Thursday, August 18

Torch (1981)

It is difficult to recall now how defiantly uncool it was in 1981 for a rock star to release an album of pre-rock 'standards'. People did not speak so freely or reverently about the 'Great American Songbook' back then, and all of the singers who would later leap on the bandwagon - including Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, Joni Mitchell, and the seemingly unstoppable Rod Stewart - were still pursuing contemporary rock music. Rock was meant to be a break with the past, even a rebellion against it, which meant a rejection of music associated with a previous generation. In the 1970s few people under the age of 30 listened to Frank Sinatra or Julie London - not by choice anyway - and fewer still knew who Duke Ellington or Hoagy Carmichael was. "It's not your fan base. It's going to ruin your career", Carly was told by her record company when she insisted on making a standards album. But Torch was a cri de coeur rather than a career move, and its cover, like its music, is an unfettered expression of passion and heartache.


The album was originally conceived as a more broadly defined standards album, encompassing songs from the films and Broadway musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, but it was planned at a time when Carly and James Taylor had just separated and were heading towards divorce. As she searched for material, she found that the 'torch songs' - of unrequited or lost love - resonated most strongly with her.  The result was an album as autobiographical as any of the albums featuring her own material.

The vocals and arrangements constituted bold re-imaginings of classic songs such as "I'll Be Around", "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good", "I Get Along Without You Very Well", "Body and Soul" and "Spring Is Here".  The common theme is not only heartbreak, but the strength of her voice. One of her fine interpretive flourishes is to hold the last note of a song, and let it grow and intensify rather than fade away - a sign that her passion persists, that her feelings cannot be assuaged. Perhaps the boldest arrangement is also the simplest: on "I Get Along Without You Very Well", the quietly insistent piano is underscored by a darkly reverberating synthesizer, and the tension between the two instruments forms a perfect backdrop to her smooth vocal. The song's irony is all the more poignant for being conveyed in this calm, understated manner.  

There are more recent songs on the album, including the moody, scene-setting opener, "The Blue of Blue", which is effectively a duet between her voice and David Sanborn's wailing saxophone. The tender "What Shall We Do With the Child", the bittersweet "From the Heart", and Steven Sondheim's soaringly dramatic "Not a Day Goes By" also match the older songs tear for tear. Her reading of Sondheim's song is especially powerful, building from quiet intimations to strident declarations about the inability to forget a long departed lover. It is a breathtaking performance, at once proving the contemporary viability of this musical genre and her mastery of it.

Finding a suitably attractive package for this unusual, unfashionable album represented a considerable challenge. It could hardly assume the contemporary vibe of her past two album covers, and yet a large chunk of the record-buying public would probably be lost if it looked like a period piece. Photographer Lynn Goldsmith and art director Simon Levy clearly understood this, and they arrived at a stunningly dramatic cover; one that captures the romantic fervour of the music as well as the erotic charge of her previous album covers. Goldsmith later recalled that photographs from their first session (for example, on the top right) had to be discarded. Carly "just looked too sad...she couldn't help showing the pain she was going through" in the wake of her separation from Taylor. Goldsmith asked for a second session. This one would be held on the roof of the singer's New York apartment building as the sun set, where the bluesy mood of the album would be conveyed by the darkening tones of the sky. To encourage Carly, she brought along two props. One was a 1940s-style microphone for her to sing into (as the second photo on the right shows). The other was an actor - to play the man who got away, or was about to get away - and in several shots (for example, the third and fourth on the right) she can be seen tugging on his arm, begging him to stay, and responding rapturously when he nuzzles her neck. Indeed, in some of the photographs it looks as though she may be trying to hold him by force, or, as she herself once described it, "to keep his arm as a souvenir".

A similar, arm-tugging shot was used for the cover, but the actor is less visible. His blonde hair is darkened so that the viewer has to look closely to see a figure at all. In this light, he might be a figment of the singer's imagination, and the focus remains fixed on the emotions so vividly expressed on the singer's face.  This, together with the sensuous curves of her stance, is the perfect visual realisation of the songs, which are not so much about the qualities of the person loved as they are about the feelings that accompany the loss of love. The album's lettering conveys the most difficult of these feelings: an inability to let go. The title is situated as a figurative torch and, more importantly, the letters appear to have been written in blood. Together with the red fingernail that digs into the man's arm, the lettering indicates what is at stake here - not mere romance but intense and desperate longing. The drama on the cover is all hers, in other words, and it entices the viewer to hear the spellbindingly sad story that must have inspired this scenario.

The actor was no mere prop, nor even an 'extra', but was actually the TV star Al Corley, whom Goldsmith had photographed earlier that week. Corley was then starring in Dynasty, and playing Steven Carrington, the most sympathetic character in that phenomenally popular and absurdly melodramatic soap opera. He was widely regarded as the most handsome man on the planet, and he was also a Carly Simon fan, eager to take on the role of a prop in order to meet her. The two immediately hit it off. As Goldsmith described their meeting at the photo session, "I suggested she hold his arm and plead with him not to leave. She must have been very convincing because he stayed for two years."  For all the sadness of Torch, then, it is nevertheless a tale with a happy ending. A few months later, a feature on the couple appeared in Interview magazine and it pictured them happily entwined with one another (see the photo below). Indeed, she is still holding his arm in the photograph, but it is clear that he is no longer departing and he has become more than a figment of her imagination.

Torch received excellent reviews and sold well, albeit as a slow and steady fire rather than a chart-topping blaze. It set the stage for the upcoming boom in standards albums, and also for Carly's own further explorations in this field. Unlike so many other contemporary forays into the 'Great American Songbook', her standards albums have never been motivated by nostalgia, nor contained within its narrow confines. They have always been infused with a distinctive creative vision, and by a depth of feeling that is beautifully demonstrated on this album's cover. 

 

3 comments:

  1. Another tremendous post, Walter. I had no idea that Al Corley and Ms. Simon met at that photo shoot. Nor did I know that Mr. Corley was a Carly Simon fan before they met. That is fun!

    The cover certainly does capture the theme of the final product. I had never given the script on the cover much thought before, but I love your take on it as being a figurative torch written in blood. It surely does add to the drama on the cover and hint to what the album has in store.

    It was very fascinating to read about the process taken on that New York rooftop to get the cover right and see some of the other photos that were not chosen. Thank you for that! (They certainly got the right one!)

    This was the Lp that introduced me to the Great American Songbook. Nilsson released a Standards album in 1973 and Willie Nelson also did in 1978, but this one you could feel. Carly grew up with most of these songs and her vocal stylings certainly reflect her knowledge of this musical genre. She doesn't just cover these songs, she brings a genuine understanding to her interpretations that lifts them into a new decade.

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  2. I will admit now that as a 20 year old fan in 1981, I was less than thrilled that Carly was venturing into this totally uncool territory. I felt "cheated" out of an original album of compositions. We knew bits and pieces of the marriage woes. We saw her on the cover of Rolling Stone, Sally and Ben holding her chin up. We knew she was in pain. I didn't put together until years later that this album must have been heartbreaking for her to make, surely therapeutic and cathartic, but nonetheless painful.

    As much as I moaned about how pissed off I was, I found myself listening to this record constantly. I couldn't stop playing "I Get Along Without You Very Well". My jaw dropped the first time I heard "What Shall We Do With The Child?". Try listening to "Not A Day Goes By" while thinking of a loved one that you have lost, either by breakup or by death.

    I thought maybe I just liked this record because it was Carly. Years later I realized that I loved "Torch" because it was Carly and because it was a magnificent record. Totally underrated, it snuck up on me and introduced me and countless others to these songs of a bygone era. My grandmother knew all of these songs, as she did with "My Romance", and hummed along. Cool or uncool, it didn't matter. These were songs that you couldn't get out of your head.

    A few years later, I would be pissed off again when Linda Ronstadt put on a poofy dress, grabbed Nelson Riddle and stole Carly's thunder as the world proclaimed her as the girl singer who introduced us to the Great American Songbook. Here I was in the background waving my "Torch" album and yelling "hey wait, Carly did it first!" I had come full circle. I admitted that I loved "Torch". And this album is still as heartbreaking and simply timeless as it was in 1981.

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  3. i agree - carly did do it first! what an excellent post - i so enjoy your insight. not a day goes by is such a hauntingly beautiful song and one i used as a tribute to my mom - can't wait to see more!

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