There’s an old joke, famously repeated in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, that goes like this: “Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says: ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says: ‘But doctor, I am Pagliacci’.”
Yesterday Bill Murray, America’s foremost sad clown, offered a couple of insights into how he writes his own prescription for Pagliacci’s complaint. He self-medicates with music, poetry and literature.
Early in the day a video appeared in which Murray recounts the time Hunter Thompson advised a depressed Murray: “We’re going to have to rely on John Prine for his sense of humour.” Sure enough, the great folk singer’s song ‘Linda Goes To Mars’ proved to be the first thing in a long while to tease a laugh out of Murray.
Then last night, he appeared on stage at the Wiltern in Los Angeles for a very special performance accompanied by the renowned German cellist Jan Vogler, the violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez. Murray’s readings of hand-picked poems, passages from favourite books and a handful of songs were interspersed with the musician’s performances of Bach, Schubert and Ravel. Think of it as a highbrow version of that unwatchably bad Netflix Christmas special he made a couple of years ago.
For the opening half of the show Murray played it dead straight, reciting work by Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway and a long quotation from James Fennimore Cooper’s classic American novel The Deerslayer. A day after Donald Trump announced the biggest elimination of public lands protection in US history, the line: “the hand of man had never yet defaced or deformed any part of this native scene, which lay bathed in the sunlight, a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur” carries added poignancy. We now live in a world where America is run by a game show host while its comedians listen to Shostakovich and recite Mark Twain.
For a man almost as famous for sneaking up behind unsuspecting tourists in Time Square and turning up at student parties to do the washing up as for his films, Murray at first seemed subdued and happy to get out of the way and let the writing he’d chosen speak for him. Having said that, the reason this show – and Murray and Vogler’s album ‘New Worlds’ – even came about is exactly what you’d expect: Vogler was carrying a cello case onto a plane when Murray appeared from nowhere to ask: “Are you gonna be able to fit that in the overhead?” Vogler, with archetypal Teutonic banter, simply replied: “It has its own seat.” During the flight, the two men hit it off, Vogler invited Murray to see him perform in Dresden, and some time later plans for a collaboration were hatched.
While Murray may have started the show subdued, as soon as he starts singing he can’t help but start coming on like a cracked reflection of an old Dean Martin special. He spells out the comic heresy of Gershwin’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ with a single facial expression, and then offers a beautiful version of Stephen Foster’s ‘Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair’. It’s all prelude to when he spies a whiskey glass atop the piano and, in a perfect imitation of the world’s most entertaining barroom soak, bawls out Tom Waits’ ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’.
He hams it up for the big closers, letting out his inner diva on Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere’, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘America’. He encores, as you might have guessed from his earlier endorsement, with a John Prine song: a heart-stopping version of ‘Angel from Montgomery’, before he plays out with Marty Robbins’ cowboy murder ballad ‘El Paso’.
It’s been a joyful couple of hours. The songs and writing Murray has chosen shows America at its artistic best, while also throwing a little light on the man doing the choosing. The most telling line of the whole show comes at the end of a passage Murray reads from A Moveable Feast. In it, Hemingway meets a painter, Pascin, and two beautiful sisters. They talk and flirt – Murray has great fun doing all the voices. At the end of the story, we learn that much later Pascin hung himself. Hemingway tried to remember him as he was when he was happy. He writes: “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”