I was listening to Tom Waits version of ‘Somewhere‘ (on ‘Blue Valentine’) and remembering Leonard Bernstein, in the documentary of the 1984 recording of West Side Story (the first time he conducted his own music, incidentally), tearing his hair out because Jose Carreras (playing Tony) just couldn’t help but keep slipping back into perfect pronunciation, away from the street gang edge that Bernstein was looking for.
More than likely Waits would be more than a few shades too far the other way for Bernstein (and indeed my mother-in-law who thought the CD player had broken), but opera singers versions of folk or pop songs rarely work because the sound of their voice is just too pure and polished.
And you don’t have to go as far as opera singers. Just think of the Byrds’ limp, smoothed out version of Mr Tambourine Man which empties the song of all challenge and meaning (even whilst it way outsold Dylan’s version). Listen to the sand and glue of Dylan and you feel the power of the words.
It’s something Seth Godin pointed to in his post ‘Effortless’, taking John Coltrane playing ‘Harmonique’ as an example:
Sometimes, “never let them see you sweat,” is truly bad advice. The work of an individual who cares often exposes the grit and determination and effort that it takes to be present.
Perfecting your talk, refining your essay and polishing your service until all elements of you disappear might be obvious tactics, but they remove the thing we were looking for: you.
To get in the mood for celebrating you, just watch this encore from the proms in which Gustavo Dudamel and the Bolivars (Simon Bolivar Orchestra) don tracksuit tops in Venezuelan colours and rip into ‘Mambo!’ (from West Side Story). Speaking to Intelligent Life, Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard) had no doubt her father would have loved it:
“I never thought I would again have those chills in a concert that I used to get watching my dad conduct … He would have gone down there, to Venezuela, in a shot. He would have crushed every rib in Gustavo’s body with a hug … He would have been beside himself with excitement.”