by Jochen Markhorst
Part I: Except Sometimes
Ian Fleming thinks he’s a beautiful man, in any case. Already in his first Bond story, Casino Royale (1953), he compares his famous hero with Hoagy Carmichael through the fatal double agent Vesper Lynd;
“He is very good-looking. He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless in his . . .”
The sentence was never finished. Suddenly a few feet away the entire plate-glass window shivered into confetti.
And two years later, in the third James Bond novel Moonraker, Fleming still finds it an appropriate way to describe the physical attraction of MI5’s most famous employee:
“But he was certainly good-looking. (Gala Brand automatically reached into her bag for her vanity case. She examined herself in the little mirror and dabbed at her nose with a powder puff.) Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
Hoagland Howard Carmichael must have been flattered, but also had to swallow that repeated observation cold, ruthless and cruel. Glamour photos of Carmichael, however, do confirm it; one would indeed be inclined to give him a license to kill. But in the 14 films in which he plays, he usually has insignificant supporting roles (the best known as pianist Cricket in To Have And Have Not, with Bogart and Bacall, 1944, and as nightclub owner in The Best Years Of Our Lives, 1946).
Still, glamour photos and film roles are just the outside part and sideshows, smoke and mirrors. Above all, Hoagy Carmichael is an exceptionally gifted song composer, has created immortal masterpieces (“Lazy River”, “Georgia On My Mind”, “Skylark”) and is also admired by radio broadcaster Dylan:
“He was also one of our greatest songwriters. He wrote “Stardust” in 1927, which some people say is the most recorded American song ever written.” (Episode 28, Sleep, announcing “Two Sleepy People”)
In episode 52 (Young and Old) Dylan goes even further. He plays Hot Lips Pages’ version of Carmichael’s “Small Fry” from 1938, and then muses on Hoagy:
“In 1936, Hoagy went to Hollywood, where, he said, the rainbow hits the ground for composers. One of the most famous songs Hoagy ever wrote, was “Stardust”. And like many songwriters, he wasn’t sure where it really came from. This is what he had to say, the first time he ever heard a recording of “Stardust”: “And then it happened, this queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it at all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters of the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, Maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you.” Hoagy Carmichael on “Stardust”. I know just what he meant.
Dylan’s recognition of Carmichael’s words is sincere. Through the years Dylan expresses in similar terms the almost mystical creation of songs, especially of the Very Great Songs. Such as about “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in the 2004 Rolling Stone interview:
“All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… ‘Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon…’ Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic.
And in 2020, he is still amazed, in the New York Times interview, about “I Contain Multitudes” (“It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state”).
Thanks to the Basement Tapes Complete, the listener occasionally witnesses such a magical event – in “I’m Not There” and “Sign On The Cross”, for example, astonishing songs that Dylan indeed seems to pluck from the air, while recording them. Music and Dylan connoisseur Garth Hudson, who, as a band member and recording director down there in the Basement, has an unrivalled view of this process, confirms that impression.
In the moving Rolling Stone documentary (November 2014), in which he visits the Big Pink again for the first time in almost fifty years, the old Hudson slowly shuffles around, sits musing at the piano and shares his memories, including about “Sign On The Cross”:
“Bob didn’t like to sing the same song over and over again. Sounds to me like he did make up songs on the spot. (…). I think “Sign On The Cross” was done in real time. Both the composition and the execution thereof.”
But that’s not how it goes with one of Dylan’s most beautiful songs from the 80’s, one of the highlights on his umpteenth come-back album Oh Mercy: “Most Of The Time”.
The lyrics are written well before the music, and they certainly do not twirl down to the earthly receiver from some sort of transcendental, poetic seventh heaven. The line to one of Hoagy Carmichael’s most beautiful songs, and one of the most beautiful love songs of the twentieth century at all, is easily drawn: “I Get Along Without You Very Well” from 1938.
“I Get Along Without You Very Well” is an exceptional song with an equally unusual genesis. Carmichael wrote the song as early as 1938, but it will be some time before the public will hear it on the radio. This has everything to do with Hoagy’s ethics; it does take some time before he has tracked down the author of the original lyrics, one Jane Brown Thompson. And he does not want to release the song without her consent. In the end he engages an old friend, popular radio commentator Walter Winchell, who is willing to help him. On Sunday 27 November 1938 Winchell makes his first appeal:
Attention, poets and songwriters!
Hoagy Carmichael, whose songs you love, has a new positive hit — but he cannot have it published. Not until the person who inspired the words communicates with him and agrees to become his collaborator… I hope that person is a listener now.
Winchell then mentions a few hits by Hoagy Carmichael, quotes from the poem in question, “Except Sometimes”, and concludes by issuing a call: “If you wrote those lines in a poem, tell your Uncle Walter, who will tell his Uncle Hoagy, and you may become famous.”
About a month later, after repeated calls, it is successful: two former employees of the now disbanded magazine Life (another, not the long-established journal of the same name, the world-renowned Life) trace the now 71-year-old widow in a nursing home. She signs a contract (promising her “3¢ a copy on the ditty”) but she will not experience the success of the song; Mrs. Brown-Thompson dies a month later.
Jane Brown (not yet married) writes the beautiful poem “Except Sometimes” in 1924. It is published in this magazine Life, but without her name; the poem is attributed to “JB”.
I get along without you very well, Of course I do. Except sometimes when soft rain falls, And dripping off the trees recalls How you and I stood deep in mist One day far in the woods, and kissed. But now I get along without you – well, Of course I do.
… is the first verse (of the two). An acquaintance of Carmichael does see music in it and passes it on to Hoagy. It ends up in a drawer, but somewhere at the end of the thirties the songwriter happens to see it again. This time it inspires him, and the poem text ends up almost word-for-word in the final song:
I get along without you very well, Of course I do, Except when soft rains fall And drip from leaves, then I recall The thrill of being sheltered in your arms. Of course, I do. But I get along without you very well.
Both equally heartbreaking, elegant and melancholic. Not because of the theme heartbreak itself, obviously, but because of its elaboration – the transparent, despondent denial of heartbreak.
It is an irresistible approach and it is gratefully copied in variants. Jay Lerner writes “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” for My Fair Lady (1956), “but I shall never take her back”, “I’m Not In Love”, the world hit for 10cc in 1975, House Of Love’s “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” (1989, with the put-down that even Dylan might envy: “I don’t know why I love you / your face is a foreign fruit”)… songs in which the protagonist against his better judgement tries to tell himself that he does not miss her, does not love her, never does think about her… most of the time, anyway.
To be continued. Next up: Most Of The Time part II – “I don’t even think about him”
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
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