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 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.
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.