This song, from the musical review Jacques Brel Is Alive & Well & Living in Paris, was assigned to my flatmate & drama school classmate, Helen, to perform in our Off Off Broadway showcase production. Her boyfriend, Drew, found this hilarious: “You’re singing a Neil Diamond hit?” [It had been, under the title, “If You Go Away.”] We’ll get into what was lost in translation, anon. Macho Drew got “The Dove,” [a rather girly anti-war song]; and I got “Amsterdam” [in which I portrayed a drunken, jilted sailor–drawing upon my Navy childhood for verisimilitude]. We were all “playing against type.”
[Now, back to Sunday in the park with Lili.] Kids! No sooner have they firmly grasped that Mother is not a set of identical twins (a Good one & an Evil one)–but rather a woman of many moods (not all of them angelic)–than all you see is the back of them! [Thus, the French version of the Brel song: “Don’t leave me.”] My favorite New Yorker cartoonist, William Haefeli, who draws hatchet-faced urban sophisticates expressing interpersonal ambivalence, recently gave us 3 women @ Starbucks, one looking at her cellphone: “Let me see what my mother wants–aside from attention.”
As they say in the City (when you’re kvetching about your age), “Consider the alternative.” [The alternative, in this discussion, to the Empty Nest Syndrome, let me clarify, Metalingually.] In these grim economic times, some kids never get to check out of Mom’s Place, or they check back in, after an Existential Smack in the Snout [aka job loss], as “Boomerang” kids. [Research topic: “Do more ‘Kangaroos’ end up as Boomerang kids, than ‘Clydesdales’ do?” Too soon to tell. They’ve only just been identified as a demographic.]
Although countless songs have been written about longing for the absent Loved One [the kid, the partner, the pet…”Had an old dog and his name was ‘Blue.'”], we students of musical theatre learned some obscure but nifty ditties about the other half of the ambivalence–the Too Close for Comfort genre–one of the best being, “This Plum Is Too Ripe” from The Fantasticks. [You could look it up.]
Remember the post “The Lone Wolf,” which posed the conundrum, “Would you rather be smothered by your mother’s micro-management, or Erased from the Blackboard of Her Heart (and her will)? ” [Talk about obscure ditties, a college friend and I used to kill time in long choir rehearsals by inventing Country & Western song titles, and fobbing them off as real on supposed aficionados, who would brag, “Yep. Got that one on my shelf back home.” Our most successful offering was “Ah’m’o ‘Rase You from thuh Blackboard of Mah Heart.”] What most people crave is neither extreme [In-your-face-ness or Never-darken-my-door-ness], but a Tango, a dance number, a mutually-agreed-upon to-ing & fro-ing between intimacy & space. [As in “I just need my…”] How ironic [Poetic?], that a wildly successful social networking site–designed to bring people together–is called MySpace. [Picture another Haefeli scenario, in which the re-clothing lady reassures the still-unclothed gent in the bed: “If I were sleeping with other men, would I waste my time sleeping with you?”]
In NYC [at least, back in the day], these “dance routines” were hammered out in coffeeshops throughout the city, using the opening gambit, “So, whadda we got here?” [As in Woody Allen movies, if fellow diners can overhear the conversation, they are permitted (expected) to kibitz.] In my ‘hood, the West 70s, actual dance routines for actual musicals were hammered out in the dairy aisle of the pre-Fairway grocery store in the Ansonia Hotel. [Talk about tap-dancing around a tricky topic! The Ansonia’s downstairs venue, The Continental Baths, was the original social networking site. Bette Midler got her start there. Look it up, already.]
So, here’s the point. Although he was Belgian, Jacques Brel wrote & sang in French, where the subjunctive mood is considered cowardly: “If you (were to) go away…(then I would be so sad).” Non! Be brave! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just blurt out how you really feel: “Don’t go away!” Risk humiliation, already!
The other party still might go away, of course. Back in the day, they would offer you the parting valediction, “Gotta split.”