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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Caramel (Suzanne Vega, This Beer’s For You)

Leffe Brune
Leffe Brune

A few days ago, in a local supermarket’s beer section, I assembled and bought a “create your own six pack.” At dinnertime later that day I grabbed one of the six from the frig, and I’m glad I did. It was a thick, rich, mellow ale. Dark and handsome too, I might add. And delicious. Leffe Brune (brown), brewed in Belgium.

If it weren’t for this excellent beer I wouldn’t be typing this story right now. Instead I’d probably be cemented to the living room sofa, counting the number of dust balls scattered on the room’s hardwood floor, one of my typical pastimes. But I am typing this story right now, and here’s why:

Earlier in the aforementioned day, fishing around in my mind for something to write about for my blog, I thought about Caramel, a song by Suzanne Vega that I’ve always loved. But I wasn’t sure how I’d incorporate Caramel into a story. It’s a great song, not too well-known. For years I’ve thought it deserves to become a heavily covered tune, a standard if you will, as it is perfectly formed musically and lyrically. For 40 years I’ve thought almost as much of Tom Waits’s (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night. “Maybe I’ll write about Caramel and (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night and one or two other songs that, in my ideal world, nearly everyone would know about,” I more or less said to myself. “That’ll be at least a  couple of weeks from now, though. It’s a tough story to work out.”

But a few hours later, scanning the label on my Leffe Brune, I shifted course. It read: “Savor the mystery of the ages. The authentic Belgian Abbey ale. Enjoy this delicious Leffe Brune with its sweet caramel yet bitter taste.”

Caramel! Whoa, no way this could be a coincidence. No question about it, the beer gods who hover invisibly above Planet Earth are fans of Suzanne Vega’s Caramel. That’s why they placed the Leffe Brune label before my eyes. Which means that they wanted me to devote a story solely to that song. “Screw Tom Waits,” they in effect were saying to me. I love and revere the beer gods. I pray to them before turning off the bedroom light each night. Therefore, I shall obey.

Suzanne Vega is one of those artists who has been around for a long time (in her case, for about 30 years), though not too obviously for much of the span. She hit her visibility peak in the mid 1980s through mid 90s, when a bunch of her songs received lots of airplay. Tunes such as Luka, Tom’s Diner, Marlene On The Wall and Blood Makes Noise. Things have quieted a lot since then in terms of Vega’s fame. She still tours a good bit, playing before plenty of fans, and releases albums fairly regularly. But, barring a fluke of some kind, she’s unlikely ever again to be a big media presence. She hardly is alone in that. The same might be said for Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Bruce Cockburn and near-zillions of others. The music biz, like life in general, is fickle.

Left to right: Beer; Caramel's lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.
Left to right: Leffe Brune; Caramel’s lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.

Despite that . . . if somehow Caramel were to come to the attention of many classic singers (calling Tony Bennett and Jane Monheit) and singer-songwriters, I’m of the belief that it would be recognized as awfully damn good and irresistible and eventually would find its way into the pop music canon. It came out in 1996 on Vega’s album Nine Objects Of Desire and had a now-forgotten shot of exposure that same year when it played during a scene in the movie The Truth About Cats And Dogs. But as far as I can tell, Caramel rarely has been covered by other musicians.

Yo, tell me that I’m wrong. Here is the first half of Caramel’s lyrics. They are concise and they pop. Poignantly. If they didn’t come attached to music they’d read as a cool poem. Coming from me, not exactly a huge poetry fan, that’s a major compliment.

It won’t do
to dream of caramel,
to think of cinnamon
and long for you.

It won’t do
to stir a deep desire,
to fan a hidden fire
that can never burn true.

I know your name,
I know your skin,
I know the way
these things begin;

But I don’t know
how I would live with myself,
what I’d forgive of myself
if you don’t go.

The lyrics above take up 16 (short) lines. And they comprise a mere four sentences. Four additional sentences, which you can read by clicking here, complete the lyrics. Me, I’m totally taken by Caramel’s simplicity. There are no head feints or foot shuffles. Wham, Suzanne Vega gets to the essence of a sexual attraction that must not be pursued, a love affair that must not be allowed to flower. It ain’t easy to write like that.

But Caramel isn’t a poem. It’s a song. And its music makes me want to head south. To Brazil, home of the samba, of which Caramel is an example. What a melody, so sweet and wistful. Such melancholy chords upon which the melody hangs. Ah me. In Rio I’ll set up a hammock on Ipanema Beach. I’ll watch the girls go by and sip on a long cool one (yeah, it’ll be a Leffe Brune). And as the Sun dips below the horizon I’ll listen to Caramel on iTunes. Or maybe on YouTube, which you too may do by clicking right here.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Tony Bennett Is A Wonder

I’m not an expert on the subject. However, if someone asked me to name the 20th century’s best singers of the so-called Great American Songbook, I’d reel off names such as Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. My list is hardly complete or definitive. But it contains excellent talent without a doubt.

All the entertainers on my list were contemporaries, their careers overlapping one another’s during various decades. A sad note is that only one member of the list is still with us, Tony Bennett, whose professional musical life took hold in 1949 (1949!). Sixty-six years later he continues to go strong. The man is 89 years old now and in good voice. He records regularly and likewise tours the world. He, to me, is a phenomenon. A wonder.

Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)
Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)

A few weeks ago I caught a track on the radio from one of his albums. It was a melancholy song, beautifully sung. His accompaniment was only one instrument, a piano. I thought that the selection probably came from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, a 1975 release pairing Bennett with the esteemed jazz pianist. That album has achieved iconic status over the years. But I was wrong. The song — and I can’t remember which one I heard — was a brand new recording from the lovely album by Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap titled The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern.

Recently I listened twice to The Silver Lining in its entirety. And I listened to a few cuts from the Bennett/Evans duet album too. These albums are separated by 40 years. And you know what? Tony’s voice is nearly as good now as it was then. It has lost a little power, strains a bit occasionally. But it remains quite great. I find this most incredible. Has there ever been another gifted vocalist whose pipes have held up so well in his or her very advanced years? I can’t think of anyone. Please let me know if you can.

Jerome Kern was a top composer during the first half of the 1900s. He wrote with a host of smart and classy lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields and Ira Gershwin among them. The Silver Lining presents some of Kern’s best-known, and best, compositions. For example, The Last Time I Saw Paris, All The Things You Are, I Won’t Dance.  There are 14 tracks on the record. Bennett sings on all of them. Bill Charlap, a refined and tasteful jazz piano player, is Tony’s sole partner on three. Charlap’s jazz pianist wife, Renee Rosnes, adds a second piano on four songs. On the remaining tracks, Charlap is joined by his longtime collaborators, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation) on drums.

Overall I find this album to be sublime. The instrumentation is understated. Bennett’s vocalizing is poignant and incisive. He plumbs the depths of the tunes’ lyrics and adds some explosive high notes at the conclusions of a few songs to show that he still has it. If you’re a Tony fan, you should own The Silver Lining.

So, what’s the deal with Tony Bennett? How has he managed not only to survive, but to thrive? Well, genetics more than anything probably accounts for Tony’s long life. As for thriving, we all might learn from his outlook on and approach to life. Tony Bennett always has seemed to me to be a down-to-earth and nice guy, and also in possession of wisdom. There is a fine article about him in the December 2015 issue of DOWNBEAT magazine (the article is not online, so I can’t provide a link). Two quotes from the piece are very telling.  In one he says: “I can’t believe that I’m 89. I stay in shape. I take good care of myself. I got rid of all bad habits. When I was younger, I was pretty wild, doing a lot of foolish stuff. I stopped all of that and I got back to how to sing properly.” And in another he says: “I think life is a magnificent gift. We should all enjoy the fact that we’re living on an unbelievable planet that’s loaded with education and love and beauty.”

It’s not coincidental that the song Look For The Silver Lining concludes the Bennett/Charlap album. George “Buddy” DeSylva’s lyrics are fully in tune with Tony Bennett’s take on the human situation. Give a listen:

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