Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Love As Force of Nature: Debbie Reynolds: "Tammy"

The day was sunny and quiet; it was early afternoon. I was almost home after yet another trip to the library to report that the mail he had sent weeks ago still hadn't arrived. We were both anxious, as there was not just a letter involved, but mix tapes as well.

As I walked down the crescent, just before the turn of the curve, I saw a bird, a robin I think. He was sitting on a branch, calling out and very obviously listening to see if there were any responses. Birds do this a lot in the course of their lives, but I was almost at eye level with the robin and could see its singular concentration...I got home, saw an odd parcel was stuffed in the mailbox; I let out a happy cry that bounced and echoed into the still air. HERE!

Could the bird have understood my joy? I don't know; the gratifications of a bird's life don't include transatlantic mail, the internet or music. And yet birds travel long distances, sing (certainly robins have a lot of variations in their standard 'song') and they court too. The robin is the bird of spring and hope; there is something uniquely determined about them (not to mention, loud).

In "Tammy" the narrator is in nature; the whippoorwill and breezes alike somehow know she is in love and say to her "Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love." The cold rational mind will scoff at this of course, but anyone who has fallen in love will know what she means. Suddenly, everything becomes significant - trees, birds, the wind, all of nature seems to comprehend and understand. It is a self-centered thing to hear your name, of course; but it could well be thast the narrator's falling in love is the first really important thing she has ever experienced; and it could be (even) that it is not something she expected to experience. (She lives on a Mississippi houseboat and is seventeen; I rest my case.) Her own wonderment and dazed happiness are in part because she is in love and also because she is, well, different. That her Other seems to be the only person who doesn't know she's in love with him doesn't bother her (as it would bother, say, a girl group); the song isn't about them, it's about her. It is, for all its calling out to nature, ultimately about the experience of being in love and knowing you are in love - existing and observing yourself, in short. (It's far more A Lover's Discourse than The Art of Love, for instance.)

The movie this song is from is called Tammy and the Bachelor which pretty much guarantees that there will be obstacles and they will be overcome; a young Leslie Nielsen plays the bachelor in question - the first Canadian involved with this blog but certainly not the last (Nielsen's later efforts may make this movie seem even more...funny now; it is too bad he and Reynolds haven't got back together for a comedy).

There is another odd strand out of this song that I cannot ignore - coming out of the phrase 'easy listening.' This term was coined around the time of this song (I have a hunch about this). And of course it describes "Tammy" perfectly - easy listening means sweet-stringed songs of love with gentle balladic highs and lows, songs with stars in their eyes, romantic songs in short that have nothing to do with the brash, vulgar and overtly sexual world of rock 'n' roll. These two genres existed side-by-side all through the late 50s and 60s on the charts and then began to merge in all sorts of ways, the most common being the 'easy rock' radio station (there's one in Toronto called EZ-Rock) aka 'adult contemporary' format. It is exactly what you hear in dentists' offices and such the world over. If it's balladic or mid-tempo or briskly cheery, you will hear it; but at the outer edge of this sits a man who was a young protege of Debbie Reynolds' husband, Eddie Fisher. (Not too long after "Tammy" was a hit, Elizabeth Taylor and Fisher had an affair and got married; it was the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie story of the day.) The protege's name: Noel Scott Engel. Yes, that's right - the young Scott Walker lurks at the back of this song, then tentatively makes his way to Los Angeles and thence to London, singing covers at first and then writing his own songs and indeed hosting his own show, just as Fisher introduced young Mr. Engel on his own.

By now, Walker has turned 'easy listening' on its head and then some; I like to think that he picked something up from "Tammy" - its patience and slowness, its odd sense of the person in nature being seen and private, known and unknown. It is a song with more to it than first meets the ear, a dimension where the self and nature become one, just as the bird sits and sings and then flies away.

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