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.

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