Hallelujah: An Edit of Rufus Wainwrigh’s version of Leonard Cohen’s song (with Choir! Choir! Choir!)

Hallelujah: An Edit of Rufus Wainwrigh’s version of Leonard Cohen’s song (with Choir! Choir! Choir!)

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.

Jim Dean of Indiana: A Slideshow inspired and accompanied by Phil Ochs’ song

Jim Dean of Indiana: A Slideshow inspired and accompanied by Phil Ochs’ song

“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.

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.

The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

Previously posted on The Daily Kos. I really had not intended for this slideshow to be quite so bleak. Once I came up with the idea of using The Verve’s Pipe’s “The Freshmen,” a powerfully moving song apparently written about the suicide of lead singer Brian Vander Ark’s girlfriend, as a way of addressing the political and emotional fallout from the election, it to some degree took on a life of its own, almost in spite of my conscious intentions. Frankly, it’s probably the bleakest thing I’ve done since “UKnowYourReichs,” a slideshow about Holocaust denial set to Kurt Cobain’s last song, a song which (to me anyway) seemed to look forward fairly obviously to his own suicide about a month after Nirvana recorded it. That slideshow was in part inspired by Night Will Fall, Andre Singer’s 2014 documentary about the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of WWII. Although I was by no means completely unfamiliar with the material, the film made a deep impression on me when I first saw it about three months ago, so deep that the documentary seemed more like a prophecy of things to come than a a record of events safely compartmentalized in the past.

Like Bitter Salt, this slideshow began as an attempt to find common ground in the shared experience of pain, with idea of moving beyond it to mutual cooperation if not necessarily shared understanding.  Tea partiers and progressives may listen to different media outlets, have different circles of friends, have completely different concepts of the historical and  philosophical bases for American society, and radically opposed concepts for what goals we hope America might become; nevertheless, as human beings we all suffer, and all those other diametrically divergent attitudes are—at least in part—our attempts to deal with our individual experience of pain, trauma, and isolation. Even our “fearless leader” (apologies to fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I just can’t bring myself to say Hair Furor’s actual title), strikes me as a deeply damaged human being, a damage at least in part the product of his family life, education, experiences, as well as of his own bad choices and their often destructive consequences.

Certainly one of the ideas behind The Verve Pipe song is that we make bad choices, often self-destructive or destructive of those around us,  because we don’t necessarily have the wisdom or the life experience to make good choices. To make explicit an implicit conceit of the song, at some point we are all “freshmen,” doing ignorant and even stupid things in stupid ways because we don’t know any better, and because we are too wrapped up in our own pain to acknowledge that of others, at least until it is too late. The repeated and increasingly unconvincing refrain, “I can’t be held responsible,” paradoxically communicates the deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility the singer feels, as well as his understandable and all-too-common desire to blame the other party (after all, like an abused spouse, she’s responsible too because “She fell in love in the first place”).

I am certain that in compiling this slideshow I was playing with the not wholly accurate media portrayal of the Tea Party movement and the “average” Trump voter as—to some extent—political neophytes easily manipulated by a corporate media and political demagogues who cynically exploited these people’s pain for their own ends, ends that were often destructive of the very people that they purported to represent and to help, as well as targeting a host of relatively powerless “others” who could be identified by their darker skin, problematic citizenship, differing sexual orientation, or divergent religious and philosophical beliefs, all of whom merited by their very existence at the very least exclusion and—if Tea Partiers were truly being honest about it—their systematic destruction.

Certainly one thing that struck me in gathering the photos for this slideshow is how fervent the devotion of many Trump supporters were to their leader. While it is difficult if not impossible to truly divine what people are thinking from their facial expressions and body language, with a remarkable number, it looks an awful (and I do mean awful) lot like love, which itself raises questions about how such a beneficent emotion could have such toxic results? I suspect, as the opening  slides try to suggest, such tensions are deeply embedded in our human nature, and are certainly evident in the dark (and largely officially suppressed) side of American history. Similarly, I chose the last verse and chorus of the Ben Folds Five “Brick” (a song about the songwriter’s trip to an abortion clinic with his high school girlfriend over Christmas break), because it is one of the saddest songs I think I have ever heard, perfectly expressing the isolation, grief, and overwhelming pain caused by the experience which (to tie it back to The Verve Pipe song) the couple in question were simply not emotionally ready for, being “freshmen” in their own way. Although it isn’t directly stated in the song, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the relationship didn’t survive the trauma of that fateful day over the Christmas holidays.

The two brief film clips—only the second time I’ve tried to include them in a slide show (the first was (“UKnowYourReichs”)—also seem even more significant than they did when I first thought to include them. The first portrays the suicide of a gay German Jew, Albrecht Stein, the lover of the tortured hero of Before the Fall, while the second—from the 2008 horror movie Quarantine—shows the professional woman lead character Angela (a TV reporter) being dragged off into the terrifying darkness by rabid, zombie-like people who really don’t seem much like people at all anymore. The images of the two falling or being pulled into nothingness are both similar, horrifying, and haunting. The point about the dangers of being in a marginal group are almost too obvious to belabor, although one has the sense that being part of the powerful “in” group—whether being a Nazi or an uninfected male—offers no more than a brief reprieve in our collective, ever-accelerating plunge into the abyss.

It seems silly to say I hope you like slideshow, which takes two songs about deeply individual feelings of guilt and transform them into a means of exploring our collective guilt (at least I’ve given you fair warning about what’s coming), but I hope you are moved by it, and that some of that emotional rearrangement might result in positive action.

The Individual Psychology of Group Hate: and Why It Matters

The Individual Psychology of Group Hate: and Why It Matters

Previously posted on Daily Kos. I remember having a debate on the death penalty back when I was in grade school.  The overwhelming consensus of these admittedly young and inexperienced thinkers was that the death sentence was appropriate for guilty offenders (I assume we were talking about punishments for murder, but I don’t really remember).  Someone brought up the fact that not all of those found guilty and executed by the state were, in fact, guilty.  Again, the vast majority of people seemed to feel that although the court-sanctioned death of an innocent was unfortunate, it was just the price you had to pay in order to insure that the guilty received proper punishment.

That always bugged me, the idea that punishment was more important than innocence.  An article I read yesterday by Willa Michener, “The Individual Psychology of Group Hate” in The Journal of Hate Studies, explained with terrifying evidence, logic, and clarity why human beings have so little compunction about punishing the innocent along with the guilty (or even in place of them).  This behavior is called “third-party revenge” or “vicarious revenge” and sometimes “vicarious retribution.” Prof. Michener’s examples hit me like a gut punch, because the first of them I had never been able to get out of my mind, and the other two were so completely (and successfully) downplayed by a complicit media that I don’t even remember hearing about them.  In Michener’s article, after looking at some transcripts of Howard Stern’s radio show from 9/11 in which callers demand mass lynching of Muslims, the nuclear annihilation of Afghanistan, and to “kill all their babies” (which actually don’t sound that different from some of the stuff Ted Cruz has said recently), the author goes on to note

Four days later, Balbir Singh Sodi was shot to death as he planted flowers outside his filling station in Mesa, Arizona. News accounts stated blandly that Frank Roque killed him in revenge for the attacks of September 11 (Gallegus, 2001). They did not explain why Roque had targeted a person who was not a perpetrator of the 9/11 crimes. It was assumed that readers would already know that people take revenge against innocents who belong to the same group as a guilty person. It was pointed out that Roque got his victim’s group membership wrong, since Balbir Singh Sodhi was neither Muslim nor Arab. On the same day, a Pakistani Muslim was shot to death in Dallas, Texas, and an Egyptian Christian was killed in San Gabriel, California (Mozingo, 2001; Vaishnav, 2001).  [Michener 16]

I had heard about Mr. Sodi’s death in Arizona, and been very disturbed by it, but how did I miss the other two? (Answer: they got very little coverage in the media).  The present relevance of this seems almost too obvious to explain, as we struggle to distinguish group guilt from individual guilt.  The idea that “If one did it, then they all did it, or at least any of them might do it, cause ‘That’s how they are ‘” (Michener 17), is the unstated but near universal assumption made by an awful lot of Americans. With every radical Islamic terrorist attack, Muslims are called upon to denounce their fanatical co-religionists (which they repeatedly have, although it is rarely reported in the MSM)—the only thing that will show their critics that an individual American Muslim is truly against the terrorists is going to fight them in Syria or Afghanistan.  This point is often explicitly made against Syrian refugees: if they are truly the victims of ISIS violence, then why aren’t they back in Syria dying and fighting in the war against their victimizers? Giving up your life in the struggle is probably the only way most Muslim Americans could convince these critics of their sincerity and—from the perspective of these Real Americans back home—that would be a win-win—not only do Muslims (especially young males) disappear from American society, but Real Americans can get your stuff (never underestimate the naked greed beneath the naked hate), which—at least in their minds—has been unfairly kept from them.

Michener continues—after an analysis of many cultures, anecdotes, and even chimpanzees—he explains how

we are in a better position [now] to explain third-party revenge. The explanation requires two steps. The first is that the initial offense by members of another group causes ingroup members to see the entire alien group as “enemy.” Respect and empathy are inhibited or withdrawn towards individual enemies. The second step is that the emotions of reciprocity are engaged: hurt and fury and vindictiveness. These are emotions that had their evolutionary origin in encounters between individuals and small factions (de Waal, 1982). Oddly, the attack on innocent and helpless members of another group is accompanied by an emotion of moral self-righteousness (Lickel et al., 2006). The oddness consists in the conflict with ordinary moral codes that are applied within the group. Some cultures have noticed the oddness and proscribed third-party revenge, or directed that it cannot be used against children, or against women, or against unarmed persons caught unaware. Nevertheless, the impulse towards it, righteousness and all, can often be detected in people from these cultures (de Zayas, 1986; Ignatieff, 1997).  [Michener 34]

Michener also explains the “if we attack them, they must be enemies” phenomenon, as well as how we tend to look at criminals within our own group as individuals, and thus not extended the perceived guilt to anyone outside the perpetrator. All of this is demonstrated through copious evidence and scholarly citation (it is an academic article, not a popular one, but more than worth the effort). Chillingly, these inherited traits, in  the proper environment (think  hate radio and Fox News), can lead to what Michener terms the Kristallnacht effect, which can be summarized as “we did it / they deserved it / hit them again.” After reading Michener’s article, I realize that a self-justifying escalation of self-righteous violence, with all its attendant self-justifying savagery on the innocent and helpless,  no longer seems like a distant historical curiosity, but rather something that is deeply embedded in human nature and a horrifying possibility in the near future.

Substitute: Richard Donald Milhouse John Nixon Trump

Substitute: Richard Donald Milhouse John Nixon Trump

Previously posted, in somewhat different form, on The Daily Kos. The Who song “Substitute” always seemed to be a perfect description of how I lived my life, displacing or substituting easier or less anxiety-producing people, goals, and life perspectives for ones that I seemed unwilling or unable to cope with. Studying medieval literature and religion thus substituted for the Catholicism I was raised in, my mentor became a kind of substitute father who I felt it was at least possible to please, and alcohol replaced romantic relationships. Everybody does this to some degree, in part simply because circumstances or the inner drives of our personalities force us to.

This slideshow applies this playful early Who song to our current president, who of course displaced Obama (displacement being basically part of how our political system is structured), a change that I believe represents a yearning to return to an even earlier time and president when—at least in the cultural memory of certain segments of the electorate—“other” people knew their place and ethical behavior was neither practiced nor really expected as long as a superficial respectability and deniability was maintained, even in the face of considerable factual evidence.

On a personal level, you don’t usually actually marry your Mom, but you might marry someone who styles their hair in a remarkably similar way; when booze loses its ability to depress your anxiety or create a false sense of self-confidence, you find other substances or life strategies to substitute for it. In its extreme form, you end up living a kind of fake life, in which legitimacy is conferred by status symbols and your ability to get other people—and by a kind of feedback loop even yourself—to accept them as authentic. Oh well, before digging myself into a hole I can’t get out of by pretending to a knowledge of human psychology and motive that I don’t actually have, here’s the brief slideshow. This is the 2nd version of “Substitute” from The BBC Sessions album (a kind of substitute “Substitute”), which I liked for its crispness, concision, and the overt sarcasm in Roger Daltrey’s vocals, which is much more muted in some of the group’s more pop recordings of the song. I kept the count in, possibly as a symbol of inevitable repetitiveness of such behavior, but mostly because it sounds pretty cool.

By the way, that rather cryptic photograph I picked to illustrate the lyric, “the simple things you see are all complicated,” showing Woody Guthrie, Trump looming over an apartment block, and Trump’s father Frederick, refers to this story, which I hadn’t been aware of before. Speaking of things I had not been aware of, here is a possibly even more danceable, and even more depressing vision than the one above. Here is a song–not from half a century ago, but from “Now,” that I ran into about five minutes ago, and was apparently first posted to YouTube two (now three) days ago. Wow. This so nails me, or at least the me of a just a few months ago.  It doesn’t help that the “viewer” character who ages during the video really comes to look like a thinner me, the fear is certainly there in the eyes, giving way to a kind of tired, hungover stare. If the Townshend song focuses on how substitution works in personal relationships, the Moby song wants to illustrate its psychological cost in the most devastating way possible.  Anyway, although I had nothing to do with this video, it seems to be about me, and this is a personal blog, so I’m posting it here.

Apart from a considerable production budget, Moby’s singing, writing, arranging talent, and producing his song and the video attached to it, and his rather penetrating ability to express the depressive mind and how it reacts to the world around it, what’s his got that mine hasn’t?

Much Better Bets: A Slideshow about Romance, People, & Pets

The two slideshows I’ve done on Loudon Wainwright songs (“Men,” and “Dead Man”) exemplify Loudon in his serious, almost philosophical mode, although he is probably better known for his sardonic, humorous side as well as an almost brutal, self-mocking honesty and insight. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a funny song (the audience laughs, anyway), but like a lot of humor it has a rather cutting edge to it that cuts rather close to home.  Personally, I think it would be a great song for a holiday for all those people without Valentines (perhaps February 15th, or maybe the Ides of March).  It is also a tribute to all those non-human companions that make life bearable (ha! Note the visual pun in the last frame).  The song is, of course, “Much Better Bets,” and this is the version from his “So Damn Happy” live album (a great album, by the way).

This is for Sharon, Curt, and Ziggy (they’ll know why if they watch it to the end).