Sunday, December 22, 2013

Lyricist Sammy Cahn: So He's Responsible!

Reflection on the life and work of lyricist Sammy Cahn 1913-1993. See sources listed at the end of this article.

"Call me irresponsible / Yes, I'm unreliable / But it's undeniably true, / I'm irresponsibly mad for you!"  (Cahn, 1962).  Lyricist Sammy Cahn was proud of the "neatness" of the partial rhyme between "unreliable" and "undeniably," and he liked to point out that those five-syllable words come from a guy reared in "a one-syllable neighborhood."  He was responsible for dozens of songs that I've enjoyed singing with Frank and Tony and Cleo for many years now, but I've never been sure which songs were his.  That's because so many of his songs share the quality of sounding so natural that no one had to write them, says Mark Steyn, citing the universally-known first lines of "Let it Snow!" :  "Oh, the weather outside is frightful / But the fire is so delightful...." 
(L-R) Composer Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, and Frank Sinatra
Even those five-syllable words sound natural, once our ear accepts "irresponsible" in the first line.  Cahn often had to work to integrate difficult words or phrases into his songs, writing on assignment from movie execs who wanted him to work the title of a movie into the theme song.  This one was for a movie called "Papa's Delicate Condition," a euphemism for the main character's drunkenness.  "Irresponsible" was another euphemism, used often in the script; thus, this song is for an irresponsible, self-deprecating and charming man (to be played by Fred Astaire, but ultimately portrayed by Jackie Gleason).

Early in his memoir I Should Care, Cahn tells how the eponymous ballad nearly wrote itself.  "I should care, I should go around weeping," he wrote.  What could follow but, "I should care, I should go without sleeping?"  Another song illustrates the principle:  "Starting with the 'ABC' of it / Right down to the 'XYZ' of it / Help me solve the mystery of it / Teach me tonight." 

Mark Steyn points out that repeated phrases account for a large percentage of any Cahn lyric.  "Come Fly With Me" mentions "flying" three times in the first ten syllables.   "Let it Snow!" is repeated three times at the end of each stanza.  Cahn told Steyn that that's not just repetition,  "That's lyric."  In poetry, in essay-writing, even in stories, repetition feels like missed opportunities to be specific about setting, place, intentions, nuances. In lyrics for songs intended to be sung in parlors and dance halls across the country, you don't want to be too specific; you want something catchy (from Renaissance "catch," or refrain) and pleasantly predictable.  

In 1985, Cahn expounded on this quality of his lyrics when he told interviewer Terry Gross that a song's title implies "the architecture" of it.   For example, in his memoir, Cahn describes writing one of his Oscar-winning songs.  As often was the case, the title was a given:  "Three Coins in the Fountain."   All he knew about the film was that three women visiting Rome throw three coins in a fountain and make wishes.  He quickly sketched out these lines:

Three coins in the fountain,
Each one seeking happiness,
Thrown by three hopeful lovers,
Which one will the fountain bless?

Composer Jule Styne instantly worked out the melody, "which meant Styne was three-fourths done with the song because the theme repeated three times."  That's the music's AABA "architecture."  But Cahn had a big problem:  "I'd said all I had to say with those lines I'd written."  He just repeated the idea, adding in a reference to Rome, as each "heart" is "longing for its home."  He needed to develop some idea in a "bridge" to a climax.  What idea was left to develop?  He handed Styne a single line, repeated:  "Which one will the fountain bless?  Which one will the fountain bless?"   Styne was "incredulous," and said, "It stinks."  But he built the music up under the repetition.  The lyric ends with "Make it mine!  Make it mine! Make it mine!"   (Cahn 174).

While Cahn intended this to be an illustration of resourcefulness and craftsmanship, his story confirms my distaste for the song.  In words cribbed from a pan of Neil Simon, I'd say Sammy Cahn had nothing to write a song about, but he wrote it anyway.  Sinatra hands us the song wrapped in strings, but it's an empty package.  Cahn commented ruefully in 1985 that the song had made a lot of money for him in its day, but that day had passed.  I'd observe that it's the kind of schmaltz that led to the folk-rock reaction, to eschew craft in favor of "authenticity."

Cahn tells a similar story about the assignment to write a title song for a movie called "The Tender Trap."  Once he had thought of the rhyme "snap," the song "snapped" into place.  On inspiration, he added a repetition to each stanza:  "Those eyes, those sighs, / They're part of the Tender Trap" (150). He draws on his own experience for the next line: "You're acting kind of smart, and then your heart just goes 'whap'";  then there's a honeymoon "at a spot that's just a dot / on the map."  "You fell in love," he concludes, "and love is the tender trap."  It's a pleasure to see it all fit together so easily, so naturally.

Apart from Cahn's tales of writing songs, his memoir leaves us with a couple of strong impressions.  From the first, he was the little guy who was able to push himself into the company of the big boys.  In fact, from the lower east side of New York to the street in Hollywood where his neighbors included Judy Garland and some other big-name stars and producers, what we get is a feeling of Cahn with a pack of guys who interacted with each other a lot like 8th Grade boys, where Frank Sinatra was "the popular boy": Blue jokes, insult jokes, pick - up baseball games, some rough-housing, some misbehavior (with gambling, booze, and women), some tiffs and -- Cahn's specialty -- elaborate musical skits to "honor" guys on their birthdays. 

The other strong impression is of the first marriage, what he called "Camelot," which broke up when the wife Gloria felt somehow unsatisfied.  Cahn has an epiphany during an awkward session with his wife's psychoanalyst, who goads him into punching the analyst's couch until tears flow.  Cahn reflects, about hatred,

It might feel good for a while, like when your eye itches like hell and you rub it and it feels so good that you rub it some more -- then you pay like hell for your momentary indulgence with a sore and puffed and maybe infected eye for days to come. (186)

He preferred the approach of his gentle father who couldn't "whack" his children even now and then.

To the perennial question "Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?" Cahn quipped, "The phone call."  At the time of his memoir, 1974, he was on Broadway in a revue of his own "Words and Music."  (Summer, 1974 was my first visit to Broadway, and I vaguely recall passing by the theatre.)   Happy as he was about that, he seemed a bit bewildered that, for years, "the phone hasn't been ringing."  Except to write parodies of his own songs for special occasions, he didn't write what he called "money songs" again. 

My survey of the internet for "Cahn's last years" brought me a lovely anecdote in a blog by Derek Sivers, who was 20 when he assisted Cahn at his office.  Cahn was evidently irascible, and others in the office avoided him.  But one morning, when Sivers found Cahn cursing the coffee machine, Sivers laughed and said, "Mr. Cahn, I like you."  He writes that "a mask dropped" and Cahn replied gently, "Thank you."  A couple of years later, Sivers had a vivid dream of encountering a much-younger Cahn and reassuring him that his songs would still be valued 40 years later.  Again, "a mask dropped" in the dream, and Cahn thanked Sivers.  The young man wrote the vivid dream, to find out the news hours later that Cahn had died that morning, January 15, 1993.

 I recommend my sources:

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