Showing posts with label hoagy carmichael. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hoagy carmichael. Show all posts

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Hoagy Carmichael’s Playing My Blues-Magical Realism 101

A couple of years ago, I guess it was the winter of 2010 after Josh Breslin got back from covering that year’s Democratic election debacle, I came across a half-moth-eaten, mildewy, old dust jacket cover of a Hoagy Carmichael Bluebird label, hence a rag-timey, jazzy, swingy, pre-be-bop, non-be-boppy album that I found in the back hall closet of my old compadre’s hide-away damp and cold log cabin up in wintry snowbound interior Maine on one of my visits. Although Josh, Joshua Lawrence Breslin, for those who have followed his quirky byline in half the radical chic and public vision alternative newsprints like the early pre-gloss, pre-sellout Rolling Stone, The Bard, the old Barb, the early Phoenix, Mother Planet , that kind of thing, around this country over the past forty years, articles mainly found in trendy progressive homes, unread, turning mildewy in their own back hall closets, does not figure in this story the effects of his take-no-prisoners- kind of left-handed writing certainly do and should be quickly and quietly acknowledged here. Done.

The picture on the album cover, or the essence of the picture since some parts were, candidly, not viewable, was classic, maybe late 1930s, early 1940s, Hoagy Carmichael at piano, manically at piano, naturally. On his head, tilted back, back just short of falling off on some whiskey-stained, or maybe better, depending on the night, the place he was holding forth in, and whether and how bad he needed the dough, beer-stained floor was his trademark Stetson-like hat, or in any case a soft hat as they used to call them back when my grandfather worn one. And on his face, his craggy, not beautiful but useful face, a smoldering cigarette, unfiltered of course in those manly days, hanging off, a lip, and like the hat, always almost ready to fall until he breathed some life into it and seemingly like magic placed it upright between those browned tobacco lips. The piano, nondescript from the look of it, but descript in any gin mill in the world, descript that it is no Steinway or any shock harm-able such instrument but rather just good enough to play sudsy, heart-rendering, or jazzed-up show tunes for the hoi polloi as they sink deeper in that glazed haze good night and thoughts of the next day’s hard manual labor.

And Hoagy, sphinx-like, wry-like, sly-like, world-weary, world-wary, and just that nano-second before yellow-jaded. Trying to live down some Tin Pan Alley tune, a cover probably, that every fool kept insisting that he play for the umpteenth time and if he had a gun he would know how to use it and how much to use it. And looking, looking intently out at the crooked door, or what passed for a door, at Café Joey’s. You know Café Joey’s, right? Hoagy’s old winter time tropical paradise, tropical paradise for the swells and other assorted Carib fauna and flora, nightclub down in the lesser Antilles, Port-of-France to be precise. Everybody though he was just the piano player but no he owned the joint, owned it outright or close to it, maybe only a few wise-guy silent partners. In those days Café Joey’s always had a rogue’s gallery clientele of runaway brides-to-be looking for a last fling, decayed debutantes, rundown dentists with failed practices trying to “get well” at the roulette wheel, and half the snub-nosed guys from such winter spots as Cicero, Joliet, and the big town, you name the big town. Plus assorted local drifters, grifters, and midnight shifters just to keep things interesting. In short hold on very tightly to your wallets. From the look on Hoagy’s face the door at that moment looked to produce more of the same.

Then she came in.

All thoughts of Hoagy, his humdrum musical problems, his nefarious business arrangements, and even his existence kind of fled to some darkened forgotten corner recesses once she hit the door. Every man in the room, every red-blooded man if you get my drift, although the other kind found a cozy, no questions asked, just don’t flaunt it, refuge at the cafe and maybe they looked too just to see what they were missing, sharpened his eyes in her direction. So you can say, just like with old Josh Breslin, our boy Hoagy does not figure much from here on in but the story makes no sense without a bow for him. Or without me either.

See I was standing at the bar when she came in. As usual, just drowning my maddened sorrows, listening to Hoagy fighting off the demons in front of him, and within him, with his usual eight or twelve rum sours, or colas, or whatever he used to take some of the bite out of that high-proof island rum. I was sitting at my “reserved” seat, about the fifth guy down the line, give or take a couple of bar-girls in between the guys, when she walked in and drew a bee-line to Hoagy, or what I thought at first was a bee-line to Hoagy anyway. Slim, hell let’s just call her Slim and get it over with although her real name was Marie, or Anne-Marie, something like that. So already you can see, and don’t smirk, that I got nowhere with her, nada, no time, so I will join the line of guys who this story is not about, okay. But I am telling the story so I figure in the mix somewhere.

Ya, She came in. She came in like some tropical breeze, some Jamaica trade-wind breeze, light and airy on the outside, the only side she showed in public you could tell but some smolder underneath if you every got that far, and a few guys had, had got part way anyway, and she had just kind of landed here. Story unknown, parts unknown, islands past unknown, former companions unknown except there was just enough run-down about her, mainly around the eyes, to know that while she was not fugitive, she had had a handle on some pretty unsavory characters. But as she walked down the aisle she blew that past off, that hard past part, like so much lint off her sleeve. Came in like a breeze, like the world wasn’t just a wicked old place after all if it took time to create her or even the possibilities of her. A Jamaica trade-wind breeze just the same.

Like I say she was slim, slender, whatever you want to call a gal who fills out a dress or suit in a subtle way that makes a guy’s temperature rise even if she is not all buxom and twenty-seven curves like most guys like them. Not any Lana Turner, all sultry and no substance, no way, no way in hell, but nothing but pure femme fatale just the same. If you could learn to handle her just right you could, well, let’s just keep describing her and leave that part for later. She had that long brown, brunette I guess you call it, hair, hair that fell over one part of her forehead like the gals wore it just then, and maybe still do, although I don’t keep up with the girlish, or womanish, fashion trends. And those eyes, well, those eyes, and we can leave it at that for a minute too.

Just an ordinary good-looking girl, you say. A dime a dozen, you say. Well, maybe I am not the best guy to describe her, her physical looks, but that’s not what I am getting at. It was the walk, the way she walked not all strutting butterfly swirling stuff, but gracefully, angelically, and with a purposefulness that said loud and clean no inferior guy, no run-of-the mill-guy sitting seersucker suit sweaty in some hothouse rum joint better even look in her direction or maybe be in the same place, palace or joint, as her. And that golden stride was accompanied by this look, this look that I saw her give him, give him many times and made me call for another double-whiskey straight up, no chaser, or maybe just water, every time I saw her do it later. Give it to him only. That way she arched her right eyebrow, with that little glean look in her eye that meant you had it made brother and you had better do something about it, or else. Ya, that’s the look.

That look, and that walk, as it went by me, me with my half-flicked match ready to light that cigarette, that unknown, unfiltered cigarette, which she was now fusing through her pocketbook for as she headed to the depths of this wicked old joint. That look, that walk, and that unfiltered, unlit cigarette as she passed several feet away from me was, moreover, accompanied by some vagrant fragrance I still can’t figure out except it was like I was just swished or splashed by some Eden nectar. And that look, that walk, that smell was accompanied by the sound of silk, some silk slip under her dress that hid those slender thighs, and maddened, middle of the night dream maddened, half the guys in the joint.

But see that look, and the rest of the package, was dead-aimed at this old bent-over sea captain, some guy just off some uncle Neptune voyages who was swilling down whatever was put in front of him just then, looked like some sweet rum, straight up, to me. He still looked pretty sober though although I swear he could not have seen her coming because his head was half-cocked in the other direction when she walked up to him and asked him point blank for a match, and an off-hand drink. Whatever he was drinking, if I heard right. And cool, cool as a cucumber like they say, he flicked a match toward the cigarette, unfiltered in case you forgot, on the edge of her ruby red lips and said “Andy, bring the lady a drink, and be quick about it, ” like he said it everyday, and twice on Sunday. And I am sunk, me and my poor heart.

That grizzled old sea captain, Captain Bogie I found out later was his name, later after all the shooting and commotion was over and they, yes, he and Slim, were long gone to some island safe-haven further up the island chain with their precious human cargo safely tucked below deck, was some kind of hell-bent for leather sea captain of big ships a few years back except he let one get away from him in a storm, a huge perfect wave of a storm from what legend said, and he got blacklisted or whatever they call it when they don’t want you to steer ships, big ships anyway, anymore. And he had settled down to safe seas and rums running a low-rent scene fishing boat out of Port-of-Spain. Dusty, dirty, damp, soggy Port-of-Spain where I had just come from myself a few week before.

Here’s the funny part. I wasn’t so smart about things after all because that whole scene when she walked in and drew a bee-line to Captain Bogie had some history behind it. Ya, Hoagy (and Andy the waiter too) filled me in one night when I, and maybe we, although you could never be too sure about Hoagy because he dismissed dames, good-looking, willing dames too, once the rum ran through their veins, left and right for no good reason, were in our cups and in a mood to talk about the now legendary Captain Bogie, his exploits and his rare find Slim. Slim and Bogie had actually met, although that might be too strong a term, earlier in the day, that afternoon, down at the dock where the Captain has his fishing boat, the Laura or Lauren, something like that, I think it was called. She, as I could sense when she walked into Café Joey’s, was down on her luck. Down enough to start asking guys, stranger guys, but guys still with eyes, for some favors. Her request. She needed to get to Porto del Cortes, or somewhere not Port-of-France, quick.

And the way Hoagy told this part of the story to us Slim was in such a hurry she was willing to return favor for favor in the way any man, any red-blooded man, would appreciate, no questions asked. Our Captain though turned her down flat just for the sake of turning her down right then. Just to see what she was up to. And to see what she would do next. See the other thing I could sense watching old Captain as she had approached his table was maybe he had been water-logged once too many times and maybe had been in one too many sea wrecks but he had been around the block more than once with dames, although maybe not quite so often with one like this slightly soiled but rare dame.

Well, you already know what she did next. And you might as well already know now too that she had her hooks into him bad, if not in that afternoon encounter then by the time he flicked that match to her ruby red lips to light that cigarette that night in dankest Café Joey’s. Yes, he would go through many hoops, maybe take a bullet or two, and gladly, before she was through with him just to be around that walk, that look, and that edenic smell.

What? You want to know about the shooting and commotion part? Hell, I thought you wanted me to skip that. No? Well, I will make it short and sweet because it is a story like a million others in this wicked old wartime world what with things, cruel Nazi things, jumping all over Europe and every place else. But to tell the story, or really the way Hoagy with an assist by Andy to fill in the details told the story, is to step back before that afternoon encounter between Slim and the Captain. And bring some politics into it, hold your nose local politics between, hey, let’s just call them the “ins” and “outs” and be done with it. You’ll get the drift without going into all those sordid details.

See, as I said before Slim was, like many frails femme fatales or not, down on her luck a little when she hit Port-of-France. When she checked in a few days before into the Hotel Falcon with a little light luggage the manager, a supporter of the “ins,” got suspicious and called in his dear friend, the police perfect to check out Slim’s status. Her dough situation. Not only did the police perfect order her out of town when he found she was light on dough but he roughed her up just enough for her to get the message. Now already you should hate the ins, and not just because they are ins but because they are blind and stupid. A woman like Slim is not going to, in this wicked old world, have any problem making her room rent at anytime or in anyplace. Not as long as guys have eyes, or a pulse, or the semblance of a pulse. No, her looks are like finding money on the ground, unless of course Slim decides otherwise. Oh did I say that Slim, beside that walk, look and smell thing liked to call her own shots. That is why, after she checked around, she headed for the Captain’s berth. And called her shots.

You already know about that afternoon and that night, or the public part of it. What you don’t know is that Captain, strictly for cash to keep the rum demons away and the banks from foreclosing on his life-line boat, had been running guns and other chores for the outs. And the ins had an idea that he was doing it. So that next morning Slim and the Captain found themselves front and center down at police headquarters. Not knowing Slim’s newfound relationship with our boy Bogie the dear police prefect starts to rough Slim up again in front of him. Ya, stupid, real stupid. Bogie tried to cut the blows but got blackjacked for his efforts. All this, however, was just a warning on the police perfect’s part and he let them go. But don’t kid yourself this cop is doomed, doomed big time. And soon too.

Bogie then contacted his outs friends with a proposition. He now would take some local bigwig agents that need to get to the United States fast for some dough and safe passage out for Slim. Deal. Everything was going fine until some stoolie, a stoolie who used to hang a couple of seats away from me at Café Joey’s, exposed the plans to our police perfect. So instead of a quick painless getaway the police perfect with his squad show up at the dock, some gunfire plays out, and Captain Bogie takes a bullet in the play. But the ins are now posting for a new police perfect. Hopefully a smarter one. And that was the last anyone saw of the Captain and Slim.

So here I am tonight, twelfth night in a row, still here, maybe the fourth seat in now moving up in seniority at Café Joey’s now that the stoolie is persona non grata, listening to Hoagy playing his signature song, Stardust, while he is sucking up another lip-edged cigarette and another rum cola, keeping the dames at bay, while I sit here thinking, temperature rising, thinking about Slim, and wishing to high heaven that I knew point one about boats instead of selling textiles to old gruff guys sweat-shop laboring the natives to make a few bucks off some cheapjack shirts and dresses. And wishing too I didn’t have that wife and three hungry kids back in the States. And wondering too about Captain Bogie and how a monkey of a guy with a fast fist, a little dead aim, and some fugitive getaway boat had all the luck. Don’t blame Hoagy for my troubles though. Okay.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Play It Again Hoagy, Play It Again, Man- Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust and Much More"- A CD Review

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Hoagy Carmichael performing his piano magic.

Stardust and Much More, Hoagy Carmichael, BMG Records, 1989

Scene brought to mind by the battered, dust-laden cover of an old Hoagy Carmichael Bluebird label record found in a back bedroom closet up at Josh Breslin’s cozy logwood cabin in wintry outback Maine a couple of years back. Long-fingered, soft-dashed, soft Stetson-brimmed hat slanted to the back of his head just short of falling off, always just short of falling off, cigarette, unfiltered of course, dangling, edge dangling off some forsaken lip, some browned tobacco lip, and the lip hanging off a slapdash calculatedly careless face, a face weary, wary, and just short, just short of yellow jaded, the keyboard, ivories tinkling, black setting off the white in the be-bop, no pre-be-bop night.

Making one think, and think hard, of Carib nights, of some vagrant maddening fragrance as Laren Bacall, full-blown hair falling off to one side of her head, steps into, no, sashays from parts unknown into any gin mill in old Port-o-town, the soft sound of silk against her slender thighs turning heads to watch her shape head toward some grizzled old ancient sea captain, Captain Bogie, and ask for a light for her cigarette, unfiltered of course, and an off-hand drink. Later, naturally, when all dust is settled wise, almost yellow jaded, old Cricket will piano back her up on some song, oh ya, How Little We Know, but who cares for anything then but that arched-browed come hither, and hope, hope against high heaven that she will ditch that lame sea captain, hero or not, and give a young buck a chance. Fat chance. And later still, still sashaying, silky thigh sashaying out some crooked barroom door cooing Am I Blue with that damn monkey of a sea captain in tow. Ya, damn. But don’t blame Hoagy.
“Hey, Hoagy play Stardust for us, will you?” half-slurred one Josh Breslin, Joshua Lawrence Breslin for those who have followed his by-line in half the radical chic and public square vision alternative journals and newspapers that lay, unread, in the back rooms of fashionable houses around certain well-known progressive watering holes in the old U.S. of A. By the way that half-slur is no slur on his good name. See Josh, and his crowd of friends, old friends from wrong side of the track, car hell wheels, Saturday night beach heel wheels high school Olde Saco, Maine days are celebrating his sixtieth birthday at Key Joey’s. Ya, Josh has moved up in the world since those from hunger mill-town days. Along with his keep-in-touch townie crowd are newer friends, including his “father,” Peter Paul Markin, from the summer of love, circa 1967 days, merry prankster, magical mystery tour yellow brick school bus, drug-addled, acid-etched days when he first got some seven-colored vision of that new world he spent the next forty years writing about in those fugitive rags laying around those spiffy waterholes on the Left Coast. And newer friends still from the by-line circuit rag circuit and part-time watering hole excesses. Our boy, naturally, naturally for Josh that is, as with everything that he has every done, small, large o better left unsaid had tipped one too many spoons in the rummy and who knows what else fruit punch bowl. Now that the matter is cleared up we may proceed to the request and its fate.

“Man, my name’s not Hoagy, it’s Jason, Jason Dyer, and I never heard of a song called Stardust, as Jason, a surly sort of young neo-be-bop piano player, one who has seen some time as a bouncer, maybe, or done a little time in stir and survived, certainly from his look not one to be messed with, not messed with by a half-slurred man who has dipped that oar into too many rum-filled punch bowls.

Josh, non-plussed, charged on, “Hoagy, how about Lazy River?", and "come on just once for a birthday boy.” Man,” as our keyboard man Jason’s face reddens blood red, “Man, I don’t know any Lazy River, either, stop bugging me don’t keep bringing up songs my grandmother might have known, or maybe your grandmother.” Josh, sensing just the slightest menace in manner of that last remark retreated, physically retreated to a corner couch and seemingly half nods out from his half-slurring. Out, out for the count.

A couple of days later Josh related what happened to him when he kind of conked out (as he delicately put it) at his birthday party. See, Josh’s father, Prescott Breslin, Senior, a hard-working old mill-hand at MacAdams Textile Mill now long gone from Olde Saco (as is Prescott) was along with his wife, Delores (nee LeBlanc), Josh’s mother, crazy for Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust in the booming Olde Saco Beach Casino days when that also long gone spot was the cat’s meow for all the be-bop, no, pre-be-bop boys and girls along coastal route one Maine (and hell down that road into New Hampshire too if they could raise the dough and get some gas rations). Hell, once, Hoagy actually came to the Casino and, well Prescott, a young soldier, oops, a young Marine, just then stationed down the road at Portsmouth Naval Base before heading out to the bloody Pacific and Delores, some raven haired French twist beauty just out of high school (Olde Saco, of course) never got over it and all through the 1940s and 1950s long after not be-bop, and then be-bop had morphed into rock and roll the fragrance riff of that song wafted through the hard-scrabble Breslin household.

But here is where our story does get a little twisty, and, frankly a little sad. If one believes one Joshua Lawrence Breslin, sometimes an iffy proposition. And one believes that the old boy didn’t have a little acid-etched flashback and try to put his old, newer pal off the scent. As Prescott, proud, southern proud, down around the hills and hollows of Kentucky coal mining country proud, lay dying he requested, constantly requested Stardust be played in his hospice room. And he passed to a better place with that song seeping through as his last sounds. Sad, right? But here is the twisty part. Prescott Breslin, Senior was exactly sixty years old when he passed over to the other side. Make of that what you will.