Mine came after I had the pleasure of watching Tony Bennett (Anthony Benedetto) and his quartet perform at the Sons of Italy Foundation awards banquet last week. The show was pure joy, even though Bennett -- at 76 -- now must tailor his material to his voice. But it brought back memories of when Bennett, who has been called "the last male torch singer," could belt with the best of them.
I thought of a torch song I liked when I was a kid in the 1950s, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Bennett had a version of it, but I'm not sure it's his rendition I remembered. In fact, I could recall only snatches of the melody and a few of the words. So I hit the Internet.
For a boy in Buffalo during the Eisenhower administration, the song seemed impossibly exotic. It was set in the demimonde of some European city, probably Paris. Yet it reflected an American sentimentality -- no Frenchman would have written it.
Dr. Harold I. Eist, past president of the American Psychiatric Association, defined a depressive as "a pissed-off optimist." The disillusionment given voice in the song departed from American optimism, not continental sangfroid. Still, whoever wrote the lyrics must have visited Europe. I used to wonder who he was.
Researching the story introduced me to two remarkable men.
I learned that composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, either together or individually, produced a great deal of the popular music of the early 20th century. The melody (to a "Latin rhythm," after introductory bars) can be heard at harrywarren.net/songs/0037.htm. The words gained poignancy when I came across this blurb a south Florida arts theater put out to promote a play about Dubin by Joel Kimmel that was performed from Feb. 11 to March 9.
"You know his lyrics -- 42nd Street's 'Lullaby of Broadway,' to 'I Only Have Eyes for You' ... and more. But why don't you know Al Dubin's name? He was a genial, fun-loving man, as well as a songwriter, husband, father, gambler, overeater, drinker and womanizer. And because he lived 'Big' by his own rules, he found himself on top of the world, as well as hitting rock bottom. Enjoy his memorable tunes and the roller coaster ride that was his life in this fascinating musical, 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams.' "
This was getting interesting. No wonder Dubin dared to write:
"I walk along the street of sorrow
The boulevard of broken dreams
Where Gigolo and Gigolette
Can take a kiss without regret
So they forget their broken dreams
You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow
When you behold your shattered schemes
Gigolo and Gigolette
Awake to find their eyes are wet
With tears that tell of broken dreams
Here is where you'll always find me
Always walking up and down
But I left my soul behind me
In an old cathedral town
The joy that you find here you borrow
You cannot keep it long it seems
Gigolo and Gigolette
Still sing a song and dance along
The boulevard of broken dreams
Dubin was born in 1891 in Zurich, Switzerland, of a Russian Jewish family that moved to Philadelphia when he was 2. He served in France during World War I. He teamed up with Warren in the early 1930s, and the two wrote as many as 60 songs a year for the rest of the decade, including "You're Getting to be a Habit With Me," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "About a Quarter to Nine," and "September in the Rain." By the early 1940s, Dubin's intemperate lifestyle began to catch up with him. He died of barbiturate poisoning and pneumonia on Feb. 11, 1945.
There's no real reason why I should sympathize more with Dubin than some skinny rock star who offs himself with cocaine, but I do. Here's to you, big Al -- a romantic to the end.
Harry Warren (1893-1981) is different story entirely. Perhaps I can be forgiven for taking tribal pleasure in discovering he was Italian, born Salvatore Anthony Guaragna in Brooklyn to Calabrian immigrants. Although I grew up with his music, and three of his songs won Academy Awards ("Lullaby of Broadway," "You'll Never Know," and "Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe"), I had never heard of him.
It turns out that Warren's anonymity, despite the ubiquity of his work, was something of a standing joke even during his lifetime. My Internet clicking led me first to harrywarren.org, an amazing Web resource maintained by David Jenkins, a young fan from rural North Carolina. Opening the site's home page plays a beautiful Italianate instrumental love theme composed for the 1933 movie "Forty-Second Street." Jenkins writes that it is "obviously inspired by Puccini."
More clicks led to Richard Corliss' post-9-11 Time Magazine essay of Oct. 5, 2001, titled "That Old Feeling: Why We Need Harry Warren."
Corliss wrote that for 20 years this "pop Puccini" was America's most successful songwriter. Warren was the premier Hollywood composer of his time, with Warner Brothers in the 1930s, 20th Century Fox in the early 1940s, and MGM in the later 1940s. His songs have been in 109 films as original tunes and in another 450 or so as revivals.
Warren's songs continue to resonate, Corliss wrote, "because they elegantly obey the laws of melody and mathematics; each succeeding phrase is both surprising and inevitable."
I'm glad I took this trip down memory lane.
And what of the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"? Constance Bennett sang it in the 1933 musical version of the movie "Moulin Rouge." I don't think I've heard the song in 40 years. Jazz pianist and vocalist Diana Krall has a highly regarded revival in her 1995 "All for You" album.
Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein used the title for his parody of Edward Hopper's 1942 painting "Nighthawks," substituting James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley for Hopper's isolated diner patrons. Krall told interviewer Vivien Goldman that when she was a kid she had a reproduction of Helnwein's painting on her wall.