Wednesday, August 01, 2007

You're the Top

{A manuscript score by Cole Porter and Oscar Hammerstein}

While trapped under a horse that had rolled over on him and crushed his legs, Cole Porter wrote the lyrics to "At Long Last Love." . . . Irving Berlin's first hit was "My Wife's Gone to the Country, Hurrah, Hurrah." . . . The tune to "Stardust" came to a drunk young Hoagy Carmichael as he drove home from a party late one night; worried he'd lose it, he frantically raced around the Indiana University campus, searching in building after building for a piano. . . . Jerome Kern once advised a young disciple, "Stay uncommercial. There's a lot of money in it." . . . Richard Rodgers is alleged to have said, "I can pee melody." . . . Jimmy Van Heusen tested planes for the U.S. Army during World War II every morning from four o'clock until noon, then, without telling anyone, headed off to a day of work writing songs and a night of carousing. . . . Frank Loesser's unhappy wife was known as "the evil of the two Loessers." . . . Johnny Mercer, by all accounts, was the nicest of people--until he'd had a certain amount to drink, at which point he became a verbally vicious drunk. Alec Wilder would thwart the meanness by singing a particular song, which would always reduce Mercer to tears--but in the years before Wilder's death, he couldn't recall what the song had been.

Those are just a small portion of the fascinating biographical nuggets in Wilfrid Sheed's The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (2007). An anecdotal, gossipy history of American popular song told through mini-biographies of the best songwriters, it's what I could imagine Aubrey's Brief Lives being had Aubrey grown up listening to the Hit Parade and watching Broadway shows. Like Aubrey, Sheed is excellent company, interested in what we're interested in: namely, what were these people like, how did they relate to each other, and how did that play into the indelible art they created? His writing is deceptively casual, as if he's just telling you some stuff off the top of his head, but that's belied by his way with an amusing turn of phrase, as in this description of Cole Porter's accident:
But before Cole could make his decision, a real horse, on which one day he was literally riding high, decided the question for him by first throwing him and then rolling over both his legs (like a hit man making sure).
Or this description of Harold Arlen:
He grumbled because new Yorkers grumbled; it was the first sound you heard in those days. Even the daffodils grumbled between numbers.

In addition, as befits someone writing about the distilled wisdom of song lyrics, Sheed regularly delivers near-aphorisms. This one, for example, follows the statement that Johnny Mercer could have won a casting call to play the part of himself:
When an artist resembles his work (as did Picasso, Gershwin, Hemingway), he seems twice as much of a genius, and frequently picks up all the marbles for his generation.
I'd add Hoagy Carmichael to that list. Then there's this one, which comes after a discussion of Jerome Kern's school days:
In fact, songwriters and comedians may be the only kinds of artists who learn anything really useful in school.

At times Sheed's approach can be a bit too casual. Like the fan he is, he seems to label an unsupportable number of songs and songwriters the best, the best at some particular aspect of songwriting, the most famous, the most important, etc.; even the most talented graphic artist couldn't make a clear chart of Sheed's hierarchies. Then there's the occasional aside or reference that doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny. Of Cole Porter he writes,
All his tunes at least have happy endings: The mood they arouse is satisfied and everyone drives, or rows, home happy, regardless of gender.
Anyone who can hear a happy ending in "Miss Otis Regrets" is hardier soul than I. Or there's his passing statement, in discussing Yip Harburg, a hardcore lefty, that
McCarthyism had largely faded away, not for any specific reason, but because it didn't interest people any more.
--which at the very least fails to give the Army-McCarthy hearings and Edward R. Murrow their due.

But careful history's available elsewhere, and those who want a more rigorous approach to the topic can always turn to Alec Wilder or Will Friedwald or Gene Lees, and that renders those minor quibbles essentially beside the point, which is of course the music. Sheed has been listening closely his whole life, loving these songs, and nearly every paragraph brings a tune to mind--this is not a good book for those who get songs stuck in their heads. Sheed is more interested in the music than the lyrics, which is the opposite of my orientation. (That's not surprising, considering that my entire adult life has been spent working with words or books, while my musical education consists of some desultory youthful piano lessons and a high school band career on alto saxophone. (Which leads to a further side note: is there any less appealing instrument than the alto sax? Lacking the woe and power of the tenor, but without the wistfulness or playfulness of the clarinet, it's left honking in a seemingly pointless mid-range, almost unpalatable.))

It's somewhat refreshing to be reminded to focus on the music to which I'm perpetually singing beloved lyrics. Sheed has forced me, at a minimum, to admit that I wouldn't stand a chance of knowing these lyrics without their melodies: my store of memorized lyrics is absurd, whereas my store of memorized poetry is almost nil; at a maximum, he may have convinced me to go sign up for the piano lessons I've been vaguely contemplating.

And that's where the book leaves me, thinking of the songs, dipping back into the store of memorized lyrics and tunes, singing aloud as I bicycle, shuffling through Sinatra and Peggy Lee on my iPod--and being thankful, deeply, permanently thankful, that the American songbook exists, and that, like so many before me, I was lucky enough to discover it and have the time and the sense to dive deep. As my personal favorite, Johnny Mercer, said so well:
When my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of it all
Then I will tell them
I remember you.

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