23
Jan 02

PEGGY LEE

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Peggy Lee – “Is That All There Is?”

I broke up with a woman three weeks ago who loves Peggy Lee, and who introduced me to her (and who, and who…) I’ve just been listening to a lot of her stuff again, in alphabetical order, because that’s how they show up in my mp3 player.
* a wonderfully slow and sad “Basin St Blues”,
* “Fever”,
* “Hey Big Spender”,
* “How Long Has This Been Going On” with Tommy Dorsey, where she sounds very different, a much more melting-butter Billie Holiday sound to her voice (there are fashions in music, surprise surprise),

and then I got to “Is That All There Is.” It’s a strange song. It was written for her in 1969 by two guys named Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. They were very successful songwriters. They’d written “Hound Dog” for Elvis and “Love Potion #9” and a bunch of other stuff. They were hitmakers, and Peggy Lee was already a legend.

When the album came out, a critic named Robert Palmer figured that “the Golden Age of Rock & Roll has come to an end.” I don’t know why he thought it was rock and roll. It’s pop. In any case it’s a very curious song. She starts as a child:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?” Is that all there is?

The banjo comes in with a steady rhythm. The song now sounds like the end of a vaudeville show.

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends,
then let’s keep dancing…
Let’s break out the booze and – have a ball…
If that’s all there is.

And we stop rocking. Only the brass now, like a mournful parade band, keeping time. She speaks again.

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth. There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears. And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads. And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle. I had the feeling that something was missing. I don’t know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, “is that all there is to a circus?” Is that all there is?

She’s bored with the greatest show on earth! But it’s a question. What am I missing? she asks. Why am I not getting this thing?

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
…if that’s all there is.

And then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world. We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes. We were so very much in love. And then one day he went away and I thought I’d die. But I didn’t. And when I didn’t I said to myself, “is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep –

And she breaks off the chorus. Love is replaceable. The heart can adapt. But if this is true, what’s the point of living? She’s anticipating your criticism. “How boring,” she says. Peggy Lee lived for 81 years.

I know what you must be saying to yourselves – if that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all? Oh, no, not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment. For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you, when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
…if that’s all there is.

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