Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nostalgia Is What It Used To Be: My Dear Departed Past by Dave Frishberg

Dave Frishberg's autobiography My Dear Departed Past was published by Backbeat Books earlier this year.

I was about twenty pages into Dave Frishberg’s autobiography when the Hoagy Carmichael song “Stardust” lurched into my head. Specifically, the lines from the opening verse, “Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by." Perhaps it was simpatico because Frishberg’s favourite book was The Stardust Road, written by Carmichael in 1946. That autobiography, by one of America’s best songwriters, made “a big impression” on Frishberg, whose particular songwriting style comes out of Tin Pan Alley, although he doesn’t admit that in My Dear Departed Past (Backbeat Books). But his book does reveal his influences in a nostalgic way.

I’ve always been a fan of Dave Frishberg’s songs, especially “Peel Me A Grape” and “My Attorney Bernie,” two of his most whimsical compositions. If Frank Zappa asked the question, “Does humour belong in music?," Frishberg would certainly answer in the affirmative.  Frishberg 's songs, which are mostly found in a jazz -- as opposed to a pop -- singer’s repertoire, are generally funny without intention. Frishberg simply has a way with words and, though often his lyrics are uncomplicated rhymes over sophisticated chords, that description alone is inadequate to get a sense of his craft and his particular style of songwriting.

Depending on your age, the songs of Dave Frishberg may not be familiar to you. He wrote for the animated TV series Schoolhouse Rock! in the seventies – and his “I’m Just a Bill” is still fondly remembered by American adults over 30 to this day. He originally penned “Peel Me a Grape”for vocalist Fran Jeffries in 1962, but it reached a wider audience when Diana Krall sang it on her 1997 album, Love Scenes (Impulse!). Although Frishberg says he wrote the song “quickly and carelessly,” the tune is one of my personal favourites for its turns-of-phrase and rhythmic poetry. It was his first composition, one that he says is “the work of a beginner songwriter,” and while he made small changes to the original, he now accepts that fact that the song has helped many artists sell "dozens” of copies. Frishberg devotes a whole chapter to that tune, including the lyrics. His lyrics are reproduced in the book to give one the chance to enjoy the poetry of his witty style. Frishberg devotes a lot of time to his songwriting process, which was not only influenced by Carmichael.

Like his songs, Frishberg’s memoir is understated. He waxes eloquent about his years in music (basically he taught himself how to play piano), his love for jazz and how he often fell into gigs as a musician. He started in 1957, following his service in the U.S. Air Force. Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Frishberg came to music through his older brother Mort who taught him how to play boogie-woogie and blues licks on the piano in their living room at home. He took to the music easily and quickly, playing as often as he could during his years in high school and then university.

Frishberg doesn’t fuss over the remarkable events in his youth; in fact, he doesn’t fuss over anything. His memoir is a selected series of stories about the people he knew and the places he lived. For instance, one of his first teachers was a shipping clerk by the name of Jimmy Mulcrone, who taught him how to “fake it" in a musical setting – that is, to play without written music. For Frishberg, “the ability to fake on your instrument was essential to getting employment at nearly any level of the music business, especially in the world of swing and dance bands.” This was how Frishberg carved out his music career at an early age. He loved the sounds of Benny Goodman and Mezz Mezzrow but what really appealed to him was the life that awaited him: “Jazz musicians were hip, they were funny, they were sensitive, they were clannish, and they seemed to have the best girlfriends . . . I wanted to be one of them.” Frishberg’s song “I’m Hip” best expresses his abiding love of jazz culture.

Frishberg’s tales of his working years always have a ring of sweet nostalgia about them in his book. His writing is optimistic and positive, much like his songs, with a dash of sarcasm and plenty of humour. While I knew that much about him going in, I was particularly interested in his songwriting technique, and he’s quite generous in discussing how he writes and why. He says he learned a lot from playwright-lyricist Alfred Uhry, who took a look at “Grape” and said, “Stop trying to make it sound like song lyrics. Forget the moonlit magic bullshit and write simple and straight ahead, like people really talk.” This comment was an epiphany for Frishberg.

Throughout his career Frishberg didn’t want to fall into any clich├ęs in his lyrics or into the trap of first-person reveals. He writes that “only rarely do I feel that the singer is ‘me’, or that I’m expressing my own thoughts,” except for the tune “Sideman” which, he says, is “me talking.” As an equally inventive pianist, Frishberg actually prefers playing in a band or to accompany a singer because it is “much less excruciating than writing songs.” Nevertheless, his talent lies in the crafting of lyrics with a twist. His tunes swing and his lyrics entertain, which is the spirit that he thrives in as an artist.

One of my favourite passages in his memoir recounts his life as a piano player, of which he considers the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quintet his personal favourite. He played with the versatile sax duo for many years. “When Al and Zoot played, they spoke straight to the music in each of us, player and listener alike.” Frishberg tells great stories about Sims and Cohn in his book without being too sentimental in his recollections. He warmly reflects on their talent and technical skills, which inspire him to this very day.

Frishberg’s memoir is essential reading for its great stories and often hilarious turns of phrase. I loved his combination of wit and acid-tongued commentary about the music business and how he sees the music world today. “I am offended by the cheapening of the word musician as applied to practitioners of pop music . . . [M]usic has lost its essence as an artistic form, and is becoming more and more an expression of one’s identity, one’s image and attitude and even one’s relevance to society.” He isn’t joking when he concludes, “I think people see music as a path to notoriety and respect, an ideal showcase to display one’s qualifications for celebrity, now that celebrity has become the goal of practically all popular artistic endeavor.” For Frishberg, it's possible to have an enriching life in music without all the gold.

Essential link: The Dave Frishberg Discography

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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