The Spiritual Beauty of a Sensual Woman: Carly Simon’s precious collection Into White

By Daniel Garrett

Carly Simon
Into White
Produced by Carly Simon
Engineered, and Mixed by Jimmy Parr
Executive Producer: Jay Landers
Columbia/Sony, 2006

Carly Simon’s collection of songs Into White is sweet and somber perfection: she has recorded a collection of songs that touch on her own personal and professional history, and also on the history of song; and here is the old Celtic song “Scarborough Fair,” Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell’s “You Are My Sunshine,” and Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird,” along with eclectic choices of standards, and songs by Simon and her personal acquaintances that are a comfortable fit in such warm company. Originally intended as an album of lullabies, the album grew into something more, into the kind of timeless work that fits into any quiet, thoughtful mood. This unexpected work has no competition; and compels at least this listener to think anew about how music now is made and shared, but first things are first: Into White, an album I am happy to celebrate. Carly Simon, whose discography includes Anticipation, No Secrets, Boys in the Trees, My Romance, Letters Never Sent, The Bedroom Tapes, and Moonlight Serenade, is known for songs of personal confession, confrontation, sensuality, and romance; and, now, with Into White she is confirmed as a conservateur of some of the best literate songs, the kind of artist who embodies the best that is known and passes that on to those to come.

“I built my house from barley rice, green pepper walls and water ice, tables of paper wood, windows of light, and everything emptying into white,” are the words of the song “Into White,” written by Cat Stevens, and the song is a fantasy of home. Cat Stevens, born Steve Georgiou to a restaurant-owning Greek Orthodox father and Swedish mother who sent him to Catholic school, is now an observer of the Muslim religion going by the name Yusuf Islam (An Other Cup); and Cats Stevens was long known for songs such as “Morning Has Broken” and “Peace Train.” Carly Simon heard Cat Stevens’s “Into White” on his collection Tea for the Tillerman (1970). The arrangement of Carly Simon’s interpretation of “Into White” has a strumming guitar that shares and changes place with piano and strings and cello. The realm of imagination and dreaming is called forth in the lines of “Into White,” lines such as “A sad blue eyed drummer rehearses outside, a black spider dancing on top of his eye, red legged chicken stands ready to strike, and everything emptying into white.”

Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” about a banjo-playing man traveling from Alabama to Louisiana to see his love, is sung by Carly Simon in a low, thoughtful voice, accompanied by kalimba and flute (the kalimba suggests travel, a new place, and the flute suggests distance, wind). “Oh! Susanna” was a popular song when its writer Stephen Foster was in his early twenties. Stephen Foster (1826-1864), one of many children in a Pennsylvania family, was privately school, and a lover of music as a youth, and Stephen Foster wrote and revised lyrics in a large journal, creating songs with characters and geographies—believability; and Foster, who wrote more than two-hundred and eighty songs, kept an accounting of his earnings as a songwriter and took the profession seriously, according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music, which houses Stephen Foster material. (Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady” is about love between a black man and black woman, and his “Old Folks at Home” is nostalgic; and I recall singing, as a boy, Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” with as much enthusiasm as I sang Carole King’s “So Far Away,” or songs by Diana Ross and the Rolling Stones.) Musicians give us language and sounds: new avenues of experience, and also paths back to our own past. “Blackbird,” a song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in which melancholy and encouragement are woven in the images of the song’s lines (“Take these broken wings, and learn to fly”), is sung by Carly Simon with care, and without any false inflation of emotion, though Simon states in her album notes that she identifies with the blackbird. Sung with her children, Ben and Sally Taylor, “You Can Close Your Eyes,” about nature, time, and love, and written by Ben and Sally’s father James Taylor, has natural harmony singing with beautiful piano playing by Teese Gohl. Simon’s voice seems to shadow her children’s voices, sometimes disappearing. Throughout Into White, Carly Simon’s singing is as good as it has ever been, possibly better. On David Saw’s “Quiet Evening,” a song about the necessity of private time for contemplation, for joy, for rest, Simon’s voice—clear, direct, intimate—sounds wonderful.

Thought and feeling, sensuality and sadness, are to be found—connected, whole—in Carly Simon’s singing on Into White. I write these lines of appreciation, and I wonder if they will convey how special the collection seems to me. I recall (I read) that the music journalist and professor Greg Sandow advised his class at Juilliard, in Fall 2000, that a review should tell a story, be written in plain language, and describe what the music is like, and what experience it allows, the objective and the subjective; and Sandow recommended that, when attempting to write music reviews, students pay attention to, and consider including commentary regarding, point of view, musical details, evocative expressions, idea exploration, and thesis. One wonders what became of his students. Are they writing scholarly books on music? Are they the ones now writing one-hundred word summaries—sarcastic; or mindlessly approving—on contemporary music in glossy magazines, summaries that do not discuss the music as much as share prejudice about the profile of the performer and her (or his) genre? Would they know what to make of Carly Simon? I come to Carly Simon’s new work as a past admirer. I remember liking her songs “Anticipation” and “Legend in Your Own Time” and “Share the End” when I was still in short pants, riding a bike. Her “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” was a cool dissection of marriage, her “You’re So Vain” a simultaneous celebration and deconstruction of a suave lover and man of the world, and her “We Have No Secrets” was about how honesty can hurt. She expressed and gave insight to desire and possession and pleasure in “You Belong to Me,” “Jesse,” and “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” among other songs as the years went by, as I went through high school, college, my first jobs, and optimistic but flawed attempts at relationships, as the world changed. However, I do not like her now simply because I liked her then. Into White is like a meal of fresh steamed vegetables, baked fish in a creamy sauce, with mineral water and white wine nearby, and the promise of sweet fruits and other desserts, after weeks of eating food offering empty calories and no nutrition. I am thinking not only of taste, and not only of value and use: I am thinking of worth.

I could join the chorus of cheers for the abrasive and contrived new music of the band TV on the Radio (Return to Cookie Mountain); the fumbling lyrics, immature and exaggerated feeling, and near-bombastic sounds of My Chemical Romance (The Black Parade); the dull mediocrity, the retrograde imitations of the Hold Steady (Boys and Girls in America); and the disguised (inadequately embellished) folk-rock of performers such as the Decemberists (The Crane Wife) and Neko Case (Fox Confessor Brings the Flood), but I am not going to, even though I see their faces on the covers of many supposedly independent magazines, and have read rave reviews in online youth music publications, and know a few social points can be received by sharing such taste. “Pop music criticism is mired in a virulent, unrepentant triumphalism these days, and I don’t know that readers are sufficiently aware of it,” wrote Chris Ott, in The Village Voice (34th annual music poll issue, the February 7-13th, 2007 issue). Chris Ott said, “Critics are cripplingly invested in breaking bands and generating buzz, a careerist formalization of the childish desire to snort, ‘Oh my God, you haven’t heard this yet?’ More forgivingly, it’s also a function of young voices wanting to establish their reputation by aligning with an artist’s work before anyone else. But this is not criticism: It is enthusiasm.” Courage and cultural memory are required to fight that.

There was a rather contentious exchange between music journalist Chuck Klosterman and writer Matt Thorne in the British publication The Independent, of February 25, 2007, an interview that became an interrogation, when Thorne, preferring obscure, cultish, and new entities, assailed Klosterman’s coverage of established bands such as U2 and Radiohead. Klosterman said, “As a fan, I am interested in what music sounds like. As a writer, I am more interested in the audience for art and what a record (or film, or TV show, or a book) suggests about the culture at large,” before commenting, “U2 have designed part of the soundtrack for the experience of living for millions of people, many of whom would not even define themselves as fans of U2 (or even as fans of popular music). U2 are a central component for the culture at large.” Chuck Klosterman went to the core of the controversy when he said, “The one thing that people need the least from rock critics is the one thing rock critics are the most preoccupied with: taste. The only thing just about anyone can do is listen to a record and decide whether or not they like it.” Each of us has his or her own taste—and his or her own cultural memory, though the young often have less of the latter, and it is the latter that helps to determine worth.

Cultural memory—memory of the language and visions that embody intelligent considerations, significant pleasures, and useful values; memory of books, dance, film, music, paintings, sculpture, theater; memory of traditions and their innovations; memory of relationships, of social rituals, of historical events, that matter. For me, cultural memory in music includes Afro Celt Sound System, Louis Armstrong, Devendra Banhart, Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Anthony Braxton, Bright Eyes, Jeff Buckley, Betty Carter, Tracy Chapman, John Coltrane, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Fats Domino, Mark Eitzel, Duke Ellington, Rachelle Ferrell, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Ben Harper, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Howlin’ Wolf, Leela James, Al Jarreau, B.B. King, Annie Lennox, Abbey Lincoln, Little Richard, Wynton Marsalis, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, Morrissey, Meshell Ndegeocello, Willie Nelson, Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, Jimmy Scott, Frank Sinatra, Bessie Smith, Sly Stone, Barbra Streisand, Luther Vandross, Sarah Vaughan, Caetano Veloso, Ethel Waters, Cassandra Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Lizz Wright. African-American improvisational music, sometimes called jazz, sometimes called music of the spirit, and the classical music of places such as China, India, Japan, as well as Europe, and the folk and popular music of Africa and Latin America, with blues, rock, and soul music, add to my cultural memory.

An instrumental piece on Carly Simon’s anthology of cultural memory Into White, “Manha De Carnaval” by Luiz Bonfa, features Peter Calo and David Saw’s guitars, with a Spanish sound, and some wordless crooning by Simon, though Jan Hyer’s cello adds something delicate, mysterious. Carly Simon performs with a sense of rhythm Irving Burgie’s “Jamaica Farewell,” a song Simon heard Harry Belafonte sing decades ago at Carnegie Hall, and a song which Simon began to perform with her sister in her early career. Simon’s solo performance allows the song a Caribbean feel though she does not imitate Harry Belafonte’s vocal accent. Without changing the gender of the remembered love (“a little girl”) in the song, Simon assumes a universal voice. (Harry Belafonte—Calypso, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, and The Essential Harry Belafonte, among his musical works—is an artist, a singer and an actor, who has become better known for his political activism than his art. Although he has been popular, has he been heard as a universal voice? Those allowed a universal voice—a voice of empathy and imagination; a voice of general and genuine concern; a voice of authority—are those whose works are welcomed by diverse populations, works taken to be important, works that gain the most rewards: artistic, economic, social. Such speculation interests me, and I wish it interested more of the African-American writers I read. Norman Kelley wrote in “Black Cultural Criticism, Inc.”, July 17, 2004, while discussing black public intellectuals—Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and the like, who well may have bigger fish to sautée—about that lack of thorough attention to music. Kelley wrote that “music for most market intellectuals is an afterthought, which they use as a means to an end, and that end is seldom about understanding the entire political, economic and cultural nexus of the various art forms that blacks have produced but have no real control over.” There is much more work to be done, and done not only by scholars of social complexity and change but by lovers of the music.)

Why celebrate the unsatisfying work of novices when a veteran singer-songwriter and interpreter of song has given us a collection of songs of mood and musicality? Music is not good simply because it is made by people not yet thirty years old, or by people claiming to be innovative (that is to say, a claim of innovation is not an automatic corroboration of worth). The balance of elements that please the ear is not a formula that anyone owns, though on Into White Carly Simon has a recipe that she has made distinct. One would have to deny cultural memory—and one’s own ears—to deny the beauty of the collection. Simon makes a living thing of “You Are My Sunshine,” an old song by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell, as she does with the traditional riddle song “I Gave My Love A Cherry” and the other songs on Into White, such as Boudleaux Bryant’s “Devoted to You” and “All I Have to Do is Dream,” two songs she performs in medley, and “Scarborough Fair,” with Teese Gohl on flute and kalimba and others on guitars, and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” The songwriters Harold Arlen (“Stormy Weather” and “I’ve Got the World on a String”) and Yip Harburg (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “April in Paris”), with the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter are among the early twentieth-century creators who have given us what is called the American songbook, some of which Carly Simon sang on My Romance and Moonlight Serenade.

Simon performs “You Are My Sunshine” at a slower pace, and with more sincerity, than I have heard it before. I was not sure if the tone of “I Gave My Love A Cherry” was wistful or mourning, but have decided that it is tender, and when Simon sings “hush, little baby” it is lovingly practical. Simon gives “Scarborough Fair” an authority that she seems to come to easily, though it is an authority she does not always use: that makes it more, not less, effective.

The American songbook, the international repertoire. It may seem strange to commend work rebelled against, and successfully, for more than forty years, but many of the songs that Simon explores on Into White are the kind that are returned to because they have not been, and cannot be, replaced: they embody very particular experiences and values, including beauty and tenderness; and they are models of excellence—in lyrics and melody. On Into White, Simon transcends genre: she is an artist long associated with rock but an artist who has chosen not to limit herself. One should not be afraid to take things so seriously that one is afraid to make a fool of one’s self, asserted rock music critic Simon Reynolds, in an essay from (“Prose and Cons,” an undated piece, I read it in February 2007). Being a critic, like being an artist, requires passion. Simon Reynolds named as distinctive critics Nik Cohn, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, and Paul Morley, not all of whom I know or care for; and Reynolds affirmed the current critical attention paid to musical and social scenes. Reynolds suggests that one should have “a taste for meta. By this I mean a willingness to question the assumptions of a given scene, and then go beyond that, to address the largest questions of all—the whys and what-fors of music and music-writing. All the aforementioned true greats had a penchant and flair for assessing the ultimate worth of the endeavour.” I do not know that greatness can be accorded a public worry when what is good is neither assured nor much respected, and greatness is a subject that cannot be quickly dispatched, but certainly it’s betraying nothing, and assuming no pretension, in saying one wants to be good, intelligent, useful. What could be better than to draw attention to beauty, and to a tradition that has survived because of its strengths? “I love lilacs and avocados, ukuleles and fireworks, and Mia Farrow, and walking in the snow, but you’ve got to know that you’re the love of my life,” begins “Love of My Life,” a song Carly Simon wrote for a film (Nora Ephron’s This Is My Life), a song of favorite things, in which offspring come first, although the narrator says, “I love Lucy and pumpernickel bread, the Statue Of Liberty and chocolate ice cream, and falling into bed.” (I think Carly Simon replaces, in this version of the song, “standing ovations” with “chocolate ice cream.”) Simon, whose songwriting could be, should be, even more revered, calls the beloved child (or children) the great love; and it is her conviction that makes “Love of My Life” a significant statement. Carly Simon closes her album with the song “I’ll Remember You,” written by her son Ben Taylor with David Saw. I won’t soon forget this collection.

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.