Spring has sprung! And I'm feeling rather like the dramatis personae in yet another of those "problematic" pictures, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (although, personally, I far prefer the director's cut, Fourteen Brides for Fourteen Brothers):
Oh, the barnyard is busy
In a regular tizzy
And the obvious reason
Is because of the season
Ma Nature's lyrical
With her yearly miracle
Spring, Spring, Spring...
In Spring a young man's fancy turns to songs about a young man's fancy. Not that you have to be homo sapiens to feel the old sap rising come mating season:
All the hen-folk are hatchin'
While their menfolk are scratchin'
To ensure the survival
Of each brand new arrival
Each nest is twitterin',
They're all baby-sitterin'
Spring, Spring, Spring...
That's Johnny Mercer and Gene De Paul in their score for Seven Brides... Out of the barnyard, alas, the whole business gets a little more fraught. Rare is the fellow who can sing, as Barry White and his Love Unlimited Singers did in the Seventies, that "It May Be Winter Outside But In My Heart It's Spring". The inverse is more common: it may be spring outside, but in my heart it's winter. After all, when the flowers bloom and the trees blossom, a young man's fancy isn't always reciprocated - unless (according to Johnny Mercer, a gazillion choruses later in "Spring, Spring, Spring") you have the fortune to be romantically self-contained:
To itself each amoeba
Softly croons, 'Ach du liebe'...
Ingenious. But for those not so blessed it is not a time to be lovelorn:
Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year
A little late arriving
In my lonely world over here
For you have left me...
Frank Loesser veers closer to self-pity than most good writers allow themselves but it's saved by the central idea: Like "The nights are drawing in", the title is one of those handful of dreary weather observations which pepper our conversation. Yet, sung, the banality becomes rueful and reflective, and an example of how clichés are revitalized simply by being set to music. Lorenz Hart, whose most affecting love ballads are all about being unloved, tackled the same subject in "Spring Is Here" ("Why doesn't the breeze delight me?"), distilling the essence of romantic desolation into one final line full of pathos:
Spring Is Here - I hear.
But would these pitiful characters feel they ought to be in love if so many songs hadn't told them they should be? Hart himself was as cynical about paeans to spring fever as any pop hack. After the Anschluss, he was asked to amend the Robert Stolz song "Spring In Vienna". Its US publishers felt that under its new Nazi management the Austrian capital no longer merited such effusions from American singers. Having no desire to put himself through the trouble of rewriting couplets like "Dew on the grass/Beer in the glass", Hart simply selected another three-syllable brewing town and altered the title to "Spring In Milwaukee".
A lot of seasonal songs are like that: general and portable. But there's one springtime tune I'm very partial to. It's one of Ella Fitzgerald's best ever records:
Spring this year has got me feeling
Like a horse that never left the post
I lie in my room
Staring up at the ceiling
Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most...
Isn't that just the most? The title has, to state the obvious, dated, but its retro cool somehow suits the situation, which is why the song seems to get a little bigger every year.
Where did it come from? Well, as you might guess, it's from the jazz world. There's a whole bunch of songs that aren't from Broadway or Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley, but which emerged from clubs in the Fifties, when it was hip to be hep, to quote Dave Frishberg, who, with Bob Dorough and Annie Ross and a handful of others, wrote a lot of the catalogue in what was for a while a thriving sub-genre. In this case, the writers were Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman. I've known Fran and her husband, and her son, and her nephew, and her ex-daughter-in-law, and her ex-daughter-in-law's girlfriend, and probably a few other members of the Landesman clan at various points over the years. She's one of those people who's the central link in an unlikely global network. But "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" dates from the dawn of her career. Fran was born in New York in 1927 and in 1950 moved to St Louis with her husband, Jay Landesman. Jay was one of life's natural hipsters and, although he was supposedly in Missouri to work in the family antiques business, he and his brother Fred wound up opening a club called the Crystal Palace. There, in 1952, sitting at the bar, Fran began writing lyics. She was very taken by a line from T S Eliot:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
What would "April is the cruellest month" be rendered into hep-cat talk? Fran mulled it over and came up with:
Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.
That is yet another demonstration of Ira Gershwin's rule:
Once you've it
So Fran did. She took her title, placed it at the end of the phrase, and proved it – beautifully:
Morning's kiss wakes trees and flowers
And to them I'd like to drink a toast
I walk in the park
Just to kill the lonely hours
Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most...
For the tune, she turned to the piano player at the Crystal Palace, Tommy Wolf. He did a wonderful job: it's a melody full of ache and yearning, and it's full of harmonic interest, too - which is why it attracts as many instrumental as vocal recordings. I like the way, even without the words, the tune stays true to the lyric: it strains to soar, but keeps getting pulled down to earth – way down, in that last deep note on Ella's recording.
One day George Shearing came into the club, heard the song, and asked what it was. They told him, and he took a tape of half-a-dozen songs back to New York with him, and that's why we know "Spring Can Really Hang You Up" today. Shearing gave "Spring", somewhat counter-intuitively, to Jerri Winters - and also to Jackie & Roy, who were a terrific duo in the Fifties and looking for material for their new act. This did the trick:
From that first recording it went to Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter and then to Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and Rickie Lee Jones and on and on, including just a year or two back to an old friend of Steyn's Song of the Week, Manhattan Transfer's Cheryl Bentyne:
Female vocalists love the song, and male singers have tended to steer clear (although Lou Rawls gave it a crack). But something about the melodic character and the rueful lyric tends to keep it on the distaff side; it's not showy, but it's very insinuating:
Love seems sure around the New Year
Now it's April love is just a ghost
Spring arrived on time
Only what became of you, dear?
Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most...
What became of Fran, dear? Her husband, Jay, was a versatile beatnik. By day he was editing a magazine called Neurotica; by night he was running the Crystal Palace, and introducing St Louis to up-and-coming talent such as Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Stiller and Meara; and somewhere in between he wrote a roman à clef about his friendship with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He called it The Nervous Set, and Fran and Tommy Wolf turned it into a musical, and it was a hit in St Louis, and then they took it to Broadway, rubbed a few too many rough edges off, and it didn't do so well, but Richard Rodgers, among others, liked it very much.
By the time I knew the Landesmans, they were living in London. Their son Cosmo was a dapper man about town: he was, back then, the film critic of The Sunday Times and a contributor to The Spectator, but you wouldn't have been surprised, from the cut of his suit, to hear he was something big in the City. I assumed the bespoke thing arose as a child's rebellion against his parents, who by then were quaintly bohemian. As Cosmo wrote of them:
By the time Flower Power came around, they were in the twilight world of middle-age. Their hair became longer, their dress became wilder, the drugs got stronger and marriage became more experimental. I tried to get them to stay at home more instead of rushing round to pop festivals ...and I warned them about the friends they ran around with. The thing that upset me most was their dress and appearance. I can remember when I first thought of having them committed to the Institute for the Criminally Dressed. It was Parents' Day at school. They arrived looking like two hippies who had failed the audition for the musical Hair. Mother wore a purple Afghan coat that from a distance looked like a seasick piece of mutton. She was wearing enough bits of glass beads and jewellery to resemble Brighton beach after a bank holiday rumble. Dad came with his long hair, mirror-lens sun glasses: the pièce de resistance of this visual cacophony was not the orange rudiments of a shirt, but the black plastic trousers. In those days the only people who wore them were industrial workers and the insane. My classmates stared in disbelief as I shrivelled in horror.
Fran and I had a mutual interest in showtunes. So, every so often, they'd call up and we'd go hear Steve Ross at Pizza On The Park or some such, and Cosmo would bring along his wife, Julie Burchill, who's now la grande dame of Fleet Street columnists but back then was running with Toby Young a publication called The Modern Review, to which I occasionally contributed. In London, Julie's loved and hated, but for a rock'n'roll gal she's very well informed about the pre-Elvis stuff: she gave me one of the sweetest gifts I've ever received – a copy of a long out-of-print autobiography by Sam Coslow, the man who wrote "Cocktails For Two", that I treasure to this day. As for Fran, she doesn't have the disdain that a lot of that milieu had for their mainstream predecessors: we once had a long conversation about what a marvelous song Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "No One But Me" is. She considered it one of Hammerstein's "wildest" lyrics.
It was never very clear to me quite how they supported themselves. Jay wrote a very groovy memoir - Jay Walking - and they lived in a big if somewhat chaotic house in North London. I said to Fran I liked it very much and she said none of her old New York pals did. "It's a Jew-proof house," she laughed. "They won't stay here. It's the lack of carpet." Well, maybe. Yet, when I went by for what I'd assumed was a small drinks party I'd find that, say, Paul Schrader, the director of Cat People and American Gigolo and screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, had also dropped by, and there was a big movie crowd there. And then I'd head to New York and bump into them at Broadway openings of plays produced by their nephew, Rocco Landesman, who ran the third biggest group of theatres on the Great White Way.
It's quite a trick to be the link between George Shearing and Julie Burchill and Martin Scorsese. My only disappointment was that Fran no longer wrote songs. "Spring" and "The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men" and a couple of other Landesman lyrics were still widely sung, but Tommy Wolf had died, relatively young, in the Seventies, and, though Fran had written with Richard Rodney Bennett, Steve Allen (from "The Tonight Show") and a couple of other composers, she'd wearied of the lack of regular access to every good lyric's first requirement: a good tune. "I write poetry now," she told me. "If anyone wants to set them to music, they're welcome." In recent years, a lot of folks have. There's an unknown song of hers I especially like - "Photographs", with music by Alec Wilder. A while back I gave a lead sheet to my chum Monique Fauteux, one of the great treasures of Quebec music, and if you happened to be at the Upstairs club in Montreal back when live music was not a criminal activity, you'll have heard Monique give a wonderful and all too rare performance of a Landesman ballad that deserves to be in the standard repertoire. Here's Mary Foster Conklin's take on a song that's very post-vernal - rather autumnal, in fact; rummaging through old photographs of "me in love with you":
But "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" belongs in a category all its own. On the Internet, Powerline's Scott Johnson celebrates the song every year round about the vernal equinox, and points out that, if "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" descends from "April is the cruellest month", that line in turn descends from Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote", which puts six centuries of history behind one of the mid-20th century's slow-burn standards. The Landesmans are a couple of curious footnotes to American pop culture, who had a go at a whole bunch of things and did some of them well. But this song is for the ages - and is a rare standard with a full second set of lyrics that matches the first:
All alone, the party's over
Old man winter was a gracious host
But when you keep praying
For snow to hide the clover
Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.
Indeed. Happy spring - and don't get hung up.
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