The lady who asked for this story was a little secretive herself, but, with a bit of detective work on my part I managed to work out who she was, but that’s for me to know and for you to not worry about. Now talking of secrets, here’s a question, what do Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Jeremy Irons, Marvin Gaye, David Geffen, Cat Stevens, Michael Crichton, Warren Beatty, Terrence Malick and Mick Jagger all have in common? Any idea? Given the heading you may well have guessed, yep, You’re So Vain has been rumoured, at various times, to be about any of the above people. So, was it about any of them? Read on and we may find out.
In short, Carly Simon, who released this song 51 years, has never definitively revealed who it’s actually written about and the thing I find ironic is that the album the song came from was called No Secrets. Anyway, who has ever said it only about one person?
Over the last 50-odd years every journo has tried to find out the truth and read into things that aren’t there. Carly Simon has always played along; in 2008, Simon was promoting her latest album This Kind of Love and when asked about You’re So Vain she said, “When I had the line ‘You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you,’ that was definitely about one person. The rest of the descriptions basically came from my relationship with that person.” Seven years later when promoting her memoir Boys in the Trees, a title taken from her 1978 album, she revealed a little more, “The second verse ‘You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive’ is about Warren Beatty,” and added that the other verses are about two different men, but refused to name them, but then disclosed, “Warren thinks the whole thing is about him” adding “he even called me and said thanks for the song.” Simon has continued to be a tease because a few years later during a BBC interview and confirming yet again that the second verse was about Beatty she followed it with , “Now, that doesn’t mean that the other two verses aren’t also about Warren, it just means that the second one is.” This revelation was backed up by the song’s producer Richard Perry who, in the book, The Record Producers said, “It’s about a compilation of men that Carly had known, but primarily Warren Beatty.”.
Another highly cited person was Mick Jagger who we do know provides the backing vocals, but even he wasn’t the first choice for that role. That job originally went to Harry Nilsson, so how come he didn’t feature on the finished product? Carly Simon explained how Jagger got involved, “I guess it was kind of chance in a way. I was in London, it was 1972 and he happened to call at the studio while I was doing the background vocals with Harry Nilsson. Mick said ‘Hey, what cha doin’?’ and I said ‘We’re doing some backup vocals on a song of mine, why don’t you come down and sing with us?’ So Mick and Harry and I stood around the mic singing You’re So Vain and Harry was such a gentleman, he knew the chemistry was between me and Mick in terms of the singing, so he sort of bowed out saying, ‘The two of you have a real blend, you should do it yourselves.'”
As much as Simon drops hints about the real subject, she has also confirmed more vehemently who it’s not about and two names are Jagger and James Taylor sparing them the misfortune to get themselves a ‘vain’ reputation.
In the aforementioned memoir, Simon did reveal that there was a secret fourth verse which nobody had heard. The lyrics are, ‘A friend of yours revealed to me, that you’d loved me all the time, You kept it secret from your wives, you believed it was no crime.’ We did, however, get to hear it because in 2017, Simon was featured on the BBC Four series Classic Albums in which we see and hear her at home singing it whilst playing the piano preceding it with the announcement, “This is a verse that I haven’t ever sung. I wrote it a while ago on a pad, but it never made it into the song.”
Not only was Jagger not the original intended backing singer, You’re So Vain wasn’t the original title either. In 2000, Simon was interviewed by Charlie Rose where she revealed the origins of the song, “There was originally a song that had the melody of what is now You’re So Vain, called Bless You Ben. It went ‘Bless you Ben, you came in, where nobody else left off, there I was, by myself, hiding up in my loft.’ It never went anywhere, I could never fall in love with it. And then I was at a party and somebody walked in and my friend said to me ‘Doesn’t he look like he’s just walked on to a yacht?’ So, I thought to myself, Hmmm let me write that in my notebook. And then one day, when I was playing Bless You Ben on the piano, I substituted ‘You walked into the party, like you were walking onto a yacht’ and the exchange was equal. And it felt natural and it felt good and then I could get into that man, I knew who I was talking about.”
Another line in the song was revealed in the same interview, “I came up with the line ‘clouds in my coffee’ on a cross-country flight. explaining that clouds in my coffee are the confusing aspects of life and love that which you can’t see through, and yet seems alluring… until. Like a mirage that turns into a dry patch. Perhaps there is something in the bottom of the coffee cup that you could read if you could (like tea leaves or coffee grinds).”
It was on that flight that the line came about because Simon was sitting by the window and the composer/lyricist Billy Mernit who was sitting next to her spotted the clouds from the window reflecting in her coffee. He said, “look at the clouds in your coffee,” and mentioned that it looked like a shot from the 1967 French movie 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Both of them wrote that line down and when Simon continued writing the song, she rang Mernit to ask him if she could use that line. He agreed.
One further lyric in the song which makes for an interesting, but mysterious, story is the line, ‘Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun’ – interesting because an Astronomical Observatory Coordinator and a Planetarium Lecturer for Pittsburgh named Glenn A. Walsh, told Song Facts, “When I first heard this lyric in June of 1972, I immediately knew what it meant because there was a total eclipse of the sun on July 10, 1972 and Nova Scotia would be one of the best places to observe this particular eclipse. What is mysterious is that Simon recorded the song a year or so before the eclipse, so is she clairvoyant? Did she somehow know about? That we’ll probably never know.
The song in its original form was slower than we know it, a bit like a folk ballad and when it was demoed, Simon called it Ballad of a Vain Man. It was only when the producer, Richard Perry, beefed it up to give it a rockier edge that the title was changed to You’re So Vain.
The guessing game didn’t go away and every interviewer kept hounding her to reveal the secret. In 2009, Simon released her latest album, Never Been Gone, which contains a new version of You’re So Vain. She gave another interview, this time to Uncut magazine saying, “You know what, I’m just going to tell you this. The answer is on the new version of You’re So Vain. There’s a little whisper and it’s the answer to the puzzle.” The media had a field day and they decided to report that the subject was David Geffen – the man who ran Elektra records, the label Simon was signed to. Apparently, they said that the song had been inspired by her resentment of the attention Geffen had put into promoting her label-mate Joni Mitchell. In 1973 Mitchell penned Free Man in Paris which was actually about Geffen. Simon now had to go about putting the record straight yet again, so she emailed the exclusive Hollywood News Company Showbiz 411 saying the ‘David’ mentioned in the song is not the ‘David’ in question. She added, “What a riot! Nothing to do with David Geffen! What a funny mistake! Someone got a clue mistaken for another mistake,” and confirmed why revealing that she never even knew Geffen in 1971 when the song was written “How can this guessing game stop without a lie?” she asked.
In various other interviews over the years she has revealed the odd letters which appear in the mystery man’s name and so far, all we know is there is an ‘E’, an ‘A’ and an ‘R’ but then in 2003, she finally revealed the secret, but don’t get too excited. She only told one person and that person was Dick Ebersol who was the sports chairman of NBC and later a senior adviser for NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, so why him? Well, because he is so rich that at a celebrity auction he gave $50,000 towards raising money for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. As the winning bidder he ‘won’ the right to know who the subject of the song was as well as getting a private rendition of the song over lunch which, according to the Los Angeles Times comprised peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches and vodka on the rocks. He also had to agree to keep it secret. So, in a nutshell, we’re none the wiser……yet.
Simon, who was born in New York and has just turned 80, was inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame last year and seemed to grace the British chart every five years with solo hits because after You’re So Vain in 1972 came her James Bond film theme Nobody Does It Better in 77, then Why in 82 followed by Coming Around Again 1987. We waited in 1992 but nothing came and still hasn’t. ‘Vain’ was re-issued in 1991 but fell one notch short of the top 40 but she came back one more time in 2001 when she duetted with Janet Jackson on the number 13 hit Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You) in which she reprised her debut hit.
The question is, will we ever know the truth? That’s another question that only one person can answer and it would seem unlikely as Carly Simon has been enjoying this game for over 50 years. She is fully aware of how much people want to know and the lengths they will go to to find out, but if she did reveal it, it would definitive lose some of the appeal and may even be a let-down – especially for any of the Mr Vains. So let’s keep the guessing game going for another 50 years as the song will certainly be remembered in the mid-2070s.