I had the pleasure of interviewing Carly Simon some weeks back, which had to do with her receiving the Founders Award for career achievement from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and so naturally I asked her about the process of songwriting.
Perhaps the song most associated with Simon is “You’re So Vain,” the subject of which, to Simon’s credit, has never been revealed but has been most commonly identified as Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger. In Sheila Weller’s impressively researched “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and the Journey of a Generation,” Simon is tied, if briefly, with both lotharios, at a time when Kris Kristofferson and eventual hubble James Taylor were also vying for Simon’s attention.
I didn’t ask Simon to reveal the subject of the song, knowing her steadfast discretion would not allow it, but I did ask her about its construction.
As it turned out, it took a year or so to put together, and is included on Simon’s strongest album, in my opinion, “No Secrets,” from 1972.
Here’s what Simon had to say:
Simon: “In the case of ‘You’re So Vain’ I had the chorus: ‘You’re so vain/You probably think this song is about you.’ I had that written on a piece of paper a year before I got the rest of the song. I thought, ‘that’s kind of funny, it’s sort of a nice twist’ so I put it down in my notebook. And then about a year later I was at a party at my sister’s apartment and a man walked into the party with a big long scarf and he looked at the mirror, which was right as you entered the front door, and he whisked his scarf around his neck as he saw himself and he tilted his hat slightly to the left. I thought, ‘wow, he’s really vain…’
I then asked Simon about the meaning of gavotte as it applies to the phrase “You had one I in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.”
Simon: “A gavotte is a French dance. I thought I would use a word that was slightly presumptuous. It rhymed with what I needed it to rhyme with. He’s gavotting because that’s what a pretentious, vain man would do. But he’s not at the French court, he’s at my sister’s house.
”A friend of mine who was standing next to me said ‘he looks like he’s walking onto a yacht. So I put the two together — the line that I wrote with this very vain person whom I knew. So I started writing the song about the vain man.
“And it replaced a melody that I was already writing that had nothing to do with ‘You’re so Vain. ‘It was called “Bless You Ben.’
“It was (Simon starts singing into the phone):
‘Bless you Ben/You came in/When nobody else left off
There I was/By myself/Fighting up in my loft
Talking trouble/Took my time/Singing some sad songs
I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee…’
“That last line was the one that stayed but I liked the melody. So I started replacing the melody with ‘You walked into the party…’ It went with that phrasing exactly.”