Carly’s family album

Times Staff Writer

CARLY SIMON isn’t the first name you’d expect to find on a list of classic-rock superstars who keep tabs on “American Idol.” “I tune in whenever I get a chance,” she says in that signature dusky voice. “How could I not, when this season Brooke White sang ‘You’re So Vain’ and did such a nice job on it, and Carly [Smithson] was named after me?”

But even two recent manifestations of the sincerest form of flattery aren’t enough to make a complete “Idol” believer out of the woman who long ago defined female rock-star cool and who helped usher in a new era for female singer-songwriters in which they were no longer simply attractive voices and faces for music largely written and produced by men.

The most powerful music platform in today’s world trots singers of both sexes out before a panel of all-seeing, all-knowing judges so that millions of unseen viewers can choose one for career molding by an all-powerful veteran -- and male -- music-industry titan, Clive Davis. In that sense, “Idol” seems the antithesis of the time in the early ‘70s when Simon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and their sister artists were achieving greater autonomy in their art.


“There’s no question that through ‘American Idol’ we’ve gone back a couple of eras into the Berry Gordy/Supremes pulling-the-strings kind of thing,” said the jet-setting onetime paramour of Warren Beatty and Kris Kristofferson who later married -- then divorced -- folk-rock star James Taylor. This is the same woman who won a Grammy for best new artist after her conventional-marriage-questioning 1971 ballad “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and who went to No. 1 with one of pop music’s most hotly gossiped-about celebrity comeuppances ever, the 1973 hit that turned up prominently on celebrity-worshiping “American Idol.”

Today, Simon still questions the status quo -- whether musical, social or political. But her main interest, the way it always was even when she was helping alter the outer world, is understanding and expressing her inner world. That can come out in a new album, like “This Kind of Love,” which was released in April, or through projects such as “Romulus Hunt,” the family opera she wrote in 1993 and which has been revived this year in Florida. And now she’s going about it with the help of the two things she prizes most from her days as one of the queens of rock: her children (with Taylor) Ben and Sally.

A different recollection

SIMON remains impeccably rock-star chic at 62 in a black leather jacket covering a flimsy burgundy dress slipped over a black body- stocking. Thick wedge sandals the color of wet sand push her already rangy frame over the 6-foot mark. She’s every bit as slim as she was on the covers of her earliest albums, despite her assertion that “I never exercised a day in my life.”

She’s not one to suggest that everything magically turned gender-blind during the “sexual revolution” of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her role as a musician-turned-feminist pioneer is recounted, and celebrated, in Sheila Weller’s new book “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation” (Atria Books).

“I’ve read it -- a little,” she said, suggesting that Weller may be overlionizing a period in which Simon recalls little overt awareness of the shifting landscape within the music industry.

“I don’t think there was a halcyon time” for women, she says. She had her own encounters with rampant sexism -- one of Weller’s anecdotes intimates that a noted rock engineer once refused to work on one of her albums unless she slept with him. But as the ‘70s unfolded, “There was somehow an innate respect that the heads of the record companies and producers had for the three of us as artists.

“It might have been because of the success that we were winning for them, or that [musicians’] contracts changed a little bit. But there was a little movement -- it just wasn’t a movement that changed anything for keeps. It was a movement that led into imitators who were not respected except as people who could sell records and look good.”

Simon, like most of those who ruled the charts in decades past, has turned over the glare of the public spotlight to newer faces. But when she puts out a new album, it still sells respectable quantities, as many baby-boomer rock acts do. Her latest has sold 68,000 copies since its release.

This year she joined peers including Mitchell, Paul McCartney and her ex on the Hear Music label, Starbucks-Concord Records’ joint venture. But just before “This Kind of Love” was released, Starbucks went through a major shake-up in which founder Howard Schultz put the emphasis squarely back on selling coffee. Part of that included dumping most of the music staff that had nurtured Simon’s record toward release.

“It’s always very disconcerting to have been signed by someone, and then when your record comes out, that person’s not there,” Concord’s senior vice president of marketing Gene Rumsey said in a separate interview. “You feel like ‘I no longer have a sponsor, a champion.’ But at Hear Music, all signings have been jointly made decisions, and she certainly does have a sponsor and champions, in our company as well as at Starbucks.”

Day-to-day operation of Hear Music has been handed over to the jazz-oriented Concord label. Simon said the transition has renewed her confidence, but only after some trauma.

“I was very angry at first,” she said, perfectly postured on a sofa, a teacup and saucer positioned politely on her left knee, deftly crossed over the right. Such poise was honed over a lifetime of social gatherings, stretching back to her childhood at home in Manhattan on through years of retreats to the family compound “on the Vineyard” -- standard nomenclature among denizens of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. (She socialized regularly with Lillian Hellman, William Styron, Katharine Graham and columnist Art Buchwald, whose personalized musical eulogy from Simon, “Too Soon to Say Goodbye,” closes her new album.)

“I went through all the stages: anger, denial, acceptance,” she said. “But we had a big meeting at Concord where I got to meet all the new people, and I got the confidence that people had either done their homework or were initially fans.” She liked former Starbucks-Hear Music talent development exec Alan Mintz so much that she recently hired him to stay on as her manager.

The new album reconnected her with songwriter Jimmy Webb, with whom she produced it. “It’s Brazilian-inflected, but it’s certainly not strictly a Brazilian record,” she said. “I don’t think that would have succeeded. We realized that we’re Americans and that we’ve been infected by those wonderful pulsing beats that I originally heard in ‘Black Orpheus’ in 1959.”

There’s a family thread among the baker’s dozen songs, most written by Simon but one each by Sally and Ben Taylor, (34 and 31, respectively) from her decade-long marriage: Sally’s “When We’re Together,” and Ben’s “Island.” They also included “Hola Soleil,” one Carly wrote with Ben (and four other co-writers), only the second time she’s recorded a song she worked on with her son.

Ben, who lives with his mother in New York, is a reassuring presence for the woman who still hasn’t fully warmed to playing on stage. She’s done a handful of shows to promote the new album, and there is some talk at the label of a summer tour.

Family ties

It was a tough day. Ben had been rushed to the emergency room the previous morning by two bandmates for what turned out to be a staph infection in his throat, one that prevented him from accompanying his mom for a performance on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. But he’s a trouper, putting in as much time as his pain and medication will allow.

He said he finds that collaborating with his mother and father doesn’t dramatically alter the parent-child dynamic because it’s all “communication. And if you have good communication with someone, it doesn’t really matter what form that takes.”

The give and take that never goes away among family members comes out when Simon starts to wax rhapsodic over Ben’s forthcoming album. As she starts to make an over-the-top comparison, Ben leaps in: “Please don’t quote her on that. That would be embarrassing.”

There’s no real tension, though. When she first got word about how much pain Ben was in, her hands flew to her heart and she moaned, “Oh, my poor baby!” Later during the conversation, she coins the phrase “Ben-dependent” to describe the vital role he plays in her life, and in her band.

With Ben, Sally and some of their peers, such as Ben’s duo partner, David Saw, Simon strives at home to sustain the sense of musical community she reveled in long ago. She’s made a series of playful, extremely casual instructional videos in which she teaches viewers, from her home music room, how to play some of her best-known songs on guitar or piano.

Although anyone can make music in their bedrooms today thanks to digital recording and computer-editing software, Simon thinks that the give and take among living, breathing musicians has taken a hit.

“The peregrination from dressing room to dressing room was just remarkable,” she said, lighting up at the recollection. “We’d all teach each other new chords. . . . I don’t see much of that now.”

That may be why she got such a kick out of joining Ben and David Saw for their Mother’s Day show at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood.

“We got our whole band up there and started to play,” Simon said. “It was like the phone booth joke. There were about eight of us onstage. Some people were kneeling with mikes. I sang with them on two songs. . . . It was more fun than I think I’ve ever had in music. I’m really serious. It was such a high. . . . The audience could have been the people on stage and we could have been the people in the audience. It was such a transference.”