Saturday, May 7, 2011

I Remember

There's a story behind this song. I posted the lyrics yesterday because I think they're stunning: Stephen Sondheim mixes cliches with simple yet startlingly original images ("and ice like vinyl on the streets, cold as silver, white as sheets/Rain like strings, and changing things/Like leaves.")

This wasn't written for one of his legendary musicals, but for a quirky little TV special from the mid-'60s called Evening Primrose. A disillusioned poet (played by that disillusioned poet of Hollywood, Anthony Perkins) breaks into a department store at night, hoping to find shelter from a cruel and uncaring world, and encounters a whole subculture living there (kind of a prequel to that cheesy '80s fantasy/drama Beauty and the Beast, which I used to slavishly watch every Friday night while putting away copious quantities of fizzy peach cider).

Anyway, since no one taped things in those days (it was deemed too expensive, which is why the networks erased most of Ernie Kovacs' programs and taped quiz shows over them), this 50-minute musical was long lost except to memory. But sometimes a kinescope (a crude sort of tape taken from the TV monitor) remained, and not long ago someone unearthed a "pristine" copy from a vault somewhere and reissued it on DVD. It's on its way to me from Amazon, and I'll be reviewing it in agonizing detail when it comes.

The reason I'll bother is that the song I Remember, now a classic, was written for this show. Unfortunately, Charmion Carr, fresh from her triumph as the eldest Von Trapp daughter in The Sound of Music, played the inevitable romantic interest, just so Tony Perkins could have his usual awkward, ambivalent love scenes with her.

Unfortunately, and in spite of TSOM, Carr couldn't sing. So she basically massacred this lovely, haunting song, this song which makes me cry every time even though I always swear I won't. When I hear it, it makes me wish Anthony Perkins had sung it: with his sweet lyric tenor and great care with lyrics, he would have given it its due. (And I think he knew what it was all about.)

Since recording artist were quick to issue covers for this gem (kind of like that hymn to dysfunctional relationships, Send in the Clowns), I encountered a few different versions on YouTube, but I remembered one from a CD called Cleo Sings Sondheim that never failed to stir me.

This video has its limitations. Every Cleo Laine video I've seen has silly special effects, and this one is no exception. Losing my Mind has the following choreography:

"The sun comes up, I think about you." (Cue the sun streaming in the window.)
"The coffee cup, I think about you." (Cleo sips from a Starbuck's cup.)
And so on, and so on (giving little "gee, what shall I do" headshakes that almost destroy the song's indescribable yearning). All that's missing is the Swiffer duster to illustrate "all afternoon, doing every little chore".

I Remember is almost as inane. When the lyrics mention snow, little bits of styrofoam begin to sift down on her. When it's "leaves", pieces of paper blow into a doorway. It's just too sad.

But the performance: no one else captures the delicacy and pathos of this song, especially those last lines, "I remember days, or at least I try. But as years go by, they're a sort of haze/And the bluest ink isn't really sky. And at times I think/I would gladly die/for a day of sky."

Close your eyes, and sink into it.