The first half-dozen essays I wrote for my book on the human voice followed what friends might see as predictably tomboyish interests: war cries, football sportscasters, Marlon Brando. I enjoyed the explosive tone the collection was taking; I was conducting interviews with Elvis impersonators and Screamo singers and politicians who frequently used the word "assclown." I certainly didn't intend to make the patron saint of Let Me Clear My Throat
But five years later, here she is, waving from several dozen of the pages, butting into sections about German noise rockers and disaster movies. She even stars in her own long essay (on her legendary Carnegie Hall concert) at the core of the book. As if I totally planned on having Judy there the whole time. Like this whole burly project was put together just for her.
Judy originally showed up when I was researching an essay on the Wilhelm Scream, a mysterious sound effect that has been scored into hundreds of movies. At the time, I was making my way through films that featured Wilhelms — The Wild Bunch, Reservoir Dogs, Them! — and, according to IMDB, that list included Judy's 1954 remake of A Star Is Born. I don't think I'll ruin anything by telling you that the Wilhelm in A Star Is Born is a bit of a cop-out, hacked into a lesser musical number by some jokester sound guy. But hunting the Star Is Born scream did force me to look at Judy — and, more importantly, to listen to her — for the first time in ages.
Back in first grade, I wore out my taped-from-network-TV copy of Wizard of Oz; I still can't hear "Over the Rainbow" without the added warbles of our fritzing VCR. And in my babysitting years, I loved watching Mike Myers's Judy parody on SNL: smoking and tittering through a tuneless "Get Happy." But I grew up knowing very little of the singer who lived between these two points, between that maiden "Over the Rainbow" and the desiccated timbre of her final songs.
Long before the Wilhelm shows up, there is another scene in A Star Is Born where drunk James Mason follows Judy, whom he's only just met, to an after-hours joint. There, alone with her band and a barkeep, Judy sings "The Man That Got Away." The number has no dance moves or sweeping camerawork, just Judy milling between the piano bench and the trombone section, reading from sheet music. Before Cukor filmed it, Judy's vocal track was recorded in a raw and open setting to mimic this jam-session vibe, and that echoing recording is packed with giant, almost blindly forceful notes.
As Judy lip-syncs along (nobody in the business was better at lip-syncing), she opens her mouth way too wide for CinemaScope, so that it makes these nut-bag rhomboid shapes. Her hands punch upward and her finger joints clench into claws. She breathes deeply and sticks a talon into her bangs at one point, which makes her coif stick up like it was blown back by the wind of her lungs. Her performance is beyond brassy; it is ham-fisted, ballsy. Onscreen, it reads more Francis Bacon than Hollywood gloss job.
In a way, I was just like Mason's character; we both discovered Judy in that scene. We both had previously thought her a plucky little mezzo with a great complexion, but then we ducked into that joint and encountered such force coming from her little body, her rosy face, we thought, Women in Hollywood don't breathe like that. We thought, Singers around here don't sucker punch melody the way she does. It's a curious feeling to first see something so much smaller than you and then hear it make a sound 10 times that of what you're capable. And it's doubly strange to stand still in the face of such a sonic kabong.
When the camera finally cuts back to Mason, he has this look on his face like a Mack truck is barreling at him and he's fighting the urge to smooch it on the forehead. He takes her aside and says he feels like she's injured him. He's feeling, he says, "little jabs of pleasure, like when a swordfish takes the hook or when you watch a great fighter going in for the kill." He's got her by the upper arm the way men don't hold women anymore. She's a foot shorter than he is, but still he likens her to the champion boxer, to the matador.
And five years later, after I've watched A Star Is Born several more times and mainlined too many more hours of Judy to count — movies and doorstop biographies, the 26 episodes of her TV show, a summer of Judy at Carnegie Hall on repeat — I can pinpoint right there, in that song, why she lives in the heart of my loud-ass collection: because Mason and I are both bowled over by the impossibility of her lovely, messy, violent voice. If I've learned anything in making an entire book of essays about vocals, it is that the human voice, when at its best, is impossible.
It is impossible that a tiny person could sing to make a larger, more powerful person feel like a stuck bull. Impossible that a presidential candidate could let out a one-second scream so ugly that it loses him the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic nomination. Impossible that a dumb brute could yell "STELLA" outside his beaten woman's balcony and get her to come down for a kiss. Impossible that we would castrate our children so they could sing the highest notes to God in our churches. Impossible that a singer could enchant a sailor so that he maroons his ship on the rocks. Impossible that we would stick recordings of two dozen of Earth's best voices to the side of a space probe and launch it into the black.
And more than that, the voice's physiological existence is barely possible. We are not even supposed to sing, but we've rewired our bodies so that we can. The voice is a new function that not even Lucy the hominid could perform; we stole the components of the voice from the organs that help us breathe and digest food and keep our heads up on our shoulders. And we use the rest of ourselves — feet, stomach, cheeks, crown — to make that sound ring out in impossibly telling ways.
The impossibilities continue. Those of us who work to make a living off our voices push that gerrymandered organ to improbable extremes: we swell our lungs and reshape our diaphragms; we train our breath to move in reverse. And what's more, as any actor or politician will tell you, no training will ever alleviate the possibility that our voices will turn on us. They will go flat a measure before our final notes, or they'll crack just when we want to speak with dogged resolve, or they'll lose the sweetness when we sang on the yellow brick road with a dog in a basket, and we'll have to find a new way to sound. For the voice, as all performers know, is impossible to fully control.
A few scenes later in A Star Is Born, Judy buttons a scene with one of her classic gestures: laying her head onto Mason's chest and exhaling with a silent laugh. He puts his chin on her head and laughs too (he is louder here), wraps her in his arms, and rocks her further into his bear hug. And there, with Judy's sound muffled in her Mason blanket, it seems impossible that "The Man That Got Away" ever even happened. Who could imagine such a ball of vocal fire getting crushed in a lushy Brit's arms?
Just as quickly as Judy shook the frames of the celluloid with her sound, that sound disappeared lickety-split, now only a sigh into a man's lapel. And what's more, for those of us who only know "Over the Rainbow" or who didn't stumble upon A Star Is Born while chasing cult movie screams, that voice still doesn't exist. And that is the last impossible thing that kept me writing Let Me Clear My Throat: the fact that no voice, not even one as virile as Judy's, is ever solid enough to stay put in the cultural memory.