Wednesday, September 30, 2009


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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Musical Box

The musical box — a novelty toy that produces music mechanically. The crucial parts of a musical box are the cylinder and the comb. The cylinder is the programming device, the equivalent of the punched card used with early computers. It is studded with tiny pins at the correct spacing to produce music by displacing the teeth of the comb at the proper time. The comb is a flat piece of metal with many dozens (or possibly hundreds) of teeth of different lengths. The tines of the comb “chime,” or sound, as they slip off the pins of the cylinder. There are some musical boxes that have a flat disc rather than a cylinder, but the disc is still the equivalent of the operating program of the cylinder.

Although intricate, the musical box is merely a cold, unfeeling mechanism, yet it nonetheless has come to express nostalgia, delicacy, and lost innocence. British film critic Raymond Durgnat observed that musical boxes, like pianolas and barrel organs, hold a fascination for children, and “together with their ‘period’ feel, outweighs any adult diffidence about their banal ‘pop’ tunes and canned quality. As so often, the popular poetic sense of a symbol is derived [from] its meaning for children. The music comes from long ago and faraway, the popular tunes of yesterday have the charm of memory” (Films and Feelings, p. 231). He means that since the tunes musical boxes are frequently designed to play are gentle or sentimental ones from an earlier era (“lullabies”), they evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia—“lost innocence.”

On the other hand, the “too” sweet, saccharine blandness of musical boxes can make them overly or creepily sentimental, and their unsavory social origins (they were associated with the vice of snuff) allow them to be associated with crime as well. Durgnat uses Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] as an example, in which an aristocrat “expresses his basic spontaneity of soul by enthusing over the latest acquisition to his collection of musical boxes: a huge elaborate Dutch street organ. But its sound acts as background to an attempted crime passionnel, as, again, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train the carousel organ plays, ‘And the band played on . . .’ as a brutal strangling takes place” (p. 231). Hence in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a sinister musical box that can induce eternal sleep when its music is played. In The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2), the Max character played by Mel Gibson uses a musical box to become friends with a strange, seemingly mute child referred to as the Feral Kid. A past crime is signaled by musical boxes in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, in which a murderer betrays his identity by having a pocket watch that is also a musical box that plays a distinctive tune. In Luis Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen [The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz], a musical box also plays a crucial role. An ornate musical box in the form of a monkey with Persian robes playing the cymbals is featured prominently in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. In Japan, where musical boxes are quite popular, the Sankyo Seiki company has specialized in the manufacture of musical boxes which are extremely intricate (there is an entire “Music Box Collection” from Japan consisting of several CDs, generically referred to as “J-Pop,” available on iTunes).

Pop songs incorporating the musical box are rare, but when its used is it is often memorable. The musical box has also been used as inspiration for a few songs as well, e.g., Genesis’ “The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971). Here are a few songs inspired by the musical box, or incorporating it into the music.

Björk – Frosti
Mariah Carey – Music Box
The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde [Robert Cobert] – Josette’s Music Box [used in the TV series Dark Shadows]
Philip Glass – Music Box (“Candyman Theme”)
Genesis – The Musical Box
Korn – Dead Bodies Everywhere
Bobby McFerrin – Music Box
Panic! at the Disco – This Is Halloween [cover of the song from The Nightmare Before Christmas]
Rammstein – Spieluhr [Music Box]
Thrice – Music Box

Monday, September 21, 2009


I’ve blogged in the past about the figure of Orpheus in popular music, but I’ve yet to explore how the music has employed the mythic hero or heroine. A mythic hero is usually defined as a character from myth or legend that is of divine descent and endowed with great strength or ability. The term therefore encompasses demigods as well as gods and goddesses. I should note that my use of the word ability here is broad, since mythological figures such as Cassandra and Io are afflicted by madness as a consequence of the Olympian gods’ capriciousness. The cursed prophetess Cassandra, for instance, who has the gift of prophecy but is never to be believed, is an especially tragic figure. Likewise, Hera transforms poor Io into a cow because Zeus develops an erotic passion for her. Io is thus like Cassandra in that she can never articulate her tragic insight. Venus, the mythical Goddess of Love (of the erotic kind), enthralls the legendary knight Tannhäuser. In his poem Laus Veneris, Swinburne explores the tension between an older, pagan ideal as it comes into clash with the new, Christian religion. Swinburne’s Venus, with whom the young knight Tannhäuser falls in love and with whom he lives in her subterranean home, represents the life of the old religion. Tannhäuser is wracked with remorse and guilt because of his passion for her. Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” invokes the legend of “La belle dame sans merci,” the beautiful woman without pity, which the Tannhäuser legend also employs. And Fleetwood Mac’s famous song, written by Stevie Nicks, “Rhiannon,” was apparently inspired not by the Welsh myth about Rhiannon, a horse goddess, but by Mary Leader’s novel Triad. For years when performing the song live Nicks would introduce the song as being about a “Welsh witch,” but that’s not quite correct, either. At any rate, here are a few pop songs that use the figure of the mythic hero or heroine to interesting effect. They reveal how vibrant and alive these ancient myths and legends still are, even if the figure is encountered without the songwriter ever actually having read the actual source text.

Abba – Cassandra
Jimmy Clanton – Venus In Blue Jeans
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Guinevere
Donovan – Guinevere
Bob Dylan – As I Went Out One Morning
Bob Dylan – Isis
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand
Boz Scaggs – Hercules
The Shocking Blue – Venus
Al Stewart – Merlin’s Time
Steely Dan
Home At Last
Suzanne Vega – Calypso
Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table [album]

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bang The Drum All Day

Apparently, Marlon Brando once wanted to be a jazz drummer, and was a big fan of Gene Krupa. Widely considered to have been the first drum soloist, Gene Krupa interacted with his fellow band members in such a way as to introduce into jazz music the extended drum solo. His flamboyant performances are preserved in movies such as Hollywood Hotel (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), Beat the Band (1947), and The Glen Miller Story (1953). Watching Krupa in these movies, flailing away with his sticks as he performs his sexuality and masculinity, was clearly an influence on many of the first generation of rock drummers (check out Krupa’s performance in this youtube video).

Given that early rock culture was so influenced, if not outright imitative, of jazz culture, especially in its emphasis on individualism, it is not surprising that rock drummers eventually incorporated the extended solo. The Who’s Keith Moon, perhaps the most overtly imitative of all rock drummers of Gene Krupa’s flamboyant style, no doubt contributed to the popularity of the drums. The popularity of drum solos seems to have grown during the 60s, peaking around 1968-69, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts once remarked, “I don’t like drum solos, to be honest with you, but if anybody ever told me he didn’t like Buddy Rich I’d right away say go and see him, at least the once.” I happen to agree with him: I’ve never particularly liked drum solos. I think they are boring. But if you twisted my arm, though, I’d probably say that Ron Bushy’s drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” as the one I dislike the least, primarily because of his use of the Leslie speaker. Nonetheless, there are more than a few drum solos worth mentioning.

12 Songs With Drum Solos:
Ron Wilson – “Wipe Out” (Wipe Out, 1963)
Hughie Flint – “What’d I Say” (Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, 1966)
Keith Moon – “Cobwebs and Strange” (A Quick One, 1966)
Fito de la Parra – “Fried Hockey Boogie” (Boogie With Canned Heat, 1968)
Ginger Baker – “Toad” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)
Ron Bushy – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, 1968)
Bobby Colomby – “Blues, Pt. 2” (Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1968)
Danny Seraphine – “I’m A Man” (The Chicago Transit Authority, 1969)
Ginger Baker – “Do What You Like” (Blind Faith, 1969)
John Bonham – “Moby Dick” (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)
Michael Shrieve – “Soul Sacrifice” (Woodstock, 1970)
Bill Ward – “Rat Salad” (Paranoid, 1970)