Funny · Movies · Music · NPR

Crow in E-Flat

I was stuck in rush hour traffic on the 110 South last Friday when I got the chance to hear a segment of Morning Edition that made my day. This is why I’m a member of KPCC. There is nothing like radio.

So, the Songwriters Hall of Fame is preparing to induct Johnny Mandel. I admit, I’d never heard of him. Turns out, he’s the guy who wrote the theme for “M*A*S*H.” He has an Oscar, Grammys and he did the arrangements for Barbra Streisand’s latest album.

I’m crawling about as fast as a person walks, it’s 8:15 AM, and I hear this snippet of conversation between Mandell and the interviewer:

SUSAN STAMBERG: Johnny Mandel’s mother was an opera singer. He was just a little boy when she realized his unique musical gift.

Mr. JOHNNY MANDEL: Well, when I was, like, five or something, she discovered I had perfect pitch. And she’d go play a note, and I’d be in the next room or something and I’d call off the note.

STAMBERG: Perfect pitch can drive people crazy. Squeaky brakes, ambulance sirens all have identifiable notes. Johnny Mandel pays no attention, unless he’s asked.

Do you hear the crows?

Mr. MANDEL: Oh, there’s crows all over here.

STAMBERG: What note are they singing? You have perfect pitch.

(Soundbite of crows sing)

Mr. MANDEL: Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah.

(Soundbite of piano notes)

Mr. MANDEL: E-flat. That was a crow in E-flat. Is this going on NPR? I can’t say much for the future of radio if this is what we’re going to give them.

As if that wasn’t entertaining enough, Stamberg brings up Mandel’s collaboration with Robert Altman on “M*A*S*H”. 

STAMBERG: Movie director Robert Altman hired Johnny Mandel to score his 1970 satire “M*A*S*H.”

Mr. MANDEL: Altman and I are sitting around just by ourselves. It was the day before the beginning of shooting.

STAMBERG: The first scene up was a fake funeral. Altman said he needed a song for it.

Mr. MANDEL: And it should be the stupidest song ever written. I said, well, yeah. I can do stupid. He says, the song should be called “Suicide is Painless.”

STAMBERG: Altman takes a stab at writing the lyrics – not stupid enough.

Mr. MANDEL: He said, ah, but all is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who is a gibbering idiot. He’s got a guitar, and he’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.

STAMBERG: Johnny Mandel went home and wrote the melody, and the kid wrote the lyrics.

Mr. MANDEL: Michael Altman.

STAMBERG: Michael Altman.

Mr. MANDEL: Yeah. And it’s the only lyric he ever wrote.

STAMBERG: An actor recorded the song the next day.

(Soundbite of song, “Suicide is Painless”)

Mr. KEN PRYMUS (Actor): (as Private Seidman) (Singing) Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be. The pains that are withheld for me, I realize and I can see that suicide is painless.

STAMBERG: Robert Altman later said his kid made more than a million dollars from the song, whereas he, the director, just got 70,000. Then the movie became a TV series, now in rerun perpetuity. Lots of people got rich.

I guess I’m going to rent that movie now, since I’ve never seen it.


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