Carly's Road to Success


When Carly Simon was growing up as a gangly little girl—long before she became a magnificently gangly woman—she stammered. Badly. Humiliatingly. “Kids made fun of me in school, and I couldn’t read out loud,” she remembers. “It made me not want to go to school. I developed side symptoms—a lump in my throat that made me gag every time I started to speak. But,” she goes on, “it motivated me in a lot of other areas—like singing—because talking was so difficult. My mother suggested I sing whatever it was I wanted to say. That was very embarrassing too. I would say, ‘P-p-p-pass the b-b-butter,’ and my mother would say, ‘Just sing it!’ So,” she says, snapping her fingers, “I would—just like that.”

Carly eventually subdued the stammer (it recurs when she’s tired or nervous) but, thankfully, kept the singing without becoming rock’s answer to Mel Tillis. Yet the underlying fears—ones that haunted her childhood with nightmares—remained (despite largely successful psychoanalysis). One fever-induced dream has stayed with her for 29 of her 33 years. “There were all these adorable teddy bears crawling up the wall. They were really sweet, but in the dream they took on this ominous character. After the dream, I was frightened of even my own teddy bear. I had always loved him till then. I wanted to throw him out the window. But nothing would really put him out of my mind, so I finally snatched out his eyes. I think that was to exorcise his evil spirits. And then I sewed in some new ones and he became my friend again. It’s funny,” she adds, “how a dream can turn you against something you love. My dreams don’t have the lasting power they used to. But that one lasted long.”

It has not only persisted but has also become a metaphor for Carly’s career. For six years, beginning in 1972, Simon beat all the odds of the record biz. She sustained one of her generation’s most formative, if enigmatic, pop music successes, with five gold albums and three gold singles (“You’re So Vain”, “Mockingbird” and “Nobody Does It Better”), without a single record-promoting tour. To be sure, Carly is gifted with one of the most powerfully affecting female voices in pop-rock. But, haunted by paralyzing stage fright—perhaps the most notorious case in showbiz—Carly essentially snatched out the eyes of her audience by fearfully retreating from it.

During the time off, Carly shored up her marriage with her mellow husband, James Taylor, 30, whose own career has seesawed erratically with hers. Along the way, she’s mothered two children (both born in natural childbirth—”the only miracle I have ever seen”), Sarah, 4, and Benjamin, 18 months. “James has done more work on his career recently than I have. I’ve wanted to,” she says, “but my instincts—which might be neurotic—tell me that when children are young they should be with their parents a lot.”

Then this spring, with equilibrium at last achieved in her life and their careers (James’ JT album and “Handy Man” single put him back atop the charts), Carly dramatically hit the road again, playing her first concert dates in six years in small halls and campus clubs around the Northeast. Sure, one motive was to promote her Boys in the Trees LP, which with the help of a single, “You Belong to Me”, is on its way to becoming her first platinum album. But now, with 12 shows behind her, she says, “I don’t see performing as the trauma I once did.” Still, she needed her security blankets. James traveled with her supportively, joining in on duets and filling in one gig Carly missed because of a combination of jitters and a bad stomach. Further, she booked few dates farther than 90 miles from New York, so she and James could get back to spend the night with the kids. And what other rock star would have stipulated in her contracts that disposable diapers be provided backstage for the times the baby came along? (Afterward Carly and James autographed leftover Pampers and handed them out to fans.)

For part of her shows Simon kept the first 10 rows of the house lit. “I want to see the audience,” she explains in her hard-won confidence. “I want to talk to the audience.” Her manager specifically rearranged the seating plan at her showcase concert at Greenwich Village’s Bottom Line and exiled all the distracting record industry moguls to the sides. The irony is that the modest seven-city itinerary was a luxury that one tour member estimates set Simon back $75,000. “Next time out I’d like to make some money,” she shrugs. “But I think it comes out of my royalties.”

Her return to performing—complete with sensuous body rhythms and the most suggestive lips this side of Mick Jagger—does little to diminish the rock-tease image Carly projects from a safer distance on seductive LP covers. (Most have her provocatively posed in dishabille.) “I don’t see myself as a sex object. That’s the way other people see me,” she protests. “But it doesn’t bother me. I like myself now—physically, sexually, but not to a narcissistic degree. People go through stages of hibernation,” she adds. “I’m moving not so much out of James’ shadow but my own. It’s an instinctive thing for me now to move out of seclusion.” (Her shadow is 5’11”, his 6’3″.)

Clearly, her marriage to the soothingly subdued Taylor has as much as anything to do with Carly’s confidence. She’d already done the rounds with the likes of Kris Kristofferson and sent the rock world guessing about the unnamed lover of “You’re So Vain” (Jagger? Warren Beatty?) when she and James got together after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1971. (Taylor, the son of a former dean of the University of North Carolina Med School, had seen Carly earlier on Martha’s Vineyard, where both their families summered.)

The marriage has since become the object of considerable speculation by reviewers who, however inappropriately, apply highbrow analysis to Carly’s supposedly autobiographical song lyrics. (“Let’s make love for old time’s sake/Let’s set right an old mistake/ Let’s invite our hearts to break…”) At first it was Carly’s turn to help James through his tough times, following his bout with heroin addiction. Lately, though, James has dutifully pitched in to help his workaday Manhattan wife. He and Carly mesh recording studio, rehearsal and touring schedules to cover the children’s pickup, eating and sleeping needs when they are in their nine-room apartment on Central Park West. Their only help is a five-day-a-week housekeeper-sitter. The planning still falls mostly to Carly. “I go through 10 checklists a day—’Where are the kids now? Are they home from the picnic? Have I bought the meat for dinner?’ I cannot totally be without a consciousness of where the kids are. I have almost all the responsibilities of running the household and pulling the whole thing together. It’s hard.”

Her husband’s hobby is carpentry, and he virtually hand-built their Cape Cod house on more than 65 acres at the Vineyard. It has a 45-foot observation tower with spectacular views of their realm and of Vineyard Sound. Once there, they tend to leave all work commitments behind, relaxing with Taylor’s now separated parents and singing siblings—Kate, Liv and Alex—and youngest brother, Hugh, who runs a general store on the island. They entertain infrequently at home and rarely go out with other old pals like Paul Simon (no relation) since, as Carly says, “If I’m not in bed by 11:30 I won’t be too zippy the next day. I get up with the kids at 6 and give them breakfast.” She admits, “I really miss having a night life, hanging out in bars or talking and walking in the country waiting for the sunrise.”

She has found that her childless friends “have very little tolerance for my having to be home at a certain time or not having the freedom to drive down to Florida for a couple of days to hang out at the beach. I do occasionally get furious and hate one kid or another for a spell—and feel guilty,” she says. “But that’s to be expected.” For her, motherhood has meant “discovering a new dimension to love—cherishing this little person without any barriers.”

As a kid herself, Carly grew up in the well-bred musical/literary set on the East Side, Riverdale and Connecticut. Her father, Richard Simon, co-founded the publishing house of Simon & Schuster at the age of 24 and entertained notables ranging from Richard Rodgers to Jackie Robinson and Louis Untermeyer. One of Carly’s uncles, Peter Dean, is a singer. Uncle Alfred Simon co-authored a book on the Gershwins, the late Uncle Henry Simon was a musicologist and critic, and Uncle George Simon is a venerable jazz historian-critic. George observes that his niece “was always more jazz-oriented than the other girls—more bluesy and ballsy in her phrasing, very intuitive and expressive.”

Carly’s first problem was finding her way amid two bright older sisters—Joanna, whom she calls “theatrical, poised and elegant,” and Lucy, “angelic, shy and demure”—plus her younger brother, Peter, now a photographer. “I didn’t know what role was left for me,” she recalls, “so I just became a live wire. I buzzed around and tried to be funny.” But inside was a gnawing insecurity. “For some reason at age 8 my need for my mother was very strong, I needed her for my sense of self. My separation anxiety got so great I thought I couldn’t handle my life without her.” Like her parents before her, she went into Freudian analysis (“l used to purposely make up these dreams about candlesticks”) at age 9 to deal with her schoolgirl stutter. Another severe emotional setback was the death of her father in 1960. The stammer cleared up when Carly began steadily dating a boy at age 16 “who showed me it was charming and not so loathsome.” The two of them dated for six years, living together during the summer (“My mother was very cool about it”).

By that time Carly had entered Sarah Lawrence College, where she and Lucy formed a singing duet, the Simon Sisters, and cut an improbable hit single in 1964, “Winkin’, Blinkin'” and “Nod”. (Lucy, since married to a psychiatrist, has released two pop solo albums, while big sister Joanna has become a prominent mezzo-soprano with the New York City Opera.) Carly dropped out of college and, after a disastrous encounter with a Nashville record producer (he suggested the casting couch), wrote her first hit in 1969, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”, with screenwriter Jacob (The King of Marvin Gardens) Brackman. (Another of her early smashes, Anticipation, has become the theme of a Heinz catsup commercial.)

Now, between her readings and samplings in various psychologies (“Everything I’ve ever done has been very useful”), Carly fiercely mothers her kids. Someday, she figures, “I’d like to have three or four children.” But, with her heightened career plans, she reckons, “I would be cheating them out of a good mother.” Rather, she’s dreaming of a round-the-world trip with the kids and James. As for the old specter of the road, Carly affirms that “getting out there and jumping through the hoop has lessened my fear. I am anxious to do it again.”

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