But What About the Lesbian Song, Mr. Humperdinck?
by Jim Knipfel
Then a few years ago something weird started happening. Robert Goulet starts appearing on Letterman regularly, singing goofy songs. Tom Jones has a hit single doing a Prince cover with some disco band. Tony Bennet suddenly becomes popular with the young people. All three of them make appearances on The Simpsons. Pat Boone releases In a Metal Mood, with covers of "Stairway to Heaven," "Panama," "Smoke on the Water" and other Christian favorites. Cheap marketing strategies? Of course-I mean, most of the core audience for the Vegas-happy crooners is dying off. Some new blood needs to be pumped into sagging record sales. How to do it? Make aging crooners appeal to the youth market somehow. And how to do that?
Well, one way-apart from those mentioned above-is to have one of them, oh, Engelbert Humperdinck, say, record the title track to the new Beavis and Butt-Head album, "Fly High, Lesbian Seagull."
Less than a year ago, Humperdinck released a very calm, smooth album of Muzakal standards, Love Unchained. Slow, easy-listening, inoffensive versions of "Secret Love," "Unchained Melody," "Love Me Tender" and the like. But at the same time, he appears on the album cover astride a Harley and wearing a leather jacket. Something was definitely brewing in that sculpted head of his.
All of that's just a standard theoretical gimme. The real question I was asking myself as I sat in the Gershwin East Room of the Regha Royal (SP) Hotel on 54th St., cane in one hand, wine in the other, tie around my neck, was "How the hell do I get myself into these things?" I mean, I like the crooners, sure. I like the crooners more than I like the rock'n'roll, lord knows. Just give me Ed Ames singing "Who Will Answer?" or "My Cup Runneth Over," and I'm as close to happy as I'm likely to get. But somehow, over the years, I keep finding myself trapped in small cocktail parties with these people. Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka, and now Engelbert (he dropped the "Humperdinck" somewhere along the road). I don't know why this is.
The Gershwin Room, up on the 53rd or 54th floor, is very...pink. A little oval hardwood dance floor in the middle, maybe 15 or 20 small tables on the carpeted area around it, windows all around, two monster, mirrored pillars in the middle of the room, put there, apparently, just to confuse me.
While I sat there wondering how I get myself into these things, I took a look around at the other folks who might well've been asking themselves the same question. There weren't too many people there waiting to see Engelbert. I was told that it was going to be a "very small, very select group," and I'll be damned if the person who did the selecting didn't have a sense of humor.
There was a rasta kid two tables away, two tables full of 70's fashion throwbacks (one group was in on the joke, one obviously wasn't), lots of fat, greasy and loud Hollywood and Vegas types, record industry "people," some college radio geeks in baseball caps and goatees. And me, all blind, foolish and confused. It was all very odd. Christ Almighty, I didn't even know what the hell this was all about. I was just told to show up at this place, at this time, and that Engelbert would be there. Big fucking deal. Might just as well tell me to stand on the corner of 49th and 6th to watch him drive by in a cab. Was it all just some kind of big, music-industry practical joke, to see how much people would put up with just for the chance to see goddamn Engelbert Humperdinck?
But, still, I was given a free copy of his new musical record, After Dark (which played on an endless loop, quietly, throughout the banquet room), and the guys with the food trays kept making the rounds, offering me little niblets of things I would never eat anyplace else. And the wine was free.
At the table next to mine, one of the fat Hollywood types introduced the woman next to him to a new arrival: "She's in the movies! She's a producer! And she's good-looking to boot!" Sometimes all we can do in this dark life is cringe.
Out of nowhere, the large fellow sitting at my table leaned over towards me.
"Let me ask you-forgive the interruption-but were you personally affected by the announcement about life on Mars?"
I hadn't heard about it at the time-I mean, there was a phone call at work, but I thought it was just some kook, so I hung up on him. I asked this guy what the deal was, not caring much.
"Microbes," he said.
"Well," I thought about it a second, going back to his initial question, "I suppose I'll be personally affected if they turn out to be evil microbes that band together, take on human shape and then enslave us all."
"Oh, don't flatter yourself," the British woman who was with him said. I wasn't quite sure what that meant or who these people were. Probably Martian microbe-people.
Before I could begin testing their humanness too much, the man of the hour (or hour and a half, which is about how long I'd been waiting) appeared. When Mr. Engelbert walked in with his handlers, the population of the room seemed to double. He stopped at one table and was introduced around. Stopped at the next table, was introduced around. Skipped my table. Stopped at the next table, was introduced around. I might've felt a little snubbed, but somehow this didn't offend me. My time would come. As he stood shaking hands at the table next to mine, I took inventory: thick glasses, hearing aid, apparent dentures with an overbite. There was some question about the veracity of his hair too. Mr. Engelbert, it seemed, was falling to pieces.
But that's all right. The King was falling to pieces too, but He still sang like an angel till the very end.
After he finished making the rounds, a comedian named Stu, who "opens every show for Engelbert," stood up and told some vaguely racy jokes, then some bad New York jokes. The crowd laughed and clapped. I dunno. I've always felt that comedians, by their very nature, were just a bad idea. When he finally introduced Engelbert and left, someone snapped on the Karaoke machine and the crooner went to it, singing his new single. As he sang, he wandered about the oval dance floor, followed by a battalion of photographers, flashing away. It seemed a little unnecessary.
When that was over, he started to introduce another song, but someone turned the Karaoke machine on too soon, so he had to cut it short and start singing again. Pleasant little songs. And no one's gonna say that Mr. Engelbert Humperdinck can't carry a tune, by God!
After that one was done, he introduced his daughter, Sarah Dorsey, who was wearing a skirt that was, dear me, simply much too short for her. Then the two of them started singing a duet that appears on his new record.
I'm sorry, but the whole "father/daughter love song" routine has always disturbed me some, ever since Frank and Nancy Sinatra did "Something Stupid" all those years ago. It's just damned creepy.
When they were done, he thanked us all for coming, told us to have a good time, then went and sat down. Not one word about lesbian seagulls.
I chatted with the aliens for a few more minutes, then picked up my dragon's head cane, said, "Well, that's it. I'm going to go over there and beat him to death!" and hobbled away slowly.
I found Engelbert's table in a far corner of the room, found where he was sitting, and stood behind him until one of his handlers pointed me out. He stood up out of his chair, and we shook hands. Very soft and dry hand, faint whiff of cologne. A suit that would've cost me two years' pay.
"Jim Knipfel, NYPress," I said, pretending like I was some kind of real journalist. "Just one question for you."
He nodded and waited.
"So ... what the hell's the deal with Beavis and Butt-Head?"
"They called and asked me to do a song, and I said yes."
"Uh-huh. Good. Well, given your audience and all, are you happy singing--"
"I mean, a song called 'Fly High, Lesbian Seagull'?"
"Yes, very happy."
"Well, that's just fine then. Can you give me a few lyrics?"
"Yes, I've got the lyrics."
"Well, what are they?"
"I've got the lyrics." (I forgot about the hearing aid, together with the fact that I tend to mumble into my chest when I'm talking to people. I let it slide.)
"We'll be done with it in just a couple weeks," he said. "I guess they needed a romantic love song."
"Well, I guess you're just the man to do it."
I figured that with his entourage around, he wasn't going to break down and confess that it was just a cheap promotional scam to try and grab hold of the youth dollars. He didn't really seem like a Beavis and Butt-Head kind of a fellow. He certainly was very pleasant though. Can't deny that.
We shook hands again. I wished him luck with his new album and hobbled away into the night, unable to remember anything about any of the songs he'd sung not 20 minutes earlier.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.
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