Thursday, February 06, 2020

"Let's Face the Music and Dance" / Nat King Cole

This track is haunting me everywhere -- in Amazon Prime grocery commercials, in an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as the theme song for the UK mockumentary series Twenty Twelve (starring Hugh Bonneville, about a hapless team staging the 2012 London Olympics). And it resonates deep with me; when I was a kid, my mom was a huge Nat King Cole fan, and I'm betting we had this album (Let's Face the Music, released in 1964 but recorded in 1961).

It's originally an Irving Berlin song, featured in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Follow the Fleet. Here's that version:

Schmaltzy, eh? But here's how Nat King Cole tweaked it:

The tempo's brisk, just this side of breathless, dancing in and out of minor and major keys, as if the singer is tap dancing to save his life. He knows all too well that he's on a knife edge ("There may be trouble ahead") but he's determined to steal what pleasure he can before things go down: "But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance / Let's face the music and dance." In Astaire's hands, that's a gallant romantic invitation, but from Cole, it feels like he's looking over his shoulder, snatching love before the cops close in (or the thug you owe money to, or the white-hooded racists, or the ICBMs with their lethal payloads). The warm snaggy intimacy of Cole's vocals pulls us in, makes us complicit in his quest to escape. The clock is ticking, and he's a man on fire.

Loss and retribution hang over this song like a sword of Damocles. The fiddlers may soon ask us to pay the bill, the moon may abscond and leave us with teardrops to shed. It puts the notion of carpe diem -- live for the moment -- in an entirely new and darker light. The verses are in minor key, yet the melodic lines climb upward, fighting for a chance. And though that bridge shifts into major key, its message is if anything more desperate  -- "soon, we'll be without the moon / Singing a different tune / And then..."

Berlin's song must have resonated differently in 1936, in the depths of the Depression, with escapism and denial the order of the day. Armed with a top hat and tails, Fred Astaire could valiantly ignore the Crash and savor a few more champagne cocktails. In 1961, however, when Cole reprised it, McCarthyism was only just in the rearview mirror, with the Cold War icing up and the great civil rights battle gathering steam. The "trouble ahead" haunts Cole's version way more than it did Astaire's, and dancing in the face of it is a brave, beautiful, but ultimately futile act.

The great songwriters always put more layers into their songs than they realized, and Nat King Cole's reinvention of Irving Berlin's 1930s dance number just may reveal Berlin's genius all the more. Maybe, the black artist who'd fought the music business's rigged system was the only person who could really dig into the darkness felt by an immigrant whose family had escaped Russian pogroms to find freedom in America.

And in a political moment where all our decisions seem freighted with fear --  this may not be the worst anthem for facing the future, whatever it may entail.