Feb 26, 2010

Without a Love of My Own

I've always loved it, and I remember it being used very effectively in a scene in John Patrick Shanley's underrated film Joe Versus the Volcano, but I'd never paid close attention to Elvis Presley's gorgeous rendition of "Blue Moon," from his seminal Sun Records sessions, until I was singing along with it recently (it's on a playlist of songs called "Oliver Lullaby" to help my baby son go to sleep). Can you tell what's missing from this rendition?

It's gorgeous--that ticking guitar, the reverb, Elvis' falsetto vocalise...but there's no bridge. To remind you, I'm talking about this part:
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper, "Please adore me"
And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold
The moon never turns gold in Elvis' sad, slowly ticking, 1-6-4-5 rendition. This turns the song's title meaning on its head; if Larry Hart's lyrics use "blue moon" to signify a rare and magical evening ("once in a blue moon") in which our singer meets the love of his dreams, Elvis makes "blue moon" mean simply "sad moon." The "you" in "you saw me standing alone" is more clearly than ever the moon itself; there's no other character here, no grand entrance and no happy ending (he doesn't sing the "now I'm no longer alone" lyric, of course).

This illustrates a truism about rock or pop music vs. showtunes: that the former is often best at crystallizing a mood, a single state of mind, and the latter is a more narrative form, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Strangely enough, a show like the current Broadway hit Fela!, in which Afrobeat jams grind along one chord figure for as long as a dozen minutes at a time, illustrates a similar point about how music functions in the theater: A song can build, develop, change, even accompany story, but it's better at conveying or intensifying a feeling, an impression, than bearing a text or having to carry the narrative (in the BMI Lehman Engel workshop, it's called "singing the book"). Lest I seem to be diminishing this incantatory power, the feeling such music conveys is huge, bigger and deeper than words, an end in itself. That much should be clear from Elvis' "Blue Moon," which stands out from other renditions precisely because of the strength and clarity of feeling he gets across. That he's undistracted by the cross-purposes of a story arc seems to make all the difference (compare it, say, to the urban kitsch of his preachy "In the Ghetto").

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