Bluebirds Fly: A Slideshow Inspired by Rufus Wainwright and His Mom, Kate McGarrigle

Bluebirds Fly: A Slideshow Inspired by Rufus Wainwright and His Mom, Kate McGarrigle

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.

 

 

 

Boulder to Birmingham: A Tribute to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons

Boulder to Birmingham: A Tribute to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons

This is a slideshow I did about a week ago, and have been kind of wondering what to do with as it has a kind of romanticism I don’t really think is characteristic of me. However, it also focuses on loss, grief, and moving past these emotions so that part certainly fits. I’ve liked Emmylou Harris ever since I saw her open for Joe Walsh back in the seventies at the Shrine auditorium. As it was basically a rock crowd there to hear “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Walk Away” (as was I), some people in the audience were rather rude to her, but she kept going like the true professional (and very classy lady) she was and is. After what she had been through, I doubt a few boos and some heckling even registered.

While I am by no means an expert on all things Emmylou Harris (I actually tend to avoid gossip columns or even celebrity biographies of artists while they are still alive–it can be disillusioning and for me–frankly–it’s always been the work that is important), it is widely acknowledged that this is a song about her reaction to the death of her former lover and mentor, Gram Parsons, who died of a morphine overdose in 1973, a few weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday.  He had already been a member of The Byrds, a founding member of highly influential (but never very commercially successful) The Flying Burrito Brothers, and had formed his own backup band who toured as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. It was with this last group, that his connection with Emmylou really developed, as she was a backup singer and sometime soloist with the band. They also apparently had a fairly intense romantic relationship, although I believe they had separated (I think at least in part over Gram’s drug use) by the time he died. Emmylou–in a way I deeply admire–turned her loss, grief, and ultimate belief in herself into this beautiful song (she actually is not a very prolific songwriter, but the ones she does write are almost always worth listening to), which has been covered by many other artists. The audio here by the way, is actually from the Starland Vocal Band, whose lead singer (Taffy Nivert) does a remarkable job of channeling Emmylou’s voice and spirit. While I like the version on her Pieces of the Sky debut album, I don’t think Warner Brothers really figured out how to capture the fullness and richness of her voice in the studio until her third album, Luxury Liner, which I believe was the first one I bought, and I think produced her first big mainstream success with her version of “Pancho and Lefty.” I seem to remember she even performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House. Of course, I then went out and bought her two earlier albums.  By the way, this is not an attempt to do a biography of their relationship, but more a kind of elegiac audio-visual poem inspired by the song that acknowledges the importance of their relationship to the song’s composition (I really love that quote in the penulimate photo–it’s quintessential Emmylou). Hope you like it.

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.

They Moved the Moon: The California Genocide; a slideshow set to two Warren Zevon Songs

They Moved the Moon: The California Genocide; a slideshow set to two Warren Zevon Songs

Also posted, in slightly different form, about four days ago on The Daily Kos. This diary and the slideshow which accompanies it, were inspired by Meteor Blades’ diary of June 25th, “On the 141st Anniversary of Custer’s Well-Remembered Last Stand, why is California’s Genocide Forgotten?” As a native Californian, albeit of European ancestry, I was wondering how I could have missed this, although I was certainly aware of the controversy surrounding Father Junipero Serra’s sanctification, as well as more vaguely aware of the lynchings, riots, and institutional racism occasionally (as I then thought) practiced against Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese Americans, and African-Americans. I was not aware of how systematic, murderously successful, and popularly and legally prevalent it was. When Meteor Blades’ title asks how people could have forgotten it, I found myself asking how I could have forgotten it? The answer is, as I am sure is true for most white Californians, is that we never learned about it in the first place, and what scraps we did know were largely the product of a highly selective and—let’s face it—whitewashed popular culture (as I remember, there were a couple of episodes of Bonanza—and I think one of Gunsmoke—that dealt with racism against Chinese immigrants, and every two or three seasons one of the longer running westerns would have an episode that would at least obliquely address unfair treatment of Native Americans).

Not to rehearse Meteor Blades well-researched and far superior diary, he recounts the steady, popularly-supported decimation of California’s indigenous population:

There was one massacre after another after another after another, in each of which more California Indians were killed than were soldiers of Custer’s regiment in Montana. White Californians, the vast majority of them newcomers, had reduced the California Indian population to about 30,000 by 1873.

Even more appalling (although not so surprising, given that I had been living in East Texas for twenty years by this time, so I was perfectly aware not only that such things had happened in the past, but that they were still going on), were the ways in which the legal, judicial, electoral, and economic systems were manipulated so that Native Americans could be rendered powerless, exploited, stolen from, and murdered with impunity, with the public support of both politicians and many local newspapers. According to Benjamin Madley in the Los Angeles Times (quoted at greater and even more horrifying length in Meteor Blades’ diary),

California’s Legislature first convened in 1850, and one of its initial orders of business was banning all Indians from voting, barring those with “one-half of Indian blood” or more from giving evidence for or against whites in criminal cases, and denying Indians the right to serve as jurors. California legislators later banned Indians from serving as attorneys. In combination, these laws largely shut Indians out of participation in and protection by the state legal system. This amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to those who attacked them.

Institutionalized racism and oppression thus go back to the very roots of California statehood, by no means limited to Orange County or South Central, as sometimes seems to be case in media portrayals. Of course, racism, brutality, and forced conversions dated back to the very founding of the Spanish Mission system, but there were qualitative and quantitive differences once the Gold Rush started and California joined the United States as it hurtled towards civil war. As Iberian points out in his comment on Meteor Blades’ diary:

The Spanish system and missions where oppressive, abusive and murderous but they were not genocidal. There wasn’t any intent of eliminating the native population. After the gold rush and statehood the native populations were intentionally exterminated, and the mixed and Spanish/Mexican populations prosecuted, assaulted and dispossessed in many cases, other Hispanics that came also for the gold rush also assaulted and the anti-Chinese hysteria raging in pogroms. All of it not only sanctioned by local and state officials but at the request of the local government and even California Senators in DC. Ethnic cleansing in California has a horrible history the worse for the native populations, but extending to many other ethnic groups.

As I remember, when I studied the local Native American tribes of Kern County back in grammar school, they were presented quite sympathetically: I still remember watching short films showing how the local natives ground acorns and made meal, while men hunted deer and participated in fascinating sweat lodge ceremonies. I realize now, of course, how dangerously easy it is to romanticize a people who essentially no longer exist. Such appropriated but conveniently invisible peoples provide one’s existence with history, continuity, and a kind of Edenic past; while by their absence they make no claims upon you in the present. With this in mind, here is a slideshow set to Warren Zevon’s “They Moved the Moon” and “Join Me in L.A.” I had considered using his brilliant “Carmelita” in the second half, but I must admit I kind of like it this way. Although probably not as well known, “Join Me” has a kind of snarky energy, and permits an ending of hopeful defiance—if not of optimism—about the future (I also learned a bit about the Tongva and other tribes that inhabited the Los Angeles basin, so the song allowed me to focus the slideshow even more locally in its second half). I had already done a slideshow on Holocaust denial, and another on the persecution of marginal groups from the Middle Ages to the present, but I felt maybe it was time to explore something more uncomfortably close to home. Anyway, here it is—while the slideshow doesn’t begin to do justice to the magnitude of the event, it does do something. What that is, remains for you to decide:

Kathleen: Another slideshow about mortality, this one inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song.

Kathleen: Another slideshow about mortality, this one inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song.

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.