Tuesday, October 13, 2009

George Gershwin Goes Surfin'' U.S.A.

From the cluttered mind of Paul Levine...

The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson is going complete and record some unfinished George Gershwin songs, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. I know what you're thinking. Just when is Jimmy Buffet going to finish one of Mozart's symphonies?

Gershwin is one of the geniuses of American music.

He wrote Broadway musicals, sophisticated popular songs, and classical compositions. He experimented with jazz. He wrote the amazing "Rhapsody in Blue" in three weeks at age 26! It is one of the greatest American compositions of the 20th Century. Who does not recognize that opening 17-note clarinet glissando, signalling the magic that is to come? (My son grew up calling Rhapsody the American Airlines song. Don't blame Gershwin; blame his estate for selling rights for commercial purposes).

I first heard Rhapsody with a full orchestra in a tent at the Aspen Music Festival. Chills-up-the-spine time, and this from a guy who thinks the greatest American singer is Waylon Jennings. (Coming in second is Ridley Pearson).

Here's a decent performance of Rhapsody with Leonard Bernstein on the piano.

"Rhapsody" was so original, so startling, so new...that some traditional critics hated it. Here's a bit of Lawrence Gilman's moronic review of the premiere concert in 1924 in the New York Tribune:

"How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!"

Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 36. Who knows what he might have composed had he lived a full life? Which brings us to Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Gershwin changed the face of American music; Wilson wrote "Good Vibrations." Okay, I know that's unfair. Wilson is a highly regarded popular musician and songwriter...especially among surfers and stoners. The Gershwin estate must know what they're doing in hiring the guy, right? You know, those same people who sold Rhapsody to American Airlines. What do you think?

How do you feel about Robert B. Parker finishing Raymond Chandler's "Poodle Springs?" What prevails, the author's wishes, or society's "needs?"

Franz Kafka wanted his unfinished works destroyed; some were published anyway. The heirs of Carl Jung next week will publish his highly personal journal, "The Red Book," despite the analyst's apparent wish that it remain secret. They would argue that the world is entitled to learn Jung's deepest thoughts, but apparently not for free. The cover price is $195!

Often, writers leave multiple versions of unfinished works, and literary executors hire new writers to fill in the blanks. This happened to Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Silmarillion."

Charles Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was even more mysterious because another author finished it. More recently, Truman Capote's "Answered Prayers" were answered by another; Richard Yates' "Uncertain Times" were given more certainty by a different writer; and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Love of the Last Tycoon" was finished and, as we say in Hollywood, additional dialogue provided by Matthew J. Bruccoli.

By the way, if I leave any unfinished manuscripts when I kick the bucket, I would like Jim Born to complete them...and clean out my garage. In fact, why wait? Jim, please take over and finish my current Jake Lassiter manuscript.

Hey, come to think of it, let's all wish Jim luck. He's headed to Bouchercon where his stunning short story, "The Drought," is nominated for a Barry Award. The story was contained in "The Blue Religion," edited by Michael Connelly. In my opinion, Jim's story is worth the price of the book, especially if you buy it used on Amazon.

Paul Levine


  1. Part of me believes unfinished works of the greats should be left to lie. However, I'm also curious what the finishers come up with. If "finished" works make people visit or revisit the original authors, the authors' legacies go on in a way and are not overlooked by today's audience.

  2. James O. Born10/13/2009 8:30 AM

    I liked your description of "Lassiter". Will the remake the movie named "Lassiter" with Tom selleck?

    Thanks for the good wishes on the Barry. We'll see what happens.


  3. Congrats to James O for the nom. Break out the champagne.

    Your post will send every author to his/her attorney for a will makeover.

  4. It's easy to underestimate Brian Wilson and his achievements as a songwriter. Listen again to "Good Vibrations"--my guess is that Gershwin would have loved it. He was always pleased when fine musicians contributed ideas to his works. He wrote the clarinet opening of the "Rhapsody in Blue" as a glissando. It was clarinetist Ross Gorman who, at rehearsals, turned it into the famous whoop--and Gershwin loved the effect. Let's be happy that Wilson, the composer of "God Only Knows" is getting together with the composer of "Embraceable You" and hope that, together, they hit one out of the park.

  5. Sorry, didn't mean to make the above comment anonymously.

  6. James O. Born10/13/2009 9:27 AM

    That coment was so smart and in depth that I was going to claim credit for it.

    Until ou blew my chance.


  7. Thanks, Jim. Next time let's collaborate.


  8. I do not disagree with Walter, who obviously knows more about music than I do.

    I also think there's a tendency to disparage popular artists during their era, only to discover later that...wow...that stands the test of time.

    And...Gershwin was a popular musician at heart, but was also wildly inventive.

    Finally...I love "Good Vibrations."

  9. I wish Jack London's "Assassination Bureau" had been left alone, and "Poodle Springs" isn't Chandler but Parker: Parker may admire Chndler, but their strengths are utterly different (as are their weaknesses). That said, I'm happy "Islands in the Stream" was posthumously published, even in its bowdlerized form.

  10. I'd like to see Brian Wilson complete Jung's unfinished journals.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  11. I haven't read enough Chandler to know how well Parker did on Poodle Springs, but I enjoyed it. However, a friend of mine who liked Chandler a lot (probably predictably) thought Parker's additions sucked. Who knows, though. Maybe Chandler would have read it and thought, "Why didn't I think of that?"

    Or maybe he would have said, "Do I get half the royalties?"

  12. Correction: I said "American Airlines." It's United Air Lines.

    And here's something the Beach Boys have in common with Gershwin. "Fun, Fun, Fun" was licensed to Carnival Cruise Lines for a commercial.

  13. Mark, it's not that "Poodle Springs" is a bad book, it's that it's not Chandler; it's not even Chandleresque. Parker doesn't have the skillset to imitate Chandler convincingly. On the other hand, he has skills, such as his descriptions of physical violence, that Chandler never got right. It's like that comment somebody made to Alexander Pope: "It's a pretty poem, but you cannot call it Homer."