It's not surprising that Cole Porter's famous show tune "Love for Sale" has been rewritten by Elvis Costello (as "Love for Tender" on "Get Happy") and by David Byrne (as "Love for Sale" on the Talking Heads' "True Stories"). How could these young new-wave songwriters not admire Porter for his ability to subvert the pop music form even as he refined it to new levels of sophistication? The leisurely melody and short, jewellike rhyming lines may be seductively romantic, but "Love for Sale," after all, is about a prostitute who views romance as a commodity.
With the exception of Bertolt Brecht, Porter was the most irreverent of the Broadway composers who dominated American popular song between ragtime and Elvis. He cultivated the veneer of the dandified dilettante, but his songs usually hinted at an amused, skeptical view of love, a view quite at odds with the prevailing myths. In various songs, he compared love to voodoo, to masochism, to death and to the addictive and intoxicating properties of cocaine.
He was also Broadway's sexiest lyricist. "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" contains a Noah's Ark list of animals and all the ways they "do it." "I'd love to make a tour of you," Porter writes in "All of You." "The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you; the east, west, north and south of you." His wary view of sentimentality also liberated his music, which busted up the rigid 32-bar song form and shortened and extended line lengths. Because he resisted the cliches and formulas of his own age so staunchly, his songs have aged quite well.
'Red, Hot & Blue' Next year is the 100th anniversary of Porter's birth (in Peru, Ind.), and we can expect a flood of tributes over the next 13 months. The deluge has already begun with "Red, Hot & Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter to Benefit AIDS Research and Relief" (Chrysalis), a collection of 20 Porter songs radically reinterpreted by progressive-rock artists such as Byrne, Erasure and Neneh Cherry. The album is the basis for a 90-minute ABC-TV special airing Saturday, with the songs presented in videos directed by filmmakers such as Jonathan Demme (Neville Brothers), Wim Wenders (U2), Pedro Almodovar (Byrne) and Jim Jarmusch (Tom Waits).
The connection with the AIDS issue is a natural one, for Porter was a bisexual who had to hide his sexual orientation to work on Broadway and in Hollywood. Moreover, the best songs on "Red, Hot & Blue" emphasize his subtext of forbidden love in a homophobic world, a love that is forever elusive and transient. Not surprisingly, the great singers best capture this dialectic of hopeful yearning and rueful realism. The Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift, for example, sings "Love for Sale" with an alluring offer of "appetizing young love" undercut by the regret that he has known "every love but true love."
The Eurythmics' Annie Lennox slows down "Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little," until the line loses its flippancy. When U2's Bono sings about "a hungry yearning burning inside of me" from "Night and Day," his twisted siren singing and the Edge's grinding guitar parts suggest that such romantic hunger is unlikely ever to be satisfied. A melancholy accordion accompanies k.d. lang's slow, weary version of "So in Love (Am I)," a declaration that sounds like a most hollow triumph. The album's biggest surprise is the smart, sassy version of "Down in the Depths (On the 90th Floor)" by Lisa Stansfield, a young singer who sounds like the real thing.
Best of all is the version of "In the Still of the Night" by Aaron Neville, who can capture the tenderness and fear inspired by love's fragility better than anyone. The Neville Brothers back him up with restrained carnival syncopation. It's not the only cut to make clear that the role of rhythm has changed more than any other aspect of American music since Porter's heyday: Byrne puts a rumbling Afro-Brazilian drum section underneath "Don't Fence Me In," and the Pogues put a Celtic folk-rock march beneath "Just One of Those Things."
Nonetheless "Red, Hot & Blue" has plenty of disappointments. Not only is the sound all over the place, but so is the attitude; it lacks the unity of the Hal Willner-produced tributes to Kurt Weill, Walt Disney and Thelonious Monk. Matching Sinead O'Connor with a 23-piece orchestra and Porter's "You Do Something to Me" only exposes what a boring, limited singer she is. The cuts by Tom Waits, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and the Thompson Twins are jokes that fall flat.
Neneh Cherry's hip-hop deconstruction of "I've Got You Under My Skin" (transforming the title into a warning against AIDS-contaminated needles) is a great audio construct, but it has very little to do with Porter. The Jungle Brothers' hip-hop chant version of "I Get a Kick out of You" has even less to do with Porter and is much less appealing. Whatever happened to the Lou Reed version of "I Get a Kick out of You," previously promised for this collection? Why didn't they get Costello to sing "I Hate You, Darling"? NRBQ to sing "Let's Do It"? Prince to sing "All of You"? Randy Newman to sing "I've Still Got My Health"?
Jazz Tributes The true musical sophistication of Porter's songs wasn't properly appreciated until they started being recorded by subtle jazz singers rather than brassy Broadway stars. Ella Fitzgerald's "The Cole Porter Songbook" (Verve) is not only the definitive album of Porter songs, but it's also one of the greatest albums of American music ever released. Fitzgerald's vocal powers were at their zenith in 1956; accompanied by the Buddy Bregman Orchestra on 32 titles, she not only made the most of Porter's pleasurable melodies and clever wordplay, but also brought out his slightly swinging rhythms and dramatic subtexts. Most Porter interpreters get a handle on only one or two of these aspects.
The Fitzgerald collection has been issued on two compact discs, and two selections have now shown up on "Night and Day" (Verve), a new CD collection of 17 Porter songs interpreted by 14 different jazz singers. Almost all of them are admirable, but the highlights include the two Fitzgerald numbers, Billie Holiday's typically translucent "Easy to Love" (with solos by Barney Kessel and Charlie Shavers), Betty Carter's equally translucent "Everytime We Say Goodbye" (with David Amram's dizzying string arrangement), Dinah Washington's Africanized "I've Got You Under My Skin" (with Max Roach playing the rumbling drums) and, best of all, Louis Armstrong's transformation of "Let's Do It" into an eight-minute slow-blues workout.
Many other Porter tributes are around. This year's "Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter" (Arista) is a disappointment, because both the singer and producer/arranger Arif Mardin seem unacquainted with Porter's irony or the concept of understatement. Last year Atlantic Records combined 1971's "Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter" into a double-CD package called "Bobby, Noel & Cole." As a cabaret artist, Short takes a more theatrical approach than Fitzgerald, yet a more intimate approach than, say, Ethel Merman.
The definitive cabaret take on Porter, though, is "Mabel Mercer Sings Cole Porter" (Atlantic), recorded with duo-pianists Cy Walter and Stan Freeman. Mercer's phrasing was notoriously idiosyncratic, but the British singer's peculiar personality was just what enabled her to dig so deeply into Porter's humor and paradoxes.