Did I Ever Really Live?

March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Spring is so much in the air today that everything is happily confused.  My dog won’t take her usual nap and is walking around in a dizzying sort of way — stopping every now and then to look hard at the mere air, and then back again on her hunt for whatever it is that French bulldogs know is out there.  And I’m confused too, sitting in a tee shirt and sweating a little while I’m writing this — both windows open.  It’s too early for the air conditioner and even though the day actually calls for it, there’s something conceited about turning it on before the official start of — I suppose — summer.  I used to be embarrassed about air conditioning because it’s one of those comforts that so many people in the world simply don’t have, but now that I have a dog that requires it (she can’t stand the heat, and she isn’t allowed in the water), I don’t feel so bad.

Spring is also — for me, anyway — a season of remembrance.  And for somebody who has been outside of drinking life for more than 20 years, some of those remembrances take place in old haunts — like the Tijuana Cat – a Cuban gay bar on Restaurant Row in New York City during the 70’s and early ’80’s.  As it was with every bar where my boyfriend worked during those years, I drank for free and spent the nights at the Cat listening to a language I couldn’t speak (the boyfriend spoke fluent Spanish that he’d learned from a former boyfriend of his).  It was a great bar:  full of happy noise in the form of the lives of beautiful Cuban men, most of whom had just gotten to this country to live:  off the boat and into the Bar:  the international symbol for queer, whether you are a drinker or not a drinker.  Tijuana Cat was also a kind of makeshift cabaret (one pin spot, an old stool and an upright piano that teetered on the edge of a tiny stage) and it showcased two truly astonishing singers:  Blassy, a well-known Cuban diva, and a 70-year-old black dynamo named Dawn Hampton.  Like every great singer, Dawn’s nightly repertoire consisted, in part, of songs most people were hearing for the first time and after listening to her renditions from the obscure, we all wondered why those songs had never become part of the American popular music canon.

One of those songs was “Did I Ever Really Live” by Allan Sherman and Albert Hague.  It’s a song from a failed musical called The Fig Leaves are Falling – the title of which alone projects its demise – that lists the necessities of life (“you’re born, you weep, you smile, you sleep, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall”) but forgets in that popular song naiveté to put love on the list.  Without love on the list, the song hauntingly asks, did I ever really live?  I hear the song in my head every week or so – almost as much as I hear, lately, Adam Guettel’s “Fable” from The Light in the Piazza.  I also hear junk, but that’s not important – junk gets in between one song to another.

There’s a wonderful rendition of “Did I Ever Really Live” recorded by Mark Murphy that I’ve been listening to lately and there’s also a strange (but worth looking at) rendition on YouTube by Pat Paulsen from an old Smothers Brothers TV show.  He kind of clobbers the song because the serious eyes of this otherwise very funny performer don’t really know how to look into the camera.  But the song still comes across because it’s that good and that powerful.  It could have easily borrowed any body.  I liked “Did I Every Really Live” most when it borrowed Dawn’s body.

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