Books

The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs by Michael Feinstein

The photoshopped cover invites us inside—it shows a mod-coiffed Michael barely out of his teens at a piano with George and Ira Gershwin looking over his shoulder.

At the age of 20, Feinstein left Columbus, Ohio for Hollywood and within a year was introduced to June Levant, widow of Oscar Levant, who In turn introduced him to Lenore Gershwin and her aged husband Ira. Whatever her failings (and they seem to have been many) Lenore had the good sense to hire Feinstein as a cataloguer of a lifetime of material kept in a closet at the family home on Roxbury Drive. Michael already was a pianist and a student of the Gershwins’ work. For the next six years, he became Ira’s friend as well as his employee.

“I am the odd duck whose fascination with musical history makes me feel a close kinship with past generations,” writes Feinstein. The friendship allowed him to unearth amazing material connected to the Gershwins – a GT (“good tunes”) notebook belonging to George, the distinctive pattern of which is reproduced as background throughout the book, sheet music, notes, letters, records and more. Photographs, many of them sepia-toned, are both personal and professional in nature and are as crucial to the book’s appeal as the text. There are reproductions of original pages of scores, publicity shots, movie posters.

Each chapter begins with the full lyrics from a Gershwin song. Then Michael tells about its origin but also relates an aspect of the Gershwin history. Thus Chapter 1 is both about “the music and the words” and about the unusual march “Strike Up the Band.” Anecdotes illuminate Feinstein’s intimate connection with the Gershwins: in this case, we learn that when the brothers adapted “Strike Up the Band” for UCLA, they were given lifetime seats to watch the Bruins play football.

Chapter 2 features “The Man I Love” and is also an introduction to the musical theater as it evolved during the 1920s and 1930s. Here, the author discovers that Ira has written an alternative lyric, “The Girl I Love.” He gets permission from Ira to sing both versions, wonders how the song might have worked as a hymn to gay as well as straight love, and says he thinks the “Girl” version is the better one.

When we get to the chapter titled “S’Wonderful” (also called “Ira and Me”), simply seeing the verse is a pleasure: “Life has just begun/Jack has found his Jill…” Michael tells us he obtained a vanity license plate, SWNDRFL . When he was parked at Elizabeth Taylor’s house one day, the cops showed up – a neighbor misread the plate as SWINDLER and was concerned about Liz’s guest.

Read the text in sequence and you’ll get a unique window into a particular moment in American cultural history, a loving but clear-eyed portrait of two very different siblings, the younger one outgoing, handsome and a genius, the older one shy, deferential and faithful. (Feinstein is ably assisted by writer Ian Jackman.) Or browse the book for its nostalgic artwork and scores from that earlier era. Either way, this stunning volume is a loving tribute, a good read, and a beautiful example of bookmaking, all in one.

The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs by Michael Feinstein. 2012. 352 pages. ISBN: 9781451645309. Simon and Schuster. [Also available in deluxe edition with CD and sheet music, and as an enhanced ebook.]

How Music Works by David Byrne

This book, too, is a handsome coffee-table product. Like the big suit he wore in Stop Making Sense, it is an expansive receptacle for the ideas of the often interesting but frequently meandering David Byrne, former lead singer of Talking Heads.

Byrne gives free rein to his views here, beginning with how we all learn to love sounds and sights in context, by communal experience. There is also a lot of other information that shows off the author’s wide research. The strength of the book lies in his insistence that music is valid whether made by amateurs or professionals; he believes that there should be no distinction between high art and low. The meaningful difference, he argues, is that between listening to recordings versus live music in a club or concert hall; “audiences love it when a performer walks the tightrope” between old favorites and new material.

Good so far, you nod–after all, Talking Heads evolved from simple songs for four performers to the brilliant breakthrough of Remain in Light with its African rhythms and multiple layers of instrumentation, a leap that could easily be realized in the studio but not by a four-piece stage band. Byrne then discloses how he followed his ears to larger bands, to Brazilian sounds, to downtown choreographers… and then, just when the reader is totally with him, he veers into a history of the recording industry from wax cylinders to downloads.

When he finds his way back to talking about writing lyrics and his collaborations with Brian Eno and others, he’s got your attention again. But even here, his pronouncements can be banal when they aren’t nonsensical: “Lyrics can be a dangerous addition to music.” (Yawn.) “It is the music and the lyrics that trigger the emotions within us rather than the other way around.” (Duh.) “We don’t make music–it makes us.” (Huh?) “Which is maybe the point of this whole book.” (Oh kaaay.)

Then things take another turn for the tedious. A chapter on Business and Finance drones on about how licensing and royalties work. (Pie charts! Boring!) Musicians have a harder time making big money now but are freer because they don’t need a huge pot of debt to rent a recording studio since they can record on a laptop now. (Good point.) Then another swerve, to the scene at the old CBGB. (Wonderful.) Topics abound and are wildly various: Billionaires fund high art even when their politics are awful – David Koch being a case in point. Byrne never “got” Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, “and I don’t feel any worse for it.”

And therein lies both the magic and the frustration of this book. Byrne’s agile, self-diagnosed borderline-Asperger’s mind skitters across topics throughout How Music Works. The book begs for a great editor but, alas, seems not to have had one.

How Music Works by David Byrne 2012. 345 pages. ISBN: 978-1936365531. McSweeney’s [Also available as an enhanced ebook]

– Grace Lichtenstein

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