MFT #4 To Keep My Love Alive (1956)

Ella Fitzgerald singing To Keep My Love Alive is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.

My ex never rated Ella Fitzgerald. He found her vocal seamlessness anodyne, preferring the gravel of Dinah Washington, the rasp of Etta James, the smoke of Sarah Vaughn.  He found Ella too polite, too popular, too ubiquitous, desexed. For all of that, as a gay man of a certain age whose identity had been criminalised until 1967, he nonetheless relished Fitzgerald’s success, the ‘in-plain-sight’ contrariness of her huge popularity; as Frank Rich noted about Fitzgerald in The New York Times in the days following her death in ‘here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.’

True enough, Ella Fitzgerald and her great American Songbooks are too often the taken-for-granted soundtrack to cookie-cutter coffee-shops, the many colors of her superlative recordings rolled together like so much brown Plasticine – which is why hearing Fitzgerald sing To Keep My Love Alive is always such a subversive surprise.

Composed by Richard Rogers, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, To Keep My Love Alive is a song entirely dedicated to the various grisly mechanics of the murdering of husbands. This is a ditty for psychopaths characterised by audacious clever rhymes and a complete lack of conscience, delightfully free of moralising or any kind of comeuppance for the narrator. Specifically, when Ella sings To Keep My Love Alive it is like discovering your favourite auntie, school teacher or ample, smiling dinner lady is a serial killer. In this way, Ella Fitzgerald is hands-down the perfect performer for this nicely nasty little song.

I’ve been married, and married, and often I’ve sighed
“I’m never a bridesmaid, I’m always a bride

I never divorced them, I hadn’t the heart
Yet remember these sweet words, “’till death do us part”

I married many men, a ton of them
Because I was untrue to none of them
Because I bumped off every one of them
To keep my love alive

There is a perverse logic here I recognise; not the bumping-off part (my ex-partner is alive and well despite our various disagreements), but the idea of hastening the end of something before the end itself can disappoint. Fitzgerald is killing her husbands, not for their inheritances (though we can presume from their knighthoods they are not short of a bob or two), but in a selfless act of self-defence. She is protecting the ideal of romantic love from the indignities of long-term intimacy; from the farts and the floaters and the acid-reflux; from the balled tissues on the nightstand with their gooey soft-centres; from the baggy y-fronts and even baggier ball-bags, from the hairy soaps and varicose veins; and from the creeping somnambulism of routine and suppressed red-mist rage at all the snoring, at the chewing, at all the breathing. Rodgers and Hart’s heroine would rather her husbands dead than disappointing.

As a small boy, I was the same about holidays. Buoyed by the prospect of all the long days of freedom ahead of me, I’d be bonny and bouncy at the outset of my holidays, but come the mid-point of my week, my mood would bruise. Next thing, I’ve already re-packed my little suitcase and I’m sulking powerfully, now actively trying to hurry the holiday to its dreaded conclusion by refusing to participate in the present.

Sunday afternoons were the same. Christ, they’re still the same; it’s 4 pm on a Sunday and I want the weekend dead and buried so I won’t have to endure the awful ticking down towards the inevitability of Monday. I want things dead, not dying. The long days of late August can grip me similarly, as I whip on my widows weeds even as the sun still blazes and ample opportunities remain for loafing and lotus-eating. I’ve lost count of the number of pleasant experiences I’ve killed off prematurely simply because the prospect of them ending is worse, wringing the lovely necks of parties, blithe company, and sunny days to see off the misery of denouement.

Sir Paul was frail, he looked a wreck to me
At night he was a horse’s neck to me
So I performed an appendectomy
To keep my love alive

Sir Thomas had insomnia, he couldn’t sleep at night
I bought a little arsenic, he’s sleeping now all right

Sir Philip played the harp, I cussed the thing
I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing
And now he plays where harps are just the thing
To keep my love alive
To keep my love alive

I thought Sir George had possibilities
But his flirtations made me ill at ease
And when I’m ill at ease, I kill at ease
To keep my love alive

In what was a case of life imitating art, I bit my mum’s hand while watching Jaws. Grizzled shark-hunter Quint was seconds away from meeting his sticky end between the foam teeth of Spielberg’s rubber Carcharodon carcharias and mum had the temerity to put her hand over my eyes to shield me from the ensuing gouts of blood. I bit her to make her take her hand away – which she did. I wanted to see the nuts and bolts of this horrible thing. This was death made for looking at. This was death as spectacle. To Keep My Love Alive, however whimsical, is likewise in a tradition of storytelling that delights in the presentation of the destruction of the human body for our entertainment. It is a tradition based not on shock, but on anticipation.

Sir Charles came from a sanatorium
And yelled for drinks in my emporium
I mixed one drink, he’s in memorium
To keep my love alive

Sir Francis was a singing bird, a nightingale, that’s why
I tossed him off my balcony, to see if he, could fly

Sir Atherton indulged in fratricide,
He killed his dad and that was patricide
One night I stabbed him by my mattress-side
To keep my love alive
To keep my love alive
To keep my love alive

To Keep My Love Alive doesn’t end with our merry murderer being found out and carted off to the nearest insane asylum. This isn’t a whodunnit. We know very well who is doing what to whom and we’re being invited to enjoy their terrible behaviour. More than this, we are being invited to look forward to the next death-dealing ingenuity. The structure of the song quickly establishes there will soon be another murder, and then another, and now another, and we welcome warmly each inventive tableaux. Slasher movies know this. Director Richard Donner knew this when he made The Omen. The Final Destination franchise made millions of dollars because it knows this. These successive games of death are never games of if, or even really of who. There are always games of how.

Twenty years after To Keep My Love Alive was penned, Edward Gorey published The Gashley Crumb Tinies, his 1963 ABC of children’s mortal accidents. In common with To Keep My Love Alive, it takes a conscientious moral effort to reinstall the fact of Gorey’s subject-matter being about terrible things happening to innocent individuals. It takes effort because, truth be told, we don’t care. We don’t care because we are ghoulish. Because we love gallows humour because we need it. We like it when the unspeakable is spoken. More than this, we approve. We like it when our artists, writers, and filmmakers think, say and do the things we know we shouldn’t think, say or do. Edward Gorey dispatches luckless children for our pleasure and we feel only sneaking affection for his macabre alphabet. Ella Fitzgerald murders husbands and we smile and clap and tingle admiringly at her liberty to behave so appallingly.

Passion Animation Studio’s viral sensation, Dumb Ways To Die (2012), is where Rodgers and Hart and Edward Gorey meet in a sweet venn diagram of music-driven fatalities. Again, we have a simple song with a simple structure, distinguished by some fantastic word-play, and all in the service of powering along a sequence of appalling deaths designed to entertain. (Oh yeah, there’s also an important message somewhere in here about railway safety from Metro Trains in Melbourne, Victoria). If you know this charming little ditty already, you won’t thank me for resurrecting it. If you don’t know Dumb Ways To Die, I apologise in advance for the way it will now burrow into your brain, where it will worm snugly alongside To Keep My Love Alive and reside there stubbornly for days.

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