Monday, November 22, 2010

To the Moon, Alice!

Everyone's gone to the moon...

Moon, June, croon, tune... the putative foundation of all Tin Pan Alley lyrics--rhyming words mocked and painstakingly avoided, or praised and brazenly used yet again. And "moon" is the most of these... exemplified by titles varying from "Dark Moon" to "Blue Moon," "Moonglow" to "Moon River," "Moondance" to "Moon Dreams," "Moonlight on the Ganges" to "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Fly Me to the Moon" to "Bad Moon Rising," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" to "Carolina Moon," and "Paper Moon" to "No Moon at All." Just for the sheer lunacy of it, let's talk about three of the stranger moon songs of a rather more creative bent.

The first of these is also the oldest, "Moon of Manakoora," composed by Frank Loesser and Alfred Newman and sung by saronged island maiden Dorothy Lamour in her 1937 hit movie The Hurricane. I first heard it in a haunting instrumental version conducted by Andre Kostelanetz in the mid-Fifties, on an LP of gorgeous exotica called Lure of the Tropics. Arthur Lyman soon exoticized it further, and Andy Williams crooned a memorable vocal version (maybe Bing Crosby as well?), while the Ventures restrung it as a surf guitar instrumental. Even a few intrepid and/or ironic jazzmen worked it over, from Harry James and Gene Krupa to Eddie Lockjaw Davis and ever-inventive Sonny Rollins (his abrasive edge creating some un-easy listening).

Fifty years later, it's Kostelanetz I hear in my head, but the lyrics are still worthy of a look-in:

The moon of Manakoora filled the night
With magic Polynesian charms
The moon of Manakoora came in sight
And brought you to my eager arms

The moon of Manakoora soon will rise
Again above the island shore
Then I'll behold it in your dusky eyes
And you'll be in my arms once more...

Frank knew that less was more--the Loesser said, the more might be implied.

Modern songwriter Jimmy Webb worked that way often--obliquely for his hit songs as different as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "The Highwayman," yes, but he also waxed verbose sometimes; remember the silly "cake out in the rain" thing titled "MacArthur Park"? Well, Webb's moon song draws upon science fiction, specifically Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from 1966 or so, positing a Libertarian moon colony revolting against earth's callous control. But where Heinlein's title meant something like "the moon--feminine--is a cruel task-mistress," Webb heard instead the sexual implication of "mistress"; his elided title, "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," points to the trope of his lyrics: the cold surface of the moon expressing the anger (or maybe just indifference) of his lover.

Imagine Webb--or Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez, the trifecta of top female vocalists all drawn to his song--keening lines like these:

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon's a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord it felt so fine...
And then the darkness fell
And the moon's a harsh mistress
It's so hard to love her well...

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart...
And the moon's a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon's a harsh mistress
She's hard to call your own...

But no version "hit," and Webb's Seventies song faded into memory... until 2005 when Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and hero-of-the-bass Charlie Haden teamed up for the glorious CD known as Beneath the Missouri Sky. And there was Webb's tune, now played mostly as single notes in a slow, sorrowing lament, Haden's earth-deep, tolling tones sounding inevitable, Metheny's resonant note placements precise, the wordless melody now as warm as love and as cold as ice. Oh yes, this moon could bedevil you.

Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's book is the ultimate if unlikely source for the third song, "Goodnight Moon," transformed by Nashville songwriter/producer Will Kimbrough (plus one G. Owen), but most recently played and sung by New Orleans boogie pianist and blues mama Eden Brent (on her debut CD, Ain't Got No Troubles), in a gentle, lullaby-ish arrangement that nearly lulls the listener into not hearing those sadder, more adult lyrics that Brent sings:

Goodnight moon
Goodnight stars
Goodnight old broke-down cars
I'm goin' away
I'm leavin' soon
Goodnight darlin'
Goodnight moon

I don't know where I'll be
I don't know if I'll see
Out the window of my room
Shinin' down goodnight moon

Thank you babe I'm gonna miss you
When the night comes 'round
That's when I long to kiss you
When the moon shinin' on the ground

(instrumental break, then repeat previous four lines followed by initial seven)

Couldn't be much simpler than that, or more tender and resignedly sad. As she sings, Brent plays rippling bluesy notes and Floyd Cramer-styled downhome chords and, towards the end, a quiet, echoing brass section adds a sort of farewell motif, going away too as she repeats the final goodnight couplet. But the piano continues, plays around the melody in a brief cadenza, then slows into silence... and the album ends...

As does my lunar tale, of moonrise and cold stone, sad hearts and moonset. Used creatively or bandied shamelessly, "moon" is just a word, claimed by lovers and madmen and poets but indifferent to all. And moon while, a morning for thanks is just coming upon us.

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