Thursday, December 08, 2016

And the first song up is . . .

"Makin' Whoopee!" /
Harry Nilsson

Wow. WOW.

In my ongoing adult education class on the wonder that was Harry Nilsson, here's a delicious bit of the syllabus. It comes from an album called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which was released in 1973 and died a quiet death on the charts.

A lushly orchestrated album featuring the Great American Songbook?  We didn't even have the term "Great American Songbook" in 1973. (Top 3 songs in the Billboard charts that year?  "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando and Dawn; "Big Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce; and "Killing Me Softly" by Roberta Flack.)

But Harry Nilsson, a lonely misfit child, had grown up crooning these songs alongside the supportive adults in his fractured family, and they were dear to his heart. That's how he learned to sing (and oh, my lord, how this guy could sing); my heart goes out to him for choosing to resurrect these beautiful songs.

And this is a vintage one. First popularized in 1928 by Eddie Cantor (yes, the Jewish singer who went blackface in the milestone talkie The Al Jolson Story in 1927), it's a sly little number. If you hadn't already guessed, the "whoopee" of the title refers to sexual intercourse. Yes, oh my children, there was once a time when we couldn't even say "making love" in a pop song, let alone "fucking."  (I'm just old-school enough to regret the loss of tasteful euphemisms like this.)
The genius of this cautionary tale, however, is what happens after the aforementioned whoopee is made. Oh, it all starts off all lovey-dovey with a shower of rice and a love nest, but a year later there's diapers hanging on the radiators and both parties gathering evidence for their lawyers. ("She feels neglected / And he's suspected / Of makin' whoopee.")
And yet how tenderly Harry introduces these complications, lagging a hair behind the beat, lightening his dulcet tenor, caressing the syllables with his supple melisma.
It's such a cynical song, a Jazz Age riposte to the platitudes of love and marriage. In 1973 Harry himself had been through the divorce wringer already, and was heading for his second decree. So yeah, a snarky subtext was firmly in place.
But Harry Nilsson was too honest an artist to throw his ex-wives under the bus. While the brittle satire of the 1920s is respected in this song, I still hear groovy Woodstock-era regret shivering through this gorgeous track. I'm all about nuance, and this track has nuance up the wazoo.
Sometimes the shuffle delivers just the track you need.

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