Rufus Wainwright’s WW III: An Unofficial Slideshow

Rufus Wainwright’s WW III: An Unofficial Slideshow

This is a real change of pace, but it’s kind of an unusual song for Rufus, one that I suspect he wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself. Written with Guy Chambers, “WW III” was intended to be a pop song, although the subject of global apocalypse is an unusual choice for someone interested in pop success. It actually appears on the second disc of the deluxe edition of Rufus’ “Best of” album. Since I pretty much had all of Rufus’ major lp releases, I never really bothered to listen to “Best of” collection and–in fact–only heard this song for the first time a few weeks ago. I was immediately struck by its beautiful piano line and the remarkable criss-crossing, building harmonies of the conclusion. The subject was also arresting, in that Rufus doesn’t usually write songs with such an overt political meaning (“Going to a Town” would be the exception). Granted, there is a romantic layer, but the song comes across as about 70% geopolitical. In the YouTube comments to the original video, I can see some people found the lyrics rather awkward (e.g. “Don’t bore us / Get to the chorus”), but I actually see them as an astute expression of the limits audience’s can impose on pop stars; people who want catchy hooks, not bleak ruminations about coming disaster. It is, of course, very Rufus-like to express all of these complexities and contradictions in a pop song, and a breathtakingly beautiful one at that. Hope you like it.

U Know Your Reichs (Nirvana Cover)

U Know Your Reichs (Nirvana Cover)

Originally posted, in somewhat different form, on the The Daily Kos back in May, and on Facebook last Thursday. This seemed an appropriate followup to the last diary I posted, which also touches on the subject of Holocaust denial (actually, it’s better than this slideshow, so if you have to choose, you should watch the Eva Kor video below, which I had nothing to do with).

This is the first slideshow I made this year, probably around the end of April or the beginning of May. I’ve done about sixty since this one. I haven’t really pushed it, in part because I thought it really didn’t come across as well with the two versions of the songs I ended up having to use. Originally, it was set to the Nirvana’s “You Know Your Right” and Liza Minnelli’s “Heiraten” from Cabaret, but neither were available for use (often, you can use songs as long as you are willing to cede all monies generated from YouTube ads to the copyright holders–but sometimes this is forbidden). To replace the Liza Minnelli song, I have used Zarah Leander‘s “Adieu” (a Swedish singer who was a popular in Europe in the thirties). She was actually strongly anti-Nazi, and had a hit with “I skuggan av en stovel” (“In the shadow of the boot”) which was an anti-fascist song written by her husband.

If you noted the rather obvious pun in the title to this diary, you probably know where this is heading. Essentially, the slideshow was inspired by the confluence of two things: watching Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall, a powerful documentary incorporating many reels of long forgotten footage that British soldiers shot when they were liberating the concentration camps in the western part of Germany. As someone in the film says, the footage conveys the utter despair of people in the camps more powerfully than anything else I have seen (admittedly, I have not watched Shoah). Even the relatively inexperienced military cameramen who are interviewed—sixty years later—are still visibly traumatized by the experience of witnessing and recording such a spectacle.

Even more obviously, of course, the title refers to Nirvana’s last studio recording, “You Know You’re Right.” Recorded just a month before Kurt Cobain’s suicide by shotgun, I have always found it a powerful and memorable song, even if I didn’t always understand the lyrics. Recently, I have come to understand how perfectly Cobain’s song captured the thoughts and feelings of someone of verge of suicide. The guilt and shame, the overwhelming desire to escape (“I will crawl away from here”), to not hurt anyone else (“You won’t be afraid of fear”), an overpowering sense of inevitability (“I always knew it would come to this”), the utter mental agony (for a long time I thought he was saying, “Ay-ay-ay-ay”; what he is actually repeating is “Pai-ai-ai-ain”), along with rage (tinged by Cobain’s characteristic sarcasm) that invites everyone who ever called him a no talent loser to self-righteously pat themselves on the back at having gotten him so right (suicide also being an act characteristic of a “loser”), but also to pull back in sudden revulsion at their own self-congratulatory glee at another human being’s intolerable suffering. It’s so brilliant that it hurts, which could also be said of Singer’s film.

All apologies to Nirvana fans who may feel that my slideshow has fundamentally misinterpreted what was obviously a intensely personal song. I have taken the most intimate act imaginable—that of taking one’s own life—and re-contextualized it as a deeply impersonal one: genocide (for how could we do such terrible things to our fellow human beings if we truly saw them as people with their own hopes, dreams, loves, and fears?). I realize, of course, that it is always deeply personal to the victims of genocide, as well as to their family, relations, and friends. For copyright reasons, I have used a cover version of the song by Grubby Paws (the NC in the title means “Nirvana Cover”). It’s actually an excellent cover, but still not quite as powerful as the original version.

Pepper the Cat: An Unofficial Slideshow/Video Set to Joe Walsh’s Funk #49 and Funk #50

Pepper the Cat: An Unofficial Slideshow/Video Set to Joe Walsh’s Funk #49 and Funk #50

The idea for this slideshow dates back to Catcon near the begining of August. While there, in addition to getting my picture taken with Pudge, and taking lots of photos of cat stuff, I also went to a couple of talks. One of them, by Paul Koudounaris on “Cats of L.A.” included a good deal of information about Pepper the Cat, the first feline movie star who made over a 100 films (mostly shorts) for Mack Sennett studios in the teens and early twenties. She apparently appeared with some of the major stars of the day, including Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, and Mabel Normand, but many of the her early shorts have been lost. As near as I can tell, only a couple are available: The Little Hero, available in a Dutch version on YouTube, and Down on the Farm, a short film (43 minutes) from 1920 that is include on Volume 1 of the Mack SennetI Collection, available on Blue-Ray. I believe a couple more of her films are going to be on Volume 2 which, with a bit of added research, I hope will give me enough material for another short film about her, which I will probably again set to a Joe Walsh song. She was apparently discovered when she crawled out from under the floorboards during filming and the director–who perhaps knew star quality when he saw it–ordered them to keep rolling. Pepper had her screen test, and rest is (little known) cinema history. Although this slideshow has a couple of laughs (they are Mack Sennett comedies, after all), its main purpose is informational. However, the unbelievable guitar work by Joe and his band keep things popping (Funk #49 is from the Guitar Center Sessions; Funk #50 is from Analog Man).

Chelsea Hotel #2: An Unofficial Slideshow

Chelsea Hotel #2: An Unofficial Slideshow

Listening to Rufus Wainwright’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” was a kind of revelatory experience. While I had heard the song before, it suddenly seemed to have a remarkable emotional depth where all sort of insights lurked. Although I had heard it before a few times (mostly Cohen’s version, I think), I had not heard it with his introduction in which he explains how he came to write the song about what seems to have been a fairly brief encounter with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (uploaded by rhino49 in 2008). As Rufus’ live version also includes a brief introduction from Cohen in which he praises the yonger singer’s performance, it seemed obvious that what I needed to do was stitch Cohen’s introduction to the live audio of Rufus’ performance, with a few pictures of other celebrities who stayed there (yes, that is Joni Mitchell, and–in other photo–Rufus, although long after the events narrated in the song) while keeping the focus on Leonard and Janis. In some ways, although I didn’t plan it that way, this is a logical followup to the “Leftover Wine: Little Girl Blue” slideshow I did last week, while the joining of a revealing live introduction to a different version of the song being introduced echoes what I did earlier on “Bluebirds Fly.”  Anyway I promised something accessible and moving after last week’s “As an unperfect actor” (which has actually gotten a more positive response than I expected), so I hope this achieves that. I hope you think so too.

 

 

Texas Trilogy 2: Austin’s Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” Reimagined as Social Satire

Texas Trilogy 2: Austin’s Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” Reimagined as Social Satire

The Butthole Surfer’s “Pepper” was a song I liked virtually from the first time I heard it, although it always had a distinctly personal feel, naming people and places that the band was presumably directly acquainted with. The chorus always seemed to have statewide and perhaps even universal application in the way it called into question all of our flattering self-conceptions, because–as the song says–“you never know just how you’ll look through other people’s eyes.” Last month I realized that you could take the song’s verses and appy them to more statewide problems, from health, to deregulation and public safety, to gun deaths, to the environment, to oil, and to the Texas Railroad Commission (which “regulates” the oil industry with considerable help from heavily [in]vested interests). l’m not sure anyone who hasn’t lived in Texas for several years will really “get” this slideshow, and even among those who have I have a feeling many will be offended by it, not because anything in the slideshow is false, but because one doesn’t talk about such things in Texas, at least not in public. If I was a “true” Texan I’m sure I would know this and act appropriately, but I’m not anymore and probably never was, at least not really.  So consider it a highly idiosyncratic take on the state from a highly eccentric Californian (and therefore to be dismissed). I don’t really expect to get a large number of views, but you never know and–after all–everything’s bigger in Texas.

Texas Trilogy 1: Dreidel in Texas

Texas Trilogy 1: Dreidel in Texas

This is a slightly re-edited and expanded version of a slideshow I did about five months ago, probably the second one I compiled this year (I did two in all of last year). I originally called it “Random Memories of East Texas,” in part because I wanted a deliberately flat title to balance the rather sensational subject matter, but also beacause I realized it was an attempt–however flawed–to come to terms with living in East Texas for twenty years.  It wasn’t a very good or even very accurate title, as most of the events it focused on didn’t even take place in East Texas, but in Dallas and Austin. Also, although they were someone’s Texas memories, they weren’t really my memories, since I didn’t start living in Texas until 1991, well after the tragic events depicted in the first two movements of the slideshow.  Also, I felt that James Bryd Jr.’s killing, which I was at least in Texas for (although over fifty miles away from Jasper), really didn’t get adequate treatment, in part because the song ended too soon for my purposes. In the re-edited, expanded, and re-titled version, I have extended the audio track with some sound effects, thus allowing me to insert another six or seven slides in the final section.

I’m not sure it has a message in the conventional sense, beyond the obvious point that Texas can be a dangerous place, in part because of its culture, and in part because it’s simply so big that some more or less random bad stuff is bound to happen. I always liked Don Maclean’s song “Dreidel,” and I have a fairly clear memory of him performing it on some daytime talk show about the time this album (his third) was released. I’m fairly sure it was a song (like the “The Pride Parade”) that he wrote to explore his own mental situation in the wake of the massive success of his American Pie album that had come out the year before. Nevertheless, I think most people have a tendancy to personalize the songs they like and listen to a lot, and I’m sure I tended to think of both songs as in some sense reflections on my own feelings on entering high school in Southern California in the early seventies. I don’t think that sense of identification ever fully left me, even when I stopped listening to Don Maclean (probably a mistake on my part, and doubtless one of many).  The immediate stimulus for this slideshow was probably watching “The Tower” on Netflix, a brilliant documentary looking at the Austin clocktower murders of 1966, an incident I really don’t remember (I would have been nine), although I remember my mother talking about it. Similarly, I was even younger when President Kennedy was assasinated, and I’m fairly sure I did not see it live (it seems unlikely it was even carried live on most national television stations, although it may well have been in the Dallas area). I do remember my mother hearing about it on the radio and talking with our next door neighbor, Mrs. Leddy, over the wall separating out two backyards from one another. I think they were crying, but I may be embellishing the memory (I would have just turned six a couple weeks before).

James Bryd Jr.s death was widely reported in Smith County where I was living at the time, and I am pretty sure many local people were aware that it made the national news, which tended to make the people I knew uncomfortable.  I even remember the joke making the rounds at the time (“What red and black and two miles long”–I think you can guess the answer, even if you haven’t heard it before). Humor is of course one way human beings tend to express and deal with discomfort, although it is also a way of expressing and reinforcing power relationships, often making sure that marginal groups stay marginalized. I suspect both were at work here, although I am sure some would disagree, especially as meanings of things like jokes tend to change according to time and context, so  that one particular performance may well convey different meanings, and even different listeners may take different meanings away, some perhaps quite different than the teller consciously intended. Anyway, here is the first of three slideshows about Texas (the other two are both quite different, and were made several months after the first version of this one).