Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Rest Cure: Cyril Stapleton Orchestra with Julie Dawn: "Blue Star (The Medic Theme)"

It's a weeknight, maybe Monday or Tuesday - the family has had dinner, and afterwards, the newfangled invention in the house - the television set - is turned on and warms up. The big show - or one of them, at any rate - is Medic, the first realistic show set in the world of medicine and hospitals, the forerunner of all shows to follow, from St. Elsewhere to Emergency!, ER to House. I've never seen Medic (it ran for only two seasons, 1954-56), but its general tone of calmness is something I can guess from the theme song, which sounds uncannily like the kind of pretty, restful and burbling brook of sound that a person recovering from an illness would like to hear. Led by the piano, a choir of the awed (like so many hospital well-wishers) aah-ahhs along, with the 50s-requisite string section in tow, like a Muzak Mantovani. The touch is light and caring, restful and easy. (Like ideal hospital food, it is nourishing and somewhat bland.) Then the singer comes in, singing words that are just shy of magnetic poetry, lyrics that show her complete lack of worry and loneliness, now that she has the blue star to gaze upon, a symbol as reassuring to her as other symbols are to other people. Things have been bad; they have perhaps been awful. Now that she sees the star, she can rest easy, knowing everything will be all right. A nation of exhausted people, adults all, who endured the war and the aftermath, watch as week after week, the troubled and ill are helped back to wholeness and happiness. The kids can go out to play; the adults stay in, resting and thankful that they have everything they really need – and a television set, too.

(Thanks to David Belbin for sending this to me.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Everyone's Got To Learn Sometime: Frank Sinatra: "Learning The Blues"

And here we have, at last you may (or may not) think, Sinatra. He too ran up against the implacable Slim Whitman with “Rose Marie” though whether he cared in particular, I don’t know. And also again, we have a kind of midway point – a standstill, if you will. At this time, married to Ava Gardner, Sinatra was either high or low – contemplative in his melancholy, or carefree and jolly as Zeus or perhaps a more swingin’ Santa Claus. He is in a more swingy mode here, but he is not asking his Other to fly away or go to a party or even promising his eternal & hip love. In this song, he observes, with sympathy, the misery of another person – a man who has been dumped, most likely – first he is in the diner/bar, playing the same love song (‘their’ song no doubt) over and over, getting drunk, and it’s no use; he is, according to Sinatra, learning ‘the blues’ – an odd thing to be cheery about, but it’s all sung in the sense of ‘I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, welcome to the club kid’ – as if the person who bought the record would have Frank’s own blessing to stay up nights and walk the floor, because that’s what heartbroken people do. On the other hand, it might annoy a recent dumpee to have him sing in such a cavalier way about something that is genuinely haunting and painful. The final break-up with Gardner was yet to come; I wonder what he thought of this record (or even if he could) once they were through. But in this song, he was a god looking down from his clouds at the mortal, frail man – he has learned what suffering is, and sees it and recognizes it, maybe even relishes it a little. Sadly, he will be suffering in much the same way, even worse, but that is for another time and song.

The Search For Something Real: Frankie Laine and the Mellomen: "Cool Water"

In the middle of any decade, there is always something of a lull. The first half has passed, the second half has yet to come, and the pause can either come from stagnation, culmination, nostalgia or some combination of all three. Of course, in music there is always someone, somewhere pushing things ahead, but it takes a while for that new idea or noise to make it out of the clubs or garage practices and on to a hit record. In the meantime, the chart meanders along, mini-trends pop up and disappear, while the new thing, whatever it may be, gathers forces and strength. The old, which was once exciting, is now normal, regular even, and maybe even a bit dull.

Thus, we have Frankie Laine out west once more, and this time his agony isn’t caused by The Man or a certain woman but by a simple element: water. (It is as if all his songs could be subtitled Man Vs. Something – in this case, Man Vs. Nature.) He and his mule/horse/beast of general burden Dan are out in the “barren waste” (no explanation as to why they are out there – maybe this is what happens when you don’t have a map or don’t plan ahead when you’re escaping the sheriff) looking for water to drink. There is none to be found. A mirage (something the devil causes, apparently) appears and Frankie tells Dan to ignore it, but I doubt if Dan does. (I’ve been out in the desert and mirages can appear even if you’re not thirsty; they’re a natural phenomenon.) He asks Dan if he can see the tree nearby some water, but Laine’s voice is so big and stentorian that it sounds as if he is making up said tree, or is perhaps hallucinating it – yet another mirage in the relentless dry weather. It is hard to say – the song sounds as if it has a happy ending, but with the Mellomen’s deep ‘water…water’ it sounds as if the search has almost driven the singer to desperation. Or maybe there is water, but the journey itself is far from over.

Laine sings with conviction and a real thirst in his voice; now was a time when country and western music was popular – this song didn’t get to number one because of Slim Whitman, and a few other country standards were kicking around the charts at the same time. I am not sure why this happened, though a clue could come from, of all things, post-war immigration – specifically, from Ireland to Liverpool and Manchester. The Irish have always loved their country music; add them to Scotland and you have a formidable number of people who can relate in some ways to the search for something real and satisfying, cool and clear. “Cool Water” is a song of hope above all, and determination to “carry on” despite any illusions. Things may well have been at a standstill in the UK (as opposed to the US), but something was happening underneath the country and folk that was about to emerge on record. It will take a few more entries to get to it, but it will make this song seem – well, duller than it really is.