September 26, 2018

“You Go To My Head” — Toasting T.S. Eliot and George Gershwin

By Stuart Mitchner

“Dr. Ford has said that they were stumbling drunk at the time that this occurred …. That has to be part of any relevant questioning.”
—Senator Richard J. Durbin, quoted in the New York Times

With the dark side of high school drinking dominating the national conversation these days, what was meant to be a column marking the shared birthdays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) has taken an unexpected turn.

Romancing under the influence is practically a genre in itself in the Great American Songbook, from loving hyperbole (“You go to my head like a sip of sparkling burgundy brew”) to barfly camaraderie (“We’re drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode … so make it one for my baby and one more for the road”).

Jump ahead a few decades and it’s Ray Davies’s “Sunny Afternoon” where the rich slob’s girlfriend has run off with his car and “gone back to her ma and pa telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty.” In the mid-70s the Kinks were singing “Oh demon alcohol,” with Davies lugubriously lamenting how booze “messed up his life when he beat up his wife” while reciting the booze hound’s litany: “barley wine, pink gin, port, pernod or tequila, rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks.”

And don’t forget Brecht and Weil by way of Jim Morrison and the Doors singing “Show me the way to the next whisky bar” and Eric Burdon chanting “Spill the wine, take that girl,” which sounds uncomfortably close to the situation of the moment.

As the host of a long-ago high school drinking party that stumbled off the tracks to the background music of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” I’ve been wondering what was being played at that other party in the D.C. suburbs back in the early 80s. Maybe something smooth and sentimental in the spirit of Air Supply’s “I’m All Out of Love.” Or a rocker like Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Or Stevie Nicks singing “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” The director of the film someone is probably already scripting might prefer the heavyhanded obviousness of AC/DC’s “Have a Drink On Me” or Def Leppard’s “Wasted.”

The Tipsy Gypsy

In accord with the drinking theme, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F give way to “Embraceable You,” where “Just one look at you my heart grows tipsy in me/You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.” Composed by the Gershwins exactly 90 years ago and first performed by Ginger Rogers in the 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy, the words may be Ira’s but they live and breathe in his younger brother’s music, particularly when you hear them sung by Billie Holiday. Gershwin died seven years before Lady Day made love to his song and 10 years before Charlie Parker’s magical reimagining has the tipsy gypsy dancing.

But then it was George Gershwin who reimagined Manhattan, setting the hungover night life of metropolitan romance to music. You can see it happening on YouTube in his New York rhapsody from the 1931 film Delicious, where Janet Gaynor plays a Scottish waif hiding out from the immigration authorities (some things never change) amid massive crowds, drunken mashers, and the towering shadows of the city. Numerous Hollywood soundtrack composers took their cues from Gershwin whenever they wanted to suggest Manhattan moods. The epigraph for Howard Pollack’s biography (Univ. of California Press 2006) is an excerpt from Edmund Wilson’s novel I Thought of Daisy discussing the sources of Gershwin’s New York: “Where had he got it? From the sounds of the streets? the taxis creaking to a stop?” or from “some distant and obscure city sound in which a plaintive high note, bitten sharp, follows a lower note, strongly clanged and solidly based?” Or had he taken it “from his own nostalgia, among the dark cells and the raspings of New York?”

Let Us Go Then

T.S. Eliot’s poetry may seem an unlikely place to look for demon alcohol, but consider his birth city, which gave us Chuck Berry and the St. Louis Blues (“I love my baby like a Kentucky colonel loves his mint ‘n rye”). The poet’s biographer Lyndall Gordon wastes no time in setting the scene: the Eliots lived “not far from the saloons and brothels of Chestnut and Market Streets at a time when pianists in back rooms were joining ‘rags’ together as jolting tunes,” this during the city’s heyday as “the world’s ragtime capital.” While readers of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will recall following the poet down “certain half-deserted streets,” of “muttering retreats” and “one-night cheap hotels/And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” a more exotic literary brew is served up in The Wasteland, which echoes with the pub owner’s closing-time cry, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” amid drunken voices, “goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May/Goonight.”

In “Fragment of an Agon” the recurring character known as broadbottomed Sweeney is saying, “We all gotta do what we gotta do/We’re gonna sit here and drink this booze/We’re gonna sit here and have a tune.” The early, unpublished “Interlude in a Bar,” reveals hints of “Prufrock” in the “shifting smoke” that “settles around the forms” that “clog the brain.” In the finished poem what was merely stated comes leaping to life in the “yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”

I was 15 when those lines went to my head after I plunged into the copy of Eliot’s poems my father had left in plain sight on the cozy divan in his study. Maybe he knew that I’d pick up the book and follow along as the poet crooned “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky,” one of the most inviting openings in 20th century literature until the jolt when the evening turns into “a patient etherized upon a table” and the street becomes “a tedious argument/Of insidious intent.” By the time you get to the acrobatics of the yellow fog, you’re falling off the divan wondering where you are and how you got there.

When Eliot tells Donald Hall why he thinks Four Quartets is his best work, he refers to its being “much simpler and easier to understand.” Of earlier poems like the one that went to my head, “it was a question of having more to say than one knew how to say, and having something one wanted to put into words and rhythm which one didn’t have the command of words and rhythm to put in a way immediately apprehensible.” As for the “obscurity” that results when you’re still “learning how to use the language. You have to say the thing the difficult way. The only alternative is not saying it at all.”

Eliot’s wordy rationale for the intoxication of creation alerts me to what would have happened if I’d been taught “Prufrock” in an English class instead of blindly gulping it down at 15.

Party House

Two years later in the living room of the same house, the stage was set for the Bo Diddley revels. After we moved from cramped quarters in grad student/GI Bill barracks to a large two-story brick residence set high up on a terrace five blocks from the Indiana University campus, my parents found that they had unwittingly inherited the “faculty party house.” I went to sleep upstairs to the sound of parties going strong, people chatting, laughing, or singing along as my father played songs by Gershwin and Cole Porter and Jerome Kern on the grand piano.

On the day after Christmas of my senior year, when my father was in New York and my mother was out, a few friends, all male, unexpectedly dropped in with a fifth of J.W. Dant bourbon swiped from someone’s parents’ liquor cabinet. With Bo’s “I’m a Man” playing automatically over and over at top volume, the heavy hypnotic boom-boom/BOOM BOOM beat shouting Drink drink/ DRINK DRINK, the son of the chairman of the English Department and the son of a Poly Sci professor downed the entire fifth more or less between them in just under half an hour and didn’t even get to the “stumbling drunk” stage, passing flamboyantly incontinently out, the former under the piano and the latter propped up next to the fireplace. I called my mother, who knew a thing or two about drunken parties and came right over to calmly and uncomplainingly help clean up the mess. We half-carried the chairman’s son upstairs to the T.S. Eliot divan, then deposited the professor’s son in the bathtub. That spring he and I became best friends, bonding to Concerto in F and rhythm and blues.

How did I remain sober? Easy. I had only a swallow of the deadly Dant. I hated the taste of liquor at the time, though I was good at faking drunkenness. And the only mixed parties I went to before college were dull cheese-and-crackers affairs where merely lighting up cigarettes, as my friends and I ostentatiously did, was considered terribly shocking, don’t you know.

Finally, it’s worth noting that when T. S. Eliot was at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1948, his project was the writing of the play he called The Cocktail Party. To get an idea of what Princeton parties of that era were like, track down copies of Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth and Marina von Neumann Whitman’s The Martian’s Daughter.

Siren in the News

My son and I were driving to Siren Records in Doylestown on a recent rainy Sunday listening to early Who songs like “Whiskey Man” about the embodiment of the DTs (“Nobody has ever seen him, I’m the only one/Seemingly I must be mad, insanity is fun”) featuring the pyrotechnics of drummer Keith Moon, known for trashing motel rooms during drunken binges and dying at 32 from an overdose of the drug he was taking to wean him from alcohol.

A week later I opened the New York Times to a story about the Supreme Court stand-off quoting Blair Elliott, the owner of Siren Records: “When you’re 17 you know that kind of thing is criminal.” At this writing, a Senate hearing has been set for Thursday, but the way the news is exploding it’s like the Gershwin song says, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which can also be said for the spelling of whiskey.

According to the Sept. 23, New York Times, Mr. Durbin was speaking on the ABC program This Week. The T.S. Eliot quotes can be found in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Second Series.