When songwriters name a specific person (and sometimes even when they don’t) there’s often widespread speculation about who they’re talking about. The most familiar example is the intense guessing game that erupted when Carly Simon released “You’re so vain”. Well, her husband at the time, James Taylor, had ignited a guessing game of his own long before he married her when he wrote and released “Carolina in my mind”.
Taylor wrote the song in multiple locations, starting in London at the flat of his producer Peter Asher. He continued working on it while taking an island holiday in the Mediterranean and finally finished it on another nearby island. Taylor poured into the song all of his homesickness for North Carolina.
He also tossed into the song his feelings of intimidation. The song was recorded at the very same studio where the Beatles were in the midst of recording the “White Album”. This is what he meant when he referred to “… a holy host of others standing ’round me… still I’m on the dark side of the moon”.
But the mystery I’m referring to comes right in the very first verse:
“Karen she’s the silver sun, you best walk her way and watch it shine, watch her watch the morning come… “
Karen? Who the heck is Karen? Was she a real person? Or maybe a nickname for his home state of Carolina? Or a slang reference to his heroin addiction?
There is an answer to the mystery but Taylor didn’t reveal it until 2009, roughly forty years after he composed and recorded the song. Karen was a real person whom he had just met. It seems that when he was on his Mediterranean island getaway he ran into her on the island of Ibiza, just off the Spanish coast near the city of Valencia. Whatever relationship they did or did not have at the time was brief; he never saw her again. But he remembered her vividly forever after. He described her as Scandinavian, approximately twenty-four years old with shoulder length blonde hair. His memory of her was so powerful that decades later with the coming of the Internet Taylor decided to make a serious attempt to contact her. He even contacted a police artist, whom he commissioned to compose a drawing of what she might look like after so many years. Taylor liked the sketch that resulted but subsequently was unable to stop thinking of her as a criminal!
I wish I could report to you that using the sketch and the Internet that Taylor was able to track her down. Regrettably, I can’t. But at least he got a lovely song out of it.
Wherever she is right now, assuming that she’s still alive, she might be lamenting that she didn’t try to find a way to continue her relationship with the tall, lanky young American songwriter she ran into so long ago. I wonder how she feels whenever she hears James Taylor singing “Carolina in my mind”?