Saturday, August 12, 2017

And We Need Them Most Of All

I've been sitting, these last few days, and thinking, hard, about what one could say...

Clearly, the death of someone like Barbara Cook - except there never was, really, anyone quite like Barbara Cook - is a milestone, and a heartbreaking thing. But I've been struck - floored, really - that she left us the same day as, of all people, Glen Campbell. And at how much both deaths, against the background of these parlous days, have left me feeling bereft and sad.

Now, if you grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and '70s in the United States, and if you ever spent more than a minute or two anywhere near a radio, you knew Glen Campbell. He was off to Phoenix, gentle on our minds, and most of all, still on the line.  I never really understood (and I'm not sure I do, quite, yet) the lyric to "Wichita Lineman," and yet I always somehow found it fascinating. I didn't know what it meant, but it stirred something, indicated even to a five- or six-year-old something thrilling and mysterious about adult emotions:

And I need you more than want you, 
And I want you for all time...

What could it mean? I puzzled to find a meaning in the voice, that clear, cool voice, so rich, controlled, so distant on the radio.

And then I grew up, and in the process discovered so many other voices.  I learned that I loved something called the theatre, and at some point my mother gave me a record: Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, 1975. I spent time, in those days, '77 and thereafter, as an apprentice in a local community theatre, and I relished theatre gossip. Barbara Cook, they said, was a great star, but a fallen one. But now she was coming back. She's a lush, someone said. I heard she's a dyke, said another. I went home and listened to my record. And listened. And listened. All these years later, if I could sing even one millionth as well as Barbara Cook, I could probably sing almost every phrase of that record from memory: the way that she turned another radio chestnut, "Sing a Song," into a kind of anthem; her "Dancing in the Dark," a minor-key song about major passion; and most of all "Time Heals Everything," which somehow evoked, to a teenager, the same kind of mystery of love, painful and glorious, that Campbell's lineman had, those years before. Then not too long later, another record, of another night at Carnegie Hall, 1980. And I knew that what I wanted to do was move to New York and live in the world of that music.

And for a while I did.  I haunted cabarets and night clubs; I saw whatever theatre I could afford; and most of all, I got to know some of those astonishing people. Miss Cook I saw twice at the Café Carlyle, and then at Carnegie at some benefit or another (I don't remember each song she sang, but she did sing "Vanilla Ice Cream," and she closed, standing there on that stage that did so much to bring her back out of the wilderness, and without an orchestra, without a piano, with nothing but that voice, by singing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," and time stopped.

We were introduced once or twice. She was a part of the heart of New York, a seemingly immutable player in the great game that was the city, along with the other names that were her contemporaries and coevals and our legends (no need to name them, but there they go, through my head - Bernstein, Comden, Green, Miss Kitt, Miss Bacall, Miss Carlisle, Sondheim, Black Jerome, Arthur Laurents, on and on). They'd go on forever; we were sure they would...

Nothing, of course, lasts forever. The saddest time I saw Barbara Cook was at Bernstein's memorial concert in December of 1990, at the vast and - laden with bits and pieces of the set of Phantom of the Opera - forbidding Majestic Theatre. It was a whipsaw kind of event, long enough after the unexpected death (two months) that, while there was grief, it was past the first fresh pain, but still quickly enough that there was a kind of surprise in the air - how was it possible for that force of nature to be gone? The performances were game, if not all perfection; I'm glad I saw Nancy Walker sing "I Can Cook, Too," but I'm glad I have the original recording to remind me of it. Cook wisely let another, younger, voice, take on the theatrical Everest that is "Glitter and Be Gay," so long her calling card; instead, she came out and quietly and with the power and authority of a goddess, sang the Maestro's "Simple Song," a gloriously spiritual, insinuatingly theatrical paean to the sheer beauty of the human voice. Lauda, Laude, indeed.

In time I moved way from that Manhattan, but Barbara Cook went on and on, that exquisite, elegant voice seemingly only ever growing more so, through her seventies and on into her eighties. The last few years saw her dim, it's true, and finally even announcing, with the regret of a genuine old trouper, her retirement. But still, she was there.

And now she's not, and the sadness comes at me from odd angles and at odd times. I wake in the middle of the night and think about The Music Man. I find time, now and then, to track down the videos, Cook on some antediluvian television special, waltzing in tribute to Vienna; being honored at the Kennedy Center; on stages all around the world, standing there, singing, and melting her audiences into putty in her supple hands.

Through all the years, I don't suppose I've spent all that much time thinking about Glen Campbell, until the last few, when one read of his decline, his illness, and the nearly miraculous way that, long after so much of him vanished, the voice remained.  His last song, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," is a deeply moving thing, a message from a mind that isn't really there, at least in any form like the way it was. The voice outlasted the man, and now it's gone, too.

Remarkable that they should go away, off to Fabulon, on the same day. They were such extraordinary artists, and such quintessentially American voices.  Both sang in a way that is deceptively simple: straightforward, clear, unwavering in both a literal and figurative sense. They did that hardest of things: made it look easy. It isn't. Art and time take their toll.  Both were survivors, performers of amazing strength, but transformed by the years and decades. The Barbara Cook of her renaissance years was at times unrecognizable as the hourglass-waisted princess who stormed Broadway in the 1950s; her drinking years thickened her physically, and while it was always a joy to see her, she sometimes seemed uncomfortable in her self. Similarly, one of the shocks of rediscovering Campbell these last few years was how very far away the golden-haired cowboy of 1972 had become, the man who could have modeled for Malibu Ken turned into a closed-face, narrow-eyed old man. But whatever transformations they went through: those voices. Those they kept until the end. They had the kind of voices that stay with one, that nourish the soul, that instruct and inform and enrich. They survived.

I thought, in considering these two, to try and see if they ever really intruded on each other's turf.  "Ship in a Bottle," up above, reminds us that in some ways Barbara Cook remained a girl from Georgia.  As a singer she was every bit as much at home in a country-tinged pop number as she was hitting Cunegonde's high E flats. Campbell never got all that close to the world of the theatre that I can tell, but he was, after all, the Rhinestone Cowboy, aching for the lights from the dirty sidewalks of Broadway, so here he is:

So different, these two, but now to me linked in ways that go beyond the coincidence of their nearly simultaneous going.

We live in low times; I can't bear to see the news today. Early on I turned the radio off, no All Things Considered today.  I want to listen to Barbara Cook and Glen Campbell, a mixed playlist that wouldn't have seemed to make much sense until this week. I live in the country that their voices conjure up, and I still believe in them and it. And now I think I almost understand the lyrics, both of "Wichita Lineman" and "Time Heals Everything." If we're patient, perhaps all the breaks that we see these days will mend.  I hope that's so, and if I were a praying man, I'd pray it.

Great singers go, and take a piece of us with them, but at least we have what they leave behind. Forget the passing headlines, and hear them singing. They're still on the line...


  1. My copy of 'Then And Now', on backorder from Amazon for six months, arrived Monday of last week. She died Tuesday.

  2. At least with youtube, we can rewatch them anytime

  3. Is "Time Heals Everything" from "Mack and Mabel. I lived in NYC in the 70's and 80's, when musicals became spectacles,I always returned to Ms. Cook. Great post.

  4. Sorry that I'm just coming to this now, but how lovely, Muscato. As always, you've captured it all so clearly.