Saturday, October 3, 2009


Fire — “If we go back far enough,” Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, “we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement. . . .” He theorized that the first human (male) to renounce his desire to put out a fire by micturating, “was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire.” In other words, the first major step toward human civilization was the renunciation of instinct. Woman was put in charge of fire—the hearth—because her anatomy made it impossible to put out a fire with the phallic equivalent of a fire hose. As if to link fire and the phallus in an explicitly Freudian way, Jean-Jacques Annaud, in his film Quest For Fire (1981), included a scene a which a female performs fellatio on one of her male companions, presumably for the first time in history (although the ur-fellatrix, unlike Eve, eludes the historical record).

Hence fire is essential to civilization, and yet is also capable of destroying it: it is both fascinating and terrifying—the fire that signals the apocalypse. In the popular imagination fire is most often associated with erotic passion (“c’mon baby light my fire” Jim Morrison implores in the famous song), but when is fire more closely associated with fire in the eschatological sense—the conflagration that signals damnation, the end of the world? The Meat Puppets’ “Lake Of Fire” is once such song; Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” (“Satan’s sitting there, He’s smiling/Watches those flames get higher and higher”) is another, the distant precursor of which is the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Afraid To Die.” Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake” is a song about fire in the Freudian sense, except rather than singing of the renunciation of instinct, the song celebrates its return (return of the repressed). Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring Of Fire” is famous, but Anita Carter’s version is better—passion, yes, but passion linked with self-destruction. Beautiful self-destruction, self-sacrifice, is also explored in Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You.” Setting aside the banality of songs about passion, there have been some very fine songs about fire. As opposed to those who say the world will end in ice, these songs say fire.

A Few Songs About Fire, Not Ice:
Anita Carter – Ring Of Fire
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Blue Oyster Cult – Burnin’ For You
Chrome – Firebomb
The Cramps – Sinners
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
King Crimson – The Court of the Crimson King/The Return of the Fire Witch/The Return of the Puppets
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Meat Puppets – Lake of Fire
Michael Murphy – Wildfire
The Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
Bob Seger – Fire Lake
Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The Marshall Tucker Band – Fire on the Mountain

Friday, October 2, 2009


“In Fritz Lang’s M,” writes Raymond Durgnat, “the child murderer (Peter Lorre) sees his next victim gazing into a shop window full of toys. He pauses by the next window, and his reflection is hemmed in by a display of serried knives. In yet another window, the movements of an attention-getting spiral and an arrow have a mesmeric, mechanical quality, like the psychological pressure pounding inside his head. Photographed as reflected in the shop window, your character is transparent to what he is gazing at—his desires and obsessions are more solid and real than he himself. . . . ” (Films and Feelings, p. 232). The urban flaneur (Baudelaire: “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”) is naturally drawn to the shop window, as shop windows theatricalize desire, framing by means of the window casing toys, clothes, fashionably dressed mannequins, glittering baubles and beads—Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the boys and girls gazing at potential gifts in A Christmas Story, the puppy about which Patti Page sings in “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” But windows also reveal the truth, a world freed of illusion. Perhaps the best window song is therefore George Jones’ “Window Up Above,” in which the window up above voyeuristically allows, by chance, the singer to know the truth about his marriage, and express the heartbreak that follows: perversely, the window has allowed him to see the way things actually are, his wife in the arms of her lover: the horror and fascination of gazing into the face of Medusa.

The Window And The Flaneur:
50 Cent – Window Shopper
Aphex Twin – Window Licker
The Beatles – She Came In Through The Bathroom Window
Jimi Hendrix – Blue Window
The Hollies – Look Through Any Window
George Jones – Window Up Above
Billy J. Kramer – From A Window
Metallica – Dirty Window
Patti Page – How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?
The Rays – Silhouettes
U2 – Window in the Skies
Hank Williams – Window Shopping

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Under The Sea

When I was growing up, Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) was the most famous undersea explorer in the world. I knew about him primarily through his films and TV programs, although he also wrote many books as well. He pioneered techniques used in underwater photography (he was a filmmaker as much as sea diver), exploring the world’s oceans aboard his base ship, the Calypso (eventually the subject of an homage song by John Denver). Beginning in 1968, he hosted the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a show which ran for several years, until the mid-70s. A few minutes of research on the web revealed that in 1959 he addressed the first World Oceanic Congress, which in turn led to his appearance on the March 28, 1960 cover of Time magazine. In April of 1961, he was awarded the National Geographic’s Gold Medal at a White House ceremony hosted by President John F. Kennedy. I don’t recall hearing of Jacques Cousteau before that time, but I certainly remember him from the Sixties on.

Among his very earliest films was Épaves (1945, available here), which captured the poetry of the undersea realm. The decaying wreckage of sunken ships resembles the ruins of undersea cathedrals, through which, like something from a Surrealist painting, we watch divers swim, like strange birds hovering in the air. His underwater photography captured sea creatures from all over the world, creatures rich and strange. Weird and occasionally nightmarish, they resembled things from another planet. Because of his keen sense of the delicate ecology of the ocean, he was like a crusader, a Naturalist capturing through his poetic films all the beauty, awe, and mystery of nature. His films took us out of our dreary, quotidian reality and daily routine, and provided an escape into a world serene and delicate, a pure realm uncontaminated by humans and their machines. I choose to think that Jacques Cousteau influenced popular culture as well, including its music. Most certainly songs about the sea (and songs about being under the sea) are a venerable subgenre of folk and popular music; “under the sea” songs are popular among schoolchildren as well. In the Sixties, though, songs about being under the sea were really the equivalent of a psychedelic trip, thanks to films of Jacques Cousteau. Some dream of flying, but when I was a child I dreamed of being a fish, not a bird, able to swim underwater indefinitely. One of the very earliest dreams I remember in my life was set underwater, in a vast river with a powerful current, and I was struggling to find sunken treasure. Fish swam by me lazily. Surprisingly, I saw a door on the bottom of the river, perfect in every way, so I swam for it. I reached out for the knob, pulled, opened it—and woke up, a bit like Dorothy opening the door to the world of Oz, which perhaps I had recently seen, I don’t know.

Or, perhaps my dream was influenced by those poetic and hauntingly memorable films made by Jacques Cousteau, as some of the following songs may have been as well.

Bobby Bare – The Mermaid
The Beatles – Octopus’s Garden
Jimmy Buffett – A Pirate Looks At Forty
John Denver – Calypso
Donovan – Atlantis
Jimi Hendrix – 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)
Roy Orbison – Leah
Marty Robbins – Devil Woman
Squirrel Nut Zippers – Under the Sea
The Verlaines – Cathedrals Under the Sea
Patrick Watson – Man Under the Sea
XTC – Mermaid Smiled


Trains have figured prominently in the cinema since its inception—think of the Lumière brothers’ early film, Arrivée d’un train à Perrache (1896), or Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). If you think about it long enough and seriously enough, you’ll realize how many great films, encompassing all film genres, have had either a key sequence involving a train, or are actually set on a train—where does one begin? Many early Hollywood Westerns, Ella Cinders (1926), Laurel and Hardy’s Berth Marks (1929), Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North By Northwest (1959); Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1941); Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944); Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1969); Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; Murder on the Orient Express (1974); Silver Streak (1976); The Cassandra Crossing (1976); Terror Train (1980); Runaway Train (1985); Atomic Train (1999), and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Of course, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the subject: one could go on and on about the fact that there’s scarcely been a bad film when set on a train. At the very least, films in which a train makes an appearance are always interesting. Try asking the question sometime at a party as a form of parlor game, and you’ll be surprised at how many titles people begin listing.

Is it any wonder, then, that Elvis, who worked as an usher in a movie theater, and who had memorized all of James Dean’s lines in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), would record “Mystery Train”? Songs about trains are as varied emotionally as the many associations with the train; as Raymond Durgnat observed, “…their whistles are cries of anger, joy, malevolence, jubilation, or, on the prairie, forlorn and lonely, or, in the blues, the consoling thought of escape” (Films and Feelings, p. 233). To which we could add, the thrill of mystery, as in Elvis’s interpretation of “Mystery Train”: I don’t know where this train his headed, but wherever it’s going, I’m staying on for the ride. Trains have had a distinguished place in popular music as well, as the following list attests. There are many lists of train songs available on the web, but here’s my playlist of choice:

A Few Train Songs:
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues
Guy Clark – Texas, 1947
Tommy Dorsey – On the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Take the ‘A’ Train
Elvis – Mystery Train
Jimmy Forrest – Night Train
Steve Goodman – City of New Orleans
The Grateful Dead – Casey Jones
Tom T. Hall – The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
Gladys Knight & The Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
Alison Krauss – Steel Rails
K. D. Lang – Ridin’ the Rails
John Mayall – Crawling Up A Hill
Jim and Jesse McReynolds – Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Chattanooga Choo Choo (from Sun Valley Serenade, 1941)
Willie Nelson – Railroad Lady
Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
Rank and File – The Conductor Wore Black
Jimmy Rogers – Same Train, Different Time
Doc Watson – Freight Train Boogie
Mary Wells – Soul Train
Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

Monday, September 28, 2009


Although the origin of the word is contested, some suggest the word carnival is derived from the Latin carnem levare or the Italian carnelevare, “removal of meat,” thus making the carnival celebration related to religious fasting, just as Mardi Gras is to Lent. It has also been interpreted to mean “carne vale,” or “farewell to meat” in the alimentary sense, or “farewell to the flesh” in the erotic sense. “Farewell to the flesh” has been interpreted by some as referring to those festivities that encourage the letting go of your everyday self and embracing the carefree nature of the carnival or festival atmosphere—the indulgence of your hidden aspirations. Whatever the word’s origin, for theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnival disrupts the rigid hierarchies that make up our quotidian life and allows for indulgence and excess. Carnival allows for a multiplicity of voices and meanings—for laughter—and allows for impulse and instinct and expressions of caprice and desire. Social roles can be cast aside, allowing us to show our “real” selves to the world. For Bakhtin, music and song create a highly flexible realm of meaning that holds socially transformative potential. Music, therefore, is essential to carnival.

Carnival Time:
The Band – Life Is A Carnival (Cahoots)
Jimmy Buffett – Carnival World (Off to See the Lizard)
The Cardigans – Carnival (Life)
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnival (The Assassination of Jesse James soundtrack)
Frank Churchill – When I See An Elephant Fly (Dumbo soundtrack)
Elvis – It’s Carnival Time (Roustabout soundtrack)
Norah Jones – Carnival Town (Feels Like Home)
Paul McCartney and Wings – Letting Go (Venus and Mars)
Natalie Merchant – Carnival (Tigerlily)
Pere Ubu – Waiting For Mary (Cloudland)
Bruce Springsteen – 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) (The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle)
Bruce Springsteen – The Last Carnival (Working On a Dream)
Sun Ra & His Arkestra – Pink Elephants on Parade (Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films)

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Among the vast repertoire of symbols available to the lyricists of popular music, one of the most frequently used is blindness. A famous use of blindness, in the oft-recorded “Amazing Grace”—I was blind but now I see—corresponds to the dramatic moment named by Aristotle anagnorisis, recognition, the movement from ignorance to knowledge, a moment of sudden, acute insight. Hence blindness more often figurative than it is literal, and this figurative use listeners understand without even thinking about its status as poetry. Moreover, blindness is not only, figuratively speaking, a state of ignorance, but also signals a state of crippling self-absorption or self-preoccupation, leading to selfish, insensitive behavior. However, when writing about the symbolic use of blindness in films, Raymond Durgnat observed:

Terrible as this fate is felt to be, a sentimental style easily transforms it into something almost voluptuous, a kind of graceful helplessness (Chaplin’s City Lights, 1931; Mark Robson’s Lights Out, 1951). Because of our impulsive pity, a barking, aggressive blind person, brutally rejecting it, is not only admirable (for his courage, like Rochester) but frightening, almost magical (Anna Massey’s witch-mother in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). Blindness is, strangely enough, associated with the all-seeing eye. . . . The Peeping Tom, with his apparatus for seeing (camera, mirror) and his spiked tripod is ‘seen through’ by the blind woman. (Films and Feelings, p. 229)

Durgnat might also have included the figure of the blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn in the suspense thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). Of course, he wrote these observations some years before the 1972 debut of Kung Fu on American television as well, a series prominently featuring the blind sage, Master Po (Keye Luke), imbued with a magical, if not superhuman, power of sight, at the continual amazement of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine). In the western world, the model for the blind but all-seeing sage can be traced back to the poet Homer, generally considered to have been blind, then Tiresias, the blind hermaphroditic prophet of Greek mythology, then John Milton, who claimed that because the ordinary way of seeing was prohibited him, his blindness was compensated by an inner “celestial light”—hence his strong identification with the figure of the blinded Samson in his great poem, Samson Agonistes. (Samson’s figurative return was in the form of the Who’s Tommy.) But one can also be blinded by the light of sudden insight—“knocked cold,” stunned—as the Biblical story of Saul of Tarsus reveals. Struck blind, he could then see, an experience leading to his spiritual conversion by which he became the foremost Christian apologist, Paul.

Ten Songs Of The Blind and Blinded:
Tim Buckley – I Must Have Been Blind
Thomas Dolby – She Blinded Me With Science
Everlast – Blinded by the Sun
Lefty Frizzell – Blind Street Singer
Korn – Blind
Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now
Bruce Springsteen – Blinded By the Light (Manfred Mann’s cover is more famous)
Talking Heads - Blind
The Who – Pinball Wizard
Johnny Winter – Blinded By Love