Honoring Der Bingle

Lloyd Sachs posted 09/30/04 05:31 PM Central Time (US)     No E-mail no email address given
If you go by what Bing Crosby gave as his birth date, and not what those pesky sticklers for documented fact say in having him born in 1903, he would have been 100 this year. If you go by what Rolling Stone says, rock turns 50 this year. Back when we superhip rock fans were chuckling over Crosby's supercorny duet with David Bowie on "The Little Drummer Boy," I would have thought you were crazy if you had told me the Bingian milestone would mean more to me than the rockian. And maybe when the dust has cleared from these calendar events, I still will.

But right here, right now, even taking into account the birth date discrepancy, I'm more interested in revisiting and rediscovering Crosby than taking yet another tour of the hallowed rock past. As much as rock music has meant to me -- and there were times during my adolescence and college years when it was the only thing that meant anything -- how much of these retrofests can we take? Must we be regaled with lists of rock's all-time best albums and greatest moments and most significant figures and what Elvis Costello's bloody favorites are every time the clock strikes remember? Do the good old days ever get a rest?

Nothing speaks louder about rock's decline than these recurring nostalgia specials. Sure, there are still young bands out there who are capable of putting a shiver in your bones, even if they're doing their own hunkering down in remembrances of times past, like your Strokes, your Vines, your Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And as long as old troopers like Dylan and Fogerty, Petty and Patti, Chrissie and Bruuuuce refuse to give up the ghost of the rock aesthetic, it will sustain itself as an emotional force -- at least for older listeners who haven't crossed over to Norah Jones' easy listening side of the tracks.

But there's no pretending that rock is much more than a historical concept these days, that it didn't long ago cash in its promise of shaking up the status quo, changing the world, embodying promise, threatening to die before it got moldy. If it was all about product before the recent precipitous dip experienced by the record biz, which can sue all the small-time file sharers in the world without getting even, it's even more about market shares now.

So tell you something new, right? OK. I'll tell you -- and me -- that 100 or so years after his birth and 26 years after his death, honoring Der Bingle matters. I'll tell you that having laughed at him in our condescending youth and snickered more recently over the inclusion of his version of "Hey Jude" on Rhino's "Celebrities Butcher the Beatles" set, the members of my generation would do well to take the occasion to view his career from a broader perspective.

They will see that his achievement was far greater than all but the most hallowed members of the rock pantheon. The man had more No. 1 hits than the Beatles or Elvis Presley, both of whom he influenced as a popular artist, if not as a crooner. He remained hugely popular for decades, anticipating in his own smooth way the likes of Bowie and Madonna in reinventing himself to remain current as tastes and moods changed in prewar, wartime and postwar America.

While many people recall Crosby as the ultimate square -- the sweater and pipe guy, Mr. Mainstream America, the sleepy host of "Hollywood Palace" -- he was the cat who no less individualistic a jazz great than Artie Shaw dubbed "the first hip white man in America."

He recorded duets with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan, interpreted great tunesmiths like Hoagy Carmichael and discovered one of the greatest female jazz singers, Mildred Bailey. Before standing up to the revolutions of swing, bebop and rock 'n' roll, he staged his own revolution in being the first vocalist to master the microphone with his sotto voce vocals.

How cool was Crosby? Unlike so many contemporary singers, who have their postmodern postures to keep them not warm, he never made an issue of style. Even as he modulated his investment in jazz and pop and minstrelsy and show tunes, he was one artist for whom the next hot trend couldn't matter less. Of course, he recorded his share of schlock. Who didn't?

But to hear his best recordings, if you can lay your hands on them, is to hear the sound of the present (whenever that was) thumbing its nose at the future. Crosby had the gift of making you happy to be right where you were.

How important a singer was Bing? Until Sinatra came along to breathe raw sexuality into popular song, after breaking away from his influence, Crosby's chaste crooning style was a religion among singers. He continued to woo and wow his colleagues with his effortless sense of swing and equally effortless sense of humor. (Playing straight man to Bob Hope in a bunch of "Road" movies, a subject to be left for another day, Crosby always got in his best shots as a comedian in his own right.)

Alas, Crosby's standing with the public has badly faded. Little attention has been paid him in recent years, despite the best efforts of critic Gary Giddins, whose valiant 2001 Bing bio, A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, filled an unforgivable vacuum. (There will be a Volume 2.) While Sinatra smiles down from popular culture's Mount Rushmore, knowing he's still being heard in every restaurant and bachelor pad, re-repackaged on CD and recycled through vapid young crooners like Michael Buble (whose self-importance, like Harry Connick's, precludes him admitting he's a copyist), Bing frowns at seeing record labels not doing much of anything to keep his reputation humming.

But perhaps with the arrival of his 100th, that will change. Maybe some enterprising movie will do for him what "Good Morning, Vietnam" did for Louis Armstrong. The way I look at it, Bing is at least as important in the pop firmament as such Rolling Stone-anointed "immortals" as Led Zeppelin and Buddy Holly. Perspective has a way of catching up on people. Sometimes, it just takes time.
Jon O. posted 09/30/04 07:40 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
All very well said, Lloyd, particularly as far as we who were born before, say, 1965 or so are concerned. But with all due respect for a job well done, you're preachin' to the choir here. I'd suggest creating a "So You'd Like To..." page at Amazon.com, and posting your essay there along with your favorite available Bing CDs and DVDs. That might go further toward getting the word out to others like yourself who've had it up to here with Rock and are looking for a new direction.
Arne posted 10/01/04 03:24 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Wow. The most vividly eloquent and significant piece of writing to have appeared on this billboard in a long, long, time.Thank you so much, Lloyd. As a rock-era survivor with a somewhat different perspective from yours (I was an "aware" Crosby fan even during my most fervent young rockfan years, plus I don't quite share your gloomy view of Bing's present status; anyone with 330-some CDs and two-dozen different DVDs on Amazon is not a "forgotten" relic), I am nevertheless deeply impressed by your perceptions and conclusions. Please write more, and do whatever it is you can to get this post of yours published on a grander scale. In other words: Thank You!
Martin McQuade posted 10/04/04 01:51 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
A well meaning article, but consisting of all to familiar misconceptions about Bing,highlighted by the following unfortunate descriptions: " sleepy host of the Hollywood Palace?" I would suggest the author revisit those programs. Bing was extremely vibrant on them and his use of the vernacular heard on those gloriously elegant shows oh, so hip,and non pareil. " chaste singing style?" Bing's sound in the 30's was throbingly erotic, with a sensuality subtle and effusive, depending on the needs of the song. How about the apparent spontaneous " Wait til you see what I'm Gonna do yo you, Babe" at the end of " I'm Gonna Get You" with Arnheim. Is that chaste? Anyone who would use the word " chaste" to describe anything regarding Bing may never have seen " the Big Broadcast" ( in which he lives common law with girl friend, Mona Low and even engages in rough and tumble parlor games with her), or " Going Hollywood" (where Bing plays the essential playboy),or The Road films where he and Bob Hope are single-mindedly focused on sex, sex, and more sex, or " High Society" in which the reigning goddess, Grace Kelly, melts at Bing's sound.

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