There was a boy / A very strange enchanted boy... A little shy / And sad of eye / But very wise was he
August 8, 2009 10:31 PM   Subscribe

In 1948, Nat King Cole had a hit with "Nature Boy," a haunting song that sounded wholly different from anything else on the radio. Cole came across the song in an unusual way: its sheet music had been left for Cole at the stage door of one of his performances. When he searched for its author, what he found was a hippie before hippies existed, a man named eden ahbez who was a long-haired wanderer living under the L in the Hollywood sign, and who wrote the song about his own life. Watch ahbez and Cole tell the story of how the song came to be (part 2).

There are all sorts of interesting things about ahbez (an LA Times article from 1977, recordings of messages, etc.) at this tribute website.
You can listen to more of ahbez's music here.
posted by ocherdraco (48 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Amazing, I've always loved that song and It was so damned weird for the time I figured it must have come from a musical or something.
posted by 2sheets at 10:50 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thank you for this. Incredible.
posted by anitanita at 10:54 PM on August 8, 2009

Song is nice, but I really want a checkered hat.
posted by Cranberry at 11:26 PM on August 8, 2009

Wow. I've wondered about this song for years, but never bothered to do more than wonder. Hurrah for long-haired freaky people! From ahbez to Ginsberg to the hippies right into today, they're still going strong. There's a lot to be said for learning the lessons of lightening the load and living simply upon the land. I wish I were better at it, but this damn iMac demands that I have a house to keep it in and electricity to feed it and once you've done that, well, there's a legion of other electronic pals to keep you company, and before you know it, you're surrounded by Babylon whether you meant that to happen or not.

But in my heart, I'm living under the L with ya!
posted by hippybear at 11:39 PM on August 8, 2009

Wow. I first heard this song on a Big Star album. Even then (or perhaps especially then?) the song had a strange, eerie feel about it. It was if the mood of the whole album just shifted immediately.

According to the LA Times article, "Nature Boy" was Nat King Cole's first hit record. Pretty incredible that his first big hit was such an odd, haunting song.
posted by Kronoss at 11:50 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow. I had no idea.

Reading that Wikipedia article, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to assume that he's the inspiration for R. Crumb's Mr. Natural.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:56 PM on August 8, 2009

Thanks so much for this. Some friends made me sing this song at their wedding, and when I was practicing it I was astounded at how wonderful and weird it was for a "pop" song. And then I heard the Tony Randall nonsense language version and was just amazed (for some reason, I can't find an online source for that; sorry). I love when something like this makes it into the mainstream.
posted by queensissy at 12:33 AM on August 9, 2009

Wonderful song and story.
Thank you.
posted by spacelux at 12:39 AM on August 9, 2009

Wait, which L?

Kidding. This song always gave me a weird chill. It's fitting that it should have such a fascinating origin.
posted by Mael Oui at 12:40 AM on August 9, 2009

From the Wikipedia article:
"He camped out below the first L in the Hollywood Sign above Los Angeles..."
posted by zoinks at 1:28 AM on August 9, 2009

I found an even more detailed biography of eden ahbez here.
posted by granted at 2:42 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just clued into the fact that Nature Boy is that perfect bittersweet song from the intro and closing of my favorite film of this decade, Moulin Rouge - - thanx (yet again) MeFi!
posted by fairmettle at 3:04 AM on August 9, 2009

wow, this is a totally fantastic post. thank you!
posted by lapolla at 3:43 AM on August 9, 2009

Great post, thanks.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:50 AM on August 9, 2009

There's no accounting for the WWII years? Hmmm.
posted by Hammond Rye at 6:31 AM on August 9, 2009

Damn hippies. But seriously, what an interesting guy. I particularly like this quote:

"Some white people Hate black people, and some white people Love black people, Some black people Hate white people, and some black people Love white people. So you see it's not an issue of black and white, it's an issue of Lovers and Haters."
posted by JeffK at 6:40 AM on August 9, 2009

Wonderful post. Such an interesting story.

A short talk with Ahbe (eden ahbez) Nature Boy.
posted by nickyskye at 6:51 AM on August 9, 2009

Good post, ocherdraco. Here is my favorite version. Check out extremely cool guitarist Oscar Moore.

From Wikipedia: Ahbez also faced legal action from Yiddish musical composer Herman Yablokoff,[4] who claimed that the melody to "Nature Boy" came from one of his songs, "Shvayg mayn harts" ("Be Still My Heart"). The action was settled out of court.

Quote: "I look crazy but I'm not. And the funny thing is, that other people don't look crazy, but they are."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:07 AM on August 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I actually have that 'Eden's Island' album -- kind of forgot all about it, but I guess I'll pull it out today and give it a spin. I remember it being both weird in a good way, and good in a weird way.
posted by spilon at 7:31 AM on August 9, 2009

As a high school student (1969) I first heard this being done by Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane fame) and the Great Society on some odd ball early hippie album. It seemed like a total hippie sone, and I was shocked when my parents knew the song already.
posted by cccorlew at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2009

I also have Eden's Island, and love it. Somebody describes it as being like Jack Kerouac did an exotica album, and I concur. I love the song "Mongoose" on it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:07 AM on August 9, 2009

Yeah, Eden's Island is fantastic. I think there's a 320k copy floating around on music blogs or something.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:23 AM on August 9, 2009

First time I ran into this song was the Lisa Ekdahl version - I'm delighted to learn it has such an interesting history.
posted by rodgerd at 8:28 AM on August 9, 2009

live version
posted by Eideteker at 8:29 AM on August 9, 2009

Some white people Hate black people, and some white people Love black people, Some black people Hate white people, and some black people Love white people.

I look crazy but I'm not. And the funny thing is, that other people don't look crazy, but they are.

both weird in a good way, and good in a weird way

This thread is like Chiasmus Central.

(Also, wow, what a fascinating story that I wouldn't have known if not for this post. This is why I love MetaFilter!)
posted by moss at 8:35 AM on August 9, 2009

"His name is eden ahbez and he's bringing his bicycle onto our Gulf Oil stage right now."

"Well, um, heh, ahbez, you don't seem to have much use for money..."

posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:46 AM on August 9, 2009

THANK YOU! I sing this song with kind of an Afro Cuban arrangement sometimes and didn't know the background. I *love* having good background stories to tell the audience about how a song came to be. It just really opens up the story. It just makes it so much easier to sell lyrics with depth when you have insights about the real people who lived and inspired the words.

One of my favorite stories about a song is Good Morning Heartache. A young guy wrote it for a girl he had a crush on who married someone else. Then he got married, and they saw each other a few times afterwards but one was always unavailable. Proverbial ships passing in the night. Then many decades later ran into each other and both were widowed... they were married as senior citizens and spent their last years together. I saw a picture of them in People Magazine in the 90s... they were sitting on their bed as he gave her flowers, and they looked like the happiest, most adorably in love people I've ever seen. In their 90s now, they're both still alive and happily married. He still writes songs and they still go out on the town together almost every night.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:48 AM on August 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wait, which L? (Mael Oui)

I couldn't remember which L when I was writing the post, so I chose not to specify.

posted by ocherdraco at 8:57 AM on August 9, 2009

I first encountered him on RE/Search's Incredibly Strange Music Vol II but never knew about his fascinating story! It's nice to know he carved out such a unique life during a repressive era, and lived long enough to see some of the world changed by philosophies like his...
posted by kuppajava at 9:04 AM on August 9, 2009

Oh great, now I won't be able to get Nature Boy out of my mind. Which is not a bad thing. (And I just wrote the best Freudian slip when I first typed "nat a bad thing.")

I can't remember if I've ever analyzed the melody/ harmony of that song. Of course, the wonderful paradox I came to appreciate in my music-student years was -- no matter how much music theory you applied to a great work, it never really explains why music does what it does to you.
posted by NorthernLite at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2009

Oh wow miss lynnster, reading the happy ending story of Good Morning Heartache (one of my favorite songs) you linked I realized Ervin Drake wrote it. I've met Ervin a number of times here in NYC, had Christmas dinner with him after he did his hilarious schtick at The Player's Club. He's also such a character. Other songs he wrote, like the one sung by Frank Sinatra, "It was a Very Good Year".
posted by nickyskye at 9:17 AM on August 9, 2009

Obligatory link to the greatest version ever. That's Jo Stafford singing.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:48 AM on August 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

FelliniBlank, that's fantastic.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:02 AM on August 9, 2009

Jo Stafford!!!! I love her and have never heard that. *Mind blown*
posted by miss lynnster at 11:27 AM on August 9, 2009

After thinking about it... there's one thing I'm left wondering. How does one go about composing and practicing music on piano when your two main abodes are Central Park and under a bridge in Griffith Park? Portable keyboards weren't exactly an option back then...
posted by miss lynnster at 11:34 AM on August 9, 2009

According to this, he "arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 and began playing piano at the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Blvd. The cafe was owned by John and Vera Richter, German immigrants who followed a "naturmensch" and "lebensreform" philosophy, influenced by the Wandervogel movement in Germany. Their followers, known as "Nature Boys," wore long hair and beards, and ate only raw fruits and vegetables."
posted by ocherdraco at 11:36 AM on August 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have loved that song for at least 30 years and knew about Ahbez but it's so nice to see that more info has been made available about him! Thanks for this outstanding post, ocherdraco!
posted by Lynsey at 12:41 PM on August 9, 2009

I put this song on one of the Mefi CD swap disks I made. Nobody said much about liking it then.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 1:00 PM on August 9, 2009

Nickyskye, I just googled for a performance of "It Was A Very Good Year" and ended up with this. What is seen, it cannot be unseen.
posted by mek at 1:33 PM on August 9, 2009

Wow. I was introduced to this song by Leonard Nimoy and just presumed it was one of his Spockier compositions. Like a more reflective Highly Illogical.

Then again, I've been repeatedly suprised the last few years how many times I've discovered that these Nimoy songs are actually covers. His Nimoy/Spock confusion has spilled over into my awareness of American music quite heavily. Damn ahbez's pointy ears.
posted by davemee at 1:36 PM on August 9, 2009

Slamming post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:30 PM on August 9, 2009

I briefly knew Nat, back when my friend Bob Newhart and I were trying to get into the business here in Chicago. What Nat never reported was the off-beat key arrangements touched the vagabond inside his well-planned, well-styled attire. He admitted his nightclub persona was for the white audiences who at the time were threatened by any hint of non-conformity in that comfortably conformist age. Of course -- nothing's wrong with the comfort of conformity when the age is conforming to YOU....
posted by TheJacksonOne at 8:24 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

TheJacksonONe: Come on! It's your first post ever on the Blue, and you drop the dual bomb that you met Nat King Cole and you were friends with Bob Newhart?

Details, man! Details!
posted by hippybear at 4:21 PM on August 10, 2009

Well, Bob and I grew up together on the westside of Chicago in the 50s. Both wanted to be writers. I got to be a commercial writer; Bob got to be a legend! When I met Nat in Chicago, I was doing an interview for our college newspaper. Backstage, performers are often relaxed enough to drop the act, and he was comfortable enough to do that. Just another reminder how performers have to work very hard at being who they want you to see. Cary Grant is the perfect example. He created a persona every guy wanted to be -- even Cary. Bob on the other hand is exactly what you see. Mr average who's become legendary by being Mr average. He once told me: I don't say funny things, I just see the world in funny ways...
posted by TheJacksonOne at 9:21 AM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Fantastic post! I, too, loved the song from Moulin Rouge, but appreciate the fascinating tale behind it. Thanks!
posted by graventy at 9:10 AM on August 12, 2009

holy shit I can't believe I only just discovered this fpp. This song is the song of my youth. My mother used to sing it to me as a lullaby, and this (along with most of Cole's catalog) was by far the most played song in my house. I've known the lyrics by heart since before my earliest memory. I never knew this story. Thank you so much for the fpp.
posted by shmegegge at 1:08 PM on August 12, 2009

How cool! I was thinking about how well this would work as a lullaby the other day, and I'm delighted to know someone actually used it as one.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:33 PM on August 12, 2009

Well, here's a thought from someone who was there...we too thought it was a fresh haunting new sound...actually not too many ever followed up using the same intriguing kinds of chords...but in point of musical fact, this song and the songs of Frankie Lane and Johnny Ray all began nudging the musical world out of the sounds and lyrics of the 30 and 40s which in time would help open the door for the revolution of rock...but then nothing is really a revolution in this life, but more an evolution....and so it was with guys like Nat and Frankie and Johnny lo these many generations ago....they all played Chicago and those of my generation were there to see it all...kinda nice!
posted by TheJacksonOne at 6:44 PM on August 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

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