One of the more disconcerting things about old photo albums is the tiny x’s above some of the people pictured. It means that the person had died. Well, they’re all dead now, I think, so I could put the little x’s above each and every person in each and every photo, but I won’t. It’s not done anymore. I suspect the x was actually a stylized cross—x’s usually were, if not used as the actual letter—and the slightly morbid tradition probably goes back centuries. You still see it in lists of names of military men, meaning killed in action. And you see it on old photos. The young man pictured here, a lanky teen named Carl, was my dad’s eldest brother, a terribly gifted piano player, who began with the German romantics but was caught up in ragtime and jazz. He learned those chops in speakeasies in Flint MI while still in high school, then headed for the jazz bars and swinging dancehalls in Detroit, playing for money and drink. Soon a lot more for drink than money. His father, Carl senior, loathed jazz and blamed it for his namesake’s downfall, and ordered him out of the house over and over. His mother always let him back in. He’d get picked up stinking drunk and pitched into the drunk tank. Mom would plead to bail him out. They would and the cycle repeated. Finally the old man put his foot down and said next time his son could rot in jail. Which he did, soon enough. There’s a recording he made, supposedly while in jail. It’s a Duke Ellington number, Sophisticated Lady, I think—it’s been years since I’ve heard it—and it’s a baroque swing, lush with ornamentation, a display of desperate virtuosity, sad and melancholy and unrealized. He died not much later, of DTs and pneumonia in a frigid jail cell in the depths of a Michigan winter. It was 1949, nearly a decade before I was born, and he was thirty two. The old man followed two years later, of dropsy, heartbreak, failure and his own terrible shattered dreams. The two Carls lie side by side in a forgotten cemetery outside Flint, and someone penciled a tiny x over their heads in this old photo album.
All three of Caruso’s first recordings of Vesti la Giubba, from 1902, 1904 and 1907, on one hit vid. All were smash hits, tho’ whether the Italian recording of 1902 or the second Victor (pre-RCA) recording were the first records to sell over a million I don’t know. You can find claims to both online. There were so many millions of each pressed in their day that even now one of these antique cylinders is worth about as much as your thrift store Tijuana Brass LPs. All three versions were pressed as cylinders, too, platters were still in the future. Though after 1913 when phonographic technology changed forever each quickly became million selling platters as well. They still sell, in fact, and somewhere spoiled rotten heirs of Enrico Caruso get richer by the day off these ancient recordings. Considering the primitive acoustic recording technology of the time—basically shouting into a megaphone, exquisitely analog—Caruso’s voice is astonishingly loud and full. Compare it with the orchestra behind him (probably literally behind him) on the 1907 recording which is so distant and compressed I mistook it momentarily for a squeezebox. My favorite of the three versions, incidentally, is the 1904 recording. It’s a tad more subtle (which might be the the first time Caruso and subtle ever occupied the same sentence) and a tad less stagey to my ears (and mind’s eye), but then that was a time that loved the stagey and overwrought, kind of like our own time, actually. Besides, it was two years before Enrico was shaken out of his wits by the San Francisco earthquake to emerge dust covered and stark naked in a paisan’s pajamas in the wreckage of the hotel lobby. Visions of Palermo a century or two earlier, leveled by a quake in the dead of night, the survivors wandering the streets dazed and nude and white with dust, ghosts in the moonlight. I wish I could remember where I read that.
But to undigress, if you remember this tune from the singing whale in the Disney cartoon you just aged yourself. Was it named Willie? There was no need to even explain it back then. Even the kids knew it was a cetacean Caruso. Have the same whale singing Stairway To Heaven today and children would know it’s a cetacean Led Zeppelin. One of those iconic things. I actually have that whale singing Vesti la Giubba here somewhere. One of those DVDs you somehow find at a truck stop. I’ll probably watch it this afternoon because you can do things like that when you’re retired. You can do it unemployed too, except when you’re retired you don’t feel guilty about it. Incidentally, any resemblance to Ronnie James Dio is coincidence. Even Rainbow In The Dark.
Somewhere in the blog there’s a story of the time we went to a now vanished pizza place in Echo Park. It had been there since these recordings were less old to them than Dark Side of The Moon or Born To Run or Saturday Night Fever are to us now. You walked in off of Sunset Blvd and instantly you were back in Jersey. Everything red vinyl, scenes of Napoli and Sicilia on the walls, a photo of Uncle Luigi in a stiff collar, fresh off the boat. Every tune on the jukebox was Italian. Dino was singing Volare as we ordered and when the pizza arrived, steaming hot, Caruso began singing Vesti la Giubba. We ate in silence, listening. Then we played it again. Sometimes little things all come together and a perfect moment is seared into your memory forever.