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.

Seminole Bingo: An Unofficial Warren Zevon Slideshow

Seminole Bingo: An Unofficial Warren Zevon Slideshow

Although I didn’t realize it until I was actually putting it together day before yesterday, “Seminole Bingo” is kind of a natural counterpart to my “They Moved the Moon” slideshow. If the first is about the dispossession of Native Americans, the second could well be said to be about taking some of their own back from those who dispossessed them in the first place. I always felt a little uncomfortable about the first in that I realized I was quite probably radically recontextualizing the song in making it about the California genocide of Native Americans. The song could well describe any disorienting and dislocating experience, and may well have been highly personal, even autobiographical for Warren when he wrote it. What I did with it (which was not meant to be in any way prescriptive), was simply an attempt to use the song as a way of exploring my own feelings about what happened in California, and my surprise and horror at discovering it. “Seminole Bingo” is much more obviously a story song about a character who is not Warren, although the two may share some traits in common. I realize, of course, that the song is not about Michael Milliken (who did not gamble his fortune away in Florida) but–as the widely-acknowledged “junk bond  king”–his image was the logical one to use. I do find myself if wondering if there is a something deeper going in the song, as the title character in essence made his fortune by selling essentially worthless bonds at vastly inflated prices. So much of modern culture seems to be predicated upon building up little or nothing into a “something,” a commodity that can be sold at vastly inflated prices based on a vastly inflated (mis)perceptions of its value. Of course, the same thing could be said about these slideshows, although the only cost to you is time, and–of course–there are many things of value in the world (Warren’s songs, for instance), you just have to learn to look for them. Anyway, here it is, and I hope  you think it is worth your time.

 

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).

The War on Drugs: a personal essay and a slideshow

The War on Drugs: a personal essay and a slideshow

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 hope you find it worth your while.

Pancho and Lefty: A Slideshow Inspired and Accompanied by a Townes Van Zandt Song, as sung by Emmylou Harris

Pancho and Lefty: A Slideshow Inspired and Accompanied by a Townes Van Zandt Song, as sung by Emmylou Harris

Cross-posted at The Daily Kos. I just did this Wednesday night. Emmylou Harris’s version of “Pancho and Lefty” was probably the first Townes’ song I ever heard, so I include it here, although I use a live version from the Old Grey Whistle Test rather than than the one on her Luxury Liner album. I guess the song’s narrative is very vaguely inspired by the story of Pancho Villa (according to Townes, anyway, apparently Pancho did have a companion whose name meant “lefty” in Spanish, although he only found that out after he wrote the song). Still, if you are looking for a historically accurate account of the Mexican bandit-revolutionary, you’re looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place; instead, the song is just a brilliant mediation on loyalty and loss, the choices we make and their consequences. I would argue it is Protest Music, although of an amazingly subtle kind; in any event it is still an terrific song, and I love Emmylou’s interpretation.

For no especially good reason, here is a lovely version of Emmylou Harris singing one of her own songs, “A River for Him,” from her Bluebird album. As with so many of her self-penned turns, some of it feels autobiographical, while some the some of the other lines (“I’m a stranger to  the strange land I’m in / Where all is forgotten / But nothing’s forgiven”)  are written at such a high level that they basically seem timeless. This not my slideshow, by the way, but was created by catman916, whose YouTube channel this is from:

A Slideshow about Guilt: Personal, Collective, and a River in Egypt

A Slideshow about Guilt: Personal, Collective, and a River in Egypt

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 Nightmare album (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.