LANGUAGE ARTS

Beyond the Sea, awash in La Mer

How a French popular song from the 1940s engulfed an American boy of the 1960s and has stayed with him through thick and thin

By STEPHEN RUTLEDGE

Once when I was challenged to name my Top Ten Favorite Songs, I expressed to my friend a desire to be able to erase from my memory all of my favorite songs so that I might have the experience of hearing them again for the first time. It seemed to me that if I listened to a favorite song too often, I might run the risk of wearing it out. I was afraid that eventually it wouldn’t move me in quite the same way. I would still want, maybe even need, to hear it, but the emotional intensity simply wouldn’t be as high. With every listen, I might be searching for that magic and it would be gone.

Now I know that this is not true with the great songs. They are the ones that sound new every time.

As an only child of two working parents, after school, except when I was off to rehearsals or music lessons, I had the house to myself until 6 p.m. I felt free to help myself to the parents’ hi-fi and LP collection, and as I got older, to their liquor cabinet too. They actually paired well, booze and music.

Broadway musicals, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, these were the artists that informed my musical tastes. I simply loved filling the silence of our house with these recordings. I sang along. In fact, I learned to sing while attempting to reproduce their sounds.

Bobby Darin’s album That’s All was released in 1959 when I was five years old. After the Original Broadway Cast album of My Fair Lady, it was my favorite LP during my pre-Beatles grade school years. That’s All opens with Darin’s famous version of “Mack The Knife.”

But the second track always stopped me dead and filled me with a wistfulness that I could barely grasp as a kid. That song was titled “Beyond The Sea,” and although it was a swingin’ tune, it somehow broke my young heart, which was a brand new sensation. It frightened me as well. I loved it.

Nostalgia, like chest pain, is often a sign of deeper problems. I know this, and tried to remind myself of that recently as I flew to the place of my childhood. I was studying the landform patterns of Eastern Washington from 28,000 feet and they seemed so familiar to me. I know this land. I recognized and even acknowledged a place where water was scarce. So, why did I flee Spokane the afternoon of my graduation from high school, bound for a port city? I chose Boston because it was so far away, and for Boston Bay with salty air and ships.

In the early 1970s, I lived in an apartment with sliding glass doors that opened to white sand and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I could see Catalina Island on a clear day, and there were not that many clear days in 1970s Los Angeles.

I left LA for Manhattan, where I lived eight blocks from the Hudson River. I would sit at the Chelsea piers to look at the shimmery, silvery surface and smell the water and cruise the guys. I would ride the Staten Island ferry, standing at the bow and singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”

In Seattle, circa 1981 to 2001, I lived in a bungalow that was just four blocks from Lake Union and the Shipping Canal. Again, I could smell the salt water and I loved the mournful sound of the foghorns and the toots from the tugs.

In 2001, my husband and I had a collective nervous breakdown and up and moved to Portland. At first I was wary. Where was my water? But, standing naked on a beach at Sauvie Island and watching these huge cargo ships make their way up the mighty Columbia, I realized that it feels very much like having an ocean.

In the early 1990s, the parents sweetly gave me a cassette they had made, a mix-tape of songs that I had embraced in my earliest childhood. One of those songs was “Beyond The Sea.” My mother reminded me that as a six-year-old, I would sing it for company, accompanied by a little dance during the bridge.

The song’s first incarnation was as “La Mer,” and it was written by French composer/ lyricist/ singer/ showman Charles Trenet in 1945 for another French singer. In 1946, Trenet recorded his own version. It became an unexpected international hit, and has since become a chanson classic and a jazz standard.

Trenet claimed that he wrote the lyrics as a poem when he was 16 years old, but it was many years before he came up with a melody for it. In 1943, the tune came to him while traveling by train as he was gazing out of the window at the Mediterranean Sea. He jotted it down on piece of paper and in the afternoon he worked out the details with his pianist. That evening they performed it in front of an audience and nobody seemed to care.

But, over the years the song became very popular throughout the world with plenty of prominent artists recording their own versions. Besides the original in French, the song was also recorded in several other languages with the English version titled “Beyond The Sea” being particularly popular and becoming a signature song for Darin. In 1966 there were already over 100 different recordings of “La Mer.” When Trenet left this world in 2001, there were more than 4,000 different recordings of it with over 100 million copies sold.

The English lyrics are not a translation, by the way. They describe a wistful look at lovers who are separated. The French version is literally about the sea.

In 2001, The Oregonian’s music critic, David Stabler, did a wonderful piece on funeral music. In closing, he requested readers to send him their five choices for songs to be played at their own memorial. My submission was published the next Friday, as I suspected that it might, and of the five, three were songs about the sea, and all five were songs about water: Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat,” “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads, “Shiver Me Timbers” From Tom Waits, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters Of March” (“Águas de Março” in Portuguese) and, of course, “La Mer.”

My invitation was to write about a song that terrifies and inspires. But, I am not really afraid of things. Being afraid is not my shtick. I am not scared of spiders or snakes, or heights or tight spaces, or death or speaking in public (obviously).

Charles Trenet, chanteur.

In October 2013, I was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was immediately hospitalized. I wasn’t afraid, not even when 36 hours later it was explained to me that I would be undergoing brain surgery the next day.

That next day, I was prepped for surgery. A surgical nurse shaved my head and the attending physician drew a map on my skull using marking pens. I was wheeled into the O/R and introduced to the team including the anesthesiologist. Then we all waited. And waited. And waited. The scheduled time came and went and the anesthesiologist made the call that if the neurosurgeon was not in place in five minutes they were going to scrub my launch. I told jokes to keep everyone’s mood light. At the last moment, the hopelessly handsome surgeon breezily made his entrance. He leaned down and in my ear he whispered: “I usually choose the music that is played while I work, but because you held down the fort before I got here, today you get to choose. What song would you like us to play as I open up your skull?”

I requested “Beyond The Sea.” Without missing a beat he asked: “The original French or an American cover version?” … it seemed that he had all of them on his iPad. So … there was the very real chance that the very last thing I was ever going to hear was Charles Trenet singing “La Mer.” As I counted backwards from 100 as the Propofol was administered, I reached 97 and then I felt all at sea.

*

Portland writer and actor Stephen Rutledge writes the daily Born This Day column on World of Wonder’s WOW Report. He wrote this piece in November 2016 for SONGBOOK PDX, a gathering of writers speaking on “the music that terrified and inspired them.” As an actor, Rutledge has appeared in 150 full stage productions, seven feature films, over 50 commercials, and dozens of voice-overs.

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A Road Dog barks his tale

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker and his chocolate lab hit the road for some American adventure. Oh: and a book that spills the beans.

“Our story starts in the Garden of Eden,” Kelley Baker begins. “Not that one. The one in Lucas, Kansas.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

 “The wind blows ferociously across the Kansas prairie, because it’s … Kansas.

 “I’m standing next to a too-skinny woman dressed in black who reminds me of a meth addict. With teeth. Dinsmoor’s lying in front of us. He’s seen better days.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor is a mummy.”

Baker calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and there is some truth to the assertion, although “renegade” might be a more accurate if less marketable word. Now, with the release of Road Dog, his comic and exasperated and slightly profane tale of traveling America’s highways and back routes, he could even make it The Renegade Raconteur.

Curling up with a good book.

A fixture on the Portland film scene for decades, Baker’s juggled a mainstream career – sound designer on six Gus Van Sant movies and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, writer/producer/director of several successful documentaries for TV – with a fiercely independent career of making ultra-low-budget features, often peddling them himself on long road trips to colleges, film festivals, and specialty video stores. Then there’s the one he’s still reeling in, the feature-length documentary on the novelist and radical activist Kay Boyle, a three-decade project that is tantalizingly close to completion but still a few thousand dollars short of the finish line. I wrote about his quest three and a half years ago in Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story.

That’s almost, though not quite, how long it’s been since we’d sat down to talk. Until recently, when he came out with Road Dog, and I figured it was time to catch up. Kelley’s one of those people you like to catch up with now and again, if you can figure out where he is and how long he’ll be there. Road Dog is a sort of working-man’s riff on Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s tale of traveling into the soul of America on an epic road trip with his dog. Baker’s book recounts his adventures over several years of long road trips in the company of a 120-pound chocolate lab named Moses, who may not lead him to the promised land but is a good and faithful companion and a co-conspirator in many stories.

The book is episodic, as rambling as the endless country roads Kelley and Moses travel, and very funny. Baker writes pretty much the way he talks, which is with a natural plainspoken rhythm that incorporates wry humor, sharp satiric jabs, fascinating side trips that eventually loop around to the point, and a streetwise moralism that does not suffer fools gladly but appreciates their contributions to the telling of a tale.

Baker

Road Dog covers several national tours that Baker and Moses undertook, usually twice a year, from North to South to East to West in a tripped-up minivan. It covers, usually, hundreds of miles a day, broken up by “incidents” with Texas and Idaho and Iowa state troopers and snooty film professors who’ve never made a film. It drops in on nights of drinking and swapping stories with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center beside Hank Williams’ grave, and meetings with friendly bikers and pickup drivers and helpful long-haul truckers. It is dotted with Motel 6es and Walmart parking lots (“a series of campgrounds with stores attached that stretch across the United States”) and adventures with a giant Jesus in the Ozarks and an antiseptic Prayer Tower in Tulsa. It tells of being outed as a Yankee in a Memphis bar, and meeting kindred souls from Austin to the nation’s capital, and white-knuckle drives through blinding storms, and traveling with his daughter, Fiona, who adapts adroitly to life on the road. Through it all, Baker encounters an America shaped by and yet also somehow engaging deeply beyond the headlines of a divided nation. And Moses doggedly makes his mark at rest stops and tree stumps across the country, winning friends and stealing hearts along the way.

Road Dog even includes a glossary, which is largely an excuse for Baker to make epigrammatic pronouncements of a jaundiced and entertaining nature. (On the Winchester Mystery House: “This place is a tribute to one of the craziest people in America. But she was incredibly wealthy so she was just considered eccentric.” On PBS affiliates: “a loose network of television stations that have no problem overpaying for films by people like Ken Burns and yet wants most other filmmakers to give them their work for free. Especially if you’re local.”)

Oh, and about the Garden of Eden. S.P. Dinsmoor’s wife is there, too. Buried under several tons of concrete. You could look it up.

Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out the way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.

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Places of enchantment, page to stage

How I watched my novel "The Enchanted" become a play in Edinburgh, and what the theater has taught me as a writer

By RENE DENFELD

A few weeks ago I was sitting front row at a stage in Edinburgh, Scotland. The lights were dimmed.

I was remembering a day several years before.

It had been a bright spring day, and I remembered walking out of the death row prison where I work, trying to save men from execution. My car keys were in my hand, rustling. I felt the fetid air lift off my skin.

I had passed under the high, stained gothic walls, the guards at the towers with guns resting idly on me. I could hear the prison doors slamming.

And I heard a soft voice, speaking clearly.

“This is an enchanted place,” he said.

I had known right away that this was not an inmate I had met. But he was there, on the dungeon of death row, waiting for me in a cell like the others I knew, and he would tell me a story.

So started the journey into my first novel.

Rene Denfeld in Edinburgh with a puppet from the group Pharmacy's stage adaptation of her novel "The Enchanted."

Rene Denfeld in Edinburgh with a puppet from the group Pharmacy’s stage adaptation of her novel “The Enchanted.”

I went home that night and the poetry began. I wrote and wrote. Over time the narrator became so real I could see him. He would perch next to me in his prison smock, his feet bare, his toenails and fingernails curled into talons from not being allowed scissors or sharp items of any kind. His hair was grey around a caved, toothless face. He looked at me with longing.

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Hunter captured by the game

In Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" at CoHo, Shaking the Tree takes a green look at the thrill of the hunt

It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and in his time, poetry was considered a noble trade. Shakespeare made his mark there first, and most of us know by memory a few of those famous lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In Shakespeare’s century, theater was in large part for the raucous and bawdy, pint-lifting hoi polloi: the commoners. It’s been rumored of late in the papers that the Bard, himself, tried to secure a noble crest for his family, perhaps to hush the naysayers who believed he was little but an upstart with an impressive vocabulary. But, the chalk-complexioned ginger Queen Elizabeth put most of those rumors to rest, and here we are today celebrating his insights on the human condition. It can be argued that despite the success of his politically themed theater, his strongest suit was a deep understanding of the heart.

While we may have plowed his sonnets in our younger years for our own romantic endeavors, it is usually the case that today Shakespeare’s poetry probably isn’t in our stack of books. Shaking the Tree, as part of CoHo’s SummerFest series of short-run shows (this one opened Thursday and closes Sunday)  regrows an appreciation of his other, and perhaps, more personal work by way of a staged version of his brilliant poem Venus and Adonis.

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Ridenour and Kerrigan, playing games. Photo: Gary Norman

Rebecca Ridenour’s goddess, Venus, shimmers in a golden gown, barefoot and with braided hair. She comes in with a case of vanity and the feral, celestial aura of a hunter. What she’s hunting, she’s not sure of, but in most cases it would take a male form. Ridenour is a suppressed volcanic wait of hormones. Here begins the triangle of insight by Ridenour, director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and Matthew Kerrigan as Adonis. All three play with Shakespeare’s mock view of how a petulant female chases a closed-hearted male, but both Venus and Adonis surface in the end as losers in a complicated game.

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Poetic justice: Cafe Lena cooks again

On Wednesday, a reunion of the legendary hangout and poetry open-mike space will bring back the good times and rhymes

Well, only metaphorically: the actual cooking’s been history for fifteen years now. But Cafe Lena, the sassy little joint on lower Hawthorne Boulevard where the breakfast and lunch spot Jam is now, was something of a legend in Portland literary circles during its ten-year run that began on April 3, 1991.

“Neither of us had restaurant experience,” recalls poet and memoirist Leanne Grabel, who ran Lena with her husband, poet Steve Sander. “The idea was to do a poetry place. The restaurant aspect was secondary … but the cafe turned out to be a restaurant with three meals a day, an in-house baker, and so on and so forth.” Poetry, though, was Lena’s raison d’être, and especially the open mike, which regularly drew performing poets like Doug Spangle, Marty Christensen, Brian Christopher, Walt Curtis, and of course, the owner/operators.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

“I’m sure the open mike started within two weeks of opening,” Grabel recalls. “It lasted the whole 10 years. The first night it was totally packed. I remember I had both my daughters there as I was the employee and Steve was the cook. I remember having to drive around looking for day care, as it was obvious I couldn’t have my daughters with me. It was really busy.”

Words, words, words: you could invent ’em, you could eat ’em, you could rearrange ’em, and for a razzle-dazzle decade, people did. Melissa Sillitoe of Show and Tell Gallery (“Art. Caffeine. Community. Good Times. Beginners Welcome.”) has carried on the poetry open-mike torch with weekly events at Sound Grounds Cafe, 3701 Southeast Belmont Street, and from 6 to 8:30 p.m. this Wednesday, June 22, she’ll be hosting the Cafe Lena Oral History and Reunion. Leanne and Steve will tell their stories, Sillitoe says, and then other people can come up to the mike and tell their own. Let the good times, and the tall tales, roll.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

PNCA 2016 Edelman lecture: Life After Death

Portland author Sheila Hamilton speaks on destigmatizing mental illness

by SHEILA HAMILTON

Editor’s note: On May 10, Emmy-award winning journalist Sheila Hamilton will deliver the 2016 Edelman Lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art“Destigmatizing Mental Illness.” Hamilton, whose 2015 memoir All the Things We Never Knew recounts her being blindsided by her husband’s bipolar disorder and suicide, will speak about her personal experience with mental illness and advocate for a more holistic approach to mental health. 

After the talk, musician and activist Logan Lynn and Jennifer Pepin, whose J. Pepin Art Gallery works to reframe the perception of mental illness, join Hamilton in a discussion moderated by Benedict Carey, science reporter for The New York Times, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Hamilton hosts the KINK morning show in Portland and serves on the boards of Girls Inc. and The Flawless Foundation. This excerpt, from chapter 24 of her memoir, is used by permission of Seal Press/Perseus Books.

I took a big breath, steadied myself, and began, “Deepak Chopra joins us this morning on Speaking Freely; his newest book is called Life After Death: The Book of Answers.”

If I’d prepared myself the way I should have, the way I normally do, reading and rereading the publisher’s notes, the author’s bio, the prepared questions, I wouldn’t have been so jolted by the words “Life After Death.” Instead, the lump in my throat threatened to explode, and tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes. My voice halted, then broke, and I couldn’t continue speaking.

I hit the space bar on my computer to stop the recorder. Deepak leaned back in his chair.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is my first day back to work—my husband just died.” The flesh in my nose swelled up, and my voice sounded weak. I could not continue with the interview until I got myself under control.

Deepak nodded. There was no change in his facial expression, none of the mournful, twisted expressions I’d seen on others’ faces when I told them of David’s death. Chopra was a spiritual leader revered by millions of people around the world, and he couldn’t even offer sympathy?

I prodded him. “Suicide. He shot himself.”

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

No change. His breathing pattern wasn’t altered. He opened his mouth to speak, deliberately and carefully. His lips formed complete o’s and e’s.

“He is exactly where he needs to be, and so are you.”

“Excuse me?” My blood pressure surged. I suppressed a rage building in me that had been buried for years, one in which my emotions, my emotions, had been ignored, sidelined, minimized by the people I cared most about. I loved Deepak Chopra; I’d read every one of his books, except for his latest. The least he could do was show compassion; Chopra owned the word compassion, for God’s sake.

He folded his long fingers carefully on the desk and scooted forward in his chair. “What we’re talking about is pertinent to the book. Would you like to continue?” he asked.

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