The Collaborative Common of Jane Austen, Randy Newman and Albert Ayler *


What have Jane Austen, Randy Newman and Albert Ayler got in common? 

Might the answer to this teaser (posed by John Fagg, an old friend, a deep jazz lover and unexpected Janeite) have something to do with irony? 

Jane

The most famous opening sentence in English literature is laced with strychnine levels of irony: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that  a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good wife…” It sets the tone for the irony fest of Pride and Prejudice because the ‘universal truth’ uppermost in the minds of Austen heroines typically angling for a good marital catch, might not have occurred to the s.m.i.p.o.a.g.f. himself. The Austen view of humanity, for all its delicacy and chasteness, is that of a meat-market, albeit with an elegant Georgian decor. The theme is drummed home in the first line of Mansfield Park: “About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park…” That good luck and captivate register the ironic intent here.  

The opening line of Emma, however, bypasses irony and opts instead for heartlessness: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress her.” Clearly, Austen is setting Emma up for a fall. (Randy Newman has his heartless moments. The reader is recommended to ‘They Just Got Married’. After evoking an exuberant wedding ceremony and a state of enviable married bliss, Newman punctures it all with just three words: “Anyway, she died…”)  

All good Janeites are very fond of the film Becoming Jane, which stars Anne Hathaway as a radiant Jane and James McAvoy as dishy Tom Lefroy, eager to get beyond the bounds of propriety. It has a nicely literate and intelligent script, which is as it should be. At one point, a dinner scene, it’s necessary for Jane to make a good impression on her fiance’s uncle, but instead she argues with him about irony. Jane is made to say, “Irony is the bringing together of contradictory truths to make out of the contradiction a new truth with a laugh or a smile…”   

This struck a chord with John, who had the non-ironic good luck to catch Randy Newman with strings at St Luke’s Church in 2008 (the performance is available as Live in London). “You can hear Randy thinking something other than what he’s singing,” says John, admiringly. 


Randy 

Randy Newman has always flirted with ambiguity, “new truth”, irony (call it what you will) and frequently seems to be playing a game of double-bluff with his audience. ‘Short People’ is an obvious example of disjuncture between apparent message and deeper truth. On the surface, the song advocates the extermination of all short people because they have “nasty little feet” and "I don't want no short people 'round here". Whereas, in fact, ‘Short People’ is a song of moral uplift lightly disguised as a hate song. By pouring scorn on extreme prejudice, Newman ridicules all bigotry, large and small (or tall and short, if you prefer). In the bridge, however, Randy sings "Short People are just the same as you and me..." underlining the prissy and do-good, and makes that appear ridiculous too.    

Of course, saying the opposite of what you mean - which Newman does not once but twice during the course of the song, with conflicting messages - is not irony but sarcasm, which is a lesser art, which is why ‘Short People’ is one of Randy Newman’s more slight efforts, despite being one of his biggest hits (#2 on the Billboard Charts in 1977).   

Like the songsmiths of the Great American Songbook, Newman writes from outside his own life. His political radicalism (implied, rarely overtly stated: his progenitor, Tom Lehrer, was resolutely apolitical) marks him as a product of his time, the sixties. If the former quality drew Frank Sinatra, anxious to locate some continuity between bobby-soxers and flower children, the radicalism aroused his deep suspicion. Plus Sinatra was savvy enough to recognise a piss-take when he heard it, so he turned down ‘Lonely At the Top’ when it was offered to him.

This raises an interesting question: there are degrees of irony and “new truth” is relative, depending on who is doing the telling. ‘Lonely At the Top’, when Randy Newman sings it, is irony pure and simple (he doesn’t bother to suppress a guffaw at the line, “All the money I have made”; possibly, since the success of Toy Story, he works hard to maintain the guffaw at the line, “All the money I have made”). Whereas for Sinatra, the song represents documentary-style realism. 

Peggy Lee, motivated by the same need to reach to the generation down, gamely tackled ‘Love Story’ in the full knowledge that it amounted to a desecration of her signature song, ‘The Folks That Live On the Hill’. But by then (1969) disillusion had overtaken romantic reverie as Lee’s stock-in-trade. The title track (which Randy Newman arranged and conducted, incidentally) of the album in question is ‘Is That All There Is?’ 

But what John really loves is the way Randy Newman refuses to tell listeners what to think. And it’s true, it is possible to treat ‘Jolly Coppers On Parade’ as a grand recruitment song for the NYPD, and agree with the sentiment of ‘Sail Away’ - what's so bad about slavery if it results in the American Way of Life? - or wax nostalgic for the Golden Age of Empire, when men were men (this from‘The Great Nations of Europe’: “Balboa found the Pacific / And on the trail one day, he met some friendly Indians whom he was told were gay / So he had them torn apart by dogs on religious grounds they say / The Great Nations of Europe were quite holy in their way”), and isn't the  protagonist (antagonist?) of ‘Davy the Fat Boy’, in his own way, promoting the happiness of the many? That obese kid with learning difficulties is lucky to have such a friend. 

All these impressions are quite legitimate because Randy Newman gives listeners the freedom to think what they want. If the unspoken corollary is, "You can think that, but you'd be a fool," that's only because Newman is grumpy to a fault. In a culture largely free of irony, and where all listeners are casual listeners, misunderstandings are bound to multiply. That's natural. Newman accepts it, and clearly relishes his role as the arch provocateur of popular song, even if the death threats are a drag sometimes. 


Albert

Today I celebrated International Jazz Day (April 30) with a blast of Albert Ayler. The LP I picked, The First Recordings (Sonet, SNTF 604), preserves a Swedish session from 1962. All side 1 is given over to a standard, 'I’ll Remember April’. The familiar melody is stated comparatively straight, and regularly reprised during a perpetuity of steel-braced grinding, screaming and honking clamour. Albert Ayler was the great naif primitive of the New Thing. Nothing, certainly not virtuosity, could be taken for granted. But the struggle to achieve selfhood is strenuous, urgent and not to be denied, and results in a trail of scattered melodic shards that constitute one of the most compelling sounds in jazz history. 

John is a confirmed Albert-ite. I made notes as he spoke about Ayler on the phone the other day. “He plays everything wrong: neither the right time or the right notes. This is most apparent in his early recordings, when he was teamed with a conventional rhythm section.” [My Name is Albert Ayler contains wild versions of ‘Summertime’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, and the resident Stockholm rhythm team, hopelessly out of depth, provide a broad relief for Ayler’s primal gesticulations.]  

“He’s not purely contrary [says John]. He’s not trapped by doing the precise opposite of what he’s supposed to be playing. No, he goes into a third place. A place that is utterly poetic and ambiguous. Does Ayler’s tumult express anger or joy? It could be mistaken for either or both, but really it goes to a third place. Irony is not a trap: it’s an escape to something else.”  

The third place provides our best hope for the future. I was interested to hear about something called the Collaborative Commons. Someone (Jeremy Rifkin; advisor to Angela Merkel, apparently), was talking about it on the radio the other morning (Start the Week, R4, 28.4.14): –

“My economist colleagues believe there are only two ways to manage an economy, either private enterprise or government or some combination between the two. Capitalism, Socialism or Social Market Economy. They forget that there’s a third economy in our lives that we all of us are engaged in, that provides a whole range of goods and services that aren’t part of private enterprise or government. It’s called the Social Economy, the Civil Society, and this is where millions of non-profit organisations, small and large, are attending to the most intimate affairs of our life: educational institutions, health care services, environmental groups, sports, arts, etc… We are seeing a titanic shift outside the Capitalist system to the sharing economy, and it portends some tremendous disruptions over the  long run.” 

*based on an original idea by John Fagg 

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