Sunday 28 October 2012

Barbra STREISAND: Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits Volume 2

(#207: 31 March 1979, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Love Theme From “A Star Is Born” (Evergreen)/Love Theme From “Eyes Of Laura Mars” (Prisoner)/My Heart Belongs To Me/Songbird/You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (Duet with Neil Diamond)/The Way We Were (From The Columbia Picture, Rastar Production, “The Way We Were”)/Sweet Inspiration-Where You Lead/All In Love Is Fair/Superman/Stoney End

There had been a first volume, in the spring of 1970, but that only made #44 on our charts, mainly because at that time Streisand was chiefly known here as a film actress and had only had one British hit to speak of (“Second Hand Rose”). In the States, Billboard never placed it higher than #32 but over the years it sold steadily enough to go double platinum. It is a shame I won’t be able to do it here since it denies me my only opportunity to talk about my favourite Streisand record, “Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long.” Even a little levity would not have gone amiss at the opposite end of the decade, on Volume 2.

Whereas the cover of the original Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits is autumnly colourful, Francesco Scavullo’s monochrome shot on the front of Volume 2 eclipses Streisand’s face – either smugly omnipotent or perilously worried – almost entirely. Once her hair was long and flowing; if you squinted enough you might think of her as the good sister to her contemporary Janis Joplin. Now it is permed and tied in a bow; it is uncertain whether she is a missing link between Claudius’ aunt Livia and Emeli Sandé. And the rear cover lists the tracks in the manner of an upmarket restaurant menu (I transcribed the track listing exactly as it reads).

What did the seventies do for, or to, Streisand? Here is somebody at home with, indeed brought up on, show tunes and jazz, but compelled to grow up and perform in the age of rock. So the formalist design of Volume 2 presents itself as if to say: well, look how far I’ve come, in those years, from The Owl And The Pussycat to The Main Event. Looked at that way, it might seem like no journey at all. But almost all of this record presents Streisand as a tasteful balladeer; only three of its ten tracks would sound out of place on The David Jacobs Collection, and one of these, the earliest, a plea for suicide, nurturing and Biblical apocalypse dressed as an upbeat Brill Building pop tune, is stuck right at the end of the record, almost as a gesture of defiance; this is how I began, now you know why I don’t want to go back there. But ego and insecurity, those closely-knit twins, have always been this singer’s twin motivational motors.

The album isn’t sequenced chronologically, and it’s noticeable that in Britain only four of its tracks made any commercial headway as singles (in the USA, conversely, eight of the tracks were at least Top 40 hits, and three of them went all the way; this record was a transatlantic chart-topper, in the States going quintuple platinum). This might suggest our differing attitude to what does or not constitute pop music, or raise the question of how far Streisand really reached, or attempted to reach, into pop. I don’t think she really understands Stevie Wonder or Carole King any more than, say, Gracie Fields might have done; that she tries to understand them is undeniable, but…

…this is a story of the seventies, that Me of Decades, and my central problem with Streisand, here as elsewhere, is the “me”-ness of her approach. “My heart belongs to ME,” “Where is my songbird who sings his songs for ME?,” “I am Superman.” I am not saying that this record should have been subtitled The World Should Revolve Around Me but that is the feeling that I get; in the live medley of “Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead” she goads the audience along like a stern Brownies’ mistress, as if they are being made to clap their hands by force. Look, she says, I am too BIG for pop, maybe for the world, and everything should be remade in my image because…the dreaded “because” she doesn’t want to think about…because otherwise I’d be nothing; look how many of these songs find her without love, or wanting to fall out of love (with someone other than herself), or, in one instance, seeing love as a prison, always with the underlying fear that if she or the world gets it wrong, then it’s back to turning tricks on Boogie Street in Brooklyn, for dimes.

“Evergreen” is, mercifully, the only thing retained from A Star Is Born; as I previously said, this works because Streisand not only writes the music, but also keeps her performance relatively restrained, such that when her high notes break through, you can for once actually feel for her rather than feeling battered down by her Streisand-ness (I note that the song shares the same root chord – G major - and tempo as Gordon Lightfoot’s “If I Could Read Your Mind”).

But in no way could “Prisoner,” from that delightful romantic comedy The Eyes Of Laura Mars, be described as a “Love Theme,” as though Streisand were being sat on by Barry White. “You want to keep me here forever, I can’t escape” she shrieks as rock guitars and hammering drums close in around her; Lena’s friend, the writer Gemma Files, thought this practically a Nine Inch Nails song, and it’s true – one can easily envisage Trent Reznor gnashing his way through the song, whose rhythmic, melodic and lyrical constructs are all readily compatible with his own. Actually Streisand’s performance makes me wish that someone with a surer ability to take the song by the scruff of its neck and give it a really good shake – Tina Turner, maybe, or even Celine Dion (whose voice Streisand eerily presages here) – had covered it. It’s significant that Streisand turned down the lead role in the film itself (the one eventually taken by Faye Dunaway) because she regarded John Carpenter’s screenplay as too “kinky,” and despite earnest performances from Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Dourif the film really isn’t as good as some might remember it; I acknowledge its attempts to get behind the indivisible screen between fantasy and reality, between wishing and fulfilment, that is built up by a motion picture, but director Irvin Kershner wasn’t Hitchcock, and so the film turned out as a rather silly horror-crime affair, a long way from Rear Window.

After that, it’s back to ballads of snoozy egotism; “My Heart Belongs To Me” might usefully stand as an answer song to Elton’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” if, say, Kiki Dee had sung it, but with Barbra it’s another instance (like “Prisoner”) of love being, if anything, an inconvenience to her, like an old unpaid laundry bill. “Songbird” – not the Christine McVie tune – finds her even altering the lyric, from “the song” to “my song,” and wondering why she’s “all alone.” At the end, however, she does a little sequence of onomatopoeic slo-mo scat singing which, for a second, makes you realise how close her style is, in places, to that of Whitney Houston.

And then there’s the Superstar Team-Up, and Neil Diamond isn’t the only one wondering what the hell he’s doing here in the first place. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” in fact has a chequered history; co-writers Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote a précis of the song for a TV show called All That Glitters. The song was not used, however, and was eventually rescued from disuse by Diamond, who worked on the music and expanded the to a usable length. He recorded it, alone, on his 1977 album I’m Glad You’re Here With Me Tonight; shortly afterwards, Streisand did a version for her Songbird album. In Louisville, Kentucky, WAKY-AM DJ Gary Guthrie noticed that both versions had been recorded in the same key, and so did what would now be called a “bootleg mix,” splicing the two readings together, apparently as a (rather sour-sounding) departure gift to his wife, whom he had just divorced. He played it on his show and demand went nationwide then through the roof, such that Diamond and Streisand were called upon to return to the studio and record a proper duet version of the song.

As a song it plays like Revolutionary Road set to music; a baby boomer hangover sequel to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the dying embers of two people who have gradually realised they have nothing in common with each other. You would have thought it, wouldn’t you – these two Jewish kids from New York, of roughly the same age and with very similar upbringings, but who took very different paths. Hence Diamond’s is the rougher “pop” voice and Streisand’s the smoother “Broadway” voice, and listening to them is like hearing two people on separate planets, both thinking to themselves but out loud; she says this (with a “turn out the light” that sounds as though she wants and expects the world to end) and then he says that, and neither is ever going to agree. The plan was for a film of the song to be made but I’m glad they didn’t; for the unexpected but entirely logical sequel, see the Streisand/Donna Summer duet which at this point is still some six months down the road. Best to view this as a benchmark case of how two different forms of popular music cannot really communicate with each other.

Turning over to the second side of what could be called Barbra Streisand As Beverly Moss Might Know Her, there is “The Way We Were,” its pictures as scattered as the “used to be”s in “Flowers” but without even the promise of a broom to sweep them away. It is a movie title song not entirely unaware of its own absence of point (“Can it be that it was all so simple then?”) and because it is essentially a show tune, Streisand is more comfortable doing it; what I am not comfortable about is the central absurdity of the film that the song comes from, namely: what would somebody as bristling, fired-up and full of life and determination as Katie Morosky be doing wasting even a second of her time, let alone several decades of it, with a smug jerk like Hubbell Gardiner (even that name, Hubbell Gardiner; it sounds like the lead part in a very minor Peter Sellers knockabout comedy)? Isn’t someone as full of self-love as Robert Redford (who insisted that the novel’s writer Arthur Laurents fill out his character more for the screenplay) always going to end up taking the safe, easy, sellout option – but isn’t that what Redford does anyway, time and time again, including when he is supposed to be an English pilot (Out Of Africa) or a bored billionaire playboy (Indecent Exposure) or a horse whisperer (The Horse Whisperer)? There he is, always appearing on screen with that golden buttery sunrise glow behind him and that sickly toothy grin in front of him, like a cross between Tommy Steele and Dick van Dyke. I couldn’t imagine someone like Streisand falling for him or his schtick for an instant…

..and yet, “We simply choose to forget”? Do people really do that, Barbra? Is this Gil Scott-Heron’s “selective amnesia” again, or an inability to grasp with the song’s wider implications? It should be noted that the big hit version of the song in Britain was not recorded by Streisand, but by Gladys Knight; done before an audience, she can invest that line with several centuries of hurtful history, as well as (as she cleverly does in her extended spoken intro) tie its concerns to those of the Western world of the mid-seventies. Streisand only knows how to sing the song, rather than think it.

The endless live medley demonstrates further evidence that Streisand was never going to be Soul Sister Number 5001, let alone Number 1. The Carole King/Toni Stern song “Where You Lead” she had already recorded as a standalone single, but this came out as a merger with Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “Sweet Inspiration”; starting out as another swirling, free-tempo ballad, she suddenly realises – several years before it was released – that this album seriously needs waking up, and hence six or so minutes of happy-clappy bat mitzvah gospel wa-heying. Possibly the sequence’s most embarrassing moment comes when she tries to impersonate Robert Plant: “The way you call me baby, BAY-BAYYYYEEE!!” It’s hard to think of her being in the same asteroid belt as Aretha – although both were born in the same year – and so it fails as a moment of would-be soul transcendence, not that that would have been of much concern to the doubtless expensively bowtied and tiara’d audience.

As if to prove that the planets of soul and Streisand would never meet, her “All In Love Is Fair” is a calamitous misreading; as done by the man who wrote it (Stevie Wonder) it’s one of my favourites of his, but Streisand cannot hope to nail it or even understand what is so underhandedly poignant about the song. Crucially, she fluffs on the key line – “The writer takes his pen” – and never recovers from that. It is as if the function of internal monologue or one-to-one conversation is lost on her irretrievably theatrical mind; not feeling the need to interpret the songs of others, so that they have some sort of relevance to her own life and state of being, she instead acts the songs, in the end always singing to the kid at the top of the gallery, keeping both diction and volume as clear as possible so that everyone in the audience hears her. But “All In Love Is Fair” is a grievous whisper of a song that daren’t even raise its voice; thus her final, extended “faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaair” misses irony and lament in favour of the trademark, unheard “big finish.” Look how big my finish is!

“Superman” is no better – look, Barbra, do you want love or not? Her coy Superman T-shirt on the album cover in question lends no clues (but note that she sings “SuperMAN” and not “SuperWOMAN”) - but her “Stoney End” is the biggest miss of all; I’m sure Laura Nyro enjoyed the royalty cheques, but Streisand has no idea how to identify with or inhabit the body of this song; a craving for mother and life to begin again which in its original form is comparable with (and arguably outdoes) primal scream therapied-Lennon is tossed off like the Good Book of Jesus of which you cannot imagine Streisand having read even a paragraph. There are some dreadful misses (“cradle me again” is supposed to go up, not down), an overacted “ragin’ so-ooooOOOOOOUUUUUL!” squeak, and a final cry for “Mama” which has all the poignancy of Violet Elizabeth Bott demanding more pocket money. It is embarrassing how far the backing singers and musicians outclass her. What did the seventies do for Streisand, then? From this evidence, I’d say that ego and insecurity fought an honourable draw, albeit in favour of a mostly misdirected talent. As with Spirits Having Flown, there is much too much soporific, self-pitying sentimentality at work (or not at work) here; whether each form would enhance the other, or cancel each other out, we will investigate in 1980.