Song of the Day: War in Music (Day Seven). “Generals Gathered in Their Masses, Just Like Witches at Black Masses”.

1970 was a busy year for rock band Black Sabbath.  In February, they released their debut self-titled album, following it up in September of the same year with their second album ParanoidParanoid has come to be regarded as one of the most quintessential and influential albums in heavy metal history and features several of Black Sabbath’s signature songs, including the title track, Iron Man and opening track, the anti-war anthem, War Pigs.

In 2006, in Black Sabbath:  Doom Let Loose:  An Illustrated History, a book by Martin Popoff, drummer Bill Ward recalled performing an early version of what would become War Pigs as early as 1968 at The Beat Club in Switzerland.  During their early period, the band were often required to play several sets in one night but because of the limited amount of material at their disposal, would perform lengthy jam sessions to fill out the sets.  In conversation with Wes Orshoski for Billboard in 2002, guitarist Tony Iommi confirmed that War Pigs did indeed originate from these live jam sessions:  “We were playing this club in Switzerland, it was the early days and of course, there were about five people there.  So we used to get bored and start making up stuff.  And we used to do a long jam.  And that’s when I came up with War Pigs”.

War Pigs criticises those who wage and carry out war but keep their distance through fear of getting their hands dirty, a case in point at that current time, the United States and the ongoing war in Vietnam.  In Carol Clerk’s 2002 book Diary of a Madman:  Ozzy Osbourne:  The Stories Behind the Songs, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne states that the band “knew nothing about Vietnam.  It’s just an anti-war song”.  However, bassist and War Pigs lyricist Geezer Butler told Martin Popoff for the 2006 book Black Sabbath:  Doom Let Loose:  An Illustrated History that War Pigs is “totally against the Vietnam War, about how these rich politicians and rich people start all the wars for their benefit and get all the poor people to die for them”.

War Pigs was originally titled ‘Walpurgis’ and dealt with the witches’ Sabbath.  Walpurgis Night is the English translation of Walpurgisnacht, a German name for the night of the 30th April, the eve of the feat day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th century abbess in Germany.  In German folklore, Walpurgisnacht, also referred to as Hexennacht, literally translated as “Witches’ Night”, is believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains.  The Harz Mountains lay between the rivers Weser and Elbe in central Germany.

Butler explained to Noisecreep in 2010 that “Walpurgis is sort of like Christmas for Satanists.  And to me, war was the big Satan.  It wasn’t about politics or government or anything.  It was (about ) evil.  So I was saying ‘Generals gathered in the masses, Just like witches at black masses’ to make an analogy.  But when we brought it to the record company, they thought Walpurgis sounded too satanic.  And that’s when we turned it into War Pigs.  But we didn’t change the lyrics, because they were already finished”.  Whether accidentally a song about the horror and destruction of war or not, what is true is that War Pigs is now an essential part of the anti-war song genre.

With the opening lines of War Pigs, “Generals gathered in their masses, Just like witches at black masses”, Black Sabbath, in a leftover element from when the song was named Walpurgis, compare the meeting of witches with meetings between politicians where wars such as the Vietnam War are conceived.  Think here of the War Room scene in Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

In the following lines, “Evil minds that plot destruction, Sorcerers of death’s construction”, the song tells of the way in which the generals, through their plotting of destruction, serve only to cause death through lengthy conflict as their primary purpose.

Following this, the lines “In the fields the bodies burning, As the war machine keeps turning” refer to thousands upon thousands of deaths of civilians and soldiers caused by the US’s bomb and napalm air-strikes on Vietnam.  “Death and hatred to mankind, poisoning their brainwashed minds” continues the song, telling of how little regard the masters of war have for human life.

In the song’s second verse, we find the lyrics “Politicians hide themselves away, They only started the war, Why should they go out to fight?  They leave that role to the poor” which speak of the upper class politicians’ exploitation of the seemingly expandable lower classes in order to carry out tasks in the war that the politicians do not want to.

The following verse starts with the line “Time will tell on their power minds”, where the band tell of how those who start wars will eventually get their comeuppance for causing countless numbers of deaths.  “Making war just for fun, Treating people just like pawns in chess” continues the third verse, condemning draft into the US army where soldiers were treated like pawns, low powered chess pieces routinely sacrificed in order to achieve a tactical or strategic purpose.   The final line of verse three, “Wait ‘til their judgement day comes” reiterates the idea of comeuppance talked of in the opening line of the verse, this time introducing the biblical idea of Judgement Day.

These lines and the lines “Now in darkness world stops turning, Ashes where the bodies burning, No more war pigs have the power” in the fourth and final verse are a prelude to the aforementioned Judgement Day where the war pigs will be punished.  This judgement Day arrives in the next few lines of the song, “Hand of God has struck the hour, Day of judgement, God is calling, On their knees the war pigs crawling, Begging mercy for their sins”, where we find the war pigs begging to be admitted into heaven, but as we see in the last line of the verse, “Satan laughing, spreads his wings”, they are destined to end up in hell for their terrible sins, with Satan amused at the politicians’ pleas for forgiveness.

War Pigs was also the original title of the song’s parent album.  However, the band’s record company, Vertigo Records, allegedly changed the name to Paranoid due to fear of backlash from supporters of the ongoing Vietnam War.  Additionally, the first single from the album, Paranoid, reached number 4 in the UK singles chart and the record company felt that the album would be easier to sell if it was named after the successful single.  Despite the fact that the album was, in part, renamed Paranoid in a shrewd marketing move made by the record company, it was actually a brilliant move.  At the time in which Paranoid was released, the Cold War, of which Vietnam was a proxy-war, was in full swing and paranoia regarding the nuclear bomb was rife.

In his 2010 autobiography I Am Ozzy, Osbourne says of the album’s name change:

“Paranoid went straight to number four in the British singles chart and got us on Top of the Pops – alongside Cliff Richard, of all people.  The only problem was the album cover, which had been done before the name change and now didn’t make any sense at all.  What did four pink blokes holding shields and waving swords have to do with paranoia?  They were pink because that was supposed to be the colour of the war pigs.  But without “War Pigs” written on the front, they just looked like gay fencers.  “They’re not gay fencers, Ozzy”, Bill told me.  “They’re paranoid gay fencers””.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Two). “Andy, Did You Hear About This One?”

“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke … The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him … my promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can … They say, ‘Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he’s a really funny guy’.  But I’m not trying to be funny.  I just want to play with their heads”.

– Andy Kaufman, New York Times interview, 1975.

Have you ever wanted to see what Michael Stipe’s vision of heaven looks like?  Then look no further than Man on the Moon from REM’s multi-million selling 1992 album Automatic for the People.  On an album that features even darker themes than the band’s previous releases, songs such as Drive, Sweetness Follows and Monty Got A Raw Deal are immediately brought to mind, Man on the Moon seems quite jovial and uplifting.  Here, we find Stipe writing about Andy Kaufman, a comedic actor and Stipe’s hero.  Strip away the fact that this is a song about a comedian and the fact that Stipe even makes a few jokes in the song’s lyrics though and we are left with a dark puzzle.  For under the veneer of fun and hilarity, there was a much darker side to Andy Kaufman.  What Man on the Moon is really asking is: Did Kaufman, renowned for his elaborate pranks and ruses, really die?  It is a mystery that, as Stipe rightly sings in the song, is right up there with whether the first moon landing was a hoax.  First, let’s take a look at the life and bizarre career of Andy Kaufman.

“While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine that there was a camera in the wall. And I used to really believe that I was putting on a television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world”.

– Andy Kaufman.

Born in New York on January 17th 1949, Andy Kaufman was a popular and eccentric American entertainer, actor and performance artist.  Whilst often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman detested this tag, preferring to be known as a ‘song and dance man’.  Today, he is widely known as a cult artist and is well respected in some circles for his highly original material, unique performance style and an unwavering commitment to the characters that he created.

“When you go through a tunnel- you’re on a train – you go through a tunnel, the tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward. Just remember that. But if you’re not going to to get up on stage for one night because you’re discouraged or something, then the train is going to stop. Everytime you get up on stage, if it’s a long tunnel, it’s going to take a lot of times of going on stage before things get bright again. You keep going on stage, you go forward. Every night go on stage”.

– Andy Kaufman in recorded phone conversation with friend Elayne Boosler.

After graduating from the now defunct Grahm Junior College in 1971, Kaufman began performing stand up comedy at various small clubs across the East Coast of America.  He first caught public attention with a character simply known as Foreign Man, who claimed to be from Caspiar, a fictional island in the Caspian Sea.  As Foreign Man, Kaufman would appear on the stage of comedy clubs, play a gramophone recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon.  He would stand perfectly still, lip-syncing only the line “Here I come to save the day” with over the top levels of enthusiasm.  He would then continue to perform a number of impersonations in a deliberately dead pan manner, still using the voice of Foreign Man.  These impersonations famously included Presidents Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon and the television character Archie Bunker.  The Mighty Mouse routine and his various impersonations were performed on Saturday Night Live in 1975.

“I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States … Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States.  T’ank you veddy much”.

– Andy Kaufman as Foreign Man, 1975.

After the unsuspecting audience had grown used to Foreign Man’s inability to perform his impressions, usually met with either silence or nervous laughter, he would then announce “And now I would like to imitate Elvis Presley”.  Kaufman’s Foreign Man would then proceed to turn around, take off his jacket to reveal an Elvis-style jump suit circa the Vegas years, slick his hair back and launch into a highly credible Elvis Presley impersonation.  As Elvis often did, Foreign Man would throw his jacket to the audience but then immediately ask for it back again.  After his Elvis impression was over, Foreign Man would return to his ‘normal voice’ to say “T’ank you veddy much” and bowed to the stunned audience.  Elvis Presley once even described the impersonation as his personal favourite impersonation of him.

Kaufman’s Foreign Man persona was later adapted for the character of Latka Gravas for the ABC situation comedy Taxi, which ran from 1978 until it’s cancellation in 1983.  Kaufman detested situation comedies but was encouraged to take the role by long time manager, George Shapiro, convincing him that playing the crazy break out character in a prime time show would gain him instant stardom, earning him enough money to put back into his own act.  Begrudgingly, Kaufman agreed to appear in 14 episodes per season but initially wanted four for Tony Clifton.  However, after Kaufman deliberately sabotaged Tony Clifton’s appearance on the show, this part of the contract was rebuked.

Tony Clifton was Kaufman’s audience-bating lounge singer alter-ego.  For some time, it was unclear that Clifton was actually just another Kaufman character.  News programmes even interviewed Tony Clifton believing him to be Kaufman’s opening act.  The mood would descend into ugliness every time Kaufman’s name was mentioned with Clifton saying that Kaufman was trying to ruin Clifton’s “good name” in order to make money and become famous off his back.  Much to Kaufman’s amusement, Clifton’s deliberate sabotage of his appearance on Taxi made several local newspapers.

Friend, fellow performer and writer Bob Zmuda also occasionally played Tony Clifton on stage and for television appearances.  In an interview in 2006, Zmuda told the Opie and Anthony Show that he performed the Tony Clifton character on Late Night With David Letterman and that Letterman did not find out until years afterwards.

In addition to the use of the Tony Clifton character, the character of Latka was said to have multiple personality disorder enabling Kaufman to randomly portray other characters at will.  These other characters included an impersonation of the show’s main character Alex Reiger and the serial womaniser Vic Ferrari.  It has been suggested that Kaufman actually did suffer from multiple personality disorder but this, apart from his ability and ease in dropping into his various character creations without notice, is unfounded.

“With Andy, it was a case of art imitating life.  Because before he’s get up on stage, or after he had finished performing, he kept in character.  He wouldn’t become himself, whoever himself was”.

– Phil Berger, The Last Laugh, 1985.

So loved was the character of Latka and so hated by Kaufman that Latka was his most widely known character, that when performing his own stand up act, Kaufman would fend off calls for him to perform the character by deliberately sabotaging his own act in numerous ways.  One such example, as seen in the partly-fictionalised biopic Man on the Moon (1999), was punishing the audience by reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in its entirety, usually accompanied with the voice of an upper class English gentleman.  Part way through the recital, he would ask if the audience if they would rather hear a record.  After the audience shouted that they would rather hear a record, Kaufman cued up a record of him continuing to read the novel.

In 1979, Kaufman appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall.  The show was full of Kaufman’s usual and by this time legendary pranks.  During the show he announced that his ‘Grandmother’ was watching the show from the side of the stage.  At the end of the show, his ‘Grandmother’ stood up and took off her mask to reveal that it was actually comedian Robin Williams in an elaborate disguise.

“Andy is the only comedian who could make you laugh, piss you off and make you laugh again”.

– Robin Williams, I’m From Hollywood, 1989.

In the same show, Kaufman also had an elderly woman named Eleanor Cody Gould appear to have a heart attack and die on stage.  After calling for a doctor, who appeared and pronounced the woman dead, Kaufman reappeared wearing an Indian headdress, danced over the old woman, bringing her back to life.  Following the show,Kaufman took the entire audience out for milk and cookies, using 24 buses, and invited anybody who was interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next day, where the show continued.

Kaufman also began performing wrestling during his act, but as with all of Kaufman’s stunts, there was a twist, he wrestled women proclaiming himself to be the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World”.  For this part of his act, he would take on an aggressive and ridiculous persona much like the professional wrestlers whom he was imitating.  He would offer women in the audience a prize of $1,000 dollars for any of them who could pin him.  He employed stooges, including, at one time, musician Laurie Anderson.  Kaufman’s use of wrestling in his act was derived from his admiration of the theatricality and staged nature of the sport.

“There’s no drama like wrestling”.

– Andy Kaufman.

Kaufman took his new fixation with the world of wrestling one step further by attempting to turn himself into a professional wrestler.  He was challenged by professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, an opportunity which Kaufman enthusiastically accepted, fighting Lawler in Memphis.  During the match, Kaufman taunted the audience by showing them how to use soap and proclaiming Memphis to be “the nation’s redneck capital”.  He also used the now infamous line, “I’m from Hollywood!” to debase the horrified audience.  The phrase “I’m from Hollywood!” became the title of a posthumous documentary film about Kaufman in 1989.  As a result of wrestling a now infuriated Lawler, Kaufman suffered a broken neck and later had a much publicised spat with Lawler live on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman in 1982.

“Whenever I play a role, whether it’s good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.”

– Andy Kaufman.

After angering the audience by wrestling women live on Saturday Night Live, Kaufman made a pre-taped appearance on the show asking the audience whether he should appear on the show again, saying that if the vote was against him, he would never go back.  Saturday Night Live ran a phone vote and after the viewers voted for Andy not to appear again, he stopped appearing on the show.  However, a video of Andy thanking those who had voted to keep him was broadcast.  It has always been unclear whether this was just yet another Kaufman stunt.  During the end credits of the show, announcer Don Pardo was seen saying, “This is Don Pardo saying, ‘I voted for Andy Kaufman’”.

During his career, Kaufman used Transcendental Meditation, a skill which he learned at college in 1969, in order to keep him on an even keel and to build his confidence so that he could take his act on the comedy circuit.  He also trained as a teacher in the art in Majorca in 1971.

In 1983, at a Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island, family and friends expressed concerns about Kaufman’s persistant coughing.  Upon his return to Los Angeles a few days later, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of lung cancer.  The illness was made apparent to his audiences after many people remarked upon his incredibly gaunt appearance.  He told of how he hoped to find a cure with natural medicine, consisting of a diet of all manner of fruit and vegetables, amongst other means.  He received palliative radiotherapy but by this point, the cancer had spread to his brain. Kaufman died on May 16th 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasised large cell lung carcinoma.

In the years since his death, there has been much speculation as to whether Kaufman faked his own death.  During his lifetime, Kaufman certainly made many allusions to the fact he would like to fake his own death, even at one point saying that if he were to do so, he would return twenty years later.  This would have been in May 2004.  “Tony Clifton” performed a full year after Kaufman’s death at The Comedy Store’s benefit concert in honour of Kaufman.  Bob Zmuda has said on several occasions that although Kaufman may have talked about faking his own death, he did not believe that he would be so cruel as to go through with it.  However, his girlfriend, Lynne Marguilles has stated that Kaufman was bisexual and that he may have died from AIDS some years later.  “Tony Clifton” would reappear again during the 1990’s, making several appearances in Los Angeles nightclubs, causing audiences to speculate that Kaufman was still alive and performing under heavy makeup.  Contrary to all rumours, Kaufman’s death certificate is on file at the Los Angeles County Department of Health.  The rumours surrounding Kaufman’s death are an enduring legacy to a performer who went the extra mile to entertain and shock his audience.  It would seem that he is as large as life in death as he was in life.

REM’s Man on the Moon is Michael Stipe’s homage to Andy Kaufman.  The song includes an array of references to the performer’s career, starting with lyrics about Kaufman’s foray into wrestling in the first verse: “Andy Kaufman and the wrestling match”.  The line “Mister Fred Blassie and the breakfast mess” is a reference to Kaufman’s film My Breakfast With Blassie” (1983), a mostly improvised parody of the film My Dinner With Andre (1981).  Later in the song, we find the lines, “Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling” and “Andy, are you locked in the punch?”, a line with double meaning as it implies both a ‘punch’ in a boxing sense and a ‘punch’ in relation to a punchline of a joke.  By introducing both Fred Blassie and Andy Kaufman, as well as Charles Darwin later in the song, as “Mister”, Stipe is alluding to the way in which Kaufman’s Foreign Man character would introduce his impressions.  You can almost imagine Foreign Man saying, “I would like to imitate Meester Fred Blassie …”

The bridge of the song makes reference to Kaufman’s Elvis impression with the line “Andy are you goofing on Elvis?” followed by Michael Stipe’s own Elvis impersonation on the following line, “Hey baby, are we losing touch?” or “Hey baby, are you having fun?” in the second bridge.

The song’s chorus of “If you believed they put a man on the moon …” alludes to the belief in some circles that the moon landing was a hoax, in the same way that some believe Andy Kaufman’s death to have been a hoax.  The second line of the chorus, “If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool”, is a reference to the way in which Kaufman loved hoaxes and conspiracy theories, believing that life was much more interesting if you allowed yourself to believe in something.  With the references to Elvis Presley, the song also invokes the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Elvis.

The second verse details a number of things which were either disputed at the time or have been the subject of in scepticism in later years, just as Kaufman’s death has, including Moses performing miracles with his staff of wood (“Moses went walking with a staff of wood); the story of Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple and discovering gravity (“Newton got beaned by the apple good”); Cleopatra’s suicide by asp (“Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp”) and Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (“Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask”). The lyric “Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s” refers to both the many, and ongoing, reported sightings of Kaufman since his death and the way in which he met his girlfriend Lynn whilst she was working at a restaurant whilst he was shooting a film.

The abundance of references to games in the song such as “… The Game of Life”; “Monopoly, Twenty One, Checkers and Chess” and “Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk” allude to the presentation of Kaufman’s act and his playfulness with his audience, with most of his act being based around games.  Kaufman’s act was one a myriad of games within a bigger game, the act itself, continuously posing the question to the audience, is it real or is it a game?  Such was the game play in Kaufman’s act that even his illness and death were treated with suspicion, with even his closest confidantes wondering whether it was a hoax.  The “Mott the Hoople” mentioned in the opening line of the song is, contrary to popular belief, not a reference to the band but the literary character in Willard Manus’ book Mott the Hoople.  The eponymous character of the book, much like Kaufman, thought of life as a comedy and engaged in a number of japes.

“What I was doing with the lyric for Man on the Moon was pulling in various crackpot conspiracy theories of our time, like Elvis Presley was still alive somewhere. And, even more absurd and ourageous, that when they sent a man to walk on the moon that he actually went to a stage set up somewhere in Arizona and the moonwalk never really occurred. And these were the comparisons I was drawing to the people who were not able to believe that Kaufman was dead, that, to the end, he was pulling a prank. That that idea is just as outrageous as those other theories. That he, for me, as a fan of his, puts himself on that level by being such a prankster that people actually thought that.”

– Michael Stipe.

In addition to Man on the Moon, REM also wrote a second tribute to Andy Kaufman, The Great Beyond for the purposely part-fictional 1999 biopic Man on the Moon.  In the background of the song, Stipe can be heard singing, “Here’s a little agit for the never-believer” and “Here’s a little ghost for the offering”, both lines from Man on the Moon.  Stipe said of The Great Beyond in the companion notes to REM’s greatest hits album, Part Lies. Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage in 2011:

“My stab at an Ashes To Ashes, which I consider to be one of the greatest songs ever written.  Revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about, and try to one-up yourself.  That is no easy task.  Bowie pulled it off for real.  I think live recordings of this song are more exciting than the studio version, but it’s a stunner.  All the imagery from the chorus is from real life, and references my version of Kaufman’s favourite joke by Laurel and Hardy”.

The joke that Stipe is alluding to is from Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box (1932), in which the comic duo and two of Kaufman’s heroes, push a piano up an huge staircase with disastrous results.

The music videos for both Man on the Moon and The Great Beyond feature ‘cameos’ from Andy Kaufman.  In the video for Man on the Moon, he can be seen on the television set in the truck stop, whilst in the video for The Great Beyond, images from the biopic Man on the Moon are featured together with the band throwing darts at a television set on which Kaufman appears.

“What’s real?  What’s not?  That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality”.

– Andy Kaufman

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day One). “That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!”

It was the evening of May 12th, 1956.  Montgomery Clift, the 35 year old Hollywood heartthrob and major influence on actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, was in the prime of his career and well into filming the American Civil War melodrama, Raintree County.  He was already a three time Academy Award nominee and had changed the face of Hollywood forever.  Before Clift, Hollywood’s leading men were testosterone driven macho men such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and John Wayne.  Clift had brought an emotional depth and sensitivity to his roles, the likes of which had never been seen before.  This coupled with natural good looks which captured the hearts of women worldwide had made Clift an overnight success.  Earlier on in the evening in question, Clift had attended a dinner party hosted by his Raintree County co-star and close friend Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, Michael Wilding.  Now, the star of such box office smashes as Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) was laid in a crumpled heap of metal after his car had veered off the road into a telephone pole.

Moments after the horrific accident, friend and fellow actor Kevin McCarthy, who had been driving in front of Clift on that fateful night, on realising that Clift was no longer following him, drove back to check on his friend to find the Hollywood star slumped in the twisted wreckage of his car.  “His face was torn away – a bloody pulp.  I thought he was dead”, McCarthy later said.  McCarthy ran back to Elizabeth Taylor’s home to fetch her, Wilding, Rock Hudson and Hudson’s wife, Phyllis Gates who all raced to the scene of the accident.

The events that followed have been subject to myth and mystery ever since.  One report suggests that Rock Hudson pulled Clift from the car and Taylor cradled him in her arms, Clift choking and motioning to his throat.  Two of Clift’s teeth had become loose and lodged themselves there during the accident.  Taylor opened his mouth, forced her hand down his throat and pulled out the teeth.  Whether this report is true or not, the longevity of this story is testament to the believed bond between Clift and Taylor, it being long rumoured by the Hollywood gossip machine that he and Taylor were an item.  Clift also suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus and several facial lacerations which would require plastic surgery.  According to the report of what happened in the aftermath of the accident, when the photographers arrived, Taylor knew each and every one of them personally.  This would seem to be true as not one photo of Clift’s broken face following the accident exists.

After a recovery period of just two months, he returned to the set of Raintree County to finish the film.  Clift correctly predicted that the film would do well, despite the movie studio’s fears over profits, stating that movie-goers would flock to see the film just to see the difference in his facial appearance, particularly the right side of his face.  Considering the horrific nature of Clift’s injuries, the work carried out on his face was miraculous for the time but the accident had left his face partially immobilised and his right profile considerably altered to the point where he was unrecognisable, a mess of angles which could not possibly have been restored to their former glory.  Clift was already a heavy drinker.  It has been suggested that this was because of a long held secret that he was gay, something which at that time, particularly as a Hollywood star, would have been scandalous.  Following the accident, he became reliant on alcohol and pills for pain relief.  He had previously heavily relied on alcohol and pills for relief from a bout of dysentery which had left him with chronic intestinal problems, setting the wheels in motion for the destructive behaviour which has since vastly overshadowed his reputation as one of the greatest screen icons of all time.  Following the car accident that had nearly ended his life, Cliff’s health and physical appearance deteriorated beyond all recognition, bringing with it a change in behaviour which was at best highly erratic, until his death at just 45 years old on June 22nd, 1966.

On their classic 1979 album London Calling, The Clash paid tribute to Montgomery Clift on the song The Right Profile.  During the recording of London Calling, producer Guy Stevens lent Joe Strummer a copy of a 1978 biography of Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, suggesting that Strummer might write a song about him.  It has been suggested by some that Strummer saw a link between the alcohol and drug problems endured by Clift and the alcohol and drug problems that their producer was suffering at the time.

The title of the song refers both to the change in Clift’s looks following the accident, his ‘right profile’ being the side of his face most disfigured in the accident, and also to the way in which in films following the accident, Clift’s face had to be shot in ‘the right profile’ to avoid showing his facial disfigurements.

The song’s lyrics centre on his unrecognisable appearance and decline in the years following the crash.  “Say, where did I see this guy?” asks Joe Strummer in the song’s opening verse, “In Red River?  Or A Place in the Sun?  Maybe The MisfitsFrom Here to Eternity?”  The song goes on to tell a sad story of a sighting of the once revered Hollywood actor on 42nd Street in New York, “He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn”, with people asking “Is he alright? … He sure look funny”, after catching a glimpse in his alcohol and painkiller induced disorientated and slurred state with his damaged ‘right profile’.  On realising that the person in question is Montgomery Clift, Strummer tells the person either showing concern over or ridiculing the actor’s appearance (depending on which way you look at it):  “That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!”  During the filming of the post-crash film The Misfits (1961), Marilyn Monroe described Montgomery Clift as “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am”.

Incidentally, the “42nd Street” mentioned in The Right Profile is an area of New York, near Times Square, which was home to activities considered unsavory, including peep shows and the like.  A comedian, who’s name has long since been forgotten, once said of 42nd Street, “They call it 42nd Street because you’re not safe if you spend more than forty seconds on it”.

“I see a car smashed at night, Cut the applause and dim the light, Monty’s face is broken on a wheel, Is he alive?  Can he still feel?” sings Strummer before detailing the dual addictions which would eventually kill the former film legend:  “Nembutol numbs it all, But I prefer alcohol”.  The song paints a sorry picture of Montgomery Clift, a former star tortured by his misfortune, obsessing over his dramatically changed appearance and looking back on his glory days:  “He said, go out and get me my old movie stills, Go out and get me another roll of pills”.

In his films, Montgomery Clift had beautifully depicted characters that were desperate, drunk or deceived but his life was more tragic than any of his screen portrayals.  Nowadays, we see Montgomery Clift as the archetypal embodiment of human suffering:  The unfortunate Hollywood actor who had it all, changed everything and lost everything.  The Right Profile is The Clash’s summary of the slowest suicide in Hollywood history.

In addition to The Clash’s The Right Profile, REM also wrote a song about Montgomery Clift, Monty Got A Raw Deal, featured on their 1992 album Automatic For the People.  Monty Got A Raw Deal also centres around Clift’s crash and decline but is also thought to be about the way in which his homosexuality was repressed for the sake of his career.  This seems fitting as Michael Stipe came out as gay in 2001 after years of speculation.  Incidentally, the title of the song is also a reference to an American game show called Let’s Make A Deal hosted by Monty Hall from 1963 to 1976.  The song draws parallels between Let’s Make A Deal audience members making arbitrary decisions about picking random doors or containers which may have contained either valuable or worthless prizes depending on the participant’s luck and Montgomery Clift’s luck (his “Raw Deal”) in the last years of his life, addicted to alcohol and painkillers and in agony because of injuries sustained in his crash, as well as being haunted by his inability to live an openly gay life.

Further to this, Morrissey, a long time fan of classic Hollywood, is thought to make a more subtle reference to Montgomery Clift on his song Let Me Kiss You, from You Are The Quarry (2004).  The opening lyric, “There’s a place in the sun for anyone who has the will to chase one …” could be considered to be a nod to one of Clift’s most famous films, A Place in the Sun, using Clift’s disfigurement five years after A Place in the Sun, to tie in with the idea of physical repulsion in the chorus, “Close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire”.  If we were to see the aforementioned lines in Let Me Kiss You as a reference to Montgomery Clift, they could also be suggestive of a gay relationship.  Similarly to Stipe, there has also been much speculation surrounding Morrissey’s sexuality.  It has been reported that Morrissey has admitted to being gay on a few occasions, although this is sometimes later rebuked by the singer.  For example, in 2013, following the release of his autobiography which details a fondness for photographer Jake Owen Walters (although it never explicitly says they were lovers), he released a statement through his semi-official website True To You reading, “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many”.

Montgomery Clift’s career consisted of eight years of outstanding cinematic work followed by a full decade of terminal decline but the songs that he has inspired are testament to his ongoing appeal.  This appeal may often lay in the fact that he represents the tragic hero; unfulfilled desires; the repression of one’s true self; battles with demons; undeniably brilliant ability struck down at it’s zenith by misfortune and unforeseen events; the worst case scenario of what happens when things go horribly wrong and the thought of what could have been:  All more than worthy subject matter for inspiring great music.

Song of the Day: Visual Arts in Music (Day Seven). “Slicing Up Eyeballs”.

“Got me a movie, I want you know, Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know”.  The movie that Black Francis wants you to know about on Debaser, the opening track of the 1989 album, Doolittle, is Un Chien Andalou, a 15 minute long silent movie by Surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Surrealist filmmaker Louis Brunel made in 1929.  Un Chien Andalou was the pair’s first film and became very popular after its first showing in Paris, running for 8 months.  The film’s premiere was attended by Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard and George Auric, as well a vast majority of Andre Breton’s Surrealist group.

The film has no discernible plot, with a disjointed chronology jumping from “Once upon a time” to “8 months later” with tenuously related scenes in a dream-like narrative structure.  The most famous line in the Pixies’ Debaser, “Slicing up eyeballs” is a reference to the film’s equally famous opening scene in which a woman’s eyeball is cut by a straight razor.

In Debaser, Black Francis changes the name of the original movie, Un Chien Andalou, to “Un Chien Andalusia” because he thought that ‘Andalou’ ”sounded too French”.  Un Chien Andalou means “An Andalusian Dog” in French.  As expected of both Salvador Dali and Louis Brunel, Un Chien Andalou was a highly experimental film, quite unlike anything the cinema audience of that time had seen before.  The film was seen to debase morality and the art community of the time, hence the title of the Pixies’ song, Debaser.  According to Black Francis, the earliest version of Debaser featured the line “Shed, Apollonia!” instead of “Un Chien Andalusia”, in reference to a scene in the Prince film Purple Rain (1984).  Talking about Debaser with a Spanish magazine following the release of Doolittle, the songwriter said:

“I wish Brunel was still alive.  He made this film about nothing in particular.  The title itself is nonsense.  With my stupid, pseudo-scholar, naive, enthusiastic, avant-garde-ish, amateurish way to watch Un Chien Andalou (twice), I thought, ‘Yeah, I will make a song about it’.  (He sings:) “Un chien andalou” … It sounds too French, so I will sing “un chien Andalusia”, it sounds good, no?”

The lines “I wanna grow up to be a debaser” are telling of Francis’ desire to subvert the world of rock music in the same way that Dali and Brunel subverted the visual art world.  This was feat that the Pixies continually managed, particularly on their earlier albums such as the Come On Pilgrim mini album (1987), Surfer Rosa (1988) and the aforementioned Doolittle, with their oddly twisted tales of sex, incest, reincarnation, mutilation, death and disease as well as bizarre spins on Biblical stories and plots from films, all carried out with a distinctly Surrealist feel.  The Doolittle album is very much influenced by Surrealism, something that heavily influenced Black Francis during his college years.  In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, he said of Surrealism:

“I got into avant-garde movies and Surrealism as an escape from reality … To me, Surrealism is totally artificial.  I recently read an interview with the director David Lynch who said he had ideas and images but he didn’t know exactly what they meant.  That’s how I write”.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Six). “Helen Lundeberg, Illusory Landscape”.

The term Post-Surrealism coined in the 1930’s and was an American spin on the European Surrealist movement of the 20th century.  In the 1930’s, American artists were in search of a style which would differentiate them from the dream based Surrealism of Europe, that of the creation of images beyond control, emerging from the brain and moved by the hand, and the earlier movements of Romanticism and Modernism.  Post-Surrealism differed vastly from Surrealism as it involved a conscious rather than unconscious use of materials and the clarification of rational ideas.  Post-Surrealism maintained a distinctive identity reflective of its place of origin.  The epicentre of Post-Surrealism, the new form of “Americana Dream” was Los Angeles, California, the architecture and lavish cityscape of which would provide ample inspiration for creators of art.  The movement soon spread to other cities such as New York, San Francisco and Dallas.  The artists who started the movement and first exhibited their work under the term of Post-Surrealism in 1934 were Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson.  The term Post-Surrealism meant that for the first time, artists were able to separate themselves through their own name.  Artistic activity in California during this period was a process of reciprocity and encounter between artists from a number of regions and countries and soon, a Surrealism group was even established, boasting luminaries of the art world such as Philip Guston, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehmen, Knud Merrild and Grace Clements.

Lorser Feitelson was educated in New York and moved to Southern California in 1927.  Feitelson was greatly influenced by trips he had taken to Paris in the early 1920s, where Surrealism was in its early stages and neoclassicism, the revival of a classical style or treatment in art, was also apparent.  Neoclassicism greatly inspired both Feitelson and Lundeberg and later, their Post-Surrealism movement.  Feitelson met Lundeberg when he procured a teaching position at the Stickney Memorial Art School in Pasedena.  Following this meeting, the pair formulated ideas that would crystalise into what they termed ‘subjective classicism’, ‘new classicism’ or ‘Post-Surrealism’.  In order to create their art, Lundeberg and Feitelson used the neoclassicism Feitelson had acquired in Paris in conjunction with the metaphysical elements apparent in the work of artists such as de Chirico.  The work of both Lundeberg and Feitelson therefore addresses these influences in their theatricality, the strange encounters between objects and the clarity with which fragments of reality are represented.

Helen Lundeberg, the subject of the Sonic Youth song of the same name, from their 2006 album Rather Ripped, was born n Chicago but raised in Pasadena.  The manifesto of the Post-Surrealist movement was Lundeberg’s handiwork.  Lundeberg was inspired by the poetic contemplation of the subject matter which would bring a higher understanding of metaphysical ideas and a deeper experience of the world to viewers of her work.  Throughout her career, Lundeberg’s work became increasingly more evocative and mystical.  The work of Lundeberg is nearly always imbued with the idea of the opening of one space into another and the juxtaposition of the internal and the cosmic.  Ideas explored in Lundeberg’s work include the eternal cycle of life and death and the relationship between love and death.  One of Lundeberg’s most noted works is Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935) in which, as she often did, she used her own image into the quiet interior space.  Of the painting, the artist said:

“For the portrait of myself as a child, I used a photograph which I still have, and though the props are a little different in the painting from the photograph, the pose is pretty much exact.  I also used the clock to show it was a quarter past two which corresponds to the child’s age.  And instead of presenting myself as an adult before a painting of myself as a child, in Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, I reversed this possibility where the child casts a shadow which is that of an adult who appears in the portrait on the wall”.

– “Helen Lundeberg: An American Independent”,

Art International, 15th September 1971.

Later in her career, Lundeberg became more interested in geometric abstraction and Hard Edge painting and less interested in the representational quality that was prevalent in her early work, exploring imagery associated with landscapes, interiors, still life and planetary forms.  In the 1980s, Lundeberg created a series of paintings dealing in landscapes and architectural elements.  Her last known painting was Two Mountains, completed shortly before her death in 1999.  Although always grounded in reality, Lundeberg created works with a mysterious quality which existed somewhere between abstraction and figuration.  Her works are often described as lyrical and formal, relying on precise compositions utilising restricted palettes, employing the Post-Surrealism idea of ‘mood entity’.  ‘Mood entity’ was concerned with evoking states of mind, mood and emotion with each piece of work having its own individual feel.  During the latter stages of her career, Lundeberg was one of the most prolific artists working in Southern California.

Sonic Youth’s Helen Lundeberg tells of Lundeberg’s career in the art field and her personal vision through paint, “Helen Lundeberg, Illusory landscape, Five decades in paint … Four expressions of elegance”.  The second verse of the song is constructed of references to a number of Lundeberg’s paintings.  For example, “Blue river” refers to Seen From A Height (1988); “open door” to Open Door (1964); “Landscape of white and orange” to Linear Torso (1969); “Daybreak by the sea” to Untitled (Daybreak or Landscape) (1962); “A narrow view” to Interior With Painting (1960); “sloping horizon” to Untitled (Land Patterns) (1960); “A marina” to Islands (1986); “the poet’s road” to The Poet’s Road (1961); “Sundial” to Sundial (1943); “cimerrian landscape” to Poetic Justice (1945); “A quiet place” to Landscape (1948); “moon” to Moonscape (1966); “sea” to Sea (1970); “Mist” to Spring (1950); “desert road” to Desert Road (1960); “tree in the marsh” to Moonlit Tree (1949); “Biological fantasies” to Plant and Animal Analogies (1934 – 1935); “Ocean view” to Ocean (1979); Water Map (Untitled) (1963); “Ambiguity” to A Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935); and finally, “estuary” to Interior With Painting (1982).

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Five). “Pinned to the Edges of Vision”.

“My painting is visible images which conceal nothing … they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘what does that mean?  It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable”.

– Rene Magritte.

Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist who became well known for a number of witty and thought-provoking pieces.  His work is known for challenging the preconditioned perceptions of reality.  Whilst the artist’s work is often imbued with a sense of mystery, the artist himself was far less conspicuous.   Magritte lived on a street much like any other in Brussels.  His house was much like any other in the local area too, proper and ordinary like the man himself.  It was this mundane nature of everyday life which the artist valued greatly and used to his advantage, taking ordinary things and imbuing them with a sense of something less ordinary through his unique vision.

“I want to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.  But how should one look?  Like a child, the first time it encounters a reality outside itself.  I live in the same state of innocence as a child, who believes he can reach out from his cot and grasp a bird in the sky”.

– Rene Magritte

Upstairs in the Surrealist artist’s home of twenty five years, which has since been turned into a museum, his wife lovingly preserved his final unfinished canvas, perhaps as John Cale says in his song Magritte, from the 2003 album HoboSapiens, “stretched, For umbrellas and bowler hats, Everyone knows Magritte did that”.

You can see Magritte in his array of self portraits, often “Inside a canvas of blue saturated with beauty, In a web of glass”.  You can also see portrayals of the artist’s wife, Georgette, as well as glimpses of their modest Brussels home.  There is an autobiographical quality to Magritte’s work but what of the mystery that surrounds it?  We do not need to look for the mysterious as it exists everywhere, even in the most conventional of lives.

“Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”.

– Rene Magritte.

Images that are illustrative bring about a powerful paradox in the mind of the viewer.  Magritte’s work is beautiful in its clarity and simplicity but can also invoke unsettling thoughts.  They are suggesting to you that they hide no mystery but they are also often odd and puzzling.  With his tribute song to the artist, John Cale manages to evoke the same feelings that we get when looking at one of the artist’s pictures.  On starting to listen to the song, we are drawn in to a string soaked discussion of the beauty of the artist’s work.  Yet, in the second verse, we are faced with the sound of “a car-horn in the street outside And a museum with its windows open”.   Later in the song, Cale says, “Somebody’s coming that hates us, Better watch the art”.  This is the paradox and mystery in Cale’s Magritte, a seemingly beautiful ode to an artist actually appears to be discussing something altogether more sinister.  Is a song which starts as a loving tribute to the artist’s work actually about an art heist at “a museum with its windows open”?  Is the “car-horn in the street” a getaway car?  Are the people who hate the narrator and his accomplices, those “legends of conspicuous men”, the police?  This is the mystery in Cale’s song, as seen quite often in his work, just as in Rene Magritte’s work:  It is left open to interpretation, out there somewhere, “pinned to the edges of vision”.

“This arbitrarily reconstructed verbal / imagerial lexicon evinces that, in an alternate, oneiric state of logic, words and objects can acquire new relationships, as they are not transcendentally united”.

– Rene Magritte.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Three). “Click, Click, Click, Click, Click …”

I could have chosen a number of Manic Street Preachers songs for today’s Song of the Day.  I could have chosen Interiors (Song for Willem De Kooning) from Everything Must Go (1996) about Willem De Kooning’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and his ability to produce some of the most acclaimed work of his career during this period; I could have chosen Between The Clock and The Bed, from Futurology (2014), named after a 1940 self portrait by Norwegian artist Edward Munch; I could have chosen Black Square from the same album, named in tribute to the 1915 work by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement; I could have even chosen La Tristessa Durera (A Scream To A Sigh) from Gold Against The Soul (1993), the title of which is taken from Vincent Van Gogh’s last words.  I considered all of these songs but then decided to look at Kevin Carter from Everything Must Go, which tells the story of the South African photojournalist of the same name.  I then got into a debate with myself over whether photojournalism is a ‘visual art’.  I feel that photojournalism can be a visual art.  In fine art photography, the artist pays careful attention to aspects such as the composition, the focus, the lighting and the poses of the figures in the photograph.  The artist looks for work where everything came together to create something unique.  Art is a communication so therefore, photojournalism is no less disadvantaged than any other form of photography.  In the modern age, museums in many countries show the work of photojournalists as art.

Kevin Carter was born in 1960.  He began his career photographing scenes of the violent struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and became associated with what has come to be known as The Bang Bang Club.  The Bang Bang Club was primarily made up of four photographers (Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva) who were active in the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994, during the transition from the Apartheid system to a government based upon universal suffrage.  Following the lifting of bans on ANC and IFP, there was much black on black factional violence between the supporters of the political parties.  The name The Bang Bang Club was coined by the South African magazine Living.  The group was first described as The Bang Bang Paparazzi but ‘Paparazzi’ was dropped in favour of ‘Club’ as the members felt the term misrepresented their work.  The name is derived from the way in which township residents spoke to the group about the “bang-bang” referring to the violence occurring within their communities.  More literally, “bang-bang” refers to the sound of gunfire and is a colloquialism used by conflict photographers.  Kevin Carter was the first photojournalist to capture a public execution by ‘necklacing’ in South Africa in the Mid-1980s.  He would later say of this:  “The question that still haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced if there was no media coverage?’”  Carter’s professional life with riddled with conflicts between professional responsibilities and moral considerations.  He was also deeply affected by the death of colleague Ken Oosterbroek, who was killed by friendly fire during a fire fight between the National Peacekeeping Force and African National Congress supporters in the Thokoza township on the 18th April 1994.  Greg Marinovich was left seriously injured.

Kevin Carter’s life became irreparably altered in 1993 when he took a picture of a 2 year old Sudanese girl, a famine victim, attempting to make her way to the feeding centre.  As he crouched nearby, Carter saw a vulture landing close to the girl.  Positioning himself as not to disturb the bird of prey, he took the picture which would gain him notoriety when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994. On winning the much coveted prize, Carter jubilantly wrote to his parents saying. “I swear I got the most applause of anybody.  I can’t wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive”.  However, this initial joy was short lived.

Carter would later admit that he waited for about 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings.  Once he realised it would not, he took the photograph and chased the bird away before the girl resumed her struggle.  Following this admission, friends and colleagues of the photographer began to question why Carter had not done more to help the girl and whilst the photograph was highly acclaimed by many, many others were critical of the ethics employed by the photographer.  Following his Pulitzer Prize win, Florida’s St Petersburg Times said of the photograph: “The man adjusting his lens to take the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”.

Carter’s life was spiraling dangerously out of control.  He began to use drugs heavily in order to help him cope with the guilt that he felt and the adulation he had received for the photograph all over the world, as well as death and destruction he had witnessed.  One of his drugs of choice was ‘dagga’, South Africa’s locally supplied marijuana, which escalated to an addiction to the ‘white pipe’, a lethal mixture of dagga and Mandrax, a banned tranquiliser. He also quit his job working with the Weekly Mail and joined Reuters News Agency with whom he began by covering the country’s first multiracial elections.  Soon though, his job with Reuters would be under threat due to his drug use and the questionable quality of his work.  On one occasion, for example, Carter was told to stay in Cape Town in order to cover French President Francois Mitterrand’s state visit to South Africa.  The story was front page news but according to various sources, Carter sent his film in too late and when the photographs did arrive, there were several complaints that they were too poor to use.  At this time, Carter openly spoke about suicide, on one occasion threatening to smoke a white pipe and gas himself to death.  On the 27th July 1994, racked with guilt and sadness, the 33 year old Kevin Carter parked his pick-up truck near to a place where he used to play and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving a suicide note reading:

“I’m really, really sorry.  The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist … depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger happy madmen, often police, or killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

The Manic Street Preachers’ tribute to Kevin Carter features lyrics written by founding member Richey Edwards, who had disappeared on the 1st February 1995.  Draw parallels if you will to the effects that the imagery expressed in his lyrics and fame had on Edwards to the effects that the imagery expressed in his photographs and fame had on Carter.  A powerful retelling of the life and death of Kevin Carter, the song reached number 9 in the UK singles chart on the 12th October 1996.  The song documents Carter’s rise to fame in the wake of his most famous photograph (“Hi Time Magazine, Hi Pulitzer Prize”), his guilt at not having helped the girl in the photograph and drug use in order to quell feelings of guilt (“Vulture stalked white piped lie forever”), the attitude of some and eventually the photographer himself to his work, describing it as the elephant in the room (“The elephant is so ugly, sleep it’s head”) and his death in the final verse (“Click, click, click, click, click, Click himself under”).  The song Kevin Carter represents the photojournalist’s descent into madness caused by guilt as a result of sacrificing morality for art and his death as a result, as seen through the lens of the world.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Six).

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me coming you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61””

– Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, from the album Highway 61 Revisted, 1965.

Long before his fully fledged conversion to Born Again Christianity in the late 1970’s, When he released the full on Christian themed albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Bob Dylan was already referencing The Bible.

On Highway 61 Revisited from 1965’s landmark album of the same name, he begins the song by referencing the story of Isaac and Abraham.  In the story of Isaac and Abraham, God commands Abraham to kill one of his son, Isaac, in order to prove his devotion to him:

“Some time later, God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am”, he replied.

Then God said, “Take your only son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region

of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you””.

– Genesis 22.

Adding significance to the use of the story in Highway 61 Revisited, Abram, the original name of the Biblical Abraham, is the name of Dylan’s own father.  The use of the Abraham and Isaac story could also be used as a protest symbol against the Vietnam War.  It is probably no coincidence that the President at the time of the American Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.  Therefore, Bob Dylan may be making a connection between the Bible story and historical events via his own father in order to make a comment about the Vietnam War.  Is Dylan about to be sacrificed as a warning to America not to kill it’s sons by sending them to war in the same way Abraham Lincoln did in the American Civil War?

Highway 61 is the road which runs through Bob Dylan’s home town down to the Mississippi delta and the same road that he wanders down in One Too Many Mornings.  The route passed near to the birthplaces and homes of influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Son House, Charlie Patton and Elvis Presley and had already been the subject of Roosevelt Sykes’s 1932 song Highway 61 Blues.  It is also the road where Bessie Smith died after sustained serious injuries in a car accident.  But most significantly in terms of music history and relating to the first verse’s religious imagery, it is the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.  So therefore, through the song’s Biblical reference, is this God telling Dylan’s father that he has to kill his son at the same place that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil?

Album Review: Belle and Sebastian ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin.  Mr Murdoch is here to read us a story.  It’s a tale of love, relationships, imagined everyday characters of Glasgow … you get the general idea … but also war, peace, politics and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance begins with Nobody’s Empire, possibly the most personal song Belle and Sebastian have recorded, describing singer Stuart Murdoch’s long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome.  The almost nursery rhyme styling of the lyric phrasing reminds the listener of the Belle and Sebastian of old, being something that added a certain innocent charm to the band’s music.  The band were only too aware of this innocent quality, a quality which, in no small part, led the band to be tagged as ‘twee’ by the music press.  It was no surprise that the band addressed their nursery rhyme stylings on a song called Belle and Sebastian Sing Songs For Children, a song tagged onto the end of their 3,6, 9 Seconds of Light EP (1997) following the stunning Put the Book Back on the Shelf.

Here, we find Belle and Sebastian using the idea of war, a dominant theme on the album, as a metaphor for inner war.  Following Nobody’s Empire is Allie, in which Murdoch discusses actual war.  This isn’t the first time the band have done so, the opening track of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000), I Fought in A War was a fictionalised account of a soldier remembering his time in the war.  However, on Allie, Murdoch now discusses world issues through the eyes of dreamers who are still saying prayers “to the soon to be closing library” with lines such as “When there’s bombs in the Middle East, You want to hurt yourself”.  It seems that the band’s foray in politics, coming out in support of the Scotland Yes Campaign, has left an indelible mark on them.

What follows though is even more surprising for a band that were once Gregory’s Girl put to music.  I reference here the wry wit of songs such as Lazy Line Painter Jane, from the 1997 EP of the same title, which included such marvellous lines as “You are in two minds, Tossing a coin to decide whether you should tell your Mum, About a dose of thrush you got whilst licking railings”.  The Party Line, the first single from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is (shock, horror) a disco song.  And this, from here on in, is where the album becomes a slightly scatterbrain affair.  This scatterbrained approach has been something evident on Belle and Sebastian albums in the past.  Take for example, the at times wonderful but slightly unsure of itself The Life Persuit (2006).  However, this can be seen as an endearing quality which can go hand in hand with the tales of the insecure characters within some of Belle and Sebastian’s songs.  Take for example, The “mousy girl on the end pew” in Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie (from the 3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light EP) or the girl in Expectations (from 1996’s debut album Tigermilk who is asked, “Do you want to work in C&A ‘cause that’s what they expect, Move to laundry and take a feel off Joe the Storeman”.  The Party Line isn’t the band’s first attempt at disco.  On Tigermilk, we find Electronic Renaissance, a song which is the forefather of the Europop disco that we find on some songs on this album.  The Party Line is filled with pulsating 70’s disco beats whilst still keeping the indie sensibility that the band is famed for.  However, some of the magic has been taken away.  Perhaps this is as a result of working with outside producers such as Trevor Horn on the slick, but sometimes too slick, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003).  On first listen, I wasn’t too sure about the disco direction on The Party Line and other similarly disco-influenced songs on the album, but after several listens, I am able to strip away the glossy synth-led sound and be left with what we know and love about Belle and Sebastian:  their ability to write great poetry.  Take, for example, the lines “I want to be the Queen, Pulling kids out of rivers” in The Cat with the Cream.

The Power of Three continues the disco Europop theme introduced on The Party Line.  The Power of Three could easily be a Saint Etienne song, which, whilst not what we have come to expect from Belle and Sebastian, is no bad thing and I would say it is one of the stand out tracks on the album.  For enthusiasts of the old Belle and Sebastian, look no further than tracks such as The Cat with the Cream and Ever Had A Little Faith? which was actually written before their debut album.  The inclusion of these songs means that this is an album with something for everybody, including those still longing for the Belle and Sebastian of old and those who are finding Belle and Sebastian for the first time.  The Cat with the Cream continues the war theme first introduced with the album’s opening two tracks, with lines such as “In the days of old when knights were bold, They’d settle it with sword and shield”.  I began to notice a pattern here.  For the most part, the slower paced songs, mainly those without the dance influence, are the war themed songs and the dance style tracks allow the band to experiment with other subject matter.  This is Belle and Sebastian’s War and Peace.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the album is called Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, as this is an album of two halves, half war stories and half explorations into the clubs which the band may have once deemed themselves too square and nerdy to walk into.

Enter Sylvia Plath reintroduces the disco-orientated sound but this is where Belle and Sebastian could be beginning to nail their new direction.  To a backdrop of music which sounds a cross between Pet Shop Boys and Visage’s Fade to Grey, this is a near seven minute song which combines both old school Belle and Sebastian and the new direction which the album attempts to veer in.

As the first half of the album closes, and notice on the back of the sleeve the way in which the tracklisting is split into two halves (yes, this is a band who still believe in a record having two sides and we love them for it), I am still not sure what to make of it.  However, my concerns are laid to rest with The Everlasting Muse, a highly inventive song about being a musician (“A subtle gift to modern rock, She said ‘Be popular play pop’”) which harnesses jazz music in its verses and Bavarian oompah music in possibly the best chorus on the album.

Perfect Couples is another stand out track, a tale of people who marry young interjected with witty  lyrics about “sexual tension by the fridge” and “a basket on a bike” that only Belle and Sebastian could muster.  Play For Today, like Nobody’s Empire appears to be partly inspired by Murdoch’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (“About a boy, Who hides in attics, When the sun is up, Everyone is at work”) mixed with the tale of a relationship.  This song, rather blissfully, reminded me of Lazy Line Painter Jane, thanks in no small part to the shared vocals with Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls whose voice bears a passing resemblance to Monica Queen’s.  Play For Today provides proof that Belle and Sebastian do have the ability to be able to twin their new synthesiser driven musical style with the lyrical quality that we have come to expect of them.  Play For Today is a song which reminds me of the stronger song writing of Paul Heaton’s Beautiful South days, particularly songs he duetted on with Briana Corrigan or Jacqueline Abbott.

The Book of You is a revelation, with a rocking stomping guitar solo and a pumping bassline coupled with the beautifully synchronised dual voices of Murdoch and Sarah Martin.  The song builds and builds with lyrics about “walking in the rain” before one of the best song endings that you will hear all year, it is just a shame that it fades out and loses momentum.  As the electric guitars of The Book of You slip away, the album ends with Today (This Army’s for Peace), a suitably peaceful, dreamy but slightly lethargic song which lulls you to sleep after a long day.  The loose ends of the album’s war theme are tied up in lines such as “Victims will be justified, The lame will be leaping, This army’s for peace, come out into the light today” and all is well with the world.

On first listen, as the album finishes and I am somewhat sleepy after Today (This Army’s For Peace), I am left a little confused about what I have just heard.  Perhaps Stuart Murdoch has just passed on his chronic fatigue syndrome.  I used to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a new Belle and Sebastian record but this time, I had heard The Party line and wasn’t entirely convinced from the outset.  I am still one of those geeks who buys physical records and never downloads and the sleeve, with it’s cover stars resplendent in their World War Two style garb made me happy and full of promise about what I was about to hear.  I thought maybe The Party Line would make sense after hearing the album and that perhaps it was ironic but despite the fact that this album does offer some great moments, I am left feeling cold.  This is a feeling that I have never got from a Belle and Sebastian album before.  Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is the sound of a band who have come of age, but in the process run the risk of losing the things we loved most about them.  This is Belle and Sebastian’s War and Peace, but that war is within themselves.  What we find on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a band who can’t decide which direction they should take and as a result, have crafted a work which is at times brilliant but also very odd.  It is an album that may alienate some die hard Belle and Sebastian fans but I urge you to keep listening to it, it does actually become more enjoyable on the second listen.  A valiant effort from our indie soldiers but I suspect an album that will (hopefully) grow on you over time.  I hope this isn’t the end of the Belle and Sebastian story but this is a band in serious need of direction and to perhaps put the synth back on the shelf.

Album Review: Bjork ‘Vulnicura’.

“If you ever get close to a human and human behaviour, You better get ready to be confused, There is definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour”, sang Bjork on Human Behaviour, from 1993’s groundbreaking Debut album.  Move on 22 years and we find Bjork wrestling to create a fitting epitaph for her relationship with Matthew Barney.  “Moments of clarity are so rare, I better document this”, sings Bjork on the album’s opening track Stonemilker.  Stonemilker is the album’s most, dare I say it, ‘commercial’ track, a love song for a dying relationship, about the lack of human connection within it and a longing to fix it: “A juxtaposing fate, Find our mutual coordinate”

What is striking about Vulnicura when you begin to listen to it is the glacial quality of the strings which are often like great icebergs coming at you.  This ever present string arrangement holds the loose rhythms of the album together in a beautiful yet at times discordant and disconcerting way, as if to perhaps mirror the confusion felt by the singer at the time of writing the songs.  The music of Vulnicura twists and turns like the knives that Bjork and partner twist into each other, pushing them and twisting them further, exposing every facet of human emotion and creating a wound which Bjork endeavours to heal.

Even the title, derived from Latin, where Vulnus means ‘wound’ or ‘injury’ and Cura means ‘a cure’, making it’s meaning ‘a cure for wounds’.  The title could also be taken to mean ‘A cure for the vulnerable”.  A glance at the etymology of the title tells the listener from the outset that this isn’t going to be an easy album to listen to.  Out of Bjork’s back catalogue, Vulnicura most resembles 2001’s Vespertine, although such is the raw emotion on this album, more so than any other Bjork album, it is a completely different animal.  Vulnicura is more soul searching and introspective than previous works.

In Lionsong, about the state of the relationship 5 months prior to the breakup (so we are told by the sleeve notes), Bjork’s partner is described as lionlike, the more emotionally devoid and therefore stronger of the two.  This is a wonderfully crafted song about the differences between female and male emotions.   “I’m not taming no animal”, sings Bjork, whilst trying to compensate for her partner’s seeming indifference, defiantly and unsuccessfully trying to act the same way, stating “Somehow I’m not too bothered”.  This is a very female album, an album only an experienced woman could have made.  This is particularly evident in the line “Our love was my womb” in Black Lake.  Lionsong is a quest to understand her partner’s emotions and that of the human race in general.  22 years after Human Behaviour and it has taken the breakup of her relationship to truly begin to understand the logic of human emotion.

History of Touches, one of the album’s many highlights, features a broken atonal rhythm reflecting the discourse of the relationship brought about by the lack of contact.  The lack of contact and the loss of connection, whether it be physical or emotional, is a key theme on the album, see also the way in which Bjork attempts to tap into her partner’s emotions on Stonemilker, deciding that trying to get him to show emotion is “like milking a stone”.  The theme of unfamiliarity with a lover due to the different way in which they express themselves is extremely important on this album.  See, for example, the way in which on Lionsong, Bjork likens her partner to a Vietnam veteran:  “Vietnam vet comes home from war, Lands in my house, This wild lion does not fit in this chair”.

The centrepiece of the album is undoubtedly the double emotional shell-shock of Black Lake and Family, two tracks which when twinned together form a mournful, funereal view of the aftermath of a relationship.  These two tracks are very much focused on the loss of the singer’s family.  Black Lake, an enormous chasm of a wound, is the sound of somebody burnt from the fall out of a breakup, angry and hurt and blaming her partner (“Family was always our sacred mutual mission which you abandoned”) whilst Family finds the singer asking, “How can I pay respects to the death of my family” in a funeral setting of incense and burning candles.  On Family, Bjork sings, “How will I sing us out of this” before a glimmer of hope cracks through the darkness with the attempt to use remembrance as a solution in order to move forward.  As a centrepiece to the album, Black Lake and Family are an insight into the very essence of the emotions experienced in mourning a death.  This obviously wasn’t an easy album for Bjork to create and although magnificent in its execution, depth and sheer scope of even attempting to write down such personal and complex emotions, it is certainly not an easy one to listen to.

In Notget, having deemed it necessary to move on by keeping the memory of the relationshoip alive, the singer then focuses on keeping those wounded by the breakup alive:  “Love will keep us safe from death”.  I was curious to notice that the timeline in the album’s booklet stops after Notget but was then faced with Atom Dance, a love song attempting to fix the relationship.  Here starts the remembrance phase of the mourning in earnest.  Atom Dance is music of balletic magnitude, assisted by the haunted vocals of Antony Hegarty, the sound of a whirling, spinning, chemically imbalanced storm brewing.  Part way through the song, the balletic music drops away and jars with the sentiment, “No one is a lover alone”, a reminder that, in spite of emotions felt and emotional differences, we are all essentially the same, we are all but chemicals.

Mouth Mantra is a song about the stifling effects of the relationship on Bjork’s creativity.  “Remove this hinderance, my throat feels stuck” and “I was separated from what I can do, What I’m capable of , she sings amidst an increasing tempo of what sounds like laser shots being fired at the singer, a suggestion of the situation becoming increasingly more difficult.  This is the storm we saw in Atom Dance reaching its dramatic climax.

Quicksand beautifully finishes the album with the sound of the singer trying to pull herself and her partner out of the abyss for the sake of their separate futures and the future of their daughter.  This is the final act of healing the wound.  There is a very Christian message in the song with the line “and when she’s broken, she is whole”, a surmising that in order to heal and be in a better place, one must first be broken.  The final sentiment of the album, “Every time you give up, You Take away our future, And my continuity and my daughters” is a beautiful way to end a beautiful album.

This is not an easy album, but one of the unique beauty which only Bjork can manage.  Bjork stands alone as an artist and trying to categorise her or liken her to other artists is a thankless and pointless task.  Vulnicura is an absolute expression of raw emotion, a tear jerking and sometimes gut wrenching one that I have rarely heard on a record.  With Vulnicura, we are given a glimpse into a very personal and life changing situation, carried out in a manner that other artists could only dream of.  22 years after Debut, Bjork is still pushing new ground and in the process, pushing her emotions to create music that is just as unique as when we first heard her.  You may well shed a tear whilst listening to this album, I did, but that is no bad thing, Bjork has achieved the purpose of the album:  An outpouring of emotion, a work that lets you know exactly how she is feeling every step of the way and the finest example of a break up record I have ever heard.