Loudon has long had an affinity for holiday songs that take slightly unusual perspectives. Family dinners (“Tnanksgiving“), the 1st day of April (“April Fools Day Morn“), and of course throwing out the old christmas tree at year’s end (“Suddenly It’s Christmas“), I was seriously considering the latter song as a possible topic for a slideshow when I ran into this one, again (like “Brand New Dance“) from Loudon’s 2014 studio album, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet). It takes a rather different approach to the holiday, and is in fact the darkest Christmas song I can think of off hand (I suppose “Granda Got Run Over By a Reindeer” might be sort of in the same ballpark). Rather unusually for Loudon, it seems to come close to taking a stand on a controversial social issue, albeit an ironic stand. Apparently, at least in the U.S., Christmas day is among the most violent of the year, although less so than New Year’s (the safest day, strangely, is January 5th, presumably everybody is either too pooped from assaulting people on New Year’s, or just too hung over to commit any more crimes). The murders directly referenced in the slideshow are the Lawson Family murders (Germantown, North Carolina, 1929), the Covina Massacre (2009), and, with the stills at the end largely being of people who had the misfortune to be murdered around Christmas (including JonBenet Ramsey, who actually did not die from a gunshot). A number are from holdiay themed horror films (the Covina Massacre, which included a murderer in a Santa Suit and a home-made flame thrower, was for instance is referenced in the 2012 film, Silent Night, where a number of the stills come from). Most of the other photos are from advertisements or Christmas cards people have posted on the web, and are probably in no way intended the be ironic. While I admit to a certain curiousity about what comments I’ll get (if any), it’s a curiousity tempered by sadness in that I have pretty good idea about what a number of them will probably be. But hey, it wouldn’t be a family holiday without a few death threats.
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).
[Cross-posted on my Donovan–Slideshows by passage2trth page] Donovan’s “Lalena” was a song I always admired without ever really thinking about it very much. Certainly, the song’s most striking feature was Donovan’s rather lovely vibrato and its melancholy mood, a mood I realize I have always found attractive. While of course I knew that it was about a girl with an unusual name who seemed rather sad, I never really thought about the implications of the lyrics until quite recently, when I was looking for a followup to “Universal Soldier.” Once I did pause to think about who the lyrics were describing, it seemed rather obvious she was a prostitute, getting up “when the sun goes to bed,” one whose “lot in life” makes the song’s narrator sad even as he refuses to blame her for her situation, presumably because it is beyond her control. While by no means the only song ever written about what is frequently characterized as the world’s oldest profession (cf. “Love for Sale, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Roxanne,” among many others), it is sort of surprising that “Lalena” was an AM hit in the sixties reaching number #33 on the Hot 100 in Billboard. Of course, so was The Animals version of “The House of the Rising Sun.” In fact, Donovan was apparently inspired to write the song by Lotte Lenya‘s character of Jenny (a streetwalker) in the 1931 film version of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weil’s The Threepenny Opera. Donovan seems to have added an extra syllable to her surname in order to make the haunting chorus work musically, while the “lot in life” line is quite probably a gentle play the actress’s first name.
Having decided to make the slideshow into a mini-history of prostitution, and wanting to be true to the song in both being not too graphic and rather melancholy, I chose to use Final Cut Pro (only the second time I’ve done so, and I’m still learning how) to do a series of overlays, often drawn from impressionist, post-impressionist, and modernist art (with a few photographs) in order to convey the song’s–and the woman’s–sadness at her situation. It may be a bit too busy, but I think it generally works in the way it gets across a deep underlying melancholy that is central to the song’s appeal. The audio, by the way is not the single version, but a version Donovan performed for Italian public television in 1968.
Honestly, I barely remember hearing “Universal Soldier” while growing up in Bakersfield. The local AM radio station (“K-A-F-Y Bak-ers-feild”) played some of his other hits, like “Sunshine Superman” and “Jennifer Juniper,” but they probably felt this song was too controversial, or perhaps simply not pop enough. Hearing it again “Universal Soldier” (authored by Buffy Sainte-Marie) seems more relevant than ever, although at the same time less likely than ever to effect any real change. That may be simply illusion, however, created by the nostalgia one so often feels for one’s youth. I have to admit, in creating this slideshow I wasn’t entirely sure what approach to take, especially as there are already a couple of pretty good slideshows that take their inspiration from it on YouTube. Originally, I had thought of focusing on the victims of war, but then I got this idea which seemed more–to coin an adjective–Donovanesque. I like to think he’d approve of it, if he ever sees it. In any event, I hope you approve, or at least listen.
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.
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 ).
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.