Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto (review)

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It’s probably true to say that nothing could have prepared Bobby Darin fans in 1968 for the music he recorded on his Direction label and released over a couple of albums and a handful of singles. While he’d had dalliances with folk-rock with the albums If I Were a Carpenter and Inside Out, and folk itself with the Earthy and Golden Folk Hits releases, there were really no clues that the singer would move into protest music other than his song We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here and the message behind the story of Dr Dolittle, the music of which he built an album around directly prior to starting his own Direction label. His music for the label remains the least known of his career (with the possible exception of the first Motown album) and yet stands out as some of his best work.

Recorded over a number of sessions in 1968, the nine songs that make up Darin’s first Direction album, Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, are a mixed bunch, both in message and quality. One of the most surprising things when looking at the sheet music (yes a book of sheet music from the album was released at the time – I doubt it was a big seller!) is the simplicity, even naivety, of the musical elements of these songs. Darin was a sophisticated musician and an intellectual to boot, and yet here everything is taken back to basics. Virtually none of the songs have what might be called a “chorus,” and most don’t have a bridge section either – just a series of verses, in some cases nearly a dozen.

Questions opens the album, and is a song about environmental damage. These songs were written during Darin’s sojourn in Big Sur, and that may well have inspired him on this song. There is also inspiration here from groups such as The Beatles and The Loving Spoonful in the production of these songs, which ranges from the basic to the complex including the use of sounds which appear to be tapes played backwards. Darin certainly isn’t shy about what he has to say, with some of the lyrics almost visceral :

How do you kill the ocean?
How do you make it dry?
Well, you first dilute,
Then pollute,
Cut the fruit,
At the root.
And the ocean’s floor
Will be like a whore
Who will lie no more
‘Cause she’s dead;
Use your head.

Jingle Jangle Jungle follows, with Darin this time turning his attention to money and finances, and the power that goes with them. This is one of the more Beatlesque sounding numbers, and the sound is harsher and more rock-oriented than some of the other tracks. Anyone used to hearing the showman-like sound of Darin’s swing material wouldn’t recognise the singer here. There is no razzamatazz, often not even as much as a vibrato.

The album is cleverly sequenced. The final verse of Jingle Jangle Jungle refers to the Vietnam war, which is the subject of The Proper Gander, an allegorical tale about a group of mice encouraged by their leaders to go to war to fight a Siamese Cat that doesn’t actually exist, with the leader being found out as the song comes to the end of its seven verses. Once again, everything here is tied up in the lyrics. Out of each verse’s 28 bars, 22 of them are simply just the chord of G. The lyrics more than make up for it, however, with Darin writing them in such a way that they can not only relate to the Vietnam war but any bulls*it spoken by a government in order to win votes and confidence.

Bullfrog is an 11-verse opus in which Darin doesn’t sing a note. The whole thing is spoken with a rhythm background, and finds Bobby telling a frog about how the history of money. It’s all rather strange, something which is reflected in the lyrics themselves: “Now, I thought I was stoned, so I started walkin’/I mean, whoever heard of a bullfrog talkin’?”

Long Line Rider became the single taken from the album, but made no impression in the charts. It’s certainly the most commercial number of the nine songs here, not least because it does actually have a chorus. It tells the true story of some killings (by those in charge) on an Arkansas prison farm. Darin went on TV and promoted the single, dressed in denim and without his toupee. On one occasion he was told he would have to censor the line “this kind of thing can’t happen here, especially not in an election year,” and Darin refused to perform. Once again, it is musically simplistic, built around the basic I, IV, V chord progressions (with the exception of one bar), but the lyrics are so well-written, the production so good, and Darin’s performance so committed that no-one notices.

The second side of the album is decidedly more relaxed and laid-back. Change sounds like it could have been written by Dylan for Nashville Skyline. This time the musical element is somewhat more sophisticated (the song even has a bridge!), but the lyrics are less biting than on the first side of the LP. This is simply a call to people not to resist change. Nothing more, nothing less.

I Can See the Wind is something of a mystery, and ultimately the low point of the album, although not unpleasant. Presumably this is a song about the benefits of smoking hash (although there’s no suggestion that Darin did), but your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, on the other hand, is a dark, cutting, attack on organised religion, the death and misery it has caused through the years, and the hypocrisy that Darin saw in the church itself. “Sunday,” Darin sings, “bow down to the blood you’ve shed/Sunday, Bodies piled so steep/You say keep the faith, but there’s no faith to keep.” This is one of the tracks that utilises recordings played backwards (in the organ introduction to the song), and the song is well-constructed. It lures you in with relatively bland verses, with each one getting more and more hard-hitting in its lyrical content, until a world-weary Darin sighs in the final verse “Sunday, let the people sleep.” This is a brilliantly executed little song.

The final song on the album strips everything back to just Darin and an acoustic guitar. Darin was a big supporter of Robert Kennedy, and he fell apart when he was assassinated. This final, subdued, song, entitled simply In Memoriam, never sung above a whisper, sees Darin confronting his pain at the events, and the funeral that followed. Each verse ends simply with the words “they never understood him, so they put him in the ground.”

This nine-track album was Darin’s opening statement in his new role as protest singer and, while the album is uneven, it’s still mightily impressive. And yet, despite good reviews, very few people bought it. Some have said that it would have sold much better without Darin’s name on it, and that might be true. The idea of one of the best entertainers in the business singing protest songs sounded phoney, and he was once again accused of simply jumping on a bandwagon. That wasn’t the case though, for this LP made no effort whatsoever in being commercial. Despite it being a financial flop, Bobby Darin wasn’t deterred, and he returned in 1969 under the name “Bob Darin” with a new album that was a mix of protest album and a reflection on the counter-culture, with its discussion of everything from Ronald Reagan’s move into politics, the Vietnam war, drugs and sexuality.

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Show Boat (San Francisco Opera) Review

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The problem with the San Francisco Opera Show Boat is that it is performed by an opera company.  Currently being screened in cinemas in the UK, this stage production is a harmless way of spending two and a half hours, but is otherwise something of a mess – especially to those of us who know the show well.

The score of Show Boat was restored a few decades ago to that which was presented on Broadway in 1927, with the songs that had been cut since then restored to their rightful place.  But not in this production.  Gone were numbers such as I Might Fall Back on You, In Dahomey, and I Would Like to Play a Lover’s Part.   Why?  No idea.  It’s not like the San Francisco production was of Wagnerian length – and, even if it was, why would that matter?

It gets even odder in the second half where not only are songs missing, but those that remain are sung by different characters and the narrative changed!  Dance the Night Away was sung by Kim on the Cotton Blossom in the 1928 version of the show (it was a replacement for a different song sung by the same character in the same scene in the 1927 original), but was sung by her mother, Magnolia, in the current production – and she sings it on Broadway in a completely new scene (pictured above).

One has to wonder why a respected opera company would tackle a classic piece of American theatre that has been around for nearly ninety years and think it new better than Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld and begin to rewrite it.  Would they do the same with La Traviata?  I don’t think so.   And the changes didn’t stop there.  Dialogue was also altered for no apparent reason, as were lyrics.

The opening chorus originally opened with the line “niggers all work on the Mississippi,” but here it was changed to “coloured folks work on the Mississippi.”  This is political correctness gone mad.  The show is partly about racism for God’s sake – cutting out the racist language that the show is criticising is just completely insane.   It’s like making a film about homophobia and cutting out all the derogatory language that is part of that.   What’s even more mad is that the word “nigger” was retained during the dialogue – so why edit it out of the opening chorus?  The whole point of that opening line of the show is that it is hard-hitting – it told Broadway audiences in 1927 that this was no ordinary, light-hearted show.

But, all these changes aside, the whole thing completely fails as decent entertainment because it is performed by an opera company.  It’s like hearing Pavarotti sing Frank Sinatra.  It doesn’t work.  Yes, it’s fine for some characters – Magnolia and Ravenal can be sung with an opera voice and the show loses nothing.  But Julie ends up as a drunk in a bar singing torch songs – and sounds like Kiri te Kanawa when she should be sounding more like Billie Holiday.  It means the whole thing doesn’t make sense for the story and the characters become unbelievable.  Talking of unbelievable, Magnolia is meant to be 16 when the show starts, and yet is played by Heidi Stober who, according to my calculations, is nearer forty.   Yes, in opera we’re used to this kind of casting – but this isn’t opera, it’s theatre.  Sadly those behind the production failed to realise this.

Messing with the order of songs, cutting numbers and changing the narrative would be fine for viewers who don’t know the show well as they wouldn’t realise what had changed or been excised. However, when you couple this with a production that fatally casts the wrong kind of singers it’s a step too far.  And all of this (complete with appalling over-acting at times) is magnified when you then watch it on a big screen in a cinema.    There were some very good episodes, most notably a powerful rendition of the miscegenation scene which still moves an audience ninety years after it was written, but for the most part this was a fatally flawed production of a show that doesn’t get revived nearly often enough to start with.

Bobby Darin: the Musical Chameleon? I Don’t Buy It!

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I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago.  Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career:  rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads.  However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.

Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.”  For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one.  I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out.  When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.

I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin.  I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter.  But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.

We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra.  And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre.  I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine.  Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely.  In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse.   And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days.  Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule.  Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound.  I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.

If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s.  Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean.  He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too:  the current Broadway scene.  Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too.  Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World.  Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound.  However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album.  Darin was taking risks here.  What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)?  Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes.  Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent.  Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted.  Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.

Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy.  And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world.  What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums.  In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off.  While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style.  And the musicianship here is incredible.  Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones.  Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker.  Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out.  It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way.  And yet the album did very little business commercially.  Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.

Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs.  And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time.  They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe.  The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here.  There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion.  Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito.  Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.

His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded.  Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them!  While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece.  And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio.  And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could.  What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game?  Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).

No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy.  As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin.  He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience.  And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums.  But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in.  If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries.  So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.