Tag Archives: Tony Bennett

With a Song in My Heart: Q is for…

“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” – Doris Day, 1956.

It was one of those conversations for which I don’t remember the context, originating most likely in a typical child’s naive question about the way of the world.  The location was my grandfather’s cottage on Lake Muskoka, the hard sun of late afternoon stippling the crests of the waves rolling past the dock.  I was wet and cold and sitting on a bench set back from the shoreline, a towel draped over my shoulders.  My grandmother sat next to me, and as a response to whatever it was I had asked, she offered the words of this song, welcoming the unknown future and suggesting that I should do the same.  Much like her son – my father – Nana could be counted upon to fall into song given the slightest opportunity, and her advice was usually musical in its delivery.  Got a problem?  There’s a Gershwin number for that.

Everyone has memories of the scary grandmother’s house, the creaky place an hour’s drive away on a Sunday you would have preferred spending with your toys and television, whose front door was a horrifying portal into the rock-hard furniture and industrial strength ribbon candy of the 1940’s.  Nana’s home, a more modern (for the time, anyway, with its decor more comfortably lodged in the 70’s and 80’s) apartment, was Carnegie Hall, a venue for the most revered performers of the golden age of American music, whether through the radio or the record player.  Though her son’s tastes were rooted in rock & roll, Nana remained loyal to the music she’d grown up with, to timeless singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra.  And there wasn’t a number of theirs whose words she didn’t know and couldn’t sing along with, matching them note  for note, phrase for phrase.  I recall my mother once complaining that she could never hear any music while Nana was in the room because Nana would always sing to it.  While I might have groaned a few times and wondered why we couldn’t put on Duran Duran or any, you know, popular songs, whether I wanted it to or not Cole Porter was getting under my subconscious, Rodgers & Hart were bewitching and bothering my thought patterns and Harold Arlen had my soul on a string.

Thanks to Nana my family had somewhere to stay when we visited Disney World for the first time, the yellow-hued converted mobile home on Mallard Drive I mentioned a few posts ago.  Her relationship with the man who would become my step-grandfather let us play in the waters of Ontario’s famous cottage country for a few weeks every summer.  And wherever she was, this music would be playing.  As grandparents go, Nana was quite “hip,” remaining current with events, technology and popular culture, but always scoring her life with the songs of a bygone era, as if keeping a foot anchored in traditions she knew were important to pass on, carrying the flame of Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn into an era that had replaced nuance with brashness, complexity with synthesizers.  Her old Hammond organ found its way to our house, and she was delighted when I figured out a way to depress the right tabs and program the correct beat in order to offer a passable rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” which she’d sing along to no matter how badly I messed up the rhythm.  As I grew older, the tabs on the Hammond broke one by one and I found myself drawn to the drums instead, she still loved coming to hear me play, bundling up for frigid Santa Claus parades and enduring countless dreary high school band concerts.  I think more than any other relative she appreciated my burgeoning musicality; so she should, given that she had a lot to do with helping to develop it, perhaps hoping somewhere in the back of her mind that I might go professional one day (alas).  She certainly would have loved knowing that Tony Bennett liked and shared my review of his show late last year, given that the first time I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was at the cottage on a warm summer night, with her providing live backing vocals.

It was telling that after she passed away suddenly in 1993 I stopped hearing that music for a long time.  A couple of decades in there I have no memory of any of its kind.  The door to that era was closed, and with it, a piece of me felt missing.  I’d become addicted to those songs without even realizing it, craving the comfort that would return to mind and heart upon hearing the first couple of bars.  When I first began dating the woman who would become my wife, and discovered that her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, the door opened again.  I realized only then how much I’d missed it, how much that “Nana music” had helped me understand the lasting value in the craft of a perfect couplet, a crisply executed bar of swing, and the passion that could be expressed with a singular voice and a stellar horn section.  The title of this series has been “With a Song in My Heart,” and never was that sentiment truer of anyone than my grandmother, whose heart held a music collection to rival the Library of Congress.  My wife and I have often joked that we wish life would more often erupt into spontaneous musical numbers; though she never said as much I suspect Nana held the same hope.  Even in her sixties, she’d be the first one to grab a microphone and dance.  Though she’s been gone now for over twenty years, one supposes it’s never too late to try to realize that dream.  After all, whatever will be, will be.

For want of One Great Phrase

Untitled

We hear a lot about what writers need, about their obsessive, soul-shaking compulsion to empty their brains of neatly arranged consonants and vowels in as many media as possible, in pursuit of the phenomenon of connection.  Author Layla Messner has a nice, simple, resonant line about it in her Twitter bio:  “Words have been known to come out of my fingers” – they pour, unfiltered from the tap, emptying onto the page in sometimes messy, sometimes poetic splashes.  If we couldn’t type our stories, we’d talk them, if we couldn’t talk them, we’d resort to mime, gesticulating wildly until someone got the idea.  Every moment spent not writing only aggravates the junkie’s craving and fills one with the sense of precious, elusive time misspent.  Family night?  Stuff that, I’ve got eighteen pages to edit and the problems of a fictional unemployed karaoke-obsessed spot welder from Scranton, Pennsylvania to wrestle with.  Few outside “the profession” can comprehend it; those of us on the inside share our compounding frustrations with secret winks and nods and commiserations offered in the digital cafe.  And when we find ourselves without anything substantial to say, we write about what’s wrong with the plumbing, trying to dislodge the creative clog, to rediscover the reassurance of free flowing literary neurosis.

With so much energy expended on exploring writers’ need, what then of what the writer wants?  Not a subject that gets discussed with nearly as much fervor.  Perhaps no one can articulate it in a way that doesn’t sound like the selfish, capitalistic, materialistic desires for fame and fortune and universal acclaim – the seven-figure book deal, the gushing reviews and self-indulgent television interviews, the gala premiere of the movie adaptation, the legions of followers begging to be sated by the next volume in your ongoing saga.  And all that is outside the art itself; fleeting external validation that does little to advance the craft, sharpen your skills or contribute to a legacy that will outlive your just as fleeting mortal shell.  What then, is the want, stripped of the external trappings, boiled down to its essence?  What aspiration keeps the writer awake late at night when the world has gone to sleep, the caffeine has metabolized into ether and the glow of the laptop saturates his face with a cold blue veneer?

Greatness.  Not, I think, the notion of being a great person, but of creating something that takes figurative flight and soars far beyond your little fragment of the world.  Something that becomes.

There’s no such thing as the perfect novel, or even the perfect sentence, hyperbolic critics to the contrary.  There is, however, the ineffable quality of a phrase well-turned – the witty line, the fragment of repartee, the utterance of a slice of wisdom that lasts through generations.  We all harbor memory banks of quotations we can rely upon to spice our own work with a fragment of someone else’s literary manna – the ubiquitous sayings of Shakespeare, Wilde, Twain, Parker, Churchill, Hemingway, Fry, Hitchens, Sorkin (naturally), even Marx (Groucho) and Lennon (John), to name but the merest few.  One need not even be exceptionally well-read to draw on one’s betters – websites like BrainyQuote are an ample buffet, whatever’s on the verbal menu.  How too, do we long to be included in that pantheon.  To one day have high schoolers begin essays with, “As Milne once wrote…”  There’s a reason they call these immortal phrases.  The heart yearns to birth one of its own.

It’s amusing, as a contributor of the occasional column to The Huffington Post, to see which sentence is plucked from the piece by the blog editors to characterize its tone and message on the sidebar.  Which they feel is most likely to draw the maximum amount of click-interest.  I don’t get a say.  Sometimes it turns out to be one that was labored on intensely; others were tossed off in fractions of seconds and result in embarrassed cringes.  When Tony Bennett shared the review I wrote of his performance on his Facebook page, he included this extract as a teaser:

From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it…

Is that the greatest thing that I’ve ever written?  It’s probably not even the greatest sentence in the whole piece.  And did I spend a lot of time and thought and energy creating it or did it just kind of tumble out of me onto the ground to be bypassed like a rusty mile marker on the journey to a more scintillating conclusion?  Regardless, Tony Bennett liked it.  And because he shared it, a great number of people saw it.  But it still fell short of that maddening goal of crossing into the zeitgeist, of tearing itself away from my humble custody to bequeath itself into the care of the ages.  Truthfully, it was never worthy of that honor.  It was of a singular moment and nothing more.  We shall have to try again.

Speaking of attempts, Twitter has become a terrific venue for the creation of quirky, real time bon mots.  Inspiration strikes – we think up something amusing, either on our own or in reaction to somebody else’s comment, we send it out, we eye our Mentions tab for retweets and favorites (and pretend that we don’t, because who wants to admit that we crave the attention).  And it becomes a popularity contest, a battle of digits, with champions determined less by intrinsic and lasting value and more by whose thumbs typed it.  The most I’ve ever had anything retweeted – 19 times – was a snarky castigation of Mitt and Ann Romney during the 2012 presidential election campaign, and hardly something I’d want to be remembered for, nor will anyone else remember it.  Indeed, the tearing down of others has never been the path to the light of universal inspiration.

I’ve written things that I’ve thought were pretty good, I’ve written things that I’ve despised with unbridled bile that rivals the contempt in which I hold certain members of certain political parties in certain parts of the world.  I have yet to write what I consider to be my One Great Phrase, my lasting entry for the Big Book of Quotations.  As usual, what my audience thinks of my work never matches what I think of it.  And I could point to the work of acquaintances of superior skill for examples of what I might consider to be their One Great Phrase which they would scoff at and then ask me for a helping of whatever I might be smoking.  The object of the pursuit remains then an ever-rising mountaintop, the Holy Grail teetering on the edge of the precipice, the Ark you daren’t open lest your face melt off (and any other Indiana Jones metaphors you can think of.)  I suppose it’s just as well – the day you’re satisfied is the day you stop.

Say, that’s not a bad line.  Use it if you like.  But don’t call it great.  We’re not there yet.

Tony Bennett Keeps the Music Playing

Photo by Tom Beetz.  Creative Commons.
Photo by Tom Beetz. Creative Commons.

I’ve got the world on a string today, as I can finally tuck a rarefied, finely plumed feather into my cap – or, if you prefer a more current reference, scratch a prominent item off my bucket list.  Because last Friday, I saw Tony Bennett live.

Stop a moment and read that name again.  Tony Bennett.  The Tony Bennett.

You can’t write a piece on Tony Bennett or review his show without dropping the adjective “legendary” more than a thesaurus would like.  There may be other words with similar meaning, but none truly epitomize the man and the voice.  Dear gods, that voice, projected from an 87-year-old body with none of its power diminished by time.  My grandmother died when she was 86, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to feed herself.  A year her senior, Tony Bennett can stand on a bare stage with a quartet of backing musicians and blow a few thousand jaded audience members out of their padded seats.  From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it, he’d be far richer than he already is.  But what is physically impossible to package, instead he shares, and how lucky are we to be the recipients of his generosity.

Tony Bennett is our last nostalgic link to the era of Frank and Ella and Bing, when men and women took their natural talent, refined it through years of vocal training, hard living and humiliating gigs and polished it into a perfect instrument that could be applied to some of the most elegant pieces of musical poetry ever composed.  Songs that were universal because they weren’t about bling or the thug life or some fantasized notion of puppy love auto-tuned within an inch of sheer roboticness.  These were songs written by people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen – scribes who understood the purity and universality of feelings found in simple moments, like noticing the way your love looks tonight.  That beautiful perception in songwriting, which Tony Bennett’s ongoing career continues to celebrate, has seemingly become an archaic notion.  For heaven’s sake, it took 11 people to write “Jenny From the Block” and they couldn’t even make the lyrics rhyme.  A song can’t be simple anymore, it has to be big, broad, even histrionic to get anyone’s attention.  However, Tony Bennett understands the lasting value of these old songs.  He’s been singing them so long he knows them inside out, back to front, syllable to syllable, note to note.  He knows how they were meant to be performed – in fact, he’s defined how they’re meant to be performed – and as he’s said himself, he treats them as classical music.  And they’re still playing Mozart 400 years on, why shouldn’t Gershwin receive the same accord?  Bennett always acknowledges the writer of a song when he performs it.  As terrific as he obviously is, he never sees himself as better than the notes and the words he’s delivering, and recognizes that he’d be nothing without the hard work of others.  Genuine humility just endears him to us even more.  The greatest ones always see themselves as eternal apprentices – the man who believes he has nothing left to learn is the man who needs to learn the most.

Last Friday, for an hour and twenty minutes without a break, and accompanied only by piano, guitar, standup bass and drums, Bennett led the audience on a guided tour of his most famous songs – standards like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and more – tunes you’ve heard a thousand times on radio, record, tape, CD, iPod, but managed to sound brand new and at the same time, for lack of a better word, classical.  He is traditionally economical in his delivery – no unneeded notes, no elongated frills or scats or anything other than the sheet music asks for – just the ineffable meaning that an old, weathered soul can provide.  His stage patter was likewise minimal, the only real anecdote a touching story about a letter he received from the composer of “Smile,” thanking him for making the song popular again – signed, Charlie Chaplin.  While one would love to have dinner with the man and listen to his stories, when he’s on stage you just want him to sing.  And sing he does.  Bennett achieves the impossible feat of bringing so much of himself to the performance yet somehow staying out of the way of the music, letting it and not his impeccably tailored self take center stage.  He is keen to divert the spotlight away from himself to the ones who back him up – the appropriately-named Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and “Count Basie’s favorite drummer” Harold Jones.  And as much as his repertoire might be rooted in the past, he does not shy from the bright lights of the future, promising a forthcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga (though we can safely assume it will be firmly on his turf, not hers).

To hear Tony Bennett sing in person is to be transported; to be connected with a golden era of music that dances ever further from reach with each passing year.  They don’t write songs like that anymore, and they don’t make folks like Tony Bennett to sing them, either.  We shall not see his like again, but, given the energy and vitality obviously still coursing through those 87-year-old veins, Bennett is determined to sing, you sinners, until they pry the microphone from his cold, dead fingers.  Ironically, my wife and I had talked a mere handful of weeks ago about ensuring that no matter what it took or what the cost, we would make it out to see him one day – and soon.  Serendipity delivered us Bennett tickets shortly thereafter.  And we sat together in the darkened auditorium, hands clasped, listening to the man whose music accompanied our wedding six years ago and makes us to this day reach for each other and share a slow dance in the kitchen whenever he comes on.  To hear that stuff is to be reminded of the depth of love two people can share, to strive to say it and show it to each other much more often.  And so we thank Tony Bennett and say, that’s how you keep the music playing.

UPDATE:  I posted this to The Huffington Post yesterday and received this response:

tonytweet2

That thud you heard was me fainting.  Tony Bennett!!!!