The Book on Johnny Mercer.Posted: June 16, 2009
The biography of lyricist Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia was recenty recommended on the Songbirds list by eminent jazz critic/historian Dan Morgenstern, and that recommendation alone necessitated my reading it.
My take: I can see why Dan liked the book, while I found some things about it ridiculous or aggravating.
First, the good news. Much of the book’s value is due to Furia’s having had access to an unpublished autobiography by Mercer, which resides with the Johnny Mercer Papers at Georgia State. I never knew the Savannah-born lyricist, supreme commander of the American vernacular — collaborator with Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, Arthur Schwartz, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini and many other composers (Mercer would write with anyone he respected, becoming the most promiscuous of the great lyricists) — had written the story of his own life. This is colossal news, and reason enough for the Furia book’s existence. I would love to see Mercer’s tome published someday, even if it is in an unfinished state. It may be the new Holy Grail for us who are into that sort of thing. In the meantime, Furia relies on it heavily and quotes liberally from it, which will do.
He relies as well on interviews and articles contained in the Johnny Mercer Papers, and on an archival interview with Mercer housed at Georgia State. And, in the later chapters covering the fifties, sixties, and seventies, decades that yield people still living who knew the pantheon-level lyricist, Furia has collected good material from his own interviews.
But the book suffers a flaw. It has a “thesis.” And Furia, like a caricature of a university academic (he is, in fact, a real one), won’t let go of it: Mercer’s life and work post-1940 were completely shaped by his affair with Judy Garland.
Over and over we read that this or that deeply-felt Mercer lyric owed its existence to his lifelong frustrated love for Garland. That when Mercer wrote (X) in song (Y), he was writing “about” this love. Furia wants us to believe Mercer’s love for Garland informed every yearning lyric he ever wrote and every melancholic bender he ever went on.
It’s reductionist hogwash. Let’s stipulate that Mercer did have an affair with Garland and that he never got over it. (I don’t know that this is so, but let’s stipulate it.) Is there no other way to understand the life and work of Johnny Mercer than through this prism? Could any of Mercer’s love lyrics have been about, say, another woman that he had feelings for along the way, or a yearning for something else entirely? Could any of Mercer’s lyrics rise to the level of poetry, such that they transcend simple decoding? Not according to Furia, who insists on making the Garland affair Mercer’s Rosebud. You sense that Furia feels he has made a major discovery, and his unwillingness to let you forget his triumph is palpable. Over and over he forces everything through his funnel, to a point of such ludicrousness that the reader would laugh if it weren’t such a sin to have an otherwise worthy book marred this way.
Furia also cares inordinately about when Mercer and his wife-to-be Ginger first had “sexual intercourse,” as he puts it. I don’t know why, but he insists on reading Mercer’s letters to Ginger with the help of some sort of “sexual intercourse” Ovaltine decoder ring, as if determining the moment Mercer lost his virginity (and yes, Furia has a point to prove about this) matters. Furia teases out the meaning of every word in these letters, barely containing his excitement that he has discovered the occasion of Mercer’s deflowering. Suffice it to say he is unconvincing. The passages that Furia cites can be read in other ways, to mean other things. But let an academic latch onto a thesis and he’s like a dog with a bone…
At any rate, the book is more than worth reading, infuriating flaws and all (hey, I just realized Furia is infuriating’s middle name), and is available from many book dealers in new and used form, both hardcover and paperback, at a wide range of prices including the eminently reasonable and downright cheap, here and here and here.