Literature Music Religion

Lonely Wooden Tower

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


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.

Film Music

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.


Film Music

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.



General Literature Music

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.

Film General Justice Music

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?


Film General Music Technology

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.




Film General Music Politics

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 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).

Film General Justice Music

The Lion Dick

A pity that in the attempt to give the definitive untold history of “The Lion King,” the film’s actual creator, the man who wrote the treatment for $5,000 as “work for hire,” gets no mention.

Writer and poet Tom Disch had sold a property, “The Brave Little Toaster,” to Disney at John Lassiter’s instigation. The story of Toaster was to be Disney’s big entry into computer animation, but the film company balked at the cost until Lassiter convinced them otherwise. By that time “Toaster” had been subcontracted to be produced at a Korean animation studio as a normal cel animation. Lassiter changed the story of “Toaster” slightly, substituting toys for office accessories, and so, “Toy Story,” was born.

Essentially, both “Toy Story” (and it’s sequels), along with “The Lion King,” came from the mind of one man. Mr. Disch did grow bitter at seeing his work without even attribution making billions of dollars, while his career and personal life were growing increasingly difficult.

Tom committed suicide on Independence Day, 2008.

Ny Times, Letters, 2019-07-18

Of all the complaints, for god’s sake, did nobody notice how it promotes an entitled ruling class, inheriting power and position through primogeniture? Here is your “rightful” king. Are you kidding me?  Just who appointed this “rightful” king?  What makes a predator’s assumption of dictatorial power “rightful”?  And why the apparently unquestioning obedience from his potential dinners?

Simba, of course, can answer: God did.  And if you don’t respect God’s appointment, you will burn in hell.  Isn’t that right, Father Hyena and Brother Jackal?

And as for those reverent creatures of forest– delighted to be killed and eaten by your “rightful” king, are they?

Some say children found the first film too scary? It wasn’t scary enough: we really needed to see a scene of the rightful king having dinner to make people understand exactly what it is about royalty– kings, and princes, and Disney princesses– they admire so much.  And what it is about Disney that consistently glamorizes kings and princesses and other dictatorial forms of government.   

What they did to “Robin Hood” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

General Music Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen

Evan Hansen is bullied at school, particularly by one Conner Murphy. When Evan, at the direction of his therapist, starts writing encouraging letters to himself, Conner finds one in a printer tray and, mocking Evan, takes it. When Conner commits suicide later, his parents find the letter and come to believe that Conner wrote it, to Evan. So he wasn’t such a bully after all. Conner’s hot sister, Zoe, is at first reluctant to believe it but Evan, invited to the Murphy house for dinner, eventually convinces her that her parent’s misunderstanding is true, that Conner really was a friend to Evan. He goes so far as to persuade his friend, Jared, to help him write fake emails to “prove” his story, and helps his friend Alana start a foundation to build a park in memory of Conner. And Evan clearly enjoys being the center of attention, all the while protesting that he doesn’t, really, seriously, not at all. A lot of “oh no– I can’t believe you noticed me. Oh my god, what am I going to do now! I’m so embarrassed.”

The important thing to understand about “Dear Evan Hansen” is, firstly, that Evan is a lying, self-pitying narcissist with whom we are expected to sympathize. He abuses the trust of the Murphy family. He is not so much clueless about the damage he is doing as so self-centred that he doesn’t care. The second is that Evan is obviously gay, though the musical doesn’t acknowledge it, and, in fact, pretends that he really has the hots for Zoe. He clearly talks gay, acts gay, and demonstrates almost no convincing heterosexual interest in Zoe. At one point, Conner’s parents even wonder if he and Conner had a sexual relationship, but this being 2018, that is treated as something not to be embarrassed about. His interest in Zoe is a device to make you feel sorry for him in spite of his self-pitying and his narcissism.

The low point in the trajectory of this story is when his mother blames herself for Evan’s incredibly damaging prevarications: because she didn’t give him enough attention. No heterosexual male relates to his mother this way. There is nothing attractive about this bumbling, self-centered, pathetic whiner. And Zoe is most attractive when she disbelieves him, and becomes progressively weak as a character when she subverts her instincts to provide a convenient plot point for Evan’s complete emasculation.

“Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony awards.  I can only conclude that the judges were carried away by their enthusiasm for the very predictable message about bullying.  I didn’t find the music very distinguished, or the staging inventive, or the acting, in the Toronto version, all that moving.  The social media angle is fresh, but not particularly deep or provocative: it draws no conclusions about the nature of this massive, sudden explosion of notoriety via the internet.

For the real deal about teen angst, mutating sexual identify, and generational conflict, see the marvelous “Spring Awakening” instead, if you can.