Every once in a rare while you get a perfect pairing. Like when Steve Martin sits down with David Letterman. We feel we’re watching old friends luxuriate in rich memories and inside jokes, a bemused volley between wizened raconteurs with nothing left to prove.
The journalistic version might be Gay Talese, the 79 year-old granddaddy of narrative nonfiction, chronicling a landmark recording session by the 85 year-old Tony Bennett, whom Elton John recently pronounced “the single most important figure in music history.”
“High Notes,” Talese’s New Yorker piece about Bennett — less a profile than a hit-by-hit chronicle of Bennett’s recent recording session with the 25 year-old pop star Lady Gaga — is classic Talese, so pitch-perfect and obsessively detailed that Bennett and Gaga seem to practically rise up off the page. Though ess lyrical than his landmark 1965 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” the Bennett piece can be read as a sort of rat-pack coda to the Sinatra piece. (No, Bennett was not part of the rat pack, though he should’ve been.)
Midway through the story, as Bennett is warming up to a duet of “The Lady is Tramp” with Lady Gaga, Talese writes:
But before he had completed his second run-through of the tune, his attention was drawn to the sounds of a crowd of newly arrived people — who, having exited the freight elevator, had proceeded down a hall in the direction of the control room, led by Lady Gaga, a slender young woman with aquamarine bobbed hair. She wore dark glasses, a long black lace gown that you could see through, and, over it, a sleeveless black leather motorcycle jacket, unzipped, with studs on the lapels. A silver buckle dangled from a belt that flapped along her right thigh as she ran gleefully toward Bennett.
“Hello, Tony!” she called out, her arms extended.
“Oh, great!” he exclaimed, stepping down from the platform to embrace her as she removed her dark glasses, revealing a small scimitar-shaped stroke of eyeliner beside each of her eyes, extending back toward the temple, resembling a couple of anchovies…
“I love the way you wrap that skirt,” Bennett said finally. “It’s gorgeous.”
“I thought I’d give a little twist for you, Tony,” she said.
Bennett was eager to tell her a story. “I’ve got to tell you that when my wife and I exercise we look out our window at a synagogue right across the street.” He said that some men were working hard erecting a scaffolding there. “And then I noticed that, on the side of their truck, in big letters, the word ‘Gaga’ was painted!”
“Working so hard!” she exclaimed, and laughed…then she asked some questions, such as “Do we both use the same mike? (no, there was one for each singer) and “Should I use headphones?” [Bennett’s son] explained that his father did not want headphones, after which she turned to Bennett and said, “I love that you don’t want them.”