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Have You Met Lydia?

A couple of days after the death of Robin Williams, I watched “The Fisher King,” a very good movie directed by Terry Gilliam that starred Williams and Jeff Bridges. In one of the best scenes in the film, Williams — who plays an unbalanced street person — gets a date with the woman he idolizes (played by Amanda Plummer). It’s late and the three of them, along with Bridges’ girlfriend (played by Mercedes Ruehl) are in a Chinese restaurant. The staff is waiting to close. Everyone is tired and the Williams’ character has finally slowed down. Suddenly, he begins singing “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.”

It’s a great scene and reminded me of what a fun song it is. It was written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for the 1939 movie Marx Brothers’ movie “At the Circus.”  I also had forgotten how important music was to the Marx Brothers, whose roots were in vaudeville and Broadway. Of course, much of it was Harpo’s harp interludes, which basically slowed things down. (It was the 1930s equivalent of the drum solo at a Grateful Dead concert.) There was, however, great comic piano by Chico and Harpo and, of course, the production numbers.

A third thing I had forgotten is how talented these guys were. I was a big fan when young, and remember reading that it was generally assumed in the family that any of them could play any part. They did so when one was ill or absent for another reason (perhaps when Chico off gambling somewhere). Julius eventually became Groucho, Leonard became Chico and Adolph became Harpo. Herbert and Milton — Zeppo and Gummo — lost out, but they were said to be just as talented.

Howard Stern, Trey Parker and Matt Stone all are great at what they do, but the Marx Brothers were the real subversives (along with Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields). It’s a matter of timing. It was a troubled and chaotic the world. A subtext was that people’s relationship with authority was changing. The brother’s anarchy and disrespect for authority figures played off that perfectly. Groucho’s character, in particular, was something that I suppose never had been seen before. He also was a very good dancer.

“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” which was brilliantly used at the end of the last episode of “Breaking Bad,” is above. Two other great songs — “I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man” — are sung back to back in the 1932 movie “Horse Feathers.” They were written by Harry Ruby — who was Groucho’s close friend — and Bert Kalmar.

IMDb and Wikipedia were used as sources for this post. 

Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

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Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.