…and ladies of easy leisure…

As reported in the previous post, we discovered last week that The Viper and His Famous Orchestra had been covered and the result posted to YouTube by a trad jazz band out of Ghent, Belgium operating under the name of the Rambling Boys of Pleasure. I described our amazement that, as our trombonist Rob Henn put it, “a group in Belgium covered a song by an obscure niche band from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.” O! brave new online world, that has such covers in it.

In this post, I want to talk about how the particular song choice is even more bewitching and bewildering. And we want especially to commend the Rambling Boys–who I hope to interview for my final post on the subject–on both their ambition and accomplishment in troubling themselves to cover the song known as”Ich Bin Eine Berlin” (or, alternately, as “Ich Bin Berlin (The Sundown Song)”). Of all the Viper songs you might attempt to learn and sing, this is the one for which we’ve strewn the most obstacles in your path.

Here, for reference, is The Viper and His Famous Orchestra recording of “Ich Bin Berlin”:

The problem isn’t the chord progression. It’s a fairly common set of changes for early jazz style tunes (I think I took it most directly from the George Formby song “My Ukulele”). And the song just runs through these changes four times, with one 4-measure break in the middle and a pretty standard turnaround at the end.

But those lyrics. Oy! Let me count the ways.

  • First, you basically have to learn three separate songs. The “Berlin” of the title refers, not to the German city, but to songwriter Irving Berlin. And Berlin pioneered the Tin Pan Alley gimmick of fitting two distinct melodies/lyrics to the same set of chord changes–usually one long and langourous, and one chopped and raggy–first sung separately, and then contrapuntally layered over one another. You’ll hear this in “You’re Not Sick (You’re Just in Love)” or “Play a Simple Melody” or “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil.” (If you’re not familiar with Berlin’s stuff, think “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Beatles.) But that wasn’t complicated enough. So we went Berlin one better and devised THREE separate melodies/lyrics: one fast, one mid-tempo, one slow–and all of them going on at once and on top of one another.
  • Second, if you’re living in Ghent, Belgium, I can’t imagine how you’d make sense of these lyrics, even if you managed to hear them apart from one another. I wrote this song in the late 1990s at a moment when many of my daily activities as a graduate student living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois–grocery shopping, going to a movie–were taking me farther and farther to the sprawling edges of town as developers bought up one-time cornfields on the cheap and turned them into grocery megastores and cinema multiplexes. I’d never needed a car to get around before then. And the first part of the lyrics registers how weird I felt when I realized that I was on an MTD bus headed up North Prospect into a silent sea of parking lots just to purchase the staples of my existence at the new Meijer’s. The rest of the the lyrics are filled with equally exotically local references: chomping on Sno-caps at the Savoy 14 theater on South Neil St., watching sisters Jane Mancini and Sydney Andrews having it out every Monday night on Melrose Place when I couldn’t be bothered to leave the apartment, etc.
  • Third, if your first language was Flemish and you went out and bought the CD on which we included “Ich Bin Berlin,” Everything for Everyone, because you thought the liner notes would help you figure out the lyrics, we’d have to offer you our sincerest apologies. Because you’d be out of luck. We had, in fact, included the lyrics to all of our songs. But in our bid to be ever more inscrutable, we’d used an online translation engine to first convert everything from English to Russian, and then re-convert everything from the Russian translation back into now-fractured English. So, for example, a line like…

I’m putting on my Sunday best / I’m putting it to the test

…became…

I must drape my form in best garment which I possess, garment which I usually reserve for church on Sunday. I test them.

With all of this stacked against them, we can only commend the Rambling Boys of Pleasure on what seems to be a flawless rendering of the song as we composed it, right down to the opening cough. I think there’s maybe an “if you’d only calm down” where an “if you’d only come down” is intended. And Stijn, the Rambling ukulelist, has informed me that the line about “Sydney and Jane” has remained an obscure object of desire. (He’s elected to sing about sitting on the sofa “sipping some gin,” while others in the band “would rather sit there with Cindy and Jean.”) But those are very, very minor differences. Indeed, they may even be improvements, in a Peter Stampfel kind of way.

So let’s hear it for the Rambling Boys of Pleasure! Let’s hear it for Ghent! And let’s hear it for North Prospect, South Neil, and REO Speedwagon Way!


P.S. Here, for anyone else who’d like to take a crack at this song, are the actual English language lyrics and the basic chord changes.

1st part

When the sun goes down on North Prospect far from the old downtown.
I’ll be sittin’ pretty on a bus that’s Prospect bound.
If you call my name you’ll get no answer where parking’s the only sound.
But I’ll be there you’ll see on the MTD just a-hopin’ the sun’ll stay down.

2nd part

My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down
My Fridays and evenings — negotiable
My phone number’s listed / I go to bed late
You know where to find me / On Monday nights between 7 and 8
I’m there on my sofa with Sydney and Jane
They won’t make me happy / But I won’t complain
My Sundays are yours if / The tide and the shores if
My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down

2nd part (alt.)

My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down
My Fridays and evenings — negotiable
My phone number’s listed / My machine’s always on
I’m even on e-mail / It’s viper@aol.com*
I’m at the same address that you used to write
I’m home every morning / And most every night
My Sundays are yours if / The tide and the shores if
My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down

3rd part

I’m putting on my Sunday best
I’m putting it to the test
This town ain’t — no town ain’t — like heading for the Neil St. side of town
I’m Savoy bound
I’ll be stomping
I’ll be Sno-cap chomping
Don’t bother to call or write
I’m stepping out Tuesday night
Far be it / From me, it
Seems a shame to say it
See you [C-U] on the weekend
Then’s / When /
Friends can
Stop and set it down

* It’s not actually viper@aol.com. Try ryanjerving@gmail.com

CHORDS

Intro (slow)
C / Adim / | Dm / G7 / |

Choruses

C / | / / | D7 / | / / | Dm / | G7 / | C / | / / |
G7 / | / / | E7 / | Am / | D7 / | / / | G7 / | / / |
C / | / / | C7 / | / / | F / | / / | F#dim / | / / |
F / | B7 / | C / | A7 / | D7 / | G7 / | C / | G7 / |

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