In a weaker moment, I happened to see some of the BBC’s Big Weekend music festival from Cardiff the other weekend. It is a sign of ageing when you disconnect from contemporary pop music which must make me a thousand and three considering Madonna is my lodestone of happening music. For our delectation we had a young Canadian cutie who I’d never heard of, Taylor Swift who I have and Paloma Faith doing a terribly bad impersonation of Amy Winehouse.
What struck me was how little stage presence the poppettes these days can muster. Perhaps it is a consequence of pop being so throwaway and available to stream at any second of the day. Besides, we aren’t seeing them live. We are listening to playback over which the artists caterwaul and whip the audience into some semblance of collective frenzy. When the audience sing louder than the performer, you know someone’s not trying very hard.
Taylor Swift has charm. She engages with the audience and does attempt at least some of the lyrics with a live mic. But you never get the impression you are in the presence of greatness or that this is a happening that we are all privileged to witness. Call me old fashioned but I consider these performers minnows compared to the raw power of the Judy Garland concerts that were captured on vinyl.
I decided to play Judy at Carnegie Hall, the 1961 comeback concert, after sitting through an hour of the Big Weekend and the audience response preserved on vinyl was one of pure adoration and excitement. Judy died of an accidental drug overdose aged forty-eight in 1969 after one hell of a thirty-year career following The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She was arguably the only child star who managed to take her talent from the golden age of movies to concert audiences worldwide.
I suppose the point is – recordings and television specials aside – the only way to see Judy Garland live was to buy a ticket and show-up. The jeopardy of a Judy Garland concert was that the audience never knew whether she would be on form or plagued by stage-fright, illness and addiction as became increasingly common towards the end of her life. There was always a collective will in the audience to help Judy get over that damned rainbow every time she walked onto a stage. Perhaps that was the similarity with Amy Winehouse and why she too was such a powerful live performer.
I believe Judy Garland had the voice of the 20th century. She was also fortunate to be born into the era of the Great American Songbook and be the first performer to sing iconic melodies written by Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart and Dorothy Fields. The songs written for her - Over the Rainbow, The Man that Got Away, I Could Go On Singing - became her biography and belonged to she alone. Only the brave would even attempt to sing one of Judy’s songs.
After listening to Carnegie Hall, I re-read Gerold Frank’s masterly 1975 biography of Judy. It is the only book that all three of Judy’s children – Liza Minnelli, Lorna and Joey Luft – and all five of her husbands agreed to co-operrate on. What emerges is a nation’s sweetheart for whom life was not kind. Mismanaged all of her life, Judy spent a good twenty years singing for her supper – and her family’s supper – to pay off outstanding back taxes. This was a woman who would sing the last eight bars of Over the Rainbow on a weekly basis to President Kennedy – a woman who all other singers including Sinatra bowed down to – who was trapped in a spiral of debt.
Judy – born Francis Gumm – led a chaotic life that began when she was put on sleeping and slimming pills by MGM in preparation for Oz aged sixteen. The pills would be a constant in her life and contributed to the star being declared ‘all washed-up’ when MGM fired her aged only twenty-nine having made a string of pearls of great musicals including Meet Me in St Louis, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, In The Good Old Summertime and Summer Stock. The tragedy was that post-MGM, Judy only made one more great musical A Star is Born in 1954.
Judy earned her living – or paid off her debts – by singing literally thousands of concerts worldwide which became a cult amongst her followers. Gay men adored Judy for her vulnerability, her fighting spirit and the uplifting nostalgia of a fallen star who planted her feet apart, put her hand on her hip and sung, goddammit. For such a diminutive woman, Judy had stage presence that made her a titan amongst lady singers of the 20th century.
Rarely a year goes by without another biography or biopic of Judy Garland, the latest starring Rene Zellwegger as 1969 Judy performing her last concerts at London’s Talk of the Town club. Personally, I hope that the film is kind. Talents such as Judy Garland’s come once in a lifetime. It is preserved in recordings and concert appearances that leave audiences that she always sang live on stage and on vinyl without the safety net of auto-tune or playback behind which to hide.
It is little wonder that pop stars today can’t hold a candle to Judy Garland. They are too young to have allowed all that life experience to flow through a lyric and, quite frankly, the music they perform is forgettable being kind or throwaway being blunt. I don’t admire Judy Garland because she fought to the end of her relatively short life with pills and liquor. I admire her because she produced some of the most powerful, moving music of a century.