Dead Set Favourites: Thoughts On A Final Playlist


Music is a very important part of most people’s lives so why shouldn’t the same be true in death? How many times have we attended funerals and known, without ever saying so, that the music played was wholly inappropriate for the life being mourned?

When it comes to choosing such musical interludes, sandwiched between oratory and final farewells, the deceased’s family generally have far more pressing concerns than making sure the song-list is appropriate. Amazing Grace for a committed rock’n’roll fan? Nearer My God To Thee for a card-carrying atheist?

So, just for the record, and to hopefully kick off an awareness campaign for well-organised music-lovers everywhere, the Top Five songs I want played at my funeral. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I’d prefer a Top 100 list but it may see the service extend a little long and people may run out of nice things to say, if indeed anybody does, before too long.

These Foolish Things – Bryan Ferry

Written in 1936 with music by Jack Strachey and lyrics by Eric Maschwitz under his pen name Holt Marvell. Maschwitz, who also wrote the lyrics for A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, was one of the more interesting figures of British musical theatre. Aside from a long list of musicals and revues, he also worked in Hollywood, co-writing the adaptation of the 1939 film, Goodbye Mr Chips, for which he won an Academy Award nomination, and during World War II worked with MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

He is reputed to have been involved with actress Anna May Wong and These Foolish Things was an attempt to assuage his grief over the end of their romance (Maschwitz was also later married to Hermione Gingold and had a long relationship with Judy Campbell, the mother of Jane Birkin.)

The song appeared in a London revue, Spread It Abroad, to little interest in 1936 but became a hit when it was recorded by Leslie Hutchinson. Since then, it’s been notably covered by such performers as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Bryan Ferry nailed it so beautifully, creating a heartachingly coruscating rendition of loss and yearning that so many of us can identify with, on his first solo album in 1973.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbSp_xEa3PI&ob=av2n

Beyond The Sea – Bobby Darin

Its origins go back to a French song, Le Mer, written by Charles Trenet in 1946; American songwriter Jack Lawrence, also responsible for Frank Sinatra’s first hit, All Or Nothing At All, composed entirely new lyrics and it became an international sensation for Bobby Darin in 1959. This is pure swingin’ Bobby, a wonderful evocation of a time before he tossed aside Sandra Dee and a particularly hideous hairpiece and remade himself as a politically-relevant folksinger.

Actor Kevin Spacey did a great version of Beyond The Sea in his 2004 Bobby Darin bio-pic of the same name. I’ve included two YouTube clips. The first comes from a 1960 Ed Sullivan Show which shows Bobby unsuccessfully wrestling with his lip-synching responsibilities. The second is Kevin Spacey’s performance from the movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_4_XI8flZU&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbcjW9SQabc

April Sun In Cuba – Dragon

There had to be an Australian song but I’m ashamed to admit I was quite the snob in the 70s and avoided home-grown music like the plague. It’s only in recent years that I’ve discovered so much good stuff. So it was a choice between Khe Sanh, in my humble opinion the best Australian rock song ever written (take a bow, Don Walker) and April Sun In Cuba (written by Paul Hewson and Marc Hunter). The latter wins out only because I had a grudging respect for Dragon back then and it perfectly encompasses the late 70s summers spent at Tamarama, when I’d head to the beach in August and not come back until March.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHFFuukk9Y8

Disco Inferno – The Trammps

I worked in a Sydney disco in the late 70s and still love music of this period, when orchestrations were lush and lustily energetic, before disco fell victim to the plague of the synthesizer. I have many favourite disco songs but some, such as I Will Survive, are not quite befitting a funeral. Of course, Disco Inferno is not exactly a safe choice but it’s always been my all-time favourite so bugger propriety. Read into this choice what you will.

Disco Inferno was written by Leroy Green and Ron Kersey; Kersey was a member of The Trammps and also worked with such other Philadelphia disco groups as the Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB. It was a huge club hit in 1976 but gained wider popularity when an 11-minute version was included on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. I hope the mourners will perform the Bus Stop around the casket when this plays.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_sY2rjxq6M

Theme from The Love Boat – Jack Jones

Lyrics by Paul Williams. That’s all you really need to know. Paul is one of my favourite songwriters, an all-round nice guy and gentleman and the subject of a future blog or three. I had the joy of meeting him when I was writing the liner notes for a CD retrospective of his work, Songs For The Family Of Man: A Collection 1969-1979, and it’s the one instance I can recall where it pays to meet one of your musical heroes.

Timeless television entertainment of the very best kind, The Love Boat originally aired from 1977 to 1986. As fans of Gopher, Doc and Captain Stubbing will already know, Jack Jones recorded two versions during its run, the best with a sensuously pulsing disco influence. In the final season, Jones was replaced by Dionne Warwick. The song has also been covered by such artists as Charo and Amanda Lear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmUlKPthrag&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLB9F82C79012435FF

Words © David Latta. Photographs courtesy of the Glenn A. Baker Archives.

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Nancy Wake – Bravery, Bullets and Bouillabaisse


Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.

Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire.

One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and the vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.

Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.

Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.

She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.

By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.

By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.

What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.

Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.

She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.

She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.

When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.

Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.

I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.

Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.

The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.

They don’t make dames like that anymore.

Words  © David Latta