Oct 28, 2010

REVIEW: The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin

"When the smoke cleared and the rubble subsided, one New Yorker stood tall, his high spirits undiminished in the face of adversity, his reputation repolished to a blinding gleam. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Let's hear it for Irving Berlin.

Not to diminish Mayor Giuliani's achievement, but let's give credit where credit is due: To pen a song, consisting of just two verses, on a cross-Atlantic plane trip in 1938, as America stood on the brink of war, a song that is still sung over half a century later, as America wages a very different kind of war, is pretty good going. So it has proved with "God Bless America," which has even recently survived a severe mauling by Celine Dion–but then, Berlin has faced far worse in his time, not least a stock-market crash, a depression and two world wars, riding out the shock waves of each with the buoyancy of a champagne cork. The birth of ragtime, the jazz age, the arrival of radio, the movies, the talkies, the heyday of the musical: Berlin's 101 years encompassed them all. To read The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin is, at times, like reading one long epic poem, mapping the contours of the American century in metric form–like Walt Whitman, only with more tips on picking up girls.

Here's what you do. First, position yourself well. Under a palm tree is good, although beneath your intended's window has its advocates. If it's day, wait until night; a "pale blue" moon is ideal, but a "sterling silvery" one will do just as nicely. If it's December, go home again and wait until April, because "A girl will part with her heart in the springtime." Now you're all set–just fill your lungs and let rip. Nothing too fancy, just something that's neat and witty and trips off your tongue as if it just occurred to you: "I wonder / If you ever miss me / I wonder / If you're ever blue / I wonder / When we'll meet again / and I wonder if you wonder too." And if that doesn't ensure your advance beyond the wondering stage, follow the advice of "A New Way to Say I Love You": "Instead of all that gab ... I simply grab and kiss my girl and just say nothing at all." O.K., off you go.

Such sterling advice puts Berlin up there with the great wooers of all time–Catullus, Shakespeare, Marvin Gaye. Some pretty high company, to be sure, but Berlin was never one to crane his neck in fake reverence ("His name will surely live forever / For I think the kid was clever," he wrote of Shakespeare). These lyrics address the world–whether it be a country or a caretaker–with exactly the same tone, speaking neither up nor down, but on the level, one on one. There are over 300 songs listed in this book's index beginning with the personal pronoun "I," ranging from the sweetly inquiring ("I Ask You: Is That Nice?") to the snug ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm") to the unarguable ("I've Written Another Song").

You can say that again. The man seems to have been constitutionally incapable of not writing songs–more than 1,200 all told, and all here. When they say "Complete Lyrics," they mean complete–this book weighs as much as a large salmon–which makes you wonder, when the say "edit," if they don't mean "scour the globe for any extant lyric, finished or unfinished, first draft or final, and then publish." This, though, is as it should be, for Berlin's lyrics are one heaving democracy, matching America's own. His songs come flocked with traveling salesmen and homesick rubes, with cheating husbands and errant wives, with ardent beaux (of varying degrees of sincerity) and aspiring showgirls (of varying degrees of gullibility). Here are dreamy tango dancers and "syncopated vamps." Here are millionaires in their "high hats and colored collars." This isn't a book so much as a population explosion between hard covers.

Berlin's art was born of particulars. "God Bless America" boasts a fine ocean view–glimpsed, presumably, on that transatlantic flight–but it stands out a little loftily from the crowd: Most of Berlin's songs were happy to hang out at street level, where he could observe the passing throng, and where he hawked newspapers as a young boy. He remained fascinated by the tabloid form–the mixture of off-the-press immediacy and popular sentiment–and would later come up with the idea of a musical of songs inspired by stories culled from a single front page. All his lyrics felt like street bulletins, though; and the young boy's ability to belt out headlines at passing pedestrians translated into an ease of public address that never left him: "Come on and hear! Come on and hear!" began his first hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," in 1911. Millions complied.

In the decade that followed, Berlin really hit his stride. Or rather, America, caught up in craze of ragtime, matched his: Among other things, Berlin was a world-class pacer. A reporter from London's Daily Express who was there in Berlin's office while he composed "That Humming Rag" noted, "He walked about four miles doing it." It showed. His songs are barreled along by restless garrulity–fired up by hummingbird brio.

There are two basic types of motion in an Irving Berlin song. First, there's up and down, like the elevators in skyscrapers, the fortunes of stock-market speculators, the hearts of lovesick suitors or the interval leaps of the melodies themselves. Like Paul McCartney after him (that other self-taught musical savant), Berlin approached the octave with the attitude of a mountain goat eyeing the next peak; he worked on the firm principle that if hearts are to be coaxed into leaping, then your melody must lead the way.

There's also round and round, the "whirligig energy" of New York City caught up in ragtime and then the Charleston, spinning so fast that the lyrics flatten out in a long ticker-tape stream of verbs–pure action, pure movement. "Hurry up, hurry up"; "run, run, run"; "Go, go, go, go to it, do it." All this motiveless motion is not without its sinister intimations, and in some of Berlin's lyrics of the 20's, his dancers take on the nature of mindless marionettes, spinning madly, "suffocating with delight." Monkeys make a couple of appearances. As does Satan. And so, too, do an awful lot of doctors, tending to the lovesick and dance-addled, but also pointing back, perhaps, to Berlin's sad history of acquaintance with the medical profession, having lost his father when he was 8, then his first wife, who contracted typhoid on their honeymoon in 1917, then his mother in 1922, and his friend and mentor, Mike Salter, just five months after that. What made Berlin run so? It's not hard, listening to some of the songs, to hear the rattle of mortality beating at their back.

One shouldn't make too much of this, of course, although it's the sort of thing biographers love to pounce on, ripping away the high spirits of the songs to uncover a man smiling through his tears–the pain behind the champagne. But the portrait won't stick. If Berlin's personal losses had been any less, perhaps, it might have pushed him toward the slopes of a gentle miserabalism. But that running flush of bereavement seems to have punched him through into another realm altogether. He was braced by adversity but devoid of self-pity; his sunniness was less a disposition, still less a matter of choice, and more a stubborn reflex, a wiry mental muscle–one which seems a peculiarly American prerogative.

Which meant that when he did cross over to the sunny side of the street, America followed. Can there be a purer expression of human happiness than "Top Hat"? As if in direct answer to the crash of 1929, Berlin's score is all upward spirals, skyward ascents. "I'm in heaven," sang Astaire, before gently vaulting up one of those interval ladders: "and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak," so that by the time he gets to "speak" he's at the limit of his range, he can hardly sing, his voice thinning out into a whisper–as if hoarse from his own happiness, or oxygen-starved at this altitude of bliss.

Montaigne famously observed that "happiness writes white," and it's true: You don't hear much from happiness. Unhappiness is the noisier of the two, and has pretty much everything on its side: most of the major-league philosophies, novels, plays. But happiness? There's Wodehouse, of course, and Shakespeare's comedies, although they are more about the pursuit of happiness and the comic tangle that follows. There's very little written from within happiness' ground zero, from inside the heart of lightness. Until, that is, you hit the popular music of America in first half of the century–Porter and Gershwin and Berlin–and then you find happiness in full voice, with lungs fit to bust. People often talk of blind optimism, but Berlin's was the opposite; his optimism was clear-eyed and wide open to the possibility of suffering, which spurred him on more, not less, to grab at pleasure. Which is what gives pleasure its plangency: "There may be troubles ahead, but while there's moonlight and music / And love and romance / Let's face the music and dance."

Can there be a better time to publish this book? America's entertainment industry is currently engaged in the glum task of questioning its own relevance–comedy doubting its ability to make people laugh, the nation's wits gingerly asking whether we are allowed to have fun any more. One respects the politeness that prompts the question, but Berlin would have known the answer, for he was a peerless professor on the matter of how a nation should conduct itself during times of national distress: Shoulder to shoulder is good, but cheek to cheek is even nicer."

— reprinted from my review in
The New York Observer, 2001


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