Love Songs by Lata, Levi and Mr. Loaf
By Stuart Mitchner
“Love that sings: the sweet old song of love.
—James Joyce, of Ulysses
OWhen Lata Mangeshkar died in Mumbai at 92 just over a week ago, some obituaries branded her a ‘reading singer’. The New York Times headline got closer to the truth with “Bollywood’s Most Beloved Voice.” She has often been called “the nightingale of India”, which suggests Lata’s wonderment only if you think of the nightingale in Keats’ Ode “pouring out your soul abroad in such ecstasy!” Lata pours her mind into kohl-eyed, sari-clad, ankle-length barefoot women dancing or moving shyly, cheekily and cheekily to the beat of spectacularly frenetic orchestras of violins, sitars and electric guitars creating extravaganzas symphony of joy and pain.
sing of love
The day after Valentine’s Day, I listened to Lata on an album from 1957, Modern Indian Cinematic Music, a “high fidelity” 12-inch Capitol LP “recorded in Calcutta”. The songs are from two movies, Nagin, “a romantic story in the classic Romeo and Juliet tradition” about two young lovers “who belong to rival and hostile tribes of snake charmers”. The other film tells the story of the main character, Anarkali, “a pretty dancer” who “falls in love with the son and heir of Emperor Akbar, a romance that began in the desert, blossomed briefly and s… finally ended with the death of the young beauty.
You get an idea of high-flying lyrical content and love of music from samples in the liner notes. In the first song of Nagin», sings the young girl with emotion, suffering from a separation and calling her lover. My world is hollow without you… life has become an ocean of sorrow. Another song “wonders why providence should give love and then snatch it away”. In a “joyful and rhythmic song”, the young girl sings: “Let me go, my beloved. I will see you again but I dare not stay longer or gossip will tarnish my good name. In the last song, the lovers are together again as the young girl sings, “I come to you breaking all my ties and all my dear ties. What I have lost I do not feel, for I have found a new world of love that fills my life with a thrill of joy and ecstasy.
Here is a sample of Anarkali, which begins with “O Asman Wale”, a ballad sung by Lata’s film “when sentenced to death”. Anarkali asks, “Is love such a big sin? Why should I be punished? Punish me but save the honor of love – life must end in death but make love immortal. In the following song, Anarkali “enters into a deep philosophy. Love is a strange kind of pulsation that bewilders description. In “Yeh Zindagi Usirir Hai”, the girl “sings pensively. To live a full life, he must be lost in the love of another.In the last number of the album, Anarkali “gets drunk as she is forced to sing and dance in front of a royal audience…Love makes my feet wobble and everyone thinks I’m drunk.Imagine the crying heart ordered to laugh and entertain.
What can I say after all that but “Happy second day after Valentine’s Day”? And if what I say next seems even more unlikely than the emotional fantasies I’ve cited, believe me that when Lata sings, with choir and orchestra, she not only creates thrilling and chilling musical analogies with oceans of grief, new worlds of love, being lost in love and immortal love, she really, incredibly, strangely inhabits, brings to life, makes real, with her piercing voice of four-octave fire and ice and counting, the ” thrill of joy and ecstasy” and “the strange kind of pulsation that bewilders the description”.
And when you hear that voice rising in the Indian night from the shops, chai wallahs and street windows of Mumbai or Varanarsi, throb through you, up and down your spine, arms and your legs, you are the voice, the voice is you, and the voice is India.
When I returned from India after a year and a half of driving to and from the country of Lata, the love song of the moment was “Cherish” by the Association. But then I heard a voice that was to America like Lata’s was to India, a voice that made you excited about your homeland and filled with irrational hope. The first time I was stunned by Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There” I knew nothing about Levi Stubbs. The voice was so big, the passion in the singing so beautiful, it was almost better not to know. It’s like you need to believe in someone or something larger than life, beyond a single identity, as Levi sings: “When you feel lost and about to giving up because your best isn’t good enough” and “your world has grown cold and you’re drifting on your own. The thrill that accompanies the chorus “I’ll be there” – “Reach out, reach out for me” – is more emotional, more visceral, more inspiring than Lata’s thrill. I almost said more American, but that would go without saying.
Some time before Levi Stubbs died in 2008, there were strange stories on the news, about how he had disappeared and no one knew where he was. I didn’t even know when or how he died until I went to Wikipedia. The mystery matched the feeling that Levi was more of a being. He died two weeks before Obama was elected. I had an outrageous thought earlier – Levi as the spirit of America, telling a broken country, “If you feel you can’t go on”, because “all your hope is gone “, and your life is filled with much confusion”, and “happiness seems just an illusion” and “your world is falling apart…”. – so what ? Even with Levi singing, in 2022 it’s not easy to believe in “a love that will be with you.” Better to overcome doubt with “Seven Rooms of Gloom” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love”.
The passion for meatloaf
As long as I dream, what if you could put all the reds and blues, all the haters and the crazies and their holier than you enemies of cancel culture in the top 10 rows of the orchestra for one of Meat Loaf’s over the best performance of Jim Steinman’s “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back”. Isn’t it at least slightly conceivable that people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and AOC are smiling, screaming and rocking with everyone, their hearts beating faster, when Meat Loaf lets it all hang out: “It’s all a lie and it’s “It’s a fact, and all the goons and stooges with their pieces are the ones making the rules, this isn’t a game, it’s just a rout. I can hear the wildly mixed crowd cheering every move that he carries in his stunning duet with Patti Russo and his litany of what: what about love? (“It’s flawed, it always breaks in two”), and sex? (“It’s is faulty, it’s never built to really last”), what about your family” (“It’s faulty, all the batteries are dead”) and so on through faith (It’s is faulty, it’s tattered and it’s frayed”) and “your gods” (“They’re faulty, they forgot the warranty”) to your future (“It’s faulty and you po can you stuff it…”).
The arenas were packed and millions of albums sold with Meat Loaf’s sing-along anthem based on America’s Big Money-Back Guarantee, not to mention the ultimate song, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
As soon as I heard the news of his death at 74 late last month (like Lata’s, from a pandemic), I wanted to pay my respects. It’s an “only in America” story. Born Michael Lee Aday in Dallas on September 27, 1947, he once told an interviewer that he was born “bright red and stayed that way for days”, prompting his father to say he looked like ” nine pounds of ground chuck” and convincing the hospital staff to put the name “Meat” on his crib. According to various CBC News reports, he sang and acted in high school (Mick Jagger and Ethel Merman were his favorites). He eventually moved to New York and appeared in a production of Shakespeare in the Park by As you like it with Raul Julia and Mary Beth Hurt. Although the Times recently tried to dismiss the story that he was portrayed as Mr. Loaf in a review of this performance, I’ve seen the review in print, I’ve mentioned it more than once in these columns . I cut it at the time, but I’m not inclined to search for the evidence. As Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman said about love in another context, I would do anything for the truth, but I won’t.