Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Again, the Rhapsody": George Gershwin revisited

I'm all afizz tonight, and for an unexpected reason. I just came out the other side of one of those old Hollywood juggernauts, the 1945 Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue. It really was a too-long movie, and kind of heavy going. I wouldn't even have watched it (again), except for the fact that I'm re-reading A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. I went through a "thing" a couple of years ago and probably bored everybody (but who's everybody?) with endless posts on Levant, one of the strangest human beings ever to walk the earth (and a musician, so I inevitably fell madly in love with him). Levant was one of several people who "played themselves" in Rhapsody, since they knew and/or worked with Gershwin while he was alive. 

It had that earnestness that film bios had in the 1940s, and though it attempted to portray Gershwin's drivenness and arrogance, it didn't quite come off, largely because Robert Alda was just too weak and mild. He was nice-looking, looked vaguely like Gershwin without that exotic feline strangeness, and could play the piano well enough that he didn't have to fake it, though it was Oscar Levant's inspired performances that ended up on the soundtrack. Alda was. . . well, he was nice, even in his temperamental rages. He conveyed the agony of the brain tumor that killed him by pressing on his forehead and sighing, "These headaches."

Levant wasn't in it very much, and when he was, I was surprised at how baby-faced he looked, almost boyish, with those haunted eyes. I study Levant whenever I see him, and in this movie I noticed something different, how his body language isn't strictly American. The Old World follows him around. He leans his forehead towards people and stares at them when he talks, grabs or perhaps grasps people by the arm, even pinches Alda's cheek in a "mein boy" attitude. He is both sardonic and warm. An exotic thing, I don't know what it is, something almost Middle Eastern about the cheekbones, or surely Slavic. And green eyes, which show up mainly in An American in Paris in the scene where he is lying in bed smoking. 

I'm getting to the part that sneaked up on me, hypnotized me almost, and I didn't expect it. But it seems so obvious now. It was the music. A mammoth hunk of the repertoire, most of it well-performed and pretty much all of it familiar to me, but this time - . What is it that makes your perception of things slip sideways? I was inside the music, inhabiting, dwelling within those dissonant chords, and not just grabbed by the crazy rhythms but infected, injected until my bones began to dance to the music's free will. 

I began to hear Gershwin as both coolly, almost offputtingly elegant and screamingly driven, furiously primitive in the sense of touching the Essence. I began to see a world within his songs, almost a universe. The perfection of it hurt me, jarred me. At the same time, the wildly jarring syncopation, the massive primal rushes of energy were dizzying, like plugging directly into a brain on intense overload. 

The sexuality of it was stunning. I had never heard sexuality in Gershwin before. Ever. I grew up with it, we had records lying around of Gershwin, An American in Paris and multiple versions of Rhapsody in Blue (and here I am reminded of  Levant's mother, her dry comment to her son: "Again, the Rhapsody?"). I have a few favorites, one of them being the I've Got Rhythm Variations. My favorite Gershwin song is The Man I Love, but almost no one knows how to sing it.

But tonight, somehow, it was all changed, changed utterly.

What happened here,  I wonder - how did it fall open, all this grey buttoned-down stuff, the music of my parents, bursting in a heady rush like a  tropical flower that flings itself open and gushes with an overripe, intoxicatingly embarrassing fragrance? This has nothing to do with the mild civilized Gershwin I knew, this bom-bompa, bom-bompa, bom-bompa of something deeper than drums, something that makes the concept of "rhythm" seem laughable. 

Even now I can't capture it, I go around and around the subject. I did not even realize fully that I was being mesmerized and taken over until the end of the thing, when I noticed I felt very strange. There was one song, and God how I wish now that I remember which one, because the chords were gorgeously, sourly dissonant, to the point almost of pain, and I loved it, oh I loved it, loved it and wanted more of it, and now I forget which song it was because they all bled together into one great throbbing Thing.

I did not expect this ambush, a slow cumulative effect that steamrollered me, out of this fusty old '40s movie with its cliches (Gershwin, in a Paris hotel room with the Eiffel Tower visible out the window, hears cab horns going "toot-toot-toot" and rushes to his notation paper, wild with inspiration, writing with an elegant flourish on the title page: "An American in Paris"). Right now I feel tired enough to die and know I have to go to bed. I don't know what it is about music, does it change as we change? New layers are exposed all the time by fresh artists, to the point that the original is sometimes twisted into a corkscrew, its essential meaning lost.

Anyway. When I hear this, Judy Garland's raw and sweet version of my favorite Gershwin song, complete with its distortion and wavering sound, I realize some few artists always knew what was hidden inside this deceptive stuff. Almost every artist sings it as a standard ballad, without much expression, and I want to scream: how can you not hear, how can you not see? The lyric is hopefully hopeless, the yearnings of a waif with no life, of a wispy woman barely hanging on until Her Hero arrives to take away all the ugliness and disappointment, the despair. It's all there, both in music and lyric, but almost everyone misses it. 

There is something about genius that makes us think, "Of course!" Makes us think, "Why didn't anyone think of that before?" or even, "hasn't it always been that way?" But no. Someone blitz-brained it into being, and I'm glad it didn't have to be me. I don't believe I am up to such dark, warlocky tricks.

Post-blog discoveries. I've become fascinated with the brain tumor that killed Gershwin at age 38, the way the whole thing was grossly mishandled as "hysteria" or "neurosis", even "attention-seeking". Seen through today's glasses, it's impossible to look at this set of symptoms and NOT see something neurological going on.

This from the New York Times Health section explains a little bit:

When he was 23, Gershwin began complaining of vague abdominal pain and constipation. Doctors found no physical basis for the complaints and told him the illness was in his head. He eventually sought psychotherapy.
But in early 1937, his behavior turned bizarre. He tried to push his chauffeur out of a moving car, smeared chocolates on his body, complained that he smelled burning rubber and forgot his own music at a performance.
He received little sympathy. ''There were people who said of him that he was an attention-seeker,'' said Hershey Felder, the creator and star of ''George Gershwin Alone,'' a Broadway show. ''They thought he was just making antics.''
On June 23, Gershwin was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, complaining of debilitating headaches. He refused a spinal tap, a painful procedure that was commonly used to diagnose brain tumors, and was discharged with a diagnosis of ''most likely hysteria.''
Less than a month later, he was taken back to the hospital, unconscious. In the right temporal lobe of his brain, surgeons found a cyst filled with an ounce of dark yellow fluid. They removed it, but it was too late. The pressure had begun to bear down on his brain stem, which controls functions like heart rate, respiration, temperature and consciousness, forcing part of it outside his skull. He died on July 11.
(Worst part of this, which they don't say: Lee Gershwin, his brother's acidulous bitch of a wife, seemed to have a hate on for him. Once when he fell in a restaurant and couldn't get up, she was quoted as saying, "He's just after the attention. Leave him there."

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Rhapsody in Strange: a George Gershwin curiosity