Carly Simon: Boho Queen

She was the golden girl of rock'n'roll, with a glittering collection of Grammies, Oscars and A-list lovers. Then came the messy breakdown of her marriage to James Taylor and breast cancer. Carly Simon talks candidly to Simon Gage about her rollercoaster life and why, aged 60, she's back with a hit album
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We're in a building just round the corner from where Simon grew up, in a tiny, leafy street that makes sense of the "village" part of Greenwich Village. It's two floors of boho chic, with creaky stairs, heavy curtains, four-poster beds and a piano in the bathroom next to an antique free-standing bath. The place is spick and span and the air is heavy with scented candles. It's apparently more or less a drop-in centre for her children, their partners, the partners' mates... the sort of place you'd love to be on a rainy afternoon, with an old film on the huge, flatscreen TV - the latter being the only thing to indicate that this isn't a late-1960s hippie pad, albeit a very plush one. And Simon herself is in keeping with the whole bohemian vibe, in skinny jeans; a white gypsyish tunic with little mirrors glinting away; tiny, peepy granny glasses; and her honey-blonde hair in a messy - and very this-season - chignon. She's just turned 60 and is beautiful.

She is also back at the very top of her game - and it's a game that's seen quite a lot of tops, with Grammies and Oscars and multi-million-selling albums. Her new album, Moonlight Serenade, a collection of late-night standards, recently went into the American charts at Number 7, making it her biggest hit since the 1970s. Her trademark look - the floppy hats, three-tiered skirts and boots - has been everywhere this summer, too. They might call it the Sienna look but really it's the Simon look. The designer Michael Kors has even based a whole collection on the sleeve pictures from her classic 1972 album No Secrets.

"I guess the new album's been a success," she says in a husky voice, smiling that well-known grin and slumping back in an armchair. "I haven't really been * following the stats but that's what they're saying at the record company. They're all very excited." She's even done a television special on the Queen Mary II (which she tried to get turned around to go pick up survivors of Hurricane Katrina). The reason for the success of Moonlight Serenade - apart from the fact that it's produced by Richard Perry, the man behind all her biggest hits, and the fact that she possesses the sort of smoky voice even Diana Krall would do well to study - is that these are songs Simon knows all about. Not only has she always sung standards - even when she was a part of a duo in the 1960s with her older sister - but she spent her childhood around the people who wrote them.

"Arthur Schwartz, who wrote 'Alone Together', which is on the album, was my parents' closest friend," she says - her father being the Simon in publishing giants Simon & Schuster. "He and his wife were over just about every weekend and more or less had their own room in our house. They tossed the salad with us. The Hammersteins used to come to our house a lot when we were at Stamford, Connecticut."

But entertaining the great and the good in beautiful country houses doesn't necessarily make for a happy childhood. "I didn't have a good relationship with my father," says Simon of her father, Richard, who died in 1960. "I'm always attracted to people who look like him - the very tall, lean kind of thing, and the balding thing. I think it's a way of trying to redo the relationship and get it right this time." She also had to live through the experience of her mother having an affair. "She was madly in love with another man for a very long period of time. I was a child but I was in denial. Even though I saw it in front of me, I couldn't bear to believe it was true. The whole thing gave me a very good sense of smell, a sensitivity to secrets."

There is obviously more to Simon's bad relationships at home than she is willing to talk about. In fact, Jackie Kennedy, as an editor for Doubleday, once asked Simon to write an autobiography, which she started but could never bring herself to finish. "I wrote about 80 pages, which Jackie liked very much, but I couldn't go on because it was too revelatory about other people," she explains. "The whole nucleus of my life, which is what happened to me at home with my sisters and my brother... I realised I couldn't tell it and yet it was so a part of who I am that it wouldn't make sense without it."

But the commission at least got her writing, with Doubleday eventually getting her to make the stories she'd been telling her children, Ben and Susan - now both accomplished singer-songwriters - into books. And it did start a lasting friendship with Jackie Kennedy, who Simon would regularly go out with, deflecting any attention they might get by furiously signing the autographs Jackie would turn down. "She would allow herself one cigarette a day," laughs Simon. "And I'd have that with her. She was the sort of person who needed to connect with people in an artistic way. She loved working with authors and we'd just talk about friends in common and our kids. We'd have dinners together and go to the movies. She had no bodyguards around. She just refused to live like that."

But the never-written autobiography is like a hole in the history of rock as Simon was at the centre of the early 1970s scene, where, with husband James Taylor, she was bona fide rock'n'roll royalty. She first met Taylor when opening for Cat Stevens, who she was dating at the time, at the legendary Troubadour in Los Angeles.

"The first time I ever played the Troubadour it was like a swarm of bees came," she remembers. "Everyone wanted to have me over to their house. Men fell in love with me that wouldn't have looked at me twice before. There were songs written about me, people at the dressing-room door, flowers, drugs offered..."

And Taylor was one of the bees that came swarming. When he came backstage to meet Simon after her performance, Joni Mitchell, who Taylor was seeing at the time, had to come and drag him away. It was while she was getting close (she won't say how close) to Mick Jagger that James Taylor decided he'd better propose.

"I was asked to interview Mick for The New York Times," says Simon, who had been to early Stones concerts and screamed along with the rest of the fans. "There were comparisons to the way we looked - there's a certain simian thing - and Mick had looked at my album cover and admired it or something. We spent some time in London together when we were doing "You're So Vain" (Jagger sings back-up vocals) but it was complicated because there were other men in my life."

Notice the "men", plural. Mention it and Simon smiles and moves on.

"We never got to do the interview. We got into writing songs, had a couple of meals, a couple of walks..."

And then he jumped you?

"No, he didn't!"

You jumped him?

"You're not going to get that out of me," she smiles. "Of course, he's so compelling and flirty and charismatic that it's hard not to be taken in by him, but James was my love. He asked my mother for my hand and then came over to London and proposed to me. James was very correct in ways that were so charming and old-fashioned. He was a real beauty and the manifestation of what I'd longed for. Women love to long, you know."

I mention that Joni Mitchell must hate her for stealing arguably the most beautiful and talented musician around at the time from her. "Oh, no!" says Simon. "I like her a lot. We're friends. We hang out. She's fantastic. And James is talking to her but not me."

While she's telling me this, Simon has slipped into the kitchen where she has her CD player and put on the new album by her son with James, Ben Taylor. The picture on the cover has all the fine-boned handsomeness of Ben's father while the voice that she sits and sings along with, weaving in and out with a dreamy look on her face, is as sweet as Sweet Baby James too.

"I don't think either of us did anything wronger than the other," she says of the acrimonious 1982 divorce that, in its day, was huge news: not only were they the golden couple of the 1970s but they had worked together on each other's albums. "He was out on the road, he was susceptible to the treasures of rock 'n'roll, being offered everything and not being able to deny that much. And I was home with my beautiful kids, loving every second of it and missing James... I was afraid of drugs, extremely naïve about it all. I just didn't know what people were doing in the bathroom with needles and white powder. And once I realised that James did it, I became terribly afraid for his life. I started realising he was quite different when he was using and I could tell when he was using this or that. But he's been extremely successful in getting straight. It's one of the biggest success stories that I know of."

But it's strange that they aren't talking when one of the rules of cleaning up from drugs is to go back and repair the damage. "I am so open to that," says Simon, explaining how hard it is for their children, who are close to both parents. "They've gotten used to it because it's been going on for so many years and it's a source of great consternation and awkwardness and sadness for me."

Her current marriage to the poet Jim Hart is also complicated but in a way that she finds much easier to handle. They have been married for 18 years and though they don't exactly live together, Simon balks at the idea that they are separated. "I suppose there's a lot of questioning going on with me about our relationship: what I want, what he wants. We're at a place where we're trying to figure it out."

Hart was with Simon in 1997 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer after living with a lump for ages. "I asked various doctors about it for years and they said, 'Oh, don't worry, we'll watch it.' Then one doctor said, 'You know what, I'd rather see it in a jar than in your breast.' So he took it out and it was cancer. Fortunately, it hadn't spread to my lymph nodes. I was a little angry with myself. I didn't insist on it coming out because I don't like operations but towards the end it started to talk to me. I would be reading Tolstoy or cooking or exercising and I would hear it going, 'Get me out of here!'" And she laughs. She had a mastectomy and, in the way she has of embracing reality, is quite taken with her arrow-shaped scar.

"It really changes an awful lot of things," she says of the cancer and the operation. "It allows you to grow a great deal because it makes you accept what's new and different and maybe a little mis-shapen or not having testosterone and feeling hot flushes." The lack of testosterone is what Simon has noticed most: "I take a pill to keep oestrogen from joining any of the cells that would be dangerous to me but in doing so it also deprives me of any testosterone. And testosterone is what makes you feel sexy. But if you're turned on by someone then you're sexy even without testosterone... If I want to feel sexy, I know how I can feel sexy."

Another factor that has impacted on her feeling of sexiness - or that she thinks might eventually impact on it - is having turned 60. "My mother used to say, 'It's such a relief not having that constant thing that makes you feel like an animal in heat.' And now, it's got to be somebody that is really very appealing on a lot of levels because you don't have random thoughts about sex that - like when you were in your teens or 20s - makes you want to get into bed with just about anyone. Actually, that was most prevalent in my 40s. I think it's nature's way of saying, 'This is your last chance, so I'll give you a little bit of extra steam right now.' I had a very active love life during my 40s." And then she tells a hilarious story about one of her famous lovers (she won't say which of the many womanisers - Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Kris Kristofferson - she has been linked with) who made what is now referred to as a "booty call" when he flew into New York from LA. She only found out from an indiscreet therapist later that day that the guy in question had been with two other women apart from her within a 12-hour period. She found it funny: "Oh, I wasn't in love with him," she explains.

"It's very odd turning 60," she finishes up, just before she gives me a great big bear hug on the way out, almost lifting me off my feet. "I thought I'd be much better about it than I am. I thought I'd just float into it and be a great older woman and that would be my new identity and then all of a sudden just the shock of the word SIXTY!"

'Moonlight Serenade' is released tomorrow