Peggy Lee on the Radio

The NH5 is a trucker’s highway; it runs from Chennai to very nearly Calcutta, bypassing most of the cities it comes across, choosing, instead, to traverse miles of marshland and baked earth: not one of your charming Bombay-to-Goa hauls, this one; there isn’t anything as friendly as a Coffee Day in sight, and you’ll have to content yourself with unlit shacks by the roadside if you want a bite to eat. There aren’t even many of those. As you drive, you pass hundreds of lorries, unseeing and unaware of you in your matchbox car, trudging methodically, repetitively ever onward under the pitiless Andhra sun, like giant, rolling alien-ants: after a while you start to wonder if they’re not really the same lorry over and over and over yet again that you’re passing, hour upon hour in the empty land that separates the corners of this never-ending country.

If you’ve been on the road over twenty hours, all through the harsh bright day and now well into the night, your brain might be rubbed raw from fatigue and repetition; if you’re wired like I am, you’ll find cogitation gradually giving way to fantasy, the world around you slowly turning vivid and unreal as you bowl forth through the gently drifting tail-lights.

Picture this, then: it’s past one in the morning, and I’m worn-out, stiff, and restless, cocooned in the driver’s seat without a soul to talk to – everybody else is fast asleep – with three hundred kilometres still to go before the night’s halt, flicking through the music system aimlessly – next, next, boring, next – until I arrive at something I don’t immediately identify (the comp on has a lot of stuff I’ve been meaning to listen to, but haven’t yet), a soft horn and a what sounds like a music-box, almost apologetic in their diffidence, barely audible above the hum of the engine and the tick of the dashboard clock.

This is Peggy Lee’s take on that stalwart of the standards, the Way You Look Tonight, as I come to recognise shortly: you know the song already, or you ought to, it’s the one Fred Astaire sings to Ginger Rogers in Swing Time and has been covered by everybody and their aunt since. The Fred Astaire version is a charmer, as affectionate and winning as you’d expect: he possesses the same easy intelligence and impish good-cheer that runs through James Thurber’s writing and Paul Desmond’s saxophone in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Every recording of it since has tried either to recreate that memorable scene or squeeze sentimentality out of it (Rod Stewart singing it for the nightclub jet-set etc.), the strain of which a song like this simply can’t bear.

Lee, with Benny Goodman to direct her talents, does differently. The arrangement is sparse, warm but restrained. The horn (trombone?) plays out the melody for a verse as the music-box (xylophone?) tinkles on alongside it (other wonderful tracks with xylophones: Sunday Morning – the Velvet Underground, It’s the Little Things – Patty & the Emblems). Done this starkly, the tune – famous as it is – sounds so elegant, so full of grace, so universal and pure to my exhausted, susceptible ears that I’m momentarily stunned. It almost makes me curl up where I sit as if I’ve been punched in the tummy, gives me goosebumps as the night speeds by outside the rolled-up windows, the dials glowing blue in the darkness. (Later, I was to find that Dorothy Fields, who wrote the words, said, “The first time [Jerome Kern, the composer] played that melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.”)

Key change. Ms. Lee starts to sing. “Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold.” I know, I’ve been awfully low before, I understand how that one works. “I will feel a glow just thinking of you.” “A glow” or “aglow”? Never mind, this isn’t the time. “Just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight.” Plink, plonk. Ah, sigh.

“Oh, but you’re lovely.” I have an epiphany then, that, I realise later, will probably be impossible to explain to a sane world: it’s that “oh” which sets Peggy Lee apart as a singer. Nobody else I know has sung the “oh” quite like that. If you think of syllables as investments – though I’d fear for the state of your mental health if you did – you’d conclude that the return on net assets (as it were) here is out of all proportion to what has gone in. The “oh” takes a matter of microseconds, less than a breath’s worth of effort. And it is an entirely more heartfelt, more intimate, more loving song for it. Nilanjana Roy says of journalist Kate Boo that it’s hard to fully appreciate how much work lies behind her low-key writing: the same goes for Peggy Lee. She’s a great singer and you wouldn’t know it because her strengths are in subtlety and detail: you can only tell when you try and imagine someone else doing the same things. Because anybody at all can sing a song this simple: it just wouldn’t be as special without Lee. (Other cases of an extra syllable going a long way: the “catch you with another man and that’s the end-ah” in Run for your Life – it wouldn’t be the track it is without the “ah”. And the stutter in My Generation – “People try to put us d-down”. A tiny touch, when you really think about it. And inspired.) “There is nothing for me, but to love you.”

Cue bridge. What a singer this woman is, turning a song of fondness into a song of longing as easily as that. A small bump on this happy trail, though: “and that smile that wrinkles your nose” gives a little too much away of the song’s show-tune birth. What works as a bit of light-heartedness in the capable hands of Fred Astaire highlights, momentarily, that Lee’s interpretation wasn’t originally intended, that she’s dealing with material written for other purposes. No matter, it is a mild glitch and passes nearly unnoticed, to join the endless and inconsequential queue of brilliant songs with a solitary bum line (topping this particular list is Picture This by Blondie, but that’s a far bigger cock-up with no excuse at all: a pained, yearning song with some of the finest lyrics yet penned, which then suffers a crippling hit on the broadside with that thing about showering.)

(Aside on Picture This: for me, it is Blondie’s high-water mark, where they marry their power pop with heartbreak and regret to devastating, brilliant results. Each verse has a beautifully written couplet to start it off: “All I want is a room with a view, a sight worth seeing, a vision of you.” “All I want is a photo in my wallet, a small remembrance of something more solid.” “All I want is twenty-twenty vision, a total portrait with no omissions.” Each verse, that is, except the second: “I will give you my finest hour, the one I spent watching you shower.” What the…?! End of aside.)

Anyway. Peggy Lee and the Way You Look Tonight. The bridge rises, gently heaves and sets you down, light as a feather, on the final verse. “Love me and never, never change.” Sometimes I think that that line should have been “never let me go” instead. (There’s something about a line like “never let me go“, it works on a primal, powerful level – it clings to you more strongly than “don’t let me go” or “always stay” or anything else that would, on paper, mean the same thing. Words are strange and operate in more complicated ways than a thesaurus would suggest. Good writers know this. Only pedants think that one synonym is as good as another.)

“Love me and never, ever change”, then, “for I love you”. In the oldest, most enduring traditions of the love song, it is all laid out in the clearest terms. Peggy Lee & the Benny Goodman Orchestra mould a bouncy movie tune into a work of elegance and refinement, revealing, in the process, the pure beauty that lies at the core of this song.

Peggy Lee & Benny Goodman recorded their version in 1941. The entire track lasts just over three minutes. The goosebumps have lasted much longer, through the rest of that trip, and beyond. They may never go away.

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