This is a marvellous piece from “Musician Magazine” from May 1997, where Paddy was asked by Bill DeMain to describe his “greatest song ever”.
Stardust is a glorious song. There’s a wistful, faded charm about the melody and a slightly ramshackle, meandering construction which Paddy describes perfectly. I guess many of us will have heard it first in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”, where it tints the whole film in delicious melancholy. There are some good versions of it on Youtube, Louis Armstrong’s is excellent, and there’s a great instrumental Hoagy Carmichael version – I prefer it without words personally. But for the sake of this post, I’ve chosen a Hoagy Carmichael vocal performance, so set it playing and read what Paddy says about it.
I always pair this mentally with Duke Ellington’s arrangement of “Chloe” incidentally, which is a similar sort of thing and worth looking for if you don’t know it.
But over to Paddy.
Part of what amazes me is the longevity of the thing. I think that’s important to establishing the greatness of any song. Then, its openness to interpretation. Apart from Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, God knows how many cover versions there have been of it. Everyone’s had a go. There’s also something in it that appeals to me greatly and that is its oddness of shape. You could pick, for example, any Richard Rodgers tune, or for that matter any Gershwin tune, and find in the way it’s shaped, a sort of perfection there. “Some Enchanted Evening” or one of those classics – you have a very tidy little song, universal and describing the perfect moment. I kind of like the untidiness of “Stardust.” Maybe the lyric rambles because the tune rambles. It’s a silly word to use trying to establish its greatness, but it’s asymmetrical. You’re not quite sure what the verse is, you’re not quite sure what the chorus is, and maybe I’m describing more the peculiarity of my mind than the quality of the song. But I like the fact that it’s an eccentric song. It seems to ramble, but it’s too smart for that. But at the same time, it does ramble. It’s not eight bars of perfection – that measured elegance of so many standards. It doesn’t really have that. The lyric basically does sound like it’s trying to find words to describe what the actual melody does, because the melody wanders all over the place. In all the songs I’ve written, many of them have odd shapes for sure, but I’ve never ever consciously emulated “Stardust.”
I’m thinking of things you can aspire to as a songwriter and things that would be valued as important now. For example, any song from the modern era, written since about 1960, would probably have some kind of message that it was trying to tell you, or it would have a lyric that was instructive or informative. And “Stardust” doesn’t have that. It’s so old-fashioned that it evades the kind of good intentions that too many songwriters have now, I feel. It was written at a time when that wasn’t important, and people didn’t go to songs for that. Maybe its ambitions lyrically are much more sentimental, but I think that that’s part of its strength. It’s hard to pull off. Maybe you can’t do that now, I don’t know. Maybe you can’t be quite that whimsical as if you’re describing a reverie.
It’s also not an easy song to sing. You have to think about it, and it’s that paradox of it having lasted so long yet being quite complex in its way. And how do you describe the rhythm of it? It’s a kind of gentle dance number, but it reminds me of something like “Clair De Lune,” where you think the melody is so stretched out that it sounds like a classical piece. It has that about it, but at the same it lends itself to a jazz band.
I have no idea when I first heard it, but whenever it was, I’m sure it didn’t make an impression that was, “Oh, that is so memorable,” and I went around whistling bits of it for days. It has nothing to do with that. In fact, I think I became most conscious of the song because it was one of my father’s favorite songs. Yet when he mentioned the name to me, I didn’t recall it. In the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories, it’s either at the beginning or the end as the signature theme, and I remember thinking then, “Boy what a strange, strange song.” I thought, “Where are we in this?” Then my kid brother bought the sheet music to it and he used to play it over and over, and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I’m not absolutely sure what comes next. That in a way contradicts the normal thing you will say about a great song, which is that it has an inevitability. I guess I’ve kind of defined it by the things it doesn’t do (laughs), but I think it’s the greatest.