Late Como

Music - Richard Cook on the man who created casual

Bing Crosby created microphone singing, Louis Armstrong made it swing, Frank Sinatra made it the stuff of consenting adults. All three of them, though, might have to defer to another as the most enduring singer in pop. Perry Como has outlived all his peers and every fashion in popular singing. He was still performing until quite recently, although, at 86, even those gilded tones must have lost their creaminess now. Crosby himself called Como "the man who invented casual", some compliment from the singer who gave crooning a good name. Mysteriously, though, Como has been neglected in the CD era. His big and enormously successful discography for RCA has been largely consigned to compilations of one sort or another. The latest of them, The Definitive Perry Como Collection (Camden DeLuxe, 49 tracks) surely lives up to its title, even if it does show him at his worst as well as his best.

Como's blamelessness might be the secret of his success. His marriage lasted 65 years. Even when he was a young man, singing with the Ted Weems Orchestra in the 1960s, he seemed avuncular, unflappable. His voice seems very deep, at times ready to rumble around some baritone area, but he was really a well-rounded tenor. He often sang very high notes with the same ease as he found in his bottom register. Listen to "I Know" (1959), a ludicrous piece of cod-opera, yet something given a little distinction by the way Como breezes through the sequence of big lines that crescendo the tune. If there were a moment of histrionics, it would fall apart, but Como's art is never touched by hysteria. "Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes" (1953) was his first big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a song he disliked, and insisted on singing only once, in order to get out of the studio quickly. It's not an easy song to sing. But his one-take rendition is flawless.

He was right, though. It's an indifferent piece of hack songwriting, with a chorus of barking trombones and a platoon of backing singers that bup-bup-by-ah their way through their part. But it was this kind of novelty tune that RCA was giving to Como for his singles, and these were records that succeeded on a huge scale. It is not unfair to look back on this period as the worst years in pop music: the swing era dead, rock not yet dawning, R&B still trying to be born. American singers were being fed the worst kind of nonsense, Sinatra, Crosby and Armstrong included. Alone among these masters, Como treated each song with his placid, dignified commitment. "Chi-Baba Chi-Baba" or the awful "Zing Zing Zoom Zoom" have fortunately been left off this set, but "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)" is, alas, here. When rock did come along, Como ironically scored a big success with the bewildering "Juke Box Baby" (1956), which sounds like a loathsome granddad eyeing up a tryout cheerleader.

Going through Como's albums of the same period tells a different story, and it's a pity that this set only skims off a few tracks from albums such as We Get Letters, Como Swings, So Smooth and A Sentimental Date With Perry Como. What Como did on such records was drop the novelty fluff and sing the best of the American songbook, purveying a grown-up viewpoint that wasn't so far removed from Sinatra's worldly-wise American Man (he was, after all, only a year older than Sinatra). Where Sinatra suggested pain and the getting of wisdom, Como was an everyman who seemed to exude a likeable integrity. His singing was so smooth that a lot of the time he seemed to be lying down, but the effortless style and mellifluous tone are qualities which are peculiarly his: nobody else was ever so intensely relaxed.

Is he due a revival? If genuinely pallid singers such as Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis can have their comeback, there's no reason why the greatest cardigan of them all can't have another day in the sun.

The Definitive Perry Como Collection (Camden DeLuxe) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide