This post has got to signify the smallest tempest in the teensiest teapot I've ever written about, but it's not every day that I get to see my name in a Vanity Fair story -- and see that they've gotten the story wrong.
One of my longtime claims to fame -- i.e. to being a tiny footnote in pop musical history -- is that I'm the guy who gave Carly Simon the line "clouds in my coffee" for her song, You're So Vain.
Back in the day, Carly was my singer-songwriting mentor. We were close friends who did a lot of playing and singing together, on her records and on the road. But in years since, it's a bit like I'm being photo-shopped out of an old photo.
Here's how Carly reports on the origin of that "clouds in my coffee" line in the liner notes of her box set of 1995, entitled... Clouds in My Coffee:
"It came from an airplane flight that I took with Billy Mernit, who was my friend and piano player at the time. As I got my coffee, there were clouds outside the window of the airplane and you could see the reflection in the cup of coffee. Billy said to me, 'Look at the clouds in your coffee. That's like a Truffaut shot!' I said, 'Hmm, clouds in my coffee?' And I wrote that down in my book."
It was heartening to see this in print 13 years ago, especially since her recollection was fairly close to mine, though she bobbled the movie reference: what I had talked about was a Godard shot, namely the overhead close-up of a coffee cup from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her -- a shot later homaged by Scorsese in Taxi Driver, using a glass of Alka Seltzer instead of coffee. (Carly's favorite movie in those days was Truffaut's Jules and Jim, which we'd seen again together, so her mis-remembrance is perfectly understandable.)
At any rate, what happened next has never been reported, and I tell it here to the best of my recollection: I kept a journal, too, and I wrote the line down in mine, as well. Carly and I were in the habit of sharing works-in-progress with each other in those days, and we agreed it was an image that should go into a song. Some weeks later I got a call from Carly. "Are you doing anything with that 'clouds in my coffee' line?" she asked. "Because if not, I'd like to use it in this thing I'm working on."
"No, take it," I said. And, no -- as many people have queried me, with varying degrees of disbelief -- it didn't even occur to me to add "...and I'd like a token percent of the publishing, with songwriting credit." We were friends, Carly had already been quite generous with me in my own burgeoning musical career, and this was a tacit act of generosity in return.
That "thing" she was working on turned out to be quite the ubiquitous little ditty as time went by. And there were a number of times years later that Carly's double-tracked chanting of that line made an ironic soundtrack for the hole of a nowhere-doing-nothing spot I was in. In the movie version, I'd be the guy bussing a counter in a coffee shop as the song played on the radio, telling a waitress "I gave her that line" and having the waitress go, "Yeah, right."
Such is life. I've felt pretty much sanguine about the whole thing, up until now. But here's how Vanity Fair tells the tale, in an excerpt from the forthcoming book Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller. Weller describes Carly's writing process for You're So Vain:
She'd sketched in her journal the beginning of a song called Bless You, Ben. Then, on a flight from L.A. to Palm Springs for an Elektra Records convention, she'd added another, totally unrelated line to her journal when her seatmate, musician Billy Mernit, looked into the cup of coffee on his tray and said, "Doesn't that shape look like clouds?"
I know, I know -- I'm probably the only human being on the planet who gives a flying freak, but the characterization is a little galling: I'm the kid at a backseat car window going "Look-- cows!" What fascinates me is how time seems to be erasing the guy who's already known as Periphery Man from having any substantive role in The Creation of the actual line. Like a figure in some cosmic Etch-a-Sketch that's about to be shaken out, I fully expect that the next time I hear this anecdote, it'll be Carly passing by "some guy" on the aisle of a plane, telling him, "Hey, there's clouds in your coffee."
I'm so vain, I'm trying to say the song was about me. But honest, my blog-venting isn't due to Ms. Weller writing elsewhere in her article that my immortal phrase "proved one bad line could be more memorable than a thousand good ones." No, it's for the sake of history (i.e. pop trivia) that I offer up my version of the origin story, knowing that in cyber-space, occasionally they do hear you scream.
I offer it also as a cautionary tale. If Vanity Fair can get this little bit of ephemera wrong... Just imagine for a moment what the journalists of the world are mis-reporting about like, things that really matter?!