On a recent foray into the jazz realm here in Pittsburgh, I was introduced to “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” by Cole Porter. It struck me as a charming little number at first hearing, but Porter’s veneer is thin; he is, after all, the master of warping the seemingly innocuous. As I began to digest the lyrics, it stuck me how creepy they really were, so I began to wonder how they would go over with today’s audience, given all the audio and video surveillance of our lives are subject to, and the fact that we may or may not be aware of how much we are being observed on a daily basis.
When the song was written in 1939, the lyrics may have come off as someone paying undue (not necessarily unwelcome) attention to the comings and goings of his or her main squeeze. Ah, gone are the halcyon days of stalking being socially acceptable; today, such behavior might well warrant a restraining order.
Furthermore, through the lens of today’s technology tracking so much of our daily activity, this song takes on an eerie Orwellian feel. We know social media is watching and listening, as is the government, if you are a person of interest — and maybe your tracked phone is giving away your every location to the aforementioned stalker. It goes without saying that our governments are listening to each other (think Angela Merkel’s cell phone-tapping debacle), and that there are few places where one can go in our modern world without potentially having someone’s “eyes on you, checking on all you do from A to Z.”
Fred Astaire debuted the song in the film “Broadway Melody of 1940,” and sings it here in a later recording. The sweet lilt of his voice would not be at all out of place over the opening credits of a futuristic dystopian sci-fi flick.
Just listen to how Bobby Short sings Cole Porter’s ‘I’m In Love Again’! It’s perfection.
I am addicted to rough edges around a beautiful voice: that little bit of grit, the almost-growl, the ability to sense the breath in the sound. And pretty much any recording of Bobby Short holds me spellbound. Enjoy this one!
Noël Coward said it best:
Mr. Irving Berlin
Often emphasizes sin
In a charming way.
Mr. Coward we know
Wrote a song or two to show
Sex was here to stay.
Richard Rodgers it’s true
Took a more romantic view
Of this sly biological urge.
But it really was Cole
Who contrived to make the whole
My respect for Cole Porter has only increased over the span of time. An odd statement, because I loved his songs from the moment I first heard them. His archives reside at Yale, and when I was a freshman, an enterprising undergraduate mounted a revue to bring Porter’s rarest songs back to the stage. It was called “The Coeducated Cole Porter,” and I now realize how deep an impact it had on me. The sophisticated wit of Porter’s lyrics and the sparkling melancholy of his music were like a thunderbolt. It’s strange—but also fitting—that I learned rarities like “How’s Your Romance” and “Black and White Baby of Mine” before I knew the standards like “Night and Day” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Suffice it to say that I became an aficionado.
As I began to know more about American popular song, I deserted Porter for a variety of other suitors: Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin. I decided he was a better lyricist than composer, based on a random comment from a musician I respect. My friend was wrong. Nowadays I find myself marveling at Porter’s craft. He had the knack of writing for both the hoi polloi and the intelligentsia. His wit functions on so many levels, and his musical chops are patrician. Our love affair is back in full flower.
Like Lorenz Hart, Porter slyly threw in double entendres intended only for those in the know. My mother, for example, loved their songs but never got those jokes. The real meaning of Hart’s brilliant lyric “Sing for your supper and you’ll get breakfast” went right by her. I can now admit that for many decades I was just as naïve about Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” I’d learned the song at a more virginal moment of my life and had always taken it at face value—a self-deprecating compliment to a friend. “I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop/But if baby I’m the bottom, you’re the top!” One day I realized that the real expression is, “You’re tops!” “You’re the top,” on the other hand, would read loud and clear to many guys celebrating Pride Month. I feel I finally validated my Gay Card the day I got Porter’s joke, though I was abashed it took me forty years to catch on.
That Cole Porter. He hides it in plain sight. God bless him.
Here’s Porter singing his own song:
Thinking back on my years living in New York City, I remember how sweltering the summers could be. I’ll try to send NYFOS and NYC a Mediterranean breeze from my home in Barcelona, but in the meantime, here is Ms. Fitzgerald once again, telling us that it’s “Too Darn Hot.”
In anticipation of NYFOS’s program Lyrics by Shakespeare, performed on August 8 as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, we are featuring a week of songs inspired by Shakespeare on Song of the Day. It will be held in the intimate Kaplan Penthouse so seating is limited; get your tickets today!
We close our week of music inspired by Shakespeare with some advice from Cole Porter. You’ll never hear the name ‘Coriolanus‘ quite the same way again!
I’d like to start off my “Song of the Day” week with an artist everyone can agree on – the man, the myth, ol’ blue eyes himself – Frank Sinatra. I’ve had a recurring fascination with Frank since I was a kid. The older I get, the more my appreciation and respect for him grows. There were lots of recordings lying around the house where I grew up, but I gravitated towards Sinatra and Elvis, doing my best to imitate them in my pubertic teenage voice. In a way, I think Frank’s recordings primed my ears to appreciate operatic voices later on. Indulging in recordings of Thomas Allen and Bryn Terfel at the tender age of 15 might not have thrilled me as much had I not spent so much time listening to Sinatra’s already, admiring his iconic, recognizable sound. Not to mention, a performance by Frank is a certified lesson in charisma, confidence, and style. He just has “it.” Whatever “it” is, Sinatra is the definition.
Aaron Copland once said, “You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down… some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.” Frank might not be Copland’s composer in this instance, but his recordings make it pretty clear how it was to be Frank during those days. This video of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” ranks up there in my book as one of the very best recordings of Sinatra performing live. See what you think of it.
I moved to NYC in 1979 from a small New England college town where I had heard of rebellion, but had hardly ever seen rebellion in any meaningful form. When I hit the city streets that summer, Debbie Harry of Blondie and Iggy Pop were two of the foremost avatars of rebellion writ large. They were way out there but they were also admired as artists. Everywhere I went in my NYC of the 80’s, there they were pushing the envelope of the creative boundaries of high and low art.
My life in the wonderous, both safe and dangerous, NYC of the 80’s took a sharp turn towards terrifying with the arrival of AIDS. Everywhere you turned people you loved and admired were devastated and way too many died. In 1990, as this scourge reached its peak, there was an all-star benefit album series called “Red Hot and…” that rallied musical artists of all stripes to record songs to raise awareness and money to combat AIDS. The most moving of these was a Cole Porter tribute album called “Red Hot + Blue – A Tribute to Cole Porter.” Many of my favorite artists of the time – David Byrne, Tom Waits, Annie Lennox, k.d Lang, les Negresses Vertes – took the divine songs of one of the best, Cole Porter, and recorded them in new and exciting ways. And each time you listened, you dreamed there would be some end to this horror.
I love many songs on this album, but the one that really moved me was Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop’s cover of “Did You Evah!” from the 1939 Cole Porter musical DuBarry Was a Lady. This song was most famously recorded as a Frank Sinatra-Bing Crosby boozy duet for the film High Society in 1956. But, in 1990 it was a grungy, raucous affair directed by Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) set in the streets of downtown NYC featuring the gorgeous Harry and Pop as a modern day, grungy/glamorous couple about town. Debbie Harry’s clear, bright voice mixed with the spoken-sung gnarl of Iggy Pop (nobody’s idea of a beautiful voice) to capture the unique angst of this age. We were young, happy, sexy and having a helluva a lot of fun. And then we weren’t. As Debbie Harry deadpans at the end of the Cox video (4:45), “I thought this was the worst thing that could ever happen, because I really love sex.”
PS. Do not miss the other videos from the Red, Hot + Blue album! k.d Lang’s video of “So In Love” is heartbreaking. Laundry never moved me so.
Blondie & Iggy
“Did You Evah!” by Cole Porter for the AIDS relief album Red Not & Blue – A Tribute to Cole Porter, 1990. Video Directed By Alex Cox
It just rained in New York for about 48 hours and I stayed inside for the duration. I got lots done, and my students seemed happy to have their lessons here (where they get tea, more time, a better piano, and juicier stories). But today is sunny and beautiful and I finally have to leave my aerie. To celebrate, a clip from one of my favorite modern artists, Lypsinka. She is the alter ego of brilliant drag performer John Epperson. Lypsinka is just that: a live-action show which Epperson/Lypsinka performs, meticulously, to a sound-track collage of movie clips, night club recordings, and TV interviews. Ricky Gordon once said to me, “OK, Steve, the great artists of the twentieth century? Matisse, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, and Lypsinka.” He meant it, and I do not disagree.
For all the artifice, Lypsinka is best seen live. The accuracy of the sync-work, the brittle charm, and the utter madness in the eyes make their best effect in a theater. Catch her next appearance if you can, but in the meantime, here is her version of “Anything Goes” to brighten your day.
from Steven Blier:
To usher in the weekend, Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing” played by one of my idols, piano legend Bill Evans. He’s partnering Tony Bennett, the Helden-tenor of popular song. There are very few piano-and-voice jazz albums without bass and drums, so it’s especially meaningful (and rare) for me to hear Bill Evans play for Tony B. with no sidemen. This is how I play popular music 99.99999% of the time—I’m used to providing my own rhythm section, my own bass lines—and listening to Evans go commando (musically) is like having a piano lesson. He is so elegant in this tune, tossing off perfect voicings and the most gorgeous Ravel-ish harmonies, gourmet gelato à la Steinway.
The tune didn’t make it onto either of the two LPs that came out of these mid-1970s sessions, and in truth it has a couple of tiny glitches that may have consigned it to the archives. But Fantasy Recordings did include the song on the CD issue, and I fell in love with it. I never, ever play “Dream Dancing” just once. One night as we were making dinner, I was heading into replay #6 when Jim gently said, “Um, could we maybe hear another song?” Forthwith, the Lay’s Potato Chips of Cole Porter recordings—bet you can’t eat just one.
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