Mike and Jerry, with some guy from Tupelo

Mike and Jerry, with some guy from Tupelo

I just saw last night that Allmusic.com posted a playlist of their favorite Leiber/Stoller songs, which reminded me of how much I love the duo. I would in fact say they're my favorite popular songwriting team of all time. I didn't say they're the greatest - who am I to say? - but they are my favorite, and it's not even really close. "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," even "Stuck in the Middle with You" are all so indelibly part of our cultural lexicon that I can't imagine a world without them.

But as great as these songs are, they're just that: great pop songs. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller only once - to my knowledge, at least - ventured into a realm of narrative creation that transcended genre, transcended music, transcended time even: the magisterial "Is That All There Is?," made popular in the version sung/spoken by Peggy Lee.

I actually first heard the song as performed by Polly Jean Harvey from her album Dance Hall at Louse Point; this version is, in fact, to me the definitive one. The song's structure of various Important Life Events - one's house burning down, going to the circus, falling in love, dying - rendered in spoken deadpan with the jovially existential refrain, "Is That all there is, Is that all there is? If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing..." are equally perfect for PJ Harvey and for Peggy Lee, and for the countless wandering souls, myself included, who have found refuge for decades in its not-quite-despair.

It shouldn't be surprising that Jerry Leiber found his inspiration for the song in a short story, Thomas Mann's "Disillusionment." The narrator of the brief tale meets a curious stranger at the Piazza di San Marco in Venice and listens to him relate many of the same Important Life Events, marveling at the man's eccentricity. Leiber eliminated the middle man, relating the bitter disappointment of each MLE failing to meet up to her/his expectations in the first person and adding the wonderfully fuck-it-all refrain, and a song was born.

Recently Ivan Santiago-Mercado wrote a fairly comprehensive overview of the song's genesis for The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography and Videography (how's that for a clunky title?), which you can find here. But more importantly you should listen to the song, again and again, or for the first time.

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor