How one of America’s earliest hippies lived under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles while creating one of the most beautiful and iconic songs ever recorded.
Writers are a bit obsessive about getting to the bottom of a story. As often happens with me, words and images sometimes get tangled deep in my cranium with surprising results. It happened yesterday, as I watched the bizarre and childish behavior of President Trump in a televised conference with the president of Finland. Embarrassed by Trump’s rampage, I found myself uttering these song lyrics:
“There was a boy.
A very strange enchanted boy.”
I then became fixated on knowing the title of the song and the rest of the lyrics. Years ago, I heard Ewan McGregor sing the song in the film, Moulin Rouge. At least that is how I remembered it. Taking to the internet, I learned the song was called, “Nature Boy.” But the haunting song’s roots went much deeper.
The story goes that “Nature Boy” was first recorded by Capitol Records in 1947 by Nat King Cole. Then the record company had second thoughts, calling the song “wayward.” Perhaps it was due to the racial tension of the day. In any case, they shelved Cole’s version until the American Federation of Musicians got involved. What I have read is that pressure was put on Capitol Records during a lengthy dispute that essentially banned all instrumental recordings of the song. Caving to the pressure, Nat King Cole’s shelved version of “Nature Boy” was finally released in 1948 and made Cole a star.
But there is more. “Nature Boy” was written by a strange young man named eden ahbez (lower case intentional) who resided with his wife and young son under the first L in the famous Hollywood sign on the Los Angeles hill. ahbez was part of the Nature Boy movement, a precursor to the hippie movement. He believed the only words that deserved to be capitalized were God and Infinity, hence his insistence on referring to himself with lower case spelling. Dressing in white robes, wearing a beard and his blonde hair long, ahbez claims he fed himself and his family on $3.00 a day eating only vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jesus, abhez was a nature lover and spiritual man, as well as a talented musician and composer.
Scores of people have recorded the song since Cole, including David Bowie, Lady Gaga with Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and even Grace Slick. There is even a version of the song on YouTube that claims to be the voice of eden ahbez singing it himself, but it has not been verified. Oh, and the version in Moulin Rouge? Turns out it was sung by David Bowie, not Ewan McGregor.
My favorite lines in the song are its most poignant:
“The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
As relevant today as when it was first written. Maybe more so.