Usually, at year’s end, we run “Readers’ Roundups,” a feature where our readers recommend good books they’ve enjoyed this year. However, due to the inclement health I weathered this recent December and January, I hadn’t the energy to edit such a column. The offer will go out soon, however. Today’s column returns us to the favorite topic of this column: the books we love reading and our reasons for reading them.
First, I must say I am gradually feeling better and I want to thank everyone who has written, called, or grabbed my lapels to wish me well. I confess the hugs were my favorite. Now, on to what led to my favorite book in a long time.
The lead-in: My surgery (described in five Local articles through December and January) was on Dec. 19, and I spent the holidays that followed recovering. Strangely, I remember those first few weeks with great nostalgia. Yes, I was uncomfortable, sometimes in pain, but I enjoyed very much the fact that I’d been given permission to put my life on hold and relax. For an all-too-short time I spent most of each day in my favorite recliner with a book in hand and a TV remote control beside me. I had taped all the football playoff games and watched them at odd times like a Tuesday morning at 11. I also had Netflix and Amazon video available. And a constant supply of boxed deluxe chocolates, justified by my post-surgical weight loss. Most pleasantly, I began reading a book I had been wanting to read for ages – believe it or not: a biography of the jazz singer Peggy Lee.
Why, you might ask? I’ll tell you. Did you ever see a movie called “After Hours,” (1985) directed by Martin Scorsese? The main character, a young businessman, is abducted and goes through a night of sheer wonder, torture, amazement and craziness before being dropped off on a city street the following morning. The credits come up right after and a song plays, a song I never heard before. I didn’t know its name, but it haunted me then, as it does now, because of a repeated refrain: Is that all there is? Some time later, I Googled that line and found it was from a song of the same name. It was popularized by Peggy Lee, or, as she preferred, Miss Peggy Lee. A young girl is rescued from a house fire and stands on the sidewalk watching her house burn down and after it’s all over, she asks, Is that all, there is to a fire? (Which struck me as a weird thing to say.) At 12 she is taken to a circus, and afterward sings, Is that all there is to a circus? Later she falls in love. The boy leaves. Is that all there is to a love? Someday, she says, she’ll stand before St. Peter’s Pearly Gates and look back and wonder, Is that all there is … to a life? I still can’t say why, but that song chilled and thrilled and bothered me.
Years went by. I never heard it again, but still wondered. I Have no iPod, don’t play music at home or in the car. But last summer I kept my son, Andrew, company as he browsed in a used-records/CDs store in Montreal (called Beatnik Records on Rue St. Denis) and came across a small batch of Peggy Lee CDs. I felt compelled to buy them. All through early fall I played them repeatedly. Captivated. Why? Did my body know I had cancer then? Was I subconsciously gathering the spiritual survival tools I’d need for the coming bodily crisis?
Then came my diagnosis in November and my surgery in December. And a few days later: one of the most wonderful Christmas gifts I’ve ever been given. My wife, Janet, borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia and wrapped for me, “Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee,” (2014) by James Gavin. At last, I might learn the story behind that strange, teasing song. Thank goodness, the book was long (624 pages) and heavy (only a print version will do for when I’m on a personal reading quest). I read as much as I could every day.
The risk of reading a biography: You always devour the thing you love. The very act of reading each page, each chapter, each section, brought me closer to Miss Lee’s death at the end. But I read compulsively on. What an amazing story – a girl named Norma Deloris Egstrom, from Jamestown, North Dakota, rises from nowhere to play the greatest nightclubs in the world as a mysterious chanteuse. Her history paralleled the history of the rise of the recording industry, the nightclub era, and a magical kind of stardom. Best of all, the origins of every one of her hit records is described in detail.
And what a surprise to find out who wrote “Is that All there Is?” None other than Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, the team that wrote “Hound Dog,” and other hits such as “Kansas City,” “Stand by Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “King Creole. “They didn’t write it for Peggy Lee, but the instant she heard a version of it she insisted it had to be hers. Soon it was. It became one of her signature songs (along with “Fever”). But I remain amazed that her personal power and commitment to that song was able to fashion a song some call creepy, or depressing and make it into an enduring, enchanting, and strange anthem for those who find it mystifying. I finished that book with reverence and great regret and two empty boxes of chocolates.
Count your gifts. Convalescence gave me the time-out to add something beautiful and enchanting to my life. It also revived my long-dropped habit of listening to music. Lucky me.