When I was young I dreamed of a boy searching for God. Now I am old and dream of God searching for a boy.
eden ahbez, 1977.
One spring night in Los Angeles in 1947, a strange man on a bicycle tried to go backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. Thwarted, he gave Cole’s manager Mort Ruby a soiled, rolled-up score which Ruby passed on to Cole, noting that it came from a man who, with his shoulder-length hair and tunic, resembled Jesus Christ.
Cole read the score, was taken with the song, began singing it live. As it played well with audiences, Cole wanted to record it but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address. After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR copy) found ahbez camped underneath one of the “L”s of the Hollywood sign.
As Space Age Pop notes, Cole perceived that beneath the vaguely-mystic parable of the lyric was a catchy Yiddish tune (ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle, a Jew in Brooklyn in 1908). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, allowing Cole to leisurely scale ahbez’s wide intervals (e.g., the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”), Cole recorded ahbez’s “Nature Boy” on 22 August 1947. By the following summer it was a #1 pop hit, covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra and parodied by Red Ingle’s Unnatural Seven. Cole made “Nature Boy” a standard and it in turn made him. Thanks to its success (and that of “The Christmas Song,” cut around the same time), Cole was no longer the sharp leader of an adventurous modern jazz trio but a mainstream crooner, a figure too easily written off in jazz histories.1
The Wild Eyed Boy lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life. He loves the mountain and the mountain loves him. I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure.
David Bowie, on “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” 1969.
“Nature Boy” made ahbez as well, got him written up in Life, Time and Newsweek. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was the first postwar media hippie, a transition figure between Wandervogel nature cults and the gestating counterculture (in the Sixties, ahbez would hang out with Donovan, have his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attend Beach Boys Smile sessions). He was one of a group of bohemians (“Gypsy Boots” was another) living around LA at the time, promoting vegetarianism, health food and outdoor living and basically drafting modern California. Ahbez’s look, his “Eastern” philosophies and his live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos were a primer for at least one generation (some say R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him).
After selling a few more songs to Cole, ahbez (he said only God was entitled to capital letters) recorded his first album in 1960: Eden’s Island, the sort of beatnik exotica that the young David Jones of Bromley treasured (see another of Bowie’s teenage favorites, Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz albums). Ahbez’s East Coast counterpart was Moondog, a jazz composer who dressed up as a Viking warrior and stood on the street in midtown Manhattan (Bowie was delighted to see Moondog upon first visiting New York in 1971). But though ahbez and Gypsy Boots and Moondog were reduced to jokes, cast as court jesters for the space age, their mere appearance on a TV talk show or in some Time feature, or even just the slow, questing melody of “Nature Boy” on yet another recording of it, was a rebuke for a culture consumed with death, sex and merchandising. You don’t have to live like you think you have to.
Ahbez lived in LA for the rest of his life, watched it become the world he’d offered in the Forties, watched that world fade away in turn. He spent his last years preparing a final statement, a book and an album, both of which he never finished. He died at the age of 86 in 1995, reportedly after being struck by a car.
Like most songwriters worth their salt, ahbez had a magpie’s ear. For “Nature Boy,” he took his melody from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 and probably from “Shvayg Mayn Harts,” a Yiddish pop song from 1935. The latter’s composer, Herman Yablokoff, sued ahbez, who called to protest, saying the melody had come to him while he was up in the California mountains, “as if angels were singing it,” to which Yablokoff replied that if angels had been singing it, “they must have bought a copy of my song.” (They settled out of court.)
“Nature Boy” had no refrains, just two 16-bar verses, with only slight harmonic and melodic differences between the latter. Its D minor progression offered a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roaming over land and sea in the middle bars and feinted at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Despite its legendary first appearance on a soiled piece of parchment (as though ahbez had written “Nature Boy” up on a mountain like some Epistle to the Californians), the song showed evidence of more painstaking craft, of ahbez spending nights at a piano to assemble the song: take how most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on).
What Cole and later interpreters like John Coltrane and Bowie found was that the song, already rhythmically free, allowed freedom of movement on other fronts: you could twist and belabor the vocal melody all you’d like, or you could stick to ahbez’s notes over an assault on his chord structures (if you were Coltrane, you did both). For Cole, a hip musician who’d become the voice of Brylcreem America in the Fifties, singing “Nature Boy” was a way of letting his inner hipster self out to play for a few minutes. For Coltrane, who recorded the song twice in 1965, “Nature Boy” served notice that he was done with the earth and was off to annex space.
That’s why we’ve got audiences who clap and cheer at the songs in cinemas. They’re not cheering the projectionist. What they are doing is communing with everyone else in the room and saying, ‘Ha ha ha. I get it, too.”
Luhrmann, never low in ambition, said he aimed to reinvent the musical and restore it to its former populist role. Take Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in Saint Louis, he said.The film’s set in 1904 but its music is mostly Forties big-band Hollywood. “In an old musical, the audience had a relationship with the music before they went in [the theater],” Luhrmann said. They’d heard the songs in other contexts, in a stage musical or on the radio or in another film. So in Moulin Rouge when Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman fall in love by singing the refrains of a dozen pop songs (“I Will Always Love You,” “Silly Love Songs,” “I Was Made for Loving You,” “Love Is Like Oxygen” etc.) to each other, it’s pop as a common emotional language, the sequence is a love song meant more for the audience than the characters. And the mash-ups of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge sequences, with “Lady Marmalade,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Offenbach’s “Can Can” overlapping on the soundtrack, predicted the anarchy of a random YouTube playlist.
Luhrmann originally wanted to use Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” to open his film but Stevens turned him down, citing religious objections. Bowie, who’d already agreed to let Luhrmann use “Heroes” and “Diamond Dogs“, offered to sing “Nature Boy” as a new opener. As it happened, Stevens’ rejection helped Luhrmann clarify his film. “Nature Boy” became Moulin Rouge‘s theme song, its last line a motif for his storyline.
Yet the bohemians of Luhrmann’s film (John Leguizamo as a grotesque caricature of Toulouse-Lautrec, McGregor as a sunnier Frédéric Moreau) were far from the world of eden ahbez. This was bohemia as a visual shorthand—ratty clothes, cold-water flats, tasteful drug use, tasteful sex, noble pure-heart characters set against corrupted squares—and it owed an unacknowledged debt to Jonathan Larson’s Rent (both musicals had used Puccini’s La Boheme for their plot). You could say ahbez’s Life profile in 1948 had begun this, the sense of fashioning a bohemian life from a few magazine features and well-chosen songs. Moulin Rouge suggested any viable counterculture was gone, was now kitsch, was just one color in a catalog, a specialty TV channel. It was play-acting by beautiful people, which perhaps bohemia always was.
Still, there remained “Nature Boy,” odd and unassimilable. Neither of Bowie’s takes on the song were integral to the film (Leguizamo sang “Nature Boy” in the opening; McGregor sang its last line throughout). Bowie’s “orchestral” version was only heard, mixed distantly, in a few shots, while the take that he cut with Massive Attack, slotted for the end credits, was ditched because “Bowie and Massive ended up being so dark [while] we had to resurrect the audience during the credits,” Luhrmann said.
In Bowie’s “orchestral” version of “Nature Boy,” he tinkers with the melody in the expected way, alters a few phrasings, changes a few emphases: he sidesteps the expected rise on “very far,” stresses fools rather than kings. It’s “Nature Boy” as a European art song, Bowie gravely responding to the various scarlet moods of Craig Armstrong’s orchestration. Yet just when the song’s about to tastefully wind down, Bowie gives a pole-vault for a last note: “RETUUUUURRRRN!” It’s a welcome grand dame moment, up there with “Lady Grinning Soul” in Bowie closing grandiosities.
It also was close to ahbez’s intended reworking of his song. Up until his death, ahbez had recorded tracks with the engineer Joe Romersa, including a new version of “Nature Boy” that reflected what he’d taken in over the long haul. “He said to me, ‘Joe, that lyric, ‘To love and be loved in return’… it’s too much of a deal. There’s no deal in love.’ He wanted it to say, The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just love and be loved,'” Romersa said in an interview. “The final recording would’ve also altered the melody slightly, with “Nature Boy” rising up in a grand Ben Hur-like cadence that reflects love’s ultimate triumph.” As ahbez’s version has never been released, Bowie’s should suffice.
The Bowie/Massive Attack “Nature Boy,” mainly the work of Robert “3D” Del Naja, starts like a machine waking itself up. A repeating two-note bassline becomes a pulsebeat and a few other characters appear: a three-note phrase on plucked strings, an ebb-and-flow synth figure. Bowie’s set back in the mix. His voice sounds sped up, thinned out, reduced to a texture. He’s a gear in a clock; his phrasings and his melodic choices are minor colors in the mix. His “he passed my way” is now somber, his rise on “many things” is washed out by the roar of a guitar loop. And his last line’s drained of any drama or triumph. It’s just Bowie slowly singing the words as if he’s trying to piece together a memory. It’s enough; the song still shines in the box Del Naja built to house it. In its last seconds comes Kidman’s whispered “I love you.” As ahbez said, just love and be loved.
Recorded (Bowie vocal) ca. February 2001, Looking Glass Studios?, prod. Visconti; (orchestra) ca. late 2000, Sydney, Craig Armstrong: conductor/arranger; (Massive Attack version) (Bowie vocal) February 2001, New York; (music, mixing Del Naja) London. Both versions were released 8 May 2001 on the Moulin Rouge OST (Interscope 06949 3035 2).
Sources: Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island”; Jack Gottlieb’s Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish; Life, 10 May 1948; Harvey Kubernik’s interview with Luhrmann (collected in Hollywood Shack Job); Brian Chidester, “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.
1: That said, Cole made the occasional great jazz record well into his mainstream days (see “I Know That You Know,” with Stuff Smith, from 1957).
Other recommended naturals: Etta Jones (1963), James Brown (1965), Peggy Lee (1948), Miles Davis (1955 w/Mingus, Teddy Charles, Elvin Jones), Big Star (1975), Milt Jackson Big 4 (1975), George Benson (1977), Kurt Elling (1996).
Top: The new vice president and his wife take a spin, 20 January 2001; ahbez and Sinatra, ahbez and Cole (both 1948); McGregor and Kidman, Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann, 2001).