Updike: Music from Rabbit at Rest

John Updike
John Updike

Today is the birthday of one of my favourite writers, John Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009). Few have written so sensuously of love and sex – or anything else under the sun.

Here is Updike writing about one of my greatest loves – pop music from the Fifties and Sixties. This is from Rabbit at Rest. An ageing Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is listening to oldies but goldies on the radio as he drives through Florida. Here are also videos of some of the songs mentioned in the text.

Love Me Tender — Elvis Presley

Wayward Wind — Gogi Grant

Rambling Rose — Nat King Cole

Where the Boys Are — Connie Francis

In Florida, there is no trouble finding Golden Oldies stations on the car radio. We’re all oldies down here. The music of your life, some of the announcers like to call it, and it keeps tumbling in, Patti Page begging “Never let me gooooo, I love you soooooo,” and then doing so perkily that Latin-American bit with “Aye yi yi” and the caballeros, and finishing “I’ve waited all my life, to give you all my love, my heart belongs to you,” and then Tony Bennett or one of those other mooing Italians with “Be My Love,” speaking of all my love, and then Gogi Grant and “The Wayward Wind,” he hasn’t thought of Gogi Grant for ages, it’s a rare song that doesn’t light up some of his memory cells, while the landscape outside the car windows beyond the whoosh of the airconditioner gets more and more honkytonk – Flea World, Active Adult Living and car after car goes by with an orange Garfield stuck to the back window with paws that are suction cups. “Why you ramble, no one knows,” Nat “King” Cole singing “Rambling Rose,” ending so gently, “Why I want you, no one knows,” you can just about see that wise slow smile, and then “Tzena, Tzena,” he hasn’t heard that for years either, the music doesn’t come ethnic any more, and “Oh, My Papa,” speaking of ethnic, and Kay Starr really getting her back into “Wheel of Fortune,” all those hiccups, hard-driving, “Puleazzze let it be now,” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” that really goes back, he was walking to grade school then with Lottie Bingaman, in love with Margaret Schoelkopf, and Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” knock him all you want, before he got fat and druggy and spooked in the end he had a real voice, a beautiful voice, not like foghorn Sinatra, and then Ray Charles, now there’s another real voice, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “dreaming of yesterdayssss,” the way it trails off like that, that funny blind man’s waggle of the head, and Connie Francis, “Where the Boys Are,” a voice to freeze your scalp all right, but whose life are these songs? That was beachparty era, he was all married and separated and reconciled and working at Verity Press by then, no more parties for him. Ronnie Harrison and Ruth fucking all weekend at the Jersey Shore: that still rankles.
The station fades out and in trying to find another he passes through a broadcast church service, evangelical, a man shouting “Jesus knows! Jesus looks into your heart! Jesus sees the death in your heart!” and Harry passes on, coming upon, too late for all of the sobbing, Johnny Ray’s “Cry,” “If your sweetheart sends a letter of goodbye,” that was around the time he had to go into the Army and part from Mary Ann, he didn’t know it would be for good, they argued about Johnny Ray, Rabbit insisting the guy had to be a fruit to sing that way, and then down in Texas he realized the song was for him, his sweetheart sent a letter. Next number, Dean Martin comes on loafing through “That’s Amore”: by now Harry had come back and taken up with Janice, the quiet girl behind the nuts counter at Kroll’s, her little tight body, the challenge of her puzzled dark eyes, he remembers because he would joke, “That’s amore,” after they would fuck in the room Linda Hammacher would let them use, with its view of the dove-gray gas tanks by the river. “Only the Lonely,” the late Roy Orbison warbles. “There goes my baby, there goes my heart,” in that amazing voice that goes higher and higher till you think it must break like crystal, as in a way it did; Rabbit supposed his being dead is what makes this one a Golden Oldie.
The songs roll on, broken every half-hour by summaries of the news.

That’s Amore — Dean Martin

Only the Lonely — Roy Orbison

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