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.
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.
To some extent, this video/slideshow is a product on my anticipating getting to see Rufus (and possibly even meet him) at the Northern Stars event at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles this Sunday. I actually had another slideshow ready to go, which I quite like, on “The Art Teacher,” but it is more or less set in New York. In other words, it was not Canadian enough. Bluebirds Fly, my last slideshow has gotten a good deal of positive response, and I suspect one of the keys to its success was its sense of place in that it is very much set in Montreal.
Certainly Rufus’ interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of his most successful and famous covers, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it until I ran into Choir! Choir Choir!’s version on YouTube (a highly successful video on just about every level, by the way). This 2016 performance was part of the Illuminato festival in Toronto, a festival which has been going on since 2007, and that Rufus has been involved in at least 3 or 4 times, according to the Luminato Wikipedia page. I have been to Toronto three or four times, but never for this festival, which I now would really like to attend, possibly in 2018. I quickly found some terrific images from the festival, and I had the idea of interweaving slideshows with the video (not exactly a mashup, but certainly a heavily edited version of the original). Thus the verses are mostly slideshows portraying details described in the song, often illustrated with evocative images from the festival, and sometimes with pictures of Rufus (who I sort of re-conceptualize as David), while the choruses are mostly from the original video (the most difficult part was getting the audio to synch properly). Almost half of this passage2truth edit is simply the Choir! Choir! Choir! performance with Rufus (which is pretty terrific), I keep the original end credits, and try to make clear that I am only responsible for the inserted slideshows and the edits (in other words, where film clips begin and end). I think it may have even more impact than the original, but I am probably too close to it to judge. In any event, I hope you like it or–if nothing else–it will inspire you to go see the original uncut (or at least not by me) video on YouTube (it’s got almost six million views). In a way I can’t quite explain (other than it being the Toronto-centric counterpart to the Montreal-centered slideshow from last week), it does seem like a natural extension of the feelings first explored in Bluebirds Fly.
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.