Forgot password?
A music blog by Mark Nishimura

Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.

Ella the Knife

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

– Samuel Beckett

My wonderful friend Terri, who was a no-bullshit stage manager in the San Francisco theater scene, once told me an incident she witnessed at the famed EXIT Theatre on Eddy Street. An incident for which I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. An incident about every performer’s biggest fear – brain farting.

It was during the run of a low-budget musical at the EXIT. One night an actor walked on the stage for his big number, as he had done plenty of times before. But this night, once the music started and he opened his mouth, he felt the lyrics evaporate from his brain. By the second chorus, the words were lost. The actor stammered, stuttered, hummed, pranced, and used every “lala” in the book, hoping to kick the lyrics back in his head. But blasted, they were gone! He aggressively repeated the failing tactic. Now he was gone. The song finished, the torture was over, and he got the fuck off the stage.

He sat in the green room, shaking, sweating bullets, plotting a way to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. His fellow actors and the stagehands looked at him silently, as if he were a teenager who just blew the biggest prom date in history. Finally one actor, God bless his heart, sat down with him and told him this story:

In 1959, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and her band arrived on a Berlin stage close to the midnight hour, as part of a tiring tour of Europe. The band rolled through gorgeous versions of Cole Porter’s tunes and Gershwins’ ballads, and then Ella turned to the musicians and suggested on performing a song to give the German crowd something to cheer about – Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s classic “Mack the Knife.” Even though the song was a standard among popular singers, from Louie Armstrong to Bobby Darin, the Queen of Jazz herself never sang the song before.

“We’d like to try and do [‘Mack the Knife’] for you,” she told the audience. “We hope we remember all the words.” Right there, she was cursed. By the third verse, she began to lose the grasp of the words. By the fifth verse, she was completely lost. “Oh what’s the next chorus to this song now,” she sang, without losing the beat. “This is the one I don’t know.”

So Ella made up lines on the spot, did her best Satchmo impersonation, and threw in verses and verses of scats. “Now Ella and her fellas, we’re making a wreck … of ‘Mack the Knife,’” she went on to sing. The band finally crashed to a sloppy halt and the singer was left laughing her head off.

Well, fortunately that concert was recorded, and a year later Verve Records released “Ella in Berlin,” which included the complete screwed-up “Mack the Knife.” And Ella went on to win the Emmy Award for best vocalist for the song.

A great story, right? It was a truly kind gesture that actor did for his friend in need. And most importantly, thank God no one reminded the poor guy that … well … that Ella was an exception of the rule of fucking up. The First Lady of Song belonged in that very small group of artists who could fall off a tightrope and not only walk away unharmed, but win an award afterwards. Ah, we should all strive to be that good.

So when was the last time you wonderfully failed at something?

  1. Wonderfully failed;

    That’s an oxymoron I haven’t heard before~

    I hope to never come across it whilst on stage~

  2. I don’t know how wonderful these failures are, and I’m very blessed to have a memory that rapidly catalogs my failures in the back storage room, but I do have a couple of projects that I’ve done with my other business, Out Of Bounds, that give me chills (not in a good way) every time I think of them — the main one being a large format projection project we did for Skechers in London. Floporama. There was not enough alcohol at the party that night to cover up that minor disaster. Ouch.

  3. My whole life until I turned 40 something I felt was a failure. Now I realize there is no failure…just blessed experience.

  4. I’ve had a handful and they’re traumatic. No amount of explaining, justifying or excusing I try to deceive myself with will make them wonderful. The best I can come up with is to learn what there is to be learned and move on. Failure’s a blow to one’s confidence and self-esteem, don’t let it damage your soul.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Click here to login or join.