“When I was young, I dreamed of a boy searching for God. Now I am old, and I dream of God searching for a boy.”
The focus of yesterday’s Jazz Is, the vocal standard “Nature Boy,” was written by eden ahbez. This is not like saying written by Johnny Mercer or Jimmy Van Heusen. ahbez is not of the that world or tradition and remains an unlikely source of a jazz standard. I am not going to provide much in the way of biographical material because you will read some essentials from sources below, but when the complete unknown showed up at a Hollywood nightclub in 1948 to press his original song – music (a story for another day) and lyrics – on Nat King Cole, he looked like this.
As a teen hippie in the late 1960s, with hair, beard, and dress very similar to what you see of ahbez here, I recall vividly what even then was the outraged and repulsed response of so many around me, even in New York City – one reason our own name for ourselves was not hippie, but “freak.” It challenges the imagination to think of what the daily reaction was to ahbez circa 1948. This is a superficial consideration other than to point out how out, and historically ahead, of time ahbez was, though this fascinating blog about ahbez (who characteristically preferred his assumed name in lower case) offers access to information about both beat and hippie roots in “the emergence of primitivism, naturopathic medicine and eco consciousness as it traveled from 19th Century Germany to the West Coast of the United States between WWI and WWII.”
My real interest today is in what we make of life like ahbez’, both in its radical unconventionality and in the way it flirted for so long around the line between an insistent and unfathomable private self and minor celebrity, with the machine that manufactures the latter seeming to bestow on a life the light of significance – of a “star.” There are many photos of ahbez on the web and even videos. One of the latter is of an eccentric appearance he made on early television. Another, controversially, is of an encounter with him on the street when he was already quite old, in the 1990s. The disturbing essence of the latter is the no doubt innocent and admiring desire of the interviewer to capture the extraordinary in ahbez and how it conflicts – even in the presence of the video on YouTube – with ahbez’ gentle and perceptive, if spacey, disinclination to be reduced to a curiosity unreflective of his complexity as a single human being.
The first biographical excerpts below were written by someone who did not know ahbez, who appears to hold no animus toward him, but for whom ahbez’s exceptional life and personality are obviously, and maybe appropriately, skeptically, superficially oddball.
Eden Ahbez was one of the authentic fringe figures in space age pop, a one-shot wonder so dramatically different from anyone else that he became, perhaps, a greater legend than his accomplishments justify. Born a good Jewish boy in Brooklyn, he ended up cultivating a Christ-like appearance and reputation among the fruits and nuts of sunny southern California.
Just what brought him from Brooklyn in 1908 to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s awaits a better biographer’s investigation. He claimed to have been raised in an orphanage, and have crossed the U.S. on foot eight times by the age of 35. He settled in L.A., married a woman named Anna Jacobsen, slept with her in a sleeping bag in Griffith Park, claimed to survive as a vegetarian on three dollars a week, and stood on street corners in Hollywood lecturing on various Oriental forms of mysticism.
He emerged to public attention around 1948, when Nat King Cole recorded his song, “Nature Boy,” that told a fantasy of a “strange enchanted boy” “who wandered very far” only to learn that “the greatest gift” “was just to love and be loved in return.” Having no job and no fixed residence, he had plenty of time to hang around places like the Lincoln Theater, where he accosted Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, insisting that Cole look at the soiled, rolled-up manuscript of “Nature Boy.”
Cole and Capitol didn’t know what to make of the song, so they sat on the record for months. Meanwhile, word-of-mouth about the tune began to grow from Cole’s live performances, and eventually Cole realized the record should be released. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to secure the rights to the song, and Ruby went off on a hunt to locate Ahbez. Legend has it that he found Ahbez and his wife camped out below the first “L” in the “HOLLYWOOD” sign. It turned out that Ahbez had given a half dozen people different shares of the publishing rights, and he ended up with virtually nothing. (After Cole died, his wife eventually gave the rights in toto back to Ahbez.)
Capitol released the tune as a “B” side, but when it first played on WNEW in New York, the station was bombarded by calls, and “Nature Boy” quickly became Capitol’s #1 single. Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Sarah Vaughan, and others rushed out cover versions, with the Petrillo recording ban looming just days away.
Ahbez was a legend in Hollywood for his unusual life style. Even after he and Jacobsen had a son, they kept on living out under the stars, with not much more than a bicycle, their sleeping bags, and a juicer to their name. The story may be apochryphal, but it’s said that once, when Ahbez was being hassled by a cop who assumed from his wild appearance that he deserved to be hauled off to a mental institution, he remarked calmly, “I look crazy, but I’m not. And the funny thing is, that other people don’t look crazy, but they are.” The cop thought it over and responded, “You know bud, you’re right. If anybody gives you any trouble, let me know.”
Although Ahbez (or “ahbez,” as he insisted in being called, holding that capital letters should be reserved for the divine) later had another tune, “Land of Love,” recorded by Cole, he faded back onto the street corners until 1960, when Del-Fi Records boss Bob Keane brought him into the studio to record Eden’s Island. For this album, Ahbez recited his poetry/songs in front of a pseudo-Martin Denny jungle exoticaarrangement. Mickey McGowan has described this album as sounding like “Martin Denny had gotten together with Jack Kerouac” (if Kerouac had become a hermit instead of a beat, that is).
Ahbez popped up in a few different places during the 1960s, most prominently with Brian Wilson somewhere in the days before the legendary Pet Sounds and Smile albums were recorded. He cut another album,Echoes from Nature Boy, similar to Eden’s Island, putting his poems in musical settings, which was released posthumously. Ironically, he died in 1995 after being hit by a car.
Now here is a an already old account of ahbez, but already long after his notoriety, from the Los Angeles Times Calendar section in 1977, by a writer who was his sister-in-law.
(Here is a link to another blog, rich with material, by someone else who knew and revered ahbez.)