There’s something strongly aesthetic in Rufus Wainwright’s appeal, one that goes beyond physical beauty. It’s there in his voice, his melodies, his considerable artistic ambitions and range of endeavor, even in his occasionally playful sense of fashion. I think that is one of the reasons why I chose this is as followup to the Bluebirds Fly and Hallelujan slideshows. Certainly and underlying theme of that was the potential transcendance of art and even the artist in that he or she can continue creating minor (or even major) epiphanies in people’s lives long after they are gone. This one, sticking fairly closely to the song’s narrative, looks more at art’s role in our more personal, private lives, even in those parts of ourselves that we never reveal to anyone. The main liberty it takes is the way it plays with subject and object, so that Rufus is sometimes the desiring subject (the young girl who narrates the song in memory), and at other times the desired object: The Art Teacher. Hope you like it (the audio is Rufus’ performance on Tiny Desk Concert).
I was somewhat taken aback when my when–after watching the slideshow–my psychologist suggested that it felt so personal because it was, and that the woman narrator’s memory of the art teacher paralleled my own with an important person in my life. After a moment’s reflection, I realized he was right, so this one’s for Gordon, and Rufus, 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.
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.
I was just rewatching the Sunshine Superman DVD about Donvan’s life last weekend, and found it fascinating–among the many things I had forgotten about him was all the time he spent with the Beatles in India, becoming part of the group that surrounded Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I had been wanting to make a slideshow about “Epistle to Dippy,” a song I really liked when I was about ten (I may not have been too sure what an epistle was, but I knew I liked the song), but couldn’t quite decide what approach to take to this rather oblique song. Suddenly the young monk meditating amid misty mountains made perfect sense, and I basically treated the “you” the song addresses as in fact Donovan himself as he is introduced to these new, “all kinds of windows,” perspectives on life. I have read, by the way, that the song was actually written to a friend who had joined the military. That may well be true (although its certainly isn’t obvious), the interpretation I offer here (which is really is intended to be evocative rather than prescriptive), I don’t pretend to any genuine knowledge of what Donovan really “meant” by the song. It’s still a great song, whatever you think of therse video, although of course I hope you enjoy both.
Quick note: this is actually an alternative take I found on YouTube rather than the single version. Although done in a much more baroque style than the hit single, it has a wonderful swirling energy that I like as much as the more popular version.
This was an attempt to do a fairly straightforward fan video. While the expectation for a “hurdy gurdy man” to resolve the “crying of humanity” is probably naieve, it certainly is attractive. I also loved all the antique photos of street musicians I ran across, as well as some nice ones of Donovan. Hope you enjoy it.
This is actually a slideshow I made in response to a comment I got on my “Unofficial:Loudon Wainwright III” Facebook page. John Burns mentioned that he had just been talking about “Dead Skunk” a couple of days before. I responded that people really seemed to like the slideshows I’ve done that feature animals prominently (“Me and My Friend the Cat” has gotten almost twice as many views as my second most popular slideshow), and that I thought he had just given me an idea for my next one. This is the result. It features lots of animals–mostly dead ones (it’s basically a funny, peppy song about roadkill). The audio by the way, is from a YouTube video of Loudon performing on Rockpalast, a German TV show (I think this is from 1984). This is why the end is so abrupt (the clip just ends there), and I tried to fill it out a bit with a couple of appropriate sound effects from iMovie. I also included some of Loudon’s introduction, partly for historical interest, and partly because it allowed me to insert a little bit of political satire. I apologize if you are offended by it, although I suspect that there is not all that much overlap between passionate Loudon Wainwright III fans and passionate fans of the current administration, so I don’t expect it to be a huge problem.
To a large extent, this diary was inspired by a recent visit to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. I am sure most visitors are gratified at the largely positive and almost worshipful treatment of their hero, the man who proclaimed “morning in America” and “compassionate conservatism.” I have to admit I had the opposite reaction, in that the visit forced to me to remember and confront how much I truly loathed Reagan and much of what he came to be associated with. I didn’t think much of him as an actor, disliked him as governor, and found him fundamentally dishonest and actively harmful as president. Although technically started by Nixon, one of the many movements Ronald and Nancy Reagan are given credit for promoting is what has come to be called the war on drugs.
While no doubt the problem is with me, I have never been able to summon up the kind of virulent contempt and passionate hatred for people who use, sometimes become addicted to, and even sell drugs for a profit. This is despite the fact that I have been repeatedly told by my parents, teachers, countless TV shows, movies, and even some popular music (e.g. Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done“) that unperscribed drugs were BAD, the people who used them WEAK, and those who sold them downright EVIL. Speaking as an alcoholic who has used drugs in the past, as well as known other people who used them, I suspect I have a natural sympathy for the weak, a trait I do not tend to identify with being naturally joined to being either bad or evil. On the contrary, I tend to see them as easily victimized by ruthless, powerful, and often rich people (three traits that are more often than not held up for admiration in America). On a more personal level, the isolation, anxiety, shame, and pain of living in the modern world seemed to practically cry out in anguish for some sort of chemical response, although suicide was always a possible (and not wholly unattractive) option. For me it was mostly alcohol (which I would still call my drug of choice, although I am currently not drinking one day at a time), but I certainly experimented with others, mostly depressants.
There has always been a fundamental hypocrisy in the approach to drugs in the United States. As has been extensively documented, marijuana was largely criminalized as a way of keeping “those people”–mostly darker skinned–controlled and in line. If you were rich, doctors would gladly perscribe you whatever you wanted, and if you were white and had the proper (that is, conservative) outlook, you could happily abuse while heaping another sort of abuse on those who lacked your “connections.” If caught, you rarely lost much by it and tended to be quickly forgiven (celebrity also plays a role here) as, for example, Rush Limbaugh was. If it ended badly (e.g. Elvis), you became an object for sympathy and prayer, emotions and actions rarely extended towards those not in the proper sociocultural group.
Drugs profits were also easily justified by “higher” causes, such as fighting communisim (e.g. those tens of thousands of people murdered in central America) or radical Islam (e.g. once the Taliban were defeated and the Americans came in, opium production skyrocketed–somebody is getting rich–and I suspect it isn’t just people with Middle Eastern complexions). The cocaine sold to finance the contras, for example, certainly ended up in the hands of inner city youth who–if they didn’t kill each other fighting over market share–could conveniently be used to supply the burgeoning prison industry, with the added “benefit” (in many states) of permenantly losing their “right” to vote. It seems no accident that our current leader, both expands private for-profit prisons and cracks (note the pun) down on pot on the same day.
This slideshow is very much in line with some of my others on serious subjects, such as Slave to the (Algo)Rhythm, They Moved the Moon, and Guilt, but it reverses the pattern of some of my other extended audio-visual meditations on topics in that–unlike, say “Bitter Salt“–it goes from the geneneral and historical to the private and more personal. The first two songs–virtually unheard in the US (I think you can figure out why)–more or less embrace the idea of taking drugs. Spacemen 3‘s “Come Down Easy” (from their classic album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To–surely one of the greatest album titles ever) is set against America’s dirty war in Central America and the generally unpunished or pardoned perpetrators, which in and of itself–if one truly tried to discover what was going on (almost no one did, and those few were either silenced or hounded to their graves). This followed by Black Grape‘s hilarious parody of the Reagan’s drug war from their Stupid, Stupid Stupid album, “Get Higher.” Generally, the laughter keeps the tears at bay. Finally, Barenaked Ladies‘ “The War on Drugs” from their Everything to Everyone album explores the reasons why and the costs of taking drugs, both on the individual and those around them in a way that is both emotionally moving and–especially in the sudden, anticlimactic end–quietly devastating, musically replicating how society treats such “disposable” people.