Friday, August 25, 2017

Birthday Boy: Genius

On a good day, when I knew him, this is how he looked.

By the time I knew him, though, good days were rarely guaranteed. By the last few years of his life, the decades of excess - smoking especially, although not that alone - were catching up. But a genius, even in decline, is a formidable thing, and when I think of him I always think of Alice Toklas, writing of meeting Gertrude Stein:

"I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them."

I think it's true that when you meet one, you do know it, and while I met this one long after there had been nearly universal recognition of him and it, that bell rang. I can hardly say that we were close, but I was for a while close enough to get a sense of him, and of the gift and curse that genius is. No one shone brighter; no one seemed darker - add in any two opposites, and they likely will fit: happy, sad; funny, infuriating; giddy, serious. You name it, he was it, and always that gravel voice, dazzling presence, and eyes that looked deeper into you than was, strictly speaking, comfortable, for a plethora of shifting reasons.

It was hard to imagine him gone, 27 years ago, and hard to think that now he would have been 99. He seemed all those years ago older than Methuselah, younger than... well, I suppose springtime, but that's a different songwriter altogether.  Where, in the words of a song he did write, has the time all gone to?


  1. Harsh necessity
    Brought me to this gilded cage.
    Born to higher things,
    Here I droop my wings,
    Ah! Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.

    Again I had to look on the interwebs to match the photo and the praise to the man in question (I wouldn't have recognised him if he had been at the other end of the bar) - Leonard Bernstein, of course... He didn't actually do much in the way of lyric-writing, however - that was left in the more capable hands of the likes of Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and others of their ilk. Jx

    1. I'm careful with the name, as I'm sure that at some point I signed a nondisclosure agreement of some formidability. And one doesn't like to boast, as well..

      He was indeed not a principal lyricist, but he made contributions to all his works - he and Adolph Green, patiently shepherded by the transcendent Miss Betty Comden, created some of Broadway's most wonderful songs.

  2. I thought I knew much about the man, but I learned so much more thanks to dear Leo Lerman's "Grand Surprise, of which I would not have known were it not for you.,,Thank you!

    (Although, damn you for giving me a merciless earworm of "Younger Than Springtime"...)

  3. I've said it before, but I've never been shy about repeating myself:
    It was spoken, in hushed reverential tones, that as a boy he gave piano lessons to the kids in my small town. And on a more personal note, I bought many a beauty product from his family's supply company.