Monday, November 21, 2011

800 Words: Johnny Mercer at his Century

(Still another rerun. I promise I'll start posting new material again before Thanksgiving.)

I didn't know I knew this much about Johnny Mercer either...

It was the centennary of Johnny Mercer yesterday. It would have completely passed me by had I not caught a celebration of it from Terry Gross while I was in the car.

God knows I'm waiting for the right day to do an arrangement of One For My Baby. Meaning in Mercer's songs will always be elusive. When Dean Martin did One For My Baby, it was as insipid as American Pop Culture ever gets. When Frank Sinatra does it, it is the saddest possible form of magic. Indeed, there was something about the Mercer/Arlen songs that spurred Sinatra to places that no contemporary of his ever went. He was more vulnerable, more raw, and more heartbreaking than any mere crooner could ever be.

There was something about Sinatra, somewhere in his delivery, that made him the ideal vehicle for Great American Songs. Other candidates you say? Well look at Sinatra in one of the great Johnny Mercer songs and compare him to a few others. Just listen to him do Autumn Leaves and take my word for it about everybody else.

(In spite of the picture, this is most definitely Sinatra)

Let's not kid ourselves. This isn't Mercer at his best. It's a sappy sentimental lyric only remembered for a downwardly arching melody that imitates the experience of lovesick depression perfectly. The music is what makes this song work. Many singing giants of the Postwar Era covered it, and a few non-singing giants as well. Yves Montand delivers the original French lyrics a sort of ironic distance as though he were winking at us that he couldn't possibly believe a word of it. Edith Piaf, ever the force of nature, seemed to throw herself headlong into the song as though she were trying to convince herself that the sort of romantic love associated with so many of the ballads she sang really exists. Nat King Cole sings it like a sort of confidence man, trying to sell you a heartbreak he doesn't really believe in. And then there's Sinatra, who is the only singer who makes this song worth listening to (for me at least). He plays the triteness of the imagery for all its worth, lingering on every phrase with weepy strings swelling right underneath him. And yet it is the very triteness of it that makes it work. Sinatra never strains to convey things the way Piaf did. Instead it is understated - like a reluctant confession.

In the age between opera and rock, the evolution of the popular song into the form as we now know was one of the great musical happenings of the 20th century. The music of Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin (make your own list) is as much in our bloodstream as Schubert is Viennese and Faure is Parisian. That weird artistic neither-region between absolute music and absolute poetry is always where the genius of hard-working professionals flowers. They were always too wrapped up in what they were doing to worry about whether or not it was brilliant. Their songs never impress or draw attention to themselves. They just do their job, and that job is to move the listener.

And no singer in recorded history was better at carrying out that intention than Sinatra. He wasn't the first singer to realize the potential the microphone gave to phrase everything in a completely different way - that would be Louis Armstrong. But Satchmo, great as he is, always sounds like himself. Frank Sinatra sounds like what every American man hopes his singing sounds like when nobody's there to critique it. So often when Sinatra sang, it was like a kind of confession. Before the age of the microphone, singers had to project to their audience with only their voices. During these years, there was no such thing as a vocal performance that was not larger-than-life. Opera succeeded so wildly for 300 years because it gave that larger-than-life style a suitable platform.

But what the microphone did was to give us singers that can sing our favorite songs the way we sing to an audience of a few friends, or even when we're alone. In front of the mike, all you have to do is be yourself, and the mike will project everything that makes you unique. And so for the first time in history, great performers could sing to an audience of thousands and sound every bit as personal as it would be to hear a friend who sings to an audience of ten.

(Thomas Mann had a bit of an obsession with this song - Der Lindenbaum by Schubert. Today Thomas Quasthoff can fill an enormous concert hall to sing it. But a hundred years ago it would more likely have been heard in the confines of a private drawing room, with a pianist who played scores of wrong notes and a singer who might have sounded as bad as untraditionally classical as Bob Dylan. And yet in such settings, Schubert seemed to move people more forcefully than ever.)

And in that way, the three minute song has not changed. Beethoven and Wagner always did the job of stunning the listener (and still do), but it was to Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf that Germans turned to in their most personal moments. We now gather late at night in front of the i-pod (often fueled by alcohol) and play for one another our most favorite songs in the hope that someone else can appreciate it as much as we do. A hundred years ago, the alcohol would be the same but the it would be the piano we'd gather around with reams of sheet music. And we'd read through it with the same hope of mutual understanding.

But unlike in the 19th century, the heyday of the composer, it is the lyrics that we ultimately remember. Schubert made reams of great songs out of Goethe, and songs just as great out of poets that even academics don't read anymore. But when you recall the Great American Songs, what do you recall first? The music, or the lyrics?

Inseparable you say? Perhaps. But think of Moon River. Maybe as great a lyric as America ever has had, and how was it done? What is it about? It's a wonderful melody, but it's workaday enough that three years later Henry Mancini would reuse the first three notes (the hook) of it for the opening motif of "Goldfinger." In the context of Audrey Hepburn singing it in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it's straightforward enough: The shock of a lonely party girl at her first exposure to the excitement life may soon have in store for her. "Two drifters off to see the world; There's such a lot of world to see." is a justifiably famous line. But the lyrics are so open-ended that they can mean anything at all we say they mean. It can convey heart-fluttering excitement, but who says it has to be something positive? The song became perhaps even more devastatingly effective when Pedro Almodovar used it in his film Bad Education, in which a boy sang the song right before he was molested. In a context like that, how can one view the line "you heart breaker, Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way." with anything but horror?

Or think of "I'm Old-Fashioned." When Rita Hayworth sang it to Fred Astaire in "You Were Never Lovelier", it was exactly what it seemed. Fred Astaire, the original Wall-E, ever the romantic optimist on the edge of forlorn, trying to woo ever-so-bitchy Rita Hayworth. And then she opens up with this song and confesses her belief in the sort of deathless romance that never exists outside of Fred Astaire movies. Fast-forward forty-five years to Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. Dianne Wiest plays the coke-addicted black sheep in a family of theatrical royalty. Never having had any acting talent, she tries to rebel only to find herself continually trying out for parts she has no hope of obtaining. But she steels herself for an audition and sings the exact same song Rita Hayworth sang with a voice that can only be described as pitiful. As she sings the song (she doesn't get through much) you can feel her note-by-note clamming herself up in anticipation of her inevitable rejection. Again, who remembers the melody? Does it even matter when put next to lines that virtually everybody quotes without realizing?

In different contexts, these songs can convey anything. They are completely value-neutral, with every interpreter supplying their own context. These songs can be used for two-dimensional entertainments to take them at face value, yet they practically beg great artists to stand their meanings on their heads. The melodies are endlessly malleable. There isn't a single song from the Great American Songbook that wasn't indispensable to bebop musicians like Bird, Coltrane and Blakey, who used the simplicity of these old standards as a lynchpin on which they could stretch their musical material past recognition. But if you change one word of a song by Johnny Mercer, or Oscar Hammerstein, or Ira Gershwin, or Lorenz Hart the meaning of the song becomes unrecognizable. They are what make the old standards unique.

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