On Monday, I went with Mother Bluebird to see The Deep Blue Sea, a film so ponderous and deadly slow that I wanted to cosh the director over the head with a blunt instrument and run out of the magnificent confines of the Curzon Mayfair. Such wonderful actors, and such a self-consciously po-faced and generally snail slow film, it failed to slake my normal thirst of all things Austerity Britain. I think we should all start to love Austerity Britain (generally 1945-1952 but ranges according to what you read), as pretty soon we are all going to be living in it. But what it did do, somewhere amongst the languid tomfoolery of the over-indulgent art direction, is use the whole of the song You Belong To Me.
This is a song which has always had a terrible beauty to me. Strangely, it can depress, despite its gloriousness. For those of you unfamiliar with it : cop of load of : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8hdqEoFbLw
Of course, now you have listened to it, you realised you weren’t unfamiliar with it at all. The Deep Blue Sea isn’t the only film that has used it. It also popped up in the Derek Bentley Story Let Him Have It back in 1992. Tori Amos sang it for Mona Lisa Smile. Another version of it also appeared in Shrek. With the obvious exception of Shrek, the song is usually used to indicate fatally unrequited sexual longing, imminent loss, ration books and heartbreak. Directors can’t seem to resist it – employing it to evoke moods and atmostpheres that perhaps they are struggling to create themselves. Maybe it’s not just the stately tempo which lends it a certain melancholy, but the effect of years of watching Austerity Britons on screen, fumbling with clothes in dreary shades of fawn and brown, stumbling over damp craters left over from wartime blitzes and then dealing stoically, in narrow-brimmed hats and headscarves, with the impudent injustice of life. Certainly that’s what seemed to be happening in The Deep Blue Sea. The director’s (only) excellent choice throughout the movie was to play the song in its entirety, set to a montage of scenes set in a public house in London in 1950 where everyone wears a hat and smokes like a trooper. Rachel Weisz’s character and her lover, for whom she has left her husband, sing along with the song playing on the jukebox and gaze adoringly at each other. But you can see they are doomed; she looks to him as if she needs air from him to help her breathe and eventually, like every other dirty damn cad, he does a runner – bizarrely, to South America. But do we believe him?
The song fitted beautifully to the scene – it’s a strange song, suggestive of the war, in which the longing of the domestic heart is placed in the exotic locations where a lover might be, yet there is that terrible sharp sense of ghostly doom; someone doesn’t return home, service is done in foreign lands that ends only in misery and loss (Fly the ocean in a silver plane, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain, but – remember ’til you’re home again….). Despite the lush, glamourous romance of it, my introduction to this song wasn’t romantic at all. Or in a plane. Or in a jungle. It was the winter of 2001 and I was standing in a pair of itchy, red woollen tights in an uninsulated rehearsal room for the Chichester Festival Theatre. A scene was played out, startlingly, in which an actor who was the son of another person who was an actor, and a girl actress who had been a nineteen year old divorcee and who was part albino, grappled in a tongue-free stage kiss on the linoleum. The pale wooden IKEA table, covered with the rings of that morning’s umpteen Nescafes, doubled as a gravestone in a provincial graveyard by the sea. The table was doing the best method acting – although it isn’t difficult to play a graveyard on the edge of the sea when you’re in Chichester off-season. The stage kiss was formidable – just a vast airy sucking sound, punctuated by occasional stabs of sexual awkwardness whilst each actor concentrated on not sticking their tongue in the other actor’s mouth. I think, although cannot be sure, that the scene featured antlers of some kind. I do remember the waft of appalling Honeyrose cigarettes, the tabs that actors smoke when they don’t want to smoke real cigarettes and which smell of month-old petrol station dead roses mixed with an aged cat’s urine. They smell ten times more toxic than the real thing.
The director, a pained and sadistic chap in his early seventies, walked past this week’s “whipping boy” and pressed some god-awful tape recorder, that probably came from someone collecting Nectar tokens. When he pressed PLAY, this was the song that came out. It piqued my interest, mainly because I couldn’t for the life of me identify the singer. Keely Smith? Kylie? Cyndi Lauper? It could have been anyone, the way that tape machine was strangling the vocals. I was hanging off the ends of the country in the middle of a dark winter and this song leapt out of the room and filled some warm, gorgeous place in the air. What was it?
And so it went on for the next four weeks. Night after night, standing in the wings, in the same, itchy red tights and mid-length 1970s costume waiting to go on for my turn to stage kiss the actor who was the son of the person who was an actor, three lines of this song became my stage prompt. I listened to it, increasingly annoyed I couldn’t identify it, thinking “Who is this? What is this? Why is she singing about a market in Algiers and buying souvenirs? Is she actually IN Algiers? I should know this? Shouldn’t I? Oh, dear. Whoops – sorry am I on now?”
Back in London I broached the topic with my brother over a robust steak luncheon.
“So, do you know the song You Belong To Me?” I asked. He had started his lunch back to front and was progressing steadily from pudding to soup.
“Oh you mean – ” And he started to sing You Were Made for Me, Everybody Tells Me So! by Freddie and the Dreamers, complete with cheeky-chappie 1960s swinging arms. The diners – frail, elderly and few – ducked.
“Useless,” I said.
It continued to elude me. I had become convinced, for some reason, that it was Keely Smith after all (which it wasn’t) and filed it amongst the “Songs To Learn One Day” amongst the hundreds of other songs that littered my frontal lobe. I occasionally asked acquaintances who were musicians about it. I either got blank expressions or a repeat of the Freddie and The Dreamers routine. But it wouldn’t stop turning up. Amongst the hundreds of hits from this period, You Belong To Me continued to be the Editor’s Choice in film and dramas – always when a love affair transcends the possibilities of real romance or when it all goes spastically wrong. It would suddenly surface every so often on television, reminding me of the cold, pale blue painted rehearsal room of years before, and the middle of a torrid, horrid English winter. And I still didn’t know who sang it.
At 6.45am this morning I had had enough, so, waiting for the kettle to boil, I propped myself up against the kitchen worksurface and rippled through my i-Tunes search engine. JO STAFFORD. Of course, it was Jo Stafford. One of the biggest singing stars of the 1940s and 1950s. The person that Frank Loesser slapped because she wouldn’t sing his songs the way he wanted her to for Guys and Dolls. And then, as with the wonder of i-Tunes, it was a moment, a click, 99p and a 30 second download and then it was mine. Since this morning, I have used the internet to discover more things about it. It was written by a music librarian for Louisville Radio, USA called Chilton Price. I don’t know if that is a man or a woman. The radio station played predominantly country music, and, as the story goes, one day she, or he, showed country music composers Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart some of the songs she/he had written. This was one of them. Astonishingly, she/he had also written a song called Slow Poke, but I don’t know what happened to that. The version of You Belong To Me in the You Tube link above, sung by Jo Stafford, was in the UK charts for 20 weeks in 1952 and is the first British No 1 by a female solo artist. It remains “our song” for many couples in the US and UK today who were courting in the years after the war. Of course, ten years ago, in Chichester, I couldn’t have scrolled through anything. I would have had to go to the small HMV in the city centre and no one would have known what I was talking about. I would have had to check into an internet cafe. Or do that terribly twentieth century thing and actually, I dunno, look it up in some kind of book. Would the song ever have got to me; ever have eerily, fascinated me in an annoying and endearing way, if I had been immediately able to identify it? It became more haunting for its anonymity. Would it have failed to enchant if I’d been able to pinpoint it in so prosaic a fashion ten years ago? It would be nice to think so. The advent of the i-Tunes era has made everything wonderfully accessible and certainly made life less irritating, but I am sure that the ghostly magic of the melody of this song wouldn’t have been half as dreamy or interesting if it had been so readily available from a telephone – a telephone – at a neat, tidy, swift 99p per click.
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