Monday, June 10, 2013

a long-awaited book

Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen (Brandeis University Press, 2013)

I've been an Allan Sherman fan since his first album appeared in 1962, an addiction that hasn't diminished over the years: I bought the My Son, the Box CD set as soon as it came out. So I'm a perfect reader for this cleverly-titled book.

In many respects, it delivers. It's a lucidly written narrative biography, with plenty of hard details and facts, freeing Sherman's early life from the whimsy of his (ghost-written, as it turns out) autobiography, A Gift of Laughter, and bringing his brief decline and fall out from the shadows, though it's reticent on the lurid details. I've read (e.g. in Steve Allen's memoir of Sherman) that at the end of Sherman's life he was an indigent living in the charity Motion Picture Country House, which doesn't square with the fact that he was working on an unfinished new album of golf stories at the time of his death. Cohen makes it clear that Sherman, though he'd blown through his earnings, was surviving well enough to perform occasionally and to live in his own apartment, except for the few months shortly before his death he spent in the Country House's associated hospital on the last of his many weight-loss programs, which must be where the story that he was in the House itself came from.

Cohen is good at summarizing Sherman's recording career, and pays equal attention to the events and flow of his live and TV gigs. It's all well-integrated into the life story, without feeling like the story is being halted to discuss the work for a while. Cohen doesn't mention every song Sherman released, but does most of them. He has lots of good material on unreleased songs, he quotes from them liberally, and he sticks an album's worth of their lyrics in an appendix. (There's no discography.) He's good on tracing the gradual shift in Sherman's topics from the Jewish to the de-ethnicized suburban, on the growth of a grumpy "get off my lawn" attitude towards the rising youth culture that's apparent in several songs, and, it must be said, on a gradual shift from the funny to the not funny. Cohen wins my allegiance by firmly placing the album For Swingin' Livers Only among the not funny. Many Sherman fans, inexplicably to me, consider it the best of his later work. (I'd name in that category My Name Is Allan, and perhaps Cohen would too, though he's not ringingly endorsing any of the later albums.)

On the other hand, he doesn't much like Peter and the Commissar, either, which I liked even long before I got interested in the classical music which is its topic of parody, and he entirely misreads the song "Peyton Place U.S.A." (from My Name Is Allan). He repeatedly refers to it as a "moral grandstanding" denunciation of libertine sex life - contrasting that with Sherman's real-life pursuit of sex wherever he could get it - but in fact it displays rather leering envy of what the characters on Peyton Place supposedly get up to. That, and attributing one original source song to Irving Berlin when it's by the Gershwins, are the only outright errors I caught.

The book gets off to a rough start with far too much detail on the subject's ancestry, and yet even so manages to avoid explaining how his Polish Jewish grandfather wound up with the surname Sherman, which sounds neither Yiddish nor Polish. Maybe it was assigned at Ellis Island, but Cohen doesn't say so, and he uses it for when gramps was still in Poland, implying he already had it. Nor is any light shed on the strange tale in A Gift of Laughter of the movie career of great-uncle Max the violinist. (Cohen gives the violinist uncle's name as Abraham, which only makes it more mysterious.)

Soon enough, though, the narrative settles down, interrupted only by an odd tendency to jump back and forth in the tale, cryptically mentioning something only to delay explaining it for five or ten pages. (Example: he tells you on p. 129 that "The Ballad of Harry Lewis" has Sherman's best pun, but doesn't relate the pun itself until p. 140.)

Cohen also is really big on setting Sherman's career in its cultural context. This is far less ludicrously done than in some books, and I'll certainly buy the account of changing tastes in the mid-60s that led to Sherman going out of date, but I'm not sure I believe the sweeping and name-filled thesis that Sherman's debut came at a unique cultural moment when Jewish humor would have a cross-ethnic appeal, when America somehow wasn't ready for it in the 40s or 50s, and that his immediate epic success is due to his having supplied the material just when it was needed.

Regardless of its flaws, this is generally a good book, and I'm very satisfied that it was written and that I could read it.

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