I've been listening to the Coltrane-Hartman recording of "Lush Life" for so many years, and it just gets deeper and better with each listening. I think it's one of the ten best things ever recorded anywhere.
When Hartman hits that final note, a capella, I think, "that has to be wrong, flat," but then the piano fills up under it and you see, astonishingly, it's just pitch-perfect, like landing a jet in pitch darkness and touching down so smoothly the passengers never wake up. The final, slow, simple 13 notes of Coltrane's phrase that wraps up the song are as complete as a Shakespeare sonnet; not one note more, or less, than should be.
There's a third "voice" in the song, of course, besides Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane; it's Billy Strayhorn, the author of the sangspiel ode to the lethal boredom that comes when one has had his fill of decadence. The words wreathe like the smoke from a forgotten cigarette, through seemingly irresolvable patterns that yet come out perfect in the end.
Not until tonight did I learn Strayhorn was all of 22 -- at most -- when he wrote that, hadn't even been to Paris, and knew no more of the cocktail life than one could gather in the 1930s in North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
Now that I know that, I can see it makes sense. Like Eliot writing "The Waste Land" as an undergraduate, "he could only have created the lyric because of, rather than in spite of, his youth and preciousness."
Only a naif would lay his feelings so totally on the line, to walk around with his soul so completely exposed that any passerby could take a shot at it.
And they took their shots at the song, too. I long ago learned to avoid most renditions of "Lush Life," which, like Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," became overdone by exactly the class of artists who were incapable of bringing out the silent power under the smooth surface. Like the site says:
Ten years ago, "Lush Life" was so overdone in every loft in Manhattan it became the last thing anybody wanted to hear. Your average jazz singer would stick the mike in her face and scat for a half-hour, following which, she would then maul "Lush Life" in an attempt to prove she could remember a lyric. And if they didn't smother both the life and the lushness out of the song, Linda Ronstadt did.
Coltrane and his quartet already had taken their tools to tonal music and drilled through it, sawed it open. But here they went back to the studio, with a very conventional crooner, to draw a map for listeners to follow them. A way to move, song by song, in subtle, slow movements, from what was known to what was new. To show how un-strange it really was after all, once you got over it. If you wanted to. If not, you could just love the little album for what it was. A familiar musical landscape littered with signs: "Dig here."
But with all the important and worthwhile readings of the tune available now and with entry-level vocalists discovering that there are other copasetic retro numbers too, we can again appreciate "Lush Life" for the great song that it is. Long after the ashtrays are full and the glasses are empty, "Lush Life" resounds as an American classic. As Ellington said way back at Carnegie in 1948, "I don't know which is better, living a 'Lush Life' or singing about it."
Louis Armstrong had done this sort of thing. Ezra Pound did it in his criticism and prose. Joyce did it in his short stories. He knew where he was going, with other writers who had broken the scales and chords of the art. But he came back or paused long enough to point the way and leave a note.
In a recent column in "New Criterion," Mark Steyn charges like Attila through the history of modern pop music here. He's a conservative fellow, so his rampage hits the usual soft targets:
The music biz have been humbug revolutionaries ever since 1955 when Bill Haley and Elvis put them in the permanent-revolution business. The kids tore up movie seats to "Rock Around the Clock," even though its composer wrote it as a foxtrot, and its lyricist was born in 1890. When Max Freedman was a rebellious teenager, the big hits were "The Merry Widow Waltz," Kipling's "Road To Mandalay," and "When A Fellow's On The Level With A Girl That's On The Square." And, unlike most revolutions, the regime itself -- in the shape of RCA, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and the other corporate entities that dominate the business to this day -- proved far wilier survivors than Louis XVI. They've made a very nice living out of ersatz revolution.
And they're still at it, though lately, as if acknowledging the staleness of the product, they're selling new technologies and repackagings, not new sounds.
Rock 'n' roll and its bad child rock have been ubiquitous in my lifetime. It's hard to imagine a post-rock era of pop, or how such a future would look back on our experience and comprehend it.
Nothing is harder to recover than a faded fad. I read and read about packed houses in 1840s America making the rafters echo when T.D. Rice performed "Jim Crow." I read a description of the skinny white guy shuffling and preening like a silly black man and spouting those simple, almost nonsensical lyrics. What was so special about any of that?
Well, our future may well ask, what exactly was it about (Sir) Mick Jagger shouting "I can't get no satisfaction" that brought 80,000 of us at a time into arena bowls at $40 a pop?
What Steyn gets at eventually, which has been on my mind a lot lately, is the essential, deeply conservative nature of modern pop. Not topically, certainly. But musically.
Paul Simon and I once had a longish conversation about this and eventually he conceded that even the best rockers had nevertheless been unable to develop beyond a very basic harmonic language: There isn't enough there to teach in a "music" course.
Sometimes it seems rock is the most conservative music on earth. Mozart's Symphony #40 is dated 1788. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" was completed in 1824. In 32 years, working in the same genre with the same musical form and the same orchestra, look how the geniuses re-invented the whole notion of music!
OK, "Rock Around the Clock" is released in 1954. Add 32 and you get 1986. Take away arrangements and production, and for my money there's not an inch of daylight, musically, between "Rock Around the Clock" and "Walk Like An Egyptian." Stripped down to just lyrics and chords, they could be from the same year. In fact, a Haley recording of "Rock Around the Clock" charted at #12 as recently as 1974 (When "American Graffiti" was hot).
Measure it against other yardsticks: 32 years is the distance between Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." Subtract 32 from Sinatra's "Learnin' the Blues" (1955) and popular music is back in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra days. It's not even clear you're talking about the same thing over time, except in terms of popularity in the genre and perceived cultural influence.
Not only is rock conservative; it's positively reactionary. It's a bully-music. Old Hateful doesn't disguise his contempt or scorn for any other form of music (except certain jazz and blues artists he likes for personal reasons). It took rappers a decade to get past old James Brown samples. "Rock Around the Clock" was perfectly cast in "Blackboard Jungle," where Vic Morrow's character and the other delinquents literally destroy the music of the older generation and then substitute for it their own.
This probably is the most degenerative quality it has. It quickly becomes a self-referential loop. Like the teenager's mind itself, which regards every lost love, every dream crushed, as the end of the world. Rock ultimately cuts itself off not only from its roots, but from the references that might enrich it.
The old middle-brow middle-class couples who subscribed to the symphony every season and dutifully sat there through Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, and Bernstein are all but extinct, and pitied for their inability to cut loose and boogie in the same way we feel sorry for those trapped in a loveless marriage. What a difference it would make if grade-schoolers could know just enough of a smattering of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony to recognize the excellent joke "The Simpsons" makes of it. What an achievement it would be if every high-school could acquire a classical catalogue as rich as that used in Looney Tunes when Elmer Fudd goes hunting Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Carl Stalling, who scored those cartoons, often fell back on formula: If someone was in a cave, the orchestra would play "Fingal’s Cave." But you can't even do that any more, because no-one gets the joke.
Along with pop music of the day, it might be noted. When Elmer's Slavic-accented hound dog is about to devour Bugs between two huge slices of bread, Stallings' score plays a jaunty little ditty titled "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You." Which itself is a referential riff on "A Jug of wine, a loaf of bread - and thou," from the Rubáiyát, which is based on .... and so forth. There's something comforting to a teenage mind, in many cases, to know the first heartbreak in life isn't the end of everything, that it's all happened before and turned out wonderfully.
Without knowing just a little about music before the current decade, you miss the gems of pop, like the lines penned by Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder:
Just like Pagliacci did
[And you also wouldn't realize they didn't quite hit it: "Pagliacci" was the title of the opera; the singing, crying clown in it was named Canio, who sometimes referred to himself as pagliaccio -- "clown" in the Italian singular.]
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
the tears of a clown
when there's no one around
It was Bob Dylan who once called Robinson his favorite American poet. But it's Dylan who often gets touted as rock's genuine poet, and who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature every year from 1996 to at least 2004, the year Newsweek called him "the most influential cultural figure now alive."
Certainly he has had poetic influences, and perhaps his music even sent some of his fans to the library in curiosity over who "Verlaine and Rimbaud" were. But I wonder if anyone other than an academic ever held up their poems to Dylan's lyrics and found the latter better verse.
A relative culture ends up ever shorter of any relatives to relate to. In educational theory, it's not about culture vs. "counter-culture" but rather what I once called lunch-counterculture: It's all lined up for you and you pick what you want. It's the display case of rotating pies at the diner: one day the student might pick Milton, the next Bob Dylan. But, if Milton and Bob Dylan are equally "valid," equally worthy of study, then Bob Dylan will be studied and Milton will languish.
Which is an interesting coupling, because both Milton and Dylan in their way deformed the English language. Milton tended to write in word orders that were idiomatic in Latin but not in English. Dylan just scrambles it at will when he needs to rhyme short lines:
Up on Housing Project Hill
Which is painful, and not English, not Latin, not any grammar known to man. Not even German. The rest of the verse is actually one of his better bits of poetry:
It's either fortune or fame
You must pick up one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim
If you're lookin' to get silly
Which goes somewhere and makes a memorable statement, but hardly ranks him with Rimbaud. A long time ago, in 1965, the poet question was put to Dylan at a press conference and for once he gave the answer I think was about right: "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."
You better go back to from where you came
Because the cops don't need you
And man they expect the same
Sort of like T.D. Rice all those years ago.
Maybe I'm hard on rock music because I got the short end of its schtick. Check out the Grammy "record of the year" winners during my formative years:
1973: Year I first started listening to FM radio: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" Roberta Flack
Comment: saccharine treacle, or treacly saccharine? You decide.
I was listening to: George Harrison
1974: Year I bought my first LP ("Revolver"): "Killing Me Softly" Roberta Flack
Comment: [see above]
I was listening to: Beatles
1975: Year I first slow-danced with a girl (Lisa something-that-began-with-"D"): "I Honestly Love You" Olivia Newton-John
Comment: Puke-making musical lard
I was listening to; Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen
1976: Year I got my first job: "Love Will Keep Us Together" Captain & Tennille
Comment: Bouncy as a zombie on a trampoline. And about as sexy.
I was listening to: Peter Frampton, Aerosmith
1977: Year I played in my first rock band: "This Masquerade" George Benson
Comment: Almost like jazz. Yes, I'm kidding.
I was listening to: Supertramp, "Crime of the Century;" John Coltrane; Fleetwood Mac, "Mystery to Me"
1978: High school graduation: "Hotel California" The Eagles
Comment: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." Actually, you can leave. Right now. Please go. And take the rest of the song with you.
I was listening to: Warren Zevon, "Excitable Boy."
1979: Living on my own in Europe: "Just The Way You Are" Billy Joel
Comment: My favorite song ever! "You're a boring dowdy, but don't bother trying to change." Written to his then-wife. By the time I got back from Europe ha had dumped her and hooked up with a supermodel.
I was listening to: Elvis Costello, "My Aim is True."
1980: First romp in the sack: "What A Fool Believes" The Doobie Brothers
Comment: "Can you imagine doobie in your funk? Ho!" [George Clinton]
I was listening to: Steve Winwood; Genesis, "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"
1981: First serious girlfriend: "Sailing" Christopher Cross
Comment: reedy and whiny.
I was listening to: Pink Floyd
1982: First car (1965 Buick Special) "Bette Davis Eyes" Kim Carnes
Comment: The vocal smoothness of Tom Waits effortlessly married to the songwriting depth of Barry Manilow.
I was listening to: Bob Marley, Toots & the Maytals, Dave Edmunds
1983: College graduation: "Rosanna" Toto
Comment: I remember sitting in my apartment and hearing this had swept the Grammies, and thinking, "take me now, Lord."
I was listening to: Gregorian chant
1984: First newspaper job: "Beat It" Michael Jackson
Comment: This was the year I gave up altogether on contemporary popular music. I listened to the Byrds, the Blasters, the Pogues, Nick Lowe, whatever I liked, and began following the threads. Basically, I never turned on the radio again.
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