Pretty Dresses, Ballroom Dancers, Timeless Songs

I was 12 years old when I first saw Carly Simon on the cover of her “No Secrets” album. It was 1972, the ‘60s spilling into the ‘70s, and Carly wore the era on her sleeve. Her style was a hippie-chic synthesis of Rolling Stone and Ms. magazines — long hair, floppy hat, shoulder bag, no bra. Most of all I remember the open face that made her seem more like a fun big sister than an aloof rock star.

Equally indelible was her massive hit “You’re So Vain,” a song that lived in heavy rotation on my radio. It was a cheeky put-down of an unnamed ex-lover that became one of rock’s great mysteries. Who was Simon singing about?

After all this time, people still care. “You’re So Vain” — born during Simon’s most fruitful songwriting period — is that kind of song. Her early to mid-‘70s heyday produced a handful of numbers that have never left the public consciousness — “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” “Anticipation” (which, as a testament to its appeal, remains close to the heart of America, even after being used in a ketchup commercial), “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.”

When punk rock erupted in my life and my interests shifted, I largely lost track of Simon. But over time, I was always happy to see her whenever she’d burst like a sunbeam across the greater pop culture. In 1977, sitting in the dark of a movie theater, I was instantly smitten by Simon singing the Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager number “Nobody Does It Better” for the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

Ten years later, in the dark of another theater, I felt a rush when Simon’s song “Let the River Run” served as the soundtrack for the iconic opening of the film “Working Girl.” Filled with panoramic shots of the Statue of Liberty and the Staten Island Ferry, the sequence was impossible to resist. The exultant pop number, a clarion call of my hopes and dreams as a young person, rang across the sweeping footage and earned Simon an Academy Award for best original song.

Most of her set is devoted to the Great American Songbook, with tunes by Glenn Miller, Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers.

Over the years, she’s made it clear: The woman knows a thing or two about what makes a pop song unforgettable. That sure instinct is on full display on “Carly Simon: A Moonlight Serenade on the Queen Mary 2,” a concert filmed on the ocean liner in 2005. Most of her set is devoted to the Great American Songbook, with tunes by Glenn Miller, Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers.

These songs teem with heartfelt lyrics and earworm melodies. It’s a great place for Simon devotees to catch up with her. Backed by an orchestra in a classy nightclub, Simon embraces the sheer sensuous joy of pretty dresses, ballroom dancers and timeless material.

She also makes space for a few of her biggest hits and the effect is electrifying. When she straps on an acoustic guitar and begins strumming the first chords of “You’re So Vain,” it’s easy to feel the frisson of excitement crackling through the crowd as they recognize a beloved favorite.

The audience is up and swaying, smiling, clapping. It’s a cathartic sing-along for anyone who’s ever had their heart broken by a charismatic narcissist and lived to love again. And there’s Simon at the center of it all, belting it out with a wide triumphant smile.

“You’re So Vain,” now a half-century old, has the staying power of a Rodgers and Hammerstein standard. After the show, a group of party guests belts out an ecstatic karaoke version of the hit, a fine litmus test for a pop song’s longevity. Even after all these years, Carly Simon is still keeping America singing along.

Chrissie Dickinson is an award-winning music and arts journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Performing Songwriter, Country Music Magazine and Off Our Backs. Her essays have appeared in a number of books, including “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader” (DaCapo Press). Previously, she was the pop music critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was on staff at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, where she was editor of “The Journal of Country Music.”

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