The Famous Door
Identity is a wildly elastic thing in the world of pop stardom, and it always has been. As human objects of fantasy, pop stars provide a way for their fans to project their maddest dreams of transformation. Eleanora Fagan escapes a torturous childhood, slips a gardenia in her hair, and becomes Billie Holiday. Robert Zimmerman shakes off his middle-class Jewish background, takes on a rockabilly persona and starts singing under the name of Elston Gunn, only to change his mind and go with a third identity, Bob Dylan. Farrokh Bulsara turns into Freddie Mercury. Onika Maraj becomes Nicki Minaj.
This Sunday, April 1st, marks the first anniversary of the reported death of Nick Hathaway, the genre- and taste-defying songsmith known for having the kind of talent that is truly not to be believed. For the tens of fans of Hathaway’s music around the world and in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, the past year has been as eventful as any other. Yet eventfulness is hardly the measure of Nick Hathaway's life and work. Nor is quality, that big bugaboo of critics, artists, audiences, and others who like the arts.
Much is being made this month of the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Dylan's eponymous first album, a collection of grim traditionals and blues, along with two unpropitious originals in the mode of Dylan's early model, Woody Guthrie. Recorded in November 1961 and released five months later, the record had little impact north of Washington Square Park and was soon remaindered for sale in dime-store budget bins.
Lana Del Rey, the pouty-lipped chanteuse of teen pop’s arty strain, has been the object of chat-room squabbling that would no doubt have tickled Davy Jones, the fan fave of The Monkees, those injection-molded models of career engineering in popular music. Jones, who died of a heart attack at age 66 this week, spent his professional life as a target of ridicule by rock critics and advocates of authenticity in the rock world. Like Del Rey, Jones was endowed with adolescent good looks, a prettiness that made his musical ability suspect.
Before Bruce Springsteen put together the first incarnation of the E Street Band, forty years ago, he had a scrappy little bar band called Steel Mill, which played at my friend Doug Mendini’s eighth-grade graduation party. Like Springsteen, Doug and I were both literary-minded products of New Jersey factory towns (I worked for the summer before my first year of college in a steel foundry, on the late shift with my father), and a tenuous early sense of kinship with Springsteen has given me a weakness for his work.
The notion of a “cover”—the performance of a song that the performer did not write as something exceptional—is a relatively recent one in the long history of song. The act was simply called “singing” for the many centuries when composers did the work of creation, and singers took care of the separate but significantly creative work of interpretation. Blues, folk, and other vernacular musicians, abandoning the hierarchal rules of the specialization model, transformed the song culture in this country and made songwriting and singing a unified art of individualistic expression.
By codified reputation and tradition, if not always by practice, a few famous venues of musical presentation in New York have long represented achievement in their areas: in classical music, Carnegie Hall, of course; in jazz, the Village Vanguard; and in punk, C.B.G.B. (There are comparable institutions in hip hop and other musics.) C.B.G.B. closed four years ago and is now a clothing boutique, and its counterpart in the field of cabaret, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, folded this Thursday.
An academy more ephemeral than Kaplan University, the body of movie-industry workers who vote for the Oscars acted with rare judiciousness this week and made only two nominations—the lowest number in Academy Award history—for Best Original Song. To qualify, a tune must have been composed especially for the film in which it appears, and it must play within the body of the movie or immediately at the end.
There’s a cheeky scene in Born Yesterday, George Cukor’s Americanized upending of Pygmalion,that casts light on the thinking behind the marquee at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway this season. About a third of the way into the Cukor film, William Holden, on assignment to instill class in Judy Holiday, takes her to the symphony. “What's the name of this number, did you say?” she asks him. “Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Opus Thirty-Six,” he answers. “I didn’t ask you who made it up,” she snaps back.
Empowered to endow in more ways than one, the National Endowment for the Arts did its job of bestowing prestige at a lavish event at Jazz at Lincoln Center this past week in honor of five musicians named as NEA Jazz Masters: the drummer Jack DeJohnette, the saxophonist Von Freeman, the bassist Charlie Haden, the singer Sheila Jordan, and the trumpeter Jimmy Owens.