Monday, July 30, 2012

The Lush Life

I think I heard this for the first time about 16 years ago, and the complexity of the melody was at once hypnotic and as elusive as ribbonlike tendrils of smoke curling up from a half-tamped cigarette in a dirty ashtray.  Jaded, world weary, one fully expects this was composed by some middle-aged barfly, yeah?

Not so.  Billy Strayhorn began composing this when he was merely 16.  He performed it at private events and on the strength of this and another composition, Duke Ellington hired him as in-house composer where he could practice his songwriting craft while blending into the background.  Tonically, the structure of this piece is staggering, and I find the poetry of the text to be equally so.  Really?  A 16 year old man wrote "where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life" - elegant, incredibly refined and altogether dolorous.  And the Byronian reference to distingu√© traces? Achingly lovely and sad.  Still, I think Billy was a bold and brave soul, completely open about his homosexuality in an age where that was simply not done.  Bless Duke for giving him a platform from which someone might trumpet his magnificent compositions.  All the same, though, Duke really should have given Billy credit for composing Take the A-Train, Duke's most popular composition.  Billy was never paid a dime of royalties for that one.

Strayhorn was said to have been infuriated with the liberties Nat King Cole took with the song when he recorded Lush Life, layering in a samba beat and botching the exacting poetry of the piece.  How gauche!

Sadly, the song was prophetic, and Billy did live a lush life, dying at the age of 51 as a result of the toll of a lifetime of booze and cigarettes.  My favorite recording of this is of Billy himself singing the piece in 1964, a year before his death.  The ravages of his lifestyle show in his voice and the pitch is iffy here and there, and he was admittedly not a singer, but a songsmith.  I love it.  The wrung-out version fits. 

I used this clip below because Johnny Hartman's vocal is haunting and brilliant, and his vocal production is so amazingly smooth that it's like the finest silk, and it's a wonderful compliment to such a perfectly crafted song. 

Johnny Hartman, vcl
John Coltrane, tenor sax.
Mccoy Tyner, piano
Jimmy Garrison, bass
Elvin Jones, drums
Photo: Dorothea Lange

I used to visit all the very gay places
those come what may places
where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
to get the feel of life
from jazz and cocktails

the girls i knew had sad and sullen gray faces
with distingué traces
that used to be there you could see where
they'd been washed away
by too many through the day
twelve o'clocktails

then you came along with your siren's song
to tempt me to madness
i thought for a while that your poignant smile
was tinged with the sadness
of a great love for me
ah yes i was wrong
again i was wrong

life is lonely again
and only last year
everything seemed so sure
now life is awful again
a trough full of hearts
could only be a bore

a week in paris will ease the bite of it
all i care is to smile in spite of it
i'll forget you i will
and yet you are still
burning inside my brain

romance is mush
stifling those who strive
i'll live a lush
life in some small dive
and there i'll be
while i rot with the rest
of those whose lives are lonely too


Old NFO said...

Good song, and a different era!

Anonymous said...

They don't write music or lyrics like that anymore.
Even Linda Ronstadt did a good cover of it on her Nelson Riddle album.