There’s something strongly aesthetic in Rufus Wainwright’s appeal, one that goes beyond physical beauty. It’s there in his voice, his melodies, his considerable artistic ambitions and range of endeavor, even in his occasionally playful sense of fashion. I think that is one of the reasons why I chose this is as followup to the Bluebirds Fly and Hallelujan slideshows. Certainly and underlying theme of that was the potential transcendance of art and even the artist in that he or she can continue creating minor (or even major) epiphanies in people’s lives long after they are gone. This one, sticking fairly closely to the song’s narrative, looks more at art’s role in our more personal, private lives, even in those parts of ourselves that we never reveal to anyone. The main liberty it takes is the way it plays with subject and object, so that Rufus is sometimes the desiring subject (the young girl who narrates the song in memory), and at other times the desired object: The Art Teacher. Hope you like it (the audio is Rufus’ performance on Tiny Desk Concert).
I was somewhat taken aback when my when–after watching the slideshow–my psychologist suggested that it felt so personal because it was, and that the woman narrator’s memory of the art teacher paralleled my own with an important person in my life. After a moment’s reflection, I realized he was right, so this one’s for Gordon, and Rufus, of course.
To some extent, this video/slideshow is a product on my anticipating getting to see Rufus (and possibly even meet him) at the Northern Stars event at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles this Sunday. I actually had another slideshow ready to go, which I quite like, on “The Art Teacher,” but it is more or less set in New York. In other words, it was not Canadian enough. Bluebirds Fly, my last slideshow has gotten a good deal of positive response, and I suspect one of the keys to its success was its sense of place in that it is very much set in Montreal.
Certainly Rufus’ interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of his most successful and famous covers, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it until I ran into Choir! Choir Choir!’s version on YouTube (a highly successful video on just about every level, by the way). This 2016 performance was part of the Illuminato festival in Toronto, a festival which has been going on since 2007, and that Rufus has been involved in at least 3 or 4 times, according to the Luminato Wikipedia page. I have been to Toronto three or four times, but never for this festival, which I now would really like to attend, possibly in 2018. I quickly found some terrific images from the festival, and I had the idea of interweaving slideshows with the video (not exactly a mashup, but certainly a heavily edited version of the original). Thus the verses are mostly slideshows portraying details described in the song, often illustrated with evocative images from the festival, and sometimes with pictures of Rufus (who I sort of re-conceptualize as David), while the choruses are mostly from the original video (the most difficult part was getting the audio to synch properly). Almost half of this passage2truth edit is simply the Choir! Choir! Choir! performance with Rufus (which is pretty terrific), I keep the original end credits, and try to make clear that I am only responsible for the inserted slideshows and the edits (in other words, where film clips begin and end). I think it may have even more impact than the original, but I am probably too close to it to judge. In any event, I hope you like it or–if nothing else–it will inspire you to go see the original uncut (or at least not by me) video on YouTube (it’s got almost six million views). In a way I can’t quite explain (other than it being the Toronto-centric counterpart to the Montreal-centered slideshow from last week), it does seem like a natural extension of the feelings first explored in Bluebirds Fly.
This is kind of an extended sequel to my “Epistle to Dippy” diary and slideshow, and you’ll notice a few of the same photos (most obviously those of the Maharishi, Donovan, and The Beatles, but also of Donovan and Hendrix). My original thought was to make a slideshow that at least aspired to be a kind of pure aesthetic experience, a series of beautiful images set to Donovan’s incredibly catchy chorus and Hendrix’s brilliant guitar riffs, all framed by a rather vague Atlantis narrative (which I have never the taken that seriously, except as a kind of fable in Plato’s Timaeus). I think it ended up being rather more than that–almost the audio-visual equivalent of a metaphysical poem, although there are some fairly clear themes (the trascendence of art, the desire for escape from the horrors of the world, and of course transformation) running through it. The very conscious way it interweaves what we might call the oceanic and the cosmic is my attempt (I hope partly successful) to bring some very disparate things in relation to one another and at least point towards (although not really explain) some kind of ultimate meaning (I’m sort of playing with Boethian and neoPlatonic ideas, but not in any kind of rigorous way). However, if you just want to appreciate it as a kind of trippy music video, that’s okay too, and that really was pretty close to my original intention anyway.
The Donovan audio track is from what must be the introduction to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The track cuts out rather abruptly because a voice over comes in telling you who is going to be on the show that night (if you listen carefully, you can just hear the announcer say the beginning of Mort Sahl’s name, who obviously got top billing that night). Frankly, I like this version better than the original single, which I always thought was a bit overproduced. I find the simplicity and clarity of this version remarkably moving. I’m not sure if I have a good reason for using The Allman Brothers version of “1983,” other than that I really liked it (what it lacks in smoothness, it makes up for with a kind of crunchy power), and that I was a little leery of getting involved in the kind of copyright problems that have long plagued the legally entangled Hendrix estate (they may have been resolved now, I didn’t really continue pursuing it after stumbling upon The Allman’s version). A few people (not that I expect that many to see it), will notice I’m trying some new things here: Formal titles at the beginning and end, with introductory and concluding sound effects, and even scrolling credits, as well as two video excerpts, one oceanic and one cosmic (the first from an Oceanic Preservation Society video, the second from Yavar Abbas’s Journey to the Edge of the Universe ).
“Jim Dean of Indiana” is not one of Phil Ochs’ better known songs, certainly not up there with “I Ain’t Marchin Anymore,” “Small Circle of Friends,” or even “When I’m Gone.” It is from his last album, the ironically titled Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, was never released as a single, and recieved little to no airplay. I have to admit when I first heard the album back in the seventies, “Jim Dean” didn’t impress me nearly as much as Phil’s baroque mini-masterpieces, “No More Songs” and “Bach, Beethover, Mozart, & Me,” his country semi-parody, “Gas Station Women” (which I now see more as a homage to Faron Young), or the occasionally covered straightforward rock song, “My Kingdom for a Car.” Nevertheless, the song had deep meaning for Phil, for whom Dean had near mythical significance since first encountering him in late adolescence, seeing him in pictures like East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant as a larger-than-life figure at the local movie theater. As he was coming to the end of a brief but incredibly productive recording career, Phil seems to have consciously returned to his roots for inspiration, writing about the time he was “A Boy in Ohio,” and the homage to Faron Young I refer to above. Phil seems to have become increasingly drawn to his own homage to the Hollywood rebel-icon, apparently obssessively playing it on the piano at his sister’s house in Far Rockaway, New York in the last months before his suicide in April 1976.
Coming back to the song after not listening to it for a long time, I find the song has a delicacy and simplicity that is quite moving. It certainly isn’t the type of song Phil was best known for–protest songs like “Another Age“–being instead a kind of understated excercise in empathy, and perhaps a plea for compassion for the lost and the lonely, a state that Phil was coming increasingly to identify with as he started a long slide into deep depression. The song is not strictly accurate as an account of Dean’s life: he wasn’t physically abused by a farm hand, but more likely sexually abused by a local minister, and the song entirely ignores the many years Dean spent in Southern California before his mother’s death from uterine cancer in 1940 (it was at this time he joined his aunt Ortense and her husband Marcus Wilson in Indiana. Phil, in fact, was in a position to know some intimate details of Dean’s life, in that he often talked with Troubadour owner Doug Weston about the actor while living in Los Angeles. In fact, Weston had at least occasionally talked to Dean while working as a bartender in early 1950s Greenwich Village (Eliot, Death of a Rebel 156-57), although how intimate their conversations were, and how much of them Weston conveyed to to a fascinated Phil I don’t know. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting song, very briefly mentioning Dean’s movie career, largely because the song is less anchored to the actor’s person than the place he lived in from pre-adolescence until his mid-teens: the Wilson farm in Indiana. Thus we remain achored in Dean’s conscousness until he moves away, but then he is a figure mostly seen from the perspecitive of Marcus and Ortense Wilson and–to a much lesser degree–the surrounding townspeople. The physical presence of the living Dean only enters the song once away from the farm, and that is when Marcus and Ortense drive to Los Angeles to “speak with him for half an hour,” before leaving for his rendevous with mortality. The song is not strictly chronological, and the slideshow is even more unstuck in time (Giant only came out after Dean died, but I believe the marquee photo is of the local cinema in Fairmount, Indiana), but I think it works. I hope you do too.
This is sort of the conclusion of what I am coming to think of an elegiac trilogy of slideshows, the first on Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, the second on Rufus Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, and this one on Jim and Phil, who never met but who were both ‘boys in Midwest,’ to slightly paraphrase Phil’s song. This one’s for Shannon. And for James and Phil, of course.
I had really thought the next Rufus Wainwright song I would be trying to turn into a slideshow would be “What a World,” although I had also been toying with the idea of doing something with his version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” More or less by accident, I ran into this version of “Zebulon” that includes a rather moving introduction about how he came to write the song after visiting his mother, noted folksinger Kate McGarrigle, in the hospital in Montreal and then walking back up over a hill overlooking the city to his home, reminiscing about earlier, happier times when the tune more or less blossomed before him in a sudden quickening of inspiration. I pretty much immediately realized I could use this to introduce his version of “Who Knows,” and–after a little more poking around–I stumbled upon this lovely version of Harold Arlen‘s “Over the Rainbow,” recorded at a 2009 Manchester concert, accompanied by his Mom on piano (she passed away from cancer in 2010). As my Mom is 94, pretty much wheelchair bound, and currently on hospice care, mortality has been on my mind a good deal of late, so this project became a means of working through and articulating some of my own feelings, although the photographs are largely of the Wainwrights or McGarrigles, Montreal, or nature scenes of one sort or another (the bridal shower invitation is actually for my Mom–I have been working on a slideshow for her and going through and scanning lots of old photographs from family albums, but that is the only photo directly associalted with me or my family). As a result, this slideshow, much more than most, feels strangely personal, and I feel strangely moved by it, in a way I can only describe as exqusite–an oddly aesthetic word with which to describe an emotional experience.
The slideshow (and the songs that accompany it) attempts to express loss, grief, transcience, and a kind of emotional acceptance, and ultimately it works–if it works at all–more through feeling than any kind of intellectual argument. I am a little worried that Rufus (who I will actually be seeing in concert soon) may feel that I am intruding on an intensely private and personal matter that he would rather not have other people explore, however sympathetically. If so (assuming he becomes aware of it all), I will take it down as soon as possible. The audio of the introduction to “Zebulon” is from a 2010 performance sponsored by The Guardian newspaper in England, while the audio of the song itself is apparently its first public performance, in 2007 on FIP radio from Paris, France. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” (by Sandy Denny, who I include with one photo of from her Fairport Convention days) is from Rufus’ performance at the 2015 Folk Awards. There are other versions on YouTube, but I thought this one had the best audio quality, and a beautifully shaded vocal rendering from Rufus. As I mention above, Harold Arlen‘s “Over the Rainbow” is from a 2009 performance, accompanied by his mother Kate on piano, from Manchester England, and again Rufus seems to get to the emotional heart of a great song. I hope you like the slideshow, despite its somber subject (I tried to include a couple of gentle laughs), and at any rate you can always just close your eyes and enjoy the music, which borders on sublime throughout, and even occasionally hovers just above where bluebirds fly.
This is a slideshow I did about a week ago, and have been kind of wondering what to do with as it has a kind of romanticism I don’t really think is characteristic of me. However, it also focuses on loss, grief, and moving past these emotions so that part certainly fits. I’ve liked Emmylou Harris ever since I saw her open for Joe Walsh back in the seventies at the Shrine auditorium. As it was basically a rock crowd there to hear “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Walk Away” (as was I), some people in the audience were rather rude to her, but she kept going like the true professional (and very classy lady) she was and is. After what she had been through, I doubt a few boos and some heckling even registered.
While I am by no means an expert on all things Emmylou Harris (I actually tend to avoid gossip columns or even celebrity biographies of artists while they are still alive–it can be disillusioning and for me–frankly–it’s always been the work that is important), it is widely acknowledged that this is a song about her reaction to the death of her former lover and mentor, Gram Parsons, who died of a morphine overdose in 1973, a few weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday. He had already been a member of The Byrds, a founding member of highly influential (but never very commercially successful) The Flying Burrito Brothers, and had formed his own backup band who toured as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. It was with this last group, that his connection with Emmylou really developed, as she was a backup singer and sometime soloist with the band. They also apparently had a fairly intense romantic relationship, although I believe they had separated (I think at least in part over Gram’s drug use) by the time he died. Emmylou–in a way I deeply admire–turned her loss, grief, and ultimate belief in herself into this beautiful song (she actually is not a very prolific songwriter, but the ones she does write are almost always worth listening to), which has been covered by many other artists. The audio here by the way, is actually from the Starland Vocal Band, whose lead singer (Taffy Nivert) does a remarkable job of channeling Emmylou’s voice and spirit. While I like the version on her Pieces of the Sky debut album, I don’t think Warner Brothers really figured out how to capture the fullness and richness of her voice in the studio until her third album, Luxury Liner, which I believe was the first one I bought, and I think produced her first big mainstream success with her version of “Pancho and Lefty.” I seem to remember she even performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House. Of course, I then went out and bought her two earlier albums. By the way, this is not an attempt to do a biography of their relationship, but more a kind of elegiac audio-visual poem inspired by the song that acknowledges the importance of their relationship to the song’s composition (I really love that quote in the penulimate photo–it’s quintessential Emmylou). Hope you like it.
This was an attempt to do a fairly straightforward fan video. While the expectation for a “hurdy gurdy man” to resolve the “crying of humanity” is probably naieve, it certainly is attractive. I also loved all the antique photos of street musicians I ran across, as well as some nice ones of Donovan. Hope you enjoy it.
To a large extent, this diary was inspired by a recent visit to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. I am sure most visitors are gratified at the largely positive and almost worshipful treatment of their hero, the man who proclaimed “morning in America” and “compassionate conservatism.” I have to admit I had the opposite reaction, in that the visit forced to me to remember and confront how much I truly loathed Reagan and much of what he came to be associated with. I didn’t think much of him as an actor, disliked him as governor, and found him fundamentally dishonest and actively harmful as president. Although technically started by Nixon, one of the many movements Ronald and Nancy Reagan are given credit for promoting is what has come to be called the war on drugs.
While no doubt the problem is with me, I have never been able to summon up the kind of virulent contempt and passionate hatred for people who use, sometimes become addicted to, and even sell drugs for a profit. This is despite the fact that I have been repeatedly told by my parents, teachers, countless TV shows, movies, and even some popular music (e.g. Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done“) that unperscribed drugs were BAD, the people who used them WEAK, and those who sold them downright EVIL. Speaking as an alcoholic who has used drugs in the past, as well as known other people who used them, I suspect I have a natural sympathy for the weak, a trait I do not tend to identify with being naturally joined to being either bad or evil. On the contrary, I tend to see them as easily victimized by ruthless, powerful, and often rich people (three traits that are more often than not held up for admiration in America). On a more personal level, the isolation, anxiety, shame, and pain of living in the modern world seemed to practically cry out in anguish for some sort of chemical response, although suicide was always a possible (and not wholly unattractive) option. For me it was mostly alcohol (which I would still call my drug of choice, although I am currently not drinking one day at a time), but I certainly experimented with others, mostly depressants.
There has always been a fundamental hypocrisy in the approach to drugs in the United States. As has been extensively documented, marijuana was largely criminalized as a way of keeping “those people”–mostly darker skinned–controlled and in line. If you were rich, doctors would gladly perscribe you whatever you wanted, and if you were white and had the proper (that is, conservative) outlook, you could happily abuse while heaping another sort of abuse on those who lacked your “connections.” If caught, you rarely lost much by it and tended to be quickly forgiven (celebrity also plays a role here) as, for example, Rush Limbaugh was. If it ended badly (e.g. Elvis), you became an object for sympathy and prayer, emotions and actions rarely extended towards those not in the proper sociocultural group.
Drugs profits were also easily justified by “higher” causes, such as fighting communisim (e.g. those tens of thousands of people murdered in central America) or radical Islam (e.g. once the Taliban were defeated and the Americans came in, opium production skyrocketed–somebody is getting rich–and I suspect it isn’t just people with Middle Eastern complexions). The cocaine sold to finance the contras, for example, certainly ended up in the hands of inner city youth who–if they didn’t kill each other fighting over market share–could conveniently be used to supply the burgeoning prison industry, with the added “benefit” (in many states) of permenantly losing their “right” to vote. It seems no accident that our current leader, both expands private for-profit prisons and cracks (note the pun) down on pot on the same day.
This slideshow is very much in line with some of my others on serious subjects, such as Slave to the (Algo)Rhythm, They Moved the Moon, and Guilt, but it reverses the pattern of some of my other extended audio-visual meditations on topics in that–unlike, say “Bitter Salt“–it goes from the geneneral and historical to the private and more personal. The first two songs–virtually unheard in the US (I think you can figure out why)–more or less embrace the idea of taking drugs. Spacemen 3‘s “Come Down Easy” (from their classic album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To–surely one of the greatest album titles ever) is set against America’s dirty war in Central America and the generally unpunished or pardoned perpetrators, which in and of itself–if one truly tried to discover what was going on (almost no one did, and those few were either silenced or hounded to their graves). This followed by Black Grape‘s hilarious parody of the Reagan’s drug war from their Stupid, Stupid Stupid album, “Get Higher.” Generally, the laughter keeps the tears at bay. Finally, Barenaked Ladies‘ “The War on Drugs” from their Everything to Everyone album explores the reasons why and the costs of taking drugs, both on the individual and those around them in a way that is both emotionally moving and–especially in the sudden, anticlimactic end–quietly devastating, musically replicating how society treats such “disposable” people.
I got so much positive response, to my “Pancho and Lefty” slideshow that I though I would put up this one, which I finished last week. This is another sequence of images inspired and accompanied by a Townes Van Zandt song, “Tecumseh Valley,” which–by the way–is a real place in Oklahoma (as is Spencer, also mentioned in the song). It’s kind of an alt-country narrative ballad, a little ragged around the edges, and I think I chose this live version of the song because of that very raggedness. I was immediately drawn to it when I first heard the studio version on Townes’ Drama Falls Like Teardrops compilation. There is a beautiful music that Townes’ finds in the name (“Te-cum-seh”), and the simple poetry of the seasons, the dignity of labor, and in human passion that just sort of stunned me (a fairly normal reaction for me listening to his songs). It seems to mean even more to me now than when I first heard it, in that I realize that it is a song about someone we would essentially look at as a “disposable” person (and we’d call her much worse than that), beneath our notice except as someone to use and discard like a crumpled paper cup. The song (also recorded by Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle, among others) gives expression, dignity, and beauty to her hopes, harsh circumstances, struggles, and desires in a way that that I feel is too rarely seen, although doubtless some people will disagree. I hope you like the song at least, whatever you think of the slideshow I compiled (I basically set it in the depression and the dust bowl, although some of the photos are much more modern).
After having done three rather dark slideshows inspired by Loudon Wainwright III songs, “Dead Man,” “Men,” and “Unhappy Anniversary,” this celebration of human-feline relationships is a nice change of pace. The song, “Me and My Friend the Cat,” is from “Album II,” when Loudon was recording for Atlantic Records. I am not going for any deep meanings or political points, beyond the obvious “be nice to cats and they’ll be nice to you, and “don’t I have pretty cats?” (the blue Persian is my beloved Mitzy; the tabby with the striking green eyes is Melissa, and the one that looks like a Russian Blue is Moakey) While one could extend this message to human relationships to other species (or even other humans), the slideshow really makes no attempt to do so and I’d be surprised if anybody drew such a message from it. Anyway, I hope you like it, and find it fun.
Also posted yesterday at The Daily Kos. I had a rather disturbing conversation the other day with someone I very much respect, someone—in fact—who has probably done more to improve my outlook on myself and even the world than anyone I have met in a long time. I had just shown him two slideshows, They Moved the Moon (about the California genocide of American Indians), and The Freshmen, a slideshow that started out as an attempt to find a foundation for dialogue in the pain that every individual inevitably experiences, but ended up being more like a prophecy of mutual doom amounting to a kind of self-genocide that would hardly be acknowledged (if ever) until it was far too late. He seemed to be saying that the problem was not with the world, but with me; and if I could just figure out the roots of my attraction to subjects like injustice, inequality, unmerited suffering, and genocide then everything would be—if not exactly all right—at least I wouldn’t be very concerned and therefore a happier, better adjusted human being.
I recognize that there is a good deal of truth in his point of view, I probably would be a happier, more well-adjusted human being, although probably never “normal,” at least in the normal sense of the word. This slideshow is to some extent a product of that conversation a few days ago, and I realize that I, with characteristic perversity, have responded to his call for more tightly focused self-exploration of my anxieties and fears with the goal of eventually forging a more optimistic perspective on life by doing exactly the opposite. While I wouldn’t have really thought it was possible for me to go darker after The Freshmen (which at least started out as an attempt to empathize with people I didn’t like very much at all), I think I may have managed it, in part by Guilt’s wider focus, and in part by its direct attempt to address subjects which are usually either suppressed, denied, or belittled in America: the toxic effect of social expectations and stereotypes, the use of a religion as a justification for exploiting and destroying the marginal and powerless, the silencing and even murder of those who dare to tell us truths we don’t want to hear, and the deliberate suppression of many of the more unpleasant parts of our own history that do not conform to our self-flattering image of ourselves, to our incessantly repeated mantra that “America is the greatest country in world” (I suppose it may be true, depending on what you think “greatest” means).
All of these slideshows essentially grow out of a subject (here, guilt) and a song (here, three songs). Perhaps not surprisingly I chose Marianne Faithfull’s song “Guilt,” originally released on her brilliant Broken English album, although this version is from a live performance on a late-eighties television show. I chose it largely because I thought the drums, and the propulsive drive of the song, were a bit sharper and crisper than on the original. This section largely deals with private and personal feelings of guilt, but also introduces some larger issues explored in the second section. For this next section, I chose a version of Iggy & the Stooges “Dirt,” originally released on the 1970 Funhouse album, although this one is from a 2011 live performance in Detroit, which I chose largely because of the late Ron Asheton’s stunning atonal guitar work. Here I really move into questions of collective responsibility for the way the world is and don’t really come to any cheery conclusions. The final section, to a large extent inspired by Arctic Monkeys “This House is a Circus” from their Favorite Worst Nightmarealbum (2007). The “house” in question is, of course, The White House, with Hair Furor being the embodiment and inevitable conclusion of the escalating fear, hatred, selfishness, and victimization that are undoubtedly hard-wired into human nature, merely waiting for the proper circumstances (unfortunately now) to bring them to full, poisonous fruition.
I would certainly understand if you decided not to watch something that I freely admit is pretty depressing (in fact, kudos to you for having read this far). I should warn you that there are a couple of curse words (it is Iggy, after all), and one of them is even written out, a young woman flips off the camera, and a few of the images are disturbing, although probably not as bad as something you could see any day on cable TV. Personally, I’d rate it a PG. I hope you do watch it, in part because I think it works as an aesthetic object, in part because I think it is emotionally powerful and moving, and finally because they are pretty terrific versions of some pretty terrific songs.
After working on “Slave to the (Algo)Rhythm” and “They Moved the Moon,” and purchasing a copy of Bob Drury’s and Tom Clavin’s The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, I thought I needed a change of pace, which is to say, something to work on that was a bit more optimistic. I haven’t even started the book yet, but it looks fascinating, enlightening, horrifying and–I have a feeling–probably profoundly depressing. Being in a bit of a melancholy mood (not at all the same thing as depression) and thoroughly sick of the hot weather, I found myself drawn back to two Aztec Camera songs from probably my favorite album of theirs, Frestonia. I had not realized until making this slideshow that the name comes from a street in Kensington (in London). As I remember, they were Elvis Costello’s favorite band for a while back in the eighties, although they never really broke through here in the states (I believe their biggest hit in the U.S. was a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”). These two songs, “Rainy Season” and “Imperfectly” are both to some degree about the weather, but of course that is really just a metaphor for expressing songwriter and singer Roddy Frame’s emotional and philosophical insights. The point is, at least in part, that all of these things inevitably change and evolve, and that even deep sadness allows for the possibility of being transformed into something better. I managed to find a huge number of gorgeous images of the natural world, none of which I took, and a couple of which I had to pay for the rights to use them on the web.
I hope you enjoy them, if only from an aesthetic perspective, and they are lovely songs that I think have hardly been heard on this side of the Atlantic (or “the pond,” as my dissertation director used to say) and–if you listen to the lyrics, I think you’ll find that they have rather lovely lyrics to complement their lovely melodies.
Also posted, in slightly different form, about four days ago on The Daily Kos. This diary and the slideshow which accompanies it, were inspired by Meteor Blades’ diary of June 25th, “On the 141st Anniversary of Custer’s Well-Remembered Last Stand, why is California’s Genocide Forgotten?” As a native Californian, albeit of European ancestry, I was wondering how I could have missed this, although I was certainly aware of the controversy surrounding Father Junipero Serra’s sanctification, as well as more vaguely aware of the lynchings, riots, and institutional racism occasionally (as I then thought) practiced against Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese Americans, and African-Americans. I was not aware of how systematic, murderously successful, and popularly and legally prevalent it was. When Meteor Blades’ title asks how people could have forgotten it, I found myself asking how I could have forgotten it? The answer is, as I am sure is true for most white Californians, is that we never learned about it in the first place, and what scraps we did know were largely the product of a highly selective and—let’s face it—whitewashed popular culture (as I remember, there were a couple of episodes of Bonanza—and I think one of Gunsmoke—that dealt with racism against Chinese immigrants, and every two or three seasons one of the longer running westerns would have an episode that would at least obliquely address unfair treatment of Native Americans).
Not to rehearse Meteor Blades well-researched and far superior diary, he recounts the steady, popularly-supported decimation of California’s indigenous population:
There was one massacre after another after another after another, in each of which more California Indians were killed than were soldiers of Custer’s regiment in Montana. White Californians, the vast majority of them newcomers, had reduced the California Indian population to about 30,000 by 1873.
Even more appalling (although not so surprising, given that I had been living in East Texas for twenty years by this time, so I was perfectly aware not only that such things had happened in the past, but that they were still going on), were the ways in which the legal, judicial, electoral, and economic systems were manipulated so that Native Americans could be rendered powerless, exploited, stolen from, and murdered with impunity, with the public support of both politicians and many local newspapers. According to Benjamin Madley in the Los Angeles Times (quoted at greater and even more horrifying length in Meteor Blades’ diary),
California’s Legislature first convened in 1850, and one of its initial orders of business was banning all Indians from voting, barring those with “one-half of Indian blood” or more from giving evidence for or against whites in criminal cases, and denying Indians the right to serve as jurors. California legislators later banned Indians from serving as attorneys. In combination, these laws largely shut Indians out of participation in and protection by the state legal system. This amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to those who attacked them.
Institutionalized racism and oppression thus go back to the very roots of California statehood, by no means limited to Orange County or South Central, as sometimes seems to be case in media portrayals. Of course, racism, brutality, and forced conversions dated back to the very founding of the Spanish Mission system, but there were qualitative and quantitive differences once the Gold Rush started and California joined the United States as it hurtled towards civil war. As Iberian points out in his comment on Meteor Blades’ diary:
The Spanish system and missions where oppressive, abusive and murderous but they were not genocidal. There wasn’t any intent of eliminating the native population. After the gold rush and statehood the native populations were intentionally exterminated, and the mixed and Spanish/Mexican populations prosecuted, assaulted and dispossessed in many cases, other Hispanics that came also for the gold rush also assaulted and the anti-Chinese hysteria raging in pogroms. All of it not only sanctioned by local and state officials but at the request of the local government and even California Senators in DC. Ethnic cleansing in California has a horrible history the worse for the native populations, but extending to many other ethnic groups.
As I remember, when I studied the local Native American tribes of Kern County back in grammar school, they were presented quite sympathetically: I still remember watching short films showing how the local natives ground acorns and made meal, while men hunted deer and participated in fascinating sweat lodge ceremonies. I realize now, of course, how dangerously easy it is to romanticize a people who essentially no longer exist. Such appropriated but conveniently invisible peoples provide one’s existence with history, continuity, and a kind of Edenic past; while by their absence they make no claims upon you in the present. With this in mind, here is a slideshow set to Warren Zevon’s “They Moved the Moon” and “Join Me in L.A.” I had considered using his brilliant “Carmelita” in the second half, but I must admit I kind of like it this way. Although probably not as well known, “Join Me” has a kind of snarky energy, and permits an ending of hopeful defiance—if not of optimism—about the future (I also learned a bit about the Tongva and other tribes that inhabited the Los Angeles basin, so the song allowed me to focus the slideshow even more locally in its second half). I had already done a slideshow on Holocaust denial, and another on the persecution of marginal groups from the Middle Ages to the present, but I felt maybe it was time to explore something more uncomfortably close to home. Anyway, here it is—while the slideshow doesn’t begin to do justice to the magnitude of the event, it does do something. What that is, remains for you to decide:
Previously published (in slightly different form) on The Daily Kos. I had the rather unpleasant experience of being in prison lately. It wasn’t a surprise, in that it was a result of an arrest back in January that itself was the result of my own stupidity and despair. In essence, I turned myself into the court (as required) on Thursday morning at the end of June, went on the bus down to the County Jail around Thursday noon, and was in fact released by about one o’clock Friday afternoon. As the Torah I had brought to read was confiscated (I had been incorrectly told that you could bring a religious book—in fact you can’t bring anything from the outside at all without having it taken away at some point). Also taken (as I expected) were my self-phone, medication, a small amount of cash, and shoe laces, all of which were taken away at the local court where I was first processed, and then the rest of my clothes were exchanged for not totally unattractive prison blues and slippers when I arrived at County. I never actually got assigned a bed, but—having identified myself as a member of a “special” population—was kept in a holding cell all night with other members of my “group.” Some seemed like nice people, some not so nice, and some simply disturbed; but the same could be said about the guards, deputies, and prison staff in more or less equal proportions.
Physically, the most unpleasant part was how cold it got, especially towards the end of the night, as it was impossible to get blankets or sheets, I suppose on the rationale that a prisoner’s death from hypothermia or exposure was easier to explain than suicide by bedsheet or blanket (although—if you were really determined to kill yourself and didn’t mind your corpse being partially unclothed—I’m pretty sure your prison-issued trousers would work just as well). Psychologically, the worst part was the sense that you didn’t exist, as it quickly became apparent how practiced prison employees were at ignoring the inmates in this holding cell. You could actually see them turn to avert their eyes as they approached the long glass window that faced the prison corridor which basically everyone had to walk down in order to complete their processing and get assigned a bed and—I imagine—privileges like being able to get a book from the prison library. When they reached the end of the long glass window, their heads would snap back, so they could see us (at most) out of the corner of their eye. Although decals on the windows told us in emphatic terms to contact the guards if someone tried to commit suicide, there seemed to be no way to do this, even if they were only a few feet away on the other side of the glass. Presumably, if you splashed enough blood on the windows, one of the more compassionate and observant guards would eventually notice. Please go below the fold for more, and a cool video I made.
My attorney had e-mailed me that I would be reporting for my 96 hour sentence with two days credit for time served. So I was surprised to discover on Thursday morning that the court had no record of my two days credit (my lawyer was not present) A number of people told me I might be released early, but it was unclear was who made the decision about early release, as it didn’t seem to be the bailiff or the judge I appeared before (it wasn’t really a hearing or a trial, just an appearance). One of the sheriffs at the local jail explained that it was all based on how crowded the jail was and what category of prisoner you were. That’s when I understood: the decision would be made not be any human being, but by a computer that had been programed by human beings based on algorithms that they had designed at the behest of their employers. While I was certainly aware of algorithms, especially in terms of how they are used in Search Engines, the experience really brought home how much they have come to dominate virtually every aspect of modern life: not only search engines but the legal system, the financial sector, advertising, and even–increasingly—the arts.
As with firearms, there is nothing inherently bad about algorithms, but they can easily used for biased, unethical, or just plain evil purposes by human beings. As the old saying goes, numbers don’t lie, but people lie with numbers. They inevitably reflect the biases and petty concerns of the people who design them and—too a much greater degree—the people who hire those programmers to design them. Anyway, I came up with the idea for this slideshow last Friday night around midnight, after I had gotten tired of playing find the shape in the stain (oh look, this one resembles a dinosaur; here’s one that looks like a turd, oh no, wait—I think it is . . . I think I’ll move further away). I actually had a copy of the eponymous Grace Jones album that “Slave to the Rhythm” was released on back in the eighties (a slightly different mix than the one I use for the slideshow), although I haven’t seen or listened to it in years. By the way, I am not saying we should get rid of all algorithms, which is probably impossible as they are essentially hard wired into us, but merely that we should stop and think about what we are doing so that the algorithms we make will actually promote equity, fairness, and even connection to our fellow, suffering human brothers and sisters. It almost comes across as a joke when you state it like that, which is itself kind of sad. Anyway, here is the slideshow:
I basically made this in response to a challenge from my psychologist to try to make a wholly optimistic, even happy slideshow. If you look at the ones I’ve posted so far, although they may evolve from hurting to healing, none of them are exactly odes to joy. Frankly, I haven’t posted the really dark ones, although you can see most of them on my YouTube channel. This one, for example, looks at the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, while this one looks at notable killings in Texas. None of them offers much in the way of consolation or hope, but they both came out of a very dark place and time in my life, which was actually only several months ago. I still wonder if they aren’t more accurate evaluations of the human condition that this one, which was inspired partly by my boyhood love of Donovan, and in part by my psychologist’s challenge. While there is a lot I like about it, at times it does seem a little false and phony to me (kind of like what is called a “Hollywood” ending, which is so popular precisely because it does not reflect what people too often experience in their actual, empirical and subjective experience). Personally, I’ve always been tempermentally inclined to agree with Dorothy Parker:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Actually, I thought that the “To Build a Rocket Boys” slideshow did a better job of getting across the emotional complexity of experience while at the same time maintaining a generally optimistic thrust.
Certainly, I do not deny the possibility of happiness, even with other people, despite Sartre’s famous saying about them. It certainly exists, and some people are better at it than others, porbably mostly because of their natural predisposition, but also because external circumstances–often beyond their control–inevitably impact them. Anyway, I hope you like it, and that it makes you feel good about yourself, other people, or both; if nothing else, perhaps it will hold out the possibility that things might get better.
I’m pretty sure that my earliest career aspiration was to be an aeronautical engineer. In part, I knew that such a path–combining as it did mathematical skill, engineering, and practical application–would please my Dad, who I desperately wanted to please. It was pretty much a given that I would go to Caltech, as he had done to get his geology degree, and I have fond memories of attending parent/child days at the college, whose obvious intention was to get the sons (and, to a lesser degree, daughters) of alumni to come to the venerable Pasadena institution as what would now be called “legacy” students. I was actually quite attracted to the idea of going. One of my few books growing up that I actually owned was a History of Flight, and I was fascinated by stories of the Montgofliers, Otto Lilienthal, Edmund Langley, the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Charles Lindbergh. This was the sixties, and the romance of flight (e.g. “Catch Me if You Can”) and space travel were perhaps at their height. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a particularly skilled mathematician, my intuitive sense of space and ability to manipulate it were probably below average, and anything that required neatness, precision, a steady hand, and a keen eye (e.g. almost all scientific experiments) were pretty much beyond my sloppy, imprecise, clumsy, and near-sighted capabilities.
While I did eventually go to UCLA–a highly respected school on the west coast–there was little question that (in my father’s eyes at least) I was “settling” and taking the easy way out. Real scientists, those who did real work in the real world, whose work had fairly obvious real world consequences, went to Caltech; posers and liberal arts students went to UCLA. In some sense that I still can’t quite explain, disappointing my father was worse than incurring his wrath, and it isn’t as if he would go on and on about what a failure I was. A look, a casual remark, or an occasional offhand gesture would be enough to convey the scope and magnitude of my inadequacy.
Nevertheless, I always kept my early interest in, even love of, flight and space travel. It was probably one of sources of my almost immediate attraction to the Elbow song, “Lippy Kids,” a song which seems to be about the intense friendships, almost arbitrary social rituals, and seemingly unlimited potential we still tend to identify with youth. To be honest, I don’t think the song is about building rockets in any literal way, but rather striving for and sometimes even achieving distant and lofty goals in whatever field of endeavor one might be drawn to. I had been kind of wanting to do a slideshow about this song (I love Elbow, by the way, and am really looking forward to seeing them again at The Wiltern this November), and two events last Tuesday sort of stimulated me to create this. The first was my psychologist suggesting that I might try making a slideshow that was wholly upbeat and optimistic as opposed to one that progressed from a bleak view of the world to a more positive one (e.g. “Bitter Salt,” and “Siren’s Song”). While this isn’t wholly optimistic, it comes close. Tuesday afternoon, I visited JPL on a tour, bringing my camera, and took lots of photos. This is actually the first slideshow I’ve done where some of the photography is actually my own, and I hope to develop that more in the future. The tour also brought back my early passions for flight and space travel, as well as the self-fulfillment (self-actualization?) that comes from doing something you love. In that sense, it’s a kind of audio visual love letter to precocious, lippy kids everywhere. Hope you like it.
I am aware (as I hope is apparent in the slideshow) that it wasn’t just boys building rockets and studying science. With that in mind, this one is for Pam.
This is another one of Townes’ more oblique and allusive songs (cf. “Our Mother the Mountain”), and I certainly see how one could interpret in different ways–most obviously as about alcohol and/or drugs. As I am now looking at those as sort of a way of avoiding the anxiety caused by avoiding rather than confronting mortality, I of course place the song in the visual context of grief, loss, isolation, and death. As you might guess, I’ve been reading Irvin D. Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, and its explorations have unquestionably had an effect on me. In some sense this is another slideshow about existential dread, and about some of the more dysfunctional ways we deal with pain. At the same time, Townes has created a beautiful, mysterious song about pain, loss, and how we flawed human beings deal with such things, and I hope that the images, timings and movements I have chosen for the slideshow do it justice. I really believe that quote from Kathleen Raine above, by the way, and it also ends the slideshow.
Here’s a video that I just ran into last night for the first time (I didn’t even think Moby was still relevant–obviously, I just hadn’t been paying attention). In some sense it explores some of the same issues–isolation, pain, grief, empathy, and how we deal we such things–but on a much more universal and apocalyptic level.
I was seven when I first became aware of my own mortality. I was looking at my hand, and I suddenly became aware of all the fine lines, virtually webs of wrinkles on my hand. All at once, getting older was not something to look forward too, a future in which I had ever greater control over myself and my environment, but instead one in which my body would deteriorate, wither, and die, and that it was a process that would occur regardless of my desires or best efforts, which might (with some luck) temporarily put off but never avoid my inevitable extinction. It was as if my whole perspective on my existence pivoted around the focal point that was my hand, and nothing would ever be quite the same again.
What I am describing, of course, is the near universal experience (assuming you live long enough) of apprehending my own mortality, essentially my first encounter with existential dread. I was immediately struck by Loudon Wainwright III’s song, “Dead Man,” which I first heard a few days ago, a song that seems to have been inspired by his father’s death and going through his father’s effects at some time after the funeral. As is so often the case with Loudon’s songs, I was immediately struck by a painful honesty, leavened with his characteristic humor, and an absolute willingness to apply his insights to his own life.
The slideshow began as an exploration of universal human experience, but I realized that one could apply it to Hair Furor, and that is what I do in this version (I get a certain schadenfreude from imagining his horror if he ever saw it, which I know perfectly well is extremely unlikely). The images I picked to illustrate the first two verses are intended to illustrate mortality’s universality, while the last verse focuses more on our current leader. However, the insights apply to all human beings, including myself, and I suspect I’ll be doing another version with photographs of myself in the final section. In any case, I hope you appreciate the song (the brilliant lead guitar work is courtesy of Richard Thompson) and aren’t offended by the slide show, which will probably make some people uncomfortable, more because of the issues it explores than any particularly graphic image.
I was just rewatching the Sunshine Superman DVD about Donvan’s life last weekend, and found it fascinating–among the many things I had forgotten about him was all the time he spent with the Beatles in India, becoming part of the group that surrounded Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I had been wanting to make a slideshow about “Epistle to Dippy,” a song I really liked when I was about ten (I may not have been too sure what an epistle was, but I knew I liked the song), but couldn’t quite decide what approach to take to this rather oblique song. Suddenly the young monk meditating amid misty mountains made perfect sense, and I basically treated the “you” the song addresses as in fact Donovan himself as he is introduced to these new, “all kinds of windows,” perspectives on life. I have read, by the way, that the song was actually written to a friend who had joined the military. That may well be true (although its certainly isn’t obvious), the interpretation I offer here (which is really is intended to be evocative rather than prescriptive), I don’t pretend to any genuine knowledge of what Donovan really “meant” by the song. It’s still a great song, whatever you think of therse video, although of course I hope you enjoy both.
Quick note: this is actually an alternative take I found on YouTube rather than the single version. Although done in a much more baroque style than the hit single, it has a wonderful swirling energy that I like as much as the more popular version.