Tuesday, December 20, 2011

24. “Lush Life”

Composed by Billy Strayhorn; first performed publicly in 1948

“Lush Life” is one of the most beautiful songs in the American “standard” canon, and not coincidentally it contains a rhyming couplet so abysmal (“awful” paired with “trough full” – full "of hearts," no less) that one has to assume that Strayhorn, who composed the song over a period of years starting when he was sixteen (sixteen!) and well before he had even met Duke Ellington, had to have known what a bummer it was and left it in, deliberately. It sits there like a pill any singer just has to choke down quickly, except its taste never quite gets past you. Neil Young once claimed he originally wrote over a hundred verses for “Sugar Mountain” and left in the very worst of them, “just to show what can happen.” “Lush Life” is entirely about that, and it is also about that pill. The original title, “Life Is Lonely,” thankfully gave way to a title with the truest of double meanings, insofar as it runs in two directions: not just happiness and romance leading to a despairing alcoholic aftermath but - more problematic – back again. And again. His happiness and despair seem interchangeable, but what they are is all of a piece.

Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.

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