On The Phony. On The Paper Moon
Again this week I struggled to find a clear wind to write about and reflect on and share with you. The news of the day feels like a holding pattern despite all the movement. I can’t even tell you how many quarter-baked ideas I had for this week.
But if anything is properly happening it is the surge of coronavirus cases around the country. Writing from a city, New York, where about 25,000 people died from COVID-19 and having heard ambulance sirens running all day for weeks and knowing that those were mournful calls to gravediggers it has been hard and heartbreaking to hear how some people are still disbelieving that coronavirus and COVID-19 are a real thing. There are some who are in geographic bubbles and see the disconnect between their lives and the news and are trying to make sense of it and fair enough. I guess.
I saw a video online from some nondescript suburb space where a frenzied, near possessed, person was screaming, maskless, about how “the real virus is fear” and that coronavirus is “phony.” and that it was “plain to see.”
Phony. Plain to see.
Such a specific turn of phrase. And I knew it in a different context. One that I’m sure the screamer wasn’t referring to. My mind went right to the song “It’s Only A Paper Moon” sung by Ella Fitzgerald. If you don’t know the song, hell, even if you do, listen to it before you read further. It will swing you into the proper softness.
No. Seriously. Listen to it.
The song “It’s Only A Paper Moon” was published in 1933 and written by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg (the two wrote ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and many more) and Billy Rose (‘Me and My Shadow’ and many others)
I have listened and loved (and sang along with) versions by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney and others my whole life. But it was made famous by Ella Fitzgerald.
It was in the backseat of a 1978 green Volare that I, as a young boy, would fumble through a latched box looking through the dozen 8-track cassettes we had while my parents drove me anywhere. While sometimes I chose ‘The Greatest Hits of John Denver” or “Great Movie Music of the 40’s” or “Annie” or “The Muppet Movie” and even occasionally “Country: Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings”…”Ella Fitzgerald Sings” was one I chose many times on road trips. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” was the first song.
She is one of those singers who is known by one name: Ella.
“Paper Moon” is a great and classic love song that is written from the perspective of the lover and sung towards the beloved and makes the plea that the world seems like a set piece, a piece of inconsequential theater without the love of their intended. From person to person. Human to human.
The song makes the claim that it is love that is the animating force for the world for two lovers.
The paper moon, the cardboard sea, the muslin tree… all pieces of a theater set.
The honky tonk parade and the Barnum and Bailey world… a heaving diversion of an hour or two to overwhelm the senses. But none of the heft and sway of that which is really real.
But the song turns on the penny arcade. There are six stanzas in the song and the penny arcade is mentioned in the last line of the third verse – it is the exact middle of the song. Ella hits her high note on this line.
What is it about a penny arcade that is so wretched? The cheap gambling? The useless chintzy prizes? The penny arcade might be the most inconsequential ‘not real’ thing in the song. With theater you could argue that you get some culture. The circus and a parade is a bit of fluffy social fun. But Arlen, Harburg, and Rose raise the lyrical stakes a bit more than just indicting the penny arcade… it is the ‘melody played in a penny arcade‘ that is the phoniest part. The looping and breathy whistle of a pipe organ; that is the siren song to lure you into wasting your pennies gambling to win junk while spilling your bloodwine on the sawdusted floor. That is what a world without ‘your’ love is – they claim.
The romance is compelling, to be sure. What a joy it is to be loved like that. And indeed the world seems worthy and more real. May a love like that come to you.
But when I heard that anti-mask COVID hoaxer with the phrase “It’s phony, it’s plain to see” my heartbreak took me down this road with this song to here. I’d like to make a case that this song could be seen as being sung from the perspective of the Earth, maybe even Mother Earth, or maybe even Lover Earth in the direction of humans. And if it is understood that way then this song might be a clarion call to humans with ears to hear. After all a name like Ella is one name for the Great Mother.
Lets wonder if this song might be written from the vantage of the Great Mother herself. Earth and Nature pleading for us to believe in Her.
Might it be that our fractured culture that measures the world and its value for its economic output treats the sea like painted cardboard? Disposable and essentially junk? We say we love the sea but does it show up collectively as love?
Or our sky can somehow just be recycled and painted a dark blue for the fall production of ‘Peter Pan’ and then pale blue for the spring production of ‘Oklahoma’? By geoengineering the sky? People are trying.
Or that our culture doesn’t treat the worlds’ problems as truly real but only speedbumps towards infinite growth and acquisition and hence defers looking at them in any structural way. Just a honky-tonk parade or an afternoon at the circus.
That we are lulled and seduced into gambling our futures away at such a petty pace, that our sway to the marketing tune gives us the false sense that we are actually having a great time . But we are actually in the grip of spell casting trance; conjured to have pennies spill from our hand into a slot that will feed us junk in return. That’s the way it has been until the last few months. Some are intent to go back.
The Great Mother, Ella, might just be pleading with us – “Believe in me. Believe in me and the world might become real to you because it is real and so am I. You might not treat the world like it is so inconsequential and just a diverting pleasure delivery device.”
This is a love song alright. A song for the love of life itself. A plea for the real blue-black sea teeming with fishes, and the actual arcing sky and all the deep rooted and swaying green-tipped trees. This plea is for the vivifying love we might give. A tender and trembling sign of our care and attention and the mandatory place those ones have in the maintenance of this world if we are to inhabit it.
This just might be a song from the non-human to the human begging for us to consider that which is not human to be vital to life and reality. And our belief is the truer coin that we might spend for something more vital than any set piece.
Primal Derma is a little sign to remind you to try to love the alive world and all it’s limits and all it’s endings so that we might know a little touch of the real on our skin. These are the virtues and mode of the approach over on this end, may such a thing be so on yours.
Thanks so much for your ongoing support of this little venture and your willingness to wonder with me about making meaning in the world inspired by an unlikely source.