Thursday, April 13, 2006

Without Pitney

It was only by a major force of will that I was able to overlook the untimely passing of vocalist-songwriter Gene Pitney last week, in the midst of my week-long Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon. Pitney died of natural causes -- on Corman's 8oth birthday -- at the age of 65, after giving a final concert performance to an appreciative audience of 1,100 in Cardiff, Wales. He was midway through a UK tour and was to have performed in Glasgow, Scotland the following night. BBC News interviewed a longtime fan, Wendy Brown, who spent some time speaking with Pitney (always accessible to fans) in his dressing room after the show; she reported that he "looked fine" and that his concert showed him to be "in great form." The last song he sang: "Town Without Pity."

It's hard to put this mysterious kinship into words, but I've always felt that my first intimations of the spirit to which I gravitate, not just in music but in all the arts, began around 1961-62, when songs like "Town Without Pity" and "Telstar" by The Tornados first seared through the sameness of Top 40 radio. I was only five or six years old, not a sophisticated listener, but whenever these songs came on the radio, I became very still. I became an active listener. They attuned me to something deep inside myself that naturally inclined toward the dark and the fantastical.

I would not realize for several years still to come that "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of a movie, a West German-US co-production starring Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann, about the gang rape of a young German girl by four US soldiers (two of them GOMER PYLE U.S.M.C.'s Frank Sutton and Robert Blake in a performance that points forward to his later work in IN COLD BLOOD) and how the ensuing trial "rapes" her in a different way, more decisively ruining her life and driving her to suicide. But it's appropriate that the vibe in that song for which I felt such affinity would turn out to have ties to what we now call Eurocult.

TOWN WITHOUT PITY is an affecting movie, though not a particularly good one, and when I finally got to see it for the first time in the late 1960s, it didn't eclipse the feelings I already had for the song. I think the song fits the story and the mood of the movie very well, but I also feel that it stands for a great deal more than the concrete situation about which it was written. (It was written, incidentally, by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington.) For example, I have gay friends who relate to "Town Without Pity" because it speaks to a relationship whose existence must be whispered between its two intimates, because society -- lyrically reduced to a "town" -- doesn't understand or condone their love. (This reading may have had something to do with why John Waters selected it for use in his HAIRSPRAY soundtrack.) At the time, it doubtless spoke just as directly to interracial lovers. There is also something about Tiomkin's music, its slinky 6/4 piano PERRY MASON atmosphere, that speaks even to innocent ears about corruption and despair, about a world of vice and law whose sheer opposing weight is geared to crush out what is best in the human heart through sheer oppression. So I guess you could say that my attraction to "Town Without Pity" was that it offered Top 40 listeners substantially more truth about the world at large ("it isn't very pretty...") than the average pop song.

Of course, it was Pitney's tortured vocal that brought the song so committedly to life. One of the most distinctive interpreters pop music has ever known, Pitney was a superior stylist, a tuneful enunciator who seemed to look past the lyric to each song's underlying meaning -- the soul of each word, and the spirit that strung them together. To hear such an unmistakable voice, one might expect it to be limited or unlikely to be flexible in terms of milieu, but Pitney was much more than just a maestro of octave-swooping melodrama. He could be twee in some song settings, but he could also sing convincingly from the stances of cowboys ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), truck drivers ("Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- a song whose chorus incidentally inspired the title of Hubert Selby Jr.'s hard-hitting novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), and even gondoliers. Pitney was one of the first pop vocalists to record foreign language export versions of his hits, and he recorded entire albums of material for the Italian market, which was especially receptive to his near-operatic delivery. He was also one of the pop song's technical pioneers: almost a full ten years before Paul McCartney recorded his 16-track one-man-band solo album McCARTNEY, Gene Pitney provided his own musical accompaniment on his first hit single, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," though recording technology was limited at the time to only two or three tracks.

Justly recognized as a talented songwriter ("He's A Rebel", "Hello, Mary Lou"), Pitney spent most of his recording career covering the work of other composers. He was arguably the most notable male interpreter of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("True Love Never Runs Smooth" being a particularly good example). For the past few years, a British label called Sequel has been reissuing most of Pitney's 1960s albums as two-fers, and to know Pitney properly, it's important to move away from the hits and see what he accomplished on his albums, uneven as they often are. A particularly fascinating index to his talents is the album GOLDEN GREATS, which Musicor paired with THIS IS GENE PITNEY. GOLDEN GREATS is Pitney-as-one-man-jukebox, finding him accepting the challenge of either improving upon songs already placed in the Top 40 (if not the Top 10) by other artists, or failing miserably. An awkwardly reworded rendition of The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" frankly kicks his ass, but Pitney manages to score well or better with most of his choices, which include The Hollies' "Bus Stop" and Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Count Me In." He shows the expected affinity for Roy Orbison's exquisitely melodramatic "Crying," the countrified shadings of Tom Jones' "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and the inspirational doo-wop of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," but it's Pitney's incredible cover of Jay and the Americans' "Cara Mia" that brings the listener to his knees. Here, we realize that it wasn't enough for Pitney to be a sensitive stylist and interpreter; a song had to meet him halfway, to be available to an instrument of Pitney's unique range and ability, for the alchemy to fully ignite. "Cara Mia" offers him opportunities to drag lyrics across the gravel of his lower register and also to soar above one's highest expectations. This track, vastly superior to the hit rendition it covers, deserves to be remembered as one of Pitney's greatest moments on record.

Still, when we note that GOLDEN GREATS was released in 1967 -- the year of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND -- it's easy to see how out-of-step the album was with its times, regardless of its achievement of moments that now seem absolutely timeless. It also had the misfortune to carry a title which, at a glance, portended yet another of the "greatest hits" albums that were epidemic in Pitney's output. There were exceptions to the rule, but apart from the album he later cut with George Jones (which not only prophesied the 1970s country-rock-crossover but the 1980s "duets" craze as well), Pitney's albums never really took the necessary quantum leap of vision and creativity to maintain his dominance in the field. His popularity may have also suffered by someone's decision to photograph him in the company of an attractive model who would change from one album cover to the next; after all, there was a commercial reason why the Beatles management wanted to keep John Lennon's marital status under wraps in those days. Despite these professional missteps, Pitney seems to have had an unusually solid grip on reality and his place in the world; he resolutely did what he was good at doing, without conceding to trends. He also put his real life first, with his wife and three sons, always making his home in his native state of Connecticut. America forgot him, at least to the extent of making it unfeasible for him to tour the States in later years, but he remained a beloved figure abroad. The only time I saw Pitney on American television in the 1970s was when he appeared on THE DON LANE SHOW, an Australian talk show briefly syndicated here.

When I first came online in 1995, I discovered that AOL hosted some music newsgroups and I spent some time lurking in several of them, among them one devoted to Gene Pitney. I was amazed to discover that Pitney himself was a frequent participant (his screen name was "ThePits") who took pleasure in answering people's questions, at least the ones he hadn't been asked a million times before. It was my first exposure to how the Internet could bring previously distant or unapproachable celebrities within one's virtual reach; in other AOL news forums at that time, it was not uncommon to find the likes of Bobby Vee, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby holding court. My standout memory of "ThePits" is that there came a time when he announced that he would be absenting himself from the forum because he felt a now-or-never need to throw himself into some new songwriting. I don't know what, if anything, came of that woodshedding, but I suspect the yield wasn't anything like he must have hoped for, like a new record deal. However, thereafter, he did more earnestly pursue a return to live performance abroad.

A few years ago, Gene Pitney appeared on PBS television stations across the country in a live performance recorded in, I think, Hartford, Connecticut -- not far from home. The performance, which was also issued as a live album, proved that little about this consummate craftsman had diminished over time. Though they were by then over 40 years old, his most familiar hits were sung as though their sentiments were still coming directly from his heart rather than from the teleprompter of memory. In the midst of this parade of request fulfillments, I was particularly struck by his performance of a Robbie Williams song, "Angels," which seemed tailor-made for the Pitney treatment and proved him a still-heroically-vital interpreter of modern-day songwriting. Unfortunately, I don't think Pitney ever recorded a studio version; it might well have been the adult contemporary hit he was hoping to record.

Yes, 65 is much too young to die... but, on the other hand, Pitney ended his life asleep -- without misadventure, without pain, without infirmity, without disease, without knowing the end was coming, and without the heartbreak of conscious goodbyes -- after a triumphal performance to an appreciative audience, knowing that many more such evenings were still to come. I honestly can't think of a more blessed exit.

And his songs stand every chance of living on forever, or at least as long as hearts can be broken or swell with pride or love or aspiration to the point of breaking. Feeling these things and listening to Gene Pitney, we know that we are not alone.

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