Remembering Jazz Lyricist And Poet Fran Landesman Landesman, a songwriter and poet who wrote the words to the jazz standard "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," died on July 23. She was 83. Fresh Air remembers the iconoclastic lyricist with highlights from a 1988 interview.
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Remembering Jazz Lyricist And Poet Fran Landesman

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Remembering Jazz Lyricist And Poet Fran Landesman

Remembering Jazz Lyricist And Poet Fran Landesman

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Lyricist Fran Landesman, who wrote the words for the jazz classic "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," died Saturday at the age of 83. She wrote for decades and performed until the week of her death. But she was never as well-known as some of her songs, which also include "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" and "Small Day Tomorrow."

Landesman was part of a circle of beat writers and jazz musicians when she started writing songs in the early '50s. She married Jay Landesman in 1950 and they opened the famed Crystal Palace nightclub in St. Louis, where Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand made early appearances. They later moved to London.

For a period, the couple became known as much for their open marriage and bohemian lifestyle as for their professional accomplishments. Jay Landesman died earlier this year.

Terry Gross interviewed Fran Landesman in 1988. Before we hear that conversation, here's one of the definitive recordings of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," song by Betty Carter. The music is by Tommy Wolf.

(Soundbite of song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most")

Ms. BETTY CARTER (Singer): (Singing) Spring this year has got me feeling like a horse that never left the post. I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling. Spring can really hang you up the most.

Ms. FRAN LANDESMAN (Lyricist): I wrote that song because I was enamored of T.S. Eliot's poem which begins: April is the cruelest month, mixing memory with desire, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. And I was thinking to myself, if a hipster were going to say that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANDESMAN: ...he would say spring can really hang you up the most, man. And I told that to this piano player, Tommy Wolf, and he said that would make a good song. Why don't you try to write it? And I said I've never written a song. He said oh, go ahead and try. So I brought this lyric into him and he put that beautiful, beautiful music to it.

TERRY GROSS: So this was the very first song you wrote.


GROSS: You collaborated on it with Tom Wolf, who you wrote a lot of songs with. How did you first start to collaborate with him?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Well, we had this bar and he was the piano player and I used to sit on the piano bench with him and - you know, go over old songs and things. And then when I came up with that idea for a song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," and he said he'd put a tune to it, well, after that we just did more and more. I'd do two or three a week.

GROSS: We had this bar. You owned the bar?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: I see. So you didn't sing with him?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Well, I didn't sing in those days. Tommy put me off the idea of singing because he was so bitchy about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANDESMAN: ...girl singers. He was always complaining about how they couldn't keep time and they were singing out of tune.

GROSS: Oh, god.

Ms. LANDESMAN: And I didn't want people talking that about me, so therefore I didn't want to sing. But the musicians say to me, now they say: But we like the way you sing because we know you're a writer. We just don't like singers who can't sing.

GROSS: Many of the lyrics that you've written - especially the ones from the 1950s - have real hipster lyrics. I'm thinking especially of some of the songs in "The Nervous Set," which was a musical that you co-wrote with Tom Wolf, and your husband, Jay Landesman, wrote the book for it.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Let's just have fun. Let's dig the happenings. This world is weird and full of crazy things. Shakespeare was a hack, so we read Kerouac. Baby, let's just have fun.

GROSS: All the hipster lyrics that you wrote, I always wanted to know if you spoke hip at the time, if you used any of the lingo that you used in the lyrics.

Ms. LANDESMAN: It's funny. Actually, Tommy Wolf introduced me to that language and I was just fascinated about - I mean he was the first person I ever heard refer to a man as a cool stud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANDESMAN: And I thought, what a perfect description of this particular guy. But alas, I found out that actually cool just meant nice and he called all guys studs. And I decided that since so few men were studs and of the few who were studs few of them were cool, it was a pity that he didn't realize he had so aptly described this person.

GROSS: Do you feel a connection to lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart, Noel Coward, Cole Porter?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Gosh, I hope so. You know, when we did "The Nervous Set" on Broadway," there was a line in the song: No matter how they rave now, Larry Hart is in his grave now, and whoever takes Manhattan is a square.

And Richard Rogers came to see the show and he said to me, he said, you know, people have been calling me up all week. They're so furious about that. He said, but I knew you kids didn't mean to knock Larry. And I said, are you kidding? He was my hero. I wasn't knocking him. I was just saying that this, perhaps that song has been overdone now.

GROSS: Songwriting has, like many other fields, always been a very male world, especially until recently. The Beat circle that you hung out with, the writers, musicians, painters, they were mostly men too.

Ms. LANDESMAN: And they weren't interested in women for doing anything but emptying the ashtrays. As a matter of fact, the other night, Allan Ginsberg came up to me after the gig and said that he really liked a poem of mine. And its the first time, you know, I just felt that he was never even aware that I did anything, so I was really thrilled.

GROSS: One of the things I really like about your songs is your sense of wordplay and your sense of humor. Tell me - yeah.

Ms. LANDESMAN: Some of my songs are funny. As a matter of fact, somebody told me recently that I'm known as the Queen of Sad. And I don't think it's fair because I like to think that all of my songs are about sad and funny.

GROSS: One of the songs that probably comes to mind when people call you the Queen of Sad is "Ballad of the Sad Young Men."

Ms. LANDESMAN: Yes. Exactly.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballad of the Sad Young Men")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) All the sad young men seek a certain smile. Someone they can hold for a little while. Tired little girl does the best she can, trying to be gay for her sad young man.

GROSS: Tell me the story behind writing that song.

Ms. LANDESMAN: A friend of ours, we were in St. Louis and we had a bunch of pals. We used to hang out in P.J. Clarke's and we were talking long-distance to them and I heard that one of them had gotten engaged to a 16-year-old girl. And I thought, that poor girl, she doesn't stand a chance, because those guys really hang out in those bars. And they're, you know, that's - I think I wrote the verse about tired little girl does the best she can trying to be gay for a sad young man. I think that was the beginning of the song and then the rest of it grew up around it.

But the weird thing is that people think now that it's a song about gay people.

GROSS: That's right, about gay men.

Ms. LANDESMAN: Because when I but when I wrote that song, it simply meant lively, trying to be, trying to cheer him up, not trying to be bisexual.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. You have a new song you can read for us?

Ms. LANDESMAN: Ah, this is the last one. This is a sad funny song. It's called "Goodbye to All That."

Goodbye days of jazz and joking. Goodbye booze and food that's fried. Goodbye glamour. So long smoking. Hello thoughts of suicide. Farewell days of fun and flirting. Goodbye sex. So glad we came. Now there's always something hurting. Hello specs and walking frame. So long lovely finger-lickers. Goodbye life that late we led. Hello cramps and dodgy kickers. Soon we'll be the grateful dead. Goodbye Lenny. Goodbye Ronny. Goodbye pretty girls and boys. Goodbye, Shirley. Goodbye Johnny. Hello geriatric joys.

GROSS: Now, you read that at a gathering of old friends to celebrate the work of John Clellan Holmes, who's had some...

Ms. LANDESMAN: That's right.

GROSS: republished. Now, at this party I think was Allan Ginsberg, David Amram, Larry Rivers...

Ms. LANDESMAN: All of them.

GROSS: ...Herbert Huncke. What kind of reaction did you get to this poem?

Ms. LANDESMAN: They all liked it so much. I was, you know, I was so nervous because I kept thinking what is this going to be, a cabaret or a funeral? And also the fact that my stuff sort of rhymes the way it does and all those boys are free verses - I wasn't, they really did like it.

DAVIES: Lyricist Fran Landesman speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Landesman died Saturday at the age of 83.

Here's Ella Fitzgerald singing Fran Landesman's best-known song.

(Soundbite of song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Jazz singer): (Singing) Love came my way. I thought it would last. We had our day, now it's all in the past. Spring came along, a season of song, full of sweet promise but something went wrong.

Doctors once prescribed a tonic. Sulfur and molasses was the dose. Didn't help a bit. My condition must be chronic. Spring can really hang you up the most. All alone, the party is over. Old man winter was a gracious host. But when you keep praying for snow to hide the clover, spring can really hang you up the most.

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