Thursday, July 26, 2012

More Room In A Broken Heart:The True Adventures Of Carly Simon

I had the pleasure this week of reading rock journalist and biographer Stephen Davis' new book, More Room in a Broken Heart (Gotham Books, 2012). It's a fascinating book about Simon's songs, her career, her difficult childhood, her role as a wife and mother, her friendships and struggles. I loved Simon's music, and the music of her former husband, James Taylor, as I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. It's a rare treat through this beautifully written book to get insight into their relationship with each other, and to what was happening in their lives as they were writing certain songs.

Davis knew the Simon family, and Carly's brother, Peter Simon, did the photography.
In following the chronology of Simon's life so far, he illuminates how Carly was able to translate her often intense feelings into words and music. For example, her writing about her experiences with men, as in “You're So Vain.” Her songs chronicle her lingering regrets, falling in love, becoming a mother, struggling with the distance between she and her father growing up, the distance between she and James during their marriage, dealing with James' substance abuse, breaking up, and becoming empowered on her own again.

The book really provides emotional insights, and it is intriguing to learn about how some of Simon's songwriting was so brilliantly honest and revealing. It also reminded me of Carole King's memoir, A Natural Woman, which came out earlier this year, in portraying the conflict songwriters and musicians can feel about what is commercially saleable, and who they authentically want to be as an artist. Simon, who is portrayed as dealing with anxiety and panic most of her life, seems particularly affected by songs and albums succeeding or failing, and having her self-image and outlook impacted by it. It seems it's hard as a musician/songwriter not to get your ego bruised in the music business.
This is a deeply personal, although unauthorized, biography. Davis has multiple sources, and is able to bring to life a sympathetic portrait of a woman who never felt loved by her distant father, who preferred her sister. She was also affected by her parents’ troubled marriage and divorce, and her mother's scandalous infidelity with the girl's young college-aged tutor.

Carly was hopelessly in love with James Taylor, but unable to save him from the darkness of his slide into worsening drug use throughout their marriage. From the book, it appears that Simon might always love James Taylor, and have some lingering regret that they couldn't make their marriage work. I especially was moved by the chapter that shares how, after their divorce, Carly stayed in their home at Cape Cod, and for a long time ran into traces of James. He had a habit of emptying his pockets and leaving the contents stashed in various places, and she found them for years afterwards.
Carly also missed the sound of James' Carolina twang in his singing voice as he had sung background vocals for her songs. I can remember seeing James live in concert about the time they were breaking up in the 70s, and he did a rendition of their song “Mockingbird” with Carly on tape from a big recorder on stage, saying he'd been trying to get used to doing things that way lately.

Davis also sheds light on the story behind James' work, and I found one story particularly interesting.  Taylor was in his 20s and recording in England at Apple Records. His close friends knew he was on a recording deadline, so they didn't tell him about the death of a good friend, Suzanne, by suicide, until the record was finished. This became his classic song, “Fire and Rain.”

James Taylor comes across as a talented but complicated man, with psychiatric inpatient and rehab stays. Some of his best work was created when he was heavily using drugs, including heroin. It makes you wonder if good treatment and AA/12-step programs early on could have saved their family. It seems bittersweet that he got sober later, and is raising a second family now. He is portrayed as really distant and unavailable when Ben and Sally, Carly and James' children, were growing up. It sounds like he's different now.

Carly is still not retired. She has battled back from some big losses: divorces, the death of both of her parents and her good friend Jacqueline Kennedy, her son's life-threatening illness, her own breast cancer, and business disappointments. She has reinvented herself numerous times. She was one of the most successful singer/songwriters of our time, going onto write an opera, children's books, and Academy Award-winning movie scores. She succeeded in her music career despite crippling anxiety that kept her out of performing for more than ten years in the middle of her career. She accomplished more than most other women of her generation had in recording popular music. She is ironically a symbol of an emancipated woman, but was also caught up in deferring to her husband's career and struggling to find a way to balance the roles of wife, mother, and songwriter for many of her professional years.

Life lessons from Carly Simon's adventurous life? You bet. You need a life of your own. Your dreams with the love of your life may or may not workout. You need to go on and build a great life anyway. Motherhood is forever, no matter what. Nothing gets better in a marriage where somebody has chemical dependency issues until those get addressed. You can beat panic and anxiety. You can reinvent yourself. You have to be yourself, even if everyone is telling you not to. Emotional honesty, combined with great songwriting, is something that most people can relate their own life experiences to. Strong emotion, about the love for a child, falling in love, losing someone you love, or being betrayed has a universal connection across time. Now, let me go track down those old, classic Carly Simon and James Taylor CD's for my car.

1 comment:

  1. I can relate....and particularly love the song (You're So Vain) that song sums it up.