It's a Peggy Lee song entitled “Is That All There Is?” - and this one has quite a tale behind it. It was released in 1969 and made it to #11 on the U.S. pop charts, but I first heard it in 1972. I recall hearing it for the first time on a car radio and was immediately hooked. I have always liked it. Not only was it wildly unlike everything else on the radio when it was released (in 1969 pop was preoccupied with trippy, pompous songs with drug overtones usually exhorting listeners to "open their minds" – this song was an old-fashioned cabaret number), it was profound. Even in art music (classical), I am unfamiliar with any other song that expresses disillusionment in life so well. But there’s a good reason for that.
Its musical quality was assured since it was written by songwriting giant Jerry Lieber, half of the famous Lieber-Stoller songwriting team that wrote many hits, including “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion Number Nine,” “Kansas City,” “Stand by Me,” “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” to name a few. Elvis Presley recorded over twenty of their songs.
But where did Lieber get the lyrical content from? His (then) wife, Gaby Rodgers. She had been reading a piece by the famous German writer Thomas Mann entitled “Disillusionment,” written when he was but twenty. The following summary, taken from Colin Wilson's book “The Craft of the Novel,” also describes the song lyrics:
The narrator is sitting in St Mark's Square in Venice when he falls into a conversation with a fellow countryman. The man asks, "Do you know what disillusionment is? Not a miscarriage in small unimportant matters, but the great and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?" He tells how, as a small boy, the house caught fire; yet as they watched it burn down he was thinking, "So this is a house on fire? Is that all?" And ever since then, life has been a series of disappointments; all the great experiences have left him with the feeling: "Is that all?" Only when he saw the sea for the first time, he says, did he feel a sudden tremendous craving for freedom, for a sea without a horizon... And one day, death will come, and he expects it to be the last great disappointment. "Is this all?"
The songs omits the part about the sea, but concludes with Mann’s sentiments about life’s last great disappointments. Rodgers had given the book to her husband to read, and he, too, was impressed with the ideas behind the work – enough to incorporate them into a song.
Gaby Rodgers is an interesting person, known in the film noir buff world as the woman who opened the Great Whatzit in “Kiss Me, Deadly” (1955). The Great Whatzit is a stolen container that that people – including Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer – are desperately trying to get their hands on. Lives are lost over obtaining it. It’s always described metaphorically and sometimes mythologically, being compared to Pandora’s Box. When it eventually is opened by Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers’ character), at the end of the film, all hell breaks loose. What’s pictured next suggests nuclear fission.
Remember the Ark opening scene in the first Indiana Jones film, "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Most film historians credit that as a reference to the Great Whatzit. There’s also a cryptic scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” when Samuel L. Jackson opens a briefcase, which emits a glow. “Is that what I think it is?” he asks. This is confirmed. You never find out what it is. This is probably another Kiss Me, Deadly reference.
Kiss Me, Deadly is a film noir which has inspired much commentary, some of it valid, some of it unpromising. It’s a favorite of critics because it seems to portray 1950’s style and paranoia mores so well.
So… what’s in the box? I once tracked down Gaby Rodgers to ask – my interview notes with her are here. When she asked the director she got a short reply: “It’s atomic.”
Rodgers confirmed that as a young child, in Holland, she was a playmate of Anne Frank’s, the child who penned a famous diary of her captivity as a Jew under the Third Reich. And she also confirmed that she had a role in writing the Johnny Cash hit “Jackson” with her husband, Jerry Lieber. (I think I've seen her credited as the songwriter on that one.)
I think you now know everything about Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” to know, except perhaps that Randy Newman did the arrangement. He later became a star in his own right.
I am now reading "A Mormon in the White House? - 10 Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney" by Hugh Hewitt. I saw it at a yard sale last month and bought it, being intrigued by the title. I'm about halfway through. It confirms what I already knew: the GOP went with the wrong, wrong, wrong candidate in the 2008 general election.
Lots of yard sales on Saturday, but I only bought a Frank Sinatra CD and a videotape. The CD contains tomorrow's most depressing song, and the VHS tape was Laurence Olivier's TV production of "King Lear" from 1984. I was on a business trip when it was first broadcast and kicked myself because I missed it. That's okay - 25 years later I get a copy for $1. Life is sometimes like that; if I wait long enough I usually get what I want.
Over the weekend I watched some Ingmar Bergman films I recorded from TCM broadcasts. One of them was "Persona" from 1966. One critic claims that it's a pretentious film that somehow escapes being pretentious. I say it didn't make it over the barbed wire. Simply put, it's a film about two women - a patient and a nurse - who interchange personalities. At one point there's a camera shot of the two of them merged together optically that was sent up in a hilarious SCTV spoof of a Bergman film, "Whispers of the Wolf" (a blend of Bergman's "Hour of the Wolf," "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers"). Bergman's style just begs to be parodied.
The other is a work I had a real struggle staying awake through, frankly: 1969's "The Passion of Anna." The novelty in this one is that the actors are interviewed about the roles they play during the course of the film. That's a Bergman thing, making sure the viewer knows that what he's watching is really a film, not reality. Okay, already, I get it.
I counted; this is the twelfth Bergman film I've seen - I sometimes wonder why I bother. For me, his best stuff is his earliest: "Wild Strawberries," "The Seventh Seal," "Tinsel and Sawdust." Later on he just got weird, which sets off my B.S. alarm. The film critics go ga-ga over this stuff, however, in much the same way art critics rhapsodize Jackson Pollack's paint splotches. I suspect there's more than a little snake oil on the canvas.
So is that all there is? Is that all there is to Ingmar Bergman?