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« Lego Living | Main | Women and Drama 2: PatrickH Has Been There »

April 16, 2008

Gale Garnett, Women and Drama

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's 1964, and Gale Garnett (all of 22 years old) performs "We'll Sing in the Sunshine":

Many old hits make me cringe when I revisit them, especially ones that I loved when I was very young. So I'm pleased to find that I still enjoy the dark-toned, easy swing of this song.

As I listen to it again, and then again, I find myself returning to its mix of tones: sweet-sour; cheery-depressive -- to the way the singalong folkiness of the tune is stung into life by the iciness of the lyrics: "I will never love you / The cost of love's too dear / But though I'll never love you / I'll stay with you one year". That isn't a cheery view of love, or of life. Gale's big-eyed, Greenwich Village, heavy-spirited, "I'm trouble, but of a kind you owe it to yourself to find out more about" presence adds a lot to the flavors and textures.

The song and performance would be easy enough to dismiss as silly -- to find overdone and affected. But there's some startling steeliness and zing alongside the childishness. "Hey," Gale is saying: "So what if what we have isn't the real thing. Let's see what's there in any case. It'll move us in its own way, whatever that'll prove to be."

A little pop ditty is sharing with us an almost Edith Piaf-like fatalism, in other words. The cheeriness does nothing to diminish the darkness. I may be out-of-it where contempo pop music is concerned, but it certainly seems to me that you don't find a lot of worldweary fatalism in today's mainstream pop. It's a little startling to realize that this life-is-a-tragedy- but-let's-relish-the-sadness-of-it tune wasn't just a cult hit. In fact, it made it into the top ten.

As it turns out -- according to a profile by Canadian journalist and playwright Brad Fraser -- Gale Zoe Garnett has led exactly the kind of life that "We'll Sing in the Sunshine" makes me picture. She lost her virginity at 13 and was orphaned at 15; she feels she was really raised by gay friends. Ups and downs seem to have been numerous; so do lovers.

Garnett sounds like she has achieved a lot of hardwon personal style; she certainly has a sexy-weatherbeaten / evasive-blunt way of talking about sex and romance. Fun to see that, like me, she feels that many youngsters would do best to begin their sex lives with lovers much older than they are. "So-called intergenerational sex is actually, if you're going to have sex, a far safer choice, in my mind, than peer sex," she tells Fraser. If Gale Garnett ain't a genuine bohemian, than I don't know who is. Here's a novel that she wrote. I notice that the book's girl-protagonist begins her sex life at the age of 13.

It occurred to me as I read Fraser's article that I once saw and enjoyed a Brad Fraser play. "Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love" was a seriously bohemian play in the pre-postmodern sense: daring, sexy (if you're open to finding creepy ambi-sexual material arousing), and tense.

The French-Canadian director Denys Arcand turned Fraser's play into a movie that was full of good acting and sophisticated observations.

Sadly, the film was badly served. When I first saw the film it was still being polished. Some of the scenes in the version I saw were definitely NC-17-worthy, and they were the film's highlights. Wow, I thought, I've never seen this kind of far-out material done with such precise skill, such casual conviction, and such rock-and-roll commitment.

By the time the film was released, though, all of these moments had been cut down for the sake of an R rating. Seeing the toned-down version left me 'way less enthusiastic about the movie. It was still a good movie but it was no longer a memorable one; it had lost its tone of bemused, dreamy swagger. I was so distressed by this development that I actually went to the trouble of phoning Arcand's production office to see if the harsher version of the movie would ever be available, but I was brushed off.

Speaking of Denys Arcand ... He's a sleek and distinctive talent. I love his film "Decline of the American Empire," a kind of elegiac satire of a group of leftie academic friends who gather for a weekend party. It has a North American informality crossed with a Euro sophistication -- a really lovely combination. It's like a piece of witty, melancholic chamber music. I was less happy with "The Barbarian Invasions," Arcand's "American Empire" sequel. It was beautifully made and it certainly pleased a lot of art-house-goers, but it struck me as a pointless bore. I blogged about it here.

But Gale Garnett's song ... It's amazing how mature and experienced some 22 year old singers can sound, isn't it? Women. Where does the drama come from?

Gale Garnett's performance reminds me of the San Francisco folkie-diva Judy Henske, another big-voiced bundle of hyper-dramatic trouble from roughly the same coffee-house era. Henske -- in love with the unpredictability and waywardness of her own emotionality -- had an odd kind of specialty: reveling exuberantly in her loose-cannon excess. Here's a characteristically over-the-top Henske performance:

Hilarious, touching, catchy, and a little frightening ... I find it sweet the way that Henske has such a good time playing into the horror-movie element her own singing conjures up, don't you?

Hmmm .... Downtown girls who are trouble ... Expressionist theater ... The unpredictability and vehemence of gal-emotions ... Connections, connections ...

Speaking of horror movies ... I'm also reminded me of one of the punk-era performers I was fondest of, the Transylvanian popster Lene Lovich. I say "Transylvanian" not because Lene really was from the Carpathians (in fact she was born in Detroit), but because her act was intended to invoke early horror movies, the art of mime, and silent-movie "vamp" sex queens like Theda Bara.

Here's "Lucky Number," one of Lovich's best-known tunes:

It's like zany, scrappy downtown theater, only you get to dance to it. And at the center of it is larger-than-life Lene Lovich: part glamor goddess, part comically wrathful Kali, part Bride of Frankenstein ... (Lovich worked closely with her boyfriend Les Chappel, the bald guy in the video. Les ran the band and helped craft the concept and the songs.)

Final musing: Wow, it has got to be a lot of drama, being a woman, no? More than most straight American guys, I guess, I enjoy observing gals and their dramas. I'm a fan of diva-ish gal-performers who really let it out -- especially the ones who take advantage of make-believe to hold back nothing, and to maybe even do a little hyperbolizing of common inner experience. I'm thrilled by the spectacle, which strikes me as charming, funny, and beautiful, if often a little terrifying too. (The Wife's on-the-surface manner tends towards the carefree and ditzy -- but don't let that fool you. Epic typhoons of emotionality are never far away. The Wife doesn't mind being referred to as a diva, by the way.)

Sometimes I think that the "drama" side of life wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for women. Shoot-outs and chase scenes would still abound, god knows -- what else would guys do with their time? But withouth women what would become of the "What does it all mean?" side of life? Life is given weight by female-itude, I guess. Hey, one of the few useful things a shrink I used to talk to said to me was: "The uterus always takes seriously what was poked at it in fun."

I love this CD of Judy Henske's, with its great songs, "Tin Star" and "Master of Love" -- songs that are as gutbucket and werewolf-wild as anything on "Exile on Main Street," only completely female. Here's Judy Henske's website. This looks like an excellent best-of Lene Lovich collection.



posted by Michael at April 16, 2008


I always hated that song when I heard it as a kid. I was a hopelessly naive, romantic nerd capable of massive (always unrequited) puppy-loves for various young things. I hated Garnett for her coldness, her open contempt for love, and especially for her bizarro father who told her "Now don't you love you any man". Her father told her that? Jeez, what a freak!

It is hard being a woman, though. And I mean "just being a woman". Being a man is an emotional piece of cake by comparison.

How do I know this? Well, I was once a woman myself, for a short while. I took clomid (fertility drug-lots of estrogen effects) as part of a post-steroid recuperation cycle, and it put me in a very female frame of mind (quite the contrast to the effect of the 'roids, I can tell you). I was hypersensitive to the tiniest sign of suffering in another being, was always on the edge of weeping, and was filled with a kind of wistful, formless yearning that, while not unpleasant to feel, had no object that could fulfill it. I also came to want to withdraw from people (for a time) and just sit and "be me". I absolutely NEVER understood what women meant when they said that, but I do now. You just have to get away from being FOR OTHERS, something that as a man I never bothered thinking about, let alone trying. Now I know why women need to get away from that. It's exhausting to be that wide open to other human beings...all the time!

It's hard being a woman. I know. I was one, for a while.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 17, 2008 1:53 PM

Myrna was a 24 hour a day drama. Sometimes, I feel like a load is off now that I don't experience that on a daily basis. Most of the time, I feel like the world is an empty place without it.

She was equally dramatic and demanding on stage and off stage.

"If you're not in all the way, get out!" might have been her motto.

I really couldn't help myself. I jumped all the way in.

One of my favorite chanteuses beckoned me into her lair only six months after Myrna's death. You won't have too much trouble figuring it out if you read my site.

I just didn't have the strength or the will to jump in all the way with her. It would have been a hell of a ride, but I just couldn't do it at that time.

I'm working my way back to this girl. Trying to amass a strong enough position to go into the darkness with her on equal terms. Girls of that sort don't often give you a second chance.

"Get in now or get out!" is usually their way of doing things.

I still don't know whether I've got another round of that stuff in me.

I like women who don't even attempt to make sense out of that strange black magic that the best of them can summon. What does sense have to do with it?

That's some skirt Gail is wearing. She must have a large boodle to hide. Hard to remember those days, so long ago, when musicians didn't look like fashion models.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 17, 2008 1:55 PM

Today there are plenty (too many?) songs featuring tortured-artist angst, much of which sounds wholly trivial but that's another issue, but not the cynicism (for lack of a better term) of Gale Garnett's performance.

Posted by: Peter on April 17, 2008 7:44 PM

I always thought the Gale Garnett song transcended its era and it's interesting to now learn it was, in fact, borne of experience.

I tracked down the original single in college and found it has a great b-side, "Prism Song," in which the singer's parents die young, but, hey, at least she's got her prism to hang onto. I assume now it was allegorical.

"We'll Sing in the Sunshine" does boast a maturity that was unique for the hits of that time -- summer, 1964. It's surprising a song this downbeat could get all the way to Number 4, which is where it ultimately placed in the US.

And just in case someone drags out that tired old phrase "one-hit wonder," Garnett did have a follow-up: "Lovin' Place" got to #54 in Dec. 1964. A later album, "An Audience with King of Wands" is more interesting for the dress she wears on the cover than the (pretentious) music.

Posted by: Tony Sclafani on April 18, 2008 12:14 AM

Ah, Lene Lovich, pure happiness.

For reasons not currently accessible to my conscious mind, that song takes me to the same sublimely silly yet happy place as the movie "Night of the Comet", which was from a few years later.

Hey, wait, I see from Wikipedia that they finally released a DVD of "Night of Comet" in 2007 AND NOBODY TOLD ME.

Gotta go. Things to do.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 18, 2008 3:23 AM

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