEEP YOU BUSY?  (SHE IS PICTURED GETTING A SECURITY CHECK BEFORE MEETING HER PAL BILL CLINTON ON THE ISLAND IN 1995)

No, no. It isn’t mine. I’m just associated with it because I’m an investor and the owner of it is my dear friend. It has nothing to do with me really.

DO YOU SIT AROUND HOME ALL DAY, WATER THE PLANTS AND DO THE DISHES? 

Not quite. I’m doing a lot of things. But I must say during that period last summer when Starbucks decided to go out of the record business I tried to appeal to them and they didn’t even answer me. You can get very down and you can think that it’s you. But Ben was really determined to make this album. He was very anxious to see how everything would sound acoustically. “Loving You Is the Right Thing to Do” I’d originally written on the piano and so I went to the guitar and wrote an arrangement. It was really fun for me to sit and write it on a different instrument than I had originally written it on. I became musically interested in all the different things that we could do. I don’t think any of us really ever expected it was ever gonna come out. It was a series of experiments and of the love of music, not the love of commerce.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN NICE TO WORK WITH YOUR SON, IF NOTHING ELSE 

Oh my god yes. It’s just great. I think the things that came out incidentally were just some of the most things I’ve done musically. I had a great time doing it and I hope I have a great time promoting it. I feel as if there’s a very good energy around it. But commercially I’m not expecting very much from it.

YOU’RE SELF-RELEASING IT, RIGHT? 

Yes, it’s on my son’s label.

DO YOU HAVE DISTRIBUTION THROUGH A MAJOR? 

Distribution through RED (which is part of Sony).

THERE SEEMS TO BE A MELANCHOLY THREAD THAT RUNS THROUGH A LOT OF THESE SONGS, AND BY EXTRAPOLATION THE BODY OF YOUR WORK: ANTICIPATION? NO FREEDOM? 

I don’t think so. I think that occasionally there’s an interpretation of one of these songs that does have a melancholy feel to it. Certainly this version of “Anticipation” does, but then you go right into “Songbird,” which is an affirmation … That’s very up. I think “Loving You’s the Right Thing  To Do” is very, very up, and “It Happens Every Day” keeps from being melancholy because it’s got that funny ending of “Give it to the Girls!” It just happened to be that during one bad fight where I thought it was going to be the end of the relationship — it turned out not to be — I packed up some bags and went down to SoHo to stay at a friend’s apartment. As I got out of the cab there was a doorman down the block slightly who just looked at me, and the bags were tumbling out of the cab, and the doorman said, “Give it to the girl!” And then there were people on balconies, it was a hot summer night, and they just all started singing “Give it to the Girl!” So that’s where that whole ending came from, which seems to be coming out of nowhere, but it had a special memory for me. I just happened to think of it at the time as we doing the very end of that song. I just sang it out because I remembered it. A lot of the songs, I don’t feel them as ending melancholy. I feel them as being acceptance and moving on, and even becoming much, much larger.

IN “THAT’S THE WAY I’VE ALWAYS HEARD IT SHOULD BE” THERE’s AN ACCEPTANCE OF LIFE PERHAPS NOT TURNING OUT THE WAY YOU THOUGHT IT MIGHT? 

That’s true. That song definitely has a resigned feeling

ARE THERE ANY SONGS THAT TAKE ON A NEW LIFE OF THEIR OWN IN THIS REHASHED FORM? 

Certainly “Anticipation.” When I say “these are the good old days,” I stop and think for a second and it gets very quiet …. and think, Now there are gonna be fewer of them when I originally wrote it. But then I snap right back and say, Yes! These are the good old days and they’re great. “Let the River Run” is completely up. There’s nothing down about that. “Boys in the Trees” is very mysterious and questioning. There’s a bit at the end that I happened to mix out of it, not on purpose but I just faded the song before it said it. But at the end of “Boys in the Trees” it says, “Beg for me! Beg for Me!” It’s not as if I’m begging for the boys anymore. They’ve got to beg for me. There’s really a coming of age. “No Freedom” is not a downer.

I GUESS I GRAVITATE TO THE DOWNER SONGS AND CONVENIENTLY IGNORE THE UPBEAT STUFF 

You want them to be down! You can do it with any ones that you want to do because there’s that possibility!

THANK YOU! WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT BEGGING FOR THE BOYS, I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER BE IN THAT POSITION.  

In the song, it’s actually from when I was 14 I was in love with Bobby Elliot (sp?) and Bobby Elliot would come whistling down the block smoking a cigarette having come home from prep school that weekend. I’d be up in my bed in the attic and just dying for him, just dying to say, “Bobby will you come in and I’ll give you some milk and crackers?” I was up in my little bedroom and just so shy. I had all these questions and I was getting all my cues from my mother. “Do you go to them or do you let them come to you? Do you stand in back afraid that you’ll intrude? Deny yourself and hope someone will see and live like a flower while the boys grow on the trees?” These are the questions that a daughter looks to her mother for a role model if her mother’s a good role model, or even a bad role model. You look to your mother. Now, when I re-sang it I sang it really to my daughter and she’s singing background with me on it.

WAS “ANTICIPATION” WRITTEN ABOUT CAT STEVENS? 

Yes.

ARE YOU STILL IN TOUCH?  

Oh, he called me about three years ago. It happened to be my birthday, and it was very much a call out of the blue. The operator said, “You have a call from Yusuf Islam.” I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know anybody by that name.” He called back three times, and finally the third time he got through. He said, “Don’t you remember we used to sing together in the ’70s and we used to go out?” I said, “My god, It’s you! It’s you!” I was so ecstatic just to speak to him.

“YOU’RE SO VAIN” HAS BECOME LIKE A NATIONAL ANTHEM. WITH THIS RE-RECORDING, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE RECLAIMING IT AS YOUR OWN? 

It’s very tough. Even I was a little bit in awe of doing that. But I just had heard another (version with Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs), and I listened to it and I thought, “Well, if they can do it, I can do it!” I got to be the guitarist, which I hadn’t on the first one. I played the piano on the first version. I really got to hit the guitar. I would say “delicate” would not be the word. I really played it gutsy.

DO YOU GET BACK INTO CHARACTER? 

Part of it was a technical problem with my voice. I was really having trouble with my voice the week that we were trying to do the vocals, the week that Ben was home between tours, and I just couldn’t reach the high notes. “Like you’re walking …” I had a bad voice, and I was thinking I’ll just do it the lower octave, “You walked into the party, like you were walking on-to a yacht.” Just doing a different vocal interpretation, but I wasn’t happy with that. I just tired myself out one day, just singing it and singing and singing and sounding more and more like a strangled cat. Somehow I broke through something. The next day I actually got the vocal that’s on the record now. I don’t want to sound perfect. I would so much rather have personality than perfection.

HOW MANY TAKES DID IT TAKE IN GENERAL FOR THESE SONGS? 

A lot of them were one takes. I don’t really remember, because we did do overdubs.

I IMAGINE THERE WAS QUITE A A LOT OF POST-PRODUCTION, BUT YOU’VE TRADITIONALLY BEEN INVOLVED WITH THE MIXING ANYWAY 

Oh yeah. The one I really didn’t have much to do with the mixing or the recording of was “No Freedom.” That’s so brilliant, I think. It’s just a fantastic record. I can say that because that really is Ben’s. I give that production totally to Ben. He just came up with the idea of having that filter over it in the verses, and then it explodes in the choruses … It isn’t distortion. It’s a compression and a filter. And then Frank (Filipetti), who’s this incredible engineer who was just as involved as the rest of us were, took the filter, the compression, off on the choruses so it just jumps out at you. “There ain’t no freedom!” The truth of that.

THAT SONG REALLY DOES STAND OUT. IF YOU THINK ABOUT YOUR NEXT RECORDING PROJECT, THAT WOULD BE AS GOOD A SPRINGBOARD AS ANY. 

Thank you. I programmed the album so that it would be programmed the way a symphony is, so that the first 4 songs give hints of the theme of the album. And then “Let the Riverrun” brings you to the next section, which is the hot section, which is “You’re so Vain,” “You Belong to Me” and “No Freedom,” which is the second movement of the symphony. And then the third movement, you go down and become reflective and then at the very end is “Songbird,” which is a song that I had written in 1970. I recorded it on a Walkman and I found this old tape, and I thought, “Oh my God, I love that song!” and I had just vaguely remembered it. So we added strings on the second verse and then the third verse is brand new. It’s the same song, but it’s recorded in present time.

SO THE FIRST VERSE IS THE OLD VOCAL .. 

The old verse and the old piano. And then the second verse is the old piano, old vocal, new vocal on top of the old vocal and strings. And then the third verse is just the new vocal, the new piano and the new strings.

THAT MUST HAVE REQUIRED SOME ENGINEERING FEATS 
    
Yeah, absolutely. But I’m so glad it went on. It’s so rejuvenating. I hear that song and I think, “Yes, I am going toward a better future, and yes I don’t know where the songbird is gonna take me but I’m gonna go where it leads.”

YOU MENTIONED CAT STEVENS BEFORE. ARE YOU IN TOUCH WITH ANY OTHER BLASTS FROM THE PAST? 

Oh gosh, you run into people from time to time. (Like Sinn Fein terrorist Gerry Adams, below?)

I SAW YOU AT THE STONES A FEW YEARS AGO. DO YOU AND MICK KEEP IN CONTACT? 

Whenever we run into each other. It’s never planned.

I READ THE VANITY FAIR ARTICLE LAST YEAR THAT DRAWS A THREAD AMONG YOU, CAROLE KING AND JONI MITCHELL. IS THAT A HISTORICALLY ACCURATE REPRESENTATION, OR DID YOU CONSIDER YOUR PEERS AND RIVALS TO BE DIFFERENT PEOPLE? 

Do I consider them to be peers? They were certainly my role models. They came before me, and they very much influenced me, as did a lot of other people. I was also very influenced by Annie Ross, and by Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald. Lots of jazz singers. I think the point of the book (excerpted in Vanity Fair) was all the men that we shared.

YES, I GUESS THAT’S THE WAY WOMEN ARE DENOTED IN HISTORY, BY THE GUYS THEY SLEEP WITH. 

It’s an easy out.

STILL, IT SEEMS YOU HAD A GOOD TIME 

You know what? I wouldn’t say that. I would say in terms of the men that I slept with that I thought I was in love with every one of them. And for them it wasn’t necessarily about love.

I THINK THAT’S A KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GUYS AND GIRLS, ISN’T IT? 

That’s right. And talk about the messages passing down from mother to daughter. I didn’t think that I could ever have sex with a man that I wasn’t going to marry. So every man I had sex with I thought was going to end in marriage.

THAT’S GOT TO LEAVE YOU IN A DEEP FUNK AFTER EACH RELATIONSHIP ENDS? 

(laughs) I learned fairly soon that I had been wrong about that assumption!

YOU REALLY DID SEE YOURSELF AS BEING MRS. CAT STEVENS OR MRS. KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, OR MRS. WARREN BEATTY? 

I sort of feel that I am … to this day. Take the “Mrs” out of there. But there’s a connection, and because my memory is so good, I don’t forget a thing.

YOU’VE GOT A LOT OF DIRT ON A LOT OF GUYS 

I wouldn’t call it dirt! I would call it Krazy Glue.

DO YOU KEEP JOURNALS WITH ALL THOSE DETAILS? 

I’ve got journals from a bunch of years but not nearly enough. I’ve started journals and stopped them, and started and stopped them, I kept them pretty regularly during my marriage, I guess.

WHO WAS THE BEST PARTNER? 
    
I’ve been very lucky because every partner that I’ve had I’ve been madly in love with, and the man that I’m with now probably loves me more than anybody ever has in my life. He’s just a delicious person. I never thought that I would be with a man like he is. He’s a doctor, so he’s not in my world at all.

THIS IS THE LAPAROSCOPIC SURGEON? 

That’s right.

IS THERE A NOTABLE AGE DIFFERENCE? 

For some people! It’s not that crazy for me. I’ve been with men who I’ve had a larger age difference with on both sides, both older and younger. He’s 53. We’re about a decade apart.

DO YOU FIND THAT YOU HAVE DIFFERENT TOUCHSTONES IN LIFE? 
    
No, it doesn’t have as much to do with age as it does to do with the fact that he pursued a very, very different career than I did. He studied chemistry when I was writing music, and was starting to be in the ER room when I was already tumbling down on the other side of my career. Going to watch him operate is the most magnificent thing.

YOU’RE IN THE GALLERY? 

Not gallery, I’m sitting right beside him. (strange segue) I have very high expectations for this record just because I happen to love it and I had so much fun doing it, and I’m very proud to be able to put this record out. I just couldn’t be happier about it. I think it sounds great. It’s a touchstone to something that’s gonna be wildly imaginative and different on the next record that I do of my own material, as “No Freedom” is my song. What was I talking about? See how different the worlds are? I can’t go from music right to the operating room. When I watch him operate, I scrubbed, I put on those blue uniforms and little caps and a mask. But I talk to the patients before they were gonna under and made them feel comfortable about anesthesia and then I held their hands and sang to them while they were being put to sleep and doing the countdown, 17, 16 … But I told them how much fun it was, and that I was going to be holding their hand when they woke up too. And then I watched the surgery and everybody thought that I was going to be grossed out and have to be taken from the room on a stretcher. I wasn’t at all. I was fascinated by it. It’s so amazing. They put this rubber sheath around your body and then they bloat your abdomen with carbon dioxide so that all the organs are separated from each other. The top half of the abdomen goes up and leaves the liver to be really shown so that you can see the pancreas and the liver separate from each other. And you can see the small intestines, the large intestines, the colon, everything separates from each other. You can see this through the screen because the camera’s put through the navel. It’s absolutely fascinating to see him, and he’s ambidextrous, so he moves the instruments around and he fixes you, and then they deflate the belly, and wake the patient up, and I was there both times singing.

DO YOU SING A PARTICULAR SONG? 

One of them asked for “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.” And another one asked for “Anticipation.”

YOU TAKE REQUESTS? THAT’S COOL. 

Sure!

DO YOU WATCH CSI AND ALL THOSE BLOOD-AND-GUTS SHOWS? 

No, I don’t ever watch them. That’s not my cup of tea. But to see him do it, it’s just amazing that he has the self-assurance to be able to go into somebody’s body and repair it like that. Everybody’s life is in his hands. He’s emotionally very different from most of the men I’ve been with who are artists. My second husband, he’s a poet and a writer and a wonderful one. And then Richard, who is the surgeon who I love now, who I’ve been with for about three-and-a-half years, is a completely different temperament. His mother was a romance novelist. He feels things very romantically. Every morning I get a note under my door, because he has to leave so early to take the ferry over to the mainland to go to the hospital. He takes the 6 o’clock ferry, and I sleep ’til 10. It’s a very, very different existence … Women need to hear how beautiful they are. He tells me how beautiful I am. And I say, “But I’m not.” He says, “Yes, you are. You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” I say, “No I’m not …”

THAT’S SUCH A CONCEIT BECAUSE YOU ARE. 

No it’s not, because I don’t think I am. Thank you. He has an ability to say it, and he says it so much with his eyes because you can’t say it and not have it come through the eyes.

WHAT ARE YOUR PROMOTIONAL PLANS FOR THIS RECORD? 

I have a plan. It’s definitely gonna involve some touring. I’ve never played in Europe before. I’ve never played in England even.

JUST LIKE ELVIS PRESLEY? 

Like Elvis, right? I’m gonna try to do what Elvis should’ve done, just go to England. I like to play small places because I’m much better in an intimate setting than I am in a large hall where I can’t see everybody. I really like to see the people that I’m singing to. Is that so wrong?!

IT WOULD BE GOOD IF YOU COULD PUT A LITTLE MEMOIR OUT, SHARE YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCES 

I’ve talked to a number of publishers about it. I need a certain amount of money to be able to do because it will take the rest of my life! There’s lots. I’m either plagued or benefited by this incredible memory that I have.

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2009, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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