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.
This is a slideshow I originally posted on the “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong” group on Facebook, then on The Daily Kos, but it has garnered so much positive response (for me, anyway, so the bar is pretty low), that I thought I would post it here. It is sort of appropriate for the upcoming July 4th holiday, although it is more marked by a tone of elegiac doom than celebratory patriotism (Memorial Day would have been more appropriate, but I just finished it yesterday morning). I have found out some interesting stuff from the numerous responses I have gotten. As one of my Facebook respondents pointed out, Phil had an earlier song on another submarine disaster (the USS Thresher) that appears on his “All the News thats Fit to Sing” album. Also, according to one of my Daily Kos respondents, it was written in the key of D minor, and I must say the effect is still incredibly haunting, and I’m sure I’ve listened to it more than a hundred times.
This slideshow inspired by one of Phil’s most evocative and moving songs, “The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns” (from his “Rehearsals for Retirement” album. Actually, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I learned it was based on an actual event, the disappearance of the nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589) on May 22, 1968, about three months before Phil went to Chicago. I was nine years old at the time, but passionately interested in news and politics, although I have to admit I have no memory of hearing about submarine’s disappearance at the time (1968 was a very busy and rather horrific year). Although there have been lots of theories, many designed to stoke cold war hysteria and increase public support for the ever-expanding military industrial complex, apparently the sub imploded because it went too deep. As the Scorpion’s nickname among some of her crew members was “scrapiron,”and she apparently had not been fully serviced, I suspect structural deficiencies had something to do with it. The audio at the end of the video, after Phil’s song concludes, is the audio record of the implosion (the first boom is the actual implosion, followed by a series of diminishing echoes). If I am reading the recording correctly (posted above), everybody on board basically died within two seconds, probably crushed by the implosion rather than drowning (of course, this was not public knowledge when Phil wrote the song).
I have tried to do justice to the pathos of the terrible loss of life of the tragedy, and the suffering of the sailor’s surviving friends and relations, while also trying to illustrate how Phil was using his poetic imagination to transform the incident into a means to explore his own growing depression, before being pretty much tipped into the abyss by the tear gas and riot sticks of August. Hope you like it.