A Very High Spiritual State

Everyone… razzamataz and look at me: I was doing something that was intended to take you into a very high spiritual state.  La Monte Young

And that “something” was smashing a piano with an axe.  Among other things.

La Monte Young is an American avant-garde composer, a minimalist, whose work has “called into question” the very nature of music.  Which also what any accidental sounds do.  Always.

You know immediately that you are not cool if you do not recognize that smashing a piano with an axe, as an act of musical performance, is the most incredibly brilliant thing you have ever seen.   You are now in a very high spiritual state.

What is so brilliant about it is that you invite rational people to ridicule what you are doing, which makes it cool for hipsters to announce that they understand it.  They get it.  They are cool, hip, youthful, still fuckable.  Not like those un-cool nerds.

But you– you are a dinosaur.  A fossil.  You probably still listen to AM radio.

Lonely Wooden Tower

The CBC discovers that Leonard Cohen used religious imagery in his songs.

Interesting.

I did a presentation on Leonard Cohen in grade 12 at Beacon Christian High School.  I played several songs, including “Suzanne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” and even “Diamonds in the Mine” and read some of his poems and some passages from “Beautiful Losers”, his novel.  And one of my key points was this:  we have been taught since we were little that to be “good” means denying the flesh and living a spiritual life of self-denial, and to shun sins of the flesh because it blinds us to the gospel truth.    But “Suzanne” brings the two together, Jesus the sailor in his lonely wooden tower, and Suzanne with her tea and oranges, and the two belong together because they both address the same essential spiritual longing in the individual. They are not at war, but in harmony, because the longing for Suzanne is a response to the fact that we are all sailors, all “drowning”, and that’s how we see Christ on “his lonely wooden tower”.  And we are made perfect not in self-denial but in desire.

Not sure I phrased it quite that elegantly in Grade 12 but I remember that I expected the teacher, John Vriend, to object to that part of my presentation and was surprised when he did not.  He kind of nodded and thanked me (it wasn’t an assignment– I had offered to do it and Vriend, tacitly acknowledging that he knew very little about Cohen, except that he was a respected poet, accepted my offer).

I have never forgotten the strangeness of the ending of my presentation.  At that time, nobody was listening to Cohen– nobody.  I’m not sure what I expected– a round of applause?  Disapproval?  Argument?  But it was very quiet.  I had thought I might get some ridicule from my class-mates who were more into top-40 music, and some disapproval from the puritans, but it was just quiet, as if I was in a large cave and there was no echo.  I wondered where the “hello” went.

Note: I’m more than happy to admit that my memories are never 100% accurate.  That’s the best I can do about this particular moment.  I am most certain about the quiet at the end because that is something have never not remembered about it.

Hollywood Aristocracy

How do you get to be a Hollywood actor?

  • Dakota Johnson is the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.
  • Melanie Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren.
  • Laura Dern is the daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern.
  • Maggie & Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother was a screenwriter/director.
  • Sean Young’s father was a television producer and her mother, Lee Guthrie was a screenwriter and pr executive.
  • Sigourney Weaver was the daughter of NBC executive Sylvester  Weaver.
  • Ione Skye is the daughter of folk singer Donovan.
  • Jennifer Grey is the daughter of Joel Grey.  Her daughter, Stella, is also pursuing an acting career.
  • Natasha Richardson is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, and granddaughter of Michael Redgrave.

There are many, many more.

The jobs in Hollywood movies are too good to be available to any sort of riff-raff or some talented nobody without any relatives in the industry.  No, it is only right that the children of established stars should inherit the privilege of glamour and wealth and fame.

And how do you get to be a pop star?

For a while Rufus was running around as part of a “sons of” club, a group that included Sean Lennon, Chris Stills and Harper Simon. “They were all getting signed and written about and had publicists and photo shoots and beautiful girlfriends,” Ms. Wainwright says in the memoir. “Were their songs better than mine?” The chip on her shoulder led her to write a grand statement song, its title a vulgar epithet. Contrary to what she has told journalists in the past, the song isn’t about her father — or, rather, it isn’t exclusively about him.   Martha Wainwright

That’s Rufus Wainwright III, son of Loudon Wainwright Jr., John Lennon’s son, Stephen Stills’ son, and Paul Simon’s son.

Now what would the children of celebrity Hollywood stars be doing with their lives if they were not the crown princes and princesses of entertainment royalty?  Some job that has measurable performance parameters with a demanding skill set?  I’m sure they have all seriously considered it.  Or would they seek a job that you get because your father or mother knows somebody in the industry and the talents in this industry are judged according to manifestly subjective standards that anyone can, as a favor, manipulate into your favor?

In other words, I am not saying they are without talent.  I am saying that many young people have talents, but very, very few of them get the opportunity meet with a powerful agent or director or producer and get privileged access to the machinery that gets you into the movies, or tv, or the recording studio.

Take Dakota Johnson.  As she grows up, she sees her parents leading the wonderful lives of movie stars, celebrities, privileged by fame and exposure.  She wants to be an actress too, of course.  Does she have special gifts?  Is she exceptionally talented?  Does she work incredibly hard to refine her craft?  Maybe.  Like hundreds of other young, ambitious women.  But does she also get opportunities that others do not get, and a few acting classes, and some cosmetic surgery, and then the privileged access to casting directors and producers?

Here’s a trashy site that gives you a glimpse of just how privileged actors have become.  It is my view that most of these films will be artistically diminished by serving the vanities of the actors rather than the imperatives of the artistic vision, of the writer and director.  But the die is cast when they seek funding: if Leonardo Di Caprio agrees to be in your film, you have guaranteed yourself millions of dollars for the production.

Without him, or someone like him, you will be forced to actually make a good film and hope for critical recognition and a small profit.

Children are inheriting their parent’s Hollywood Privilege

The extended musical family in New York, 2012, from left to right: Martha Wainwright, the singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright III and the singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche.

Martha Wainwright, Suzzy Roche, Rufus Wainwright III, Lucy Wainwright Roche.

Handheld Jerky Phony Video

“It’s about popular music. It’s about being in a rock band, over the course of time. And it’s also a direct conversation between me and my fans, at a level that I think they’ve come to expect over the years.”

It has reached the point where every time a video I am watching goes into funky, raw, “authentic” hand-held video mode, I nearly puke.

The latest, unfortunately, are the videos for Bruce Springsteen’s newest album.  As if the video is not a bad enough sign, here’s one that’s even worse: the subject is music.  Yes, Bruce Springsteen is putting out an album about how music is important.  How his fans expect this “conversation”.

I loved Springsteen back in the 1870’s when he released his first albums.  All right– 1980’s, actually.  “Born to Run” remains a classic.  I was also always a Dylan fan so, naturally, I was drawn to Springsteen because he had great lyrics and his band really rocked.  Nobody ever argued that Dylan was a great singer, and neither was Springsteen, but at least he could screech with more enthusiasm.

Years go by.  I find myself admiring  Dylan’s singing more and more, at least until the 1990’s, and Springsteen’s–even on his first albums– less and less.

And now, “Letter to You”, and the limitations of Springsteen’s voice are laid bare.  And, perhaps, the limitations of his music.  Without the cars, the working class angst, the oppressive union jobs, the girls named Sandy or Terry– what’s left for Springsteen?  Is his mind expansive enough to move into deeper territory, more intriguing perspectives, more subtle inflections?

The videos are awful.  First cheap trick: black and white.  Second cheap trick: hand-held jerky camera movements, as if some documentary crew just managed to sneak into the studio.  Third cheap trick: shots of the wife.  It may sound harsh, but I always picture the wife needling the husband into putting her into the video.  I should be there.  I’m your wife.  I sang backup in the band back in the 80’s.  Fourth bad sign:  drone footage of an unidentifiable man walking through snow-covered fields, without a single close-up or establishing shot to let us in on whether that’s actually Springsteen thinking profound thoughts or a stand-in.

Stairway to Mediocrity

I stumbled upon this:

Stairway to Heaven – Heart 

And I wrote this in the comments:

Utterly reeking of smug, self-congratulation. And the resounding conviction that if you played it perfectly with a 5-piece band, nobody would understand just how monumentally great it is; so you load the stage with the biggest number you can get and make it a mess of layers and noise and gesture until everyone in the room realizes that yes, I have good taste because I liked this song that is reputably a classic, so everyone says. I would have replaced the entire ensemble with 4 Hawaiians with ukuleles and kazoos in a desperate quest for something fresh and interesting.

It’s very hard to tell if “Stairway to Heaven” really is a good song anymore because it has become completely encrusted with myth and grandeur and self-importance and ridicule over the years.  I thought it was a pretty grand song when I was in college, after I heard it for the first time.  Nice picked guitar.  Nice flute.  Nice big electric guitar entry.   The lyrics?  Suggestive of some kind of cosmic sensitivity, about selling out, about “buying” self-respect and redemption, about some “heaven” that is not defined or articulated or even really expressed.  Some allusions to natural beauty.  That condescending final big statement: “to be a rock and not to roll”.

A room-mate of mine who became a pastor in a Christian Reformed Church listened to it carefully one day and them solemnly pronounced, “that’s what it’s all about isn’t it Bill: ‘to be a rock… and not to roll'”.  That was my first clue that the song was hopelessly mired in pretension and posturing and fake sensitivity.

I should have quoted back to him Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sit Down Young Stranger”:

The answer’s in the forest, carved upon a tree
John loves Mary,
Does anyone love me.

 

Meet Me in Princess Land

This was one of the first films in her career that gave her the opportunity to be the attractive leading lady. Vincente Minnelli was assigned to direct, and he requested that make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel be assigned to Garland. Ponedel refined her appearance in several ways, including extending and reshaping her eyebrows, changing her hairline, modifying her lip line and removing her nose discs and dental caps. She appreciated the results so much that Ponedel was written into her contract for all her remaining pictures at MGM.  From Wiki

I recently watched “Judy”, the “biopic”, starring Renee Zellweger as the very, very tragic Judy Garland, and fully expected to dislike it.  All the annoying elements of the celebrity biopic are there: the sudden fame, the heights of achievement, the stardom, the celebrity pitfalls, the addictions, the disasters, the recovery.  These films invariably excuse the subject’s poor judgments and weak character as the results of abuse or exploitation.  They invariably feature a triumphant comeback moment or two.  They invariably lie to you.  They invariably invite you to admire the very thing that ruined them: the manipulation of the audience by the entertainment industry which sells you a contrived image, a fake personality, an escape fantasy that no one can possibly live up to.  Judy Garland was both a product and a consequence of that manipulation.

One could very easily have imagined Zellweger turning to the camera at one point and asking the implicated audience, “are you enjoying this?”

Mickey Rooney insists that MGM never forced diet pills, amphetamines, barbiturates or any other substances on Judy, and that her downfall was entirely the result of her weak character, or her own choices, so there is a grain of salt to be absorbed in this story.  (But then again, I’m not sure Rooney is a reliable source.)  “Judy” correctly zeros in on the mom, who could have put a stop to it at anytime but, well, one must fulfill one’s dreams.  A telling scene– which surprised me a little (because it was there, not because it happened) was Mayer putting it to Garland: don’t you want to be famous?  The implication is that Garland was at least partly complicit in her own predicament.  And that’s why Zellweger’s portrayal of Garland is more reserved and less self-pitying than the usual biopic (see “Rocket Man” for a pityful example).

Ignore the blather about her beauty: she never was beautiful, in the way the Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor– actresses her age– were beautiful.  “Judy” wants you to believe she really was beautiful, but had no confidence in her beauty.  Or is “Judy” just dramatizing how the people around her tried to persuade her to work: you look beautiful, you’re going to be great.

“Judy” takes a light touch to Garland’s own claims that Mayer touched her “inappropriately”: there is one sequence in which he touches her “heart” while telling her that that is where she sings from, and he leans in close in some scenes, but it is clear that director Goold didn’t want to go there.

She was fired from MGM in 1949 because she simply failed to show up for filming.  Some websites perpetuate the myth: poor Judy!  She had lots of good reasons to not show up.  She was addicted to barbiturates, for one thing.  She was in the middle of a divorce.  She was depressed.  But it is precisely the traditional Hollywood indulgence of excesses by celebrity stars that prevents actors like Judy Garland from taking responsibilities for their issues and addressing them.

Like Elvis, Garland died sitting on the toilet.  Like Elvis, we didn’t hear about that detail until years later when someone close to the celebrity finally offered that one final eloquent and telling detail.

 

 

I Am Offended

“The Future” is one of Leonard Cohen’s best songs.  It is spell-binding, powerful, uncompromising.  But even Cohen, apparently, grew frightened of his own lyrics.

Here’s the original second verse:

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole in your culture

If you read reddit and browse through the occasional discussion of sexual preference and fetishes it appears that anal sex is not all that uncommon today.  It probably never was.  But a certain constituency out there would find it indelicate.  Thus:

Here we go: Mr. Cohen on the CBC in 1993:

Give me speed and careless sex
Take the only tree…

Let’s note immediately that no one seem all that concerned about taking the “only tree that’s left” or with, later, “the white man dancing”– a strange phrase that suggests there is something not perverse about a black or latino man dancing.

It’s a powerful prophetic song that makes Cohen look like a genius in a certain light.  Not because he is right– he isn’t– and not because he doesn’t offend: he does, wonderfully.  But because he touches about the most sensitive impulses at the arc of our culture: violence and sex and religion– and tells us that they are off the rails.

I need to point out though that no prophecy of future chaos and disorder has ever been wrong.  It is human nature to regard the diversity, conflict, violence, and destruction of every era as inevitable and the worst it has ever been.  But, as thinkers like Hans Rosling have pointed out, you could make a strong argument for the case that humanity has actually never been in better condition than it is now.  [There is an exception: there are strong arguments being made that Global Warming is now beyond the tipping point and real world-wide catastrophe looms.]  There are few wars, less violence, more prosperity than we ever dreamed of 50 or 100 years ago.

Back to my point.  It is more than a little tacky and tawdry and shabby –to use a word favored by Cohen himself– to play the uncompromising prophet and then compromise.  Who asked him to remove “anal sex” and “crack”?  Did he volunteer to do it?  It would not surprise me because Cohen has gone soft in recent years, disappointingly attuned to his own mythology as it plays to his new constituency.   Most of his current fans never listened to the original “Songs of Leonard Cohen” or read any of his books of poetry, or “Beautiful Losers”, the novel, or even “Favorite Game”.

They wouldn’t like the early Cohen, with this, for example:

The 15-year-old girls
I wanted when I was 15
I have them now
It is very pleasant
It is never too late
I advise you all
To become rich and famous….

So when Cohen sings “careless sex” to avoid offending his new fan base, I feel like the man whose incorrigible Uncle has suddenly married and joined a church.  Oh, he used to be so much fun.

How to Ruin a Great Story

Miss Saigon has received criticism for what some have perceived as its racist or sexist overtones, including protests regarding its portrayal of Asians and women in general.[34] Originally, Pryce and Burns, white actors playing Eurasian/Asian characters, wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to make themselves look more Asian,[35] which outraged some who drew comparisons to a “minstrel show”.[36]

Yes, it’s hard to argue with the idea that using makeup and prostheses to make an actor look more like an Asian character is unnecessary and insulting.  There are Asian actors.  Why not use one?  If you needed in a dog in a scene, would you cast a cat?  A hamster?

Well, only if the hamster badly wanted to star in this show as a dog.  Because the hamster wanted the challenge.  The hamster wants to be famous and adored by the public.

See “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for a notorious example (Mickey Rooney).  If a black actor were to play Hamlet (as many have), would we want to make him look Danish?  Why not?  how come you don’t see black comedians or politicians in whiteface?  Ever?

In the London production of Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga originally starred as Kim, with Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer. When the production transferred from London to New York City, the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) refused to allow Pryce, a white actor, to recreate the role of the Eurasian pimp in America. As Alan Eisenberg, executive secretary of Actors’ Equity explained, “The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community. The casting choice is especially disturbing when the casting of an Asian actor, in the role, would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.”[36] This ruling led to criticism from many, including the British Equity, citing violations of the principles of artistic integrity and freedom. Producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show, despite massive advance ticket sales.[37]

Ah– the collision of two liberal principles!  No. 1, respect ethnicity enough to use actors belonging to that ethnicity.  No. 2, respect “artistic integrity and freedom”.

Though there had been a large, well-publicised international search among Asian actresses to play Kim, there had been no equivalent search for Asian actors to play the major Asian male roles—specifically, those of the Engineer (Pryce) and Thuy (Keith Burns). However, others pointed out that since the Engineer’s character was Eurasian (French-Vietnamese), they argued that Pryce was being discriminated against on the basis that he was Caucasian.  [Wow!!] Also, Pryce was considered by many in Britain to have “star status,” a clause that allows a well-known foreign actor to recreate a role on Broadway without an American casting call.[36] After pressure from Mackintosh, the general public, and many of its own members, Actors’ Equity was forced to reverse its decision. Pryce starred alongside Salonga and Willy Falk (as Chris) when the show opened on Broadway.[38][39][40]  From Wikipedia

And here we get the pretzel: Jonathan Pryce is being discriminated against because he is a Caucasian!  Would anyone pose this argument against someone re-making “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and replacing Mickey Rooney with an actual Japanese actor?   But that would be discriminating against annoying, short, white actors!

All this over an actor playing the role of a pimp.

Now, will no one object to a Eurasian actor being cast in the role of a pimp?  What an insult!  We are all outraged!  Everyone?

 

No Comment: Copyright

I was going to comment about this book on copyright.

I do want the book cited.  The writer– himself gifted in language– strongly recommends the book.

I have been interested in copyright issues for a long time, but especially since the late 1990’s when I was convinced that the music industry had disastrously misjudged the technological landscape and invested all of their strategies into trying to kill online access to music and videos.  It was Apple who first realized that it really wasn’t about the money.  The typical down-loader spent far more on buying records and CDs than the average non-downloading citizen did.  It wasn’t that millions of users were so eager to obtain music and video without paying for it: the truth was they just wanted access.  They wanted to be able to find a recording or movie they liked and listen to it or watch it without having to go to a physical store and place an order and wait– forever– for some distributor to finally acknowledge their preference and ship it to them.

Apple charged people for every download, and, astonishingly, people bought it.

We have a reached a point now where I believe the sale of actual music or video files is no longer the salient point.  The point is eyeballs, email accounts, registrations– whatever attracts the user to the website, to the click-throughs, the data.  The question content owners are going to ask is not “did you pay for the song” but “do you have an account?”.  Can we sell your eyeballs?  Can we hit you up with ads?  Can we spy on you?

The second thing that has become apparent is that, in spite of what the industry keeps telling us, the artist is not getting paid.  The average amount an artist was paid for an album sale in the 1970’s was about $1.  The average amount he receives for a download from iTunes or Spotify is too small to measure.

Who is getting the money?

Spotify and Apple and their cohorts.

 

 

 

You Bad, Bad Person, Ani Difranco

In 2017, the progressive singer-songwriter Ani Difranco announced that she was holding a retreat at an antebellum estate in Louisiana.  Sharp-eyed witch-hunters immediately dug up the history of the mansion: turns out it had existed during the time of slavery and was occupied by slave-owners, much like most of Louisiana.

DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a very blatant display of racism” on a petition at Change.org that collected more than 2,600 signatures.[81]

On December 29, 2013, DiFranco issued an apology, announcing that she was cancelling the retreat, stating that

i am not unaware of the mechanism of white privilege or the fact that i need to listen more than talk when it comes to issues of race. if nottoway is simply not an acceptable place for me to go and try to do my work in the eyes of many, then let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled. …

i think many positive and life-affirming connections would have been made at this conference, in all of its complexity of design. i do not wish to reinvent the righteous retreat at this point to eliminate the stay at the Nottoway Plantation.

at this point I wish only to cancel.[82]

The singer’s statements were called “remarkably unapologetic” on Jezebel,[73][76] and “a variety of excuses and justifications” by Ebony.[78] Additionally, a piece at The Guardian said the announcement made “much of the idea that this was all a mistake, with no indication of remorse.”[80]

DiFranco issued a second statement and apology on January 2, 2014, following continued criticism. In it, she wrote “… i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.”[83]  From Wikipedia

The only thing more disgusting than the self-righteous denunciations of an artist who has been unfailingly consistently enthusiastically progressive all of her life is the craven apology she issued.

In other words,

…yet by the end of the film, Charlie hasn’t been forced to acknowledge his neglect as a husband or father.  [From an attempt to cancel the film “Marriage Story”.  Sorry– I forget the source.]

All while Nicole has never even been asked to admit that she took advantage of Charlie’s New York credibility to enhance her own standing as a “serious” actress (who wants to move to LA to star in a sitcom).