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A Session With ‘Fired Up’ Carly Simon: ‘Oh My Gosh, Here’s This Body Again!’

The singer-songwriter rediscovers her sexuality with new album ‘Playing Possum’

Carly Simon, James TAYLOR

Carly Simon poses for a portrait, circa 1974.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Los Angeles — The idea is to find a thank-you gift for Richard Perry, producer of her last three albums, including the one just done. Carly Simon steps into the Circle Gallery and strides by their Norman Rockwell collection, past the Marilyn Monroe photo silkscreens, and, in a soft, library voice, asks to see the erotic art department. “Richard,” she had said on the drive down La Cienega Boulevard, “loves it, and he only has a few small pieces.”

She quickly rejects a wallful of softcore prints by Bonnefoit and looks over some works by Frank Gallo—she has been told by friends about him—and is shown a silkscreen called “Vegetable Lady,” in thick, stringy pastel lines, the only discernible vegetable being lettuce leaves over the eyes. Carly smiles at the salesman. “Quite nice,” she says, “but not erotic enough. Vegetables are only…” “So erotic,” the salesman says, helpfully.

Carly pores with great interest through a brochure of Gallo polyurethane sculptures — “12 Erotic Fantasies”—that strike a nerve in her. But they are expensive—$4000 or so the piece—and sold out. She takes a break, laughing appreciatively through a series of pen sketches by Magdich, of fat cartoons in weighty ecstasy, then settles down to the task of deciding between two Gallos. One is called “Sue”; the subject overbrims with hair and reminds of Maria Muldaur. “Too bad he doesn’t produce Maria,” says Carly. “That would be perfect.” But the other, called “Flowing Hair,” is perfect. To Carly there’s a resemblance in part to herself (the pointy jaw) and in part (the reddish hair, the eyes, the rounded breasts) to actress Gwen Welles, who lives with Richard Perry. “Sue” strikes her as a better piece of art, but Carly chooses “Flowing Hair,” and while it is being rolled into a tube, she sits. But her eyes are dancing around at the great variety of works on display. “I love art,” she says, a mist of wistfulness in her voice. “But James won’t let me have any in the house. He doesn’t like anything up on the walls.”

The production’s supposed to conjure up a Chinese slave market, she says. Having been a Chinese slave for a not-so-good part of my life, I have to say I can’t hear it. The song’s setting is standard Richard Perry, immaculately orchestrated and structured to build. There is none of the harshness of much of Chinese music, none of the tiredness and inner anger she means to convey:

Slave, nothing but a slave
Mind of a slave
Body of a slave…
Hungry for you
And longing for you
Burning for you…

(“Slave” by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman, ©1975, C’est Music)

That’s the one that will get a lot of women angry with her, she says, and slides off the sofa, onto her knees in front of the stereo on the floor. This next one, she says, is an example of the hypersexuality of the album. “I felt very sexy when I wrote most of the songs.” But “sexy” is the wrong word. “A lot of the songs are quite… sensual. It’s more body than mind. I felt it more in my stomach than in my head —while writing it and performing it.” In short, this song is “less intellectual” than some of her other compositions. “It was dictated totally by what pleasured my ears,” she says. “It was written very much for myself, rather than for any schooled knowledge on what I thought worked.” She backs up onto the couch, between two pillows, as “After the Storm” comes on, and I get the message real quick.

This one moves quickly from a Lennonish “Imagine” piano into a horn fill reminiscent of the Dorsey Brothers or, as Carly says a friend suggested, Ellington; strings roll in and out like an ocean wave while Carly rides the lyrics:

You’re taking me to town
And you’re tossing me around
You come on like a hurricane
I’m settling like your weathervane
After the storm
And your body feels so warm
After the storm

(“After the Storm” by Carly Simon, ©1975, C’est Music)

For a story on Carly Simon, I had not intended to take the obvious tack —her sexual image. But it appears to be in the air and as unavoidable as the air itself. At lunch she tells how having a baby—Sarah Maria, now 15 months old—in great measure accounted for the sexual release evident on the album.

“I think after Sarah was born, after the whole maternal feeling of your body, and the breast-feeding and the feeling of being essential to someone else’s life—which is about as heavy as a woman could ever feel—after that passed and my body began to assume its former shape, there was a sort of renewal of the lust; there was a sort of, ‘Oh, my gosh! Here’s this body again,’ and I sort of got turned on by it.”

Carly Simon uses the British tic “sort of” to soften her remarks. She does, in fact, enjoy herself. She will deftly explain “Slave” as a pro-high-consciousness song and she still resists any exploitation of herself as a sex object. She was treated like “a piece of meat.” she says, several years before she signed with Elektra. But she’s not above sexuality as part of her image. “There’s a big difference between somebody saying to me, ‘If you go to bed with me, I’ll produce a record for you,’ and somebody being attracted to me on a physical basis. There’s a great deal of difference. I feel that being attractive sexually is not something which I feel guilty about or embarrassed by in any way. I feel that it’s great, and when I stop attracting people sexually then I’ll probably become a cook… or something…”

Days later, in a wrap-up phone conversation, she says Sears—the department store chain—has “banned” her album on the basis of a preview of the cover photo—a black-and-white profile of a shortie-nightgowned, booted Carly on her knees, an oomph in her mouth, doing some attitude dancing. “It looks like I’m fired up,” Carly acknowledges, “in some vaguely sensual way.

“It wasn’t my choice for a cover,” she adds. “I liked the more ordinary, mundane shot of my teeth.” That photo—of Carly Simon, the overbite sensation—is on the inner sleeve. She figures Sears will come around once the album begins to move. Advance orders are already over 300,000.

Carly tries to figure out what might have offended Sears. “The bottom is sort of bottoming out,” she says, “but there’s nothing else.” She pauses. “I guess it is pretty sexy. If it wasn’t me, I’d probably be turned on.”

An afternoon with Carly. Husband James Taylor, happy to stay out of the way—the press seems unable to mention him without sneaking in some reference to his smack-dabbling past— leaves the house just as I arrive. He has been working the past two months on a new album; Carly began hers two months before James and that’s why they’ve been away from their home (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)for four months; four months in this rented house, whose other residents have included the Jaggers, Elizabeth Taylor and Sonny Bono. Four months at $3750 per. “Repulsive,” Carly says, laughing as she drives toward town in her rent-a-Mercedes, “outrageous. But all the prices in Beverly Hills are.” And she doesn’t even want to try justifying it.

When she’s making an album, Carly Simon knows how to rack up the bills. Richard Perry, often criticized for the cost of the albums he has produced (Ringo Starr, Martha Reeves and, especially, Carly Simon), admits that No Secrets‘ expenses were “reasonably high” and that Hotcakes cost even more. “I don’t really know what the most expensive album of all time is,” he says, in the only hint of actual cost. “If you speak to David Geffen, he’ll tell you that the Hotcakes album is, but little does David know that Martha’s album exceeded that.” The Reeves sessions—resulting in an album plus four or five unused cuts—cost “maybe $150,000.”

But Carly’s sales — especially since “You’re So Vain” in 1972—have left her without money worries. Her first album, in January 1971, sold 400,000 units (including tapes); a single, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” helped, along with a quick-set press image as a Mick Jagger look-alike. Anticipation, in late 1971, sold 610,000, boosted by the single of the same title. The next fall she burst loose with Perry’s first effort with her, No Secrets, containing “You’re So Vain,” with Jagger singing backup and everyone else guessing which of her numerous famous ex-lovers she was scalding. No Secrets, done in London, sold 1.9 million units. In November 1972 she and Taylor married. Hotcakes, full of bucolic, love-in-bloom songs, cut in New York during her pregnancy and released in January 1974, sold 825,000. And she had two more hit singles—”Mockingbird” with Taylor and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.” That’s three million LP units, plus five hit singles, plus publishing royalties. Not to mention a working husband. No pain.

You might think. But Carly, at 30 years of age commandingly attractive, openly intelligent and enormously talented, has had her bumps and bruises this last year and a half, along with her bundle from soft-rock heaven. She was hurt enough, in fact, that she wanted to leave Elektra Records.

Simon signed with Jac Holzman, founder and president of Elektra, in late 1970, four years after a Wood-stocked session with Bob Dylan’s then manager Albert Grossman failed to turn her into Albert’s vision: a female Dylan. (The backup included Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.) There were various reasons the resulting single was never released, but Carly was just not a Dylan. She wasn’t writing much then— in fact, Dylan rewrote the lyrics she sang for the single, Eric von Schmidt’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” to fit her. And as Grossman himself told her, she hadn’t suffered enough, coming from Riverdale, New York, daughter of the Simon of Simon & Schuster. Carly protested and plugged away at a career, writing commercials in 1969 and 1970 for an agency whose clients included Bonne Bell cosmetics, a number of banks in New England and Good ‘n’ Plenty’s overbitten sister, Good ‘n’ Fruity. She kept singing. She even served six months in 1969 with the horn-rock band Elephants Memory, as co-lead singer, before John Lennon stumbled into the group. “Some of them resented me,” says Carly. “They saw me as the rich girl who wouldn’t carry the amps.” Her feelings toward the group are colored by a bitter dispute, two years after she left the band, over publishing rights to her songs (after “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” became a hit). She continued writing songs, often with a childhood friend, Jacob Brackman, the former critic and essayist for Esquire magazine; with him she composed well-to-do blues on sibling rivalries, father attachments and suburban expectations. It was rich-folk music; shrink-couch rock, laid out in a vibrant voice that attracted, among others, New York promoter Jerry Brandt, who signed her to his Brandtworks production company, did a demo with her and took the tape to Jac Holzman. “Jac went nuts,” says an Elektra/Asylum employee. “Word spread that he’d found the female Mick Jagger.”

An exciting prospect, to be sure. But, Carly says, “a lie. He didn’t go nuts. In fact, I heard that when he was first told about me, that I was interested in recording, he said, ‘Oh, Carly Simon, she’s too Jewish’—I think he’d seen me at some places — and I’m only one-quarter Jewish.” The rest is Spanish and German.

Anyway, Holzman was Carly’s guide into the record business. To Arlyne Rothberg, who took over Simon’s management after Brandt gave up his company to open the Factory in L.A., dealing with Holzman “was like doing business with your father; there was such trust.” Holzman left Elektra in August 1973 to become a senior vice-president of Warner Communications, Inc.; he is based in Maui, Hawaii, and charged with researching video and audio developments for Warner. Elektra was merged with Asylum Records, and Asylum founder/president David Geffen—and numerous Asylum mates— assumed command.

Carly remembers the changeover, which lasted some eight months, and the resultant “mayhem.” “The effect on me was to feel that I was an ugly step daughter, that suddenly I was thrust upon David Geffen and his associates, and nobody really knew me, and they had to take me on. I felt kind of ousted —not ousted, because I wasn’t kicked out, but it was like being a stepchild. I went through a period where I wanted to leave the label because I felt that David Geffen’s interests were too divided and that I was not — since he hadn’t discovered me, there was no way of being sure that he liked me, and there were several incidents in which I got my feelings hurt.” There were things she heard Geffen had said about her—”I don’t know if any of it is true,” she says, “but they seemed vitriolic.” Geffen, who did not respond to several calls, is of course identified with Joni Mitchell—whom he comanaged, then signed to Asylum (before the merger) as the label’s leading lady. And Mitchell, of course, was once James Taylor’s leading lady.

The incident that most upset Carly was Geffen’s cluster release last year of Hotcakes with Dylan’s first Asylum album, Planet Waves, and Mitchell’s Court and Spark. “David had assured us that wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “I thought I was going to have a solo release and that it was going to be promoted individually. There was a certain amount of accident which they could not avoid, and I suppose if I had released maybe a bit earlier it would have been more of a separate thing. But I felt in a sense it was a little bit like an ego trip for Dave Geffen to have three major artists released at the same time, and that he capitalized on that rather than on catering to the individual artists.” Geffen, of course, should go out, each time, with his best release possible. Other record companies are infamous in the business for unloading as many as 30 albums at a time, letting most of them sink from the gross weight. And, as he told Rothberg, Dylan was on tour and making history, Joni’s album was ready and hot, and his policy was to release ’em as they finished ’em.

But Carly says that Geffen had more than ego and business reasons. “He explains it by saying that at that time, his life was very much involved with Cher’s and that he was so one-track minded, it was like falling in love for the first time. He was completely enmeshed with Cher’s life and he was neglecting his duties as a record company president.”

Carly has since sold nearly a million Hotcakes, but, in Rothberg’s view, Geffen’s move “definitely affected sales. Look at all the attention Dylan was getting—and Joni’s album was really good.”

Now Simon’s contract has been renegotiated and, while at the moment it remains unsigned, “It’s a much better contract and David and I are talking now and can really feel how each other feels about everything and we’ve just become friends again.”

But Arlyne Rothberg, who decided against pulling out of Elektra only because she foresaw a lengthy legal battle, characterizes the current relationship with Geffen as “a suspicious, careful” one “that’s going to have to build. I think we both view this as a remarriage.”

And, as with all such ventures, there is the bristling of hairs now and then. When Carly finished Playing Possum, in early April, there was one track she didn’t want released as the single: “Attitude Dancing,” a musically banal bit of pop rock that urges you to dance your own thing—with Carole King among the swaying encouragers in the chorus.

Simon didn’t like the mix on the song and put forth “Slave” as her choice. Elektra/Asylum—meaning Geffen— wanted “Attitude Dancing.” When we meet, two weeks before the album’s release, she and the company have reached a compromise: There will be no single and they will wait for feedback from radio stations. A week later, she is pushing “Slave” again. “Elektra/Asylum,” she says unhappily, “told me if I didn’t, ‘Attitude’ would be picked because of the nature of the tune.” Finally, on the eve of the album’s release, she is back in the studio with Richard Perry, remixing “Attitude Dancing”—”in case it’s a single.” The first 300,000 albums, then, will have a different vocal than the single, which will carry Carly’s original vocal, done live with the band. And the decision will be not any DJ’s, but Geffen’s. “I did stand up for ‘Slave,’ ” says Carly, “and feel kind of torn, because their promise to me was rescinded.”

So “Slave” will have to wait its turn, as the probable next single from the album, and Carly still expects an immediate response from feminists.

“I’m anticipating that there will be a little scurry of female, uh, hair on the back—on first hearing, probably, because they’ll take the song at face value. It says ‘I’m just another woman raised to be a slave,’ and they’ll say, ‘How dare she do that, she’s supposed to be a liberated woman, and here she’s talking about being a slave!’

“The thing that I feel is that it is true. I do feel, sometimes, a victim of my own enslavement, but I’m angry about that in the song. It’s, ‘Goddamnit, sometimes I actually still feel like a slave!’ That’s what the sentiment is.”

One of the first women not to hear the sentiment was Arlyne Rothberg, 42, herself a new mother and long established as a manager (her other clients include comic David Steinberg and actors Bill Gerber and Diane Keaton).

“I don’t like ‘Slave,'” she says, “not musically, but because of its point of view.”

Simon seems understanding. “She was afraid of that emotion within herself,” she reasons. “A lot of women want to conceal those feelings of weakness, or dependence upon a man.”

To Carly, “I Am Woman” is a “no-raise-consciousness” ditty more than an anthem for feminists. “It’s like a woman’s version of macho. The woman in ‘Slave’ is watching herself having feelings of incompleteness—she realizes that no matter how far she’s gone, there is still this undeniable dependence. Still, her ideals are to be whole by herself. The song is about her struggle to be free.”

Still, “Attitude Dancing” is being released. And when James passes by on his way out to the studios again, Carly jumps off the phone. “Oh, goodbye,” she beckons, as if Taylor is off to war. She’s back. “He goes away forever every day.” She calls away again. “Oh, Jame-o, when will you be back?” Carly is left, again, with Sarah.

As a father, she says, James Taylor is “a great appreciator.” Meaning he bounces the kid around, but leaves her alone when she needs heavy (diaper) changes. “But once every five days or so,” Simon says, “he gets up early to take care of her. So he’s a little more than an appreciator.”

During our afternoon together, we lunch at Mr. Chow’s, an amusing Beverly Hills hybrid of Chinese and Italian food bars (“They give you very small portions here and charge you a lot,” Carly advises after we’ve been seated) with a menu that offers such marvelous culinary enlightenment as: “The nearest thing to bean cake would be mozzarella cheese.” Carly, on the eve of a steak-and-grapefruit diet, orders egg noodles and white wine and proceeds to declare her marriage a happy one—not necessarily for the press to note—but, “I waited a long time and enjoyed not being married so much that now it’s like just right for me to be married.” Later, she talks about some of the men in her past—Cat Stevens, to whom she dedicated Anticipation: “I wanted so badly to get next to him in some way that I did the Troubadour date with him.” It was Cat who introduced her to Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced Anticipation. “He found a quality in me that has not been tapped since. A kind of fragility.” Another boyfriend from that era was Kris Kristofferson, who was somewhat less fragile. “My relationship with him was kinda stormy,” she says. It lasted about six months—”with about a five-month hiatus within that time,” she laughs. “We were hot for each other, but he made me insecure; I always felt I could be booted out any minute. It probably turned out more songs than any other relationship.” Among the songs: “Three Days,” on Anticipation. “You’re So Vain,” as she has said before, was for a number of people. As for Taylor: “One of the most interesting things in my life is my relationship with James.” But she chooses to avoid discussing James’s winning battle against heroin, his successful six-month detoxification period that took place only after their marriage—and during her pregnancy. The gist is that she is happy with the straight Walking Man.

At Mr. Chow’s, Carly talks about her sisters—Lucy, with whom she performed as the Simon Sisters (they had a regional hit in 1964, “Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod”) and who is recording again, for RCA, with Joel Dorn producing; and Joanna continues to distinguish herself as an opera singer, living in New York. She talks about her work with Perry—with whom she was once at odds because of her folk versus his “commercial” tendencies. They now have an equal studio relationship, she says. “Playing Possum is the quintessential Richard/Carly collaboration,” she declares. But she won’t be touring to back the album.

Carly Simon has always been stage shy. “When I get up there, I seem to radiate,” she says, “but I’m actually radiating panic.” Peter Asher, Taylor’s manager, saw Carly in the wings before the 18 or 20 times last summer she allowed herself to join the touring Taylor onstage for a quick “Mockingbird.”

“For that one song,” says Asher, “she’d be incredibly fearful. She’d stand there and say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it!'” Arlyne Rothberg, in whose interest it is for Carly to hit the road: “I wouldn’t push her, because the fear is overwhelming. She suffers true pain. I’d feel like Judy Garland’s manager if I pushed her.”

At Mr. Chow’s, Carly says she feels naked onstage. “When I perform in front of a large audience, it overwhelms me, and I don’t like the feeling of being overwhelmed. All the energy coming to me from the audience—regardless of what kind of energy it is—it’s pouring into me and it just kind of pushes through me, and instead of going right through me and out, goes up to my head, causing much mental confusion.”

If she tours again—and she’d like to try this fall—she’d prefer small places. Very small places. “My idea of what I would most like to do would be to perform under an assumed name at a small club where nobody knew me, and I could sing my ass off, just sing great in a situation like that, where nobody expected anything of me, nobody came in loving me or wanting me to fail.”

At the Circle Gallery, small-talking while her erotic painting is being tubed and her credit card is going through the processes, Carly lets on that the gift is for a “producer,” and that she is a singer.

“Oh, really,” says the woman at the desk. “Do you perform in town?”

“I think my next show will be at Greektown,” says Carly. “Oh, that’s on Hollywood Boulevard.”

The woman makes an impressed face. “We’ll be there to see you.”

Simon is joking, of course. Greek-town is a restaurant she and Perry frequented during their sessions at Sound Labs studios. But it is very small, and that’s enough. “It seats about 25 people, had a microphone and a little platform, and I thought, ‘Now, I could get up there without any qualms.’ I would go under the name ‘Fraulein Himmel.’ James and I call each other ‘Himmel.'”

But Carly’s fears are real, and she has not toured on her own since 1972.

“I wish I could be flat-out stone excited about success,” she says, “but I find it means someone else is deprived —or something awful might happen to me ’cause I don’t deserve it. I have bad flying dreams — they’re probably related to success—I’m soaring, and just as I’m feeling the exhilaration of being rocketed, I have to land because the engine is in trouble.

“Last year, on tour with James, the crowd was so excited, there was a kind of a roar when I stepped onstage, and it was precisely that exhilaration that frightened the hell out of me. I wasn’t scared of the audience — or tomatoes being thrown or anything—but just of the success of being that much wanted.” Simon lapses into an Italian-Germanic accent. “It shrew me into a teddible muddle.”

She continues: “But half of me loves it, the incredible feeling that you excite people.”

The fear goes back to her childhood —”I was even afraid to give book reports in the sixth grade,” she says. “The other kids always said, ‘Why are you so scared?’ “Carly performed, she says, mainly to stay in competition with her two pretty and talented older sisters. And now that (at least in the commercial sense) she has wiped them out? “I feel guilty!” she shouts. “See? You can’t win.”

Shortly after beginning performing as a solo—the show with Cat Stevens in April 1971 was her first—she began seeing a therapist. “He helped me to understand why I was like that,” she says, “but there was still bewilderment when I came face to face with it. Once I was onstage, I forgot everything I’d learned.” If she does not tour, she’ll do a TV show this summer, hopefully with Randy Newman and some guy named James Taylor, hopefully for fall showing. And she’s thinking about co-writing, with Jake Brackman, a film in which she would make her acting debut. “That’s going to be interesting…but I also feel some guilt. There are so many fine actresses and I feel like I’m sort of cheating someone who deserved it out of a part.” Dancing with an attitude like that, you can’t win.

After lunch, we go across the street to Charles Gallay. For Carly it’s a return trip, to pick up a gray version of the salmon-colored, $135 Christian Aujard silk blouse she has on. “I’ll be as fast as possible,” she says, grabbing the shirt off the rack and looking only politely at the saleswoman’s offerings of Chloe outfits. While her sales slip is being written out, she looks around, kicking off her shoes in the middle of the room to try a pair of Yves St. Laurents on display. She sees a year-old blond infant in a back pouch.

“What’s your name?”

“Sun,” the baby’s lean, brunette mother replies.

“Sun? How sweet.” And Carly makes up a melody and sings: “You look like the sun on a summer’s day.” Another small place, another show.

In This Article: Carly Simon, Coverwall

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