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Singer/pianist Michael Feinstein dedicates Nice Work if You Can Get It, a melange of autobiographical tidbits and random ruminations on American popular songwriting, to “Peace, Healing, and the Divine Spirit.” That spirit is unlikely to embrace the spitefulness and narcissism that emanate from the pages of this self-serving, premature quasi-memoir.
Feinstein began attracting national attention in the mid-’80s, at the end of a 20-year music business moratorium on recordings of compositions by pre-rock American songwriters. (During this blackout, even Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra felt compelled to abandon standards in favor of covering contemporary tunes by Smokey Robinson and Jim Croce.) Audiences long denied access to the songs of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen welcomed Feinstein’s revival of this classic repertoire.
Feinstein is a competent pianist, if somewhat florid and harmonically unadventurous; his singing, however, leaves much to be desired. With his shrill upper register and wobbly sustained tones, he’s a grating vocalist. Even worse, his chilly, detached presentation of lyrics—in his telling phrase, “the archival approach to performing songs”—renders his interpretations numbingly interchangeable. In Intimate Nights, a lively chronicle of New York cabaret, writer James Gavin astutely describes Feinstein as “a performer whose bland piano style, follow-the-bouncing-ball phrasing, and unvarying emotional temperature do little to illuminate the songs he loves,” and explains his success as “a testament to the power of hype and evidence that anything can be sold to a national audience when celebrities such as [Liza] Minnelli and [Elizabeth] Taylor endorse it.”
Born in 1957 in “the bland, unsympathetic world of Columbus, Ohio,” Feinstein moved to Southern California at 19. Tapping into cosmic powers through visualization, positive thinking, and psychic Carol Dryer, he conjured an introduction to pianist/composer/writer Oscar Levant’s widow June, who hired him to catalog her husband’s record collection. Through Mrs. Levant, he met Leonore Gershwin, who engaged him to perform a similar task for her ailing husband Ira, the lyricist-brother of George Gershwin.
The first half of Nice Work If You Can Get It deals with the six years Feinstein spent as an employee and, in time, virtual family member of the Gershwin household. He depicts Ira, a frail, self-effacing recluse, with affection. “Through Ira, my whole world opened up and immutably changed,” Feinstein writes. “He not only crystallized my sense of who I was trying to become, but he also provided me with the connections, the advice, and the wherewithal to develop into that person.” But his portrait of “Lee” Gershwin is etched in acid. Although she introduced him to composer Harry Warren and filmmaker Vincente Minnelli—contacts that proved invaluable in establishing his performing career—and agreed “to open up “every closet and drawer’ in the house for me to do whatever I wanted,” he repays her benevolence by characterizing her as “an unhappy person trying to get attention,” “a strange, angry and manipulative woman,” “unbalanced in a number of significant ways,” and a drug addict (“she was stealing Ira’s pills and must have become totally dependent on them”). In one especially poisonous anecdote, Feinstein recalls that Lee offered him a priceless gift, the gold chain she inherited from George Gershwin studded with charms commemorating artistic and personal milestones in the composer’s life. When, quite understandably, she had second thoughts about giving away this heirloom, Feinstein became “enraged.” “ “Thanks a lot, Lee!’ I blurted out. “I’ll always remember your generosity.’ Lee went into the bedroom and returned with the little box, which she threw at me. “Here’s your bracelet!’ It was madness. I did get to keep the bracelet, however….” If, as Feinstein asserts, Lee was “a specialist at manipulation,” he proves to be no slouch himself.
Swaddled in his cloud of self-absorption, Feinstein fails to realize how nakedly he exposes his insidious nature. His accounts of skulking around the Gershwin home, covertly perusing Ira’s old address books and eavesdropping through closed doors on his employers’ conversations with visitors mark him as somebody one would never choose to receive as a house guest. Things turn nastier after Ira’s death in 1983. Following a dispute over a memorial concert he arranged, Feinstein discovered that “Lee had changed her will and I was out of it,” a rejection that apparently motivates his malevolent treatment of her throughout the book. Given the immense debt he owes both Gershwins, Feinstein is the last person on earth who could justifiably portray Leonore—who is no longer alive to defend herself—in such an unfavorable light, even if everything he writes about her is true.
The remainder of the book recycles hoary vignettes about popular music (most of them unattributed, a serious lapse from someone who regards himself as “a scholar”) and settles additional scores. “So much has been written about George Gershwin’s music that it would be difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said,” Feinstein observes, and subsequently proves. Biographical sketches of Warren, lyricists Irving Caesar and Johnny Mercer, and others are equally shopworn—and, in the course of rhapsodizing about the talents of these men, Feinstein can’t resist slipping in a few bars of gratuitous meanness. Warren, we learn, was a skinflint, curmudgeon, and pornophile; Caesar was consumed by egotism; Mercer, when drunk, spewed racist epithets.
The most palatable section of Nice Work if You Can Get It details the 1982 discovery of a cache of “lost” manuscripts by the Gershwins, Porter, Jerome Kern, and others in a Secaucus, N.J., warehouse. Other chapters are padding. A pedestrian 10-page “interlude” outlining the history of Broadway theater music pops out of nowhere (“[F]eel free to skip ahead to the next chapter,” Feinstein helpfully advises). A lengthy catchall titled “Blah, Blah, Blah: The Art of Writing Song Lyrics” offers such penetrating insights as “the perfect song requires the perfect combination of music and lyrics….” Feinstein cites several of Ira’s archest contrivances—the rhyming of “sour” with “Schopenhauer” and “China” with “Heine”—as examples of “witty and surprising” lyric writing, and soars into the new age ozone in his analysis of another Gershwin song. “On superficial examination, many of the lyrics of “Sunny Disposish’ can be perceived as perfunctory or not very deep, but they also can be seen from today’s perspective as quite metaphysical. We read in all kinds of books on natural healing, from Norman Cousins to Deepak Chopra, what an important role a positive attitude plays in well-being. That’s precisely what those lyrics express. If you want to dismiss them as sappy or silly, you certainly have the right to, yet those songs have altered moods and influenced a generation.” (An excerpt for neophyte spiritual healers to ponder: “The rain may pitter-patter—It really doesn’t matter—For life can be delish/With a sunny disposish.”)
Feinstein’s taste in singers is as questionable as his Disneyesque metaphysics. He idolizes Al Jolson, that insufferable braying blowhard, and considers Rosemary Clooney, the once-warm, full-voiced vocalist currently in short-winded decline, “my favorite living interpreter of American popular song,” a compliment she returns by providing a fawning dust jacket blurb. He also has kind words for Weslia Whitfield and Nancy LaMott, two nondescript singers presently enjoying inexplicable vogues in Manhattan cabaret circles, and Andrea Marcovicci, the most tone-deaf performer since Florence Foster Jenkins. The list of singers he disparages constitutes an honor roll of American music: Frank Sinatra (condemned for taking liberties with lyrics), Lena Horne (sloppy diction), and Peggy Lee (charged with “making herself the focus of things”). Billie Holiday is singled out for special disapprobation: “I hate to buck popular opinion, but I’m not crazy about Billie Holiday as a singer. I’ve always felt too much of her pain in her interpretations and that has gotten in the way of my enjoyment of the songs….I even had to fire a masseur once because he insisted on playing Billie Holiday records when he worked on me.”
Having trashed his betters, Feinstein moves to the mirror to write about his favorite performer. Although he has no compunction about exposing the secrets of others, he reveals nothing about his own private life. As for his professional career, he modestly confides, “I don’t think I’ve ever given a bad show,” though he admits to a misstep at his 1994 Carnegie Hall concert “when I talked about Katharine Hepburn’s palsy and did an impression of her that seemed to go too far. I felt a wave of disapproval from the audience so strong that I had to comment on it.” Considerable space is consumed in petty vindictiveness: insulting the London hotel management that dared to send him a complimentary bottle of champagne at 8 a.m.; ridiculing a flight attendant who mispronounced his last name; complaining about how he was treated while entertaining at society parties thrown by Walter Annenberg and Marvin Davis. Apparently, the healing power of music has its limits. Particular scorn is reserved for the press. “It’s not that I don’t like critics, it’s just that I haven’t read my reviews since 1986. Part of the reason for that is that I have almost never read a critic who wrote anything about me, pro or con, that I felt useful or illuminating in any way….That means I probably will never read another review of myself again, which is fine, because I feel relieved of the responsibility.” This proclamation prefaces a five-page rant against journalists, notably the People writer who referred to Harry Connick Jr. as “the thinking man’s Michael Feinstein.”
Comforted, if not wholly convinced, that Feinstein won’t be reading this review, I feel free to assert that I can’t think of any reason to recommend his book, though it does clear up something that has long baffled me about his performances. A precocious bar mitzvah boy chanting the ancient, sacred texts of his elders, he sits at the piano with his mouth frozen in a ferrety grin. I’ve always wondered what was behind that inscrutable smile. Now I know—and wish I didn’t.