One calls herself normal, conventional; the other says her brain is “like wild tossed salad.” One (née Andrzejewski) grew up in the Polish section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and working-class Lindenhurst, Long Island; the other in Greenwich Village and affluent, leafy Stamford, Connecticut. One started out singing standards in a Virginia dinner theater; the other singing folk songs with her sister at NYC venues. One found a partner to create the visceral, edgy rock sound she’d envisioned; the other went solo with highly personal lyrics and music tinged with jazz, Broadway, and even opera. One developed a fierce persona on the stage; the other a sometimes debilitating stage fright.
Two sides of a coin, or maybe an NYC subway token—still in use when they broke through, in the ’70s—Pat Benatar and Carly Simon have finally taken their places in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the two New York natives in the 2022 Performer category, which includes Dolly Parton, the Eurythmics, and Eminem.
I recently read both their memoirs: Benatar’s Between a Heart and a Rock Place (2010) and Simon’s Boys in the Trees (2015). Befitting a child of the cofounder of Simon & Schuster, Carly perfumes her entrancing book with lofty words like “camber” and “preprandial.” Pat’s more straightforward remembrance, written with Patsi Bale Cox, is peppered with obscenities learned, she writes, from her fellow performers, including John Belushi and Chevy Chase, when she sang at Catch a Rising Star, on the Upper East Side.
Simon’s unlikely first hit, in 1971, was the downbeat “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” Written with her friend Jake Brackman, it explored the darker realities of marriage, which Simon (born 1945) had witnessed growing up. Even in a sophisticated, somewhat bohemian household (guests included poet and satirist Dorothy Parker, baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, and Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein), her mother’s in-house affair with her brother’s 19-year-old tutor upset any equilibrium the shy Carly, who had an embarrassing stutter, had attained. She found respite in music, helping her to deal with the “Beast,” as she calls her recurring self-doubt, and her obsession with “Orpheus,” the mythic musical genius who appeared in various forms in her life, most notably that of the lanky, troubled singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Born eight years after Simon, Benatar had her first hit—not at all unlikely, with its driving opening riff and then that rich, in-your-face voice—with 1979’s “Heartbreaker,” which threw out the please-don’t-leave-me trope and replaced it with a warning: “Don’t you mess around with me.” Enter guitarist Neil Giraldo—actually, he’d already entered, arriving just in time to help realize the sound that Benatar was, she writes, “hungry for” as she prepared to record her first album, In the Heat of the Night. Aside from his passionate, scintillating playing on all of Benatar’s records, Giraldo contributed his sterling production and writing skills to their ambitious output; he and Benatar cowrote such songs as “Let’s Stay Together” and “Promises in the Dark.” Still in the midst of getting a divorce from her high school sweetheart (she left him, but kept his last name), Benatar fell for Giraldo instantly, and told herself he would be the father of her children. She was right—the couple, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year, had two daughters, Haley and Hana (both social media influencers and reality-TV stars). Some of the pair’s lyrics seem to reflect their strong relationship, as in “Let’s Stay Together”: “An’ true love ain’t somethin’ you find layin’ around / Don’t you know, let’s stay together.”
Similarly, when Simon spied James Taylor on the cover of the March 1, 1971, issue of Time magazine (“The New Rock: Bittersweet and Low”) while walking in Midtown with her oldest sister, Joanna, she announced that she would marry him one day, though she barely knew him. (They’d met as kids on Martha’s Vineyard, where Taylor’s family had a cottage.) And, of course, she did—they became one of rock ’n’ roll’s iconic couples. Their relationship and music were so intricately bound, she writes, that the first night they spent together, as she watched him sleeping, her mind deliriously blended pieces of their songs, like his “Blossom” and, appropriately, since he was the subject, her “Legend in Your Own Time” (“Well I have known you / Since you were a small boy / And your mama used to say / ‘My boy is gonna grow up and be / Some kind of leader some day’”). The couple lived mainly in NYC and Taylor’s “shack” on Martha’s Vineyard, which evolved over the years into an eccentric, towered extravaganza; they also had two children, Sally and Ben, both musicians. When their marriage began to fall apart, in 1979, Simon, sitting in their car while James took his sailboat out of the water, wrote the heart-stabbing, Sondheim-esque “We’re So Close” (“… we don’t need love at all”)—a long way from 1972’s “The Right Thing to Do,” a joyful ode to love, composed during the short flight from the island to NYC as Taylor napped beside her. Simon still lives in the Vineyard house, with her longtime partner, surgeon Richard Koehler. (Several years ago, she sold her townhouse on one of the prettiest blocks in the Village, on Commerce Street.)
Benatar, too, left the city, for Los Angeles. For many years she also had an island home, in Hana, on Maui, where she and Giraldo had their wedding. They named their younger daughter after Hana, a town with a lush coastline and spectacular waterfalls, where, Benatar writes, no one seems to notice if you’re a celebrity; there, she could be her “normal” self. Even as a child the singer dreamed of living in a warm place with palm trees (yet she vividly describes the fishing town of Lindenhurst, with references to the local “Crud Beach” and clam boats as ubiquitous as cars). However, citing a hectic touring schedule, the couple sold that oceanfront property, in 2017. They still reside in L.A., where Invincible, a new musical they created with Bradley Bredeweg, opened this month at the Bram Goldsmith Theater.
But early in their careers, both women found NYC an exciting and fecund place to be. In the mid-’60s, the Simon Sisters, Carly and older sibling Lucy, played clubs in the Village, and later Carly did so as a solo act. In 1966, none other than Bob Dylan was tapped to help out with what was supposed to be Simon’s first big solo recording. He intended to rework an old blues song, but soon after meeting with her he had his devastating motorcycle accident. Although Robbie Robertson took over Dylan’s task, when it came time to record, the song was pitched too low for Simon, she felt, and the track got shelved. (As she had rejected the sexual advances of both the producer and Dylan’s own manager, she says she was left to wonder if the recording hadn’t been sabotaged.)
Despite that setback, Simon did release her first, eponymous album in 1971. That same year, she opened for Kris Kristofferson, one of her several famous lovers—she wrote 1971’s “Three Days” about their short but intense romance—at the Bitter End, her old haunt. Kristofferson told the audience, “Following Carly is going from the sublime to the ridiculous.” (Though that may have been true for most of their shows together, during a D.C. gig, Simon, famously prone to stage fright, developed heart palpitations, which, she writes, “launched me into one of the worst onstage experiences I’d had.” On the plane to New York right after the show, Kristofferson read the Times, hiding behind it as Simon breathed into a paper bag. That was the end of their idyll.) For a while, around 1970, Simon, ensconced in her first solo apartment, in Murray Hill, also ran with an arty crowd that included director Bob Rafelson and actor Jack Nicholson, fresh off the making of Five Easy Pieces.
Benatar, at Catch a Rising Star in 1975, found an outlet for experimentation and “a close-knit community.” She also found a manager in Rick Newman, the club’s owner, who did indeed catch a star—a superstar. During her time at the club, Benatar stumbled onto her stage persona: One Halloween, inspired by the 1953 3-D sci-fi quickie Cat-Women of the Moon, she conjured a black spandex costume that won a contest at Le Figaro Café, on Bleecker Street. After that, she headed uptown to sing. Wearing the costume, she discovered, gave her a “newfound bravado,” and the crowd ate it up. I remember how that swagger surprised people early on—solely because this was a woman. “She’s like Mick Jagger!” a friend told me with awe. And this was only the beginning of the glass ceilings that Benatar, the first female artist to appear in a video on MTV (“You Better Run,” in 1981), would shatter with that voice—one recognized as special early on by the local high school choir director, who made sure Benatar received grants for the private lessons her parents, both factory workers, couldn’t afford. (Were it not for her classical training, she probably couldn’t have made such unclassical sounds without damaging her vocal cords. Think of her shrieks, appropriate for a song about child abuse, on “Hell Is for Children.”)
Despite her ferocity onstage, Benatar experienced continual sexual harassment; she and Simon both reveal many such episodes in their memoirs. Ironic then that Alanis Morissette dropped out of performing a duet with Olivia Rodrigo of Simon’s sly smash hit “You’re So Vain” for the Hall of Fame induction show because of, she alleged, sexist disrespect during rehearsals. (The organization did not respond to a request for comment.)
About that show, recently aired on HBO: Simon did not attend because of the deaths of her sisters, only a day apart, in October. They were both acknowledged in an “In Memoriam” segment—Joanna was an opera singer and Lucy a theater composer. Sara Bareilles, whose sophisticated pop songs suggest a Simon influence, read an acceptance statement from Simon, in which she called herself “over-achieved, under-qualified, and singularly grateful.” Bareilles sang “Nobody Does It Better,” and Rodrigo expressively performed “You’re So Vain” on her own, pogoing on the pre-choruses (“Clouds in my coffee!”)—the jauntiness there, belying the lyrics, is kind of irresistible.
Sheryl Crow, wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, inducted Benatar and Giraldo, calling Pat “rock ’n’ roll personified” (no Dolly-like genre equivocation here). For her performance of “Heartbreaker” and “Love Is a Battlefield,” with Giraldo and the rest of the band, Benatar wore a black minidress, thigh-high boots, and an elaborate waistcoat. Only her long platinum hair and a slightly breathier quality to the voice indicated that any time had passed since she originally hit us with her best shot.
Pat Benatar and Carly Simon: as different as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Conservatory Garden, the A train and a stretch limo, but forever alike in their innate musicality and a rock ’n’ roll spirit born in New York City. ❖
Mary Lyn Maiscott is an NYC-based singer-songwriter whose latest release is “Alithia’s Flowers (Children of Uvalde).” She has written about music for Vanity Fair, the Village Voice, and other publications.