Posts Tagged ‘50s’
The grey sky and the pork pie hat.
I drive home with a new, old hat in the narrow back seat. An inheritance. What must my grandfather have thought of this hat in his couch-wide Cadillac, cruising home from the airport after ordering it from the New york haberdasher on a business trip. Or, more likely, what must he have thought of my grandmother ordering it for him after purchasing herself a designer gown so nineteen-seventies that today it could pass only, maybe, on Halloween. Ordering it as an afterthought, him far away somewhere home-like with one of his girlfriends; she on a trip with her ladies to see the shows on Broadway. Every year passed this way for them. This hat seldom worn.
My mom tells me my grandfather was secretly musical. A trumpet player. Did he ever solo over soul claps and the sound of men talking and hold his own against the silence of rhythm itself?
He gave it up for money. Son of a dustbowl sharecropper makes good, gets sent to med school by the army, is shuffled around like a drum’s undertones until he lands in the fertile conquerable airs of southern California. There, there is a dream that has nothing to do with trumpets or struggle and he snatches it. He doesn’t seem to regret it by the time I come around.
The dream was false. The backbeat scarred with the blood of the underclasses and the deception of the middle ones. It doesn’t exist now, and didn’t even exist when my grandfather and grandmother stood poolside holding cigarettes and cocktails in rich hues of oranges and yellows that embossed the southern sun permanently onto a photograph of them, dusty now in the shadowed den. America was never my white landowning waitress’-ass-pinching grandfather’s either, even if he thought it was. So whose was it?
Maybe these guys. In play. In the twist of “Pork Pie Hat,” which is that the song is a steady low flow tricking you into thinking it’s easygoing, the calm swoop of horns over Mingus’ lead edge, the downtempo pause in what is otherwise a fairly bop lineup of songs. It’s not. It’s never easy.
Better, then, to not be false, to stick with a trio, slam sounds out of metal objects, catch on the wind the next through-line and see if you can just, maybe, for a few bars, win it over to be your at last.
This is the moment you wonder if what you picked was right, because you thought the whole album was like this famous song but the whole album is really fast, sort of upbeat, swinging as they say, and is that the right pensive tone for a grey beginning of yet another day doing what you have to do? Is that the right way to remember the histories of us, to sit wrapped in blankets sewn by other mothers and beneath your naked head slowly fizzle your way back into daily awakening?
It’s all the same underneath: these low-picked raindrops of bass, the glue, the accelerator and the decline of everything we see on the surface.
All through the night
What are your “comfort” albums? Everyone has one, or many: an ordered collection of musical songs that make you feel comforted. Comfortable. Safe. Warm. At home. You don’t have to think too much about it. You know it like you knew the slope of your childhood kitten’s nose. It has enough emotion in its songs to allow you to imprint whatever you need: in relation to your feelings, the record can accompany or complement or distract. It can be a joyously bouncy record to make you feel better or a sad, dark one to keep your woes sad company.
For me a true comfort album isn’t a literal interpretation of or dialogue with whatever it is in my life that makes me feel the need for comfort. Instead, it’s a piece of music that makes me feel wholly me. A good comfort album makes me feel that I am returning to the roots of myself, in whatever way I choose to interpret that and for whatever reason I feel at the moment that I need that. This means it’s not my best friend’s, or my boyfriend from high school’s, or my coworkers’, although they may have been the people who first introduced me to the album. It’s mine. It is a piece of culture I can experience wholly on my own two intellectual and aesthetic feet. No associations required, except… well, all of them.
More simply put: a comfort album is one I really, wholeheartedly, innocently like.
Birds do it
bees do it
even educated fleas do it
Which brings me to Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. One of the most lauded vocalists ever singing one of the most lauded songwriters ever, on the collection that helped make Verve and Ella the legends they are today.
It’s a surprising record at times – sort of modern, suggestive, unendingly smart, with romantic lyrics and simply produced, seamless big band accompaniment. And of course, pitch- and performance-perfect Ella taking it light when you expect her to hit you over the head with it, all while Porter’s lyrics giggle and wink at you from over her shoulder. Pure vintage sound. It is a bit old fashioned, it does make me feel like I’m in an old film, and that’s as it should be.
This is musical music, a kind of record I have listened to and memorized since childhood. I loved musicals when I was young especially, and I spent hours lying on the floor with my best friend singing along to musical soundtracks on cassette and fantasizing that we were graceful and witty and agile soprano-voiced heroines of something romantic, something big and something showy. I knew the words to Broadway hits from Camelot to Grease to Cabaret– from indisputable classics like West Side Story (which is an intricate and musically progressive score, by the way, if you haven’t revisited it since childhood), to the schlock of Les Miz to compilations of songs from Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies.
What’s not to love in a musical soundtrack? All that is awkward about musicals lies in between the songs, or in the transitions to get to the songs. Take the songs and put them in the air without staging or sartorial confusion and you have the art of fantasy, pure, floating above the heads of two ten year old girls after school.
It was just one of those nights
Just one of those fabulous flights
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings
Just one of those things
I don’t even know how to begin to talk about Cole Porter. Cole Porter is one of the best lyricists and songwriters I have ever encountered, and popular and critical culture generally agrees with me. He is witty, urbane, heartfelt, and often startlingly modern. He lived a luxurious but often complicated life. You probably know at least five of his songs by heart even if you’ve never heard his name before. If you like Stephin Merritt, you gotta check out this guy.
In high school, I eased up a bit on the straight-up Broadway musicals of the 60s and got a tiny bit more selective as my taste began to mature. I also got the compilation Red Hot & Blue, an AIDS benefit CD that featured pop stars singing Cole Porter songs. I played that CD into the ground. David Byrne singing “Don’t Fence Me In.” Tom Waits growling that “It’s All Right With Me.” A lovely no-frills version of “So In Love” by kd lang. “Too Darn Hot” sexily modernized by… Erasure? Sure. It was the early 90s. The songs, though, hold up, making everyone sounds a notch classier and smarter than I thought they were. I knew some of the songs before, but I had never known who Porter was. That is the CD that made me realize musicals are written by people, and those people have names, and Cole Porter is the only name you really need to know when it comes to this style of song.
How strange the change
from major to minor
ev’ry time we say goodbye
Today, for a couple different reasons, I need some comfort. Today I want to feel like me, without the trimmings. I want to shed the effort of being “critical” about music and being “productive” about writing and being “intelligent” about expressing myself and whatever else I sometimes get sick of being.
So I slip on the first of these two crackly old records, the sleeve’s lamination peeling off onto my carpet, and I imagine I’m a very glamorous and romantic ten years old, singing, dancing with my best friend’s dad in the kitchen on the hardwood floor after school. She dances, too, thin arms extended like an egret against the red of the wooden countertops; he makes trumpet noises along with Ella and the band. And I’m witty, urbane, cultured, and self-sufficient. I’m comforted, sincerely, full of feelings once more. I’m home.