February 16, 2022

Love Songs from Lata, Levi, and Mr. Loaf

By Stuart Mitchner

Love that is singing: love’s old sweet song.”

—James Joyce, from Ulysses

When Lata Mangeshkar died in Mumbai at 92 a little over a week ago, some obits referred to her as a “playback singer.” The headline in The New York Times came closer to the truth with “Bollywood’s Most Beloved Voice.” She’s often been called “the Nightingale of India,” which suggests the wonder of Lata only if you think of the nightingale in Keats’s Ode “pouring forth thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy!” Lata pours her spirit into kohl-eyed, sari-clad, ankle-braceleted barefoot females coyly, kinkily, saucily dancing or emoting to the tune of spectacularly frenzied orchestras of violins, sitars, and electric guitars creating symphonic extravaganzas of joy and pain.

Singing Love

In the aftermath of Valentine’s Day I’ve been listening to Lata on an album from 1957, Modern Motion Picture Music of India, a 12-inch “High Fidelity” Capitol LP “recorded in Calcutta.” The songs are from two films, Nagin, “a romantic story in the classic Romeo and Juliet tradition” about two young lovers “who belong to rival, hostile tribes of snake charmers.” The other film tells the story of the title character, Anarkali, “an attractive dancing girl” who “falls in love with the son and heir of the Emperor Akbar, a romance that began in the wilderness, flourished briefly, and eventually ended with the death of the young beauty.”

You get a sense of the high-flown, love-driven lyric content of the music from samples in the liner notes. In the first song from Nagin, “the girl sings emotionally, suffering from a separation and calling her lover. My world is hollow without you … life has become an ocean of sorrow.” Another song “ponders why providence should give love, then snatch it away.” In a “happy and rhythmic song,” the girl sings, “Let me go, my beloved. I will meet you again but I dare not stay any longer or the gossips will taint my good reputation.” In the last song, the lovers are together again as the girl sings, “I come to you breaking all my bonds and all my dear ties. What I have lost I feel not, for I’ve found a new world of love that fills my life with a thrill of joy and ecstasy.”

Here’s a sample from Anarkali, which begins with “O Asman Wale,” a ballad sung by Lata’s movie self “when she is condemned to death.” Anarkali asks, “Is love such a great sin? Why should I be punished? Punish me but save the honor of love — life must end in death but make love immortal.” In the next song, Anarkali “goes into deep philosophy. Love is a strange kind of throb that baffles description.” In “Yeh Zindagi Usirir Hai,” the girl “sings thoughtfully. In order to live a full life, one must be lost in the love of another.” In the album’s last number, Anarkali “gets intoxicated as she is forced to sing and dance before a royal audience … Love makes my feet falter and everybody thinks I am drunk. Fancy the weeping heart ordered to laugh and entertain.”

Lata’s Voice

What can I say after all that but “Happy Second Day after Valentine’s Day”? And should what I say next sound even more improbable than the emotional fantasias I’ve been quoting, trust me that when Lata sings, with chorus and orchestra, she not only creates thrilling, chilling musical analogies to oceans of sorrow, new worlds of love, being lost in love, and immortal love, she actually, incredibly, uncannily inhabits, brings to life, makes real, with her piercing fire-and-ice four-octave-and-counting voice, the “thrill of joy and ecstasy” and “the strange kind of throb that baffles description.”

And when you hear this voice soaring into the Indian night from shops and chai wallahs and windows on the streets of Mumbai or Varanarsi, thrilling through you, up and down your spine, your arms and legs, you are the voice, the voice is you, and the voice is India.

Levi’s Voice

When I came back from India after a year and a half on the way to and from the land of Lata, the love song of the moment was the Association’s “Cherish.” But then I heard a voice that was to America as Lata’s was to India, a voice that made you excited about your homeland, and irrationally hopeful. The first time I was stunned by the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” I knew nothing about Levi Stubbs. The voice was so big, the passion in the singing so magnificent, it was almost better not to know. It’s as if you need to believe in someone or something larger than life, beyond a single identity, as Levi sings, “When you feel lost and about to give up ‘cause your best just ain’t good enough,” and “your world has grown cold and you’re drifting out all on your own.” The thrill that comes with the “I’ll be there” chorus — “Reach out, reach out for me” — is more emotional, more visceral, more inspirational than the thrill of Lata. I almost said more American, but that would go without saying.

Sometime before Levi Stubbs died in 2008, there were strange stories on the news, about how he’d disappeared and no one knew where he was. I wasn’t even sure when or how he’d died until I checked Wikipedia. The mystery fit with the sense that Levi was more than one being. He died two weeks before Obama was elected. I had an outrageous thought just now — Levi as the spirit of America, telling a broken country, “If you feel that you can’t go on,” because “all of your hope is gone,” and your life is filled with much confusion,” and “happiness seems just an illusion” and “your world is crumbling down….” — then what? Even with Levi singing, in 2022, it’s not easy to believe in “a love that will see you through.” Better blow past the doubt with “Seven Rooms of Gloom” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”

Meat Loaf’s Passion

As long as I’m dreaming, what if you could put all the Reds and Blues, all the haters and crazies and their holier-than-thou cancel-culture enemies in the first 10 rows of the orchestra for one of Meat Loaf’s over the top performances of Jim Steinman’s “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money back.” Isn’t it at least mildly conceivable that the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and AOC would be smiling, shouting, and swaying along with everyone else, their hearts beating faster, when Meat Loaf lets it all hang out: “Everything’s a lie and that’s a fact, and all the morons and all the stooges with their coins are the ones who make the rules, it’s not a game it’s just a rout.” I can hear the wildly mixed crowd cheering every blow he delivers in his knock-down drag-out duet with Patti Russo and her what-about litany: what about love? (“It’s defective, it’s always breaking in half”), what about sex? (“It’s defective, it’s never built to really last”), What about your family” (“It’s defective, all the batteries are shot”) and on and on through faith (It’s defective, it’s tattered and it’s frayed”) and “your gods” (“They’re defective, they forgot the warranty”) to your future (“It’s defective and you can shove it…”).

Arenas were packed and millions of albums sold featuring Meat Loaf’s sing-along shout-along anthem based on the great American money-back guarantee, not to mention the ultimate make-out song, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

As soon as I heard the news of his death at 74 late last month (like Lata’s, from pandemic complications), I wanted to pay my respects. His is an “only in America” story. Born Michael Lee Aday in Dallas September 27, 1947, he once told an interviewer he was born “bright red and stayed that way for days,” prompting his father to say he looked like “nine pounds of ground chuck” and to convince the hospital staff to put the name “Meat” on his crib. According to various reports on CBC news, he sang and acted in high school (Mick Jagger and Ethel Merman were his favorites). He eventually moved to New York and appeared in a Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It with Raul Julia and Mary Beth Hurt. Although the Times recently tried to dismiss the story that he had been described as Mr. Loaf in a review of that performance, I saw the review in print, have mentioned it more than once in these columns. I clipped it out at the time but am not inclined to search for the evidence. As Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman said of love in another context, I’d do anything for truth, but I won’t do that.