The Carly Simon fallacy

Every few years, it seems, there’s a resurgence of interest in Carly Simon via her 1972 hit “You’re So Vain,” i.e., Who is it about?, and her coy handling of the so-called “mystery.”

This time it’s because she has a memoir coming out, titled after her 1978 album Boys in the Trees. In a recent interview with People she apparently confirmed that the second verse is about Warren Beatty. I say apparently because I ddin’t read the interview, just an account of it in HuffPost leading with how for years, “music and pop culture fans alike have tried to figure out who Carly Simon’s song ‘You’re So Vain’ is really about (Mick Jagger? James Taylor?). We’ve been met with cryptic clues, but we could never say with certainty who that elusive ‘you’ really is.”

It doesn’t say who “we” is, but I most certainly have never tried to figure it out, nor has anyone I know. Simon’s sex life just isn’t that interesting to me, and besides, it remains one of the dumbest songs I’ve ever heard—and that’s just the lyrics. The tune itself isn’t much and the fact that the record became so successful, I’m convinced, is because of Jagger’s uncredited backup vocal on the chorus, Jagger himself being one of the celeb names bandied about over the years as the song’s subject.

The only true mystery of the song is how people continue getting so worked up over a guy who really isn’t so vain after all. I mean, if he probably thinks the song is about him, he’s right!—hence, no vanity. The entire song is based on fallacy!

But look closer. Force yourself. Yes, the guy’s a self-absorbed dandy (“Your hat strategically dipped below one eye/Your scarf it was apricot”), but if he has “one eye in the mirror” as he watches himself gavotte, well, as Simon herself admits, “all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner.” Conceited he may be, but no other female is put off by it in the slightest—nor was Simon, at least at one time.

Really, “You’re So Vain” is nothing more than a high-class rejection song with one memorable line (“I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee”) that is so conceptually wrong there’s probably an arcane philosophical term to describe it.

Coincidentally comes word that another ridiculous yet immensely popular song, Lee Ann Womack’s 2001 crossover country hit “I Hope You Dance,” has been made into an inspirational documentary (I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song featuring the likes of Womack, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson and Vince Gill) to debut on Thanksgiving on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel, with DVD and related book out on Dec. 1.

Why people were moved by this song I’ll never know. Yes the chorus line has a mother expressing her wish for her children: “And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance/I hope you dance.” But come on! Is it imaginable that anyone else–mother, father, sibling, friend, alien from outer space–would soulfully sing, “I hope you sit it out”? Not on this planet.

Concert Highlights–Tammy Faye Starlite’s ‘Cabaret Marianne,’ 10/15/15

Lenny
Lenny and Tammy Faye (Photo by James Gavin)

One of my favorite moments in rock ‘n’ roll comes after the first verse of Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” when Patti shouts out, “Lenny!” and Lenny Kaye takes over the vocal for the second verse.

Lenny was special guest at Tammy Faye Starlite’s Cabaret Marianne at Pangea last Thursday night—the third of her Thursday in October residency performances of her terrific Marianne Faithfull tribute–and he had plenty more moments chiming in on guitar and vocals on songs made famous by Faithfull and now infamous by Tammy Faye.

Lenny first joined Tammy Faye’s band (Faithfull’s actual collaborator Barry Reynolds on acoustic guitar, violinist Eszter Balint, guitarist Richard Feridun and pianist David Dunton) on Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” which Faithfull covered on her 1967 album Love in a Mist. No songwriting slouch himself, Kaye took a verse from Starlite on “Ghost Dance,” which he co-wrote with Smith and sings with her. Gracious as Tammy Faye was to give him the spot, she also, as Faithfull, seemed almost to scold Kaye in extolling Smith, who, she proclaimed repeatedly, “doesn’t take shit!”

But Lenny had to back off further when Tammy Faye, again as Faithfull, knowingly insisted that Kaye was one of any number of men who had sex with Smith—to put it more politely than she did. It should be added that Kaye, of course, denied it—though Tammy Faye would have none of it.

Tammy Faye always stays in character, more often than not scarily so. She was pissed off early on by her scan of Elvis Costello’s newly published memoir and its “slight” by leaving out one of the “l”‘s in Faithfull. She railed angrily at ex-Faithfull love Mick Jagger, lauding his late love L’Wren Scott for successfully getting under his skin by offing herself. She further warped reality with constant bickering with Reynolds, whose “Times Square,” co-written with and sung by Faithfull, provided a high point–and features one of my all-time favorite lyrics:

If alcohol could take me there.
I’d take a shot a minute
And be there by the hour.

But Cabaret Marianne is a Faithfull career retrospective. Tammy Faye/Marianne recalled an early tour of the U.K. with The Hollies and paramour Gene Pitney, whose “penne,” she reported, looking down at someone’s meal at a front table, “was not impressive.” Fast forwarding, she declared that Beautiful, the Broadway hit about Carole King and the Brill Building era, was too conceptually flawed to merit attendance.

“Why would anybody go see somebody pretend to be a singer who’s still alive?” she asked, Reynolds behind her clearly biting his tongue.

Concert Highlights–Tammy Faye Starlite’s ‘Broken English’ at Joe’s Pub, 5/13/14

Tammy Faye Starlite as Marianne Faithfull at Joe's Pub (photo: Kevin Yatarola)
Tammy Faye Starlite as Marianne Faithfull at Joe’s Pub (photo: Kevin Yatarola)

With Tammy Faye Starlite’s Broken English/Marianne Faithfull presentation, which she reprised Tuesday night (May 13) at Joe’s Pub after debuting it in March at Lincoln Center, she takes her embodiment of brilliant but troubled rock chanteuses—the first being Nico—to a new level.

Her interpretation of Faithfull is indeed that, to be sure, but the monologues that lead into the songs give her more of a chance to extemporize with topical material, being of course, that unlike Nico, Faithfull is still alive. Different, too, is that while both were once beautiful, drug-besotted blonds who struggled to step out from the shadows of iconic male artists, Nico was a tragic figure, Faithfull triumphant.

Fearless as ever, Starlite held nothing back, even making light of the recent suicide of Jagger’s lover (“Too soon!” groaned one audience member, though not without full approval) and jabbing at name writers in the house–hitting this one especially close to home when singling him out for not really living so much as observing. Ahead of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” she even gratuitously broke character in referencing “Jew New York”—a standard crack from her uproariously anti-semitic, pornographic and Born Again Tammy Faye Starlite country shows—and still in Faithfull English accent, copped to the confusion.

As a whole, Broken English is a masterwork. But listening to Starlite’s verison some 35 years later, the lead titletrack takes on new significance.

First, was there ever a song more fitting of the word “roiling”? Or “churning”? That’s how it opens, that’s how it stays. Faithfull singing—often croaking–with stark directness lyrics including

It’s just an old war,
Not even a cold war,
What are we fighting for?

Lose your father, your husband,
Your mother, your children.
What are you dying for?
It’s not my reality.

Don’t say it in Russian,
Don’t say it in German.
Say it in broken English,
Say it in broken English.

Starlite sang it perfectly, as she did with the entire album, as she did with Nico.

Reagan ratcheted up the Cold War when he took office shortly after Broken English came out in 1979. He ordered a massive military buildup, condemned the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” and instituted the so-called Reagan Doctrine of foreign policy, which heavily supported Afghanistan’s pre-Taliban mujahideen groups in their war with the Soviets, and engaged in the illegal sale of arms to Iran in order to fund the anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras (the Iran-Contra Affair).

Who knows what’s going on clandestinely today, that is, besides the use of drones—often with tragic collateral damage consequences. But we do know that we have a president—a “Dahomeyan pinko octaroon,” as Starlite has identified Obama in her Tammy Faye shows–who hasn’t resorted to name-calling, or to any kind of nationalist adventurism. In fact, he’s done everything he can to avoid the militarism of the previous administration, much to the contempt of those of it and its supporters.

In hearing the classic antiwar anthem “Broken English” at this juncture and upon reflection, we have much to be thankful for, for not fighting for.