So this ran in SPIN back in the day, in the slot where the Editor's Note went, oddly enough. As if it weren't odd enough to get paid to write about Irving Berlin. In an issue with Belinda Carlisle on the cover (hilarious story behind that one) and full of features about Poison and Tracy Chapman, OMD, Michael Hurley, Big Pig, and a ton more, with Johnny Cash, LL Cool J, Megadeth, and Soul Asylum all co-starring in the Special Summer Swimsuit Special. With accompanying guide to summer vacations in the US that guided you to The World's Largest Tire, and Einstein's Brain; plus, there was a map to Europe that declared where all the Taco Bells and Elvis Presley museums were. Which is to say, I keep realizing, that as much as SPIN drove all of us all crazy all the time, we were trying to get everything in there. Including, swear to God, Irving Berlin.
Irving Berlin has nothing to do with you or me, nothing at all. Just an old, old man from a time too far gone to bear the slightest resemblance to our own, Irving Berlin was last month's brief cultural news item, worthy of a USA Today cover sketch, deserving of 100th birthday wishes and a warm wink from the hostette of Entertainment Tonight, recipient of all manner of mass media graciousness, despite his pointed lack of participation, despite his unwillingness to create the most minimal of photo opportunities. The achievement under question wasn't the music but the extraordinary length of the man's life. The length of his life is exactly what Irving Berlin lived to regret.
Irving Berlin and his music are so far away from us, so remote from our own dull and thrilling end of the century. Years and years before the birth of the Beatles, or of Nike footwear, Berlin quashed all requests to use his tunes to pimp products, a curious stance for a man who'd begun as the brassiest of Tin Pan Alley song pluggers, desperate to devise new ways of getting a song sung on a stage — any stage — in hope of a hit. Hits sold sheet music in those days, not CDs, and the difference is huge, undeniable, impossible to bridge.
His first hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band." It was the work of a white man, a Jew, imitating a black style a good number of years after the black style's early innovations, at a time when white audiences were still less than receptive to the black practitioners of the style. The music bore no resemblance whatsoever to, say, the Beastie Boys.
Unlike most songwriters of our own era, Irving Berlin never learned to read music and was forced to rely on the crutch of technology in order to create. He could only play the piano in the key of F sharp, but with a special transposing piano, a mechanical device allowed him to switch keys. A pitchbending synthesizer with built-in rhythm settings and sampling capabilities is light-years away from so crude a contraption, and guitarists who rely on capos are invariably much closer to being true aesthetes than the uncouth likes of Irving Berlin.
The streets of his youth were cluttered by petty criminals and ruled by organized crime. The world of his lifetime was dominated by war and rumors of war, swept by an unfailing tide of fear and hope, and powerful joy. He was virtually the Anti-Morrissey, the veritable Jonathan Richman of his time, a relentless optimist through decade after decade of depression and despair. Born at the onset of modernism, contemporary to the greatest tragedies of history, he failed to understand that mankind was doomed to suffer, to wallow in gloom, to wear the most existentially profound of black wardrobes and stare glumly into cold cafe au lait. Instead, when he suffered profoundly after the shocking death of his new wife, he addressed his wounds frankly, he made light of his life, and he moved on. He wrote "Blue Skies." He had nothing to do with our time.
He began insinuating himself — a white man, a Jew, a Russian, an immigrant, a near-illiterate — into Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville, into a culture that was aping the culture of the black people it feared. As only the greatest of bluesmen ever do, he found a voice that was his own, a distinctly American voice that sang through the mouth of others, of millions of others. As vaudeville was destroyed by the movies and as movies found a voice and began to sing, he stayed in style. As Broadway grew ambitious and artful, as the world lurched from war to war, as show business died and moved to Las Vegas, Irving Berlin stayed in style. Through not just one generation but a half dozen, he remained in vogue. And then he lived a little too long, and all of us grew wiser than he was. Maybe living past your time is worse than a sin. Maybe we'll all get lucky and it'll never happen to any of us.
(Addendum: for a few years in a row, every few weeks or so, I'd been calling the offices of Irving Berlin Music and speaking to Mr. Berlin's longtime secretary, Hilda Schneider, continuing to ask for an opportunity to to speak with the man himself. She was pleasant but firm; I'd try to chat her up. She'd seen, apparently, the likes of me before. No dice, damn it. But let it be said; I was getting paid to do this — well, and a few other things, like ignore the phone calls from all the West Coast publicists for record labels who were trying to beat their East Coast counterparts at getting their label's own Latest & Greatest on the cover and wedging ol' Belinda Carlisle off of it. I don't know that I was ever smart enough to suggest that if Irving Berlin would give us an exclusive interview, we'd put Hilda Schneider on the cover . . . but the thing to be said about SPIN is that we might have. )