Wilfrid Sheed’s ‘The House That George Built’ moves from one memorable riff to another
A music book that’s not muzak
Wilfrid Sheed’s ‘The House That George Built’ moves from one memorable riff to another
“You can’t receive all your inspiration from listening to old records,” writes Wilfrid Sheed. “It’s like receiving your fresh air in cans.”
I know what he means. Today, in 2007, we understand that It Had To Be You and The Way You Look Tonight and My Funny Valentine are great songs. They’ve been declared to be so, over and over. But I wonder if we’d have figured it out at the time. If you happened to be in a dance pavilion in 1924 foxtrotting with your baby and the band played It Had To Be You and you’d never heard it before, would it have sounded any better than the other hits of the day? Better than There’s Yes! Yes! In Your Eyes or Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, I’m in Love or Say it With a Ukulele, which was a pretty cool instrument eight decades back.
Speaking of 1924, when Puccini died that year, I don’t suppose opera buffs around the world declared: “Okay, that’s it. Game over.” It’s not always immediately clear that an art form has crossed a line, from something living and breathing to “fresh air in cans”—a beautifully climate-controlled mausoleum. As terrific as it is to have the canon of the “Golden Age,” it’s not the same as having it happening right now, all around you, in unlimited supply. It’s 1937, and you go to see some rinky-dink musical comedy called Babes in Arms and it’s some stupid plot you can’t even remember 10 minutes after the show, but every 10 minutes somebody sings My Funny Valentine, or Where or When, or The Lady is a Tramp, or I Wish I Were in Love Again, and they’re all new: nobody’s ever sung them before.
When something becomes a museum, it
gets scholarship to match. Since the “Golden Age” of the “Great American Songbook” was proclaimed as such, a zillion books from this or that University Press have chronicled the era in books that increasingly have evened and flattened everything out as they trudge through the careers of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein: in 1927, he wrote this. In 1928, he wrote that. The point about a “standard” song is that you can do it a thousand different ways—as a ballad, as a swinger, bluesy, folky, Latin. Somewhere, right now, there’s a cool new jazz chantoosie who thinks it’s a stroke of genius to do the title song from Oklahoma! as a bossa nova. Yet for a form that’s endlessly versatile, too many of the books about standards come out pretty much the same way: muzak about music. All the songs are great, and everybody’s Cole Porter.
In reality, even Cole Porter wasn’t Cole Porter, not all the time. If you love Night and Day and I’ve Got You Under My Skin and In the Still of the Night, pick up The Complete Lyrics. There are thousands of songs, so there’s bound to be a few unknown gems, right? Well, no. There’s:
I’m Taking The Steps To Russia I’m showing ’em how to dance I’m starting the shag in Moscow I’m putting red ants in their pants...
... and hundreds like it. The greats weren’t great 24/7, and some of them weren’t that great that often. I was once asked to help put together a Gershwin revue and, after a while, I noticed it was proving more of a slog than I’d ever expected. “You know what the problem is?” the director said to me. “fra Gershwin is a lousy lyricist.” I spit coffee all over
her, yet, after drying off her cleavage and picking my jaw off the floor, I figured she had a point: a lot of Gershwin lyrics are very pedestrian, at least when compared with relatively lesser known names such as Dorothy Fields or Gus Kahn. How come he got designated one of “The Greats” and everybody just leaves it at that?
Enter Wilfrid Sheed, an Englishman who settled in America in the 1940s and whose love for his adopted land is intimately connected with its soundtrack. Mr. Sheed has now written a very unusual tome called The House That George Built, With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. Billed as “a history of the Golden Age,” it’s hopeless if you want to know what Irving Berlin was doing in any particular month in 1927, or even what any particular song happens to be about, but it’s a marvellously idiosyncratic rake through what one had thought was very over-tilled soil. The “George” who built the house is Gershwin, and by “Gershwin” Sheed means George, not George and Ira. “There have seldom been dumber words to anything than those of the young Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good and The Man I Love,” he pronounces. Very true:
Someday he’ll come along The Man I Love And he’ll be big and strong The Man I Love...
We’ll build a little home Just made for two From which I’ll never roam Who would? Would you?
That’s it? How could anyone do that to that music? Who would? Would you? George’s tunes, says Sheed, “seemed like moving targets for Ira to throw lyrics at if he could (T got rhythm... music... my man’... time’s up).” What matters is the music: as he puts it, you can find good lyrics today, “but how
long has it been since you heard a really good new tune?”
I think that’s right. Driving around, I like to listen to country music—for a bit. The lyrics are full of attitude and imagery and novel hooks. But the tunes are incredibly pedestrian: they set the words, and nothing more. A while back, in conversation with Paul Simon, I rather carelessly suggested that rock music was perhaps “limiting.” He bristled at the word. “You can do anything in rock ’n’ roll,” he insisted. I ran into him five years later and this time round he told me that even the best rock songwriters (including himself) had failed to demonstrate the kind of harmonic sophistication you take for granted in Jerome Kern or even Hoagy Carmichael. Writing about Gershwin, Simon subsequently referred to it as rock’s “shallower harmonic well.” Once you realize the well is shallow, what do you do? Where do you go?
Well, you could do worse than go to The House That George Built. Sheed is very good on the impact fashion and technology have on music. If the gals are all wearing bustles, for example, you wouldn’t write The Charleston. As for technical innovation, intimate ballads blossomed with the spread of radio: it’s hard to imagine anyone bellowing No Moon at All or Cry Me a River in an unmiked barn of a vaudeville theatre circa 1912. But it’s equally hard to imagine anyone doing it in a rock video or live at a sports stadium on the edge of town.
One of the book’s best chapters is on the consummate radio ballad writer of the forties, Jimmy Van Heusen, who was born Chester Babcock but who took his nom de plume from a passing delivery truck. “Presumably, if some store in Syracuse hadn’t ordered a consignment of Van Heusen shirts that day, we might know him now as—well, what? Johnny Kleenex? Herbert Hoover? Elmer Street?”
It might be truer to say we don’t know him under any name. He turns up in what Sheed
calls Kitty Kelley’s “interminable” biography of Sinatra, but as a drinking buddy for the latest of late nights in Vegas and Palm Springs. It’s not entirely clear Miss Kelley is aware that Van Heusen also wrote tunes—a ton of them: Moonlight Becomes You, Imagination, Come Fly with Me. He ranked his interests as “broads, booze, songs, and Sinatra.” In a surreal vignette, Sheed recalls that in the seventies Frank wrote to Bing Crosby worried that Jimmy was drinking “too much,” a daunting concept given what the other two regarded as regular consumption. As the author notes, “The saying in Hollywood was that ‘Sinatra would have been Van Heusen, but he flunked the physical.’ ” When the composer died, I called up his lyricist Sammy Cahn hoping for some insight into all those glorious ballads, but Sammy was too busy marvelling at all the broads Van Heusen had nailed. He wrote the achingly rueful ballad Here’s That Rainy Day at a time when by all accounts he’d never given a second thought to anyone in his mountain of discarded babes. He wrote All The Way about the need for love to last “through the good or lean years and for all the in-between years, come what may,” when as a general rule he had no interest in any kind of love that lasted beyond breakfast. In other words, he wrote those tunes not because he was an incurable romantic, but because he could—because he was a gifted composer capable of writing them, and because there was a market for them.
There still is, after a fashion. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone ask about what this or that grizzled old rocker or disco diva is doing nowadays. The answer’s always the same, especially on the distaff side: Carly Simon has a standards album, and Queen Latifah, and Joni Mitchell, and Toni Tennille, and Cyndi Lauper, and Sinead O’Connor. It Had To Be You is 83 years old. Will we still sing it in another 83 years? Probably. But what else will we have to put in the act? In a book that plays like an eccentric
medley moving from one memorable riff to another, Wilfrid Sheed recoils from rock as “the plague,” and then, being an equal opportunity offender, boots Stephen Sondheim over the cliff in a magnificently brusque oneline dismissal. But he ends with a vivid portrait of his friend Cy Coleman, the composer of Witchcraft and The Best Is Yet To Come and many other hits, yet a man who lived in the present tense: like all the “old-timers,” by the time I got to meet ’em, he wanted to tell you about his latest song, his latest score, what he was doing now, now, now.
But Cy died. And these days The House That George Bwi/f looks more like a designated heritage site—beautifully preserved, but nobody lives there anymore. M
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