Saturday, September 20, 2008

Standing on the jetty as the steamer moves away: Frankie Laine = my Sex Pistols

I've never really understood how or why tastes change with the fashions. More often than not, I love the same things forever. Chalk it up to pigheadedness or nostalgia, but this persistence has served me well enough. There are very few records I've been embarrassed to have bought, namely the Cocktail soundtrack and a NKOTB Xmas cassette from the school store at my elementary school (both were misguided, youthful attempts to impress a girl; needless to say, neither worked musically or romantically).

As with most romantic delusions and other mental infirmities, this might be genetic. When my mother was a young and impressionable girl living on the East End of Montreal, a much older first generation Elvis fanatic noted all the signs of a preteen crush on Elvis Presley and decided to give all of her old albums to the little-girl-who-would-grow-up-to-be-my-mum. Over thirty LPs. All from the late 1950s, early 1960s. These were mostly film soundtracks and compilations, but they were bright and colourful and definitely left the impression on a young me that this Elvis was probably an important guy--if only to my mum.

Sometimes, I would splay them out in the living room and pour over their covers, trying to figure out what made them my mother's only luxury. I didn't know what I was holding, but I knew they were special. Sideburned or jumpsuited, Elvis always looked friendly enough. He liked Hawaii, apparently.

Elvis was a lot to process as a kid, but my mum's records taught me two paradoxical things about fan culture and music. First, that music was something you passed down, something that could be passed around from one person to the next, something that should be passed on. And second, that it was always deeply personal, so personal, that you might not quite understand why one person may love it, where another may not.

There are only couple of times in my life, that I've found something similar for myself. Something I thought no one else in the world would have. Certainly, something that no one else would cherish in the way that I did. One unlikely such item was Frankie Laine's 1956 Command Performance LP. I got the record in a whole collection of records some older person in Arizona gave me (I inherited a lot music that way--lounge music, Henry Mancini, records with JFK's portrait on the cover, the Moon landing, etc.) and I was immediately drawn to the cover:

Beneath the titles--an arrestingly blocky arrangement of image and text--the jacket showed Laine smirking, half-genuflecting as he shook hands with... the Queen--Queen Elisabeth II.

(A wider cropped version of image shows that Laine was standing next to Bob Hope.)

Used to seeing the QE2's face on Canadian money, her expression here--bemused, demure but slightly condescending--was uncharacteristically human to me. For one, I didn't dare fold or part with it. More imprtantly, the play of facial expressions between the bespectacled Western pop singer and young monarch locked in a fleeting clasp and awkward glance was an image that I would unwittingly restage in my many halting and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex.

More importantly, this image was like my own personal Sex Pistols. Looking at the cover, it was clear to me that whatever the hell this was, the people around me who filled their ears and wardrobe with echoes of Garth Brooks, grunge and gansta rap wouldn't like it, and that little iota of rebellion appealed to me in a way rock'n'roll never could at that moment in history. It was rebellion on my terms--wryly, dryly, and above all, squarely.

I couldn't wait to actually hear the record. I wouldn't be disappointed. A compilation of Laine's early fifties full-throated hits, three songs stand apart from the rest: HIGH NOON, JEALOUSIE, and ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU. The first two were vaguely familiar (I believe JEALOUSIE was Hollywood's go-to tango song), but I'd never heard anything like ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU.

Quite simply, I love this record. Like the best punk music, it is deliciously politically incorrect. The song's questionable racial and gender politics have a sailor tell of a Malaysian girl he has fallen in love with that he has to leave her standing on the jetty because "East is East and West is West our world's are far apart, I must leave you but I leave my heart." Its "romance" depends on the impossibility of the love it depicts, which is predicated on the incommensurability of the two lover's cultures. If you listen closer, it's a melodrama of racial difference, but here it tells of something far coarser, far more nakedly exploitative: sex was great, but we're kinda different, gotta run, but the sex was great. This would be kosher--if provocative--for contemporary audiences if it wasn't the same sexist schlock at the core of Ricky Nelson's Traveling Man or any number of the blues or folk songs about Rambling. But to me, ROSE seems deeper than its parts.

The song's imagery is rich and redolent of travel and of having traveled. The melody and texture seems to possess a qualitative difference from the other songs I mentioned. It's foreign, if only slightly--like glancing over a foreign language newspaper--the images and conventions of the layout are familiar, but something is off. Better still, the chords and time signature are slightly unusual for Western pop.

So, it shouldn't have surprised me to learn that it was actually a rewrite of a Mandarin folk song that an Australian disc jockey picked up in Hong Kong in the 1930s. I won't try to unpack the multicultural feedback loops and cross-pollination involved here, but its paths across the various channels of global cultural exchange certainly left their mark on the song.

The original song, MEI KUEI, was popular hit in China for singer Yao Lee. Her version in Chinese was released in the US after Frankie Laine's version was a hit. The original subject matter is unknown to me, but MEI KUEI is Mandarin for "Rose," and in a crude Anglicization, ROSE ROSE I LOVE makes a lot of the phrase "Make way."

I carried the song around with me for sometime, when soon after learning of its origins, I happened upon a Chinese girlfriend. Then soon thereafter, I found the song among the few English language songs at a karaoke booth with my girlfriend's family, who were shocked and pleased that I seemed to anything in Chinese.

Laine's version dated to 1951. He re-recorded it a number of times, to lesser effect. I've spent years tracking down other incarnations, but none approach the version stuck in the grooves of my personal command performance.

(I even paid a small fortune ($8) for the sheet music on Ebay, it is reproduced below.)



Rose, Rose I Love You
Frankie Laine and the Norman Luboff Choir, with Paul Weston and his orchestra, 1951

Mei Kuei
Yao Lee, 1940

Time magazine story about MEI KUEI/ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU, c.1951,9171,935240,00.html


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