“The Man That Got Away,” from the 1954 version of A Star is Born, is one the prototypical torch song numbers ever filmed. It’s 3:00 am and the nightclub is closed. The floors are mopped and chairs stacked high—the audience long gone home to sleep it off. In a single blue light, the singer and musicians huddle close together, speaking to each other in a coded language: one more for the road—just for us. “Take it from the top,” says the piano player, and the singer turns, leans into the light, and begins the song again, telling her plaintive story of heartbreak with piercing intensity, as if this very act of expression can vanquish psychic pain or patch a broken heart.
Musical moments of this sort can only happen when real players perform real songs sung by real singers in those hushed moments before the sun comes up. The song they’re playing is, inevitably, a torch song, a lament of love lost or unrequited love. We could be in any town in any year: Patsy Cline singing “I Fall To Pieces” in 1958; Janis Joplin singing “Piece of My Heart” in 1968; Helen Morgan singing “Don’t Ever Leave Me” in 1928; Aretha Franklin singing “Ain’t No Way” in 1968; Adele singing “Someone Like You” in 2011; or Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away” in 1954. It could be country, R&B, pop, and, God knows, always the blues. We could be watching a film, or a broadway show, or be out at a club hearing it live, but there will be certain constants, for the themes of love lost and love unreciprocated are universal, transcending musical genres and cultural boundaries. Or are they?
Adele notwithstanding (and I challenge you to name another artist that has emerged in the recent past to, forgive the pun, carry the torch), the one obstacle that seems to have created a formidable barrier to the continuation of certain fine musical traditions is the hardened, impassive gaze of our culture’s remarkable shift toward self-absorption and the lack of discernment that accompanies the democratization of the media. “Tell us what YOU think!” Fooey! Here’s what I think: this new world, defined by digital information-overload and shrinking attention spans, presents the paradox of making nearly everything accessible at the same time that it constricts the aperture of curiosity to a pinhole that peers out into a hall of mirrors. Is there any other way to understand the phenomena of social media?
Fronting has replaced feeling and nowhere is that more apparent than in our popular music. A culture of air quotes depends on irony and it’s attendant repudiation of sentiment much the way brokenhearted Judy Garland depended on her audience’s love, but unfortunately for Judy’s legacy, it also seems defined by a marked lack of interest in historical matters, dismissing any reference to any significant event that pre-dates oneself with a detached “dude, that happened before I was born!” But there is another major factor that I feel has contributed to a disruption of interest in certain musical traditions: the loss of a generation of gay men to AIDS, which seems to have left a lasting imprint not only on our hearts but also on our ears, for it seems clear that many young gay men simply don’t hear music the same way their older brethren did.
I never thought I’d have to write about the enduring value of a song like “The Man That Got Away” or an artist of Judy Garland’s stature with the specific objective of persuading anyone of their inherent value, but I was so distressed by a recent article in the New York Times by Robert LeLeux, “The Road Get’s Rougher For Judyism’s Faithful,” —which identified a generational shift away from appreciating the artistry of Garland and her ilk and meshed with my own observations over the last few decades—that I felt perhaps it shouldn’t be taken for granted that timeless music will actually be timeless: automatically handed down from generation to generation. But to go forward I need to go back for a moment.
I suppose by this time it’s a bit of a 20th-century gay cliche: a man came out of the closet and before he could click his heels three times he was in possession of his very own copy of Judy at Carnegie Hall or My Name is Barbra or Bette Midler’s Songs For The New Depression. Yes, I know I’m generalizing, but trust me, I was there and this was true more than it wasn’t true. But this is a new century and it just may be that the younger generation of gay men seem to hear a different song, a song as removed from the traditions of pre-rock popular music as from any cognitive connection to the hardship and heartache of the pre—AIDS era men who adored it well into the MTV Eighties.
In these (comparatively) enlightened times, where legal marriage is the foremost issue on the gay political agenda and AIDS as a death sentence seems as distant as pop hits that aren’t about fucking or luxury goods, perhaps it’s difficult for young gay men to understand what the pre-AIDS era was like for their older brothers. Let’s be real: we lost nearly an entire generation of gay men and those that didn’t die led lives circumscribed by grief and fear. What didn’t happen in that long space from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s was a whole lot of mentoring or teaching, a communicated collective history that formerly would have occurred naturally, now pushed aside to accommodate fighting drug companies for new therapies, elected officials for money, and burying the dead. It seems that something else got buried amidst the grief of that time, a shared understanding of what we value culturally and what we, as gay men, identify as excellent.
For a three-minute musical sketch of the pre—Stonewall era psyche of the forlorn homosexual, check out Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s mid-1950s “Ballad of The Sad Young Men”, an evocative and tender song that, for me at least, produces a vaguely discomforting feeling, like a visit from an old uncle who obviates the denial that prevents us from feeling too aware of our own mortality. From this vantage point, the song’s gay-man-as-victim narrative succeeds more on the level of oral history and is a useful, gentle way to understand the line of demarcation between the pre- and post-AIDS expression of gay identity. Usually associated with Shirley Bassey, I prefer Roberta Flack’s poignant version from the early 1970s:
But what about you? If you’re, say, twenty-two and reading this and thinking things like, “Why should I care about stuff that happened before I was born?” I would say to you, “care about this because opening yourself up to a wider range of things will enrich your life and help you understand who you are and where you came from.” Then I would slap you, either hard or soft, depending on how implacable you seem and whether or not you use the words “Kesha” and “singer” in the same sentence. I would also tell you that you just may experience thrills and chills and be astounded by what gifted people from a not-so-long-ago past could do with the popular music of their day. You will be amazed at the wonder and the intensity and yes. the joy, of what the people who are as old to me as I am to you were able to create. It is not ephemeral, it is something else, perhaps something deeper. It’s worth the effort simply because it is superb.
In 1954 Judy Garland made a film, a comeback film after an ignominious departure from her former home, MGM, with the first musical version of A Star is Born, Warner Bros.’ Technicolor retelling of the old “one star rising, one star falling” Hollywood trope. One of the film’s finest moments came when James Mason, playing Garland’s husband, finds her in a small club after hours and watches her singing with the band from across the room, unaware she is being watched by him (or by us). In these private moments we sense the true wonder of Garland’s magnificent, God-given talent through the eyes of the man that loves her but whose ego cannot cope with the power of gift that is so abundant and so urgent that it simply jumps out at you. George Cukor, the film’s director and a gay man, labored hard over this sequence, shooting it not once but twice in a steadfast attempt to achieve the vision he desired. Not the least of the sequence’s impressive attributes is Cukor’s decision to film the song in a single take, imbuing the number with a sense of reality and cohesion that it might have otherwise lacked.
Naysayers or the uncurious novitiate may dismiss “The Man That Got Away” and Judy Garland as “corny,” and to them I would simply say: “if you have managed a broken heart without feeling empty, alone, and frightened, then there is nothing here for you and you wouldn’t appreciate the catharsis of a torch song in the first place.” Then I would slap you once again, either hard or soft, depending on your tone of voice and my mood.
For the rest of us, here is Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away”, the Oscar-nominated mother-of-all-torch-songs, written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. If you’ve seen it before, watch it again with fresh eyes and if you’ve never seen it, here is the genius of Judy Garland, a performer without peer. If you notice that you feel something else, something bigger than the song and sequence itself, I would suggest that you are actually feeling the spirit of all of the gay men who sat where you are sitting now, contemplating the perfection of Judy Garland in a cinematic moment where every element was passionately conceived and exquisitely rendered. In opening the aperture of your curiosity to take a look, you are, in fact, also honoring the memory and refined taste of all the “sad young men” who came before us and made our lives easier and happier for having lived their lives as best they could, people like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Laurents, Vito Russo, Paul Jabara, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Callen, George Cukor, Jerome Robbins, Vincente Minnelli, Roger Edens, Truman Capote, Montgomery Clift, and all the men whose names are now lost to time.
Let’s pass the music along, not only because it is our history, but also because it is exceedingly good.
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Torch Song Elegy, Volume 2: How to Reduce Twentieth-Century Gay History to a Stereotype in Three Lines or Less
Torch Song Elegy, Volume 3: Bombshell! An Open Letter to Christina Aguilera Exposing the “Dirrty” Secret She Doesn’t Want You to Know!