This is another one of Townes’ more oblique and allusive songs (cf. “Our Mother the Mountain”), and I certainly see how one could interpret in different ways–most obviously as about alcohol and/or drugs. As I am now looking at those as sort of a way of avoiding the anxiety caused by avoiding rather than confronting mortality, I of course place the song in the visual context of grief, loss, isolation, and death. As you might guess, I’ve been reading Irvin D. Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, and its explorations have unquestionably had an effect on me. In some sense this is another slideshow about existential dread, and about some of the more dysfunctional ways we deal with pain. At the same time, Townes has created a beautiful, mysterious song about pain, loss, and how we flawed human beings deal with such things, and I hope that the images, timings and movements I have chosen for the slideshow do it justice. I really believe that quote from Kathleen Raine above, by the way, and it also ends the slideshow.
Here’s a video that I just ran into last night for the first time (I didn’t even think Moby was still relevant–obviously, I just hadn’t been paying attention). In some sense it explores some of the same issues–isolation, pain, grief, empathy, and how we deal we such things–but on a much more universal and apocalyptic level.
Another meditation and mortality and what constitutes a well spent life, inspired by another Townes Van Zandt song. Like Phil Ochs, he’s just another gift that keeps on giving, even long after he is gone. For Townes, obviously. And for Karen.
I’ve always found the song “Men” by Loudon Wainwright III strangely moving, ever since I first heard it on his “So Damn Happy” album. Although the concept of manhood it talks about is somewhat outdated (it was written before women were allowed to serve in combat positions in the the U.S. military), it forces me to ask some profound questions about ultimate value, as well as questions about some of the ways in which masculinity has traditionally been conceived and the conflicts and contradictions that come along with those ways of thinking. I wonder how often “women and children first,” has actually been put into practice?
Sometimes it has been (the Titanic’s 1912 sinking is certainly the most famous example, but I have little doubt there were others, some probably never noted in the historical record), and men have sacrificed their lives for others either because these others were seen as more valuable, or at least having more potential value. The song, however, is hardly a celebration of male heroism, although it acknowledges its possibility; instead, it notes how the world can be a place of horror, and that it men bear a considerable burden of responsibility for it. Man’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of circumstances is merely a subset of powerlessness of all human beings coming to terms with the final truths of existence, because of course everyone—man, woman, child, emperor, and serf—eventually dies.
I was seven when I first became aware of my own mortality. I was looking at my hand, and I suddenly became aware of all the fine lines, virtually webs of wrinkles on my hand. All at once, getting older was not something to look forward too, a future in which I had ever greater control over myself and my environment, but instead one in which my body would deteriorate, wither, and die, and that it was a process that would occur regardless of my desires or best efforts, which might (with some luck) temporarily put off but never avoid my inevitable extinction. It was as if my whole perspective on my existence pivoted around the focal point that was my hand, and nothing would ever be quite the same again.
What I am describing, of course, is the near universal experience (assuming you live long enough) of apprehending my own mortality, essentially my first encounter with existential dread. I was immediately struck by Loudon Wainwright III’s song, “Dead Man,” which I first heard a few days ago, a song that seems to have been inspired by his father’s death and going through his father’s effects at some time after the funeral. As is so often the case with Loudon’s songs, I was immediately struck by a painful honesty, leavened with his characteristic humor, and an absolute willingness to apply his insights to his own life.
The slideshow began as an exploration of universal human experience, but I realized that one could apply it to Hair Furor, and that is what I do in this version (I get a certain schadenfreude from imagining his horror if he ever saw it, which I know perfectly well is extremely unlikely). The images I picked to illustrate the first two verses are intended to illustrate mortality’s universality, while the last verse focuses more on our current leader. However, the insights apply to all human beings, including myself, and I suspect I’ll be doing another version with photographs of myself in the final section. In any case, I hope you appreciate the song (the brilliant lead guitar work is courtesy of Richard Thompson) and aren’t offended by the slide show, which will probably make some people uncomfortable, more because of the issues it explores than any particularly graphic image.