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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La La Land: Now, That’s A Great Movie!

The answer was staring me in the face, but it took a while before registering with me. There I was the other day, pawing through the nooks and crannies of my mind in search of the next topic for my blog. I was in the mood to write another of the impressionistic, ruminating pieces that have been rolling off the assembly line pretty regularly the past few months. Trouble is I hadn’t had any mini-adventures of late that I could wrap any impressionistic ruminations around. That’s when I turned my thoughts in a different direction, a cinematic one. My wife Sandy and I had taken a trip recently to a local theater where we sat close to the screen, figuring that doing so would help us become one with the movie’s charms if what we were about to see turned out to be as good as we were hoping it would.

img_1260Which is a longwinded introduction to my announcing that I have some thoughts to impart about La La Land, a musical that came out at the tail end of 2016 and now is in wide release throughout the States. This, to me, is a great movie. An example of near-perfection. An alluring and enticing creation that deserves the viewership of all who have good hearts and soft spots therein.

Yeah, I’m prone to gushing. That’s OK. There are worse ways to be. And when it comes to La La Land I’m not the only gusher by a long shot. I don’t read a lot of movie reviews, but the reviewers whose words I took a look at fell hard for this one. Sandy, who is more tuned in than I to a lot of things, confirmed that seemingly everyone carrying the title of critic had pointed their thumbs upward after watching La La Land.

What, then, do we have here? La La Land is a girl-meets-boy story. And, when well done, that template is boffo, isn’t it? Hey, I hear a few of you in the back of the room murmuring “nah.” Get out! Class is dismissed for you.

img_1334La La Land’s girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspriring actress caught up in the confidence-squashing eddies of the audition mill. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a sensitive-fingered jazz pianist scrambling to make a living while dreaming of the day he opens his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian first cross paths on a Los Angeles freeway. The freeway, witness to a traffic jam from Hell, becomes the stage for the movie’s opening sequence, a lilting and athletic song and dance routine unfurled by scores of traffic stuckees who exit their vehicles to sing and jump and prance giddily on car roofs and hoods, making the best of what normally would be a real bad situation. Finally, the tangle of metal and tires begins to ease up. But Mia, slow to gun her engine, becomes the victim of relentless horn blasting from someone in a car behind hers. Sebastian. To which she responds by flipping the bird at him as he pulls out and breezes by. Take that. fella!

Needless to say, things become better between Mia and Sebastian when, as fate absolutely would have it, they unexpectedly meet again and again in The City Of Angels and realize that they are meant for each other and destined to fall in love. Which they do. But will love endure? La La Land, though bright and frothy much of the time, isn’t that way all of the time, so the answer to the question is far from a given. Damien Chazell, La La Land’s writer and director, throws more than a few dollops of darkness and pain into the mix. La La Land is a colorful, romantic bonbon laced with the realities of life.

img_1337It didn’t take long for me to fall under La La Land’s spell. Stone and Gosling possess the type of feels-right screen chemistry that often is elusive. Their Mia and Sebastian banter easily with one another, before the day arrives when cracks open in their relationship, and the two stars sing and dance in a sweet and natural manner. The songs (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) that they and others emit are strong and tuneful. And sometimes piercing, as is the case with the stream of consciousness-like Audition (The Fools Who Dream), sung by Mia/Stone at a, natch, movie audition. And La La Land is filled with sequences so gorgeously done I felt honored to be watching the flick. Especially when Mia and Sebastian, at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, take each others’ hands and begin to dance, soon lifting from the floor to merge with the cosmos projected on the observatory dome’s underside.

You don’t see a whole lot of original movie musicals, which La La Land is, anymore. Or musicals based on stage productions either, for that matter. Both varieties used to be a staple of the film industry, but that was eons ago as measured in cinematic years. Don’t know why they’ve faded away. I mean, who doesn’t love The Wizard Of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, An American In Paris, Cabaret . . . ? In any case, I left the theater thinking that La La Land is up there with those titans. You have to give it to Chazelle, who also scripted and directed 2014’s Whiplash, a nerve-wracking, music-themed opus that decidedly isn’t a musical. The guy has immense guts to have attempted La La Land, not to mention the vision and skills to pull it off. And he’s only 32. My God, when I was his age I hadn’t even mastered tying my shoes yet. Come to think of it, I still haven’t.

Well, I could go on but I won’t. You get the idea. If you haven’t already seen La La Land, make a date.

 

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