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Obscured By Clouds: Eden Ahbez

“There was a boy; a very strange enchanted boy”

This is the opening line of a song called Nature Boy. It is possibly the strangest hit records of all time – strange in both composition and history.

It was written in the 1940’s by a self-styled student of Oriental mysticism named Eden Ahbez. Eden was an unusual presence in 1940’s post-war/cold war America. He had long hair passed his shoulders and wore robes. He lived outdoors under the stars. Decades later he would have been called a hippy or a beatnik but this was 1949 and there were no hippies or beatniks. It was all crew cuts and plaid. It was a short, back and sides and 9-5 job world and Eden was from a different land entirely.

Eden traveled to Hollywood hobo style on freight trains. He came to find a home for a song he had written. Over a melancholy Jewish melody Nature Boy told the tale of an enchanted boy that lived at one with nature and preached the merits of unconditional love. By luck or design Eden found a place for his song when he came across Nat King Cole’s manager Mort Ruby. Eden insisted that Mort show Cole his manuscript – all creased and soiled from living out doors. Amazingly enough Mort did so and Cole liked what he saw and added it to his repertoire. Favorable audience response quickly convinced them to record it.

In order to release the song Mr. Cole and his management first had to find the mysterious Eden Ahbez and get his ok. Unfortunately he had disappeared. After much searching they eventually found him and his family living beneath the first ‘L’ in the ‘HOLLYWOOD’ sign.

The song captured the hearts of the nation and stayed in the charts for fifteen weeks peaking at number one where it stayed for eight. The song became a standard and was covered by all the big names of the day. It’s mysterious, moving and evocative melancholy continued to inspire cover version throughout the decades that followed. Miles Davis and John Coltrane both did fantastic versions in the 60s as did Leonard Nemoy and noted exotica/space aged bachelor pad bandleader Esquivel. The 60s psych rockers took it to their hearts as well with great versions by Grace Slick & The Great Society and Gandalf (complete with acid rock guitar solo!). Big Star covered it in the 70s as did Jamaican jazz legend Lennie Hibbert. NZ’s own Fake Purr did a great version live in the late 90s. More recently David Bowie’s version featured prominently in the film Moulin Rouge. There is a whole fan website devoted to David’s version.

I have 14 different versions sitting in my iTunes and while they all sounds markedly different in their approach they all share an evocative other worldly mood that is utterly unique to this song. Old vinyl versions sound even better with the crackling of the grooves adding to the mystic atmosphere.

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