Thursday 26 September 2019

BOBBY DARIN - Things About Bobby Darin


 BOBBY DARIN lived his short life on a time-fuse, no time to waste, 
nothing to lose. He lived fast. Died Young. The regular Rock ‘n’ Roll 
blueprint – sure, so why should we care now…? Well, there’s 
‘BEYOND THE SEA’ (2004) – the biopic that provides a 
contemporary relevance, tied in with the odd renaissance of ‘Swing’ 
that charges at least one of his career-stages with a curious resonance

 (1968 album) 

Bobby Darin lived his short life on a time-fuse, no time to waste, nothing to lose. He lived fast. Died Young. The regular Rock ‘n’ Roll blueprint – sure, so why should we care about him now…? Well, there’s the biopic in which Kevin Spacey portrays this problematic American Idol. It provides a kind of curious relevance, tied in with the odd renaissance of ‘Swing’ that charges at least one of his multiple career-stages with contemporary resonance. But there are other reasons too.

Born in Philadelphia on 14 May 1936, he grew up in New York unaware that ‘big sister’ Nina who raised him was really his (unmarried) mother. And from that point on Walden Robert Cassotto’s star-crossed life zigzags uncontrollably. Yet was always driven by insatiable ambition. A child victim of triple rheumatic fever, sister Viv recalls ‘just walking across the floor would be agony for him.’ So he stays indoors a lot. Listens to Mom’s Big Band 78rpm records, soaking up rhythms.

They said he’d be lucky to survive beyond his teens, and certainly never reach thirty. And that’s the point. He had a lot to achieve. And little time left to do it. Listen to his records now and it’s hard to find the real Bobby Darin, or even the direction he’s travelling. They’re more a series of deliberate counterfeits, infused with a sense of restless quest – an odyssey of identities, a Pop ‘n’ Roll trickster. He could likely have earned a career by sticking at any one of them, but he had no time for perseverance. Instead it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile those several personalities co-existing within the same body. And that’s also the point. He compressed more lives and living into the short time he had allocated than most could reasonably expect to achieve in longevity.

A single-term college drop-out, hungry for experience, his ruthlessness was legendary. As was his ambition. Determined ‘to establish myself as a legend by the time I’m twenty-five’, he goes straight from the Bronx High School to hunting acting roles. Selecting a new name, inventing a new identity from a malfunctioning Chinese eaterie sign advertising (Man)darin cuisine, it’s 1956 and he connects with fixer-mentor Don Kirshner. But instead of stage-work he finds himself serving an unsuccessful year at Decca records, covering Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line”, and cutting atrocities such as “Blue-Eyed Mermaid”.

Disappointed, he up-shifts to Atlantic stable-label Atco, a token white kid alongside the Coasters, the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter and La Vern Baker. Recruited to such a high-profile roster as a back-atcha, perhaps, at the white teens who’d creamed off Atlantic’s black hits, but one benefiting from Ahmet Ertegun’s production skills, and the label’s new eight-track machine. It’s here he initiates his first career as young teeny-bop rocker, co-writing “Splish Splash” (with DJ Murray The K’s mother!) – a no.3 party-style smash-hit (he’s in the bath unaware that downstairs there’s ‘a party going on’). It’s a novelty-hook that enables comedian Charlie Drake to undertake the UK chart-cover duties. Then “Queen Of The Hop” (‘she’s my sugar-time baby, I’m her lollypop’), and “Plain Jane” – both rocketing up the US charts through sheer force of enthusiasm (his West-coast sessions were also propelled by Nino Tempo’s deep-throated sax).

Never quite destined for full pin-up status Bobby’s round-faced dark-haired Italianate smile nevertheless soon guarantees him a presence in the fan-mags, if some ways less prominent than surly sexually-charged Elvis or doe-eyed Ricky Nelson. He’s the Bronx-brash kid grown up poor, who’d ‘splish-splashed’ onto the precarious first rung of stardom, but as a developing writer and performer those early hits prove respectable efforts. He’s never less than an inventive craftsman. Atlantic doesn’t deal in non-achievers.

For Darin, though, there’s no time for smug satisfaction, he’s already turning his ambition towards elevating himself higher, by creating an all-time Pop-Rock classic. He selects the proven C/Am/F/G7 chord sequence to do it with. And “Dream Lover”, with its shrill yearning adolescent angst, easily ranks as a fifties teen-anthem up there alongside Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”. The powerfully ascending ‘cos I want – da-dah!, a girl – da-dah!!, to ca-all – my own!!!’, each line punched out in higher register, rising to erupt into the full revelatory passion of ‘I wanna Dream Lover, so I don’t have to dream alone’. The perfect fairground record, a blaring jukebox vinyl 45rpm, a sound exactly attuned to trebly transistor radio-play. And he’s rewarded with his biggest hit so far.

 (1962 album) 

‘I have Rock ‘n’ Roll hits’ he brags, ‘but I have to go beyond Rock ‘n’ Roll. I have to prove I can sing.’ So it’s after “Dream Lover” that he first switches roles, drastically emerging in a tuxedo on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night ‘American Bandstand’ ABC TV-show – with “Mack The Knife”. Suddenly he’s a finger-popping Sinatra hipster oozing ‘oh the shark has pearly teeth Dear’ with a sinister adult-friendly slickness. Time has softened that tectonic-shift. Now ‘The Rat Pack’ is a smart pose for a Robbie Williams or the sad fragments of Westlife. But back then Sinatra’s smooth sophistication was for the oldsters, while Rock is the new thing for the kids. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll is lewd – in plain fact, dirty,’ says Ole Blue Eyes, ‘it’s phoney and false, and sung written and played for the most part by cretinous goons.’ Sinatra merely swung, he couldn’t Rock.

And Darin’s sudden volt-face was seen as a betrayal. He might even be one of the ‘Bobbies’ – alongside Vinton, Rydell, and Vee, who Jerry Lee Lewis was accusing of destroying that first great age of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But ‘Dazzling Darin’s’ ambition is vindicated when the record becomes massive, the US list-leader for nine weeks, and Atlantic’s biggest-selling single to date. Soon there are classy brassy jazzy albums too, ‘That’s All’ (1960), ‘This Is Darin’ (1960) and the live supper-club cabaret-circuit ‘Darin At The Copa’ (1960) drawing on Brecht-and-Weill, Hoagy Carmichael (“Lazy River”), Gallic swing with “Beyond The Sea (La Mer)”, scat, smooth show tunes and standards.

A time of gold disks and Grammy awards. Yet for Darin, it’s a phase that lasts little over a year. Not quite cute enough to be a true bobbysoxer idol, not quite tall enough to be a Sinatra, already he’s Been there, Done that, Move on. He discovers Ray Charles. He writes “You’re The Reason I’m Living” – an artful fabrication of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” which becomes an American smash in 1962, and gives a full Raelettes-treatment to “I Wonder Whose Kissing Her Now”. Both for Capitol – ironically a label he’s moved to as its replacement for Sinatra. And there are more hits. Just consider these two examples, first – the cheekily suggestive “Multiplication”. Staid BBC-programmers found it a little too smutty for polite radio, Bobby’s assertion that – when it comes to sexual reproduction, ‘mother nature’s a clever girl, she relies on habit’, especially when he adds ‘in each generation, they play the same’, before growling ‘they’d better!’ into the fade. Then there’s Jack Nitzche’s Spanish guitar arrangement for the remarkable “Eighteen Yellow Roses” with its torrid overtones of incest. In the second verse he sings of furtively reading a card tucked into the ‘eighteen yellow roses’ that came today, to learn that ‘though you belong to another, I love you anyway.’ Darin’s injured hurt and passion at the implied adultery carries through into the final line, which explosively reveals that this is not a marital infidelity, but that ‘a father’s love will never fade away’. Yet there is too great an emotional intensity for it to be a purely paternal love, and too possessive to be considered strictly parental. Two very dissimilar records, both undeniably unique. Elsewhere, he hits with the jaunty country yodel of “Things”, covers Nat ‘King’ Cole’s curiously inspired “Nature Boy”, writes a ruggedly bluesy “But Not For Me” – later associated with Sammy Davis Jrn, while his other writing credits extend to “Early In The Morning” – a defining hit for Buddy Holly, “I’ll Be There” which will chart for Gerry And The Pacemakers, and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’” for Ruth Brown.

 (1962 compilation album) 

Admit it, Kevin Spacey comes close. About as close as you can get. In stills and movie-sequences he’s almost there… as close as it’s now possible to recapturing that long-lost time. As close as, say – Ian Hart and Gary Bakewell’s impersonation of Lennon-and-McCartney in ‘Backbeat’ (1994), or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison on Oliver Stone’s ‘Doors’ (1991). A Darin for all phases. Spacey tells the ‘Observer’ that Darin ‘is probably next to Sammy Davis Jnr as the greatest nightclub entertainer we’ve ever had.’ It’s a movie project that began with producer Arthur Friedman negotiating the life-rights from son Dodd Darin’s book ‘Dream Lovers’, while the movie roll-call of possible ‘Darins’ – from Bruce Willis to Tom Cruise, from Leonardo di Caprio to Johnny Depp, eventually alights on Spacey. And for him it’s more than just a role. He worked at Abbey Road with Phil Ramone and a 48-piece orchestra to perfect the soundtrack, he also directs and promotes the movie by touring a Darin show around American night-clubs. ‘My aim’ he tells interviewers, ‘is to bring attention to his entire catalogue.’

And by the dawn of the sixties that catalogue had rung the changes many times. Long before Bowie or Madonna would take out the chameleon-patent. He’d even fulfilled his original career-plan with acting roles in a number respectable movies, appearing in ‘Heller In Pink Tights’ (1960) with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn, the glossy comedy ‘Come September’ (1961) with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, the musical ‘State Fair’ (1962) with Pat Boone, a fine role as jazz musician ‘Ghost’ Wakefield in John Cassavetes’ ‘Too Late Blues’ (1961), and – significantly, the ‘screwball comedy’ ‘If A Man Answers’ (1962) as newly-weds with Sandra Dee. He married her in real life too. She’s played by Kate Bosworth in the Spacey movie. Like Darin, she had personal problems – a history of child-abuse that left a legacy of alcoholism and anorexia. And Bobby could be ‘rude and brash’ even to her. There are persistent stories of his voracious sexual appetites, Dodd arguing that ‘I’m sure he never forgot for a moment that he was going to die’ to explain his involvement in ‘swinging’ threesomes. Yet, they’d become the season’s golden couple and everything seemed fine... until the Beat Boom abruptly sidelined him. Music changed, Brit-groups were all over the charts, leaving his career stranded on the lounge-lizard night-club circuit.

But perhaps there are other factors at work? The world had stopped, and he’d got off. He’d been involuntarily relieved of the urgent compulsion to achieve legendary status, although he can reasonably claim he’s given it his best shot and come so close he’d been a contender. His health isn’t good. His marriage is failing. He’s even begun losing his hair. What the hell? It’s tempting to suggest that, for the first time in his life, the lull provides him a space of release. A freedom to assess and reflect how far he’s come, and where he might yet go.

He only manages to pick up the pieces in the late Sixties by stumbling across the aching fragility of Tim Hardin’s second album. Unable to compete himself with material written by this new breed of singer-songwriter, he instead does for “If I Were A Carpenter” what the Byrds had already done for Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”, taking the original arrangement, strengthening it with electricity, but replicating Hardin’s cracked vocals to such an extent that the writer painfully exclaims ‘he’s stolen my voice’ when he first hears Darin’s single on the radio. But it’s a startling interpretation of an exquisite song. One that inevitably takes its rightful place at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, championed by the hippest of the hipperati, with Andrew Loog Oldham even taking out press-space at his own expense to champion its excellence. I bought it, before I bought the original. I still value them both. But for Darin, there had been life-changes, ‘really, I don’t care whether I am in the charts or not’ he comments at the time, ‘I don’t need to be in the charts. I’m not that sort of artist, but I suppose it’s nice to know that people still remember you.’ It was to be Bobby Darin’s last real success, coinciding with his 1966 return to Atlantic, and his divorce. He covered more Hardin – including a fine “Lady Came From Baltimore”, and then turned the tables by writing “Simple Song Of Freedom” – the closest Tim himself would ever come to a chart record.

Bobby Darin lived his life on a short time-fuse. Later on he was forced to carry a back-up oxygen supply as part of his touring equipment, with the constant awareness that every show he gave, every song he sang, might be his last. Living on the edge of borrowed time. During his hectic final years he cut singles for Motown, hosted his own syndicated NBC-TV show, guested on both ‘Sonny And Cher’s Comedy Hour’ and ‘Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In’, and acted in a movie with Patricia Neal (‘Happy Mother’s Day, Love George’ aka ‘Run Stranger Run’, 1973). There’s also vital surgery to insert artificial valves into his weakened heart. Warned that he’d never survive into his third decade, his life was always time-coded. Yet he works on into the early-1970s. Until eventually, during dental work the dentist neglected to administer antibiotics, resulting in septicaemia, a blood-poisoning infection that stressed his implant-valves to malfunction. Rushed to hospital he underwent some eight hours of surgery, before succumbing to heart failure on 20 December 1973. Until – eventually, there was ‘Beyond The Sea’, the biopic that opened 26 November 2005. And the odd renaissance of ‘Swing’ charging at least one of his multiple career-stages with a curious relevance. These are just some of the reasons why we should care now…


(1) Among his more unusual records there’s a solo piano instrumental “Beachcomber” (1960), plus a spin-off US top thirty single – “Early In The Morning” c/w ”Now We’re One” under the guise of the Rinky Dinks (no.24 in July 1958), and a 1967 album of Leslie Bricusse songs from the movie ‘Dr Dolittle’ including “Talk To The Animals”. He also plays piano back-up on the Buddy Knox single “That’s Why I Cry”

(2) A reggae version of “Dream Lover” was issued in November 1972 by Greyhound (Blue Mountain label). The Plasmatics record their own version on their 1980 album ‘New Hope For The Wretched’ (Stiff)

(3) On his album ‘L.A. Is My Lady’ Frank Sinatra adapts “Mack The Knife” by singing ‘oh Satchmo Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, they did this song nice/ and Lady Ella too/ they all sang it with such feeling/ that Old Blue Eyes can’t add nothing new…’

(4) Bobby Darin’s early-sixties backing group includes future-Byrd Roger (Jim) McGuinn

(5) His first major hit, “Splish Splash”, is included on the 1978 soundtrack album to the Alan Freed biopic ‘American Hot Wax’ (AM). His second hit – “Queen Of The Hop”, name-checks other current hits of the time, from ‘sweet little sixteen’, to ‘you can talk about your Julie and your Peggy-Sue, your Miss Molly and Mary-Lou’. His early hits can also be heard on the soundtrack of ‘Apollo 13’ (1995) and ‘American Beauty’ (1999)

(6) In her 1984 autobiography ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ Connie Francis tells how she and Darin had ‘an innocently romantic love affair’ when she was just eighteen. Her enraged father turns up at the rehearsals for a TV spectacular in which they are both appearing, and chases Bobby through the studio waving a gun!

(7) A long-time Democrat and Civil Rights activist the shock of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination causes Darin to re-evaluate his life. The tangled truth about his parentage also emerges – at age thirty-two, when he considers standing for public office, and it’s feared such details might be used by the opposition to slur his name. ‘My entire life has been a lie’ he confessed. He got rid of his possessions and Beverly Hills home and moves into a trailer in Big Sur (writing ‘How many steaks can you chew boy/ how many cars can you drive/ how many moon in June-type tunes can you write, before you’re a lie’ in “Song For A Dollar”). His subsequent album, the self-penned ‘Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto’, includes his “In Memoriam” tribute to his friend Kennedy

(8) As an Italian-American there are inevitable Corleone-style ‘horse’s head in the bed’-style rumours about Darin’s career, such as the one about Bobby’s change of style away from ‘Swing’ so annoying an organised crime boss that Darin wound up beaten-up with his head stuffed down a toiled bowl until he nearly drowns

(9) During a late Las Vegas engagement he stunned the straight-laced audience by ripping off his toupee to achieve the honesty necessary to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”

(10) In the moody monochrome ‘Too Late Blues’ – perhaps his finest movie, he says ‘I sold me, man, but never my soul...’

Originally on website:
‘SOUNDCHECKS’ (January 2005)

‘In The Era Of Cool, 
He Was The Soundtrack...’ 

DVD review of: 
 with Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin (also writer/ producer/ director), 
 Brenda Blethyn as ‘Mom’ Polly Cassotto, Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee, 
 Caroline Aaron as Nina Cassotto-Maffia, William Ullrich as ‘Little Bobby’, 
Bob Hoskins as Brother-in-law Garbageman Charlie Maffia, 
John Goodman as manager Steve ‘Boom Boom’ Blauner. 
 (Entertainment In Video EDR4064TC)

Movie-makers love biopics. Always have. Biographical-pictures, from Al Jolson, Glenn Miller, through the Doors and Jerry Lee Lewis, and on. But they can only ever replicate. The best they can achieve is a close approximation. And an artist – after all, is unique, that’s what makes them artists. That’s the problem with tribute bands. They can aspire to simulate, but the best they can ever be is ‘near’. And who needs a good substitute? Sure, as a crash-course when the original’s no longer available, a speed-read, or a career primer, bio-pics can be useful. Perhaps that’s enough? And Kevin Spacey comes closer than most. His subject, and personal vanity-project – Bobby Darin, was sporadically high-profile, but too much of a quick-change chameleon to ever totally dominate his era. And movie compression over-stresses the Supper-Club Lounge-Lizard aspects of his career over his more interesting Rock ‘n’ Pop moments. I guess editing and life-streamlining is a necessary fiction? 

So yes, there’s ‘THE VOICE: THE PASSION: THE CONFIDENCE’, as it says on the box. But for the non-initiate Darin-virgin, not a great deal more. The screenplay opens at the ‘Coconut Grove’ where a ‘brash, cocky and arrogant’ Darin encounters his younger self. ‘You’re playing me?’ he asks. ‘I am you’ says Little Bobby, ‘you want some truth, I’ll give you some truth…’ And time-warps them back to the 1940s Bronx with knowing talk-over, street dance-routines (‘I know, it’s a fantasy sequence’), and mood-enhancing black-and-white TV inserts. From that point on the story is fairly straight-forward, the obvious plot-hook about his ‘Mom’ really being his Gran, and drag-act ‘sister’ Nina his real mother is clamped down until later. That could usefully have been trailered, or at least planted as a ‘secret tease’ by the narrator-voice. Instead the peg is pretty much left to ‘Sir Splish-Splash’ versus Sandra Dee (she’s already a rising starlet of the ‘Gidget’ (1959) and two ‘Tammy’ films, 1961 and 1963). ‘There goes the girl I’m going to marry’ he brags as he meets ‘Sandie’ doing a Rock Hudson movie-shoot together in Italy, with one eye on how the Darin-Dee celebrity tie-in would look in the fan-mags, and he romances her to an extended “Beyond The Sea” dance-sequence. Her mother would have preferred her to link up with Rock Hudson – some hope!

In a snigger of retro-awareness, of course we know – but they didn’t, that he-man Hudson was gay. Nevertheless, Darin’s pushy charm wins out. A stormy marriage follows, until they’re competing for who-leaves-who first, set to slapstick comic pacing. The real Sandra Dee, a child-star troubled victim of child-abuse, alcoholism and anorexia, dies 20 February 2005, shortly after ‘Beyond The Sea’ premiered. And in real life they divorce in 1967. But hey, this is a movie. Here Darin is reconciled with his Sandie. He makes his peace with his mother-sister. And he leaves a personalised legacy for son Dodd ‘Moose’ Darin. While the second movie-theme is developing around Darin’s growing political awareness.

First glimpsed when he opens pilled-up at the ‘Copacabana’ with “Hello Young Lovers”, but insists on black comedian George Kirby opening for him, against the management’s more segregationalist opposition. This leads into his radical alliance with Robert Kennedy as part of an increasingly divided ‘country at war’. Jotting the lyrics for “Simple Song Of Freedom” into the margins of the ‘Los Angeles Times’ around the ‘Vietnam Draft’ headlines, his lines ‘we the people here don’t want a war’ returned with renewed relevance in the year of the Iraq debacle. But no, the real movie-theme has got to be that of artifice. Firstly ‘Bobby Darin’ is an escapist persona deliberately assembled by sickly Italian-American kid Walden Robert Cassotto as a vehicle to propel him to stardom – at one point he insists to producer Ahmet Ertegun ‘when the delivery guy knows me, then I’m a star!’ And he becomes that star. Until his life crashes down, with Kennedy’s assassination coinciding with the final revelation of his confused parentage, which tears apart his own sense of identity. The artifice behind the structured artifice of stardom. Which becomes Spacey’s parting shot. The true Bobby Cassotto is dead. But the fiction he created persists. This DVD is more than just a biopic, it is that persistence.

Originally on website:

1 comment:

SunnSpott said...

Good piece. I’ ve recently read a lot of reflections on the life of Bobby Darin, and like this one because it has a unique approach and an appreciation of such things as the talent Bobby brought to the character of “Ghost” Wakefield in “Too Late Blues.” ( An aside: I hate to reveal my lack of knowledge, but I *need* to know — why was the character nick-named “Ghost?”). There are a couple of things I’ve never read before, and wonder why this writer has Walden Robert born in Philadelphia, and how the writer came by the story that mobsters beat up our subject and sunk his head in a toilet? I hope that’s just a story. Otherwise, this writing seems to me to be quite original in perspective, nicely researched, and well finished. I like and agree with the bottom line. Nicely put. Thanks for sharing.