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.
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There’s an old song by James Taylor that comes to mind as I type today’s blog post. The song, “B.S.U.R. (S.U.C.S.I.M.I.M.)”, comes from his 1979 album, Flag. Although a lot of critics might not share my opinion, I think Flag is a wonderful album. It’s probably my favorite of JT’s older albums, probably because it’s the one I remember best from when I was very young… my introduction to him, as it were. Yes, that album includes a cringey disco cover version of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles… which, actually, is kind of a guilty pleasure to me. But it also includes several good songs, including James’s wonderful rendition of “Up On The Roof”, which I prefer to all other versions. And it also includes the aforementioned “B.S.U.R.”, which has James’s ex wife, Carly Simon, singing backup, and some very wise lyrics.
Here are the lyrics to “B.S.U.R.”, in case you’d rather not play the video.
She’s been holding on too long Hoping I’m gonna change Giving it up just a little bit more Each time I come home Looking and acting strange Putting her down for putting up with me
Be as you are As you see as I am, I am Be as you are As you see as I am, I am
Do you think you might improve me Trying to take control? Watching every little thing I do Just like a bleeding movie Just like a leading role Mama, this ain’t me And I don’t believe that’s you
Be as you are As you see as I am, I am Be as you are As you see as I am, I am
First you make believe I believe the things That you make believe And I’m bound to let you down Then it’s I who have been deceiving Purposely misleading And all along you believed in me
So, we circle around one another Playing a guessing game Strangers at this masquerade Pretending to know each other We strain to catch a name And never see the mistakes we must have made
Be as you are As you see as I am, I am Be as you are As you see as I am, I am
(songwriter is James Taylor)
Just for the sake of context… in 1979, James Taylor and Carly Simon were the parents of two young children. They had been married for about seven years. In spite of the wise lyrics in this song, James was actually in a bit of trouble. He was a notorious drug addict, suffered from depression, and, according to Carly Simon’s book, he had a habit of cheating. It’s interesting to note that the “flag” used for this album’s cover is the international maritime signal for “man overboard”. Indeed, in 1979, James Taylor might have very well felt like a man overboard.
Carly Simon reportedly wanted James to settle down and be more of a family man (another great song by James Taylor). But, as James titled his next album, Dad Loves His Work. He wasn’t going to change. They were divorced by 1983, and perhaps spurred on by the 1981 drug overdose death of his close friend, John Belushi, and the 1983 death of his friend, Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, James got over his heroin and methadone habits.
But Taylor still struggled a lot with depression and considered retiring from music. He was asked to go to Rio de Janeiro in 1985 and play a music festival, which was recorded and put on an imported CD. I actually own a copy of it, courtesy of one of my sisters who gave it to me for Christmas in 1990. James was so well received in Rio that he got a second wind, and he subsequently released another album called That’s Why I’m Here. I distinctly remember reading the liner notes and saw that he’d dedicated the new album to Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Taylor would go on to consider retiring again, after losing his father and his brother, Alex, on James’s 45th birthday in 1993. Alex was also a severe alcoholic.
So… what’s all of this backstory got to do with “B.S.U.R.”? Well, I just think this song, and its very astute lyrics, offers some sage pearls of wisdom. So many of us try to be someone we aren’t. It’s usually because someone else has told us that there’s something “wrong” or “inadequate” about who we are. Sometimes, there is a legitimate issue that needs to be changed. Like, for instance, getting treatment for an addiction or character flaw– say philandering or lying. I’m not referring to issues like those. I’m referring to little criticisms about things you can’t easily change about yourself, like becoming a night owl if you’re a morning person. Or becoming an obsessively neat person, if you’re naturally more of a slob. Or acting like someone you’re not, simply because someone else thinks they would prefer that alternative version to your authentic self.
This morning Bill and I were talking, as we often do over our weekend breakfasts. Bill was telling me about a dream he’d had this morning. He was typing it out, because he sends his dreams to his therapist, who specializes in Carl Jung’s techniques. Dreams are an important part of their work. Bill has really been enjoying working with the therapist. He’s learning a lot about himself, revisiting decisions he’s made. Some of the decisions he made because he wanted to please other people. He didn’t want to disappoint important people in his life, so instead of doing what was best for him, he would acquiesce to what other people wanted. The end results of not advocating for his own self-interests sometimes led to disasters that affected a whole lot of other people. For more on this, you can read this post.
It occurred to me as we were talking that somehow, Bill got the idea from other people that who he was wasn’t enough. He bought into the idea that he needed to change. When he was growing up, he was often compared to his grandfather, a man he never got to meet, because his grandfather had died when Bill’s mom was 14. Apparently, Bill’s grandfather was a really wonderful man. And Bill was repeatedly told that he was “just like” his grandfather. It was as if some of his family members thought he was reincarnated somehow. It wasn’t enough for Bill to be who he was. He was expected to be like a dead man he’d never even met. It was impossible, and disconcerting. Why wasn’t it enough that he was Bill, a marvelous man in his own right? Why did he have to be someone else?
Later, he married his ex wife, a woman with whom he was completely incompatible and didn’t love the way he should have. He married her because she had him convinced that she was his one shot at having a family. Throughout their almost ten year marriage, he bent to her will and tried to change for her every whim. She criticized everything from his taste in music to the length of his hair. She didn’t like his choice of career and wanted him to leave the military. She wanted to live in a house that was a money pit, mainly because she thought it looked like a house she’d seen in a snow globe. She wanted him to be Mormon. She constantly drove him to “change”. Who he was wasn’t enough for her. Meanwhile, she was just fine with herself as she was and was unwilling to amend some of her own destructive habits, like buying things when she had no money to pay for them.
Bill wanted to please his ex wife, so he worked many hours at low paying jobs that didn’t suit him. He gave in to her demands that he have a vasectomy, live in a town where there were few jobs suitable for his skills, grow his hair, become a Mormon (which included giving up alcohol and coffee and wearing special underwear), leave the military, support his ex stepson as if he was the boy’s father, support Ex’s sister and her child on his tiny salary, let Ex spend his money on whatever she wanted, and let Ex handle the bills… which she handled by not paying them. By the time he cried uncle and let go of the marriage, he had been through bankruptcy and foreclosure and she had him convinced that he was a terrible person… so bad, that she could easily replace him with her next victim, #3.
Wow… if Bill was such a terrible person, why is it that we’ve been so happily married for almost 19 years? Do I seem like the kind of person who would marry a jerk? I have a lot of flaws myself, but I can tell you for certain that one flaw I don’t have is “people pleasing”. I don’t stay with people who make me unhappy. Not if I can help it. I don’t have a tendency to attract abusers. I’m probably too outspoken for them.
In any case, I love Bill just the way he is. I always have. He doesn’t need to change anything fundamental about himself for me. I think that’s why it’s so easy for us to be with each other.
Now… that doesn’t mean that there aren’t habits I’d like for him to change. Like, for instance, I’d like him to say no to me sometimes. I’m not always right. Bill likes to be a leader, but sometimes he gets a little bit wishy washy because he doesn’t want to disappoint me. But what ends up happening is, I end up disappointed anyway. Here’s an example of what I mean.
A couple of weeks ago, when we were in Switzerland, Bill had his heart set on visiting Carl Jung’s house and museum. Jung’s house and museum have very limited visiting hours and one typically has to book tickets in advance. Bill had done that, and we had an appointment to go to the house and museum at 2:00pm. But before we went, we visited a church to see Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows.
Now, I wasn’t particularly wedded to either of these activities. I would have been happy just to sit on the boat cruise and take a tour around Lake Zurich. But because Bill wanted to explore Jung, I was happy to do that with him. However, one thing that is a must, and something that we both know about me is that I get really “hangry”. So, as our time for the museum appointment approached, I told Bill I wanted to have lunch. He looked at his watch and got flustered. It was just after noon, and he was afraid that if we sat down to have a nice lunch, we would miss our appointment.
So I said, “I guess this means hot dogs for lunch, then?” I don’t really like hot dogs very much, but I could see that’s where were headed. I would have been just as alright with getting fast food.
But Bill hadn’t even decided how we were going to get to the museum. Would we be driving or taking the boat? He wanted to leave that to me, and hadn’t told me ahead of time. He asked me what I wanted to do.
I got irritated and said, “You wanted to lead. This is an activity that you want to do. I’m along for the ride. I know you want to go to the museum, but you know very well what happens when my blood sugar crashes.” I also needed to pee, and that wasn’t helping matters.
So we finally decided to take the boat. Sure enough, the only food available near the dock was the Swiss version of hot dogs… or currywurst or the like. So we had hot dogs and Coke for lunch. Bill was upset, because he thought he’d let me down. It’s true that hot dogs weren’t necessarily what I would have preferred for lunch, but I was willing to have that if it meant I wouldn’t be hangry. But he was beating himself up over the hot dogs. That wasn’t the issue, as far as I was concerned. I just wanted there to be a firm plan so everyone’s needs could be met.
It turned out the boat had concessions anyway, but our trip to the museum was just thirty minutes. It was just as well that we had our sausages. And next time, hopefully, we’ll make plans that are a little more than half baked, especially for something important, like visiting a museum that has limited opening hours.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting a partner to change certain habits like being too much of a people pleaser or being wishy washy. But I do think it’s wrong to ask them to change major aspects of who they are. I do think it’s wrong to demand that they make permanent alterations to themselves– yes, even like having a vasectomy or plastic surgery– if they would rather not do that. I think it’s wrong for a person to think they can change or “fix” someone– mold them into someone else– especially when their idea of what they want changes every day. And with Ex, it seemed very much like her idea of the “right” person was fluid and ever changing. There was always something to criticize, and I certainly don’t think she’s the best judge of what needed fixing in others. She didn’t enjoy Bill for the wonderful man he is. She wanted someone else. Perhaps she wanted someone who only exists in romance novels… I don’t know. But she didn’t want or deserve Bill, and as it turned out, he didn’t want or deserve her.
I think “B.S.U.R” is a surprisingly wise song, even though James Taylor was dealing with many personal demons and, perhaps, even serious character flaws of his own. I do think James has redeemed himself, and done a lot of work to be a better and happier person. It helps to be introspective and seek help to overcome things like addiction and mental conditions like depression and anxiety. He’s obviously not the same person he was in 1979, and that is to his credit.
As for Bill… I have never not loved and appreciated him for who he is. I love everything about him. No, he’s not perfect, but neither am I. We work on these things together. And I am so very proud of him and happy for him that he’s exploring things that interest him, like Carl Jung. He’s learning to play guitar, too, and trying to improve his skills in Spanish and German, because he wants to, and it interests him. Those are things that will enhance the wonderful person he is. I love him the way he is… and I will always advise him to “B.S.U.R.” Because asking anything else of him is asking for certain disaster. Life is hard enough without being married to a person who is constantly demanding that their spouse expend energy to be someone they’re not.
It’s also okay to say “no” sometimes. In fact, sometimes it’s essential, and the initial disappointment will spare everyone a lot of aggravation and grief. It’s okay to sometimes put your needs first… because, as they say before every flight, you should always put on your own oxygen mask, before you try to help someone else. If you don’t consider your own needs, you can’t be of optimal assistance to anyone else. So take a lesson from James Taylor and “B.S.U.R.” It’s easier and more sustainable than being someone you’re not.
George Martin and I, that is… my YouTube friend from Scotland. We did a duet of “Devoted to You” by Carly Simon and James Taylor. Pictures are of northeastern France, taken in January of this year, before the coronavirus bullshit.
James and Carly released their version of this song on Carly’s 1978 album Boys in the Trees. A few weeks ago, I suggested this song to George and he kindly learned to play it and sing James Taylor’s part so we could do this duet. It was earlier done by The Everly Brothers.
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