This is essentially a Mother’s Day post, although I must admit that it is also a misinterpretation. I discovered only yesterday (on a Stingray interview) that
“Traveller” (from 2016’s Goodnight City album) is a song Martha wrote in response to the death of Thomas Bartlett’s brother, Ezra, from cancer at the age of forty in 2014 (Thomas co-produced and played piano on Goodnight City). I’ll include the interview as the first comment. It certainly changed the way I looked at the song. I had always thought “Traveller” was about her Mother, Kate Mcgarrigle, who died of cancer in 2009, and certainly many of the lyrics would seem to apply quite well to her tragically early passing. So well, in fact, that I am going to put it up as it is (I made the video-slideshow a couple of weeks ago), while acknowledging that it is in fact built upon a false premise. To me it seems okay to do this simply because the song speaks so eloquently to anyone who has lost someone in an untimely manner, but especially to cancer (which the song mentions). Ultimately, it may not be the most appropriate Mother’s Day post, but it feels right, and seems a fitting tribute to both Ezra Bartlett and Kate..
This slideshow i s actually set to two very different songs that both have Texas settings. The first, by Denton band Deep Blue Something (best known for their 1995 hit “Breakfast at Tiffanys”), is a deeply affectionate portrait of Denton and East Texas generally. If anything, the slideshow is even more expressive of this sense of place than the song is, although I also personalize it by including photos of several people I actually do miss from Texas (I have gotten their permission to use their photos). The second song, by Warren Zevon, is from his penulitimate album, My Ride’s Here. Although he spent much of his adult life in California, he places this song in a rather surreal East Texas. This seems fitting, because (at least to me) Texas could be a rather surreal place. As it is also a song about death (Warren died of cancer a little more than a year after the album was released), it seems an appropriate place to end this trilogy of slideshows.
“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 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.