A Kitschy Gilde

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A Kitschy Glide

                        Calcutta, by Heino Gaze, performed by Lawrence Welk

                                       Recorded 1960, Encountered 1961?

If you’re going to be entirely honest about the “theme songs” in your life, you’re going to have to own up to some unsophisticated moments.  Let’s face it: none of us is born erudite.  Things are likely to have thrilled you along the line that you might not want the world to know about now, because they make you look like exactly what you genuinely were, unsophisticated.  This is my moment for owning up.

Up to this point I’ve been talking about music that may have been forged in popular idioms, but I’ve been praising its perhaps unnoticed sophistication.  Have I been defending my youthful tastes a little by portraying myself as a sophisticate-in-training with a yen for the challenging hidden within the mundane like a diamond in the rough?  Probably.  But with this next item, Lawrence Welk’s version of Calcutta, there is absolutely no making that argument.  However intelligently constructed, it is musical kitsch, and one has to start with that.

How kitschy?  Try this video from Lawrence Welk’s show which incidentally gives you the complete performance of the song with the exact orchestration of the 1961 hit.[1]  One’s jaw hangs loose as one watches it, especially when one considers it was shot in 1971: the accordion-and-harpsichord orchestration, the dreadful clothing choices, the green jackets on the musicians, the female singers clapping in time adorned with the helmet-coifs and the matching puce dresses, the dancers, many of whom are unapologetically old and dowdy-looking, being watched by an even grayer audience – all of this captured in the same year that Jim Morrison died.  And I haven’t even got to the music yet.

Now, let’s acknowledge that some of the greatest composers in the world were German.  The classical repertoire is stuffed with German names, men (well, mostly) of great musical profundity.  But the converse is also true.  There is also a very German kind of musical superficiality, honed by the polka and the drinking song, and this number is from that tradition.  The melody, composed in 1958, is by Heino Gaze (1908-1967), a journeyman German film composer who also did a considerable business in drinking songs and cute little melodies.  It pretty much defines Easy Listening, German Division.  It conjures up a world of resolute cheeriness.

Could it be that there was something slightly deeper under the surface?  After all, it’s not called Hamburg.  Is there any concession to any kind of exoticism – an exoticism that might cause a composer to break an imaginative sweat and dig a little deeper – suggested by the title?  Well, there was a German lyric, irrelevant to the Welk rendering, which was presented as an orchestral number, that I’ve not heard, but I have heard the English lyric, which was recorded by the Four Preps in a sort of cover of the Welk version,[2] and that charted in February 1961, two months after Welk’s.  Basically, it’s all about how the lucky protagonist has kissed girls all around the world, and the ones in Calcutta kiss the best.  The same idea as California Girls, only coming down elsewhere as a choice for the promised land of dating.  So no, when the listener hears no real hint of other musical idioms that might conjure up the Indian city of ideal kissers,[3] he or she is correctly not hearing what isn’t there.  The cheerfully propulsive rhythm and Western melody and chord structure are all the cosmopolitanism the protagonist needs.  After all, per the lyric, he’s kissed girls in Naples, Spain, and Par-ee.  One suspects that Calcutta was chosen as the final destination simply because it scanned properly.

So what was my connection with all of this?  That may be the most embarrassing revelation of all, because, though I can’t be quite certain, it appears that somewhere in the recesses of my mind I’ve forged an association that has no real-life basis.

Let me explain.

My parochial school, St. Thomas the Apostle in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had, for at least one year of my youth, a summer recreation program.  Now, I made a lot of good use of my summers as a kid, learning to type, learning to swim, learning how to play tennis, doing advanced studies in Math and German.  But at least during the summer of 1959, I took part in that rec program.  I think that was the most summer fun I ever had.  And most of it was pretty basic.  We piled into buses and went to lakes to swim.  We took the buses to amusement parks. And we roller skated in the former school gym, which was now the auditorium when folding seats were lined up there.  Of course they were put away in racks when we skated.

I loved the skating the best.  And it was a remarkably unsophisticated pleasure.  Just get yourself issued the old-fashioned 2X2 skates in your shoe size, strap them on, and go round and round on the green vinyl tiles.

While listening to easy listening music.

I know they were big on Mitch Miller.  Calcutta is very much the kind of thing Miller would have had his choristers sing.  And I could have sworn, until I checked carefully through my mom’s diary, that the most popular song of all that summer was Calcutta.  But here you hit an anachronism like a brick wall.  Calcutta hadn’t even been recorded yet that summer.  There was, I understand, a German version from 1958, but I can’t imagine that we were playing that.

So the bottom line is I have an impossible association here.  My favorite association from the summer of 1959 is inextricably linked to a 1961 song.

Sometimes, when presented with the impossible, you just have to go with it.  It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  The song that always reminds me of those simple unsophisticated afternoons of skating lazily around in circles is a song I probably first heard two years later.  The song is as square and kitschy, as reassuring that nothing will ever change for the worse, as the pleasure that will always come to mind when I hear it.  In the song’s lyrics, the singer’s encounters with the women who kiss him all over the world don’t entail any heartbreak or betrayal, any regrets, any chance of STDs.[4]  Music with any shadows in it, any exoticism even, would be all wrong.  It’s all a charming game, just like roller-skating on a Sunday afternoon.  And that connection, I guess, will have to be enough.

[1]. Well, actually it first charted as a single December 12, 1960 according to my trusty Billboard Top Pop Singles Guide.

[2]. Available on iTunes.

[3]. A good comparison, if one wants to hear how Western light composers of that era would suggest the musical palette of India, is the incidental music India Country Side from 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days, by Victor Young, that plays while the train carries the travelers into the heart of the country.  This is actually wonderful composing, if perhaps a little patronizing to the sound of real Indian music.

[4]. To modern, post-Women’s Movement ears, the whole casual approach to the women he’s experienced as not as individuals but as geographic categories, like regional varietal wines, seems so superficial and dismissive one nastily wonders whether the singer is romanticizing visits to brothels in various places.  Maybe, if Calcutta was selected for more than its scansion, the subtext is that there was something really special about the way tricks were turned there.  One hopes not.

Copyright © Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album art

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