Wednesday 8 August 2012

Johnny MATHIS: The Mathis Collection

(#186: 16 July 1977, 4 weeks)

Track listing: We’ve Only Just Begun/Everybody’s Talkin’/I’m Stone In Love With You/The Look Of Love/The Way We Were/Didn’t We/The Windmills Of Your Mind/What I Did For Love/Stardust/When A Child Is Born (Soleado)/I’m Coming Home/Love Is Blue/Theme From “Summer Of ‘42” (The Summer Knows)/Betcha By Golly Wow/(Where Do I Begin) Love Story/If/Send In The Clowns/Love Theme From “The Godfather” (Speak Softly Love)/And I Love You So/Feelings/A Certain Smile/Wonderful! Wonderful!/Someone/Winter Wonderland/The Twelfth Of Never/Misty/My Funny Valentine/I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face/Tonight/Maria/What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life/A Man And A Woman/Help Me Make It Through The Night/Moon River/Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head/People/On A Clear Day You Can See Forever/99 Miles From L.A./I’ll Never Fall In Love Again/The Party’s Over

As a teenager in the late fifties, Barbra Streisand pretty much idolised Johnny Mathis; she studied his records and singing style closely, and on more than one occasion was evicted from her apartment for singing along to him too loudly. One wonders whether the versions of “The Way We Were” and “People” here – on the former, it is difficult to tell whether Mathis is laughing or crying his way through the song – were intended as a kind of payback, or retrospective tribute of their own. On the gatefold sleeve itself, there are three photographs of Mathis going around the front room of a very stately, respectable and dull-looking stately house – and yes, he does look like Michael Jackson might have looked had things gone differently – and amongst his tables of antiques and bound Britannica volumes, locked in their cabinets, I notice that he is fingering the same figurine in all three; a turn-of-the-century Victorian era lady with parasol, looking remarkably like Streisand in Hello, Dolly!.

Respectable, sedate, stifling, suffocating; that was the world so many people preferred, to shield themselves against the outside unpleasantness of the seventies, and it is little wonder that Johnny Mathis was born a Libra; the only non-human or non-beast sign of the Zodiac, the sole machine, a pair of scales – and he has always struck me as someone anxious above all else to strike the right balance, to please but not to offend, to confirm rather than question. It may well be that as a gay black man in fifties America he had little option but to go with the flow (though look at Ralph Ellison), but his work, even at its best, was the most important bridge in American popular singing between the way things used to be and the way things were going to be (Sinatra being sui generis). Moreover, there is a marked asexuality to his singing which at times veers towards androgyny; at the end of “I’ve Grown Accustomed” he carefully negotiates his falsetto register to become that “fair lady,” and likewise at the end of “Tonight” he has, in one sense, become his own lover. But the highness and softness suited him and his fans; women in particular found empathy in his approach, and this feeling subsequently filtered down through people like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye.

The story is reasonably well-known; born in Texas but raised in San Francisco, he realised he could sing at the same time he knew he was pretty good at athletics, good enough in fact to be picked for the US high jump team travelling to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. But this coincided with a trip to New York to record his first demos; knowing that this was a crossroads in his life, he sought the advice of his father, who advised that he go with the music. He never really looked back; but in its singular way his music seems an ideal soundtrack for the lucidly disconnected San Francisco where James Stewart silently pursues Kim Novak in Vertigo, always in mid-air (like the object of the song “Send In The Clowns”), defying gravity, shimmering like an unattainable mirage of salvation.

Listen to his late fifties and (very) early sixties work, and you can understand what Streisand saw in him and why. The problem is, on this “collection,” this work is shuntered off onto side three, and is incomplete; no room for “Chances Are,” his 1957 American breakthrough hit, or 1960’s huge UK top ten hit “My Love For You,” or the genuinely startling “Stairway To The Stars,” amongst many others. The rest – with one quietly remarkable (1964) exception – suggests Mathis had no life before, say, 1968, and concentrates on tracks from his perhaps over-prolific album output, largely from the seventies. Yes, this is yet another TV-advertised forty-track double album which seeks to present a deliberately restricted portrait of its featured artist, and going through it was a tiring ordeal. Portrait Of Sinatra is an exemplar of the compilation album as bludgeon, but even that sought to pull together a reasonably coherent and wide-ranging picture of the singer. With The Mathis Collection, the effect is still a bludgeoning one, but it is a gentle, soothing bludgeoning, like being caressed by chloroform (if this album had a cinematic equivalent, it would be Barry Lyndon). The end result is rootless, inert, head-clouding – and once more (including several songs in common with Portrait) we are faced with this floating crap game of “tasteful” easy listening songs which every two-bit entertainer sang, including all the obscure lounge singers in one-horse towns who viewed Mathis as their avatar, and which keep coming back to TPL again and again, like Michael Myers in Hallowe’en.What could anyone, let alone Mathis, yield out of the already dry wells of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” or “What I Did For Love”? On “Everybody’s Talkin’” the listener gets the feeling that Mathis has no idea of what he is singing about (including a strange whirlpool of wordless scat sounding momentarily like Robert Wyatt). Everywhere there are the metaphorical ice cubes of cheesy backing singers (to whom Mathis eventually leaves “Help Me Make It”) and flutes. On “Talkin’” and the two Andy Williams film themes, he does not go for the high finishes (although, significantly, this does not stop him doing so on the much earlier “Maria”). On “If” he at least gets the words right. I do not think he understands “Send In The Clowns.” Whether it’s “Windmills Of Your Mind” or “Moon River” makes no difference; it is all boiled down to unalloyed Muzak for people-free elevators, with anything of the remotest interest in these songs ruthlessly distilled out of the mix, to leave an air of…something resembling music, but not the thing itself. In his “Look Of Love” and “Feelings” he disseminates his voice into dazed mumbles which turn the songs themselves into soundclouds. With Mathis’ “Love Is Blue,” the only rational response is…why?

Where did it go wrong? Did the Beatles really drop an atomic bomb on American popular song? Listening to side three of this collection – the only side that breaks free of the neutered showtune-as-Horlicks ethic of David Jacobs’ notion of “our kind of music” – these are question that have to be asked, for so committed is Mathis in his early work, one almost feels that one is listening to a different and more concentrated singer, rather than someone who eventually saw the wind’s direction, shrugged his shoulders and settled for echo-chamber safety. There is no need to write about “Wonderful! Wonderful!” or his “Twelfth Of Never” (which existed before any of the other versions recurring here) again as I dealt with those in entry #116. But even “A Certain Smile”, his first major UK hit, despite its flutes and mandolins, has a class and patience which would have stood out in 1958, let alone now (and the concluding Escalator-anticipating descending chords are a miracle). On “Someone” we hear a tug of war between the Old (those Dorsey/Miller trombones) and the New (hi-fi companion strings – it is unsurprising that Ray Conniff is one of the arrangers here) and despite the uncalled-for “angelic” choir, the arrangement is an effective platform for Mathis to deliver what, in retrospect, is a somewhat creepy lyric (yes, I know these were more innocent times, with the emphasis on the “more”). Even something as initially unpromising as “Winter Wonderland” is turned into a miniature Brian Wilson suite, with an unexpected out-of-tempo middle sequence of swirling, atonal proto-electronica – Mathis snaps us back awake with four straight snaps of “Together!” and doesn’t overdo the song’s sexual subtext; the whole is brought to a satisfying climax.

As for his “Misty,” it is Mathis’ key to the kingdom, a brilliant portrayal of a lost and happily disorientated lover (“Look at me,” he keeps pleading, just so that others can prove that he exists). His semi-yodel on the “walk” of “Walk my way” is inspired, like watching the unfolding of the first spring rose. Like the protagonist of “Wonderful! Wonderful!” – you can get lost even sitting on your sofa – he does not recognise The World and is all the happier for it. His seraphim-like high-pitch re-entry sustenato (on the elongated “on” of “On my own”) after the oboe break leads me to ponder, as Colin Gordon once did, “Sometimes I think he’s not human.”

And yet his “My Funny Valentine” almost outdoes it. Set for just two guitars, an eventual string bass, and perhaps super-discreet brushes, Mathis does the whole, usually ignored medieval pastiche of the introductory verse – is he singing Byrd, or Palestrina? – and the interplay between guitars and their residual tonal echoes put one very much in mind of the Cocteau Twins and especially of Jeff Buckley (“Hallelujah”). The bass ushers in a near-reluctant descent into the song itself, which Mathis sings with immense sensitivity. A high, committed vocal coda nearly sees Mathis disappear off the face of the Earth forever. A performance worthy of comparison with Miles’ 1956 reading (which was almost certainly recorded in the same studio).

1958’s Warm, probably still Mathis’ best stand-alone album, is represented here by only one track, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” Canadian arranger Percy Faith works wonders with the slowly devastating emotional self-realisation buried in the song; again in the middle section there is a huge, tearing out-of-tempo sequence. Only with the selections from West Side Story do we hear early intimations of self-parody and settlement for twelfth best; his groan (“To-oooo-night!”) is very effective on “Tonight” but the cackling male voice choir ruins the spell. The long note at the end of “Maria” seems to be present for showoff rather than aesthetic purposes (see also the extended “a-way” at the end of his “If”). It’s too bad, as with Sinatra, that Mathis never got to make a record under Gil Evans’ direction.

There is really not much else to say about the rest of the record. 1973’s “I’m Coming Home,” written, arranged and produced by Thom Bell (and a sort of “Midnight Train To Georgia” narrated from the man’s perspective), was the title track of a hoped-for comeback album, done entirely under Bell’s supervision, but alas Mathis’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “I’m Stone In Love With You” (the latter his comeback UK hit single, reaching #8 in the spring of 1975) show him to be no Russell Thompkins, Jnr. “Stardust” is done in the “modern” style and is as formica-ghastly as you would expect. Otherwise the songs drift placidly into Wednesday morning at the supermarket nothingness. Again, I cannot imagine even the most passionate (if “passion” is the right word to use here) Mathis devotee in 1977 sitting down and ingesting this in one go. Even with its two-for-one pricing (“Two-Record Set only £3.99 r.r.p.” as it says above “THIS STICKER IS REMOVABLE” on the fool’s gold and black sticker on the cover of my copy) the package feels bloated, indulgent, nullifying.

But there are a few signs of life. On the already hackneyed “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” Mathis suddenly wakes up and remembers that he has to address the emotions latent in a song as well as sing its notes, and gives a committed and fairly heartfelt reading. And “99 Miles From L.A.,” an unknown song by the rare songwriting combination of Hal David and Albert Hammond, recorded by Mathis as late as 1975, is perhaps this record’s hidden gem; an urban equivalent to “Wichita Lineman” (“Counting the telephone poles”) which finds Mathis’ protagonist gripping the wheel of his car, slowly (four-plus minutes into the song and he’s still 99 miles away – is his car moving?) approaching the city, as the song methodically falls from breezy bossa nova into grievous mourning (again, Mathis cries at the thought of rain on the windshield, which he realises is being generated by his tears) with the awful realisation that he might be driving towards nothing, or nowhere...“Please be there,” he intones, almost inaudibly. A natural descendant of “Blue Jay Way” (“Please ‘phone”) and one of the key West Coast songs of its time, Mathis sings it as though already arranging his own burial.

Finally, there is his 1964 reading of “The Party’s Over” – and in post-JFK 1964, anyone could read any number of subtexts in the song’s subtle but emotional lyric – with a majestic yet questioning string arrangement strongly reminiscent of Gordon Jenkins’ work with Sinatra. Mathis addresses the song with the right balance of ennui (“The piper must…be…paid…”) and regret. It has the same harp/strings ending, and even the same closing chord, as Sinatra’s “My Way,” and the arranger is…Mitch Miller, with perhaps the least typical arrangement of his career. But in 1977, even on the back of a number one single (the annoying “When A Child Is Born” – to think Mathis could be singing about Kanye West, or even Chris Martin!), the song’s message is clear; this has to end, something has to come along and replace this benign picket fence/international airport lounge/hotel lobby Hellacious Acres.

Oh, yes.