Is That All There Is?: sketching 'The Singer's Anatomy' part 2


Time travel, one song, many memories.

Half a lifetime ago I was a young jazz singer dancing madly to the beat of my own hormones, constantly befuddled by the distance between the certain arousal of performance and the opaque uncertainty of real human sexual behaviour. Singing is so much simpler than relationships. The rewards are so much more reliable. I don’t sing to hear the sound of my own voice. I don’t sing for money. I don’t even sing for attention outside of the performance itself. I sing because I can lose myself inside the song. I like the audience because we can get lost together. That’s a pleasure without alloy. The combination of words and melody opens my mind to worlds beyond my experience, beautiful sad worlds where emotion has its reasons and its expression leads down a road to resolution. Capturing the attention of the audience turns that road into a six-lane highway. Turns out I will never understand life with the kind of clarity that I find in songs. Now I feel a wry compassion for that young woman, dancing her dance through such profound cognitive dissonance of the embodied kind.

So my (self-appointed) job all those years ago was to be a dreamer, peddling dreams. The song lyrics I sang in my jazz sets were tidy cameos of the chaotic forces that drive young people out into the night. With their rhymes, metaphors and phraseology matched to sinuous melodies, aching cadences and infectious rhythms, I had hundreds of delightful musical narratives ready to fish out of the drawer of memory and reanimate at will. As a lover of lyrics, for me there was no body of work more engaging, memorable and performable than the Great American Songbook: the songs I learned from my mother’s records. But it was the early 90s, so I was lost in a time loop. I was a stranger to my own time. When we’re young, the hit songs of our own generation help us put a name to the inner sensations that feel so urgent. And songs connect our inside to our outside, assuring us audibly that we share those states with others, with friends and lovers. But down at the Travelodge every Wednesday night I was labouring away with the mythologies of the previous generation. Unintentionally I was summoning up my mother’s dreams and disillusionment in that past present moment, holding a very public discourse with her thwarted desires, even as I revelled in the new age of freedom for women. The forces inside and outside of me were at odds. But as a spectacle it was working. The passion I applied to the task brought those anachronistic stories back to life, and the audiences seemed to enjoy the sense of time travel that was implicit in that reconstitution.

It is arguable that I was so captivated by the old torch songs because they were the remedy my mother applied to assuage her emotional pain. In the first twenty years of marriage she lost three children and was hospitalised for mental health treatment. Her daily struggles lay in a learned mistrust, for the doctors and the neighbours and for her own unreliable senses. She didn’t suffer in silence. She displayed her disillusionment in her voice, in her bodily tension, in her intense, constrained, eccentric manifestations of agency. In 1970 she bought a Peggy Lee album. I was nine. We would listen to the song “Is That All There Is?” together. We listened, very, very closely. It was so exotic, dreamy. Peggy spoke the verses. She told strange stories that went nowhere. The music wound back and forward aimlessly behind her. She threw the choruses away. There were no big notes. No big finish. It stopped with a wheeze and a sigh. Mum started to play it everyday, sometimes more than once. I memorised it, each note. But I didn’t know what it meant. I couldn’t understand it anymore than I could understand my mother. I think I heard it as the landscape of her interior.

“Is That All There Is?” transcends idiom. It’s not a jazz song. There’s no tag, no hook. Just the opposite – it revels in irresolution. It isn’t a statement of petulant angst. I can’t think of any popular song so remote and cool blooded. The verse monologues have a theatrical dimension. If anything the song may echo the cabaret of Brecht and Weill, but decades later. So it is a time traveller too. Its singular nature is the result of mashing up materials across continents and generations. The artistic personnel involved in its creation span three centuries. The song is an adaptation of the famous Thomas Mann story ‘Disillusionment” rendered into a shorter vignette by Brill Building geniuses Leiber and Stoller (writers of ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘On Broadway’ to name a few) arranged insightfully by the brilliant young Randy Newman and performed by the mature Peggy Lee, who’s career was characterised by exquisite taste and restraint. It is one of the oddest achievements in popular song that I know of. And it leans very hard on responses that lie beneath the level of the listener’s awareness. It is deeply, deliciously mysterious to its audience.

‘Is That All There Is’ is an understated masterpiece and it lives in my memory at such an old and significant level that I am going to include it in my Doctoral recital in November. It’s not a song I ever thought I would take to a gig – the arrangement is novel, airy and dense all at once, and the vocal delivery has been so masterfully defined by Peggy Lee - but I’m starting to strategically consider how to perform it. I’ll have to work out what to do without Randy and the orchestra, which is no easy process. And I’m no Peggy – far from it. But I sort of don’t care. I’ll give it my best shot. Much more to the point is that I’m finally ready to unpack how it makes me feel. It touches me. From my childhood at the turntable, to my apprenticeship in jazz and now with the chance to reflect and to write, I find the inner workings of this song are like a marvellous machine, a time machine. I can’t travel back to sooth my sad ruminations or cheer on that zany dancer on stage, but I can listen to these songs again, and weigh up what they have given me.

“Is That All There Is?”

(Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller)

Recorded Peggy Lee 1969

(Spoken)

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.

And when it was all over I said to myself, "Is that all there is to a fire"

(CHORUS Sung)

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing

Let's break out the booze and have a ball

If that's all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth.

There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears. And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads. And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle. I had the feeling that something was missing. I don't know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, "is that all there is to a circus?

(CHORUS Sung)

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing

Let's break out the booze and have a ball

If that's all there is

Then I fell in love, head over heels in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world. We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other's eyes. We were so very much in love. Then one day he went away and I thought I'd die, but I didn't, and when I didn't I said to myself, "is that all there is to love?"

(CHORUS Sung)

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing…

I know what you must be saying to yourselves, if that's the way she feels about it why doesn't she just end it all? Oh, no, not me. I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment, for I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you, when that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself

(CHORUS Sung)

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?

If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing

Let's break out the booze and have a ball

If that's all there is

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