10 No-Skip Albums: 2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe
This is either you're type of music or it ain't.
2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe is a concept album released by Barry Manilow in 1984. At the time, it was drastic departure from his slickly polished pop and soft rock. He says the idea came to him in a dream. He wanted to create an entire album of torch songs employing the kind of jazz that would spill from a basement dive. Manilow collected tunes from an array of accomplished songwriters and arranged them to fit the style of the album. When I first listened to it, I knew I loved it, but I didn't want to make a big deal about it. To tout the virtues of a jazz concept album by Barry Manilow as a junior high school didn't sound like something that would thrust me into the upper eschelon of popularity.
But, I did love it and I still do.
I grew up in a household that listened to everything from traditional country to mainstream pop, from soft rock like The Carpenters and Neil Diamond to the hard rock of AC/DC and Molly Hatchett. I learned to appreciate a variety of musical styles or at least individual songs within a genre. So it was Barry Manilow. I listened to him as often as I did Styx or Queen. 2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe introduced me to music I didn't know and artists with whom I was unfamiliar. Manilow recruited jazz legends like Sarah Vaughn, Gerry Mulligan, and Mel Torme to assist on the album. After listening to this album, I actively sought out those artists and others like them so I could learn more about this style of music.
The first track, "Paradise Cafe," perfectly sets the tone of the whole album. Imagine it's after midnight and you've been wandering around the city streets trying to make sense of life and love. You saunter into a basement dive where they "hide the world away." This song sounds like good whiskey tastes. Smooth and warm. The lyrics tell of a place where you can drown your sorrows and heal your wounded spirit.
The room is kinda smoky
The phone ain't workin'
The same old broken keys don't play
But no one seems to mind it
'cause someone's buyin'
And we'll all get through one more day
The albums tracks all blend together, with the end of one easing into the next with a brief interlude. The song following "Paradise Cafe" is "Where Have You Gone?," a lament of lost love. It's a perfect segue from the c'mon-in-and-have-a-few vibe into that first drink after the barkeep asks, "what'll you have?" and you tell him or her your story over a strong one. The video below is the two songs as they appear on the album, so you can hear the transitional piece.
Most of the songs are in the vein of "Where Have You Gone?" "Say No More," "Blue," "Goodbye, My Love," "When Love Is Gone," and "I've Never Been So Low on Love" are all tales of heartache and longing. Of these, "Blue" is a standout because of the vocal work of Sarah Vaughn. Sultry and cool. I also particularly enjoy "I've Never Been So Low on Love" is the kind of song perfect for driving around late at night in high school when your heart hurts and you just can't figure out why your crush doesn't feel the same way about you. Not that I ever did that. Just a hypothetical application. So, just to reiterate, I never drove around Poplar Bluff, MO, in a 1972 Pontiac Catalina smoking a Swisher Sweet and listening to "I've Never Been So Low on Love" after midnight because some girl didn't like me. Now, that we've cleared that up...
"What Am I Doing Here?" and "Big City Blues" are more playful, even though the former still riffs on heartache. To me, it plays like a darkly comic monologue about not being able to move on. The latter is a duet between Manilow and Mel Torme and I picture it being the kind of thing from an old school TV variety special. Barry Manilow is at the piano and plinking out a tune when Mel Torme walks up and Manilow's like, "hey, Mel Torme!" and they talk for a bit and decide it would be cool to sing a song together. When I was a freshman in college, I used to listen to his song on my Sony Walkman while walking around Cape Giradeau, MO, when I was in the mood to brood. I'd grab a pack of cigarettes purchased for the previous evening's party and fire up my Brooding Mix cassette which included "Big City Blues" and just walk and brood and think and journal. Good times.
By far my favorite song on the album, though, is "When October Goes." a song composed in part from lyrics written by Johnny Mercer, co-founder of Capitol Records. In fact, the original concept for the album was a collection of previously unrecorded Mercer songs. Mercer's widow, Ginger, passed along several songs to Manilow because Mercer was such a fan. In the end, the only song recorded for 2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe was "When October Goes." The song works for me on two levels. First, it's a straightforward song about love and loss. Second, it's a meditation on the passage of time and growing old together while recognize how fleeting life can be.
And when October goes, the same old dream appears
And you are in my ar.ms to share the happy years
I turn my head away to hide the helpless tears
Oh, how I hate to see October go.
I'm 52 years old as of this writing. I'm a grandpa now and will celebrate 30 years of marriage with my wife in November. After October goes. If I estimate that I have 25 years of life left, then I'm in the autumn of my existence. This is my October. This doesn't have to bring sadness, but it's hard not to fill a twinge of melancholy. I laugh when I think of that brooding college freshman walking around Cape Girardeau with the weight of the world on his shoulders. I'd go back and tell him all that brooding isn't necessary without some resulting action. You've sulked about existence, now what?
I listen to "When October Goes" every November 1st. It's a great song for that time of year. The chill of the coming winter is creeping in. The days are shorter. But, there is still so much beauty. I only have so many Octobers and Novembers left. When this October goes, I'll think of my life with Sandy and its accompanying ups and downs. I'll think of our grandson August and smile. Then, as the song says, I'll turn my ahead away and hide the helpless tears as I wish I could slow time down.