Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? must be one of the strangest hit records ever made.
Dan Daniels, Guy Lombardo and Tony Bennett all released versions of it, but none managed to match the success of Lee’s recording, which features orchestral arrangement by Randy Newman. Released in 1969, it was her first Top 40 US pop hit since Fever over a decade earlier. It reached number 11, but topped the adult contemporary Billboard charts and won her a Grammy for best female vocal performance.
Which isn’t bad for a song consisting of spoken word verses of utterly bleak, existential numbness…
I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?
Oh, no. Not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself,
Is that all there is?
Even stranger still is that it was penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting powerhouses best known for such poppy fizz as Elvis’s Hound Dog and the Coasters’ Yakety-Yak.
Is That All There Is? is directly inspired by an 1896 short story by Thomas Mann called Disillusionment, in which the narrator is accosted at an al fresco café in the Piazza di San Marco by what must be the most dreadful holiday bore in history: a man in a ‘stiff black hat’ who proceeds to explain that everything in his life thus far has been an existential disappointment.
There was a fire at night in my parents’ house, when I was hardly more than a child.. I discovered it first, and I remember that I went rushing through the house shouting over and over: ‘Fire, fire!’ I know exactly what I said and what feeling underlay the words, though at the time it could scarcely have come to the surface of my consciousness. ‘So this,’ I thought, ‘is a fire. This is what it is like to have the house on fire. Is this all there is to it?’…This fire was the first great event in my life. It left me defrauded of my hope of fearfulness.
So this insufferable partypooper goes on…
“I have roved the globe over, seen all the best-praised sights, all the works of art upon which have been lavished the most extravagant words. I have stood in front of these and said to myself: ‘It is beautiful. And yet — is that all? Is it no more beautiful than that?’
“Years ago I fell in love with a girl…But she loved me not, which was not surprising, and she.married another. What other experience can be so painful as this? What.tortures are greater than the dry agonies of baffled lust? Many a night I lay.wide-eyed and wakeful; yet my greatest torture resided in the thought: ‘So this.is the greatest pain we can suffer. Well, and what then — is this all?’
…and on, before signing off with:
“So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience — well, and what of it? What is it after all?’
“But it has grown cold here on the piazza, sir — that I can still feel – ha ha! I have the honour to bid you a very good night.”
Yeah, cheers mate.
You can read the full Mann story, translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter here.