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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 52
Wed, Mar 20, 2013

“Nature Boy”
David Bowie and Massive Attack

2001
Massive Attack Logo

“♫ The
greatest
thing you’ll
ever learn/
is just to
love and
be loved in
return
♫”

Remember the song “Nature Boy” that David Bowie sang and Massive Attack remixed at the end of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to Moulin Rouge? What if I told you it was a Christ-like 1950’s hippie named Eden Ahbez originally penned the song that Nat King Cole would go on to make famous in 1948.

According to the article “Origin of Jazz Standard Nature Boy” by Mary Rayme, before Cole could record Ahbez’s song, his manager had to literally track Eden down as she explained, “In 1947, Ahbez gave the lyrics of “Nature Boy” to Nat King Cole’s manager and Cole began performing the song to audiences regularly and to great acclaim. Before Cole could release the song on record, Ahbez had to be tracked down so that proper rights could be attributed and paid. Allegedly, Ahbez was found living underneath the Hollywood sign.” Specifically Eden was staying under the “L,” kind of specific from such an eccentric man. Because of this media exposure and specifically when Cole’s rendition of “Nature Boy” shot up the charts, this instantly made Eden a Hollywood sensation.

“Nature Boy” was Eden’s reflection of his nomadic existence he and his Nature Boy’s actually lived in the middle of Hollywood. It wasn’t his lifestyle, the unusual arrangement lacking verses nor chorus that lamented on Ahbez. Eden apparently told his friend and last collaborator Joe Romersa, the only regret Ahbez had about “Nature Boy” was his most famous last line. Eden wishes he had amended the coda to read: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just to love and be loved.”

Most significantly, Rayme discovered why “Nature Boy” has resonated for song long in our American Music consciousness in her article when she wrote, “Why is “Nature Boy” so popular and resonating as a song even today? Maybe it’s because the older melodies in “Nature Boy” are planted in our collective unconscious; a classical tune and a folk tune are cobbled together to create something new that sounds old. The contemporary lyrics cement the song as successful. The emotional payoff of the song is that we don’t have cure cancer, leap tall buildings, or find a clean and perpetual energy source. We don’t have to find peace in the Middle East or find the Grand Unification Theory of the universe. We merely have to love and be loved to live life successfully. A simple and satisfying message, conveyed to us in a song sung by a child. Sigh.”

It must have been this vintage old age romanticism that lead Baz Luhrmann to incorporate Eden’s most famous couplet as Christian’s theme when he’s writing in the opening of Moulin Rouge: “♫ The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/ is just to love and be loved in return ♫” David Bowie took Eden’s eloquent lyrics and honored him with this post modern rendition made beautifully strange by Massive Attack’s trademark remixes. Robert “3D” Del Naja from Massive Attack talked about their collaboration with Bowie when he explained, “We met Baz when he was making ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Nellee (Hooper) did the music for the film. In late January, Baz phoned us up and said he’d met up with David Bowie in New York and mentioned that he’d asked us if we could do a track for the film. Bowie said that he’d love to work with us. We ‘d met Bowie about four years ago at a gig in Tel Aviv and got on really well so we thought OK, that makes it into a bit more of an interesting scenario.”
Bowie B w

Del Naja talked about details of recording “Nature Boy” with Bowie when he said, “The arrangement and the melody don’t give much room to experiment so David recorded his track in New York, sent it to us on disc and we built the whole track around his vocal. We had an initial chat but everything after that was done by email. He’s really into his technology so it was great to work with him in that way….Neil (Davidge) and me constructed the whole thing piece by piece. We just used the strings, some keyboard sounds and some strange little samples here and there. It was an experiment but it worked out really well; we just kept it simple and we’re really pleased with it.” Bowie himself, raved about his collaboration with Bristol’s Wild Bunch when he famously described their version as “slinky and mysterious” The Thin White Duke said, “3D’ has put together a riveting piece of work. I’m totally pleased with the end result.”
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Eden Ahbez’s life story is so amazing it should’ve been made into a film already. According to the L.A. Times, article by Burt Folkart, “In 1944 he took one of his poems and set it to music, although an East Coast publishing company said years later that he had lifted the melody from a Hebrew hymn. Ahbez’s brother-in-law, Al H. Jacobson, said the dispute was settled out of court and all rights to the song remained with Ahbez.” After turning his poem into “Nature Boy,” Eden’s story turned more interesting. “Legend has it that in 1948 Ahbez tried to show the song to Nat (King) Cole, who was appearing at a Los Angeles theater. Ahbez was refused permission to see the rising pianist and singer, so the frustrated composer–born in Brooklyn and the author of several other, lesser-known songs–left his score with a stagehand.
eden-ahbez-april-1948-giant-nature-boy-sheet-life-peter-stackpole

It could have ended right there. But because Eden’s words and melody were so distinctive and genius, Folkart wrote “The manuscript reached Cole within hours. He looked it over and started an immediate search for the composer that lasted two weeks.” Fifty years later, after Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra recorded hit singles of Eden’s song, “Nature Boy” was resurrected by David Bowie in Moulin Rouge. No offense to Luhrmann’s film but, Eden Ahbez’s story and the legend of a real life “Nature Boy” deserves to be immortalized on the silver screen.


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