Tuesday, February 02, 2016

`The Underpainting of All Dark Writing'

“In the case of lyric writing, this surefootedness is even more necessary, for the lament is one of the main forms of the art, and the ability to walk that wire of pathos without falling into the pit of bathos is an indispensable element of the craft. You cannot write tragedy without a sense of humor; the lack of it produces something turgid and dull. Wit must be the underpainting of all dark writing.”

That’s the late Gene Lees writing in Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (2004). Lees was a Canadian music critic, biographer and lyricist, who edited the monthly Jazzletter from 1981 until shortly before his death in 2010. He published a rhyming dictionary and wrote lyrics for, among others, Antonio Carlos Jobim. From the three sentences quoted above, you rightly conclude that Lees possessed good taste, good sense and a practitioner’s insight into the craft of songwriting. In passing I mentioned Johnny Mercer in Monday’s post and a reader replied: It seems a recording of Mercer singing and [Henry, the song’s composer] Mancini playing `Moon River’ surfaced in, I think, 2012. I am a big fan of Mercer’s. Have you ever heard Leon Redbone sing `Lazy Bones’?”

Yes, I have. About twenty-five years ago, he gave an outdoor concert in Albany, N.Y., as part of a downtown festival. Most of the crowd ignored him and his band, but friends and I sat on the edge of the stage, listened and watched Redbone remain resolutely in character. Go here for Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby’s version of “Lazybones,” written by Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael in 1933 for a long-forgotten movie, Bombshell. I grew up in the so-called Rock Era, yet absorbed dozens of songs from earlier eras. Television, radio and records contributed to a collective form of musical osmosis that no longer exists. Today, the technology exists for a listener to effortlessly access almost any music from any era. I wonder how many do, and how many are restricted to the ghetto of Today? My reader goes on to quote lyrics from several Mercer songs, including “I Thought About You,” written by Jimmy Van Heusen and introduced by Benny Goodman in 1939 with vocals by Mildred Bailey (Go here for Sinatra’s version):

 “Two or three cars
Parked under the stars,
A winding stream,
Moon shining down
On some little town,
And with each beam,
Same old dream;
At ev’ry stop that we made,
Oh, I thought about you!”

And here are the first two verses of “Early Autumn,” written with Ralph Burns (Go here for Jo Stafford’s recording from 1952):
“When an early autumn walks the land
And chills the breeze
And touches with her hand
The summer trees,
Perhaps you’ll understand
What memories I own.

“There’s a dance pavilion in the rain
All shuttered down;
A winding country lane
All russet brown,
A frosty window pane
Shows me a town grown lonely.”

The second verse always reminds me of a John Cheever story (except for the final phrase, which tries too hard). The definitive collection of Mercer’s work is The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Knopf, 2009), edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis. They quote Mercer on “Early Autumn”: “I think it’s one of my best lyrics . . . Not a big hit, but you can’t tell the public what they like—they usually pick the right ones.” A song’s impact is tough to pick apart. Burns’ melody is teasingly melancholy but so are the details Mercer chooses, especially “a dance pavilion in the rain / All shuttered down.” Without arguing the specifics, I find Mercer’s lyrics more emotionally potent and evocative than most poetry written today. He writes for grownups. Here’s Lees again, from his Mercer biography:

“The song is unique among literary forms, and by far the most exacting. It has the function of retarding emotional time, so that the listener can experience the feelings it is attempting to convey with an intensity comparable to the effect of watching the wings of a hummingbird in slow-motion cinematography. This is one reason a song can move you to tears.”


Bob said...

One of the most perfect popular mergers of words and music is the song "When October Goes," based on lyrics by Mercer that were later set to music by Barry Manilow after Mercer's death:


Don said...

I'm another "rock era" child, and one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was the enjoyment of a breadth of music from different eras. I've tried to pass that along to my kids, which is why I get a kick out of seeing a poster of Louis Armstrong on my 18 year old daughter's bedroom wall, or her 20 year old sister practicing Rachmaninoff on the piano.
"Lazybones" is a delightful song -- try the Claude Hopkins version or one by Lew Stone and his Band (British, popular in the 30's.)