I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?
Oh, no. Not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment
– Is That All There Is?, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
I heard the PJ Harvey version of Is That All There Is? in 1996. It’s toward the end of her first collaboration album with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, and I listened to the whole album, honestly, hundreds and hundreds of times during my second semester back in college – on a Discman(!) while walking to and from campus every day. The whole album transported me and I was obsessed with it for at least two months. To say that album is moody is like saying Tom Waits has a kind-of scratchy voice. I even used that album as a model for the multi-media/creative final project for the literature class that made me decide to take my first real creative writing class.
It never even occurred to me that any of the songs on that album could be covers. I’m sure that I thought it was sufficiently dark and moody enough to be a PJ/Parish original. But also, as a young woman, that it was too dark and melancholy to be a standard. I mean, what old songstress could carry that song off, big band and all? Those ladies of old might have been heartbroken or sexy or sassy – but so melancholy and morbid? Call it my child-of-the-late-20th-century naiveté, but sometimes I forget that people, for all of time, have been vulgar and promiscuous and dark.
At some point earlier this year when I was revisiting the PJ Harvey version, I realized it was a cover. And then, as I was unpacking my long-awaited boxed-up vinyl collection this summer, I discovered that I owned Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?. I looked at the sketched out face on the bare white cover and had one of those I didn’t even know I had this moments. But I had a lot of those after having lived nearly a year with a good portion of my belongings packed up and in storage (nevermind that I hadn’t owned a functioning record player in nearly a decade so I had barely touched my albums in all of that time). I shuffled it away, tucked it in with the rest of my albums, until I could connect my record player. And then I forgot all about it, again. But just last week, I was in my dining room working on a project and needed sound, needed music. I was avoiding my iPod like it was biologically contaminated because it seemed to be filled with emotional landmines, so I dug around in my record collection.
I put on an old Prince album. I put on the Blues for Strippers album I had bought years ago and hadn’t listened to yet. I put on The Motels. And then I put on Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?. I wasn’t even thinking of that song so much as playing some standards – something to sing along with that wasn’t those overtly heartbroken women I love . . . like Aretha and Billie and Etta. I just wanted something to keep me from crying that at the same time could provide enough background noise to keep my mind from obsessing on all the sadness and missing, on all the thoughts I was trying not to have. I gently dropped the needle down in that wide smooth space at the outside of the album. The first song on the first side is the title song. She starts speaking before you even hear the music.
And there I was. Lost in Peggy’s voice. Right from the get-go. Wrapped up. By the time she had finished the first verse, I was singing and dancing, slowly making a sort-of-waltz around my dining and living rooms. Whisked away in the slow circus sound of the band, in the odd crashing sound of the cymbals, in the horns that sound both too fast and too slow all at once. In the words coming out of Peggy’s mouth in a talk-sing. All night and the next day and on into the week – I couldn’t get the song out of my head (or keep it from coming out of my mouth).
Then one day, he went away. And I thought I’d die — but I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself, “Is that all there is to love?”
Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is
I’m guessing I had heard Peggy’s version before, probably more than once. But that didn’t change how mesmerized I was from the very first note. Peggy’s voice and cadence carried me away. I pictured her in a dark West Berlin bar singing to people who may not even understand her words. A few weary faces staring up at her standing behind a mic stand on a tiny stage. Her diction so proper in certain words and the music so drippy and laden with the kind of late-night energy you find as everyone leaves a high school dance – the lights still low, the band dismantling and packing up the instruments, a few torn streamers flailing in the air, swayed by the still active ventilation system, all the expectations of the night strewn all over the floor like dislodged body glitter.
There’s a way she sings that song that feels so very different from the PJ Harvey version – it rings in my bones differently. Barely into that first listen, I discovered that I can’t hear her version of the song without wanting to take wide sweeping steps while swinging my arms out and twirling around as she sings to me, as she tells me over and over to bust out the booze and have a ball. I imagine I am holding a dark green, mostly empty champagne bottle in one hand and that I have a flask peeking out of the bustline of my dress. I can instantly transport myself into the middle of some generic wartime movie image lodged in my brain and I am twirling in a mostly empty dance hall during WWII and the band is still playing even though there’s almost no one left on the dance floor because who in their right mind chooses this song as the one to get you up and out of the chair to finally move? There is a tangible, carbon-based mix of sadness and joy and resignation and acceptance in the song – such a whiskey-burned sound to Peggy’s voice at the same time that she can drawl out the chorus like it’s made of honey and then carry you away on the words before you even notice that your toes have lost touch with the ground.
When I looked up the song in order to find out who had written it and who else had covered it, I discovered that it is based on Thomas Mann’s short story Disillusionment. According to Wikipedia, in fact, the lyrics are lifted nearly word for word. But, not shockingly, Wikipedia is wrong on the latter point. The song is clearly built out of that story. No doubt. And some of the lines are almost word for word out of his story. But the song veers from it, makes its own scenes and then makes its own meaning.
Where the narrator in Mann’s story tells his tale of total disillusionment to a stranger via a long list of tragedies and woes and then uses those to illustrate how disappointing life is, why he expects so little – Leiber and Stoller’s song takes that disillusionment and lays it out on the floor, sizes it up and then dances all over it. Nowhere in Mann’s story does the narrator advise us to bust out the booze. Or to have a ball. Or to keep on dancing. Reading the original story made me see the song more like a response to the story as opposed to a musical retelling of it. As though the songwriters were engaging Mann in a creative call and response. They were offering up another way to see life’s disappointments. Singing the answer that Mann’s narrator never gives to the stranger, one that literally commands you to dance in response to the destruction.
The heart of the song, for me, is in the chorus. That’s actually the darkest and most amazing and poignant part of it all. It’s what turns the devastation of disillusionment into the worm-ridden apple pie with the flaky crust and the slightly melted ice cream and then invites us in to eat, this, what we have. To feed ourselves with it. To say – is this what you’ve got world, because I can take this and I still want to dance. To say – is this all there is to heartbreak, to burning down my house, to the spectacle of a woman suspended by an almost invisible wire two stories above my head? Because I’m going to pour myself a drink and listen to this band and watch the draped fabric of my gown spin out and out and around and around as I make my way across the floor, my feet gliding, barely lifting from the floor as I move all of the air around me, as I clear the invisible space around me and move. Because, if it is, then I’m going to throw a motherfucking ball and we are all going to motherfucking dance. Yeah. We’re going to dance.
We’re not going to keep crying and complaining. We’re not going to expect more out of life than it can give. But we’re not settling either. The question – is that all there is? – is not a defeatist one in the context of the song. It is a celebration of still standing. It is a slow, defiant head shake to the fucked-up things of life, a big giant middle finger wearing a sparkly ring and a painted nail. Yes, life, you are a tricky bitch. And I still love you enough to let the band play while I do my best Bette Davis, as I try to carry myself in my most statuesque Joan Crawford pose, while I imagine myself a more dishevelled and tattooed Peggy Lee, as I drop the needle down one more time onto the smooth spot right before the first groove of this song.
As I dance. Really, I dance. Not figuratively, not as a metaphor, not yet. First, I just really dance. And I feel good. I feel my skin and my limbs and the pattern I can make around my furniture. The path that can be made without clearing the room. Because who has time for that? The song is short and I have to make it back to the record player to drop the needle again before song two begins and ruins this momentum. So I can keep dancing.
And that, right there, the moment when you can be lost in a few minutes of sound and movement and an understanding that happens outside of real thought . . . that’s where the secret of this song lives. It’s not really a secret, though, of course. It’s not a new story. It’s been said before. So many times. In all kinds of ways. The common truth of it makes it no less sacred, steals none of the glory of that song, of that line, of what it does. If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing. Our lives, the daily act of living, is in that mid-sized, comma-sliced sentence. In those steps. In the sound of the music moving you, one foot over the other and then around and around and around before you make a backward step to spin and turn yourself and replay it all again.
Verse after verse after verse, you come out the back-end of something you’ve been dreading and there you are, looking at it. Right there on the floor, in the air all around you. It hurts, physically. It really does. But not so bad that you can’t walk. Not so bad that you can’t dance. Not so bad.
And so you live your life. Your real life. Not some sad, couch-sacked, bed-ridden, teary-eyed version of it. You fucking live. Not just breath, not just food, not just water or vodka or coffee. You paint and write and cook and sew. You take classes. You sign up to volunteer. You do everything you were going to do anyway. You do more. You learn a new hair style with this abundance of time suddenly on your hands. You paint a wall and hang some shelves. You go new places. You go to the old ones. Even the ones that seem haunted now. You re-envision places you don’t want to give up, you make new memories there.
You make new friends. You make room for that. You drag out the old ones, literally, tugging their arms to go out one more night, just one more band, just one more, promise. You stay home and read and listen to the quiet where the noise used to be. Then you make noise, everywhere. You have a fucking ball. Even if the music is sad – because it is so thick and lovely and booming that you’d be a real asshole to just ignore it. Even if you’re not sure that music will ever sound the same again. Even if the Bee Gees (for fuck’s sake) almost make you cry. Even if the silence of your phone, your very own doing, hums loudly in your ear.
Even if you aren’t quite yourself. Your friends know. Your family can certainly tell. Your laugh is a little slower, less quick to the draw and also full of syllables not quite as clipped. Your answers are shorter, your words fewer, parceled out and protected. You are slightly muted, a watercolor version of yourself. That you can’t help. All you can do is do. So you do. You break out the booze and gather your friends. You hang invisible streamers and fill the punch bowls and stack up the records and plan a goddammed ball. You keep dancing.
You climb out of your head and your heart and the intangible parts of yourself to make your muscles move. To sweep your arm, to swing your leg, to shake your hip to the beat-beat-beat of the drum. To make a fist and then open your palm and raise your hand up and up before snapping it back to rest again on your hip.
In those moments, in the middle of that song, in the middle of not thinking – you know what Peggy knows. What Thomas Mann’s character didn’t: it’s the music that matters most, it’s what you do with that music as you take a sweeping glance at the ash of the house you were in, that you wanted to live forever in, that you wished you hadn’t had to carry yourself out of. Look. And listen. To the music of your own body moving. Of your own hands making. Of your muscles un-unmaking, recreating, touching the fleshy part of your fingertips to the stuff that is matter. The music of your skin against the air, in motion, past emotion. Hold off that final disappointment. Choose to push it away with your swinging arms and sweeping legs. Keep on dancing. Until the music sounds better. Until your feet don’t hurt. And then dance some more.
[Watch Peggy sing Is That All There Is? here]