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Time Traveling with Bing Crosby

Sometime back in 1995, I was browsing a record store (remember those!) at the corner of Ventura Blvd. and Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and I came across a Bing Crosby boxed set calledĀ Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years, 1931-1957. I knew who Bing was, of course, and I’d seen one or two of his movies, but I wasn’t yet the fan that I am today. For some reason, despite the fact that the 4-disc boxed set was expensive for me at the time, I decided to buy it.

Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years

When I first listened to the music, a few of the songs stood out. Over the years, as I got to know them, they grew on me1. Eventually, I’d spend chunks of time listening to those discs, one after the other. Music has a strange effect on me. Hearing a song–even one I don’t like very much–can instantly transport me back to a time when I heard that song in some context, meaningful or innocuous. It is a kind of time travel, but an emotionally powerful one. But listening to the Bing Crosby boxed set2 has a somewhat different effect on me.

It does transport me back to those days when I lived in Studio City. Hearing certain songs, I feel whisked back to a sunny, mild spring day in Studio City, sitting at a booth in Swenson’s with a half-finished chocolate malt and a book spread out in front of me on the table. Other songs pull me back onto the balcony of my Studio City apartment, sitting under the shade of a tree and watching the cars go by. But more often than not, it does something more, something that no other music I listen to does.

It takes me back to a time that I never lived in.

There are four discs in the box set:

  1. Disc 1 covers the years 1931-37
  2. Disc 2 covers the years 1937-42
  3. Disc 3 covers the years 1942-45
  4. Disc 3 covers the years 1945-57

When I listen to these discs, I often get the eerie feeling of being transported back to the years in question. It is a kind of glowing-hindsight for the past without ever having been there. Except, IĀ have been there. I’ve listened to my grandfather tell countless stories of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read histories of the time period. I’ve read books on World War II and heard the stories of veterans who went to war and others who stayed home. I’ve listened to people describe growing up in the aftermath of the war, and the boom of the 1950s. And I’ve seen all of the movies. Somehow, all of this mashes itself together in my brain, and like a spark to some primordial stew, the music brings it all to life. I could imagine myself living a life in the 1940s, raising a family in the 1950s. There is a pleasant (and certainly illusory) simplicity to it, as echoed by Bing and Louis Armstrong’s duet, “Gone Fishin’.”

If nothing else, listening to the album reminds me to slow down and take a breath every now and then. It’s been a while since I listened to these albums straight through. But I’m listening this morning.

  1. Indeed, I never sang traditional lullabys to my kids. Instead, I sang them Bing Crosby songs, and to this day, my little boy knows the words to many of the songs I sang him.
  2. I’ve been listening to it all morning, even as I write this.

Bing Crosby and me

bingcrosby.jpg

I don’t know when it was that I first heard of Bing Crosby. I know that the name was familiar when I was younger, but only because it was distinctive. Who else in entertainment was named “Bing”? In college, I recall hearing one of his songs, “They All Laughed” but I don’t exactly recall where I heard it. I like it though, and I played it over and over again.

Sometime after graduating when I was living in Studio City, California, I walked into a record store (this was circa 1995: there were still big chain record stores in existence) and was browsing around and I came across a Bing Crosby boxed set. It was called Bing: His Legendary Years 1931-1957. At this point I’d only ever heard a handful of Bing’s songs, most of them seasonal songs. But I remember listening through most of the 100+ songs in the boxed set that first day, in my tiny apartment, and it felt like I was living in a different era. There was something magical about the songs, some kind of pseudo-nostalgia for a period I’d missed. I’ve been a Bing Crosby fan ever since.

bing box set.jpg

I have no idea of gauging what his most popular songs were, but I suspect they were the Christmas songs. My favorites run the gamut, but if I had to pick one absolute favorite, I think it would be “Far Away Places.” There is something magical about that song as well, not only in the way it is performed, but in the lyrics themselves. I liked the song so much that it was mentioned in my first published science fiction story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” when two people visiting an observatory on the surface of the moon dance to this song under the earth-light.

Continue reading Bing Crosby and me

Far Away Places and Science Fiction

I don’t generally listen to music while I write. The problem is that I can’t split my attention: if I listen to the music, I don’t write; if I write, I don’t hear the music. There have been one or two rare exceptions, but 99% of the time, I write with nothing in the background–all noise canceled by my trusty Bose headphones.

But that is not to say that there aren’t songs that motivate me to write, and if you asked me what the number one motivational song for writing science fiction is, I’d tell you that for me, it’s Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Far Away Places.” I first heard the song some time in 1995 or 1996 when I got a 4-disc set of Bing Crosby tunes. If you are not familiar with it, that’s too bad because it’s a lovely song. It was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer. Bing recorded it in 1948 and it made it to #2 on the pop charts. The opening lines of the song go:

Far away places, with strange sounding names
Far away over the sea–
Those far away places, with the strange sounding names
Are calling, calling, me.

Now I realize that the sound was written about exotic places on Earth, but I can’t help thinking about far away places in the solar system, in the galaxy, even the universe, whenever I hear the song. The song reminds me of the travel that you can do within your own imagination, if your are so inclined, and moreover, the places you can go in someone else’s imagination, if they know how to tell a good story. If I am in the middle of the work day, or busy with some chore or other activity, and I hum or hear the line:

...I want to see for myself
Those far away places, I’ve been reading about
In a book that I took from the shelf…

I’m reminded of a summer day, sitting in the shade, with a chair propped against a wall and a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation in my hands. I think of all of the wonderful and amazing science fiction stories I’ve read that convey the sense of wonder about far away places that is described in the song. And whenever I am sitting in front of my keyboard at a complete loss for what words should come next, I’ll queue up the song in iTunes and let it play two or three times, while I close my eyes and try to imagine those places Bing is singing about. It works every time. The song even makes a cameo appearance in my first published science fiction story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer“.

“Far Away Places” is all about sense of wonder, and the kind of science fiction I love to read (and write) is also about that sense of wonder. And so it is no wonder the two are a perfect match.

White Christmas

Last night, we watched White Christmas for the second time in a week. White Christmas is one of my favorite movies and it is my favorite holiday movie. The difference last night was that we watched it with Rosemary Clooney’s commentary, which was great. One feature of the commentary that I hadn’t seen before was that it automatically added subtitles to the movie so that you could still catch the dialog even with Clooney talking about the movie.

I enjoy watching movies with commentary. If it is well done, you can learn a lot about the making of the film, the actors, the crew. (I learned what “woodshedding” was last night, for instance.) Rosemary Clooney did a good job on the commentary and the movie was just a fun to watch with her commentary, especially what she had to say about Bing Crosby (my favorite all-time entertainer.)

Bing Crosby day

In an effort to fight the somber mood, I’ve declared today “Bing Crosby” day. I’ve got 160 Bing Crosby songs on my iPod and I’m listening to them all throughout the day today.

The Road To Bali

Most of my friends know that I’m a big Bing Crosby fan. One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen is The Road to Morroco with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. I’ve never seen any of the other “Road” movies until this evening when I settled down with my dinner to watch The Road to Bali. This movies is circa 1952 (Morocco was a decade earlier). One of the things that is so hilarious about these movies is that they are just packed with Hollywood “in” jokes. I’ve read a lot about Hollywood from that era so I find them very funny. There is also a certain amount of self-awareness in these movies. The actors play to the camera, often speaking to it. I just saw one of the funniest moments in the movie that relates to this. It goes like this:

Dorothy Lamour: Do you always fight over girls?

Bob Hope: Well, what else can we fight over, we’ve never had any money.

At which point there is a long pause, and then Bob Hope looks directly at the camera and says, very clearly, “That’s for Washington.”

I spit out my food laughing!

Look, I like movies. I like going to see some of the films that come out today (the good ones). But there is just nothing like the movies that were made in the 40s and 50s. They required talent, timing, you had to do more than act. These movies are all rated “G” today, but they allude to things that are utterly hysterical and very un-G-like.

Incidentally, it occurred to me while watching this movie that kruppenheimer (who complains that I never mention her enough on this blog) bears a striking resemblance to Dorothy Lamour, circa 1952. I paused some of the scenes to be sure and the resemblence is really quite uncanny!

Bing and Friends

Yes, it’s a Bing and Friends morning. What better to listen to on a cold winter day than Bing Crosby crooning with friends like Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Burl Ives, the Andrew Sisters, the Williams Brothers, Kay Thompson, Louis Armstrong, etc., etc.

I tend to start singing out loud when I listen to Bing and since I usually leave my office door open, I also tend to get a few strange glances in my direction as people pass by. (I try to sing under my breath, but sometimes I can’t help myself, especially if it’s a really catchy tune, like “Sam’s Song”. Fortunately, no one has complained so far.)

Laughing out loud on the Metro

This one isn’t related to reading. It is related to music. Yesterday, I was listening to Bing Crosby on the way home. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were doing a duet of “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked A Cake”. This was back in the day when there was some improvisation that went along with the singing. I’ve heard the song a dozen times, and there is always one line that makes me laugh–out loud. This was the first time I was on the Metro home, however. The line is:

Bob: “If you’d knew I was coming you’d have had a meal”
Bing: “Seven course”
Bob: “Mostly horse”

At that point I laughed and pretty loudly too. I think I startled the people who were sitting around me.

Loose ends

Just a few miscellaneous items before I head off to bed.

I’m up late because I got sucked into watching the Barbara Walters special “30 mistakes in 30 years”. The second part is on tomorrow night, but I’m TiVoing it so I don’t have to stay up for it. I did catch Smallville, which was great, and Gray’s Anatomy, which was eh.

I started an amusing email thread at work today by referring to that song from Sesame Street: “There’s a Hole In the Bucket.” I’m told that after my email, people in our Pittsburgh office were singing the song in the hallways.

I worked out with Bernard this afternoon, but I’m too tired to put the info on the journal. It will have to wait until tomorrow.

I got the December 2006 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN in the mail today. The cover had come off, which annoys me. I need to find time to read it, which also annoys me.

Speaking of reading, I’m at one of those low points where I simply don’t know what to read. I read nearly 400,000 words of Lunar Prospector before stalling. I just spent 30 minutes skimming the 1,070 books on my shelves and came up empty-handed, which is always a bad sign. However…

William Gibson has finished writing his new novel, Spook Country. I saw something that said it was slated for an August 2007 publication. Clearly, I’ll have to find something to read in the meantime.

I listened to Bing Crosby most of the day today, and will probably do so again tomorrow. A couple times a year I get into this Bing Crosby kind of mood where I wish I had been born in the 1920s instead of the 1970s. (I could have lived through the Golden Years of Bing Crosby and the Golden Age of science fiction!)

I head to Seattle one week from today to spend Thanksgiving at Doug and Rachel’s house.

It’s Lisa’s birthday tomorrow. I chatted via IM with Denisse this evening. She wanted to ask if I could record Gray’s Anatomy for AJ. I did and told her he could come by this weekend to watch it if he wanted. Denisse is now in Switzerland so while it was 6 PM here when I was chatting with her, it was midnight there. I think that represents the most number of time zones I have crossed in an instant message chat.

I have a long list of things that need to get done and no idea where to get started. The list is in my head right now and perhaps the best way to get started is to get the list from my head on to paper. But that’s just another thing on the list to do.

And I’m almost ready to start writing a new story.