Why The Nightingale Sings: On Bobby Darin’s “Beautiful Things”
The world is full of beautiful things
Butterfly wings, fairy tale kings
And each new day undoubtedly brings
Still more beautiful things
Isn’t there something unsettling, a sly wink of Dean Martin existentialism, in Bobby Darin’s finger-poppin’ Vegas-hipster version of “Beautiful Things” (from the 1967 movie musical Doctor Dolittle)? A hint of nonchalant menace to that walking bassline as it slinks down a minor scale in the song’s opening bars? Subliminal whispers of memento mori amid the brassy blare of Roger Kellaway’s orchestral setting, which nails that sweet spot between suave and schmaltzy? Intimations of mortality between the lines of Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics about “beautiful days of sun-kissed showers” and “beautiful nights of moon-kissed hours,” right there in Darin’s breezy delivery of the lines, “Our lives tick by like pendulum swings/ Delicate things, butterfly wings?”
His studied cool, like a high-roller blowing smoke rings with overdone unconcern, is a dead giveaway. So, too, is the plinkety-plink of marimba keys, so high they make a sharp, brittle noise, like bones, as he sings those words.
Delicate things, butterfly wings: age-old symbols of metamorphosis, butterflies are associated, in the mythological unconscious, with the spirit freed from the prison of the flesh, fluttering in the perpetual dusk of the underworld, drawn by the light of eternity. To the Aztecs, butterflies were life’s last breath, exhaled by the dying, or the souls of slain warriors, flitting among the flowers on battlefields where they fell. In Japanese folklore, they’re wandering spirits whose appearance may portend a death in the family. In Greek myth, the soul is personified by Psyche, a beautiful young thing depicted, in classical iconography, with butterfly wings. True to her name, Psyche is closely aligned with the otherworldly and the cloak of night it often wears: condemned by the gods to marry a monster, she soon finds that her mysterious husband will only visit the nuptial bower under cover of darkness, the better to conceal his appearance. One of her adventures takes her to Hades, on an errand from Aphrodite, to beg a bit of Persephone’s beauty from the queen of the underworld. In “Beautiful Things,” Darin sings of lovers with wings, like Psyche—or, for that matter, like the Dream Lover in his 1959 hit of the same name, an apparition of teen desire who, like Psyche’s nocturnal lover, comes to the singer at night so he doesn’t have to dream alone.
You wonder why the nightingale sings
Lovers have wings, people wear rings
The world is full of beautiful things
Beautiful people, too
Beautiful people like you
You wonder why the nightingale sings: it’s one of those throwaway lines that only grows more enigmatic, the more you think about it. It’s as close as a bit of movie-musical fribble, tossed off with commercial considerations foremost in mind, will ever get to the punctum, Roland Barthes’s term for some seemingly inconsequential detail in a photograph—an accident, even—that nonetheless pierces you to the quick. To me, this lyric is a furtive blur in the mind’s peripheral vision, an emissary from the uncanny trying to sneak, on tiptoe, past our conscious thoughts. Its “mere presence changes my reading” of the song just as a “speck, cut, little hole” does Barthes’s reading of a photograph in Camera Lucida, making him think, “I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.”
It makes me hear “Beautiful Things” as John Donne at The Dunes—a Vegas vanitas where the birdbath martinis are bottomless and the house hands you six-figure markers with a smile but the nightingale sings because the nightingale, as Shakespeare reminds us in Romeo and Juliet, is a lyric poet in the dead of night, its song a prayer against the engulfing gloom. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols is eloquent:
If the two lovers listen to the nightingale they will remain together but in danger of death; if they trust the lark they will save their lives, but will have to part. By the beauty of its song, which enthralls the listening darkness, the nightingale is the magician who makes his hearers oblivious of the dangers of the day. All poets make the nightingale the songster of love, but the bird most strikingly displays by the feelings which it arouses the close link between love and death.
The nightingale sings to distract itself, and us, from the haunting knowledge that every living thing is born to die. Ironically, the trills and chirps of a songbird in the black void can’t help but remind us of that very fact. To the sleepless listener, up alone and nagged by thoughts of What It All Means, the nightingale sounds like a metaphor for the human condition: a bright little thing, whistling in the dark.
“The biggest thing between you and God is death,” said Darin, a death-rattled man who, as a sickly child overheard a doctor telling his mother he wouldn’t live to see his sixteenth birthday. A bout of rheumatic fever came close to killing him, and left him with a damaged heart that sentenced him to a life of chronic health problems. Unsurprisingly, a sense of living on borrowed time plucked at the singer. “The biggest success in the world walks around with the knowledge that he is going to die like everyone else,” he said. In Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, his son Dodd remembers, “At one point my dad decided that if he picked an age he wanted to live to and chanted that age, he would cheat death.” On cue, the ghostwriter adds the usual portentous voice-over: “He picked the number 64, but death had another number in mind.” Darin died, after open-heart surgery, at 37.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats is soul-sick at the thought that he, the scribbling self, is “fastened to a dying animal,” the aging flesh, doomed to die. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress…” He dreams of sailing to the “holy city” of ancient Byzantium, where “Grecian goldsmiths” will fashion for him one of those android bodies familiar from transhumanist dreams, a deathless thing like the clockwork songbirds “set upon a golden bough to sing /To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” But isn’t that what Bobby Darin is, now that all that survives of him is a voice etched in the never-ending spirals of records like “Beautiful Things”? Freed from the balding man in a toupee, prematurely old at 37, every labored breath an agony, an oxygen tank waiting just offstage, he saunters out of the shadows whenever we drop the needle, young again, a swinger with a gently mocking message from the hereafter.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”