Last Night When I Was Not So Young

The other day, while driving around the burbs, I heard a recording of a song on the radio that took me aback. It’s a number I’ve listened to many times in my life. Sinatra sang it (click here). Judy Garland sang it (click here). Hell, it’s likely that Bob Dylan, who has been recording nothing but standards over the last few years, will get to it before too long.

Photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images.

The song was Last Night When We Were Young. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the guys who are most famous for composing the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, wrote Last Night in 1935. Harold, as always, handled the music and Yip the words. The song is a beauty. Its melody is wistful. Its lyrics, direct and simple, are also profound. And the version I heard the other day, by Tony Bennett, seemed so right. Tony was singing softly, unusually softly for someone who rarely has shied away from issuing scads of notes with lungfuls of oomph. Discretely backed by only three instruments – piano, upright bass and drums – he took his time analyzing the lyrics, hitting, I thought, his contemplation buttons precisely. Naturally, that put me in a contemplative mood.

Last Night contains a mere 96 words, but if a set of lyrics ever encapsulated a bittersweet view of the human condition more movingly, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. Take a look at the tune’s first two verses:

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung.
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night.

Today the world is old.
You flew away and time grew cold.
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

I mean, wow. Talk about poetic. Talk about graceful. Talk about powerful. Yip Harburg was tapped into the higher frequencies of the ethers when Last Night’s images came to him. Here’s a song that speaks of love’s precariousness, of its sometimes fragility. But what actually has happened? Has the narrator and his/her mate argued violently, unexpectedly? Or has the mate, feeling inadequate upon discovering that there is much more to love than he/she ever understood, bailed out of the relationship? Ah, it’s a mystery. Any number of scenarios might be devised to fit the verses. That’s the genius of Last Night’s words.

But you know what? When, a few days later, I decided to write a piece about Last Night, I listened at home a couple of more times to Tony Bennett’s recording. And I saw that I had been mistaken in my assessment of his approach. Most singers fall into melancholy mode when singing this song, and in my car that’s what I thought Tony had done. It must have been his hushed vocals that threw me off.

Tony, I realized, came at the tune from a different angle, a slyly jaunty one. He sang with the glint of a twinkle in his voice. And that’s when, for a minute, I thought that he was doing the song a big injustice, missing its talking points, missing the pain and suffering embued in its stark and elegant phrases.

And then I woke up. Not from a dream but from a frozen mindset. Yo, Tony was delivering a message when he chose to sing Last Night in the way that he did. “Sure, love can be a rocky road,” I think he was telling his audience. “Sure, love can fade away. But you know what? It ain’t the end of the world. Things will get better. Probably. Very probably.”

Now, you might be asking why in the world I’m going on and on about a Tony Bennett recording. I don’t always have my reasons for what I do, but in this instance I do. So, here’s why:

I’ve had long talks recently with two of my greatest pals, Mike and Dave. I’ve known each of them since childhood, which for us took place not long after William The Conqueror invaded England. Mike and Dave make me look like a slacker, which isn’t hard for just about anybody to do, to be honest. Working long hours in demanding professions, they set a remarkable pace.

I’m not sure at what point Dave’s and my conversation turned to the undeniable fact that, if we remain above ground for the next handful of months, we’ll have completed 70 cycles around our friend the Sun. “Neil,” Dave said,”we’re old men.”

Huh? Me, old? Speak for yourself, Dave. I know for certain that beautiful girls still steal glances at me when I pass them on the street. Some might say that they’re eyeing my luxuriant nostril hairs, but I know better.

But maybe Dave put a notion, or some sense, into my head. Because two weeks later when speaking with Mike, who recently passed the 70-cycle mark, I said something or other like: “Mike, you know, we’re getting old.” To which he sighed in agreement and said: “Yeah. But what can we do about it?”

“Not much,” I responded. “All we can do is grin and bear it.”

Tony Bennett, a wise individual, I’m certain would have wagged his finger at me if he’d heard what I said to Mike. “Neil, you’ve got to do more than grin and bear it,” I can hear Tony, who is 90 years old and going very strong, telling me. “I was 66, not much younger than you are today, when I recorded the version of Last Night When We Were Young that you’re doing an incredibly so-so job of turning into a story. Putting that last comment aside, let me say this: Life is here for fortunate ones like us to embrace. Doesn’t matter that we’re not as young as we once were. Grin and bear it? Come on . . . you can do better than that. Put a meaningful smile on your face, not just a reluctant grin. Help others and don’t wallow in disappointments. Spread some joy . . . that’s the way to have a good life.”

Thanks, Tony. I needed that. Believe me, I can dig it.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story with others. Thanks.)

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28 thoughts on “Last Night When I Was Not So Young

  1. padraigcolman May 17, 2017 / 1:50 am

    This Mike passed 70 last October and has been listening again to Tony Bennett with Bill Evans and was struck by how “grown up” all the songs were’ Slightly jaded, a little bit sentimental with a touch of vinegar, optimistic in a pessimistic kind of way. Summed up my mood perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger May 17, 2017 / 11:19 am

      Hi. The Bennett/Evans album is great.
      Have you heard the album that Tony made with pianist Bill Charlap a year or two ago? It’s really good.
      Thanks for visiting.

      Like

      • padraigcolman May 17, 2017 / 11:45 am

        Haven’t heard that. Must check it out.

        Like

    • yeahanotherblogger May 17, 2017 / 11:21 am

      Hello Cindy. Arlen and Harburg were a great songwriting team. They created so many terrific songs.

      Like

  2. cincinnatibabyhead May 17, 2017 / 2:22 am

    Your last paragraph nails it Neil or is it Tony? Good one fella. The song rendition is absolutely fantastic. I like Tony’s take. Always a couple ways to look at things.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Alyson May 17, 2017 / 3:41 pm

    Tony Bennett always comes across like the cat who got the cream, and so he should. What a wonderful career he has had in his later years (duets with Lady Gaga indeed) and quite right that he should give you, Mike and Dave a good talking to.

    It’s all about having “passions” in later life and if you are in the fortunate position of not having to do the daily grind in order to earn the monthly pay cheque, all the better. Love your posts as always interesting and amusing – Long may you continue.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sniderjerry May 17, 2017 / 9:06 pm

    Hello Neil and (Tony)No surprise, another great post and a great tune. Getting kicked in the pants is part of love and life so why not sing about it – as long we bounce back and stay in the game. Thank you for the positive vibes. Jerry

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger May 17, 2017 / 9:47 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Jerry. Glad you enjoyed this piece.
      Take care, and I’ll be seeing you —

      Neil

      Like

  5. hairytoegardener May 17, 2017 / 9:17 pm

    I listened to both Sinatra and Tony’s version, and although I like Sinatra, I definitely liked Tony’s version better.

    Since I’ve retired, I look at the meaning of what I do often and if I add something good for someone else on any one day, then I feel that’s why I’m here.

    You weren’t writing about Sinatra specifically, but one of my favorites of his, which is melancholy and speaks of passing years, is “It was a Very Good Year.” Here’s a link to a video of Sinatra with his comments while he sings it: https://vimeo.com/56268157

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger May 17, 2017 / 9:52 pm

      Hi. Thanks a lot for adding your thoughts. I appreciate it.
      You know, I like many genres of music and countless musicians. Still, if I had to name the best singer ever, I’d pick Sinatra. When he was in his prime his voice was amazing and he could get inside a lyric incredibly well.

      Like

    • yeahanotherblogger May 18, 2017 / 7:56 pm

      Hi, C.C.
      Tony’s really something. At age 90 he still sings very well. He’s amazing.

      Like

  6. andrewcferguson May 19, 2017 / 5:35 pm

    Neil, these crooners like Sinatra and Bennet are so not my cup of craft beer, but for you I’ll give it a listen! Will share a post with you at some point next week about a song that means something to me, inspired by your post about the Woody Guthrie song you put up recently. Good work, as ever, fella!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. swabby429 May 21, 2017 / 8:26 am

    This proves again that Bennet is more than “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”. He’s a well rounded artist. By the way, have you seen any of his paintings? They’re magnificent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger May 21, 2017 / 9:11 am

      Hi. Travis Smiley interviewed Tony recently. On that show, Tony said that he paints every day, often in NYC’ s Central Park. He lives near that park. If he had to choose between singing and painting, I wonder which he’d pick.

      Like

  8. K E Garland May 21, 2017 / 5:50 pm

    I was thinking this would be a perfect funeral song. As I continued to read your post, I’m sure of it. Life’s short is what those few lyrics seem to be saying to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeahanotherblogger May 21, 2017 / 6:50 pm

      I like your interpretation, Kathy.
      Time flies by, for sure.
      My friend Alan has some good thoughts, too, just below your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Alan Nothern May 21, 2017 / 5:54 pm

    He was right to wag his finger !!! Imagine if we live to his ripe old age, there would be 2 possible approaches : a pessimist would waste all those years worrying about his health, what to eat or drink, all the dreadful diseases he could die of and not enjoy his extra time on earth ; or an optimist would enjoy life like a 20 year old thinking he has his life ahead of him.
    Clearly the second more carefree approach is best.
    Alan

    Liked by 2 people

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