Mae Woods Bell

Mae Woods Bell

Music shields an often turbulent life

By Mae Woods Bell
Book Reviewer

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You don’t have to be a fan of Carly Simon and her music to enjoy this heartfelt story of love, love lost and fame in her compelling, frank and often poetic memoir. The book’s title, “Boys in the Trees” (Flatiron Books; $28.99), is taken from the 1978 album of the same name, and some of the lyrics are printed in the epilogue.

Simon was brought up privileged in a household filled with culture and music, but one that also held secrets that would tear the family apart. Simon felt overshadowed by her pretty older sisters, Lucy and Joey, and developed a feeling of inferiority in early childhood. She first began to stutter when she was overcome by stage fright during rehearsals for a family play. She describes that first incident in graphic prose:

“As I started to say the line, my throat went into spasm. It was as if a snake, which had been coiled and asleep around my esophagus, had suddenly reared up, strangling the words. ... My brain and tongue sprang up, fell back, tried again, then the words tumbled out, ravaged, in need of oxygen. ... All my future phobias borrowed energy and nerve endings from this thing that, at the time, I understood so little about.”

Simon and her father never had experienced the closeness her older sisters took for granted and for which she yearned. She still was a child when Richard Simon died in 1960. The third daughter believes, however, that he made the deepest mark on her character.

“As time went on, and though I really knew him as a sick man, I felt as if I incorporated him into my identity,” Simon writes. “A lot of my own struggles, good and bad, were the same as his: self-centeredness, shame, inadequacy, ambition -- depression. The songs I would someday write, the music I would someday sing, were always accompanied by an image, or an idea, of Daddy, one seemingly locked inside me forever.”

Something happened that was the turning point in handling her stammer and her future. At the family dinner table one night she botched trying to say “Pass the butter,” making her all the more aware of her handicap.

“Then Mommy tossed me an idea that would change my life,” Simon writes. “’Carly, darling -- try singing it.’ At last she had a technique that worked, although she was startled by the idea that she actually needed a technique. She had just been handed a new piece of ammunition -- she could sing what she wanted to say -- and she thought, ‘Maybe I would become a singer.’”

At college, Simon, her roommate and one of her older sisters, Lucy, began singing together for classmates. Simon and Lucy eventually made their part-time professional debut in Provincetown, Mass. Lucy’s good friend Charlie Close was a business partner of a well-known music manager, and over the next few days, he taught the girls some new chords and special effects. Simon writes that in retrospect, “He was grooming us for future management, as he was certainly in a position to escalate our careers.”

The sisters continued their college studies (Lucy at Cornell’s nursing school, Carly at Sarah Lawrence) while playing and singing at gigs as the warm-up act for up-and-coming performers such as Bill Cosby, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers and Woody Allen. Later, Simon began performing alone, her lyrics mostly related to the ups and downs of her emotions and relationships.

Her legendary solo career was matched by her turbulent personal life, which included romantic entanglements with some of the famous men of the day. While a portion of the book covers her frank and open reflection on the men she has loved, most of the narrative is an in-depth look at how she managed her successful career while dealing with her stuttering, anxiety and lifelong self-doubt. Her public image projected through her songs and public relations was far different from the woman struggling to rear two small children, Ben and Sally, while her then cold and distant husband, fellow superstar James Taylor, fought addiction. After nearly a decade of marriage, Simon and Taylor divorced in 1983, but Simon observes, “How can you not love a person whose genes are in the two people, your children, you love most in the world?”

Simon is a master at the use of sung and written words, and this memoir, covering her first 30 years, is poignant, introspective and sometimes wry. Her poetry shows up in her use of similes in her songs and her prose. Readers who love music and reading about pop culture and big city life in the 1960s and ’70s will find treasures in every page. Divided into three sections, the book is illustrated and has an epilogue and acknowledgements.

Carly Simon lives on Martha’s Vineyard in the house she and Taylor built.

Mae Woods Bell is the retired director of the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum and the longtime book reviewer for the Rocky Mount Telegram.