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Judy Garland Gets Happy

What constitutes a performer whose life and art is so mingled it is impossible to think of what without the other? What does she mean to us? There was a public outcry of grief at Judy Garland’s death but little surprise.

The girl who turned into a train wreck had an edge of tragedy to her life that informed her artistry by the mid 50s on. After “A Star Is Born” you could not think of her, could not listen to her, without the edge of the precipice in her low voice overwhelming the songs she covered with layer upon layer of inner meaning and inner turmoil.

In 2006 the legend lived on unabated when the gloriously flamboyant Rufus Wainwright recreated the even more glorious and flamboyant Judy Garland’s defining moment at Carnegie Hall in 1961. This wasn’t performance art, this wasn’t imitation, it was a sequential interpretation of the songs Judy performed and it was important not just because it was a brilliant act of resuscitation on Wainwrights part but also because it put the spotlight back on Garland’s greatest artistic achievement. There is something oddly straight in Rufus’ concert: his baritone voice isn’t really right for the songs chosen so the change of keys is a little strange and all of this helps highlight his love but not his obsequies when it comes to Judy. He is gay not camp and Wainwright gives JG the ultimate respect by respecting the songs.

Here is Rufus singing Garland:

Garland discussing the carnegie hall concerts:

However, Garland’s performance was on a completely other level of mastery. Judy wasn’t a big screen siren here (was she ever?) but she wasn’t the gifted girl next door. Instead she was a very famous woman who had seen it all and every breath she sang had forty years experience backing it up in her charming and stunningly beautiful contralto. Up to her neck in tax problems she quit pills and got back on stage for the best reason in the world: a pay check. Garland’s “Live At Carnegie Hall” is one of the great concerts and great artists: if this blog, any music blog, any writing, any caring, any loving music is about loving the person who made the music how can you love somebody more than you can love Judy Garland? On stage she is so small and the devils mounted against her so large you want to help, you lean towards her. This is what makes beloved stars. With Judy it was always personal but always the gift of a singer: when her voice cracks it cracks with a purpose. So despite her problems, her fragility, the shell a public life had left her, Garland could find herself so in control of her instrument that it revealed her and ourselves simultaneously.

Move back to 1940 and take a peak at an earlier Judy singing with Andy Hardy:

Watching her today is almost painful with the pleasure. With Andy Hardy, er, Rooney, playing piano she shuffled her shoes to “Good Morning”, her smile, so wide: so impossibly lovely and young and happy and taking us all into a world that could never ever be… her voice still soprano here, it would go lower after many years of abuse but still filled with life if not all the parts of life we wish it was filled with… it is impossible to not want to do a Myron Breckenbridge: to jump into the celluloid and drag her away. To save her from the studios and the fans and the expectations and the pills fed into her like a pez dispenser feeds candy to a five year old. This was mostly post-Wizard of Oz, Judy had travelled the gauntlet from child to teen star: just like Britney would do after her. And it left her toast. The studios put her in movie after movie and she ran and ran and ran and finally she arrived somewhere: a string of musicals from 1944s “Meet Me In St. Louis.” through 1950s “Summerstock“. The heart of her legend lies here. Take a look why:

I know I have written in the past that I thought just about everything is better today then it was even ten years ago. The Hollywood musical is an absolute exception. Judy Garland’s movies from 1937 to 1950 is amazing -three movies a year for years on end and all wonderful light entertainment and all taking a toll, taking an ounce of flesh, dragging her down.

And we can’t save Judy Garland can we? She was in vaudeville at the age of four, recording by fourteen, a superstar at sixteen, co-star of the biggest musicals by eighteen and considered over by thirty two when “A Star Is Born” resurrected her career in 1954 and was her only movie in the entire decade till she famed out, resurrected, blamed out and resurrected and finally flamed out for good at the age of 47.You can see this comparison coming, can’t you? She was a genius Britney Spears with an entire industry stuffing her with uppers to slim her down and downers to put her to sleep and anything else necessary to keep the cash flowing and the art? The art simply a necessary by product.

There is something so proforma and yet so unique about the Judy Garland and for a music lover it begins and ends with the voice. Deep, cracked in pain, stunted by a life of booze and pills with the full weight of the entertainment industry crashing down upon her, the voice keeps pulling you in deeper and deeper into her overwhelming sorrow.The thing is, a vocalist in the 40s was an interpreter of a songbook and the only way to forge a career was through being the first to interpret a song (as Garland did often: everything from “Over the rainbow” to “The man that got Away”) or by reinterpreting the standards (something she did equally well: everything from “You Made Me Love you” to “Come Rain or come Shine”). What made her special was not merely her lovely voice which could veer from soprano to tenor but maybe more than that the depth of emotion she brought to it. It sounded as though she had just thought of the words and couldn’t help but express them; in this sense she reminds me indelibly of Billie Holiday.

This depth, this lost in life, was why she was such an
icon for the persecuted and gay minority but she doesn’t belong to the gay minority even if they kept her (and daughter Liza Minelli’s) candle burning.

Back at Carnegie Hall in 61 Judy Garland is all back story tied to the ability to absolutely sell the song -belt it out and keep it real, whether it be the wrenching four divorces deep “The Man Who Got Away” or the bouncy like a lead balloon “Get Happy”. All uncertainty dissipates as she seems to stride into the one place she can control completely.In 2009 we look back and we listen to the great Garland choking on our love and admiration. Listening to her today we are all Rufus Wainwright giving her the greatest of compliments. Listening, seriously listening, to this singular every woman is an act of faith in an afterlife, in vibrations on vinyl.

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