Last Friday Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) would have celebrated his 102nd brithday. I was taking a car trip that day and listening to the Sirius XM Sateliite Radio station “40s on 4″ when an old recording of Mercer doing a medley of the songs he’d written came on. On and on it went, a few bars of each, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 songs, 40 songs, “Lazy Bones,” Hooray for Hollywood,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Day in Day Out,” “Fools Rush In,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “”That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Skylark,” ”On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” Accentuate the Positive,” “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and so on in seemingly endless variety and profusion.
The medley reminded me once again of the storytelling ability of our great pop songwriters. If it’s concision you like, nobody did it better than Mercer and his ilk. It being the birthday of another great songwriter today, Hoagy Carmichael, Mercer’s occasional collaborator, I decided to pull out of the vault a post that I’d written two years ago on Mercer’s centennial. So here it is, my effort to salute the gift of one of the great lyricists of all time.
The matchless opening of the song goes like this:
It’s quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place except you and me,
So, set ‘em up, Joe,
I’ve got a little story you oughta know.
Among the most skilled of all storytellers are the lyricists. I’m talking about the men (and a few women) who wrote the words to the popular songs of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – an array of national treasures that have become known collectively as the Great American Songbook. These thoughts are inspired by the centennial next week (Nov. 18) of one of the greatest, Johnny Mercer.
The lyricists of this era were craftsmen of the first rank, and their work offers techniques to anybody who aspires to write a story that others will want to hear. The words above are the opening to “One for My Baby,” a 31-line masterpiece in which a guy’s guy, a fellow of Don Draper-like stoicism, has a few drinks and lets the bartender in a deserted bar know how tough it is when a love affair ends.
Concision, emotion conveyed through symbolism, understatement – Mercer uses all these touchstones of the craft. What Mercer manages to get across is both the tough-guy façade and the deep emotion underneath. How?
It certainly helps to have Frank Sinatra singing Harold Arlen’s bluesy notes. In fact, nowadays it’s nearly impossible not to think of Sinatra as the protagonist in the bar telling this non-tale. But if you go back in time and strip out Sinatra and the music and look only at the words on the page, it’s all there. A good way to do this is to check out Reading Lyrics edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, a marvelous anthology of Tin Pan Alley’s great lyricists.
In Mercer’s dramatic monologue our drinking guy talks all around his problem without ever actually telling the story he says he wants to tell at the beginning. There’s nothing about the baby he broke up with, nothing about the cause of their falling out, nothing about their last words to each other. Drama is carefully avoided. Why? My guess: It’s just too painful to tell the whole story one more time.
So what Mercer gives us is pure emotion – “I’m feelin’ so bad” spun out in variations. There’s the “dreamy and sad music” he wants on the jukebox, the apologetic way he feels for bending the bartender’s ear, the use of the word “baby” – the only sign of tenderness in the song. And there’s only one thing to be done – have another drink. It’s a magnificently suppressed wallow in sadness.
By contrast, Dan Brown and other best-selling authors of his type like to spell it all out for the reader, with bristling adverbs and adjectives. Here’s a key passage from The Lost Symbol in which the protagonist, known as the initiate, gets initiated into something or other:
For an instant, he thought he felt his lungs growing tight, and his heart began to pound wildly. My God, they know! Then as quickly as it came the feeling passed.
This is melodrama – a hyping of emotion in a way that falsifies it – but fortunately in Dan Brown the feeling passes quickly.
Once there was a style of American literary brusqueness – Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a great example – in which the unsaid is as important as the words on the page. In the Hemingway mode the narrator’s suppression of feelings certifies the authenticity of the emotion that seeps between the lines. Bogart as café-owner Rick having a drink in that gin joint in Casablanca is the archetype of the Great American Stoic.
Call me an old softie, but I’ll take my stand any night at 3:00 a.m. with Mercer and Sinatra and Bogie. Yes, please, bartender, make it one for my baby and one more for the road. That long, long road.