I’ve always had mixed feelings about Alberta and have come to understand this ambivalence recently – I don’t care much for Calgary, but I do like Edmonton. Calgary is very head-office, a button-down, corporate oil town with all the character of drywall. Edmonton though is funkier and more interesting, with a much stronger arts and culture presence, which was hammered home for me this past weekend. “The Flying Beavers”, as I’ve dubbed the trio of John Alcorn, Reg Schwager and moi, played two all-Cole Porter concerts in a new cabaret room there called “The Club”. It’s in the Citadel Theatre, long one of Canada’s best. Also known as the Rice Theatre, the smaller space has all you could ever ask for as a performer – a grand piano, great lighting, sound, stage, tech-crew, atmosphere, everything. It’s one of the best rooms I’ve ever played and we would be proud to have such a venue in T.O. It was sold out too, which was great, except the audiences seemed really subdued to us, especially on Saturday. They were like an oil painting, but apparently this is normal for winter crowds in Edmonton, they’re still frozen or something. This was odd too, because actually it was surprisingly mild out, much to our relief.
Anyway, what I wanted to write about are the lyrics to the verses of a couple of Porter songs we did, which I think you might get a kick out of (as Porter also once said in a song.) Alcorn forgot to bring the music for “Just One Of Those Things” – no big deal because Reg and I know it well – except for its introductory verse, one of John’s signature bits. (As an aside, I was using a borrowed travel bass and also forgot to bring something, namely my bow; Alcorn may be one of the few musicians who would be concerned about this. He seems to actually think my dragging the horsehair across the strings occasionally adds something, whereas most people greet my sawing with, “Steve – put down the bow and step away from the bass.”) Anyway, we had to rehearse the verse a few times to figure it out by ear, so I developed a more detailed sense of it. I love the words, which fit in with the general subject of the song, i.e. the transitory nature of love and the tragicomic vagaries of romantic break-ups, dealt with in Porter’s blithe, droll style. Without further ado:
“As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend, ‘fare thee well.’
As Columbus announced, when he knew he was bounced, ‘It was swell, Isabel, swell.’
As Abelard said to Heloise, ‘Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please.’
As Juliet cried, in her Romeo’s ear, ‘Romeo… why not face the facts, my dear?”
Being mildly illiterate and all, I had to look up the Abelard and Heloise bit. Pierre Abelard was an 18th-century French philosopher, theologian and composer who had a very frowned-upon love affair with his much younger pupil Heloise. Let’s just say it didn’t end well and Abelard was an early example of being “Bobbitt-ized”, though not by Heloise’s hand.
Alcorn just sings the hell out of this verse, his timing is perfect. He starts out quite drily and his delivery of the Dorothy Parker and Columbus references usually draw some laughs from fully thawed audiences. He builds to a mock-dramatic climax with the later, more tragic couples, culminating in the word “cried”, which is a high note he sustains with vibrato and his head back, milking it almost operatically. Then he pauses, all quiet and deadpan for the last line, which has almost the tone of Bugs Bunny saying, “Ah… what’s up, doc?” It tickles me every time, and though I love to try to mess with John and crack him up, I’ve refrained from telling Alcorn about the Bugs thing. It would likely render him unable to sing it and I’d never hear the verse again, my loss. Plus, he would kill me. Oops, I seem to have let the cat out of the bag here.
There are many great ones, but the other Porter verse I love is from “Let’s Do It, (Let’s Fall In Love)” – the song which put him on the map in 1928. It’s lyric is famous for its many choruses of sly rhyming, puns and double-entendre sexual innuendoes about the animal kingdom. It’s cute and scandalous all at once – if you want some laughs sometime, Google it, it’s really good. Alcorn sings all five original choruses of words, and says there are more. Noel Coward loved it and much later wrote a whole version of it using movie star and celebrity names, including Sonny and Cher. Anyway, the verse slays me, it’s very sweet and innocent, whimsical. It took me to “mush-ville” the very first time I heard it sung live thirty years ago by Susannah McCorkle. It starts with a bird singing, so how could I not love it?
“When the little bluebird who has never said a word, starts to sing…..’Spring, Spring.’
When the little bluebell in the bottom of the dell, starts to ring….’Ding, Ding.’
When the little blue clerk in the middle of his work, starts a tune to the moon up above.
It’s nature, that’s all, simply telling us to fall….in love.”
It’s very tuneful, and by the “little blue clerk” part, I’m gone – it’s goo-city, break out the Kleenex.
This verse business has become something of a lost art in song-writing, but from that Golden Age of c. 1925-45, there are a bunch of them that are as good as the famous songs that follow, sometimes maybe even better. They always set up the mood beautifully and can be quite tuneful and dramatic or comic in their own right, I just love ’em. They are songs within songs, and help elevate the form to high art, a perfect meeting of music and literature. I’m something of a verse freak, and will probably write about some of my other favourite ones another time.
As for Mr. Porter, some people find him too clever and smoothly sophisticated, maybe a little too breezy and facile. I know what they mean, but let’s not kid ourselves. Why not face the facts, my dears. Anyone who could write such great lyrics, not to mention all the deeply complex music to so many songs is an absolute genius in my books. The actor/writer Stephen Fry thinks this line from Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is one of the greatest achievements in English writing of any kind, Shakespeare included :
“There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change, from major to minor.”
I’m not about to argue with him.
© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.