July 22, 2010
Which evokes a romantic memory better, a fragrance or a melody? The latter, I am sure, despite the times I’ve felt a tug at my heart when some sweet young thing breezed by me followed by the aroma of Chanel no 5, the favorite scent of my first great love back in the fifties.
Music and lyrics are a hell of a combination for nostalgia nuts like myself. In fact they are as lethal as a left-right combination from the great Ray Robinson, the original Sugar Ray, whose boxing during the 40s, 50s and even 60s turned a brutal sport into what’s known as the sweet science. I recently purchased a book, a catalogue really, about the complete lyrics of Johnny Mercer, to go with my other books on Cole Porter’s words, Irving Berlin’s, Lorenz Hart’s and Oscar Hammerstein 11.
Mercer is less well known than Porter or Gershwin, but he was more prolific and he outlived most of his famous fellow lyricists. The reason I buy these books is because they remind me of my youth and the girls I went out with. It is as simple as that. Each tune reminds me of a girl and a certain time of my life, just as certain “quartiers” in Paris do. Take for example Mercer’s “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” I was in school, frustrated as hell, if you know what I mean, and my parents took me out to a restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut for dinner. A beautiful 17 or 18 year-old was dancing with her beau to that song. I was 15 and fell madly in love. She never gave me a glance, but her memory stayed. So every time I hear Johnny’s Cool, Cool, Cool in the Evening song I’m back being 15, in a beautiful New England restaurant watching “Daisy Buchanan” fox trot.
“And the Angels Sing” saw Mercer at his most chameleonesque, but to me it meant one thing only: Juan Les Pins, 1952, and Mary, who was 18 to my 16, but it was my first time in the South of France and first time lucky, as they say. Mercer was not as witty as Porter or Hart, but knew how to incorporate the slang of the day into his songs. “Jeepers creepers! Where’d ya get those peepers?” caught the mood of a victorious America and the emerging Negro jive. He was also the master of the economical line, with “Laura” and Autumn Leaves” being prime examples. The latter used to bring instant depression. Autumn meant only one thing. The summer was over and I had to go back to boarding school.
But there were other songs that made one dizzy with happiness. “That Old Black Magic,” which Billy Daniels made his own, referred to Mercer’s romance with Judy Garland, including a concealed allusion to her sexual preference, but to me it meant one thing only: the first time I was free to drink in a nightclub in New York, and a free swinging blonde model that came with me once I had told her I was 30 and independently rich.
Mercer collaborated successfully with my great hero, Hoagy Carmichael, a jazzman from Indiana, whose wife, Rita, I fell madly in love with when I was 20 and she was in Miami Beach waiting for her divorce from him. “Why do you want to divorce a man whose music you listen to non-stop?” I asked her one day. Rita told me I wouldn’t understand being just a kid. She was part red Indian and so sexy I couldn’t play tennis when she watched me. I never saw her again after that great winter of 56 in Miami, but every time I hear Hoagy at the piano I think of her and suffer as no one has ever suffered before.
So, all you romantics out there. Stop listening to what I call “vuvuzela” sounds, that cacophony which young people today refer to as pop music. It has no melody, no romance, no tune, no quiver, no mood, no love, no nuthin, as they used to say down south. More important, however, is the disconnect with love and that long-lost girl from one’s past. What kind of woman would she be if you remembered her from a Mick Jagger noise? Or that ghastly Alice Cooper or the even ghastlier John Lennon? Music stopped for me when the Beatles arrived in the early Sixties, as did my nostalgia for anything past those years. Stick to “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “Blues in the Night,” “One for My Baby,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and other great favorites of the 40s and 50s and the girls you were in love with will come back to you, as fresh as they were back then. Trust me on this. Nostalgia is the neatest trick of all. No one gets old, it’s Shangri-La all over again but you can travel. And if any of you are younger than me, which most of you are, then use your imagination and follow Johnny Mercer’s song which said: “Ac-centchu-ate the Positive.” Good luck.