I originally published this book review on my old blog on December 14, 2016. It appears here as/is.
I have long admired singer-songwriter Carly Simon. Having been born in the early 1970s, her music, and that of her ex husband’s, James Taylor, has been a part of my personal soundtrack for many years. I also enjoy reading life stories, especially by people I admire. I downloaded Carly Simon’s 2015 memoir on the day it was released, but I’ve only just read it. I tend to download a lot of stuff that interests me and it sits in the queue until the mood strikes for me to read it. There was a time when I would have greedily devoured this book days after its release, but I guess I’m slowing down in my old age.
Anyway, Carly’s book is entitled Boys in the Trees: A Memoir. I like the book’s title, since it references the title song from her 1978 album, which I remember almost wearing out during Christmas break 1991. I had a month at home with my parents and had always loved the song “You Belong To Me”. I bought the CD and played it non-stop. It was a comfort during those bleak winter days when I was 19 years old and hating the semester break at home from college.
Simon’s book starts with her story of growing up in New York, the daughter of Richard Simon, one of the founders of the Simon & Schuster publishing company. She had a privileged upbringing, surrounded by family and friends. Her two older sisters were beautiful and talented. Her brother, Peter, was younger and the son her father had wanted. Carly writes that she was supposed to have been a boy named Carl, but when she came out female, her father simply added a “y” to the name. Carly Simon’s father evidently didn’t mesh that well with his third child. He was the first of many men to disappoint her.
As Simon grew older, her father grew frail. Sidelined by strokes, he was eventually convinced to sell his interest in Simon & Schuster. Carly’s mother, Andrea, fell out of love with her husband and had an affair with a much younger man named Ronny. Starting at age 7, Carly also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a visiting teenager who had seen porn and wanted to replicate it.
As a teenager, Carly Simon lived in Martha’s Vineyard. James Taylor’s family also had a home there and that was where the two of them met, when they were adolescents. In November 1972, they would marry at City Hall, wearing wedding bands they purchased for $17.95 each, at a Middle Eastern kiosk. The rings weren’t even the ones that had been on sale. Simon had been involved with other men, notably Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty. Taylor had been seeing Joni Mitchell before he hooked up with Carly. But they were destined to be together and make two children, Sally and Ben.
Boys in the Trees is divided into three books. I think Simon was wise to divide the book that way, since her story is not one that necessarily lends itself to seamlessness. The last book is about her marriage to James Taylor, a man she clearly deeply admires and probably still even loves. Sadly, James Taylor was apparently not a very good husband in the 1970s. He had a pretty serious drug and alcohol problem, which Simon references, as well as a penchant for affairs with other women. They were together when their careers were both smoking hot and, though they were able to make beautiful music together, it wasn’t enough to forge a commitment.
Simon writes that things really went to hell in her marriage to James Taylor after she’d become a mother. Suddenly, the children were more important and she could no longer turn a blind eye to Taylor’s dalliances. I got the sense that perhaps James Taylor resented that. In any case, she basically makes James Taylor of the 1970s out to be a selfish ass. Whether or not he still is, I don’t know.
Naturally, whenever I read about another person’s relationship, I wonder a bit about the other sides of the story. And there always are other sides to include the truth. I don’t think Carly Simon is lying about what happened, and she admits to being difficult herself. But naturally, this book skews toward her perspective… not that I think cheating and drug abuse is necessarily acceptable behavior. Simon writes that she still lives in the house they lived in and much of it still bears Taylor’s design marks, some of which were not as inspired as his songwriting.
I think Carly Simon would have made a fine author had she not been a musician. Her writing is elegant and interesting and I enjoyed reading about the many inspirations behind songs I’ve loved for years. When she was married to Taylor, the two collaborated a lot on their albums. It was cool to read about how Carly Simon came up with the ending coda for “Terra Nova”, a gorgeous collaboration on Taylor’s 1977 JT. I well remember the hit song “Jesse” from the early 80s, which she reveals was actually inspired by her son, Ben.
As someone who has experienced anxiety and depression, I appreciated Carly’s revelations about her own issues with panic attacks. She writes about one serious attack she suffered in Pittsburgh back in 1981, when she had to call upon the audience to help her. She writes that she still gets letters from people who were at that concert, many of whom express a great deal of empathy for the situation she was in at the time. Panic and anxiety kept Carly Simon off the public stage for several years.
Curiously, Simon’s book ends basically with her split from Taylor. She doesn’t write about her second marriage to and divorce from poet Jim Hart, although she does mention him in her acknowledgments. She doesn’t write much about her breast cancer battle, nor does she write about how it felt to become a grandmother. But perhaps those stories will come later.
In any case, I really enjoyed Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees. I recommend it.
As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.