033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by on Oct 11, 2018 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists |

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With female singers, that can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A while back I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and restraint, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to [written before The Real Group’s magical treatment]; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the poignant to the maudlin, from the sublime to the grotesque. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’



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Dec 30, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I don’t know where you dig these wonderful people up from Jeff.
I wonder how many other wonderful musos there are out there that are waiting for me to discover them.
Thanks again

Recruiting Animal
Jun 10, 2013 at 12:12 am

This is a far better song than the other Jimmy Webb songs you mentioned. They’re all mediocre. This one is very good.

I really liked Linda Ronstadt’s version when I first heard it. Toneff’s doesn’t do anything special for me. Love the one by Haden and Metheny. I heard that before, too. Haven’t listened to the others you suggested.

Here’s Linda doing it live – she comes on at the 10 minute mark – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWJTqVrYaHo (there’s a shorter clip of this on YouTube but the sound is terrible).

Oct 21, 2013 at 11:22 pm

I actually stumbled, then tottered, and then nearly fell over when I first alighted upon the ethereal, and most beautiful version of “Nature Boy”. Hitherto I had not heard of this artist. It was a revelation, alongside with the impressionistic and poetic touch of the terribly talented accompanist, Steve Dobrogosz (think I got it right- more complicated a name than the lovely singer my friend!). It was due to a reply comment on the Tube that I learned of her final demise. I then alighted upon your site. I have found your comments most instructive. Thanks, and hope to keep in touch. All the best

Marcus D
Dec 18, 2013 at 2:43 am

I can truly relate to your own experience Jeff when it comes to Radka.
When I was 18 years old and working at a café, one of my co-workers played a tape with Radka’s Fairytales album. Although I heard the songs within background noise and without being fully attentive, I sensed something special.
A few days later, I asked my colleague if I could borrow the tape.
I spent basically that entire night listening to her songs, overtaken by the emotions, the precision and the expression of her voice.
During every night that summer, I continued to listen to her songs.
Now thirty years later, I am still moved by her songs and I listen to them from time to time but less frequently.
I also learned recently that her father was (is?) Bulgarian and my new girlfriend is from Bulgaria. So for this christmas, I am going to give her the album as a christmas gift and see her reaction when listening to her voice.
My affair with Radka is thus the longest one I have had…. 🙂

Dec 18, 2013 at 6:55 am

Thanks for sharing, Marcus. Yeah, sometimes music is better than life.

Joseph Rivais
Oct 12, 2018 at 3:23 pm

Give a listen to American actor/singer Tom Wopat’s version of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Let me know what you think. I think he does a great version.

Oct 12, 2018 at 6:24 pm

Yeah Jimmy Webb does no one any favors when he insists on performing his own stuff. He’s good but nowhere near as good as the best of his work.

And his work is uneven, too. Some really sublime and original stuff but like a lot of people in the arts it’s like he had some wonderful things to say and he said most of them early in his career. A lot of his later work does not have spark IMO.

My favorite favorite Jimmy Webb is The 5th Dimension’s The Magic Garden. It is an actual song cycle, unlike Sergeant Pepper, and while released a little later than Pepper surely was in the hopper at the time the Beatles were working on their “concept album”.

I listened to this a lot when it came out, my freshman year in college. I did not make a big deal of this fact since I was faintly embarrassed to be listening to something as obviously throwbacky as Webb’s pop tunes. At the time it was all about raw authenticity. This did not sit well with that album’s use of studio musicians, its employment of the showy 5th Dimension and its goopy use of strings with allusions to Richard Strauss. It was not Cream, Hendrix or Zappa. But I soldiered on and now, much later, I realize I may well have listened to this album more than any other.

And yeah he can go off the rails with lyrics as he did with the cake in the rain thing. Still some of his oddness comes from a real place. I think he said one time that the thing about the cake in the rain really happened in the failed love affair at the heart of the song, and that animates the song cycle in The Magic Garden. Like the lyric in Orange Air, where he observes how hard he kisses Susan through a screen door. Must have happened.

I remember kissing her that sad last night through the screen so hard I had a checkered mouth and nose
She sold out so quickly that before I knew what hit me she was laughing with the others at my funny clothes
A long silent summer
It didn’t matter
Who cut my hair or
Who was my hatter

Nov 24, 2018 at 6:02 pm

Nice! Thanks.

David S Kennedy
Oct 25, 2019 at 3:32 pm

I don’t think you’ve ever felt anything. There is beauty in imperfection.
Sadness is not a perfect Nordic singer.

David S Kennedy
Oct 25, 2019 at 3:38 pm

Most of the singers you mentioned sound beautiful but are boring…including Jimmy Webb. They all sing it the same way including your Radka.
Most of them miss the phrasing….the ratt ta tatt tatt of anger, the soft volume of sadness, the speed of happy. You miss it to.



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