Sunday, March 11

Greatest Hits Live (1988)

Greatest Hits Live was just about the least likely Carly Simon album title imaginable. True, by 1988 a greatest hits album was long overdue, but her live appearances were about as rare as blizzards in July. That is, they had been known to happen, but most of us would have to travel long and far to see one. In the 1980s, her concerts were especially rare. She had toured in 1980 - briefly and only in the northeastern United States - and those few dates were her only public concerts for the entire decade. But in June 1987, and as part of the career resurgence underway with the recently released Coming Around Again, she gave two concerts on Martha's Vineyard. These were, to put it mildly, exclusive events. Only friends and neighbours were invited, and the venue was a temporary, outdoor stage erected on a remote spit of sand near the tiny fishing village of Menemsha. Thankfully, though, in addition to the friends and neighbours, there were the cameras and recording equipment on hand to turn one of these rare concerts into an HBO television special as well as this landmark live album.

Both the HBO show and the album offered the opportunity many of her fans had waited years for: a chance to see and hear her perform live, and so it was no surprise that the television ratings were stratospheric, the album was a million-seller, and that the concert has proven to be perenially popular on VHS and DVD.  That her songs have "legs", in the showbiz sense of the term, was a given. Some of the big hits - "Anticipation", "You're So Vain", "The Right Thing To Do", "Nobody Does it Better" and "You Belong to Me" - had become such radio staples that they probably had more airplay in the '80s than they had in the '70s. More recently, the Coming Around Again album had brought a succession of new songs to the airwaves.  But there was also some undeniable intrigue in seeing a Carly Simon live performance.  Would her well known stage fright be apparent? Would she be a shy wallflower of a performer or the extrovert who posed so confidently for album covers? Would this concert be a quick run through the hits or were there surprises in store? And were the songs themselves - so polished in their studio renderings - suited to live performances?

The cover shot by Bob Gothard answers every question. It is a perfect illustration of the lyrics of one of the concert's surprise songs, the hitherto little known "Never Been Gone": The wind is coming up strong and fast/And the moon is smiling on me.  The Carly Simon Smile, surely worthy of a registered trademark by this point, seems more relaxed and spontaneous than it did on the studio-bound cover of Coming Around Again. The light breeze ruffling her hair and the big blue sky background also suggest the informality of the event. This is not a meticulously planned Las Vegas-style extravaganza or a sweaty rock and roll performance in a grungy basement club.  Rather, a free-flowing and amiable atmosphere is established on the cover, which is itself a representation of the pastel-themed color scheme of the concert, its splendid outdoor vistas, and of course its warm, personal music. The full moon - such a frequent metaphor in Carly's songs - signals the passion of the performance and, situated so prominently on the cover, it also offers a form of weight and power that effectively counterbalances the amiability. This concert may have the atmosphere of a picnic in the park, but don't mistake it for an everyday or innocuous event:  it's not often that the moon and Carly Simon align to smile upon us in this fashion.

There is certainly no stage fright apparent here. In fact, the big surprise of the concert is what an arresting live performer she is. Her vocals are not studied or contrived to recreate the original recordings, but have a free-spirited and natural quality. As we might expect, she picks up the guitar for songs such as "Anticipation" and "It Happens Every Day" (another surprise song, and very welcome too) and she sits at the piano for "You're So Vain", looking every inch the 1970s folk-rocker. But she is also a natural rock and roller, owning the entire stage as she spins, struts, runs or glides across it.  She sings with her entire body, with sweeping arm gestures, rhythmic dance steps, and show stopping turns of the head to hit and hold that big note.  It is clear that her own music moves her - at times right across the stage - and that in each performance she embodies the song.

It is not what one expects of a performer who started her career as a folkie, alongside her sister, singing traditional ballads on the tiny stages of Greenwich Village nightclubs. But then, one of the functions that a concert can serve is to measure the distance covered in a career. She was not likely to tour the world, or even the country at this stage in her career, but luckily the world could come to her. And there, in Menemsha, and in the early evening of a summer's day, it found a performer in her prime, with a rich variety of old and new songs, one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, and a captivating stage charisma. By the ending - an encore performance of "Never Been Gone" that has even greater power than the original studio version - it is clear that the career distance has been considerable and that, like the rest of us, the moon would not have missed this celebration of it.


  1. Thank you again Walter for another in depth and wonderful post. Nobody does them better
    Going to go watch the video now..

  2. Walter,
    Thank you so much. You are able to put into words, images and sounds I have not heard or seen. Your blog is such a gift.

    I had never put together the full moon, her megawatt smile and this concert before, I am sure all of those things were not an accident! WOW!

    I do remember fans talking about the show as the 'Sorbet concert' with all the pastel colors. That is perfect.
    Remember the 80s? There was nothing subtle about them... but those colors sure worked well with her 'home field.'

    Leave it to Carly to host a concert at home for all of us. No over the top glitz or unreal Madison Avenue glamour... just down to earth fun and REAL beauty, hers and Nature's.

    I love when you say that she enjoys singing these songs. You are right. I'd never realized that before either. You can see and hear that throughout the album and the DVD.
    Your screen captures really showcase what fun she was having.
    I do remember back when the album came out that she was so happy to finally have an album of hers that included NOBODY DOES IT BETTER.

    And yes,... who knew she had such great moves on stage?..... Hello Mick indeed!

    Thank you Walter!

  3. i was lucky enough to see carly in concert and she was brilliant. this album cover with a signed message from her to me is framed and hung in pride of place in my home. the second thing i'll grab if there is ever a fire after my child of course!! i so enjoy your album recollections. perfect!

  4. I used to have that concert on VHS back in the day and played it probably a million times. Interestingly the European edition had a totally different artwork than the American one - it was basically based on the design of the "Coming Around Again" album with tiny variations, such as a different typeface being used. It was even called "Coming Around Again" here in Europe. I love the atmosphere of that concert!

    But I've been wondering what cameras they used, as I was expecting a much better video quality from the DVD -but it turned out to look exactly like my old, worn-out videotape.

    I do hope that Carly will also release the Grand Central Station concert on DVD.
    I think it had an equally magical atmosphere, here voice was even stronger than on the vineyard concert and the song selection was fantastic.

    Yes, she displayed some great stage presence here, but was that really such an unexpected surprise, given her earlier TV appearances, videos like "Vengeance" and her legendary performance of "Mockingbird" with James at the No Nukes concert? She's always been a fierce, energetic and sexy performer - despite of her stage-fright, or perhaps even partly because of it - it might be partly due to the high amount of adrenaline.

    Anyway, thanks for your efforts on this blog - I haven't seen a lot of the photos here before, particularly the unused session outtakes. And I often find myself agreeing with your thoughts on certain albums. Best wishes...

  5. Have y'all seen the 1972 Central Park performances of Anticipation and That's the Way? (easily found on youtube.)She's such a natural performer! And that red dress . . . woah!

  6. Perfectly written review! I think this might be my favorite album cover of hers, since it so wonderfully captures the essence of Carly and the album. The DVD and live CD are classics and so very Martha's Vineyard in every regard.

    I also had the pleasure of seeing her perform live in LA several years ago (and meeting her afterwards) and there is no one like her :)

    Best, Lawrence