"Classics Rock! is the best of both worlds--music and books."
-- CNBC.com "Bullish on Books" blog

Monday, January 31, 2011

Girls in Their Summer Clothes/Bruce Springsteen

There's a lot of conjecture out there that Bruce Springsteen's Girls In Their Summer Clothes, from his 2007 album Magic, was inspired by Irwin Shaw's celebrated 1939 short story The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (found in the collection Short Stories: Five Decades).

We could find no statement from Mr. Springsteen to either confirm or dispel this rumor (even after an exhaustive 6-minute search), but we found an essay by critic Armond White that links the song and the story.

"The notion of the Great American Novel died the moment Hollywood was invented and though the idea was briefly resurrected in the mid-20th century, it died again with the birth of rock and roll," White wrote in the journal First of the Month. He argues that Springsteen's 2002 album The Rising was "an honorable attempt at a kind of novelistic national vision—a high cultural concept translated to a pop medium," but concludes that "Magic perfects the Great American Novel concept into an Album-of-the-Moment urgency." He continues:

Springsteen faces the same fundamental questions as the post-WWII American novelists. His sexual and social response is essential to the rich feeling of a song like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" which was inspired by Depression-era writer Irwin Shaw's career-defining short story "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," where an entwined dilemma of marital fidelity and urban stress concentrates attention on a lost faith.

We're not sure we agree with White that the Boss was inspired by Shaw. Springsteen's hopeful song about persevering through hard times to a better future (Things been a little tight/But I know they're gonna turn my way) has little in common thematically with Shaw's story, in which a couple strolling in New York confront deep fault-lines in their marriage as a result of the husband's wandering eye. But when White calls the song "my favorite track on the album," we're in complete agreement.

Shaw's story seems to have inspired some other musicians though:
Brian Hobbs features an instrumental called Girls in Their Summer Dresses on his 2010 album Second Glances.
Texas musician David Fahl's song The Girls in Their Summer Dresses appears on his 2008 album Life Is Good. "I wrote this at the request of my wife in honor of the Irwin Shaw short story of the same name," Fahl says.

Also notable is The Girls In Their Summer Dresses by The Airborne Toxic Event, which can be found on the deluxe edition of their eponymous album, released in 2008. The band's Mikel Jollett discussed the song with Radio Free Silver Lake:

"The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is a story by Irwin Shaw. It's about a man and a woman walking down the street in New York city in the summer. The man keeps staring at these beautiful women as they walk by. The woman, who is his wife, is not happy about this. They fight. He reasons that he's been a good husband, supportive, faithful, etc... but just must stare at these woman. He can't help it. It's a very compelling argument he gives, but she simply can't accept it, won't accept it. The song is basically their argument -- his reasoning and her response to it.

I didn't actually read the story until I saw that Woody Allen movie Celebrity. There's a writer in that movie who says about the story that the title alone is better than most short stories. I thought so too. Such a compelling image the words inspire, kind of a nostalgia for innocence, youth: who are these girls? Why are they wearing dresses? Will I ever know such things again? Have I lost something? Am I dying?

The story's pretty good, too.

You can sample the song here. Jollett himself is at work on a novel and--in a touch that warms our Classics Rock! heart--the band's name comes from a section of Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Memory of Reynolds Price: Copperline and New Hymn/James Taylor

Celebrated author Reynolds Price died today at the age of 77, as the result of a heart attack he suffered on Sunday. Price was the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, where he taught for more than 50 years. He was known as a prolific writer who produced nonfiction, poetry, plays, essays, and fiction, including the novel Kate Vaiden, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986. His most recent book was his third memoir, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, published in 2009.

Less well known is Price's work as a lyricist: He collaborated on two songs with his friend and fellow North Carolinian James Taylor.

"Price emerged as perhaps the first significant American novelist to compose a successful Top 40 popular song; with his friend, singer/songwriter James Taylor, Price collaborated on the 1991 hit popular song 'Copperline,' as well as on another song, entitled 'Hymn,'" writes James A. Schiff in his 1997 book Understanding Reynolds Price. Schiff elaborates:

The collaboration between Price and Taylor goes back to 1982, when Taylor wrote the score for a PBS television production of Price's play Private Contentment. . . . The first song Price and Taylor wrote together was "Hymn" in 1988. Taylor had wanted to write a song for the retirement of an old friend, Bishop Paul Moore, and Price suggested they write a hymn. He then wrote the lyrics to "Hymn," which can be found in The Use of Fire (1990), and Taylor added the music (it was recorded several years later under the name New Hymn on Taylor's Live). The other song, Copperline which they cowrote in 1991 while Price was staying with Taylor at his Connecticut home, can be found on Taylor's New Moon Shine CD.

Ardent Spirits (Kindle Edition)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

El Dorado/George Alexander and The Mellomen

Hiatus over. While we were away we had occasion to reacquaint ourselves with the 1967 John Wayne western El Dorado, directed by Howard Hawks. It's entertaining but no classic (if you've seen the earlier Wayne/Hawks collaboration Rio Bravo, you've seen El Dorado—it's essentially a remake). We enjoyed it, but our attention was particularly drawn to the filmmakers' references to Edgar Allan Poe's 1849 poem Eldorado, which can be found in The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

A character called Mississippi, played by James Caan, quotes the poem throughout the film, but the allusions begin with the opening credit sequence, which features a title song performed by George Alexander and The Mellomen. This amiable cowboy ditty reworks Poe's theme of a lifelong quest to attain an elusive goal, and lifts phrases directly from the poem—In sunshine and shadow and particularly Ride, boldly ride, a line that was seemingly made to be used in an amiable cowboy ditty. The lyrics are by actor John Gabriel, who appears in the film as Pedro, with music by Nelson Riddle. Click here to see El Dorado's opening credit sequence, featuring paintings by Western artist Olaf Wieghorst, who also appears in the film as a gunsmith called the Swede.

For a more faithful musical rendering of the poem, see Donovan's 1996 album Sutras, which includes a track called Eldorado that puts Poe's own words to music. Poe scholar Burton R. Pollin, writing in the journal Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, called the track "outstanding" and said it is "composed and sung well by Donovan." See Donovan performing the song here.

The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (Kindle Edition)