Understanding Carly Simon’s Legendary Hit

Boomers grew up in an era of great music.  Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” is a good example.  This pop hit has been discussed everywhere and by everyone for nearly 50 years.  Carly Simon fans continue to ask what the song is about.  Plenty of interviews and news stories.  Yet nothing definitive addressing what this song is all about. 

“You’re So Vain” clearly addresses someone with an enormous ego.  It is my personal belief Simon, who wrote this song, was referring to men in general—perhaps someone she’d had a relationship with.  Actor Warren Beatty is frequently mentioned.  In fact, she has said it was Beatty she was thinking of in the second paragraph.

“You’re So Vain” didn’t start out to be about an egotistical man.  This song was originally entitled “Bless You, Ben”.  As Simon wrote the lyrics, she became unhappy with her words and shelved the song.  It has been written she was at a party when a famous celebrity arrived. A friend of Simon’s commented the celebrity entered as if he was “walking onto a yacht”. She revisited “Bless You Ben” and took this song in an entirely different direction.  It became more about ego. 

When “You’re So Vain” hit the air waves in the fall of 1972, it was an immediate hit played extensively on WPGC Morningside/Washington D.C. “Good Guys” radio in both AM and FM Stereo.  It was immediately a source of speculation and gossip. 

What did it mean? Who was she singing about?     

I have to admit, “You’re So Vain…” is more personal for me.  It invokes memories—more specifically a memory.  At age 16, I really didn’t care what “You’re So Vain” was about.  I didn’t even know what “vain” meant.  I only know “You’re So Vain” sparks an indelible memory a half-century later.  It was a chilly November night when I heard this song for the first time on an old AM car radio.  My transportation had one of those tube-type radios that took a half hour to warm up before you could hear anything.  Remember those?  With a crackle, whine, whistling, crosstalk, and all sorts of weird sounds only heard on AM radio, WPGC came to life. 

It was a Saturday evening and the days were growing shorter.  It was dark.  A buddy and I were on our way over to Greenbelt, Maryland in my first car—a clunky old 1960 Valiant sedan that was falling apart with a slant six engine and push button automatic that had belonged to my mother’s hairdresser.  I took it manually out of Park, which was a lever below a row of lighted “R-N-D-2-1” buttons.  I’d punch the “D” button and the prehistoric Chrysler 904 push-button Torqueflite transmission would lurch into gear.  First gear in the smallish Chrysler automatic had a very distinctive whine under acceleration before it segued into second and final drive back when automatic transmissions actually had a voice.    

I remember the night so vividly because I was instructed by my mother not to go far from the house.  I’d had my driver’s license two months and she was a nervous wreck.   I figured what the heck—there was no harm innocently cruising over to Greenbelt on a Saturday night to hang with buddies at a bowling alley and roll a few lines. 

What my mother didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me. 

Or would it? 

As Simon sang “You’re So Vain” on the crackly radio, we were coming off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at MD 193 when my Valiant suddenly quit and would not start.  It died right there at the off ramp.  I managed to get it started long enough to get it into a parking lot at the State Armory.  The rest of that journey also involved pushing.  No matter what I did with that stupid carburetor, including begging, it would not start. 

I could have called a tow truck—had I had dime to my name.  No one was going to tow my car 10 miles for the three bucks I had in my pocket.  My parents would have to foot the bill—and learn I had actually been miles away from home without permission.  It was chilly and damp.  Bone-numbing cold.  The onset of winter.  It was too far to walk home in the dark.  There would be no dodging where I had been.

To call my mother for a ride home would be a fate worse than being caught thumbing through my father’s “Playboy” collection hidden on his closet shelf.  There’s a lot to be said for not having a choice.  I had none.  It would be a long walk home and we were in no shape to walk that far.  Then, there would be the awkward business of having to go get the car anyway the next day. 

We found a pay phone and—with a knot in my stomach, cotton-mouthed—I dialed the weather-beaten telephone.  My dime hit the tumblers inside and, via the magic of telecommunications, there was a dial tone.  I was feeling decided weather-beaten myself.  She answered the phone in a very reassuring voice so familiar to me. 

It felt good to hear her voice—that is, until she learned of my whereabouts.  That’s when our conversation deteriorated quickly.  My step brother, a Vietnam Vet, who was living with us at the time and not much older than I, came to get me.  He delivered a lofty lecture addressing being where I was supposed to be during the 30-minute drive home.  I wanted to belt him.  I knew it was bound to get worse when we got home where my mother would be standing at the top of the steps with her hand on her hip.

She took my car keys.  I might as well have been placed in solitary confinement.  It was very uncool to be without a car in high school in 1972.  I wanted to crawl under a large rock and hopefully die there.  The next day—a Sunday—I drove to Greenbelt to replace a defective carburetor gasket and came right home. 

When my father was driving the Valiant home, the silence was deafening, much as it always was with my father.  He rarely lectured me.  However, he sighed a lot as he puffed on a Salem and shared second hand smoke.  The icy cold silence was worse than anything my mother could come up with.  To add insult to injury, the car had no brakes.  I mean—good grief—I only needed them for stopping!  My ol’ man didn’t understand that.  He kept my car keys—and probably hid them behind his stack of entertainment on the closet shelf.

The Saturday night massacre would surely pass and I would move on to my next abomination as a stupid teen.  And, there would be plenty to learn though I knew more than my parents.  When we are very young, we don’t understand the wisdom gained by our parents trying to talk sense into our thick skulls.  All we knew to do was lament about how parents just didn’t understand.  What we didn’t understand then was they’d been there long before we arrived.  They knew the trouble we could get into because they’d been there.  They knew and understood what we did not.

When my mother was lecturing me about the importance of safety and being where I was instructed to be, Carly Simon’s timeless hit “You’re So Vain” was playing in my head.  At that moment, I was feeling anything but vain.

Oh by the way—I still don’t understand what “clouds in my coffee…” means. Does anyone?

4 thoughts on “Understanding Carly Simon’s Legendary Hit”

  1. “Clouds in my coffee…” I always saw a carton of creamer poised over a steaming mug of black java, the moo juice slipping into the hot liquid rendering it a silky sensuous brown, swirled by cold currents rather like clouds that yielded and disappeared with the effort of a spoon. (Of course, Simon used far fewer words, brevity being the hallmark of a good song lyric!)

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  2. Man, we ALL had this night. I even used it cut up into chunks in a coming of age novel. Thanks for the memory. I don’t drop page ads on other people’s sites, but I’ve got more than one in this line for you. Hit me up sometime. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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