Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Spirits Rise and Their Dance Is Unrehearsed

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century
"Evergreen" (Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams, 1976)

Early on in the version of A Star Is Born that was uploaded to Netflix a few months ago, there's a scene in which Barbra Streisand shows a song to Kris Kristofferson, playing the rock star who has stumbled into Streisand's small-time nightclub act the night before. Streisand explains that she hasn't written words for it yet, but picks out the chords on an acoustic guitar as she signs the wordless melody. It's gorgeous, of course; it's "Evergreen."

When I watched this scene, there were a few things I didn't know about it. (It was the first time I had seen any of the iterations of A Star Is Born.) First of all, I didn't know that it had been cut from the theatrical release and had been restored for the Netflix version in what you might call the director's cut, if we're willing to admit that Streisand has always been the real director for all her pictures. 

“I can’t believe that I, as the person who had final cut of that movie, cut myself out of that scene because I was just looking at the pace," Streisand later said. "I didn’t realize what I was cutting out until much later." 

What I also didn't realize is that the scene was autobiographical. Streisand herself composed the music to the song, then went to Paul Williams, who was writing all the other music for the film, to help with the lyrics. 

"The first thing she did, she said, 'Can you use this?'" Williams said. "She picked up a guitar and I said, 'Oh my God, it's beautiful.' She was like a little kid. It's a side of her I'd never seen before. She was like, 'You really like it?' I said, 'Like it? It's our love theme.'" 

Williams wrote the lyrics in a day. "The only thing that the finished song had that was different from the way it is now is the first two lines were switched," he said. "I wrote 'Love, fresh as the morning air/ Love, soft as an easy chair.' That 'easy' doesn't sing good. I called her up, and said, 'How's that?' She said, 'Fine.' Click. I thought, 'You do go on, don't you?'" Those lyrics are awfully good:

Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed

They warm and excite us
Cuz we have the brightest

In the version of A Star Is Born that was released in 1976, "Evergreen" is finally seen onscreen when Streisand and Kristofferson sing it together in the studio, as their love affair has blossomed, and Streisand's joy in the singing of it, in the moment of them uniting, is palpable. "When I do sing the song with a lyric and it’s with Kris, the lyric is about him now," Streisand said later. "It adds more depth to their love affair.” 

Streisand insisted on singing it live in the studio, to present the most natural possible version of it. Kristofferson, who you would think would be more a of professional musician, was reluctant to perform it live. Frankly, he comes across as a bad singer, and kind of a pain in the ass. Nevertheless, it's a tremendous performance:

So the biggest question about this song is: Barbra Streisand wrote it? Really? I've seen speculation like this dismissed as sexism, which may be part of it, but more than that I think it's because Streisand hardly wrote any other songs. Throughout the 1970s, she would occasionally get a co-writing credit or two on her solo albums - but the one song anyone is aware of her writing is this gem? A song so good some people (i.e., yours truly) call it one of the Greatest Songs of the 20th Century? That seems far-fetched, but there's no evidence to the contrary that I can see.

I am reluctant to include any songs in this series that haven't been recorded, and ideally made into hits, by multiple artists. Although "Evergreen" has become a signature song for Streisand, it has been covered by lots of people, including Johnny Mathis, Luther Vandross, and Broadway's Marin Mazzie. I have heard an unreleased rendition by none other than the Chairman, Frank Sinatra, but his voice cracked on the last chorus, and he apparently never made another attempt at it.

One reason I like to hear multiple version of a song before I anoint it is so that I can be sure it's the song whose excellence I'm hearing, not just the performance. If "Evergreen" falls short of that standard, well, go make your own list. 

But really, no one is ever going to own this song besides Barbra Streisand. Wish she would write more.