Behind the Music
"You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive," Carly Simon sang back in 1972, referring—as she revealed four decades later—to New Hollywood's most notorious Don Juan, Warren Beatty. Here, as Beatty turns 81, is more on Carly's muses and other men who inspired 15 classic songs.
"You’re So Vain" by Carly Simon
"Well you said that we made such a pretty pair / And that you would never leave / But you gave away the things you loved and one of them was me"
In 2015, Carly Simon finally confirmed that her 1972 hit—or rather the second verse of it—was about Warren Beatty. She remains coy about the inspiration for the rest of the song. James Taylor? Simon ruled him out ages ago, though she told Rolling Stone, "James suspected that it might be about him because he's very vain."
"Anticipation" by Carly Simon
"I'll try to see into your eyes right now / And stay right here, 'cause these are the good old days"
Simon recalled being "in a very nervous state" when she wrote this 1971 tune: "I was sitting on the edge of my bed and I was waiting for a gentleman caller—who was then called Cat Stevens ... and I was so nervous about his arriving at the door that I wasn't living in the moment. And so, I wrote the song called 'Anticipation.'"
"I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton
"I hope life treats you kind / And I hope you have all you've dreamed of / And I wish to you joy and happiness / But above all this, I wish you love"
Dolly Parton wrote this ballad—which topped the country chart in 1974 and became an even bigger hit for Whitney Houston in 1992—when she went solo after a seven-year partnership Porter Wagoner. "Porter just wasn't having it..." Parton said. "And I thought, Now how can I make this hard-headed man listen to me?" After asking God for help, she put her feelings into a song.
"Silver Springs" by Stevie Nicks
"Time cast a spell on you / But you won't forget me / I know I could have loved you / But you would not let me"
Stevie Nicks composed this ode to her bandmate/ex Lindsey Buckingham for Fleetwood Mac's 1977 LP "Rumours," but it wasn't included on the album. Instead, the song was relegated to the B-side of "Go Your Own Way," a decision Nicks called "one of the most devastating things anybody has ever done to me." She eventually quit Fleetwood Mac because the band refused to give her the rights to "Silver Springs."
"Don't Explain" by Billie Holiday
"Quiet, don't explain / What is there to gain / Skip that lipstick / Don't explain"
In her 1956 autobiography, Billie Holiday reveals that she wrote this jazz standard about her first husband, trombonist Jimmy Monroe: "One night he came in with lipstick on his collar … He saw I saw it and he started explaining and explaining. I could stand anything but that. Lying to me was worse than anything he could have done ... I cut him off, just like that. 'Take a bath, man,' I said. 'Don't explain.'"
"True Blue" by Madonna
"True love / You're the one I'm dreaming of / Your heart fits me like a glove / And I'm going to be true blue, baby, I love you"
"This is dedicated to my husband, the coolest guy in the universe," Madonna wrote in the liner notes to her 1986 album "True Blue." Its title track wasn't just dedicated to Sean Penn; it was about him. The Sean and Madonna marriage ended with a messy divorce in 1989, but in 2015 she sang "True Blue" at a New York concert attended by her ex. "After the show, he wrote me a letter," Madonna reported. "And he said he finally appreciated my art. And that is what I have to say about marriage, OK? Thirty years later!"
"Frederick" by Patti Smith
"Frederick, you're the one / As we journey from sun to sun / All the dreams I waited so long for / Our flight tonight so long so long"
The lead single from Patti Smith's 1979 album "Wave" is a tribute to Fred "Sonic" Smith, the MC5 guitarist she married in 1980. The couple had two children together and lived "very simply," Patti has said. "I did all the cooking and cleaning. Fred did all the repair work in the house. Occasionally he or I would get royalty checks. It was great ... My husband taught me about politics and golf and how to play the clarinet." Fred Smith died in 1994.
"Chuck E.'s In Love" by Rickie Lee Jones
"What's her name? Is that her there? / Christ, I think he's even combed his hair!"
This 1979 hit was inspired by singer Chuck E. Weiss. He, Rickie Lee Jones and her then-boyfriend Tom Waits were drinking buddies who hung out together at the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles. One day Weiss called the motel and told Waits he had traveled to Colorado to be with his sweetheart. Waits hung up the phone, turned to Jones and said, "Chuck E.'s in love!" Jones took it from there.
"Free Man in Paris" by Joni Mitchell
"I was a free man in Paris / I felt unfettered and alive / There was nobody calling me up for favors / And no one's future to decide"
Some say music mogul David Geffen was one of the mystery men behind Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," but there's no doubt he inspired this track from Joni Mitchell's 1974 LP "Court and Spark." Mitchell wrote it after a trip to Paris with Geffen and Robbie Robertson. The Asylum Records founder reportedly objected to the lyrics, which suggest unhappiness with the pressures of "stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song."
"Carey" by Joni Mitchell
"Come on Carey get out your cane / I'll put on some silver / Oh you're a mean old daddy /But I like you..."
During her travels, Joni Mitchell met Cary Raditz, an American cook who lived in a cave on the Greek Island of Crete. "I had a bit of fame by then, and wherever I'd go, hippies would follow," Mitchell recalled. "I latched myself on to Cary because he was fierce and kept the crowd off my back. Soon I moved into one of the caves." Mitchell wrote the song "Carey"—with the spelling of his name slightly altered—as a birthday gift to Raditz. It went on to become a track on her 1971 masterpiece, "Blue."
"Coyote" by Joni Mitchell
"Now he's got a woman at home / He's got another woman down the hall / He seems to want me anyway / Why'd you have to get so drunk / And lead me on that way"
Playwright, actor and musician Sam Shepard inspired this 1976 song, according to Sheila Weller's "Girls Like Us." Its lyrics refer to three women. One is Shepard's then-wife O-lan Jones, and another is Chris O'Dell, whose 2009 memoir describes her fling with Shepard while they were touring with Bob Dylan. "This was a tour, after all, and we both knew the relationship would end when the tour was over," she writes. The third woman in the song? "Joni Mitchell, of all people—how could I compete with her?"
"Day Dreaming" by Aretha Franklin
"He's the kind of guy that would say / Hey, baby let's get away / Let's go some place, huh / Where, I don't care"
The Queen of Soul was briefly engaged to Dennis Edwards of the Temptations, and word has it that she wrote the 1972 single "Day Dreaming" about him. "I should have married Aretha," Edwards said years later. "It was all in my court, and I think I'm the one that was so scared of marrying this superstar." By the time he was ready, Franklin told Ebony magazine, "I was no longer interested."
"Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" by Loretta Lynn
"But liquor and love that just don't mix / Leave a bottle or me behind / And don't come home a-drinkin' / With lovin' on your mind"
Loretta Lynn's 1967 chart topper was inspired by Oliver "Doolittle" Lynn, the man she married in 1948 when Loretta was just 15. Although they had six children and stayed together until Doolittle's death in 1996, it was a difficult marriage. Doolittle drank heavily, beat her ("He never hit me one time that I didn't hit him back twice") and cheated on Lynn, who said she stayed with him for the sake of their children. According to the country legend, "Doo" was present in "every song I wrote."
"Lake Charles" by Lucinda Williams
"Did an angel whisper in your ear / And hold you close and take away your fear / In those long last moments"
From her 1998 album "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," this song—named after Lucinda Williams' hometown—was a tribute to a former boyfriend Clyde Woodward, who died in 1991. In the Austin Chronicle, Woodward's friend Margaret Moser described an encounter with Williams after his death. "He comes to me in dreams sometimes." Moser recalled Williams saying. "Suddenly, I missed Clyde terribly. I put my arms around Lucinda and held her like a child."
"Diamonds and Rust" by Joan Baez
"Well you burst on the scene / Already a legend / The unwashed phenomenon / The original vagabond..."
Joan Baez's most celebrated song is about an unexpected phone call from a former lover, Bob Dylan. The folk music power couple had met in 1961, but Dylan broke up with Baez in 1965 while on tour in the U.K. A decade later, Baez was working on a song when she received that out-of-the-blue call. "He read me the entire lyrics to 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,'" she said. As for her own song, "I don't remember what I'd been writing about [before the call], but it had nothing to do with what it ended up as."
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