Letterman and Irony

With the end of David Letterman’s long TV run, it seems that everyone has weighed in on his significance and contributions. Here’s my take (originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education) on Letterman’s characteristic stance–irony.

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The ur-text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions:

The expression “Breakfast of Champions” is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.

The kind of irony I’m talking about is verbal, which I define as a form of expression in which one makes a point or conveys an idea by saying something other than what one means. (It’s different from situational irony — the “Gift of the Magi” sort of thing — and dramatic irony, as in a novel where a character traveling on the Titanic excitedly discusses what he’s going to do after landing.). The term, which derives from a stock character in Greek comedy, the eirôn, describes a rhetorical device that obviously originated long before the 1970s, and is most famously employed by Mark Antony: “Brutus is an honorable man.” Anatole France, in the 19th century, adopted “irony and pity” as a sort of watchword; it got into The Sun Also Rises via the critic Gilbert Seldes. (The Language Hat blog has helpfully sketched out this history.)

Hemingway is the great modern ironist. His particular discovery and innovation was the invocation of strong emotion via (ironic) terseness. That extends to his characters, such as Jake Barnes, who remarks, “I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it.”

Irony wasn’t a mere technique for Hemingway: It was rooted in his sense that the standard literary language of his time was outmoded, false, and, to a certain extent, debased. He was the most influential stylist in 20th-century American literature, inspiring Raymond Chandler and other private-eye novelists, sports scribes like Jimmy Cannon and W.C. Heinz, tabloid columnists like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Dexter, “minimalist” short-story writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie (who early in her career incorporated as Irony and Pity Inc.), and Vonnegut, who, along with Donald Barthelme, expanded the comic possibilities of irony in the 1960s and 70s.

When I read Breakfast of Champions in 1973, the phrases that jumped out from the preface and gave me an I-needed-that slap in the face were “breakfast cereal product” and “their fine products.” I gathered, without being able to articulate it at the time, that Vonnegut was appropriating corporate and promotional language, thereby suggesting how debased it had become. But he wasn’t asserting that the products weren’t fine, which made what he was doing irony, not merely sarcasm.

And that brings me to Vonnegut’s fellow Hoosier David Letterman, whose final television broadcast aired on May 20. Think of Letterman mouthing the words “television broadcast” — or “beverage” or “ladies and gentlemen” or even introducing himself as “Dave” Letterman — and you get a sense that he was working similar effects, in the realm of the television broadcast. The opposite of irony is sincerity, and sincerity has for a long time been debased by TV talkers, with their sympathetic nods, creased brows, and phony concern. For years and years, Letterman was palpably not sincere in a single syllable he uttered.

Starting with and moving beyond the 1960s “put-on,” Letterman’s comedy generation did remarkable things with ironic poses. The list is long: Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer on Saturday Night Live; Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy; Albert Brooks’s faux standup persona; SCTV’s pinky-ringed Sammy Maudlin and Bobby Bittman (played by Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy); Martin Short’s Jackie Rogers Jr. and Irving Cohen on SCTV — and his whole self-presentation for the last 10 years; Letterman’s band leader and sidekick Paul Shaffer, with his groovy lingo, elephantine shades, and circus-clown sport coats. All took on the dissembling and self-aggrandizing affectations of an earlier show-biz era. (That this shtick played so well and lasted so long is testament to the pleasures and power of the old model. Again, irony and not sarcasm.) The younger Stephen Colbert went ironically all in to an extent never seen before, in his decade-long stint as a preening and blustering conservative talk-show pundit.

Of course, Colbert ended his run last year and will step into Letterman’s time slot in the fall, presumably playing himself. That’s appropriate. Irony is extremely hard to carry off over the long haul. Look at Hemingway, who was unable or unwilling to drop it and became a self-caricature.

Letterman’s pivot from irony has been a result not merely of getting older but also of a series of powerful events in his and the nation’s life. In 2000, he had quintuple bypass surgery and a glimpse of mortality. The following year was 9/11 (which Graydon Carter predicted would bring the end to the age of irony. Not so much.) Letterman came on the air less than a week after the attacks and delivered what was probably his most sincere televised declaration to date: “If you didn’t believe it before, you can certainly believe it now. New York City is the greatest city in the world.” In 2002, after his friend Warren Zevon received a terminal diagnosis, Letterman devoted an entire affecting episode to the singer; three years later came the death of his mentor, Johnny Carson. In 2009, after receiving blackmail threats, he acknowledged multiple affairs with staff members and devoted a segment of the show to a public apology to his wife and staff.

But the biggest happening was the 2003 birth of his son, whom he often talks about on the air, with warmth and emotion. Once, referring to his bypass surgery, he held up a picture of the lad and said, “This is the reason I think my life was spared, so I could be part of this kid’s life.”

In the run-up to his final show, Letterman has said what he means, a lot, expressing appreciation for his long run and gratitude to his longtime staffers and favorite guests, especially musicians. But it’s not that easy being sincere, especially for someone with so much irony in his blood. In these weeks, he’s tended to haul out go-to phrases like “Thanks for everything” and (when someone thanks him) “You’re too kind,” making him sound like he’s in a receiving line.

And, as inevitably happens when an ironist puts away his mask, there’s a bit of the Boy Who Cried Wolf effect. When Oprah Winfrey finally came on his show, ending their years-long feud, or “feud,” Letterman told her, “It means a great deal to have you.”

“Does it really?” she replied. “Or are your just doing your Dave thing?”

Ironically, you couldn’t really tell.

Iwo Jima Letter

IMG_1873This past Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents almost precisely sixty years earlier. Years later, Bob would cofound a major philanthropic venture called Lambs Farm, which is still in operation. But at the time, he was a twenty-year-old Chicago kid, half a world away from home. Here’s what he wrote.

 

IN PORT

March 22, 1945

Dear Mother and Dad:

I guess this might be called “An Anniversary”, because it was a month today that I received my Battle Colors – in the invasion of IWO JIMA. Inklings of the momentous engagement came to me from the thunderous salvos of our warships tearing the Japs and their island to bits. From three o’clock when I first answered the call to man my battle station I could see the crimson and orange of cannon lightning and the brilliant bursting of star shells as they radiated their glow of death. And in the clear of the dawn I saw the midget of land – small, and so out of place in the vastness of the ocean, like a tree on a desert – “Hell’s Acre”, two and a half miles wide and five miles long.

Even in the happy newness of an early morning sun, the island looked desolate and grimly pale – first from the haze of exploding Jap guns and the bursting of our bombs from dive bombers and later from the mist of a miserable rain that kept falling throughout the day. On the signal bridge I watched the first assault of our Invading Amphibious Units that struck about a mile from Mount Surabachi, which was the strategic key to the whole island. The amphibious detachments from the ARTEMIS followed in another of the early landings.

Up until today, I have never given you the full “dope” quote about the ARTEMIS. I told you it was a cargo ship – but neglected to mention that it is also Amphibious. I only did this because I didn’t want you to fret too much – but now that a major engagement has been accomplished without a single casualty to our Crew, I feel that now is the time, for your mind ought to be more at ease. Please remember that I do not hit the beach with Amphibious Units. I remain on the mother ship (ARTEMIS) to discharge cargo, man the anti-aircraft guns and haul our invasion boats aboard when they return for fuel or a night’s lodging. It’s a good thing you are not up on our Navy symbols, or you might have discovered my well meant secret along time ago. It’s all in the address as “A “stands for Attack, “K” for Cargo and “A” for Amphibious – (AKA-21)

I believe you have seen the type of invasion small boats we have, either in the movies or in the newspapers. They are nick-named “Sea Going Jeeps.” I’ve ridden in them a number of times for transportation purposes and each trip is a new thrill as their flat bottoms make them as unpredictable as a “hobby horse”. They ride the waves as stoughtly as a beer truck churns down Division St. The front collapses and forms a ramp when they drive up on the beach so the troops can disembark faster and safer – and that’s about all there is to the hidden talents of the “”Mighty A”. Our convoy had formed back in Pearl Harbor and then went to the Marshalls and from there to our last jumping off place, Saipan, in the Marianas. Naval Regulations prohibit any mention of contact with enemy units until thirty days after the initial encounter, so you can see why I did not tell you about it sooner.

A horde of wonderings must be creeping into your mind, and all without answers. Most of them usual queries and having the usual answers. Was I scared? – and how! My nomination for the supreme heroes of IWO JIMA are the United States Marines who left four thousand comrades behind to be buried in the volcanic rock hundreds of miles away from those they love. To a thousand of that immortal four thousand who never made the summit of Mt. Surabachi, but whose death were stepping stones for the Marines that did, there should be some higher tribute.

I saw the American flag raised atop the crater and I cheered – but I did not know how blood red was that Star Spangled Banner. We had a few air raids that made me a few years older – but then one expects those things when stealing apples from under his enemy’s nose. After all, it was the boldest assault we’ve pulled so far, only six hundred miles from Japan. I had a box seat in fact, our ship was so close that the shells from our battleship screamed and whistled as they passed directly overhead. It’s no use telling you about the strategy or progress of the battle, because those who know how to tell it have already done so a hundred times. We won only because we out-fought the Japs.

All the advantages were on their side as we played in their ball park against fortifications that were impregnable except by direct attack with flame throwers and without the element of surprise for Tokyo have been broadcasting an accurate prophecy about the possible invasion of IWO two weeks before it came off. Yes, we were all scared when we first entered the battle, but I’ll bet the Japs wet their pants too. After the aweness of the fracas wore off nothing bothered us and we spent most of the leisure time of our remaining three days preparing special snacks of toasted cheese and spam sandwiches and large pots of hot coffee. Our reverie was disturbed somewhat by a “big ass Betty” (Jap Bomber) that came to see if the uninvited guests were still around – and damn it, we were!

My most memorable personal experience was the hoisting aboard of Marine casualties with our ten ton boom. It seemed everything was against our getting them safely on deck except GOD, and it was only through Him that we did it. The water had devastating swells that pitched the small boats we were hosting the Marines from unmercifully and to harass matters more, it was pitch dark. It took an hour to accomplish a task that normally would have taken fifteen minutes. Some of the Marines had arms blown off, others suffered shrapnel wounds and one died the next morning from severe burns he received when a tank blew up from a bomb hit. And so that night I witnessed my first burial at sea.

Two shells were strapped to his legs for weights and then he was placed upon a wooden plank that extended over the side of the ship. A huge American flag was placed over the body and threatened to blow off thru out the ceremony. I can’t describe how sad I felt when the plank was raised and I heard the body splash into the water. The empty flag looked so lonely and it seemed to wave farewell to a very dear friend. I guess that’s the first time I’ve cried since I’ve been in the Navy – tears for a buddy whose name I didn’t even know, but in a sense of comradeship I knew him because he played on my team and was an outstanding hero. I don’t know how this sounds to you – I hope not too dramatic, because really I can’t ever write exactly how I did feel – can anyone recite a perfect prayer?

Speaking of prayers moves me to thank the Clan and especially you, who have always remembered me in your daily prayers. I owe you much for the way those prayers have been answered. I nor any other member of the Crew received a scratch.

I’m in pretty safe waters at the present and I have no idea just how long we are to remain here. The best thing about this vacation is all the lost sleep I’m finally catching up on. Also the movies which are all I look forward to. We have them every night and they have all been marvelous such as “Going My Way” (third time I saw it and could see it again) “Since You Went Away”, “The Pirate and the Princess”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and others. I read “Keys of the Kingdom” four years ago when I was a sophomore and I can remember recommending you to read it as it is one of the finest books I have ever read.

I received a swell letter from you today and was happy to know that Russ is finally on his way and you are all well.

Love,

BOB

 

 

 

Dylan Does Sinatra

Yesterday, Bob Dylan put his rendition of “Stay With Me” on the internet. It’s the second track (after “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) from his forthcoming Shadows in the Night that the singer’s people have made available. Sounds to me like it was recorded on Dylan’s recent tour, where he used the song as an encore.

The lineup of Shadows in the Night, consisting entirely of songs originally recorded by Frank SInatra, is passing strange, and I wrote a piece about it for Slate, to be published tomorrow. In the meantime, a couple of thoughts about “Stay With Me,” a truly obscure number. The melody is Jerome Moross’s theme from the 1963 film The Cardinal. Presumably on Sinatra’s request, Carolyn Leigh–cowriter of his previous hits “Young at Heart,” “Witchcraft,” and “The Best Is Yet to Come”–put lyrics to it:

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I’m wrong,
Though the rose buckles under where I walk, walk along
Till I find to my wonder every task least to see,
Or that I can do it, pray, stay with me.
Stay with me.

The pious and (to me) moving simplicity of those words are one of the strange things about the song, as Leigh (born Carolyn Rosenthal) was known for her tricky rhyme schemes and eminently secular concerns. In any case, Sinatra’s recording, with the trademark strings of arranger Gordon Jenkins, peaked at number 81 on the charts.

Dylan probably heard it on the Sinatra ’65! album, whose title, echoing Beatles ’65, was a recognition that in terms of being in the pop mainstream, Sinatra was about to leave the building. The Dylan version, replacing strings with pedal steel guitar, calls to mind the singer’s gospel fling in the ’80s, but is of a piece with his recent explorations of vulnerability in its many forms. He sounds weary and just a little cold; when he sings about the rose, buckling, his voice buckles, too. At all events, a touching and completely unexpected performance.

Remembering Ervin Drake

Drake-obit-articleLarge

Ervin Drake in 2001. New York Times photograph by Maxine Hicks.

I was sad to read in the New York Times the other day of the death of songwriter Ervin Drake, at the age of 95. When I was embarking on The B-Side, one of the first people I walked to was Michael Feinstein, the songwriter, pianist, and drum-beater for the Great American Songbook. He gave me Mr. Drake’s phone number and said I should interview him, as the last living link to the pre-War Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting.

Good advice. When I called the number, a woman answered; she turned out to be Mrs. Drake, the former Edie Bein, and she turned out to be in charge of his schedule and affairs. In short order I arranged to drive out to the Drake home in Great Neck, Long Island, for a conversation. It was a good talk. He ranged over this long career as a songwriter, television producer, and advocate for songwriters. Here is some of what I wrote:

Songwriter Ervin Drake—born Ervin Maurice Druckman in New York in 1919—had been drawn to the trade in part by his older brother Milton, who’d had some success on Tin Pan Alley, notably with “The Java Jive,” a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940. He got his big break as a result of the radio networks’ 1941 ban of songs by writers affiliated with the venerable licensing group ASCAP. Ralph Peer, a country-oriented publisher who was affiliated with a competing organization, BMI, asked Drake to write lyrics for a traditional Brazilian song called “Tico Tico no Fuba.” The Andrews Sisters charted with the tune in 1944. He developed a specialty in providing English to words South American melodies, including “Yo Te Amo Mucho (And That’s That),” which Xavier Cugat played in a movie called “Holiday in Mexico,” and “You Can in Yucatan,” performed by Desi Arnaz. Also in 1944, Drake wrote the lyrics for Duke Ellington’s instrumental “Perdido.” Between the successes, there was a lot of hustling. “I put in nights sitting in places that were part restaurant, part dance halls,” he recalled. “I’d try to get next to the bandleader and give him a song of my own.”

In contrast to many Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Drake had a social conscience. In 1943, in reaction to the racial and religious segregation practiced by hotels and restaurants, he wrote a tune he called “No Restricted Signs in Heaven.” He took the song to a new recording label, Capitol Records, which had been started just a year before by two songwriters, Johnny Mercer and Buddy De Sylva, and Glen Wallichs, a record-store owner.

“I didn’t want it to seem like a message song so I did it with a boogie-woogie tempo,” Drake said of “No Restricted Signs” in a 1996 interview. “Johnny wanted to record it. He showed it to his partner, and Glen said, ‘John, the way things are in this country if you record that song we will lose our distributorship.’” So Capitol passed, but the musician and producer Enoch Light ended up taking the song to a gospel group called the Golden Gate Quartet, who released their version in 1946.

The biggest hit of Drake’s early career, by contrast, would be unplayable today because it is almost entirely made up of crude racial stereotypes. Lying in the bathtub one day, as he recalls, the song came to him in its entirety: a novelty number called “Rickety Rickshaw Man,” whose lyrics begin “There’s a coolie name o’ Chulee/Runs a rickety rickshaw south of Peking/He goes a clippety-clop-clop/Clippety-clop-clop/As he hobbles down the cobble-stoned street.” Ralph Peer persuaded a sweet bandleader Eddy Howard to record the song, which reached number 6 on the Billboard charts in 1946.

As usual, Drake careered from the ridiculous to the sublime, this time drawing from his own life. He had been dating a showgirl named Edith Bein and felt deeply in love with her. But she began to be courted by “all these Wall Street types,” Drake told Will Friedwald in 2009. “I felt like I couldn’t compete, so I just withdrew from her life.” In the midst of the subsequent depression, he heard a haunting melody by Irene Higginbotham. “It hit me — smack!” he said in the Friedwald interview. “This is exactly what I felt when Edith left me. So in about 20 minutes I wrote the whole lyric to ‘Good Morning Heartache.’” A couple of months later, Billie Holiday made an immortal recording of the song, and it has since become a blues standard.

When I sat and talked to Drake in his Great Neck, New York, home in 2010, sitting in on the conversation was his wife. It was none other than the former Edith Bein. The two had reunited in 1975, after their respective spouses had died.

Drake would go on to co-write the inspirational credo “I Believe” and, on his own, the songs for a Broadway adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run?, which included the swinging “A Room Without Windows.” In 1961, he wrote an elegaic ballad for The Kingston Trio. Four years later, Frank Sinatra heard it on his car radio driving to Palm Springs, California; his recording won him a Grammy award and was a staple of his concerts from that point on. The song? “It Was a Very Good Year.”

Upcoming Appearances

I’ll be hitting the road in the new year to discuss The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song.

January 27
Philadelphia, PA
Free Library
7:30 PM

January 28
Swarthmore, PA
Swarthmore Public Library
7 PM

February 5
New York City
92nd Y
With the Bucky Pizarelli Duo
12 PM

March 9
New York City
House of Speakeasy at City Winery
8 PM

March 10
New York City
New York Public Library – Midtown branch
6:30 PM

March 19
New York City
Library for the Performing Arts
6:00 PM

April 9
Boston, MA
Boston Public Library
6 PM

You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik Continue reading

Agree to Disagree

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working with a student, I would correct the verb to read “changes.”  Can you give me a quick lesson if I’m incorrect?

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When is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dylan: “It was too damn daunting, you were too great.” That’s roughly how I feel about (first-rate) novelists. Continue reading

Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the two men’s complicated political and personal friendship, and (the ostensible subject) an account of the two presidents’ relations with muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and S.S. McClure. Continue reading