Friday, December 23, 2005

Kat's Korner: Breaking through the "conventional truths" with No Secrets

[Note: This is Kat's latest and the first of three musical commentaries that will run here each morning through Sunday. Kat reviewed Carly Simon's Moonlight Serenade last July.]

1972. Thirty-three years ago.

November. The election had taken place. Nixon had won and democracy had lost out. At least for a little while.

Carly Simon had campaigned for the Democratic candidate for president, George McGovern. Now her latest album was coming out. No Secrets.

Maybe the album could be read another way if McGovern had won? No Secrets . . . because Nixon's out of the White House!

Tricky Dick had more secrets than Keith Richards had guitar licks.

The album reflected a mood in the country, a restless desire, a refusal to follow the conventions and stay silent. Of the ten songs, Carly wrote seven by herself. On two, Jacob Brackman provided the lyrics to Carly's music. One song was written by new hubbie James Taylor.

Even that cover song fit the mood of the album because Carly was singing the song ("Night Owl") without altering the words. "I'm a night owl, honey . . ." A few holdouts still tsked-tsked when that sort of statement came from a woman back then. (The holdouts appear to have been cloned with a vengeance these days.)

Brackman was a lyricist very in tune with Simon's approach. They'd hit before with "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be." Because that song seems to so closely reflect Carly's own life, many assume she wrote the lyrics. Wrong. She wrote the music. (Actually wrote it as an intended theme for a special called Who Killed Lake Erie?) On No Secrets, Brackman penned the lyrics to "The Carter Family" (no, not that Carter family -- it was 1972, not 1976) and "It Was So Easy Then."

Richard Perry produced the album. Carly played piano and acoustic guitar. And, of course, she sang on the album. If you look at the tracks and have even a loose grasp of Carly's music, you'll probably immediately think "Mick Jagger!" He sings backup on the monster hit "You're So Vain." (Three weeks at number one, for those in need of statistics.) Here's some trivia you can toss out that only the dedicated know: Paul & Linda McCartney sing backup on "It Was So Easy Then."

So that's your stats and your trivia. Let's get to what's important.

No Secrets. That was the album title, from track five "We Have No Secrets." In that song, Carly takes a hard look at the secrets couples can share and how "Sometimes I wish, Oft times I wish, That I never, never knew, Some of those secrets of yours." The Watergate burglary had been in the news. In January of 1973, more news would break. But those invested in a sick relationship with Nixon, they were determined to struggle through life blind. (Some would manage to do so for at least two more years. Some never faced reality and have remained in the dark throughout.)

Again, it was a mood. It's a mood we've seen too much of today. Only cure for it is truth.

No Secrets told the truth about one female's experiences. Not via lyrics that were too clever and fey for their own good, not in words that required a decoder ring. Carly's often stated in interviews that she was more of a reporter. She's that, with the telling eye of a novelist. And she sets out to chart a woman's experience in album form.

You really didn't have that sort of voice on the charts back then. Bless Laura Nyro, but she was always being pursued by the devil to the point that you felt one slip of her high heels and he'd pounce on her. Joni Mitchell seemed to be following Laura two steps behind but running towards something, not away from it. Over in the valley (well, canyon), Carole King was trying to get centered. All three were important voices but it was left to a fourth woman (Carly) to carve out the terrority we'd become more familiar with as years went by.

Tell all my girlfriends
Not to wait for me
Daddy, I'm no virgin
I said I've already waited too long.

Sexuality. Upfront. Spoken to a parent. (Carly's father Richard Simon had passed away many years prior to this song being released, let alone written.) How many young women back then were starting to live confident lives but either still pretending to have the Ann Marie & Donald relationship (honest Mom & Dad, no sex!) that was the bulk of That Girl (the bulk, watch closely) or else entering into some sort of unstated "don't ask, don't tell" precursor where parents didn't raise the issue and the adult children (daughters) pretended that their "virtue" was still intact?

The father figure pops up again in the frightening "Embrace Me, You Child." As Carly notes in that song, "Then one night Daddy died and went to heaven, And God came down to earth and slipped away." Old "truths" were falling apart. Joni Mitchell ("libertine" -- as she's often stated her critics dismissed her as) wrote, early on, as if they never existed. Carly charted their demise.

Three songs conjure wistful memories in words and music. "It Was So Easy Then" looks back to a time when life's biggest requirement was that you "took such cares to step never on the cracks, no only in the squares." By 1972, you were leaving the boxes, leaving the assigned roles. You weren't just stepping on the crack, you were living on it as, similar to today, the nation was splintering. A second song in this wistful mood, "When You Close Your Eyes," declares "You've been walking on the edge of a dream" which immeditately conjures thoughts of the margins -- women's liberation, gay liberation, black power, et al. The struggles, the dreams, were ("Big suprise") things you actively took part in. Point, you weren't dreaming. And "you were never really meant to sleep" -- the world was waking up. In the third of the songs, "His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin," we learn of a woman who watches the object of her affections from the sidelines ("because I'm shy and can't demand it"). The world was changing, you were a part of it, this was no dream, this was reality. What would reality bring? Some advocating change were nervous about those prospects. (With good reason as the years would prove out since the same struggles are still being fought.)

"The Carter Family" (lyrics by Brackman) traces the changes in one woman's lifetime at that point in history: a friendship that lasted fourteen year ("from rag dolls to brassiers"), the old ways -- represented by a grandmother urging comformity ("nag at me to straighten up my spine, to act respectful . . .") and the arrival of self-determination ("You used to make me moan in bed but that can't be enough") and owning your decisions ("And I find I miss you more than I'd ever have guessed").

Aretha Franklin had already made her plea for "Respect" (while willing to turn over all her money) in the previous decade singing an Otis Redding song. Carly and others built on that. Which is obvious with the song everyone knows, "You're So Vain" (written solely by Carly).

Earlier, Nancy Sinatra had pouted that her boots would walk all over you ("one of these days"), Leslie Gore had whimpered that it was her party and, sob-sob-sob, she could cry if she wanted to. Certainly the rough girls of the Shangri-Las had fought for the right of any woman (they were called girls then or "young ladies") to take up with a guy "from the wrong side of the tracks" (provided he faded from the picture quickly -- usually via death).

In the context of what had come before, "You're So Vain" was a thunder bolt -- the way Alanis Morissette's "You Ought To Know" would be two decades later. Which only shows you how narrow the range women are allowed to express and find chart success with was and still is. Carly was a woman who'd been "had" ("several years ago"). Despite his promises that "he'd never leave," he did leave her but remained in her social orbit. A few decades prior, it would have been cause to stitch the scarlet letter on your sweater or maybe your poodle skirt. Carly was navigating new waters.

The song's not about "you." It's about the damage his ego caused. And Carly's still there (as Alanis would sing years later) "to remind you of the mess you left when you went away." Other songwriters would be viewed as "confessional." It's hard to tell exactly what some were confessing to other than a fondness for word play. Decades later, many of the males of this group would have indirectly confessed to being eternal teenagers who breathlessly wrote of each new relationship and each new breakup as though nothing similar had ever happened in their lives before. Is there anything sadder than a man of forty and older, receding hairline or not, writing yet again of being in love for the very first time?

Of the female singer-songwriters who broke onto the pop charts at that time, Carly was the most upfront -- sexually and otherwise. That was partly due to her alto which had a comforting, lived in tone from the start and would prove to be, as she dropped the Cat Stevens influences, a remarkably flexible instrument. If Grace Slick sung of Alice in Wonderland (or drugs, take your pick) with stone faced determination and voice, Carly's voice moved like a slinky cat. Physically, it was the voice of liberation. Her writer's voice was that as well as she tracked the personal that some of her peers (males and women determined to be accepted on male terms) preferred to avoid.

Armed with that voice, her telling eye (when she writes lyrics) and a strong sense of melody, she's carved out a career that's led to awards (Oscar, Grammys, Golden Globe) and a loyal audience. "Carved out" because she's done it by going with topics others weren't keen to explore at that time. (For instance, "Fair Weather Father.") And done it with a voice that was strong and playful. The voice would never make for an easily rewritten cautionary tale (a trick way too much musical "scholarship" on Janis Joplin pulled off for far too long).

Two released albums preceeded No Secrets, Carly Simon and Anticipation. On both, the talent is there and moments of inspiration. But she's still attempting to find her voice (both physically and lyrically). On No Secrets, she nails it. She is a woman making sense of her world. Not a gender neutral female trying to ease into the boy's club, not a frilly, dainty thing ready to tremble and take direction. The same searching quality that would serve her best work ("Jesse," "Let The River Run," "Coming Around Again," "Scar," et al.) is on full display here.

(Along with some amazing music -- and check out the drums throughout.)

Carly's confessional nature may be seen by some detractors as "compulsive" but it can just as easily be seen as brave. "Let all the dreamers wake the nation" she once sang (and wrote). Her body of work has been a wake up call to popular music that a woman has just as many sides as any man, that the men who can be hailed as brave while writing of "universal" topics like sports aren't as "expanisve" as so many critics assume they are. There was always an underbelly to the world of pop and when a woman tapped into that for a song, she usually ended up with a hit under her belt. Carly's explored the realities that weren't stock topics and she's done so fearlessly.

No Secrets broke through the 'conventional truths' of 1972 and 1973. We could use some more of that bravery today. Truth to power in 2006.