Monday, December 31, 2012

Song Lyric of the Day (Jimmy Webb, on Bitter Wine and Wasted Lives)

“That precious wine you're tasting will be bitter when you're done
It's your life you're wasting
Don't you think it's sad you had to start so young?” —“This Is Your Life,” music and lyrics by Jimmy Webb (1969)

Shortly after seeing the excellent concert at the Bergen Performing Arts Center by Jimmy Webb (with headiner Judy Collins) (see my review from a few weeks ago), I glanced over the bio on his Web site. Though many of the songs listed there were ones I was familiar with (“MacArthur Park,” “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”), one in particular caught my eye: “This Is Your Life.” I wondered why I had never heard of it, particularly since it wasn’t performed by some obscure group but by the Fifth Dimension, at their hit-making height in the late Sixties. What it was like?

Through Spotify and YouTube, I was able to find out. In the four-decade discography of Webb, this tune ranks among the most unusual, with no striking image either to grab listeners by the lapels or leave them bewildered (“someone left the cake out in the rain,” from “MacArthur Park”). “This Is Your Life,” ostensibly about someone else—the person the narrator loves—feels like one of the most introspective of Webb’s great pop songs. It’s a no-looking-away summing-up, an urgent appeal to start a new life now. It’s not a bad way to end a year—tallying the costs, and rededicating one’s self to a better life.

As far as I can tell, the first artist to cover Webb’s song was Thelma Houston (“the most prodigious talent I have ever encountered,” according to the songwriter), on her debut LP, Sunshower. It didn’t provide her with the massive hit she would have several years later in the disco era, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Nor did it become one for the other artists, in addition to the Fifth Dimension, who recorded it: The Revells, Norman Connors (featuring Eleanor Mills), and Billy Paul.

Webb has spoken of the importance of a good title to a song, and he’s sometimes borrowed one out in the popular culture if it fits the mood of his tune, such as sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. (Titles cannot be copyrighted, which is why you have Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jackson Browne.) Growing up in the Fifties, Webb would have been extremely familiar with a TV documentary series called This Is Your Life, in which host Ralph Edwards surprised a guest, taking him or her through memorable moments of their lives in front of a live audience.

The title may have lingered in the songwriter’s mind, but this song is an ironic inversion of the frequently sentimental TV show. It speaks of a character who’s a “runaround,/ The worst one in our end of town.” He is throwing his life away, “the only one you’ve got.”

In lush, orchestral pop music, one song comes the closest to the spirit of “This Is Your Life”: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Alfie.” The same theme underlies each song: the meaning of a life, i.e., “What’s it all about?”

“This Is Your Life” offers no reason why the narrator loves the one being addressed.  In fact, it springs to life the most when it is angriest. I’ve come to think that it’s not simply written in the second person, but in a form that might be called “the accusatory you”—i.e., to one’s self.  If you want a sense of what it sounds like, turn to a novel written, remarkably, entirely in this form: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

The line about “that precious wine you're tasting will be bitter when you're done” hit me with special force because, in his BergenPAC concert, Webb mentioned that he had been 11 years sober since the last Thanksgiving. Webb was young when he wrote this song, only 23, but he was already running with a fast crowd in the entertainment community at the time. (Who on earth could keep up with his “MacArthur Park” interpreter, Richard Harris, in those years?) The title of a semi-autobiographical Broadway musical he was unsuccessfully attempting to launch speaks volumes about his state of mind around this time:  His Own Dark City.

Long before the carousel stops, many addicts sense that the riotous living has to stop—and wonder about the emptiness that their craving can’t assuage—but they are powerless to make a change then. “This Is Your Life” strikes me as one of these moments of quick but blinding self-realization—a thought reinforced by seeing how the song worked in its original context on the Thelma Houston album (which Webb produced for Dunhill Records, and for which he wrote all but one song). According to a perceptive piece by Matthew Weiner for Stylus Magazine, it formed part of a mini-suite on her LP along with the similarly introspective songs “Pocketful of Keys” and “This Is Where I Came In.”

After listening to four versions of the song, I agree with a blog post by music and entertainment writer Rashod Ollison of the Virginian-Pilot that “no one has pierced the lyric” the way that the version by Billy Paul (most famous, of course, for “Me and Mrs. Jones”) does. It’s a passionate outcry, in the same searing sense that anger directed against one’s self, in the deepest recesses of the heart, can be. It contains all the pained knowledge packed into the final line of McInerney's novel about a young, substance-abusing "runaround": "You will have to learn everything all over again."
(Photo shows Jimmy Webb performing live at The Bottom Line in New York City, August 24, 2003.)

Quote of the Day (Richard Wilbur, on the ‘Dying of the Year’)

“Now winter downs the dying of the year,  
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show  
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,  
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin  
And still allows some stirring down within.”—Richard Wilbur, “Year’s End

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Flashback, December 1777: Desperate Valley Forge Winter Begins

As 2012 draws to a close, breathless news reports have interrupted regular TV programming with updates on the inability of Congress and President Obama to avert a “fiscal cliff.” As problematic as this is, however, this situation is not a threat to the American republic itself. Such was not the case 235 years ago, when George Washington and the Continental Army settled into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Penn. The soldiers felt far more than the general anxiety afflicting American taxpayers and the financial market now.

From their commander on down, the patriot forces had come to expect redcoat attacks when they were least anticipated. Such had been the case three months earlier, at the Battle of Brandywine, when the British had crossed a ford believed to be impassable and had surprised the inexperienced colonials from behind. What they could not foresee, as Washington reached the site on the 19th and directed his men to build huts immediately, was that, even before they saw another redcoat uniform, they would suffer through some of the worst hardships and death rate of the entire American Revolution.  

The national park that now occupies the site of the Continental Army’s third winter encampment is a kind of secular shrine for Americans. Yet no major battle was fought here, and over time myths have accrued as to what happened here.

I was disabused of one of these right at the visitor center when I visited the park in late October. Like many people, my image of Valley Forge consisted of patriot soldiers huddling close to fires as they sought to stave off freezing to death. Yet a park ranger informed me that a later encampment, the second one at Morristown, N.J., faced far lower temperatures—the worst in a century.

In a way, comparatively warmer temperatures worked to Valley Forge’s disadvantage. Solid snow and ice at Morristown enabled crucial supplies to make it through, so that fewer than 100 deaths occurred. At Valley Forge, though, thaws and rain created massive mud ruts that delayed the shipment of desperately need food. Moreover, the mud exacerbated problems with the army’s exposed latrines, spreading disease (typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia) throughout the camp.

The result: 1,800 enlisted men out of 10,000 died in five months.

Had this been the entire story of Valley Forge, however, the revolution—and with it, the United States—would have perished on the spot. Valley Forge became so important to American history for three other reasons:

11) It marked the beginning of French involvement in the war. (The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette and engineer Pierre L’Enfant—later, the architect of Washington, D.C.—were stationed here, and the treaty of alliance between the U.S. and France was toasted before the end of the encampment.)
22)      It represented the true birthplace of the American Army. (An immigrant from Frederick the Great’s vaunted Prussian Army, Baron von Steuben, arrived to train the Continentals.)
33)      It demonstrated why Washington was the indispensable leader of the early republic. (He might have been a weak strategist, but his organizational ability, recognition of young talent, and persuasive appeals to Congress kept the army intact at its nadir.)

Location was central to the camp’s existence. Eighteen miles from Philadelphia, Valley Forge was close enough to the recently captured patriot capital so that Washington could carefully monitor British troop movements. At the same time, the rural village's high ground, Washington and his general staff decided, would permit an adequate defense.

Contemporary Valley Forge would have seemed an unimaginably strange place to Washington and his troops. Just beyond the range of the 3,600 national historic park loom the highways and office parks associated with this Philadelphia suburb. On the rainy day of my visit, joggers made their way around the arc associated with Washington’s encampment. Tourists of every conceivable ethnicity (including Asia) stopped and peered at the plaques and statues along the way.

The park was quiet the day of my visit. Two hundred and thirty-five years ago, it would have been a different story, as the air would have  been filled with the sounds of men building huts that, according to General Washington’s own specifications, could contain a dozen soldiers each. (They were very busy with the building, since the commander-in-chief had promised to award “the party in each regiment” that constructed the huts quickest with $12 each.)

However, one point on the habitation’s map—Mount Joy—would have seemed like an obscene joke. The name of another—Mount Misery—would have been far more like it.  It wasn’t only that the soldiers' diet of "firecake" (a mixture of flour and water), often minus meat or bread, was tasteless and unvaried. In addition, one-quarter of Washington’s troops were deemed “unfit for duty”—i.e., barefoot or badly clad. Area residents at the time were not pleased to find Continental soldiers foraging for provisions on their land, seeing their fences and woodlots used for shelters, and especially their livestock and grain commandeered.

Under these dire conditions, Washington doubted he could continue to field the army. “[U]nless some great and capital change suddenly takes place... this Army must inevitably... starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can," he warned Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, only four days after arriving at the encampment.

That the army did not collapse was due, in no small measure, to the general himself. He persuaded a committee of the Continental Congress to come to the encampment, where they could see for themselves the impact of the food crisis on the men. That made them far more agreeable to Washington’s goal of creating an American army whose members would not bolt and run at the first opportunity (including pensions for soldiers).

The army that emerged from Valley Forge in June 1778 was considerably different from the one that entered it. They were better trained, more self-confident, with a major European power as an ally—and united by the privations they had endured.

(The photo I took accompanying this post depicts a replica of one of the log huts built at Valley Force.)  

Quote of the Day (Michael Irvin, on God’s ‘Threshing Floor’)

“You know the Bible speaks of a healing place. It's called a threshing floor. The threshing floor is where you take your greatest fear and you pray for help from your great God…. When I am on that threshing floor, I pray….

“My heart cried out, 'God, why must I go through so many peaks and valleys?'...

“At that moment a voice came over me and said, 'Look up, get up, and don't ever give up.' You tell everyone or anyone that has ever doubted, thought they did not measure up or wanted to quit, you tell them to look up, get up and don't ever give up.”—Retired Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, Professional Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech, August 4, 2007

During his playing days, I was not a fan of the hugely talented but troubled Michael Irvin. On the gridiron, he might have been a threat to score from anywhere or at any point, but off the field he faced a string of drug-related charges that made him seem the epitome of a spoiled-rotten player.

Several years ago, after he had retired from pro football, I read that he was trying to turn his life around. His recovery from substance abuse, it seems, continues. And, in Eli Saslow’s fascinating and moving article in ESPN Magazine, I learned how Irvin had agonized for weeks over his address at Canton five years ago—looking past the safe litany of thank-yous to fully vent his sorrow over so often failing his family.

We might not have come to Irvin’s particular extremity, but all of us, at one point or another, are driven to the threshing floor (a phrase, interestingly, that appears not in the King James Version of the Bible, but the New International Version—notably, in 2 Samuel 24, where King David purchases one as a site for the temple). At that point, we can draw strength from the words that reassured Irvin: Look up, get up, and don't ever give up.

Even if it means picking up our own personal crosses again, to be carried for who knows how long.