Memorable Muses: 8 Women Who Inspired Famous Songs
The rock and roll canon is filled with songs about great passions and unrequited feelings. Here, a few of the muses that inspired some of rock’s greatest songs.
Have you ever listened to a song and wonder “who inspired that?” We’ve compiled the stories behind some of the most famous songs of all time.
Songs: “So Long, Marianne” (1967) and “Bird on the Wire” (1969)
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Muse: Marianne Ihlen
When Marianne Ihlen passed away from leukemia at the age of 81 this past summer, Leonard Cohen’s most devoted fans went back and revisited the Canadian troubadour’s love songs, “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire” in her honour. Ihlen’s death was announced on Cohen’s Facebook page and the outpouring of support from the public was immediate.
The Norwegian beauty first met Cohen in 1960 on the Greek island of Hydra. Recently divorced and a single mom to her young son, Axel, Ihlen and Cohen instantly formed a bond, taking day trips to the beach and sharing poetry readings at night. When Cohen returned home to Montreal he sent Ihlen a telegram that read: “Have house, all I need is my woman and her son. Love Leonard.” Ihlen and Axel immigrated to Montreal shortly after and the couple remained together for seven years.
Despite the breakup, the two kept in contact over the years. In a 1992 interview, Cohen reflected on the relationship. “When I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have separated,” he said. “I feel that love never dies and that when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that there is something about that emotion that is indestructible.”
Only days before her death, Cohen penned a final letter to his dying muse that read, in part: “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon…I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
Pass the tissues, please.
Next: The muse behind “Homeward Bound” and “Kathy’s Song”
Songs: “Kathy’s Song” (1965) and “Homeward Bound” (1966)
Artist: Paul Simon
Muse: Kathleen Chitty
Still a relative unknown at the time, Paul Simon was touring pubs in England in 1963 when he met 18-year-old Kathleen Chitty as she sold tickets at the Railway Inn folk club in Brentwood, Essex.
Having struggled to make a name for himself in America, Simon had dropped out of a New York law school to travel England’s pub circuit, performing where he could. During his brief, intense love affair with Chitty—in which she later moved to New York with him—Simon wrote scores of songs about their relationship, the most of famous of which is the haunting “Kathy’s Song” which he later performed alongside Art Garfunkel. It includes the line: “I gaze beyond the rain drenched streets, to England where my heart lies…My thoughts are many miles away, they lie with you when you’re asleep, and kiss you when you start the day.”
In 1965, Chitty even appeared on the cover of The Paul Simon Playbook.
However, Simon’s blossoming career and famous partnership with Garfunkel started to make the socially shy Chitty uncomfortable and she returned to England, leaving Simon heartbroken. She now lives in a remote Welsh mountain village with her partner of more than 40 years, Kenneth Harrison. The couple have three children together.
Although they’ve been broken up since 1965, Simon and Chitty remain friendly. She still gets interview requests from journalists and would-be Simon biographers—and she turns each one of them down.
Next: The muse (or muses?) behind “Sweet Caroline”
Song: “Sweet Caroline” (1969)
Artist: Neil Diamond
Muse: Caroline Kennedy and Marcia Murphy
In 2007, Neil Diamond revealed the muse behind his 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline.” After having kept it a secret for decades, Diamond finally opened up about the Life magazine cover he claims inspired it all.
“I’ve never discussed it with anybody before—intentionally,” the singer-songwriter told news outlets at the time. “I thought maybe I would tell it to Caroline when I met her someday.” And he did just that, telling Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (and, as a result, the entire world) via satellite during her 50th birthday party.
Diamond had been struck by the image of little five-year-old Caroline dressed in her riding gear, standing next to her pony as her famous parents looked on. “It was such an innocent, wonderful picture [and] I immediately felt there was a song in there,” he said. Years later, he wrote the song in less than an hour while in Memphis.
But, to confuse matters, Diamond gave another revealing interview in 2014 stating “Sweet Caroline” was actually about his then-wife Marcia Murphy (they divorced in the mid-1990s). So, why was there no mega hit called “Sweet Marcia”? Diamond claimed he needed a three-syllable name for the chorus, so he went with Caroline instead.
Despite this more recent confession, Diamond has not retracted his earlier comments divulging the song was an ode to the former US president’s daughter.
Next: The muse behind “Walk on the Wild Side”
Song: “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972)
Artist: Lou Reed
Muse: Holly Woodlawn
Produced by David Bowie, Lou Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, featured “Walk on the Wild Side” one of the songwriters biggest hits. It caused a bit of a stir upon its initial release as it dealt with taboo subjects such as drug abuse, male prostitution and oral sex. The song, which references many of Andy Warhol’s New York “superstars” from The Factory, most famously included Holly Woodlawn, a transgender Puerto Rican actress.
Born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl, Woodlawn left a violent home at the age of 15 and fled to New York where she became a Warhol protégée. She later appeared in two of his films, Trash (1970) and Women in Revolt (1972).
Woodlawn told reporters that the lyrics “Holly came from Miami, Florida/Hitchhiked her way across the USA/Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she…” were accurate—she really did learn how to pluck her eyebrows while hitchhiking across America.
Woodlawn passed away at 69 in December 2015 after a short battle with brain and liver cancer.
Next: The muse behind George Harrison’s “I Need You”, “Something” and “Think For Yourself” as well as Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and “Layla” (phew!)
Songs: George Harrison’s “I Need You” (1965),”Think For Yourself” (1965), “Something” (1969) & Eric Clapton’s “Layla” (1970) and “Wonderful Tonight” (1978)
Artists: George Harrison and Eric Clapton
Muse: Pattie Boyd
Pattie Boyd, former English model and noted photographer, was the first wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton—and she inspired a handful of songs by each songwriter.
It all started in 1964, when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day’s Night, in which she was cast as a schoolgirl. According to Boyd, the first thing the Beatle ever said to her was, “Will you marry me? Well, if you won’t marry me, will you have dinner with me tonight?” She politely declined—at first. After a couple of dates, chaperoned by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, the couple embarked on a public love affair that culminated in their 1966 marriage, during which time Harrison began to pen more lyrics about his new wife.
The love story came crashing down in 1973, however, when Boyd initiated an affair with guitarist Ronnie Wood, who was still two years away from joining the Rolling Stones at the time. Boyd and Harrison separated in 1974 and formalized their divorce in 1977. Boyd cited Harrison’s countless infidelities—including one with Ringo Starr’s then-wife, Maureen—and drug use as the reasons behind the collapse of their marriage. “George used coke excessively,” she said. “I think it changed him…it froze his emotions and hardened his heart.”
But Boyd wasn’t single for long. Eric Clapton, frequent collaborator and longtime friend of George Harrison, stepped in and, once again, professed his love for the model. Previously, Boyd had rebuffed the songwriters advances while still in the throes of her relationship with Harrison. His 1970 album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, was written with Boyd in mind, specifically the enduring classic “Layla” in which he begs her to leave her husband for him (“you’ve got me on me on my knees”).
But Clapton had to not-so-patiently bide his time until Boyd’s relationship with Harrison crumbled. In 1979, Clapton finally got his wish—he and Boyd got married. Marital bliss would be short-lived, however, as the couple separated in 1984 and divorced in 1989. Boyd cited “infidelity and unreasonable behaviour” on Clapton’s part.
In 2015, Boyd married her third husband, property developer Rod Weston. She’s published an autobiography, Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me (2007).
Next: The muse behind “Jennifer Juniper”
Song: “Jennifer Juniper” (1968)
Muse: Jenny Boyd
Does the surname Boyd sound a little familiar? That’s because Jenny is the younger sister of muse extraordinaire Pattie Boyd—she of the tumultuous relationships with George Harrison and Eric Clapton.
In 1968, Boyd quit modeling after discovering Transcendental Meditation, a mantra meditation technique developed in India. She even travelled there with her friend, singer Donovan, and sister, Pattie, to attend training sessions.
That same year, Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” hit the charts and he admitted it was about Boyd, whom he’d had a crush on, even though she was in a relationship with Mick Fleetwood, who would later co-found Fleetwood Mac. Donovan never had the chance to properly profess his love to Boyd—in 1970 she married Fleetwood and the couple would have two daughters together before divorcing in 1978.
In April 2012, Donovan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Boyd later earned her Ph.D in psychology from UCLA.
Next: The muse(s) behind “Uptown Girl”
Song: “Uptown Girl” (1983)
Artist: Billy Joel
Muses: Christie Brinkley and Elle Macpherson
It’s generally accepted that Billy Joel’s biggest hit was inspired by his relationship with Christie Brinkley. After all, she starred in the music video and the couple later got married and had a kid together. But that’s not the full story.
As he told Howard Stern in an interview, he’d originally titled the song “Uptown Girls” while on vacation in the Caribbean in which he was surrounded by then-girlfriend Elle Macpherson, Whitney Houston and Christie Brinkley. Once he’d recognized that initial inspiration, he penned lyrics that focused on his relationship with Macpherson—but when that ended before “Uptown Girl” was completed, the future mega hit also became about his future wife, Brinkley.
Although the couple divorced in 1994, they remain on friendly terms. In 2014, Brinkley sat in the front row at Madison Square Garden for Joel’s concert that night—and he serenaded “Uptown Girl” to his former wife, 30 years after it first hit the airwaves.
In 2015, Joel married his fourth wife, 34-year-old Alexis Roderick. Brinkley resides in Los Angeles with her other two kids from previous marriages.
Next: The muse behind “In Your Eyes”
Song: In Your Eyes” (1986)
Artist: Peter Gabriel
Muse: Rosanna Arquette
When “In Your Eyes” plays on the radio it’s hard not to think about John Cusack’s lovelorn Lloyd Dobler holding a boombox over his head in Say Anything…
Director Cameron Crowe’s 1989 teen romantic comedy sparked a renewed interest in the hit single from Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album, So—and Crowe himself credits Gabriel’s then-girlfriend, actress Rosanna Arquette, for convincing the singer to allow its use in the film. And, according to multiple sources, the song itself was actually inspired by Gabriel’s longterm relationship with Arquette.
When he wrote the lyrics to “In Your Eyes” in 1986 he was living with Arquette. And, although the couple parted ways in 1992, they remain on good terms.
The twice-married father-of-four now resides in the county of Wiltshire in England and runs his Real World Studios. Arquette married her fourth husband in 2013. She has a daughter, Zoe, from a previous marriage.
Next: The muse behind “Maybe I’m Amazed”
Song: “Maybe I’m Amazed” (1970)
Artist: Paul McCartney
Muse: Linda McCartney
This isn’t the first time Paul McCartney found a muse to inspire his music. He wrote countless songs about his ex-girlfriend Jane Asher back in the early 1960s. But things were different with Linda.
He first started writing the song in 1969 after the breakup of The Beatles. Even in its earliest stages, the song was always intended as an ode to his beloved wife, Linda. In it, he thanks her for getting him through the band’s difficult split.
Born Linda Eastman, the New York-raised future Mrs. McCartney was a self-professed music fan who spent “all my teen years [with] an ear to the radio.” She developed a reputation as a talented photographer amongst the rock bands she shot, such as the Grateful Dead, the Doors and, of course, the Beatles.
She once told reporters: “It was John [Lennon] who interested me at the start. He was my Beatle hero. But when I met him the fascination faded fast, and I found it was Paul I liked.” The pair started dating in 1967 and got married in 1969.
After the Beatles parted ways, McCartney collaborated with his wife, forming Wings in 1971. Although some music critics opposed Linda’s inclusion in the band (they cited her lack of musical upbringing and thought she was “faking it” on the keyboard during live performances), McCartney defended his wife’s role.
The pair raised four children together: Heather (Linda’s daughter from a previous relationship, whom Paul legally adopted), Mary, Stella and James. Their successful marriage, a rarity in the world of rock and roll, inspired many.
Although never officially released as a single, “Maybe I’m Amazed” got air time regardless and went on to become one of McCartney’s biggest solo successes.
Linda died of breast cancer at age 56 in 1998. McCartney married Heather Mills in 2002, and the couple had a daughter, Beatrice, together. (They divorced in 2008). He’s currently married to Nancy Shevell, the vice-president of New England Motor Freight. The couple wed in 2011.