A surprising connection

OK, many of you are going to get mad at me for this, but I can’t help it. This is something that I’ve noticed and need to talk about.

Today I was at a lovely outdoor picnic and concert on Governor’s Island. I didn’t like the singer all that much. In his banter between songs he would invoke the name of Woodie Guthrie, as though the songs we were hearing were somehow keeping alive the great flame of American folk music. But when he sang, I swear it sounded like Glen Campbell trying to imitate Jackson Browne. And that’s just disturbing.

But before the singer came on, the organizers of the event were piping music through the P.A. system while everyone was setting up. And the music they happened to pick was a Nick Drake compilation. Now, I happen to think there that Nick Drake was one of the great lights of modern popular music. There was something about him that defies all categories. Sure, he had that whole edgy loner thing going, but there was much more to it than that.

It’s as though Drake was listening to a voice from the other side, sad echoes from an afterlife, and transcribing what he heard. His wistful vocal style and strange open-string guitar chords completely redefined how a song can sound, evoking a feeling of intimate and casually relaxed tragedy – “freak folk” decades before that term even existed. Sadly, he soon did go over to that other side, leaving the world with only a handful of powerfully strange and heartbreaking tracks to remember him by.

OK, so here’s the part where I might freak people out. For several hours after the concert I continued to hang out with my friends, having a great time. Yet something kept nagging at the back of my head, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. A sound, a snatch of melody, some sort of elusive connection.

And then, when I got home this evening, I had an odd craving. Like when you just have to have pickles, and you don’t even like pickles. But suddenly you realize, crazy as it seems, that today you must have pickles!

So I went to YouTube, looking for the scene in the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor in which a young Debbie Reynolds sings the title song Tammy (written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston).

OK, call me crazy, but you can see it all, right there. The wistful romanticism, the casually intimate tragic longing, that you hear in Drake’s songs. Notice, for example, the moment at 1:02 in the video when Reynolds, singing the line “Wish I knew if he knew what I’m dreamin’ of” holds the high note for just an extra moment on the word “of”. That’s pure Nick Drake.

I realize that this is blasphemy. I mean we’re talking about Debbie Reynolds here, in a Hollywood musical. It doesn’t get any less cool or un-edgy than that. But nonetheless, there is a clear aesthetic line waiting to be drawn from this performance to, say, Drake singing Pink Moon.

I hear this connection clearly, as strange as it is, and it tells me that there are some qualities, some universals in how we respond to songs of yearning, which transcend even the largest shifts in fashion and culture.

So sue me.

Leave a Reply