Friday, October 05, 2012

The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Gretting m'dearios, and "Hoo-Hah!" as a certain blind man once said in a film.
But little did they know that Mr.Pacino's Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade character was closely modelled on Blind Pew.
Not The Blind Pugh, no, he's too famous, 'course it's not him, it is in fact me ol' shipmate, Blind (Barney McGrew PepĂ© Le) Pew.
Neptune bless 'im.
He's a man famous for being both blind, and having a rancid stench to him.
"Hoo-Hah!" was an exclamation he once made when Mog took a dislike to his kitbag and sprayed on it (this was before Mog was done and he was powerful foul).
It must have been summat to grab the nostril hairs o' Barney though, he pongs somethin' terrible.
Oh yes, mighty powerful.
Who'd have thought it.
Sometimes the unexpected susprise can come from the most unlikely places.


It isn't often one can be taken by surprise by something one hasn't even got a scooby about . . however, this week I was.
There I was as usual at my command post, scrutinising all the new release info that was coming in (and you'd better believe that the record industry isn't dead!) when I encountered an album by an artist I had never heard of. Now that seems a tad trite and big-headed of me, however I have been looking at books on music since I was about 14, working professionally in it since the mid-80's, and I've handled literally hundreds of thousands of albums in working in a stock room, so it is unusual to encounter a name I have never read.
The chaps name was Eden Ahbez (or eden ahbez as he felt Capitals should only be used for God and Infinity) and he is responsible for writing one of the all time classic crooner songs.
Now don't get turned off when I mention crooners . . sure, unfortunately, the likes of the X-Factor and 'celebrity' singers discovering a new cool, have shat all over the memory, but when you scrub away the mucky bits and get down to the real deal, you are often talking about seriously powerful and moving music. My favourite crooner, probably because he was my Mum and Dad's, is Sir Nat 'King' Cole, and my favourite song by him is 'Nature Boy'.
The title might not mean much, but the lyrics will:

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far
Over land and sea

A little shy

And sad of eye

But very wise 
Was he

And then one day 
A magic day he passed my way 
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me:

"The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved in return"

"The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return"

Ah, yes, that one!
It has been covered by the greats, it's been used as a theme, and basically, like every Beatles song ever written,  it has become a part of the Western World's collective psyche.
Mr.Cole and the wonderful sound recordists at Capitol Records in the 1940's did an incredible job of capturing the feel of the song.
Now you might ask what has that got to do with my new musical discovery, Mr.abhez?
Well, he wrote it.
Not only did he write it, but upon further reading I found out that he lived it!
To get a feel for how much of a forward thinker eden and his kind were you have to jump into your time machine and head back to 1930's and 40's America.
A place on the cusp of the future, where men were men, women were women and the social scene ran the gamut from huge poverty and unemployment through to people who lived lives of undreamed luxury; from the bread line to the cinema line; from the handout to Norman Rockwell perfection. During this time America seems to have been a place dreams and extremes.
Into this world of short hair and conformity, you have to imagine a group of (mostly) men wandering. Not just any men either but men who eschewed conformity and wore sandals and sported shoulder length hair (! - can you imagine . . . in the 1940's!).
People who walked everywhere in a land of automobiles.
Raw food vegetarians in the land where the short order cook was king.
People who turned their backs on society and the way it had become, who yearned for an earlier and simpler time; a time with the romanticising of itself based firmly in the roots of German alternative lifestyles from the 19th Century.
The Nature Boys.
These were individuals with a healthy interest in (obviously) nature, naturism, vegetarianism, the outdoor life and all things that harkened back to a semi-mythical past lost in the misty Dawn of Time, where man lived from hand to mouth in commune with the world.
It was a form of idealism, but an idealism that is possibly just there in everyone's core.
Maybe you aren't like me and am wondering what the hell I am going on about, but it is possible that you might have had a similar 'naturistic' encounter when you were very young and have maybe forgotten it.
I remember being about the age of six or seven and being buried in goose grass by my sister and feeling such a kinship with the warm earth beneath my back and the grass and insects and sky and just darn everything that I forgot everyone was looking for me.
I was deep in the grip of the bones of the land.
Auld Caledonia had reached up through the soil and roots and stone and taken my heart.
So overcome was I by this feeling of oneness with the land that I just lay there, until the sounds of the alarmed shouting of my name shook me from my reverie. 
In the words of Rolf Harris, I  " . . scared the wits out of me Mum and Dad"
Anyway, I haven't looked back . .
I would call myself a Nature Boy, but without the naturism, and actually without the raw veg too.
So rewind again, to a California in the 1940's, a land of seeming plenty with an abundance of sun and fruit. Sorry if that sounds trite, but California at the time, and rather like today, seems to have become a magnet for people who wished to pursue an alternative lifestyle. As well as (if you've ever read The Grapes Of Wrath . . God I love that book) a refuge from the horrors of Dust Bowl America, the deep grip of the Depression, and, even then, the gripping wrench of loan foreclosure.
The inclement weather seemed to prove beneficial to health.
There was a burgeoning arts scene.
Space and lonely canyons abounded, and people could effectively 'drop out' of society with no one noticing. Sounds idylic doesn't it!
Nature Boys as they were colloquially known, were spotted in California from sometime around the 1930's onwards.
Jack Kerouac mentions seeing one in 'On the Road' from 1948.
Now if you are a slightly foward thinking mind, you can see where all this bare-footed nature loving stuff is going can't you . . yep . . . hippy. Predating a life and society changing movement by some 20 years.
Anyway, this is an aside from our eden, who whilst having worked as a musician in Kansas City and New York, gave that up and made the long walk West, eventually ending up playing piano at the Eutropheon,  a raw food restaurant and whole food store on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
The owners of the Eutropheon were the Richters, a pair of German immigrants influenced by a counter-culture from the homeland involving healthy food, sunshine, labour and generally a feeling of how essential it is for humans to live a life as close to nature as possible. **
Without getting into the land of obscurity (you can if wish read a full and in-depth scholarly and well-written breakdown of the roots of this in the link at the bottom of the page) eden married and settled into the outdoor life in the land of golden sunsets.

eden and family

In 1947, by chance and prompting, he handed the score and lyrics to 'Nature Boy' to Nat 'King' Cole's manager whilst Nat was playing the Lincoln Theater in L.A.
Nat loved it and featured it initially during encores and then as part of his main set.
You can hear why really - it is such an unusual, almost ethereal song.
The lyrics, combined with Nat's wonderful voice just make for a very timeless listen.
The use of brass and strings at the start build you quickly into thinking it will be a traditional crooner-style tune, but the use of flute throughout the recording give it the lone-faun-playing-on-a-mountainside-in-the-days-of-yore effect (if you know what I mean) and this gives the song its ethereal and dreamy air, and then when Nat reprises the melody on his piano with the strings and then the Gypsy violin joins in briefly, you are brought back down the mountain to a land of plenty where everything is all right with the world.
The cheeky flute just seals the deal and maybe reminds you that if you want to head back up the mountain and give in to the call of nature in your heart, then you too can return to the land of dreams.
It really is a masterful arrangement.
But the lyrics are its heart.
They are a powerful message that can still hold you, and to me are one of those 'touched by the hand of God' moments.
It is all over in 2 minutes 54 seconds and maybe your world is a better place for it.
Underlying parts of the melody are apparently Jewish and rather old, though eden claimed to have heard it "in the mist of the California mountains", but for all this, the song still initiated a court case of plagairism resulting in an out of court settlement of $25,000 - the equivalent of over $193,000 in 2012 terms!

1948 . . just remember that

In order to record the song, Nat and his management had to find eden, which they did . . . eventually.
He was living the life of a Nature Boy (some would call it being a hobo and sleeping rough . . but that's a digression) camped up under the Hollywood Sign with his wife and son.
And of course the song was a hit. It stayed at the top of the Billboard Charts for eight consecutive weeks in 1948.
And those really were the days of record sales - that must have been a hell of a lot of records.
One wonders where the publishing rights went to and whether eden saw any of it. He is still credited as writer on all the Nat compilations I have seen, though strangely the copyright dates from 1963 . . .
Anyway, eden carried on regardless of the fame; made his own music; still lived like a Nature Boy; was courted by musical cognoscenti, but ultimately drifted into the land of obscurity.
Life wasn't really kind to eden though. It almost seems like his fame, his contact with the secular world, tainted his life and destroyed the dream.
His wife died in 1963 and his son drowned in 1972.
eden himself died in 1995 at the age of 86 after a car accident.
He finally headed back up the mountain into those long sea mists coming in off the coast.
Back into the Land Of Dreams.
I actually think I would have liked to have met him.


As usual though, this is FB so here comes a shameless bit of shoe-horning about photography. I thought I would include two photographs here just to show the extremes that existed in America at that time.
The first was taken by the Farm Services Administration photographer Ben Shahm, and whilst the poverty is shocking, I have seen similar in Joseph McKenzie's Gorbals pictures from the 1960's.
Mr.Shahm's photograph is utterly superb though, taken at the height of the Great Depression.

Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas, 1935

The second is as extreme a difference as I could make it.
Just four years later, and obviously as far-removed from the outer limits of rural Arkansas, but you know, I think that in its own way it is as telling of the hopes and aspirations of a nation as just about any 'gritty' social photograph of the time.
To me, this is one of the greatest photographs ever made.
Just study it closely.
Yes it is a set piece, but everyone's expressions are just so damn spot-on.
It was made by the famous advertising photographer Nickolas Muray.
Unfortunately the web simply cannot do this masterpiece justice - the colours and clarity of the original are just beautiful.

Nickolas Muray - McCalls Magazine - Homemaking Cover -1939

And that's it folks.
I had no idea I was going to write something like this this week, but there y'go.
Sometimes life can take unexpected turns if you listen to your heart.
Cheers and God bless, and thanks for reading.

** The roots of this behaviour can be found as an export from Germany in the 1930's, where, from the turn of the 20th Century, a movement had burgeoned that was firmly rooted against the massive rise of German Industrialism. As with all things, the more you scratch, the deeper you get, so I will direct you to this fantastic article:

No comments: