Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nights Are Long

As Noel Coward's Amanda famously said, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

I've had the house entirely to myself for a few days. The husband was off visiting cousins in California. About my only scheduled airing in his absence was to be Wednesday at the GLBTQ Book Club. A bit of car trouble convinced me to skip book club however and head straight to the mechanic. All I need to see is the oil-light on, and I immediately imagine myself stranded, at night, in some other neighborhood and with no one at home to call and come rescue me. (I've always rather fancied the idea of being rescued by some handsome lug sent out in a tow-truck by AAA, but my experience has proved that particular fantasy something of a disappointment.) I drove to the repair shop. Two hundred and fifty dollars later, I was home, alone. When I stepped out of the empty house just to get the mail, a disputatious neighbor decided to discuss, yet again, a tree-trimming error that has yet to be resolved. I hate such confrontations. I usually leave talking to the neighbors to dear A. When I was finally able to escape that awkward conversation, I turned to find yet another pile of mailers full of books, mostly kid's books, that I'm meant to read in the next week or so, for my committee work. I gathered up the whole mess, with the newspaper and the mail, and made my clumsy retreat inside. The house was so cold when I came in, I left my shoes on. No one home before me to turn the heat on.

Hard to imagine an evening of less promise.

Felt quite sorry for myself, just then. However, the rest of my bachelor's evening was already mapped out. I would invariably talk on the phone to dear A. at some point. We still can't manage to not, even when one or the other is far from home. (Friends and family either say they find this touching, or, if they're actually forced to listen at either end, a little sickening; we tend to be fiercely sentiment on the phone.) I did have two scheduled television shows to which I'd been looking forward, neither of which my husband would have watched with me, or enjoyed had he been forced to do so. This solitary pleasure was to be augmented with leftovers, eaten in the middle of the bed, with puddin' for dessert. Once I'd put on my nightshirt and settled in with my dinner, the giant new TV blazing away, things ought to have looked up a bit. Didn't quite happen. (Though the pudding was good. When is pudding not, I ask you?) As for my much anticipated television programs, what I thought was going to be a documentary of Piaf turned out to only be... something like a documentary, and only something like Piaf. Oh, there was documentary footage, and some charming new stuff. There was a dinner reunion of composers' widows, self-proclaimed protégé, and various elderly hangers-on. Sweet, really. And I got to see some dear queen's apartment "museum" in Paris, packed to the ceiling with posters, art and glorious flotsam like Edith's purse & compact with the last precious dust of her face-powder, carefully preserved. But really, the program was mostly the filmed performance of a tribute singer. She was admirable. She was not Piaf. Every little archival glimpse of The Sparrow just reminded me how not Piaf this woman, or really anyone other than Piaf is or will ever be. (Not that this sort of biographical tribute can't be grand. Cheered when Marion Cotillard won her Oscar. And I'll never forget Jane Lapotaire. Still one of the greatest performances I ever saw. But I was expecting Edith, at least to hear her anyway. Un désappointement terrible! )

My other show just made me sad. Not that the show was bad -- there were probably a dozen really talented performers featured -- but the evening was spoiled for me when one of the greatest musical comedy performers of a certain age performed perhaps the greatest musical comedy number ever written for ladies of a certain age, about being a certain age, and she muffed it. It wasn't a disaster. She was wonderfully game, and loud, and she got a standing ovation at the end. (At this stage of the game, she should get a standing ovation every time she shows up.) Honestly though, last night's performance was... painful. She was compensating madly throughout for lost lyrics and missed cues, missed notes. Hard to watch. When she finally came off, I didn't watch the rest of the show.

To round out the disappointing evening, and my bitching about it here, I spent the waning hours of the evening at my desk, doing drawings that, all but one, did not work. Very frustrating.

Resolved to make something better happen before bed, I thought I might just listen to a little music before bed. Piaf of course. That didn't happen either, but that was okay, honestly.

Unexpectedly, already in the record player - and yes, I'm allowed to still call it that -- was a recording of my beloved Rosemary Clooney. I hit "play." Not my favorite of her albums with Concord, "My Buddy" was a collaboration with Woody Herman & His Orchestra from 1990. Rosie was always game to take on contemporary pop or near contemporary pop, and with the right orchestration, the results can be surprisingly bright and fresh. Not so much here, with the far too familiar James Taylor tune, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," not at all well arranged for a jazz band; dated, tinkling, and tin-eared, despite Rosie's reading of the very nice lyric. Another such adaptation on this album of quite the wrong sort of material for Woody & company was the truly bizarre selection from Blood Sweat & Tears, "You Made Me So Very Happy." Again, Rosie's not bad, specially on the happy chorus, but rather the whole enterprise was just strange. There isn't enough music in the thing for the band to really play with; too much squawking brass, too little melody, and the lyrics are just beyond banal -- the rhymes would shame a composer of clerihews. Rosemary invests the thing with as much joy as she can muster, which is often considerably more than the song deserves, but I admit, I skipped this one too.

Interesting to contrast what Clooney manages to do on the same record with something almost equally trite from the Songbook. Few songs from Tin Pan Alley, few from Gus Kahn anyway, have less to recommend them than the title track, "My Buddy." Just not much there, there. I don't know that I've ever heard the Jolson recording, but I can easily imagine the maudlin drip of his rendition. I must own six or seven versions of the thing from various performers, including Sinatra. Only Rosie's sounds real to me. A man, for whom the song sounds very much to have been written, makes that phrase, "My Buddy," sound drunk, no matter how talented the singer, and I've never much cared for drinking ballads. Even young Sinatra, singing at his smoothest, sounds a bit woozy on this one, and not in a good way. Sleep it off, pal. But Clooney? There's a kind of easy joke in a woman using such a masculine endearment, a wistful little laugh in her voice, even as Clooney sings the thing with perfect sincerity. That alone lifts the tune off the bar-room floor. And then there is the special magic that Rosemary Clooney brings to just this kind of material; a seriousness, emotional and musical, that does not depend on the sophistication of the setting to convey a kind of honesty all too unlikely in a performer of her generation who had, after all, started in just such a setting as the Herman orchestra, as a self described "girl singer." By the time Rosie made this record, she'd been through pretty much everything, and her voice shows the mileage, but not in a rough way. The sound has mellowed, and yes, aged, so that her phrases aren't always as bright and big as they might have been in her first glory, but there's none of the tragedy of late Billie, or the growl of a late Carmen McRae. With Clooney, after the comeback as a contemporary jazz singer rather than just the pop star she'd once been, there's a very adult understand of how to be blunt in even a silly, sentimental song, without being indulgent. In a song like "My Buddy," Clooney is singing to somebody, and you believe her. That first night alone in the house, I thought she was singing to me.

I was wrong about that. I didn't realize it until later, but I played that song in memory of a friend of a friend. I know just the one fellow who, when he calls me "buddy," convinces me of the special favor of his friendship. My friend says, "Thanks, buddy" and I know he means it. Just a natural part of his vocabulary. Some twelve years back, when he found that the stray tomcat that kept staring in at his kitchen window intended not only to come in out of the rain, but to stay, it was understandable then that my friend should name his new companion, "Buddy." They were inseparable ever after. It was a good name for that cat.

When I'd visit my friend's apartment, I was eyed with a certain suspicion by the cat, even after he'd gotten to know and tolerate me. When my friend was quite ill a year or two back, Buddy was most solicitous, seldom leaving his lap, even when my friend slept. When I visited, and possibly stayed a little long for my friend's strength, Buddy walked across the table to me, and politely but insistently head-butted me in a not altogether friendly way, as if to tell me, "visiting hours are over." Quite right, too.

My friend did everything he could to keep that cat going, too. Finally, just this past week, my friend sat with his best friend, Buddy, for the last long hours and saw him out of this life.

Embarrassing to think how lonely and disappointed I let myself feel that same night, just because I was sitting temporarily in an otherwise empty house. It was my friend who had a right to feel bereft. Can't imagine.

I'm playing that record again tonight, this time for all the right reasons.

Here's to you, Nick, and specially to your best friend, Buddy. He'll be missed.

"your buddy misses you."

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