Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” opens and closes Mad Men’s mid-premiere of its final season, and it’s the perfect anthem for the talented but self-destructive alcoholic, 40-something Don Draper. I was ahead of Don. It was the perfect anthem for budding alcoholic me when I was five in 1973.
That’s when I saw Miss Lee singing it on some variety show. I stood on the shag carpeting of my family’s living room in small-town Texas mesmerized. She stood in a white fog on the Zenith TV screen, like a glamorous ghost in a platinum-blonde Cleopatra wig wearing about 200 yards of white, diaphanous chiffon and blue-tinted sunglasses, lenses the size of my little head. She had a black dot on her right cheek, just like Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke.
The haunting, fatalistic song had me hooked from the first verse. Even though it was a very grown up song, it wasn’t that odd that it spoke to my five-year-old gay mind. It was a story song, after all.
In “Is That All There Is?” she assumes a louche, seen-it-all demeanor, and in a whispery purr of a voice as if she is singing only to you in bed, she sings verse after verse about a life of tragedy and disappointments, and when her father takes her to the circus, she describes it with an ironic wink in her voice as “Greatest show on earth.”
Her voice rises at the end in a question, so that you can almost hear her ask “Right?” But she doesn’t say it, it’s implied. Her bored assessment of the spectacle of clowns, and dancing bears, and pretty ladies in pink tights? “I had the feeling that something was missing. I don’t know what.” Her little girl, pragmatic answer to that disappointment: Let’s keep dancing… break out the booze, and have a ball.
Wow! That’s my kind of little girl.
Like a gay Don Draper, I escaped the sticks and landed in New York City in 1990 where I chased the Mad Men lifestyle long after the Mad Men era had ended but long before the term had become a beautiful cliché. I wasn’t in advertising in the 1960s. I was in the publishing world in the 1990s — less glamour and less money, but the same amount of sex and liquor. While I broke out the booze and had a ball, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” followed me wherever I went like ghostly cigarette smoke in a bar.
On one of those break-out-the-booze nights in 1996 at four a.m. — when it was all still fun, but the ice was just beginning to melt — I found myself in my Manhattan brownstone apartment with my best friend, Mr. Parker, playing “Is That All There Is?” over and over and over.
Mr. Parker chimed in with a bray, “My God, that song is brilliant! She’s brilliant! You know, most people think of this as the ultimate downer song. I don’t. Conversely, I think it’s a celebration of the spectacle of life in all its joy and tragedy.”
“Well, she does say that she’s not ready for that ‘final disappointment.'”
“Oh! ‘That final disappointment.’ What a brilliant line. It’s a total alkie song!”
We took gulps of drinks and marinated in the meaning of the song as we let Peggy finish it uninterrupted. In the final verse she says that as fatalistic as her outlook may appear, she’s not going to end it all, and when that “final disappointment” comes she’ll face it, like she has faced the rest of life. She re-phrases the song’s question as a statement that she’ll keep dancing and drinking, “If that’s all.” Pause. “There.” Pause “Is.” Followed by a final vamp and bump bump of the tuba.
We sat in silence and drank, staring ahead.
Then Mr. Parker looked at me with a spark in his glassy eyes. “You know, I have her number.”
“What do you mean you have her number?” I asked incredulously.
“I mean to say that I have her phone number. Right here in my wallet. A friend of mine managed to get it from some hospital she was in. You know she’s always in and out of the hospital.”
“Oh, I know. I read her autobiography,” I said with pride. “She described more ailments and near-death experiences than… than Elizabeth Taylor.”
Mr. Parker pulled out her number and waved it at me.
“Give me that!” Fueled with liquor courage I picked up the cordless phone and dialed.
Ring. Ring. Ri–
“Hello,” a young-sounding woman answered.
“Hi. May I speak to Peggy.”
“Who’s calling, please?”
“Okay. Hold on.”
Hold. Hold. I’m hold for Miss Peggy Lee.
And then: “Hello? This is Peggy.”
“Hi Peggy. This is Jamie.”
“No. It’s Jamie Brickhouse. I’m a huge fan of yours. I met you back stage at one of your New York concerts,” I lied. I never was lucky enough to see her perform. “Peggy, I missed you at Carnegie Hall last year and I’m still sick about it. Do you have any upcoming New York dates?”
“No. Ever since the fall I can’t even get out of bed…” Her words seemed to sink into what I imagined was a cumulus, king-sized cloud of a bed where she was nestled in a quilted, white satin bed jacket, a princess phone cradled between shoulder and ear. She let her words lie there for a beat. And then with a twinkle in her voice she said, “But I’ve still got the voice.” I could almost feel her breath in my ear.
“Yes, Peggy, you’ve still got the voice.” I mouthed “Oh. My. God,” to Mr. Parker. “Am I catching you at a bad time?”
“No? What are you doing?” Her voice was so sexy, the question could have been, “What are you wearing?”
“I’m sitting here in New York with my best friend. Drunk. We’ve been listening to ‘Is That All There Is.’ Peggy, I can’t tell you how many drunken nights you’ve gotten me through with that song.”
“Well,” breath, “I guess my life was worth living.”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. After that, I didn’t need to.
“I guess my life was worth living.” What did she mean by that? Was it a sarcastic slap in my face that if she got some lush through another drunken night, then perhaps her purpose on earth was fulfilled, or was she truly acknowledging my reverence for her and the song, meaning that if she could move people so profoundly as she had me, then her life had meaning? I suspect she meant a bit of both.
I thought about the life I had been living in the six years I’d been in New York. This was long before I finally got sober or even thought I needed to get sober. I was living the kind of life I’d always fantasized about back in Texas: the charming Brownstone New York apartment, a career working with writers, a boyfriend (with some boys on the side), and a recirculating waterfall of booze and parties and more booze.
Greatest show on earth. Right?
But at the end of all those parties, after the last guest had gone, I’d always stay up for just. One. More. I’d survey the mess of the party and sit there listening to Peggy as I replayed what had become of my life. The people showed up. We broke out the booze. We had a ball. And then it was over.
I felt like Peggy at the circus. Or Don Draper in 1970. I had the feeling that something was missing. And I didn’t know what.
This essay is adapted from Jamie Brickhouse’s memoir Dangerous When Wet.
Gay Voices – The Huffington Post