Eli, Tom Hanks, and two Mona Lisas, part three
Recap: For those who have not read Part One or Part Two of this trilogy, this column may not make sense. Then again, it may make perfect sense for that very same reason. Regardless, both parts contend that, for a variety of reasons, there are no great songs, only great performances.
In February of this year, news broke of the recalculating of the age of a second Mona Lisa that had been considered a much younger copy of the masterwork, but now through the latest technology, was being dated as originating at approximately the same time as the Da Vinci tour de force, and theorized as being completed by a student working on the copy in the same room as the original was being created.
Two Mona Lisa paintings, nearly identical, done by two separate artists at nearly the same time.
Side by side, it is even up for argument that the copy possesses strengths obscured or non-existent in the original; sharper background, vibrant color, and even slightly more feminine features, which would make sense as it has also, after all, been theorized that Mona Lisa was actually Da Vinci’s male companion.
So what if as a person on this planet with little to no knowledge of art, you wandered into the Prado museum in Madrid and saw this second Mona Lisa? And, you loved it. And you were told, yes, but this is a copy. The ‘real’ Mona Lisa is in Paris. Upon seeing the genuine article, you think, beautiful, stunning, amazing, but I prefer the Prado version. Are you wrong to prefer it?
Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote a song called Candle in the Wind in 1973 and recorded and released it on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. As a tribute to the late Marilyn Monroe, it was a touching tune that charted as high as #11 as a single in Great Britain, but was never released as a single in the U.S. It became known essentially as a classic album cut from a vintage Elton period.
In 1997, it was rerecorded with slightly altered lyrics to reflect the passing of Princess Diana, and retitled, Candle in the Wind 1997. It was number one in 20 countries and sold over 33 million copies.
Though there is some industry debate as to whether or not it supplanted the all-time highest selling single, (more on that in a minute), it is rated by the Guinness Book of World Records as the champ.
The same song (basically) as in 1973 that wasn’t even released as a single except in John’s home country, and that one couldn’t break the Top 10.
Yes, Princess Diana’s tragic, unnecessary death struck a nerve with so many. But Marilyn isn’t exactly where you go when you are hard up for material. To this day, I see Marilyn Monroe everywhere.
It’s crucial to understand that songs live among us all. And that the singer and the subject, the performance and the presentation, matter more than the notes and lyrics alone.
How simplistic a melody, how basic the structure of Happy Birthday? A song with exactly four lines, three of them repeated, sung thousands of times a day every day?
But how many people will ever forget how those four lines sounded, what they meant when Marilyn Monroe sang them to President Kennedy?
How many people wanted to own that copy of Candle in the Wind 1997 because of what that particular performance meant? A lot more than wanted it 24 years earlier.
The highest selling single of all-time is often listed to be Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of other versions of that song, but it is Bing’s that’s best.
Why? Because people adore the way Bing sings it.
Will this second Mona Lisa ever be thought of in the same regard as the first? Never.
Willie Nelson tells a story in his autobiography of a song being offered to him to sing on his forthcoming record. It was a story song, and Willie felt that while it was a potential gangbuster, he already had enough story songs in the live set, so he passed. The song went to Kenny Rogers, instead.
The Gambler went #1 and won Rogers a Grammy.
Impossible to know if Willie would have had the same success with it. Maybe. After all Willie Nelson has had countless number ones himself and a nearly 65-year career. But, maybe not.
In the end, I believe that we love what we love because we connect with it deeply. It taps into something in our personal core, our personal experience, and makes us feel something rather inexplicable, yet familiar. It is because of this that I find it difficult to accept that the connection is preordained somehow. That I will receive the message regardless of the messenger.
If that is true, then both Mona Lisas, both Candle in the Winds, any White Christmas, are capable of eliciting the same reaction, and I just don’t believe that, because they don’t. I prefer one over the other, or others.
We all have preferences for things. We all like one thing better than the other. We all make choices. And we make these choices based on how and when and why and where and by whom it is being delivered to us, not solely by what is being delivered.
I prefer Tom Waits to Rod Stewart when each sings Waits’ Downtown Train. My wife sides with Rod. (Maybe the Scottish in her, and Stewart’s take has Jeff Beck, whom I love, so, tough call).
Neither of us is right or wrong in thinking one is superior to the other. What happens when it hits our ears is all that matters, and what hits our ears is performance.
The art of the song is the result of my interpretation of what is performed, not the intent. Not the sheet music. Not what is on the demo I will never hear.
Then again, maybe what is heard as it’s performed isn’t only what matters. Maybe what’s on the sheet is important, too.
Beethoven was deaf by his twenties, and his stuff is pretty good.
Recommended listening: Tom Waits-Downtown Train, Rod Stewart- Downtown Train
Larson Sutton, 39,
is a writer/musician
living in Los Angeles.
Picture By Brian Gimmel
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