Monday, August 20, 2012

"Seasons In The Sun"

This is a re-posting to rectify an error I made in May of 2009 when I conflated two very different posts into one - this look at Rod McKuen's "Seasons In The Sun" and a video presentation of all the songs from the 1962 album The Best of the Kingston Trio. I did so because first, until that time all of the posts here had been on individual songs, and second, because I was a bit embarrassed to be publishing posts of all Kingston Trio songs or even one McKuen creation - not because I don't like both of them to different degrees but rather because such posts seemed out of step with the whole approach of this blog. Since then, however, I've posted maybe 14 articles that were not about single songs, and ol' Rod has appeared in the song posts several times, especially this year. So it seemed natural to split the two posts as I should have done originally. The Best of the Kingston Trio post can still be found on May 9, 2009.

I have to say at the outset that it took me more years than I'd care to admit to appreciate the Kingston Trio's version of "Seasons In The Sun." I wasn't at first a huge fan of the Time To Think, the album on which it appeared, because I felt that the Kingston Trio for once was trying to catch somebody else's coattails - in this case, Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary - rather than be the step ahead of everyone else that they always had been. Additionally, if the Trio actually had a "dark" album, it was this one and not Make Way, especially when it is contrasted with the thematic and aural brightness of New Frontier (which remains probably my personal favorite album of the Shane-Reynolds-Stewart years of the KT from '61 to '67- it still just sounds so good).

Further, by the career point of Time To Think, the Trio was in full retreat from what folk music had been both traditionally and in terms of what they themselves had shaped it into. What TTT gives us is a mix of the trenchant ("If You Don't Look Around," "Coal Tattoo"), the wistful (Hobo's Lullaby," "No One To Talk My Troubles To"), and the sentimental ("Turn Around," "These Seven Men"). But nowhere on the album is a song that even remotely would have been termed "folk" a half dozen years earlier, and this is absolutely the first Trio album of which that was true.

What emerges from the record - and what "Seasons In The Sun" most effectively represents - is the group turning toward a broadening of its repertoire and an attempt not to be pigeonholed as a kind of feel-good, banjo-ringing frat party act that was fiddling while Rome burned. As an album whose entire playlist was original songs penned by professional singer-songwriters, it put an emphatic punctuation mark at the end of the group's continual rejection of the label "folksingers."

"Seasons In The Sun" is an Americanized attempt to tap into the rich vein of music that came out of French cabarets and [the real and original] Paris coffee houses of most of the last century and that gave rise to legendary singers like Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour (the French Sinatra and a tremendous vocalist) - and Jacques Brel himself.

Introduce into this milieu (and I feel a lot of French working its way into this post) San Francisco dilettante and Beat poet wannabe Rod McKuen, a hanger-on to the fringes of genuine iconoclasts (sorry - Greek)like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more - who, like them or not, are the major American poetic voices of their era. McKuen didn't fit in with them - his verse was too light, too transparent, too simple in thought and composition, and he seemed to lack some of the Beats' self-destructiveness. So like any good lost artist, McKuen went to France around 1959 and ran into the cafe society, Brel's songs, and eventually Brel himself. The two became collaborators and fast friends; Brel seems to have approved even of McKuen's extremely free-hand and Americanized translations of Brel's very Gallic compositions, like "Seasons."

I believe it was the Kingstons' roots in San Francisco that acquainted them with McKuen, and the Trio's recording of "Seasons" is the first English language version of the song after McKuen's himself. The excellent production values of this cut are self-evident - the wonderful and subtle nylon guitar lead (John Steuber?), the likely John Stewart 12 string main accompaniment - and a superb lead vocal by Bob Shane, whose husky baritone is fully mature and in peak form:

The song is actually titled "Le Moribond" - "The Dying Man" - and though McKuen sticks to that general theme, Brel's actual sentiments are radically different. But whatever McKuen's shortcomings as a poet may be, he is an innovative and sensitive lyricist, and his live performance of this song is as close as you'll get in English to an authentic French cabaret effect:

This is real French cabaret stuff - the savoir faire, the je ne sais quoi, the inimitable French shrug of the shoulders in the face of catastrophe. I think McKuen's words capture some of that effectively, but - well, the French are the French.

I'm sure that we were all chagrined when an amiable musical lightweight named Terry Jacks took the Trio's recording in 1974 and turned it into a monster hit -

Overlooking for a moment the really thin and affect-less nature of the vocal - much of the musical accompaniment seems to be a riff off of the Steuber-Stewart-Shane-Reynolds work of the first recording.

After Jacks, a host of other artists tried their hand at imitating him instead of the Trio (as they should have):

The Beach Boys (Jacks should just have let them do it)

Nirvana (possibly a joke, and Cobain sounds stoned)

Westlife (really pleasant)

I like Westlife's version myself, the rest....

The studio recording by Brel gives us the song in its original production concept. In the best cafe tradition, Brel pulls a fast one here - the drumming background rhythm is similar to a bolero (think Ravel and Dudley Moore's movie 10), a truly erotic style used here to underscore a song about death. Sex and death - you don't get much more French than that:

We are at the very least a very long way from "Tom Dooley" here, on unfamiliar ground, breaking away from the roots that sustained the group's original and unprecedented popularity.

Appendix, 6/11

I just ran across a fine version of the song from Arizona's Joe Bethancourt, one of the leading performers and musicians in that folk-rich state (Dolan Ellis, Bill Zorn, the late Travis Edmonson at whose memorial this clip was recorded). Joe is both a traditionalist musician and a songwriter with an iconoclastic bent to his politics - and one of the most brilliant banjoists I've ever heard. I spent a pleasant hour with him and Greg Deering (of Deering Banjos) in August of 2010 in Scottsdale, AZ and had previously included his rendition of "South Coast" in my 2010 article on that song. Joe does a very authentic cabaret approach to the song here:

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