09 May 2007

Tragic Love Songs

Last night, while out watching (and dancing to) my friend Dave Bertiz's band, The Crown City Bombers, in Burbank, I had a chance to sit and talk with their featured singer, Lori DeWitt. I've known Lori for a couple of years; she's a superb singer and I really hope she gets her breakthrough soon, as she certainly deserves it. The Crown City Bombers play rockabilly, which Lori can sing excellently (she did a great job on "Mean Mean Man" and "Jackson"), but her real passion is jazz standards... something we're completely simpatico about. We talked about some of our favorite jazz love songs, and found that my four top one are also among the toppers for her—ones she would love to perform one day: "Solitude" (Duke Ellington), "Haunted Heart" (Arthur Schwartz), "You Go to My Head" (Coots-Gillespie), and "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" (Link-Marvell-Strachey). Any one of these old songs makes contemporary music sound like childish piano plunking. Not only are the melodies infectious, but the lyrics have piercing tragic poignancy.

And this leads me to a subject that I've pondered more than once: Why do jazz love songs excel with tragic love, but have a harder time with joyous, successful love? There are some great upbeat love songs, such as "Our Love Is Here to Stay," but when I go over my list of favorite love tunes, the vast majority (even many uptempo ones) concern lost loves, unsuccessful loves, unrequited loves, unfaithful loves, and (occasionally) murdered loves. Just look at the four I've listed above:

Solitude. The title explains it all. A person alone, haunted by "memories of days gone by," and praying, "Dear Lord above, bring back my love." (By the way, did Duke Ellington ever write a bad song?)

Haunted Heart. This song hurts. Quite strongly. In fact, I always associate this piece with depressing noir writer Cornell Woolrich; it could be the title song for a movie version of Rendezvous in Black. The lyrics are all grim mourning for the "ghost of you, my lost romance… lips that laugh, eyes that dance." The opening line alone is a romantic stake to the heart: "In the night, tho' we're apart, there's a ghost of you inside my haunted heart." Many singers have tackled it, but I don't think anybody has made it ache more than Jo Stafford.

You Go to My Head. This one sounds positive most of time, rhapsodizing about the giddy effect a new love can have. We all know the feeling. But the lyrics eventually pull us from the clouds with the upsetting line: "Still I say to myself, get a hold of yourself, can't you see that it never can be?" And we all know that feeling too. Unfortunately.

These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You). A listener might imagine that the singer is currently in a strong relationship, and his/her heart soars with each little sight that brings memories of the object of affection. (I especially adore the line, "those fumbling words that told you what my heart meant."). But... the lyrics don't carry the overall impression that this is an on-going love affair, but one in the past. And finally, the lyrics make it obvious: "Oh, how the ghost of you clings…" Suddenly, the whole point of the song appears bleakly clear. And so we're back to ghosts and haunting. Love has such strong connections to the undead, apparently.