Before the Beatles and the Stones there was Cole Porter: decadent and headstrong, witty and transgressive. Originally published in Issue 42 of The Rake, Stuart Husband writes that Porter rejected the convention of family to pursue the only thing he knew — music — and by the time he made way for rock‘n’roll, the leading lyricist of the Jazz Age had expressed himself a-plenty.

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. In the deathless (but far from little death-less) oeuvre of Cole Porter, it seems that any sentient being — from the bewinged and antennae’d through the crustacean, reptilian and mammalian to the wide variety of homo sapiens — is simply longing to drop the niceties and just, well, get it on. Porter’s erotically charged, epigrammatically spiced songbook (I Get a Kick Out of You, Night and Day, So In Love, I’ve Got You Under My Skin) remains the most subversive, and therefore eternally modern-sounding, of all the great masters of the Jazz Age Broadway lyric. Porter himself claimed a kind of artless innocence when it came to his output: “I don’t know how my music gets that way,” he once said. “I simply can’t analyse it. I can analyse the music of others. The word for Dick Rodgers’s melodies, I think, is holy. For Jerome Kern, sentimental. For Irving Berlin, simplicity. For my own, I don’t know.”

How about transgressive? Porter was goosing society, even as he seduced it. His songs were alive to “the sweetness of sin”, as the original penultimate line in Begin the Beguine had it, and were studded with examples of what Kenneth Tynan called his “bedside wit”. In the hands of his most sophisticated interpreters — Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, Billie Holiday — lines like, “I’d like to make a tour of you/The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you/The east, west, north and the south of you” (from All of You) are decidedly post-watershed. “His most famous ballads show off Porter’s sultry emotional power,” wrote the critic and author John Lahr in the New Yorker. “He didn’t want just to invoke love; he wanted to taste it.”


Stuart Husband


January 2021


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