Saturday, March 28, 2015

The great heady surf: Gershwin's Cuban Overture

What can you say about a piece of music you've fallen wildly in love with? Having barely recovered from discovering the Makoto Ozone version of Rhapsody in Blue (and yes, his name really is Ozone), I now encounter one of the most rapturous, madly life-loving things I've heard in a long time. Or ever. As my Gershquest continues, now taking me through the rather lumpy and formerly scandalous Peyser biography, his music deepens and takes on new dimensions for me. I want to SING his stuff, I want to be draped across a piano in a smoky room. Would I have wanted to know GG? Who wouldn't want to know a genius?

When I try to take apart and figure out this strange phenomenon of the early 20th century, I find a lot of interlocking puzzles in three dimensions. In his mad social circle of drunken and underaccomplished codependents, he was more addictive than all the champagne in the world. He seemed glued to the piano at these events, or maybe his body grew up out of it, centaurlike. One of the most oft-quoted descriptions of GG's seductive charm came from somebody named Sam Behrman (who also wrote an agonizing description of GG's horrendous last days): "I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor, above all the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it."

This is as good a description of an addictive drug as I have ever seen, but it is also charged with an erotic longing that dares not speak its name. "Was Gershwin gay?" is still a favorite parlour game among musicologists, as if such a complex man could not be both gay and straight at the same time (which I believe he was: he was simply too beautifully androgynous and dressed too impeccably to be more than 75% straight). And he was a good dancer. My God. I begin to think I am writing about a musical Harold Lloyd.

But this piece, this Cuban overture which was largely overlooked when he wrote it: at first listening you might think, that's not Gershwin. It's just a standard rumba, Latin music writ large. But give it another chance, and another, and you'll hear the dissonances, the bluesiness, the chord progressions which could only be early 20th century (Petrushka, anyone?). He was in with those big guys, the elite composers, but that isn't what stands out here. It's the sheer heat of it, not something you expect from an urban dandy with seventeen summer suits who seldom peels himself away from the piano. Latin music informed a lot of his stuff, including the Rhapsody, but here he wades right in and is consumed. And when I listen to this, I feel an indescribable ecstasy, I want to scream with it! Largely overlooked? Were they crazy? Is everybody NUTS?

Kay Swift, one of GG's longsuffering sort-of-girl-friend-non-fiancee-longtime-lovers, believed Cuban Overture was "Gershwin's finest orchestral composition and also his sexiest. But it went all but unnoticed then, and it has never caught on." I don't know about that. The book I'm quoting from was written in 2009. When you look up the piece on YouTube, there are seemingly dozens of versions, which I have combed through to find (I think) the best. As happens to most artists, Gershwin was a victim of his own success, and once Rhapsody in Blue had everyone in thrall, they didn't really want to hear anything else.

I haven't even begun to probe the enigmatic miracle of that unit, Georgeandira, surely the most codependent songwriting team ever. I once did a line-by-line analysis of the seemingly-simple The Man I Love, a microcosm of a song that would bookend nicely with The Man That Got Away (tune by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira). Don't ever think you can do this stuff, because you can't. "The winds blow colder/Suddenly you're older." That's dangerous. It leaps on you like the predatory animal a great song can be. Ira was George's inverse, his shadow, his verbal self. It worked, until that great prismatic glass splintered into shards, and the universe had to do without him.

I am making my way through a long essay from a medical journal about George Gershwin's psychoanalysis and his death from an agonizing undiagnosed brain tumor. The psychoanalyst was a charlatan and a sadist who enjoyed dangling people and messing with their minds. He had sex with Kay Swift during their appointments, convincing her it was a necessary part of the treatment. Incredibly, this psychiatric fiend was convinced, and convinced everyone else, that blinding headaches, hallucinations, falling down, being unable to eat or play the piano, and having all manner of bizarre behavioural seizures was merely the result of "hysteria". For one thing, it bollixes my mind that a man could be diagnosed with hysteria - I thought that it simply didn't happen. But the real horror of it is, they killed George with neglect. By the time the medical community came to the conclusion it should have drawn years before, he was dead.  But I just had this thought now - this second - George played into it too, because for all his fiery genius, he was paradoxically a don't-make-waves sort of person, almost passive, so eager to be liked that he buried his anger and went along with whatever attitude prevailed. OK, so it's psychosomatic. Now what?

But that's for another post. Another Blingee, another George.

"You had me at hello"

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