September 20, 2013

It could have been verse.

I too like words, as did Robert Pirosh: (…) “Fat buttery words, solemn, angular, creaky words, spurious, black-is-white words, suave "V" words, crunchy, brittle, crackly words, sullen, crabbed, scowling words.  I too like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land's-sake words.  Elegant, flowery words, wormy, squirmy, mealy words, sniggly, chuckling words.” (…)

September marks five years that I first appeared in this vast digital wilderness where blogs appear and vanish like wind-swept tumbleweed.  Alas, circumstances prevent me from writing, so this will be my last post.  

While this may have been a singular odyssey, its richness and appeal, to my mind, was in the connection to each of you.  When a comment or post came in from anywhere on this planet I marveled at the experience that connected us.  To this wondrous conclave of muse, family, friends and, well, ranters, who filled these pages with insight, inspiration and occasional bile, here are two of the most beautiful words in the English language - thank you. 

Usually it is the patient who is disturbed. This time it was the psychiatrist. "You know," he informed the man on the couch, "you write as if your life depends on every line."

"It does," replied Alan Jay Lerner, and in two words he encapsulated the difference between the epochs of My Fair Lady and, well, today.

Every year extravagant claims are advanced for top tunes. It is a common mistake made by those who confuse jingles with wit and technique with tune. The error is understandable: after all, digital processes and multiple-track devices can now grant any mating yowl the resonance of a late Mahler symphony. Audiophilically, this is the golden age.

Lyrically, however, it is the Styrofoam era. Granted, some pop rhymers have produced indelible phrases. Several of Bob Dylan's works are blowing in the wind, still; Jim Croce's "meaner than a junkyard dog" presents an entire character in five words; Kris Kristofferson's "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" has lost none of its trenchancy. But can anyone remember the second or third lines of these songs? If we ever listened closely we would have to sit still for lines like these from George Michael's "I Want Your Sex":

Sex is natural,
Sex is fun. Sex is
When it's one on one.

Every time I inveigh against the banalities of modem culture, my godchildren point out that top-of-the-chart refrains were never meant to be printed out of context. Examining words without their melodies, they insist, is like taking oxygen without hydrogen and then judging it as water. Perhaps, I reply, but that oxygen was quite capable of sustaining life in other decades. And then I bring my ultimate weapon onstage: the versifiers themselves. Cole Porter's "You're the Top" may boast the most repeated lines in American popular song:

You're the top!
You're the Colosseum. You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.

Far fewer know the self-parody:

You're the top!
You're Miss Pinkham's tonic! You're the top!
You're a high colonic.
You're the burning heat of a bridal suite in use,
You're the breasts of Venus, you're King Kong's penis,
You're self-abuse.

This is not to say that the leading songwriters of today are valueless. Paul Simon displays an uncommon literacy and conscience. No one is quicker at seizing buzzwords and catchphrases. In "You Can Call Me Al," for example, he chants:

A man walks down the street, he says, "Why am I short of attention and ... my nights are so long ... who'll be my role model now that my role model is gone? . . . All along there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations ...

This is the lingua franca of contemporary life, and in "Al" Simon shows himself to possess a Panasonic ear. He also exhibits a lazy mind. He has emptied his notebook into his song without bothering to polish the work or even to give it metrical integrity. It is enough, for most of his followers, to recognize the banalities of contemporary chatter. Never mind if there is any sparkle behind the laundry list.

The lyricists of the past were just as voracious in their pursuit of cliches, but they were not content merely to ransack the cocktail parties and gossip columns. They worked and revised and polished their poetry until you could see your face in it. For "The Babbitt and the Bromide," Ira Gershwin produced patter with an intent very much like Simon's. On the way, as Fred Astaire pointed out, Gershwin wrote for feet, physical and metrical:

Hello! How are you? Howza folks? What's new? I'm great! That's good! Ha-ha! Knock wood. . .
Nice weather we are having but it gives me such a pain;
I've taken my umbrella, so of course it
doesn't rain.
Heigh-ho! That's life! What's new? Howza wife? Got to run! Oh my!
Ta-ta. Olive Oil! Goodbye!

Louis Kronenberger included "The Babbitt" in his Anthology of Light Verse back in 1934, where it sat unembarrassed beside the works of Eugene Field and Hilaire Belloc. That marked the first time American song lyrics were given such status. Since then progress has been intermittent but relentless. In recent years, Oxford University Press has published two highly significant volumes of humorous poetry:
American Light Verse and English Light Verse. Besides the expected Gershwin, the American volume includes lyrics by, among others, Johnny Mercer-not a major name to the digital generation, but a vital architect in the development of popular song. "Blues in the Night" is his (music by Harold Arlen); so are "Lazybones" (Hoagy Carmichael), "Too Marvelous for Words" (Richard Whiting), and "Moon River" (Henry Mancini). The Oxford anthology prefers his antic side and sandwiches him between Theodore Roethke and Peter De Vries:

Glow, little glow worm, fly of fire,
Glow like an incandescent wire.
Glow for the female of the specie;
Turn on the AC and the DC. . . .
Thou aeronautical bolt weevil,
Iluminate yon woods primeval. ...

This is no effete display for a Ph.D. oral.  The Mills Bros. recorded "Glow Worm" and took it to the hit parade in 1951. American audiences were no more elitist then than now; the writers simply had more respect for them.
When Lorenz Hart impudently mocked the hangover of passion, he used Shakespeare's iambs to make his point in lines three and four:

When love congeals,
It soon reveals
The faint aroma of performing seals,
The double-crossing of a pair of heels.
I wish I were in love again.

Here he laments the passage of love:

Once you told me I was mistaken,
That I'd awaken with the sun
And order orange juice for one.
It never entered my mind ....
You have what I lack myself,
And now I even have to scratch my back myself.

In the period when Hart was collaborating with Richard Rodgers, their choreographer, George Balanchine, fantasized about a day when publishers "would print Larry's lyrics without the music as a book of verse or poetry."  And here they are The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart, produced in a large and handsome format by Alfred Knopf.

Alan Jay Lerner, who became the premier lyricist of his time, with such shows as My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Gigi, once analyzed his colleagues: "Frequently, aficionados and practitioners of musical theater play the pointless game of comparisons. Was Ira Gershwin 'better' than Cole Porter? Was Oscar Hammerstein 'superior' to Larry Hart? As I say, it is pointless because they were all master craftsmen, each with an expression of his own. I am exhilarated by the gaiety, style and surprising passion of Cole, overwhelmed by the wonderfully slangy sentimentality and ingenious versatility of Ira, touched by the disarming simplicity of Berlin, and forever impressed by Oscar Hammerstein's dramatic ability. Yet there is a tenderness in some of Larry's lyrics that always catches me off guard and brings a tear to my eye. His wit was delicious. . . . "

It is impossible to imagine anyone's writing that about contemporary lyricists, and it is worth considering why. The IQs of wordsmiths cannot have diminished so drastically since Lerner's time-the man died only in 1986. Were there really giants on the Earth in those days?

Cole Porter, like many another pathological worker, liked to give the impression that he tossed off his rhymes between martinis. In fact, he wrote more than 800 songs under increasingly adverse conditions. His family wealth guaranteed him comfort but not success, and for fifteen years after leaving Yale he was known as the author of flops and fripperies. By the time he was recognized as a master craftsman he was nearly forty and close to the tragedy that was to maim him for life. During a horseback ride he took a spill. The mount toppled on his legs, crushing them. Porter endured more than thirty operations, and he was in nearly constant pain from then on.   Still, he continued to write songs that bore no hint of his anguish.

Porter was lucky in his lineage, but he was more fortunate in his epoch. As John Updike pointed out, the late thirties was a lighthearted era, “a heyday of light verse; there were book reviews in verse, and sports stories; there were droll ballades and rondeaux and triolets.”

As to the "disarming simplicity" of Berlin, the man is about as simple as a Byzantine chapel. Back in 1924 he was rhyming "child would" with "wild wood" and "peaceful" with "valise full." He has seen his hundredth birthday, but had he stopped writing at the age of thirty Berlin would have been rich and famous as the composer of popular ditties like" Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Remember."  Had Berlin begun at the age of thirty and stopped at forty-five, he would have been rich and famous as the composer of melodies for such Astaire-Rogers films as Top Hat. And if Berlin had begun his career at the age of forty-five he would be rich and famous for his indelible Broadway melodies like "There's No Business Like Show Business":

Yesterday they told you you would not go far,
That night you open and there you are,
Next day on your dressing room they've
hung a star,
Let's go on with the show.

Some of the composer's monosyllables seem to carry the clang of the schoolyard. But Berlin and his peers were always acutely aware of something the Romantic poets also knew: English is a language of fricatives and tight endings. Italian, with its large vowels, its as and as and es ending every phrase, is the ideal singer's tongue. The arias of Puccini and Verdi can be boomed in the shower. Henry Purcell's melodies, with their crunching consonants, are confined to the concert hall.

Byron sensed all that back in 1818. His solution was to steal from the Italians, copying their ottava rima, an eight-line stanza with a rhyme scheme of a, b, a, b, a, b, c, c. In Don Juan those a's and b's are diverting, but it is the c, c's that bring a foretaste of American song:

What men call gallantry, and gods call
Is much more common where the climate's

In Byron's day audiences really read poetry. In the thirties and forties and even up to the fifties, they truly heard the messages above the treble clef. Rhymers aimed for thoughts that could be compressed and words that would carry a tune. Much can be done with amore, but what can be done with "love"? Glove, above, shove-the rhymes were used up a century ago. Hence Ira Gershwin's sardonic song:

Blah, Blah, Blah your hair,
Blah, Blah, Blah your eyes,
Blah, Blah, Blah, blah care,
Blah, Blah, Blah, blah skies.
T ra la la la, tra la la la la, cottage for
Blah, Blah, Blah, blah, blah, darling,
with you.

The great ones learned to vault over the iron restrictions of their native tongue, placing the emotion in the middle of the song and the wit in the title and at the close, where punch lines belonged. Berlin wrote of dancing cheek to cheek and changing partners. Porter inquired, "What is this thing called love?" ("Just who can solve its mystery? Why should it make a fool of me?");  he had a call girl chant about "love for sale," cannily putting the emphasis on the antepenultimate syllable:

Let the poets pipe of love
In their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I've been thru the mill of love;
Old love, new love,
Every love but true love.

Hammerstein, the ultimate tongue-and-groove craftsman, employed many of the same techniques, but without the panache. The third-generation showman, who worked with two of America's greatest Broadway composers, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, cultivated a personal plainness. He avoided nightclubs, rose early, started work by 9:30, spent the evenings with his close-knit family, and labored for tormented weeks on a single lyric until it achieved the effect of utter spontaneity. (He was then driven to distraction when Richard Rodgers took his rhymes and set them to fluent, soaring melodies overnight.) Hammerstein's love songs are full of expected sentiment and unpredictable attack: not, for example, "How do I feel?" but "If I loved you"; not "forbidden love" but "We kiss in a shadow"; not "We love women" but "There is nothing like a dame." Rodgers's celebrated collaborator has been much maligned for bringing the melodies down to earth-and it is true that once Hart had died they never climbed so high or sounded so fresh. But from Oklahoma! right through The Sound of Music, Hammerstein wrote integrated ballads, waltzes, and character songs that define the essence of theatrical integrity.

Yet even at his finest, Hammerstein lacked the one element that Porter and Hart had in superabundance: astonishment. Students of lyrics have a favorite game, Prediction-calling the punch line before the singer does. In fairness, it can be played only when a song is heard for the first time. The soloist chants a verse that praises a girl's charms, and the student knows at once that the next line will invariably contain the final word "arms." "Witty" bounces down to "pretty," "romance" to "chance," and so on. No lyricist has ever eluded the guessers better than Noel Coward.

"The police had to send a squad car-" begins one of his more outrageous couplets. Can you call the rhyme?

"-When Daddy got fried on Vodka."  

Unlike Coward, Porter, Hart, and others who expressed a bone-deep gaiety in all senses of the word, and unlike Hammerstein, who was inwardly placid, Alan Jay Lerner married seven times and was dogged by ulcers and a fatal streak of perfectionism. He miserably sided with those who believe, as he says in his autobiography, that "lyrics, no less than music, are written to be heard. A lyric without its musical clothes is a scrawny creature and should never be allowed to parade naked across the printed page." I say miserably because he then proceeded to follow that statement by printing thirty-nine of his songs, sans melodies, from "The Rain in Spain" to his salute to Gerontion:

The fountain of youth is dull as paint,
Methuselah is my patron saint;
I've never been so comfortable before.
Oh, I'm so glad that I'm not young any more.

The great lyricists have always taken second billing: Rodgers and Hart, Kern and Hammerstein, Arlen and Mercer. When they shared the last name, George Gershwin came before Ira, and even when words and tunes came from the same man, they were more often listed on song sheets as "Music and lyrics by Cole Porter." Yet the numbers were remembered as much for a single phrase as for a whole melody. The sung genius Dorothy Fields specialized in images that took hold of their audience and never let go. No one who has once heard "On the Sunny Side of the Street" can forget to grab his hat and get his coat and put his worries on the doorstep; in one hit she spoke for an entire post-Depression public-and for anyone today who is young, ambitious, and smitten:

Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, Baby,
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn't sell, Baby,
But Till that lucky day you know dam well, Baby,
I can't give you anything but love.

Howard Dietz, a man who managed to be an MGM executive as well as a lyricist, gave the key to his success in a remark to Louis B. Mayer, who caught him waltzing into the office at eleven A.M. "Pretty late to start work," the mogul growled, looking at his watch. "Yeah," Dietz replied, "but I make up for it by going home early."  Obviously when he got home he churned out elegant and low-down rhymes for Arthur Schwartz, with whom he wrote, among many other songs, "Dancing in the Dark," "Something to Remember You By," "A Shine on Your Shoes," "By Myself," and the classic backstage number, "That's Entertainment," in which Oedipus is recalled as a chap who kills his father and causes a lot of bother.

There are many other craftsmen in the ateliers of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley: Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls),  Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof!), E. Y. ("Yip") Harburg (The Wizard of Oz) j but here I run the danger of making my own laundry list. Besides, only one lyricist today belongs up there with the Pantheon figures, and because of Stephen Sondheim's unique status his opening nights have the quality of a retrospective. In Gypsy, he drove with Porter's poetic license, rhyming "he goes," "she goes," "egos," and "amigos"; and he brought Coward home when a stripper reminded her audience, "Once I was a shlepper, now I'm Miss Mazeppa." But Sondheim's wormwood soliloquy for A Little Night Music was strictly his own:

Isn't it rich, isn't it rare?
You with your feet on the ground, me in mid-air ....
I thought you wanted what I want. Sorry, my dear.
Send in the clowns, where are the clowns?
Don't bother-they're here ....

Occasionally Sondheim gets lost in his own woods; even so, he remains the last of the Broadway giants. If anyone doubts it, let him listen to a smash-hit non-Sondheim show. The Phantom of the Opera is so swollen with self-importance it has not one but two lyricists. Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe have filled Andrew Lloyd Webber's calculated pseudo-romantic music with calculated pseudo-romantic effects, but when it comes to the denouement they resort to this:

Pitiful creature of the night,
What kind of life have you known?
God give me courage to show you-

The last line, anyone? Exactly:

-You are not alone.

Too bad; given the contemporary wordsmiths, there is a lot to be said for solitude. And silence. And memory.