ARTS / Lives of the great songs: When the pink bubble bursts: Over the Rainbow: On the surface it's pure innocence. But there's more to Judy Garland's theme tune than lemon drops. In the eighth part of our series, Mary Harron tells its story

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The Independent Culture
TEN YEARS ago, Jerry Lee Lewis played the Wembley Country Music Festival. He flew in shrouded in scandal. Drugs and alcohol had left him with a quarter of his stomach, the US government was pursuing him for tax evasion, he had shot his bass player in a fit of pique, and there had been the mysterious death of his fourth wife (not to be confused with the mysterious death of his third wife). He seemed to be riding out his own damnation. Jerry Lee probably wouldn't show, and if he did he'd do only country music, as it pleased him to frustrate his fans by refusing them his greatest hits.

He did turn up, and it was the greatest live performance I ever saw. It was not so much a revival as a resurrection of the spirit that made audiences in the Fifties tear theatres apart. For an hour or so he pulverised the audience with incandescent rock'n'roll. Then he sat back at the piano and muttered a few words at us in his incomprehensible Louisiana swamp drawl. His hand fluttered moodily, absent-mindedly over the keys, and he began to sing:

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly

They're flying high over that old rainbow . . .

I wonder why, oh Lord, why can't I?

It was understated, delicate even, and electrifyingly sinister. It was as menacing as the black clouds that hover over Dorothy's farmhouse in The Wizard of Oz: the lyrics, with their candycoloured visions, were shown to be full of latent evil. (Only in concert, by the way. The studio version doesn't come close.) There was deep irony, but also regret, as if Jerry Lee were the serpent in the Garden of Eden, longing for a paradise that his presence had destroyed.

Naturally, he customised the lyric:

Somewhere over the rainbow,

Way up high

You know there's a land old Jerry dreamed of,

Once in a lullaby.

He knew how well the song played into his mythic past, the astonishing early stardom, the vertiginous fall, and a life spent lurching from one violent tragedy to another. 'Over the Rainbow' became a testament to his own bewilderment at all the things that had slipped from his grasp. (And being Jerry Lee, there was a ripple of evil amusement running through it.) The song had a history he could work with. It already belonged to Judy Garland, Judy the abused child star, with her drink and drugs, her showbusiness martyrdom. Jerry Lee simply let his myth resonate against hers.

The memory of that night is superimposed with another, 15 years earlier, when my parents took me to one of Judy Garland's last shows. Teetering like a bird on frail little legs, body bloated with alcohol, she was in her mid-forties but seemed 60. When the time came to sing 'Over the Rainbow', she sat down by the footlights and, unable to make the high notes, wryly made the audience sing along. It was said that those last performances were ambulance chases, that people came to see Judy Garland fail, but to me it was charming and heroic.

'Over the Rainbow' is not my favourite song, although Harold Arlen's music is lovely; but no other has such has a strange psychic pull. I first heard it, of course, in The Wizard of Oz, but I forget when: the movie runs through childhood like the letters in a stick of rock, one Christmas viewing blurring into another.

In the beginning, it was only a song for children. The story of The Wizard of Oz was an American classic that MGM hoped could rival the screen success of Snow White, filmed two years earlier in 1937. They wanted Jerome Kern to write the tunes, but he wasn't available, so they asked Harold Arlen, who had written 'Stormy Weather' and would go on to write the music for A Star is Born. The lyricist was E Y (Yip) Harburg, who'd done 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime' and 'April in Paris'. In David Shipman's excellent biography of Judy Garland (The Secret Life of an American Legend, Hyperion, 1992), Harburg says:

'Judy was an unusual child with an ability to project a song and a voice that penetrated your insides . . . She was the most unusual voice in the first half of this century . . . Judy Garland was to singing what Gershwin was to music. They brought a quality and vitality that was typically and uniquely American.'

The early story is filled with near-misses. MGM nearly cast Shirley Temple as Dorothy, hideous thought. Once the film was made, the first previews suggested it was too long. Louis B Mayer thought the answer was to drop 'Over the Rainbow': if a producer called Arthur Freed hadn't talked him out of it, the most famous song in motion pictures would have ended up on the cutting-room floor.

In 1939, the song won an Academy Award. Within a few months, the war was giving those yearning lyrics a whole new meaning. The song's transformation had begun.

Even in 1939, it had undercurrents. Dorothy sings it at the start of the film, when her happy home is disrupted because her neighbour wants to destroy her pet dog, and her beloved aunt and uncle agree. She wants to go over the rainbow because her own world is no longer a sanctuary: childhood is over, paradise is lost.

But Judy Garland was not a child when she sang the song. She was 16, with her bust rigidly corseted to make her look younger. Sung by an adolescent, the song reveals a hidden psychodrama of sexual fear and unease: 'Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.'

The society that produced this sweet confection was sleazy and corrupt. Perhaps that's why the movie's vision of paradise was so kitsch, with its candy colours and artificial flowers: an innocence that parodies itself.

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops . . .

Like a photograph in a darkroom tray, the campness in 'Over the Rainbow' revealed itself slowly. It was a natural favourite among the friends of Dorothy. Drag queens emoted to it, Liberace took it to Las Vegas. The song's appeal lay in Garland's tragic glamour: the irony that the little gingham-clad farm girl had actually spent her childhood on a movie set, fed a steady diet of amphetamines so she could work longer hours. Camp is a winking acknowledgement of the deceptions that lie beneath the surface, and The Wizard of Oz is camp to us because we know now what the real Hollywood - so corrupt, so sexualised - was like.

The best recent commentary on 'Over the Rainbow' is in a movie where the song is never played. Almost 50 years after The Wizard of Oz, David Lynch made Blue Velvet with a heroine named Dorothy. Instead of ruby slippers, she wore red high heels. (The part of Jerry Lee Lewis was played by Dennis Hopper.) Lynch, who is from the mid-west, is obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. Early drafts of the script of Blue Velvet are sprinkled with references to it, and there were more in his next film, Wild at Heart, which ends with the Good Witch Glinda descending in a bright pink bubble.

Lynch was giving us The Wizard of Oz for adults only. He showed how Hollywood kitsch had permeated our dreams. We absorbed its brilliant blue skies and picket fences, and they became our emblems of security, but at the same time we took in Hollywood's unease. We sensed that there was something darker, some web of guilty secrets, beneath the too bright surface. The Wizard of Oz teaches us disillusion: there is a wicked witch at the end of the yellow brick road, and the wizard is a fake.

The level of irony in 'Over the Rainbow' depends on how the singer feels about paradise. In the original, Garland's tone is deep and mature but she has the clarity and freshness of a child. In 1960 when she recorded the song again (Judy Garland: The London Sessions, Capitol) the childlike lyrics were delivered with hopeless melancholy. It had become a lament for her own life. As her biographer writes, 'the song no longer belonged to Dorothy; it belonged, forever, to Judy Garland'.

Because it deals with innocence and experience, dream and disillusion, 'Over the Rainbow' seems capable of infinite adaptations. A few years ago a male falsetto version stormed the gay clubs of New York; it could be taken first as a triumphant anthem of sexual liberation and later as a requiem for Aids. The song can be high camp or showbusiness melodrama or delicate jazz. It has been recorded by Basie and Brubeck, Sinatra and Fitzgerald, Max Bygraves, Richard Clayderman, Patti Labelle, Melissa Manchester, John Martyn and Willie Nelson. But only one version I know rivals Garland's. It's by Aretha Franklin, and was part of her very first recording session (The Great Aretha Franklin, The First Twelve Sides, Atlantic). She was 18: like Garland, a teenager who combined youthful exuberance with the power and technique of a mature woman. Her delivery was elegant and truthful, with a simple jazz backdrop and no stylistic excesses, just a voice brimming with feeling. Only in the last verse did she let fly with gospel emotion. The best versions of 'Over the Rainbow' come from extremes. You have to be very young or very disappointed to do this song justice.

To hear 'Over the Rainbow', tune into Radio 2 (88-91 FM) at 9.05-10.30am today, when John Sachs will play two of the versions discussed here.

'Lives of the Great Songs' returns for a second run of eight weeks in October.

(Photograph omitted)