Monday, December 20, 1999

The Second Greatest Song in the World

Come a rainstorm put your rubbers on your feet,
Comes a snowstorm you can get a little heat;
Comes love nothing can be done

Having listened to literally dozens of songs in my life, I'm often approached by women wearing strange hats who inquire, "What do you think is the second greatest song of all time?" I'm not quite sure how or why the lasses zoom in on me. Maybe I look like a fellow who must just know what it means to be second best. But when asked I do not hesitate in my answer. Even under the pressure of a skunk-eyed glare of one Regis Philbin probing if this is my "final answer" I still would never change my mind. Nope, no way. I've heard this particular song too many times to know that I am right. And every time I hear it my heart and soul coalesce.

Comes a fire then you know just what to do,
Blow a tire you can buy another shoe,
Comes love nothing can be done.

Comes Love was written by Charlie Tobias, Lew Brown and Sam Stept, with the most famous versions being by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. But the quintessential rendition is without a doubt, Billie Holiday's. Like just about every other song that Holiday chose to sing, her cover compared to all the others is like a brick of Gouda set next to aerosol cheese. Her vocals caress the melody and words wrapping itself around the feelings evoked, extracting all the inherent irony and melancholy with great passion.

Don't try hidin 'cause there isn't any use,
You'll start slidin when your heart turns on the juice.

The song uncovers the undeniable truth that all life predicaments we bitch and moan about, no matter their inconvenience have a solution or alternative except one- love. The song's list of human struggles is universal yet creative- from the weather and elements to varmints and ailments. At the end of the list is a declaration that once you fall in love, your doomed future has already been written.

Comes a headache you can lose it in a day,
Comes a toothache see the dentist right away;
Comes love nothing can be done

The subtle deadpan surety of Holiday's delivery is echoed in the bridge by a simmering trumpet solo from Harry "Sweets" Edison, and its accompanying understated guitar solo by Barney Kessel, which combined sound like two wised grizzled men standing in the corner nodding their heads in agreement with the singer. The geometric bass playing of Joe Mondragon and drums by Larry Bunker lay a shifting foundation underneath it all.

Comes a heat wave you can hurry to the shore
Comes a summons you can hide behind the door;
Comes love nothing can be done.
Comes the measles you can quarantine the room,
Comes a mousie you can chase it with a broom;
Comes love nothing can be done

The climax of the song is in closing stanza with the lines, "Comes a nightmare you can always stay awake, Comes depression you may get another break. Comes love nothing can be done." There is something very special about the way Holiday sings these couplets. Her voice doesn't noticeably waver or falter although there is a resigned explicitness distinct from the rest of the song. This is clearly a woman who has lived this song and knows what she is singing about. It is a great performance from our greatest singer, emotional and bare, letting the listener in on a lesson while acknowledging that to be human means knowing first (and second) hand the very essence of the substance being expressed.

That's all brother, if you've ever been in love,
That's all brother, you know what I'm speaking of

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