Wednesday, August 26, 2009

That Summer

NPR's All Things Considered has a feature this summer in which they ask different musicians what their favorite song of summer is. This week they asked Tony Bennett. He chose a French song that he'd recorded in 1963, "It Was Me". I have always been struck by this song. It begins with a question.

Who's the one you would find on the beach every day?

Quickly the tension is established. Turns out the narrator is in love with someone at the beach.

Lying there on the shore while his friends swim away
Lying there on the sand only inches from you
Watching you everyday till the summer was through
It was me

A relationship gradually develops. The second stanza begins like the first, except with three questions instead of one.

Who would help gather shells for the bracelet you made?
Who would find you the cups for the pink lemonade?
Who was always beside you whenever you'd swim?
When you sat by the sea as the daylight would end
It was me, it was me

But was the love consumated? The song keeps you engaged as we enter the bridge of the song. Now suddenly summer is ended.

Now that summer is gone and the warm skies are cold
And the soft winds are crisp with their wintry chill
Do you ever think back on the night when we kissed?
Can you ever forget? I know I never will

All right, there was a kiss. It meant a lot to the narrator, of course. He's seeking confirmation that the feeling was mutual. The last stanza, describing perhaps an end-of-summer picture at the beach, provides the answer.

Who's the one next to you in the group photograph?
Who's the one with the face too unhappy to laugh?
Standing there looking down so uncertain and shy
Like a boy who's in love, so in love he could cry
It was me, it was me

And then, the zinger of a last line.

Me finding out it was you.

"Me finding out"--did all these questions begin upon the narrator's discovery of the photograph? "It was you"--yes, now I see you in this picture and I remember how young and smitten I was with you, I'd forgotten after all this time. As I gaze at the picture, memories return of being so in love and so young.

A fabulous song that I hope you'll give a listen. I'm glad that Tony Bennett chose a number that he discovered and recorded. This is a tremendous source of pride to him, as well it should be. He has always had the best taste in material.

The summer song that occurs to me that is equally as beautiful was recorded by Nat King Cole: "That Sunday, That Summer". Nat sometimes chose material of dubious quality as he sought a hit (cue "Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer"), but with this song he gives some imagery for a listener to luxuriate in.

If I had to choose just one day
To last my whole life through
It would surely be that Sunday
The day that I met you

Newborn whippoorwhills were calling from the hills
Summer was a-comin' in but fast
Lots of daffodils were showing off their skills
Nodding all together I can almost her them whisper
"Go on and kiss her, go on and kiss her"

If I had to choose one moment
To live within my heart
It would surely be that tender moment
Recalling how we started
Darling, it would be when you smiled at me
That way
That Sunday
That Summer

This song charted in 1963, reaching a peak position of #12 on the Billboard charts. ("Hazy Lazy Crazy Days" peaked at #6 the very same year--geez, what a year for summer songs!)

Anyway, two lush songs of summer that are favorites on my turntable!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remember Gilbert O'Sullivan?

Gilbert in 1971. O'Sullivan is his actual last name; Gilbert is a stage name referring to Gilbert & Sullivan. An apt choice, given his lyrical songs that are dense with words. Note the collegiate look inspired by a Buster Keaton film!

Gilbert's top-selling album of 1972. Although chest hair dominates on the cover, on the back he's shown in his "G" sweater again.

Still sporting the chest hair, here's his 1974 release with the notorious song "A Woman's Place"

Peggy Lee, an admirer of Gilbert!

Gilbert O'Sullivan was an oddity in a screwball time. When he struck gold in the States with "Alone Again (Naturally)" in 1971, it was not only his weird and verbose song that struck a listener. There was his clean-scrubbed appearance on the album cover: wearing a collegiate V-neck sweater with a "G" emblazoned upon it, he seemed to harken back to a more innocent time.

Hailing from Ireland, Gilbert washed ashore on the wave of the singer-songwriter craze of that era. It was decidedly uncool to like him or his music, but there I was, proudly bucking the trend. I found his approach to a song completely idiosyncratic and refreshing. He had a memorable way of writing lyrics. For example, on his second album Back to Front, he celebrates Spring by comparing himself to a mole.

Everytime a bird sings
Everytime a bell rings
I go beserk
I climb into my hole
And sit there like a mole
Playing in the dirt
Contradicting people who think of me as being
So soft and gentle
Very clean

This album, which features his second U.S. hit "Clair", is one of his best. As I scan the lyrics, the melodies jump into my mind--each one is distinctive, and pleasurable to experience over again. You can't help but be amused by how goofy Gilbert is, especially when he introduces Sides 1 and 2 of his album by singing:

Side 1 ("Intro")

For those of you leaving to join the hunt
The name of this album is "Back to Front"
And those of you staying the whole way through
The name of this song is
(seque immediately to first track...)

Side 2 ("Outro")
I'm not quite finished yet
I'm not quite finished yet
There's another side to go before I go
Thought I'd let you know...

Gilbert plays the piano, and his signature seems to be a rhythmic striking of chords that goes "chunk-chunk-a-chunk-chunk." This is not to say that his music lacks sophistication. He almost always has other instrumentation to power his melodies along--mostly a drum, some strings, and wind instruments. He is never boring.

His songs tell simple stories. Usually they're about loving someone, as in "That's Love" from Back to Front:

Once in a while out of the blue
I might appear somewhat rude
But don't be alarmed or get upset
Just say to yourself this I'll forget
And when I come home from being away
It might do me good just to hear you say
Darlin' don't move an inch, keep perfectly still
Now do with me what you will

Can you sense those lyrics' inherent musicality just by reading them aloud? Gilbert O'Sullivan is fun to sing along with, and I think he's a terrific writer because his words get planted in my mind when I hear them. Like a truly professional pop tunesmith, he weds music and lyrics well. The song's subject is not that interesting on its face, but how he expresses the sentiment can be striking.

In Gilbert's lyrical world, there's always a girl that you're courting. He often creates clever little dramas. For example, in "Matrimony" he and his bride are trying to get to the church on time; in "Clair" he's babysitting; and in "I'm Not Getting Any Younger" he's explaining his feelings about a gulf in age to a lover.

He achieved international fame in the early 1970s. In the U.S. he had a hit with "Get Down" in 1973 but after that his star fell quickly. (His recording of "A Woman's Place" in 1974 certainly didn't help out matters. Check out these lyrics: "I may be old-fashioned/so what if I am/I'm not any different/from any other man/I'm not one of those who look for blood from a stone/but I believe/a woman's place is in the home".) Gilbert only toured the States once during this time (although his website reports he's working with promoters to return after a 35 year absence!).

In the late 1970s and periodically in the 1980s Gilbert was entangled in court with his producer, Gordon Mills (whose daughter was "Clair"). He recorded less frequently, with none of his work being issued in the States after a contract with Epic expired. I've imported some of his albums from this time. I recommend Sounds of the Loop from 1993. It features a duet with Peggy Lee (Who'd have thunk she'd be an admirer of his work?) and also contains a song I promise you'll be unable to get out of your head after one listen. ("Are You Happy?")

Gilbert O'Sullivan's website is fun to cruise. You can watch video of his early years when, at the height of the rock's popularity, he appeared on stage wearing a tweed cap and high stockings. You can watch five different stagings of the song "Matrimony". (I was impressed with how he pulled off a version that required him to circulate around a crowd as he sang.) I recommend his radio interview in Israel this year. Gilbert's articulate about his craft, and you have to respect someone who continues to write out of the pure pleasure of being fulfilled artistically and entertaining people.