Carly Simon: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Roast Beef Hash

The Seventies songstress opens up about marriage, motherhood and her notorious stagefright

Carly Simon performs on stage in New York in 1978. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty

Why do ye persecute me as God, and are not satisfied with my flesh? — Job 19:22

Most rock writers, it has been observed, would rather be the people they write about; that is, trade in their typewriters to scream nonsense at 20,000 rioting 'lude freaks while Keith Richard powerchords their brains into Cool Whip. Not me. I don't want to be Mick Jagger. Nor do I want to be Carly Simon and have millions of college students think dirty thoughts about my album covers. I don't even want to be James Taylor, who is married to Carly Simon.

I would trade it all to be Benjamin Taylor. Here is someone with a good deal in life: all Benjamin Taylor has to do is cry and Carly Simon sticks her breast in his mouth. The other 4 billion of us on earth could cry for the rest of our lives and Carly Simon would not stick her breast in our mouths. Greater injustices have marred human history, I suppose, but I can't think of them right now, because Carly Simon has just placed her breast in Benjamin Taylor's mouth. He is having a good time. I am breaking into a cold sweat, wondering if it is obvious from ten feet away that my eyes are dropping from Carly Simon's face to her uplifted blouse every three seconds.

"This is beginning to look obscene," says Carly Simon in the living room of her huge ten-room Central Park West apartment. Benjamin, a cuter-than-hell miniature of James Taylor, is gymnastically curled around his dinner, which he is clutching with both hands and both feet, as well as his mouth. "He's fourteen months old now, and everybody keeps giving me advice on what to do. He's very strong-willed. He even sleeps with James and me. We visited Dr. Lee Salk, the famous child psychologist, and I expected him to say, 'You naughty woman!' for spoiling him so much, but he said, 'Wonderful! Wait until he's verbal and you can reason him out of it.' Then we're supposed to be rewarded with a"— she breaks into a snooty ruling-class accent for humor — "perfectly splendid human being. Until then, it's him or me. Ben is a very secure child. He is also a very hungry child."

"He sleeps in the same bed with you?" I ask as Ben continues to prove his mother's veracity with his voracity. "Doesn't James get jealous?"

"I would say that Ben interferes with our life," she says, measuring her words. "It's hard to work around the boy. The important thing is to maintain your sense of humor. There are times James and I just sit back and laugh about how unfit we are to be parents."

Hear me, all you leering sinners who picked this filthy rag off the newsstands because of the licentious cover picture: reform your evil ways. That's it for the veiled references and cheap thrills. You want more, you go buy some magazine that's sold in a plastic bag. This article is crawling out of the gutter right now.

"I had a dream about Linda McCartney last night," she continues. "I went up to kiss her hello and she pushed me away and she said, 'You mustn't kiss anyone.' I felt terrible and asked her why. She answered, 'Don't you know that's the way everything is spread?'"

"You and Linda don't get along?"

"No, no," she says. "We're good friends. I know exactly what the dream meant: Ben has a sleep disorder. He wakes up every forty-five minutes at night. I've been exhausted for fourteen months. Linda once told me she never had any sleep problems with her kids after they were weaned. She said she just turned out the light, closed the bedroom door on them and left them there no matter how much they cried or what they did. I thought that sounded very cold, but now I think it's not. They get used to it, and you finally get some sleep."

"Maybe a little household trauma is a good thing," I suggest. "A lot of critics have written that Paul McCartney's music has suffered from too much domestic bliss."

"I've heard that logic many times and I disagree," she says. "Domesticity can lead to complacency, but it doesn't have to. What does you in is not being honest about the problems in your marriage. My relationships with other people have always been the most important thing in my life. Most of my songs are about my relationship with James, so much so that sometimes I'm hesitant to reveal them to the public. People try to puzzle our lives together from the lyrics, like a soap opera, but I don't give a damn. I do try to change the extraneous circumstances a bit, so they won't look like an exposé."

Ben pushes away and slides down to the floor. Toddling off to the kitchen, he wears an awesomely self-satisfied smile that seems to be saying, "These morons think I don't know what I'm getting away with." But I know, kid, and you better watch out. You're making a snack out of what has been tormenting my libido from the cover of 'No Secrets' for six years....God forgive my Oedipal heart for crawling back to the gutter of lust and envy. I will flog my fired lower region with tree branches this very evening.

"Mommy! Mommy! Look at my flower!" Four-year-old daughter Sarah (usually called Sally) bursts in the door from outside. She is blond and closer in appearance to her mother, but without the wide mouth.

"It's beautiful," says Carly. "Where did you get it?"

"A man on the corner. He let me have it free."

"Did you thank him?" Sarah nods affirmatively as Carly feels her forehead. "You have black circles under your eyes. Do you feel all right?" Carly turns her attention to me as Sarah pads off. "Both children have been feeling under the weather lately. And I have some kind of flu that is making me tired all the time. It couldn't have come at a worse point."

With her new Elektra album, Boys in the Trees, due for release in a few days, Carly has scheduled her first tour in six years to begin this Sunday in Boston at a club called the Paradise. Her stage fright — actually an overwhelming phobia — is notorious throughout a business where it is accepted wisdom that you always tour after the release of a record.

"I'm trying not to stress anything like 'Carly Simon's Great Return to Performing' or anything like that," she says. "I'm just going to slip back into the scene as quietly as possible. There's nothing special I'm doing to prepare psychologically, just eliminating any thought like' I can't do it' from my mind. Performing, you know, is a very odd thing to do, as unnatural as flying or taking an ocean voyage, and you can take certain drugs for that. I think I look at it too logically. At least with acting, you're not you up there. Singing is more intimate and personal. People find themselves in my songs. Performing wouldn't be so bad if everyone in the audience could come up onstage and I could kiss them beforehand. As it is, it's like making love without any preliminary kissing....Be sure you quote the term 'making love' there. I'm a gentlewoman."'

Unholy hormones race through my veins. Lord, stay this throbbing, in my manhood.

"Where did that come from?" Carly says.


"Let me guess. Does his name start with D?"

That's right. The Devil. He has possessed my loins.

"I'm not supposed to say, Mommy."

Oh ..... It is Sarah. She has these enormous black rings under her eyes, apparently drawn with an eyebrow pencil.

"I know who did it!" shouts her little friend, Niccolo. "I know!"

Carly is laughing at this absurd little satire of her motherly concern etched on her daughter's face. Daddy James Taylor walks in and admonishes Sarah, "Now don't spill the beans."

"It was you!" shouts Niccolo, pointing at James. "You have no evidence," James objects. "You know I can't draw."

"It was you! You're guilty!"

"Okay, okay. What's my sentence?"

After much deliberation, it is decided his punishment will be to watch Mary Poppins with the kids on the video tape deck.

I ask Carly if any of the various pop psychology movements (ranging from est to biofeedback) she has followed have done her stage fright any good. "Not really," she says. "But I have learned from all of them. Let's say I'm cynical but still fascinated."

"Is there anything you're particularly into now?"

"Last summer I had a wonderful talk with Baba Ram Dass," she says. "He seemed to lack a lot of the rhetoric and voodoo that some of the others have. He doesn't claim to be perfect; he's just another person who's gone several steps further on his spiritual path."

"Was there something specific that impressed you?"

"His ability to communicate what he's thinking. He's immensely alert and a great listener. There's nothing in his talk that demands you have to follow him."

"Was his appeal charm, then?"

"No, not charm. He made me believe I was all right, but not full of illusions about myself. I told him a lot about James and me, that I thought our feelings of competitiveness were a good thing — he said that wasn't an illusion. He agreed with me that I was earthbound and unready to assume my mystical duties. Someday I'll make a heavy transition to spiritualism, but I can't now with the children and all."

"You need someone to tell you you're all right?"

"Yeah, I need confirmation every couple of weeks," Carly laughs. "I don't know. I was just alone with the man and I thought I'd ask. I wish I could remember more of what he said. The main thing was that everything is all right."

I've been throwing up all day," Carly moans over the phone from her Boston hotel room. It's God's wrath for your latest album cover. "It's the same thing the children have had for the past two days. They've been throwing up too. I can't even keep any liquids down. I'm so weak I can hardly stand. Ohhh, Chuck, why did this have to happen now? Everyone will think I'm chickening out from stage fright again."

Indeed, that is the consensus in the huge line outside the Paradise that night. Nobody leaves when the announcement is made, however, because James Taylor is performing in Carly's place.

"But I sell her goddamn records!" shouts a squat man at the ticket window. "If they think I'm going to pay for a ticket when I sell her goddamn records, they can kiss my rosy red ass!"

Confusion also reigns inside where the opening act, David Spinozza, a prominent New York session guitarist now trying to go public with his solo album on A&M, is an hour late going on. Carly's band leader and supporting guitarist, Spinozza shares with her a group of top studio musicians: Michael Mainieri on vibes, keyboards and percussion; Tony Levin on bass and tuba; Warren Bernhardt on piano, clavinet and synthesizer; Billy Mernit on piano; Joe Caro on guitar; and Steve Gadd on drums. The set is only partially successful. Though the music is predictably well played and listenable, Spinozza still has something to learn about stepping out front and dominating a stage.

All of which adds to the impact of James Taylor's entrance. It's hard to imagine a more mild-mannered performer; yet it is impossible to take your eyes off him. Perhaps it is the tension arising from his unpredictability: you never know if he's going to mumble something incoherent or knock you over with some hilarious bon mot. Or maybe it's his habit of staring straight into the spotlight, so you're always thinking of that line in "Fire and Rain" about Jesus looking down on him. Okay, Lord, I know life is unfair and all that, but why does one guy get talent, money and a nice family? Couldn't you at least drop a plague of locusts on him occasionally to make the rest of us feel better?

James opens tonight by mumbling incoherently about his wife's absence, leaving the audience even more confused than it was. No doubt he didn't plan it that way, but immediately you're on his side, rooting for him not to make a fool of himself, just for a plague of locusts to eat his face.

Playing a guitar with little tension in the strings because of a badly cut finger, he sings only one original song during the evening, "Mill Worker's Song," written for the Broadway musical Working. The band then joins him on such oldies as "Memphis," "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Hey, Good Lookin'" The renditions fall short of rousing because the musicians are constantly looking around at each other with worried expressions to see what the others are playing (the set being completely unrehearsed).

"Just because you've never been this close to a star doesn't mean you can't shout abuse," he apologizes.

"How about some James Taylor songs?" somebody yells.

"I'm sick of that guy," he explains and launches into Carole King's "Up on the Roof." His encore, believe it or not, is "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "You Need a Friend."

So you couldn't ask for more dramatic tension than on the following night when Carly finally hits the stage: except for a two-night stand at the Other End last year, it's her first performance in six years...and she's just this side of puking on the audience. "I hope this is a loose set," she announces. "Anyone can go to the bathroom at any time, and so can I."

Dressed in a simple top and slacks, her hair slightly frizzed down past her shoulders, her body somewhere between willowy and skeletal, her overbite so inspiring that archaeologists will dig her up in 5000 years and put her in a museum as the first Cro-Simon Woman, Carly cuts a striking figure under the lights. She exudes a captivating sexuality, and all her moves are exaggerated to Big Star proportions by her height and wide mouth.

Her set opens with "Anticipation" and "(We Have) No Secrets," her contralto coming on like a good church organ: it is full-bodied, it hits all the right notes, and its biggest variable is intensity. Perhaps because of the adrenalin from a highly enthusiastic crowd, there is no discernible weakness from her flu. The band, now focused and nearly perfect, sounds very close to the original recorded music.

One of the most enthusiastic fans, clapping and whistling, is James Taylor's father, Isaac, an affable and balding beer drinker sitting directly across from me. "They call me the Doc of Rock," he says proudly between songs, filling me in on how a drummer from a prominent heavy-metal band came to see him on the road. "He thought he was going to die, but it was just exhaustion."

The first new song is "You Belong to Me," also the first single from Boys in the Trees and very much in the tradition of her past hits. Continuing a long lyrical interest in messing around, the persona admonishes an unnamed lover that he doesn't have to prove he's "beautiful to strangers." Next comes an admittedly autobiographical song about arriving home from a party and having "De Bat (Fly in Me Face)." The catchy tune is unique in her repertoire because it is sung in a Jamaican accent. James comes out to thunderous applause — almost too thunderous, since it isn't his show — and does "Up on the Roof" while staring into the spotlight again.

Carly's rock & roll potential stands out most on "You're So Vain," her 1972 single that drove the entire country crazy trying to guess which of her famous lovers it concerned. Steve Gadd, who has to be one of the best drummers anywhere, really punches the song into your kidneys and Carly convincingly wails over the primordial bass line. Her first (1971) and most lyrically depressing hit, "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," follows and provides a nice contrast with her rocking finale, the Doobie Brothers' "It Keeps You Runnin'." She walks off with this phenomenally sexy bounce, leaving the entire audience a candidate for eternal hellfire and damnation, and returns with James for her encore, "Devoted to You," a duet. They finish with a stunning version of "Goodnight, Irene" (one of the three greatest songs ever written in 3/4 time, the others being "Blue Danube" and "Manic Depression").

Backstage, everyone is hitting the sauce and congratulating Carly on her fine performance. James is telling a joke about a Polack who defines Easter as Jesus rolling away the rock, seeing his shadow and returning to his tomb for forty more days of winter. Long possessed of a thorough distrust of journalists, he looks over at me writing and asks, "If you print this, could you change 'Polack' to Rolling Stone reporter'?"

They're gone. it's wonderful," says Carly as we get bombed on white wine and Perrier in her living room under a large painting of a gorilla sitting among a bunch of beach chairs. The silence is distracting after our first interview session. James is out and the kids are with Grandmother. Be still, oh my hormones, and remain in your glands, lest your master do something wicked and shameful. "It's the first day I've had to myself in months."

"Months?" I ask. "Don't you need solitude to create?"

"Definitely, but it's hard to find it. I have a friend who takes one day a week off. She does whatever she wants, and her family knows it must take care of itself that day. Maybe I should try something like that."

As the alcohol befogs our brains, we soon seem to be talking as two human beings, rather than one human being putting on a performance for another human being to print. I tell her about my sister just having her first kid, and she tells me about the birth of Ben. "It took about six hours." she recalls. "We had natural childbirth. It was the amount of pain that was unnatural. James was wonderful. He timed the contractions and made up different stories for each one. Like he would create a scene at the seashore with gulls and sand and as the contraction approached, a great wave would wash over me. The pain got obscene about halfway through, but James stayed calm and the doctor let him stay to the end. Some people are afraid of blood and placentas, you know. In the operating room there was a big oil drum labeled 'placentas.'"

Thanks be, oh, my hormones. You will never venture out of your glands again. This appears to be a good time to change the subject to the album (lushly produced by Arif Mardin), so I ask about "Tranquillo," a song about Ben.

"Well, the title was certainly wishful thinking," she says. "At night, he's a real Baby Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

"That line, 'Why don't you melt my heart,' sounds almost like you're saying, 'You better melt my heart because I'm missing a lot of good times sitting here with you.'"

"Well, it's good you interpret it that way because the line was a mistake," she laughs. "The lyric got rewritten, but the background singing was already recorded and we had to stick with it."

"A lot of your songs seem to be about adultery, and you take the traditional viewpoint that it's a bad thing," I say. There is hope for your soul. "It's almost like you're trying to convince yourself."

"Convince myself?" she echoes. "No, that doesn't ring a bell. I don't really consider myself traditional. Or maybe I just object to the word. It reminds me of traditional cuisine, which is boring, like hamburgers. But I've never bought that open-marriage thing. I've never seen it work. But that doesn't mean I believe in monogamy. Sleeping with someone else doesn't necessarily constitute an infidelity."

"What would?"

"Having sex with somebody else and telling your spouse about it," she laughs. "It's anything you feel guilty about."

"I don't think anybody has any idea what sexual morality is anymore," I say. "I think about it a lot and..."

"Don't we all? That and power and time and money and the phone bill. Morality is what I can do and still live with myself."

The song "Haunting," I suggest, presents a concept I find distasteful, an almost Big Brotherly vision of love: someone in your head always watching you.

"At times those situations can become desperate, when you can't exorcise a person from your heart," she replies. "But I don't mind the sensation of falling prey to my emotions. People who need that control are missing something. I can't see why you would want that kind of control."

"Because," I say, "I've seen all kinds of potentially good writers mess themselves up permanently by falling into a marriage and a mortgage and kids. They can't leave and end up writing ad copy or novels about mowing grass. Someday I want to go back to the Midwest and live in some grungy small town for a year and write about it. I couldn't do that with a wife."

"Well, you have a vision of what you're doing," she says. "That's okay. But I've gotten to know myself much better in the context of marriage. Everything was amorphous before. Now I know what I can do and what I can't do. Too much freedom doesn't help you artistically. I guess the worst thing is to be rigid within whatever boundaries you set for yourself. You have to remain open or you get boring."

"Suppose your muse told you that in order to write any more good and original songs, you would have to go live in a grungy small town in the Midwest?"

"I would have to see if they had good schools, good drinking water, good playgrounds...."

"The town is really grungy and doesn't have any of that stuff, and you have to go to it for your art."

"Then I couldn't go. My children need me here."

Sarah and Ben soon arrive from their excursion, and chaos seems to flood the apartment. Sarah dumps several rocks she has collected into Carly's lap for inspection and approval. "You had a good time?" Carly asks. "Would you like to go to Grandmother's every week?" Ben goes right for his mother's breast, lifting her blouse and latching on with an aplomb that will be unstoppable after the senior prom in a few years. Maybe that's why I always struck out. Clearly it's time to return to my bachelor pad and the stench of a sink full of dishes that haven't been washed in two months.

Listen, man, I gotta ask you, does she nurse her kid in front of you, too?" David Spinozza ponders my question across a table in his living room.

"Yeah, she's real loose about it," he says. "She's like any other mother, but she's Carly Simon, so it has more impact. I even joke with her about it sometimes. She definitely projects a lot of sexuality, but it's a harmless thing that she plays with instead of a voluptuous thing. No one in the band ever came up to me and said, 'I have to make it with her or I'll go crazy.' She just doesn't put out vibes like she's interested. You never really think there's a chance."

Could it be my manhood throbs with the thought of her album covers and not of her?

"She and James seem to have a perfect marriage."

"I think their relationship is incredibly powerful," he agrees. "The first time I met James — this was before their marriage — I thought that if I talked loud, he would fall over. Now he's come out of that shyness and fear. Even his records show it, and that's from their relationship. He supports her, and she supports him."

Carly notices the extremely pained expression on my face as we enter Hippopotamus, a posh East Side, no-longer-chic disco that has a lot of dead endangered species on the wall. She immediately apologizes for bringing me to this fund-raiser for Brenda Feigen Fasteau, a Democratic candidate for the state assembly and mother of one of Sarah's classmates. This is an odd thing to do, because I asked to come, feeling the need for another scene in the story. But she's right. This is torture. Something about watching rich liberals dance to the Bee Gees makes me want to join the communists. Or the fascists. If these people had any balls, they would be out oppressing workers. As guest of honor, Carly is deluged by photographers and fans. I end up at a corner table with Jacob Brackman, one of Carly's oldest friends and lyricist on "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and several more songs over the years. Lately turning most of his energies to screenwriting, he managed to contribute one tune to Boys in the Trees, "For Old Time's Sake."

"Her stage fright is something that escalated as she became a hit," he recalls. "As people's expectations of her grew, so did her fear of not living up to them."

"You think she feels like a fraud in front of an audience?"

"A lot of good artists have feelings of fraudulence," he says.

"I thought it might come out of her need to control her environment," I suggest. "She's quite bitter about most of the articles that have been written about her. She thinks they're boring and inaccurate, but the ones I read didn't seem any more boring and inaccurate than anything you might find on the front page of the Times. It was just that the writers had different interpretations of her than she had. A concert would represent a situation where that many more things could go wrong and a myriad of different interpretations could come out."

"She is a control freak, that's right," says Brackman. "It would be more to the point to say that she wants very much for people to love and admire her. Any falling short torments her. It is the style of many artists, when reading reviews or articles about them, to focus on the small hole rather than the large doughnut."

"Does their marriage seem ideal to you?" "

They have lives that other people envy," he replies. "Because they seem to have it together personally and professionally, they appear like royalty and everybody wants to be them. These projections of people are their predicament. When Carly and James fall short of being completely fulfilled, they're still there and they have to live with these projected images as a constant reproach: 'We are James Taylor and Carly Simon. Why are we not perfect?' They live in a privileged position, a vantage point from which it is quite clear that the quality of life is internal. For if Carly Simon and James Taylor cannot enjoy the full fruits of this world, who can?"

Carly Simon has been in a position to know she cannot fully enjoy the fruits of this world for a long time. Third daughter of Richard Simon, cofounder of Simon & Schuster, she's never had money worries to steer her thoughts from her internal mind. Her early childhood seems idyllic: she liked every school she went to and served as unofficial mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers (her parents let Jackie Robinson stay in their home when his house was being built, thus integrating Stamford, Connecticut). Then her father had a heart attack when she was eleven and he remained an invalid for five years.

"I was terrified he was going to die the whole time," she says, again in her living room after her initial performances in Boston and Philadelphia. "The night it happened, I knocked on wood 500 times to keep him alive. It worked, so I did it every night for three or four years. I was afraid to love him or get too close."

"Have you resolved your feelings of abandonment?"

"I dream about him once a week, so it's safe to conclude I haven't. He's always wearing the same bathrobe." She appears not to want to discuss the matter further, so I ask about other influences on her life. She begins with songwriters Mike McDonald and Libby Titus, then begins to recount, like an Oscar winner, a long list of everyone who ever helped her career: her mother, her sisters (both singers), her first manager, her current manager (Arlyne Rothberg, one of the few women at that level of the business), her producers, her musicians, her uncle (Peter Dean, who discovered Dinah Shore), her other uncle (George T. Simon, the jazz critic), her husband, her kids...

I ask if she's learned anything from making it back onstage.

"The main thing is that I must give myself room to let anything happen." she says. "Even if I fall over the edge, it's going to be all right. Also, I really feel like a star now. For the first rime in a long time, I'm out from under James' shadow. Big audiences and mass hysteria still don't appeal, though. I wouldn't be able to do my sensitive material, like 'Haunting,' and that's the work of which I'm most proud. I demand that an audience have its critical faculties working, not just be attending an event."

"You have any thoughts on the image you're projecting with your sexy album covers?"

"I don't think it's psychologically any different than putting on makeup in the morning," she says. "I've always wanted to conform to the image people have of what's attractive. I don't know why that is. It's just human behavior."

Having escaped the maid, Ben toddles in and goes straight for his dinner. Carly isn't in the mood and recites "Humpty Dumpty" while bouncing him on her knee, finally plopping him on the floor. Undeterred and whining, he crawls back up. "Look, Ben! Look!" she exclaims. "I bet you can't climb up the back of that chair over there." Ben bets he can't either and burrows under her blouse until he's found his goal.

"Well, at least he's not sleeping in the same bed with us anymore," she says. "I just let him cry a couple of nights and he's over it now,"

"So you took Linda McCartney's advice."

"Yes, and he's started reading pornographic magazines now, so that may serve as a substitute for nursing," she laughs. "After this tour, I'm definitely going to wean him." A call comes from the kitchen that the roast got burned and they will have to turn it into hash. Carly pushes her son off and says, "Come on, Ben, it's time for some real food! Let's have some roast beef hash!" He weeps inconsolably. Not for a Fender Stratocaster and Eric Clapton's hands would I trade places with Benjamin Taylor. Imagine spending fourteen months with Carly Simon's breast in your month and then having to eat roast beef hash for the rest of your life. No thanks. I've been eating hash too long. If there are better fruits on this earth, I don't want to get weaned from them again.