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2013/12/01

Apocalypse Now & Then: Connie Willis' Doomsday Book

by John Bloner, Jr.


A novel named "Doomsday Book" does not sound like the best title for a Christmas tale, yet despite its dire-sounding name and a story that includes a fair share of pestilence and death, Connie Willis' book may be the best Christmas book ever written. It is, at the very least, my favorite Christmas book, as well as my favorite novel for any day of the year.

"Doomsday Book" is the story of Kivrin Engle, an English historian who is studying the Middle Ages and has the opportunity to learn first-hand about this time period, thanks to the advent of time-travel in the mid-21st century.  Although the 14th century is off-limits to historians, the Acting Head of the History Faculty at Oxford seizes an opportunity when his boss is away at Christmastime to make history by sending a student into a distant century that featured the Hundred Years' War, Joan of Arc at the stake, and the Black Death.

Author Connie Willis
I'm writing this piece in late 2013 when the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare", went off the rails when the technology required for its website wasn't tested sufficiently and then failed spectacularly.  This circumstance is, unfortunately, not unique to mankind's penchant for major projects. The space shuttle Challenger in January 1986 was allegedly rushed for launch so the event would coincide with President Reagan's State of the Union address. The image of flumes of smoke, blooming like an iris flower over Cape Canaveral, are etched forever in many eyes. Over one hundred years ago, a seemingly unsinkable ship met an iceberg in the cold Atlantic waters and became both a part of recent folklore and a warning to all of the perils of hubris.

Life in "Doomsday Book" mirrors these monumental mishaps.  Connie Willis told Nick Gevers of InfinityPlus, "We poor homo sapiens are always trying to make desperately important decisions with too little information and too little time."

From the first paragraph of her novel, Willis drops her readers into a madcap environment in which the Acting Head of the History Faculty makes a desperate decision to send a young woman into the teeth of a dangerous time in human history. He fudges data to make it happen, while foreseeing his own status in Oxford raised if the mission is successful.

Another member of the History Faculty, James Dunworthy, disagrees with the venture, but is powerless to prevent it.  He is a father-figure to the young student, Kivrin.  He recognizes the danger unto death that the Acting Head is positioning for her.

"He hasn't run recon tests or parameter checks," he tells an associate. "We did two years of unmanneds in Twentieth Century before we sent anyone through. He hasn't done any. The man's a complete incompetent."

Kivrin is a lamb willingly led to slaughter, an image compounded by her tiny stature and blond hair in braids. When Dunworthy learns of the date of her return, he says, "A rendezvous on the twenty-eighth of December. Do you realize what holy day that is? The Feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents." Despite Dunworthy's protests, Kivrin is eager to become the first medieval historian to visit the 14th century. "I want to go," she tells him. "I want to find out about them, how they lived, what they were like."

Scene from the 1960s TV series, The Time Tunnel, starring James Darrin and Robert Colbert
"Doomsday Book" is the first of several books by Willis to use time travel as a device to explore an age from the perspective of an outsider. (A story, "Fire Watch", preceded the novel and introduced Kivrin as a minor character.)

Connie Willis uses only a few terms to convey the complexity of sending a human being from one date in time to another. There are references to the "net" as the vehicle which opens to allow time travel and closes once the historian has reached her destination.  There is the "drop" which refers to the physical location where the time traveler is placed or "dropped", preferably out-of-sight of any people. There are also references to "slippage".  The further back in time that a historian travels, the greater risk that she may arrive at a date that is different than the one that was programmed for her.

Prior to reading the stories and novels of this author, I'd spent little time in the science-fiction aisles of my local bookstore, but was intrigued when I encountered a Salon.com review that indicated that fans of author George Saunders would also love Willis' work. I soon found that Willis has almost nothing in common with the stories and the style of Saunders. Although some of her tales are set in the future, her characters remind me of the quick-thinking, fast-talking folks in 1930s screwball comedies. Willis loves this genre, as well as the works of P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy L. Sayers.

In just two years, 1848-50, the bubonic and pneumonic plague claimed 1.5 million lives in Europe
When Kivrin journeys to the 14th century, she cannot forecast how the experience will change her. A historian who learns only through church records, books and other documents may be able to recite facts and figures of a distant time, yet they cannot fully understand the lives and mental state of the people who loved and toiled during years different than their own.

She expects cutthroats and thieves and finds instead a family--a mother, her two young daughters, and mother-in-law--residing in a manor, filled with all of the minor dramas that occupy us for most of our days.  She also falls desperately ill upon arrival and the family cares for her during her convalescence when she is disoriented and unable to communicate with them in their Middle English tongue.

The youngest of the two daughters, Agnes, is curious at her home's guest and is as bold as any five year old girl in approaching her and filling her in on all of the things that someone her age encounters, whether they're living in one century or another.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, an unrecognizable strain of influenza sweeps through Oxford, causing a quarantine, befalling the one programmer who could pull Kivrin out of the 14th century along with many others.  It is speculated that the virus was somehow communicated from the earlier century to the latter when the "net" was opened, allowing Kivrin to time travel.

"Ring them bells, St, Catherine/from the top of the room/Ring them from the fortress/for the lilies that bloom"--Bob Dylan
A leitmotif employed majestically in "Doomsday Book" is the sound of bells, ringing across the ages, from a bell choir visiting Oxford from the United States to a church bell ringing in the parish nearby the manor where Kivrin lies in a sickbed.  Hardly a page is found in the thick novel in which a bell is not chiming or tolling.  Little Agnes wears a bell tied by a thread around her wrist and although she promises to not allow it to ring while in church, the bell will not be silenced.

The bells also serve as a reminder that they may give comfort and communicate important information when all of the world's technology may fail.

While reading (and re-reading) "Doomsday Book", I thought of a true story told by the late Dirk Koning of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like myself, he had dedicated many years of his life to technology and free speech through public access television. He had served as the Executive Director for Grand Rapids' Community Media Center and was in demand around the world as a public speaker.

On a visit to Malawi in Africa, he was humbled by a request from a village chief, who had listened patiently to Dirk Koning's speech about the various forms of technology that would be brought to the village to improve it, before making his people's single and simple need known.

The video below provides this story. May it resonate within you now or one day when you are confounded with your smartphone and iPad or tinkering with your Google glasses.


I've never felt as close to a story's characters than I've felt for those created by Connie Willis, particularly Kivrin and everyone she encounters in the 14th century.  Willis shares her tale primarily in third-person, but thanks to a device implanted in the young heroine, the reader hears her in first-person when she speaks directly into it by cupping her hands close to her mouth, as if in prayer.

In this passage, Kivrin describes mealtime with her newly-found family:

"I sat between the girls and shared a trencher with them. We had meat, I think venison, and bread. The venison tasted of cinnamon, salt, and the lack of refrigeration, and the bread was stone-hard, but it was better than porridge . . ."

Willis deftly employs "novel thought", as the term is defined by Douglas Glover, and its effect adds an obsessive quality to Kivrin's character.  Glover describes "novel thought" as if it were a thread, sewing a novel together. "It functions by concentrating on time and motive," he writes in his essay, "Notes on Novel Structure", and expounds that through "novel thought", characters are always doing three things: (1) looking back, remembering where they have been, and why they have come to where they are, (2) assessing where they are now, (3) looking ahead.  Kivrin turns events of her past, present and possibilities for her future over and over in her thoughts, just as we are rarely "in the moment", but instead projecting ourselves backward and forward through our minds.

Adrienne Martini reflects on Willis' style: "In addition to her deft comic touch, Willis is also a master at fully immersing the reader in her world without resort to clunky informational dumps . . . she is so keen at focusing her attentions on her characters and how they respond to the time they are experiencing, rather than painting vast canvases for them to walk across. The difference is subtle, yes, but important."


Connie Willis is the author of fifteen novels, including four time-travel books: Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear--five short-story collections. She is also the recipient of numerous Hugo and Nebula Awards.  She resides in Greeley, Colorado, which celebrates its famous resident through its website, Greeley Unexpected.  For more on this author, visit her website HERE and take in Lorraine Berry's excellent, extensive, two-part interview with her at Talking Writing, A Magazine For Creative Writers and Readers.


2013/11/17

Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion - Beyond The Singles

By Jav Rivera

In 1991, I was in high school and my love for the band Guns N' Roses (GnR) was already well established. Their first two albums, "Appetite For Destruction" and "G N' R Lies" were on frequent playback on my CD player (well, technically, I had those albums on cassette at the time). But when "Use Your Illusion" was released, nothing could have prepared me. There were two albums ("Use Your Illusion I & II"); each were double albums, for a total of thirty tracks. Little by little, the band released more and more singles. The first was "You Could Be Mine" which was released along with the film Terminator 2.  The song and music video would blow radio and television away. It's a tough rock song that catered to all GnR fans.

The album as a whole took the gritty rock band into new territory. Sure, there were still some of their trademark rock tunes but other tracks experimented with blues, heavy metal, classic rock and roll, punk, epic ballads, and even classical and flamenco.

Altogether, the albums released ten singles; almost all of them reached the top of the Billboard charts, including: "You Could Be Mine", "Civil War", "Don't Cry", "November Rain", "Estranged", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (Bob Dylan cover), "Yesterdays", "Live and Let Die" (Paul McCartney/Wings cover), and the lesser known "Dead Horse" and "The Garden".  At the time, it seemed like no one could do hard rock like GnR. But so much more was hiding beyond the singles of the "Use Your Illusion" albums. And I personally think these other tracks better represent how truly remarkable these albums were. This was a group of men whose experimentation lead to both the downfall of the band and a possible transition into what would eventually be called alternative music.

Album Cover for "Use Your Illusion I"
The original lineup for Guns N' Roses would crumble soon after these albums, but at the time the group included Axl Rose (lead vocals, piano), Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Slash (lead guitar), Duff McKagan (bass, vocals), Dizzy Reed (piano), and Matt Sorum (drums).

L-R: Axl (with white hat), Duff, Dizzy, Matt, Slash, and Izzy (with black hat and shades)
Starting with "Use Your Illusion I", which is the more rock album of the two, the first track "Right Next Door To Hell" is a great example of what's to come. It's tough and features the deep, rich, hollow-esque bass intro by Duff combined with Slash's screechy-scratchy guitar work. As Axl's voice comes in, the music turns into something most parents would probably just cover their ears for, which for some teens was part of GnR's charm.

Looking at the more unfamiliar tracks, however, GnR began to develop into a band with incredible insight into the technicalities and emotion of song writing. A great example would be "You Ain't The First" with its southern-inspired style in waltz time and 3-part vocals provided by Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose, and a then unknown Shannon Hoon (of Blind Melon). The song stands out as an acoustic break from the loud electric guitars associated with the majority of GnR's catalog.

One of my personal favorite tracks on Use Your Illusion I is "Double Talkin' Jive". It includes one of the coolest intros to a song, an amazing lead solo in the middle, and an unexpected ending using a flamenco guitar, surprisingly played by Slash. Though Slash had already been established as a great rock guitarist, Use Your Illusion is where he proved that he was more than just a guy with curly hair and top hat. Another element to the song were the lead vocals provided by Izzy Stradlin, again proving that these guys went far beyond the image that had been established on posters, music videos, and magazine covers.

"The Garden" though released as a music video single, was never really popularized. Sad, because it's one of GnR's greatest songs of all time. Slash's guitar work is heart-wrenching and unique. Duff's deep bass brings an almost psychedelic feel. Axl's voice is well-suited in both the emotionality and strangeness of the song. But the song as a whole was unlike anything heard on early 90's radio stations - which is probably why it never made it into most people's homes and remains a hidden gem.

Immediately following "The Garden" is one of GnR's toughest (and fastest sung) songs entitled "Garden of Eden". The track combined GnR's rock sensibilities with some punk elements, producing both power and recklessness.

"Coma", on the other hand, produced the same power without the speed and mayhem. It's the ending track for Use Your Illusion I, and quite an epic, lasting over ten minutes. It can become a bit exhaustive, but the study of the track is interesting. Believe it or not, there are classical music elements to it, with its use of sectional forms. It may be the ending of the first Use Your Illusion album, but the experimentation of this track is a great introduction to Use Your Illusion II, the more versatile of the albums.

Album Cover for "Use Your Illusion II"
Most people are aware of Use Your Illusion II because of the amount of singles it includes, especially "You Could Be Mine". And, it's my personal favorite of the two, but for different reasons. The album was more experimental than Use Your Illusion I and showcased GnR as a force to be reckoned with. It had radio-friendly tunes like "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (an amazing cover of Bob Dylan), "Don't Cry", and their epic "Estranged". But more importantly for me was the combination of their trademark grittiness with a bit of progressive rock.

After "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" the album, for me, has one of the best sequences with the following five tracks: "Get In the Ring" is a somewhat response to their press criticisms. It's followed by "Shotgun Blues", a seemingly simple rock tune that reminds the fans that no one does hard rock like GnR. It also highlights Matt Sorum's drumming both in the beginning and ending. Sorum joined GnR on the Use Your Illusion albums but quickly proved that his drumming was not only fitting but necessary for the kind of versatility these tracks had.

After the one-two punch of "Get In The Ring" and "Shotgun Blues", the album adds a little unusualness with "Breakdown's" introduction - whistling and a banjo. The track also highlights the piano, making a rock song sound more full, much like how rock songs were written in the 70s. It also has one of my favorite endings, using spoken word, kick drums and drum rolls, a funky bass, piano slides, and that last guitar chord that hits like a slam of a door.

Entering into number four of the five, "Pretty Tied Up's" intro sounds almost mystical until it kicks into what becomes the album's best use of a musical theme. In other words, think of how classical music uses themes to come back to reintroduce a melody to the listener (for example, Mozart's famous "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"). The theme essentially brings the music back to a beginning point, and then veers off into different sections/melodies. "Pretty Tied Up" does this seamlessly, and no other GnR song utilizes this technique as successfully and uniquely.

The final track of this perfect five track sequence is "Locomotive". It's also my favorite track of both Use Your Illusion albums, though "Pretty Tied Up" is a close second. "Locomotive" utilizes a different musical technique than its predecessor - the use of a main, unchanging riff that runs nearly the entire length of a song, combined with varied lead guitar elements, creating the illusion of change. It's a tough, driving tune with great lyrics and some of Slash's greatest lead guitar work. The song also includes the lyric "You can use your illusion - let it take you where it may," which of course is where the albums' title is derived from.

The following three tracks ("Estranged," "You Could Be Mine," and "Don't Cry") found their way into radio and TV airwaves, each with their own music video. And though all three are incredible tracks, the purpose of this article is to highlight the lesser known tracks. Which brings me to the final track, "My World". It's unlike any other song on both Use Your Illusion albums and remains a rare song in GnR's catalog. It has an industrial rock sound and is more like a Nine Inch Nails song, with its use of synthesizers and multi-layered audio sound bytes. It's weird and doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the album. But perhaps, because of its title, it was exactly how Axl wanted to end an album of so much versatility.

Guns N' Roses Logo
Guns N' Roses may have started out as a gritty rock band with songs about paradise cities and substance abuse, but Use Your Illusion took their sound and songwriting to a new artistic level. And though most people remember the hard rock tunes, Use Your Illusion - especially the lesser known tracks - proved to the world that GnR were more than leather-wearing tough guys. They were artists.

TRIVIA: The dialogue within the introduction to "Civil War" was taken from the film "Cool Hand Luke" starring Paul Newman and Strother Martin (whose voice is heard).

2013/11/10

Bringing It All Back Home

by Dave Gourdoux


Young Bob Dylan
Whether it's sports, films, books, short stories, or music, there are countless and constant arguments about "the greatest."  Who's the greatest baseball player of all time - Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or Hank Aaron?  The greatest American novel - "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn,"  "The Great Gatsby" or "On the Road?"  There are no shortage of impassioned arguments supporting each one, and that is the value of these exercises.  But the idea of  proclaiming one or the other "the greatest" is as ridiculous as those silly award shows that determine the "best"; for example, "best director": Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino? (three great and talented artists who couldn't be more different).  And, we're supposed to determine who is "best"  - the maker of "Schindller's List," "Raging Bull," or "Pulp Fiction."  Labeling one as the "best" is simply meaningless, but arguing your opinion about which one you prefer and why is not only fun and entertaining, but can be valuable, as you'll get another perspective and maybe view something in a new light.

So despite acknowledging it as an empty exercise, I've been thinking about the greatest album ever made.  For those young whippersnappers who have grown up in the iTunes/MP3 era, an album is a collection of music released by an artist or group or band on various mediums - vinyl, cassette, eight track, compact disc, blue ray, digital.  The best albums revolve around a common theme or highlight an artist or band at a particular phase in their career.  Among the albums frequently cited as "the greatest of all time" by critics are "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles, "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys, "The Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd, "Exile on Main Street" by the Rolling Stones, "London Calling" by the Clash, and "Nevermind" by Nirvana.  Those are all great albums, but my choice for the greatest album ever is "Bringing it all Back Home" by Bob Dylan.

Everybody has an opinion about Dylan.  To some, his voice is terrible, his songs don't make sense, he mumbles, he's weird.  To others, he's a great songwriter, a poet, a visionary.  Many prefer his early folk and protest songs, some prefer the "electric" Dylan of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blond on Blond".  There is the intensely personal anguish of  "Blood on the Tracks", the born again Christian phase of "Slow Train Coming", and there is  the blues infused senior angst of "Time Out of Mind", "Love and Theft", and "Tempest".  It's a career that's going on fifty years now, and as prodigious a body of work as any artist in any medium.  Within that body of work, there's a Dylan for everyone.

Dylan's impact on popular music can not be overstated.   The only analogy I can come up with is a baseball comparison; Dylan is to popular music what Babe Ruth was to baseball.  To understand how profoundly Ruth changed the game of baseball, all you have to do is look at the statistics from 1927, the year Ruth hit sixty home runs.   The most home runs another team in the American League hit was fifty-eight.  Let that soak in for a moment - in 1927,  Ruth hit more home runs than any other team.

So it was when Dylan started his recording career in 1963 that popular music was going through a phase, as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and the other pioneers of rock and roll were in decline, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones hadn't emerged quite yet to move the music forward. There were the great Phil Spector produced wall of sound girl groups, like the Ronnettes and the Crystals, Ray Charles was defining archetypes of soul and rhythm and blues, but rock was still trying to figure out what is was going to be when it grew up.   In the meantime, folk music was going through a revival, with acts like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio achieving enormous popularity.

Along came Dylan, originally a folkie, but with an approach to lyrics and songwriting that was as dramatically ahead of everybody else as Ruth's home run hitting was in 1927.   While the Kingston Trio was singing "Tom Dooley", Dylan was singing "The Times They Are a-Changing", foretelling the traumatic and tumultuous change that would soon define the 1960s:

                          Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
                          and don't criticize what you can't understand
                          your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
                          your old road is rapidly aging
                          please get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand
                         for the times they are a changing

A bit more substance than "hang down you head, Tom Dooley".  Compare it to the Beatles, who at this time were singing "I want to hold your hand". The evolution of the Beatles, and of all popular music, follows a line drawn by Dylan in the years 1964 to 1966.   Suddenly, popular music, rock and roll in particular, wasn't limited to rebellion and sex.  It could be about anything.  It could be personal and introspective, it could be about demons and obsessions, it could be angry and explosive. In short, it could be art.

In his first four albums, released in 1963 and 1964, Dylan was very much the traditional folk musician, even if his songs were already more advanced.  With love songs like "Boots of Spanish Leather" and protest songs like "Blowing in the Wind", "God on Our Side", and "The Times They Are a-Changing", Dylan became a darling of the folk scene, who took him in as a favorite son.  But the leaders of that culture had no way of knowing that there would be no pigeon holing of Dylan, that there would be no limitations or boundaries to his genius.  Dylan was going where his muse took him, and that meant expanding and experimenting, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists who had claimed Dylan as one of his own.  In "Bringing It All Back Home" in 1965, Dylan became the first major songwriter to mash up folk and rock (other artists,  like Eric Burdon and the Animals were already doing rock adaptations of traditional folk songs; their recording of "House of the Rising Sun" was a big influence on Dylan).

What makes "Bringing it All Back Home" a masterpiece and such an important work is it highlights Dylan's genius at its peak.  Now, all these years later, with what we know now about him, the album serves as an almost heroic reminder of the unshakable artistic integrity and determination to stretch boundaries and avoid compromise that made him one of the greatest artists of his time.

"Bringing it all Back Home" is a combination of electric and surreal rockabilly jaunts and acoustic and incredibly powerful folk songs.  The folk songs, though, were not the traditional stories and ballads, protest songs or aching love songs.  Rather, Dylan turned inward and introspective and increasingly surreal.  These were songs unlike any others, and revealed the extent of Dylan's impressive genius.



The album opens with the famous "Subterranean Homesick Blues", with wonderful and clever surreal lyrics put to a tight and taut rockabilly beat.  Dylan sets the tone of the album here,  telling us not to trust anyone, including himself  ("Don't follow leaders/ watch the parking meters" and "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").  The famous clip from the documentary film "Don't Look Back" of this song playing while Dylan flips through references to the lyrics and Alan Ginsberg mills about in the background practically invented the rock video nearly twenty years before MTV.

Next is "She Belongs to Me" - the greatest song ever written about the relationship between an artist and his muse.  

               You will start out standing
               proud to steal anything she needs
               you will start out standing
               proud to steal anything she needs
              but you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
              down upon your knees

The irony of "She Belongs to Me" is that, contrary to the title, it's Dylan who is the slave to his muse.  He belongs to her, and he would forever remain faithful to her, following wherever she lead, often confounding critics and even his own audience.

"Maggie's Farm" follows, written as an angry response to the folkies who demanded he remain true to their ideals.  It has become one of the great protest songs against oppression of any sort, having been covered countless times by various artists, perhaps most famously by U2 as a staple of their shows on the 1986 "Conspiracy of Hope" tour for Amnesty International.

"Love Minus Zero / No Limit" is a haunting love song, rumored to have been written for his future wife, Sara.  The love Dylan sings about is peace and calm in the tumult his life had become, which is a theme that runs through much of "Bringing it all Back Home".  It's one of the lyrics on the album that reads like pure poetry, opening with:

             My love she speaks like silence
             without ideals or violence
             she doesn't have to say she's faithful
             yet she's true, like ice, like fire

Dylan has played this song so often over the years that it is obviously a personal favorite.

"Outlaw Blues" is an electric guitar driven twelve bar blues song where he "might look like Robert Ford but feels just like Jessie James".

"On the Road Again" may be the silliest song Dylan ever wrote.   It's wonderfully bizarre and surreal, with a great rhythm guitar and harmonica groove. 

           Well, I woke up in the morning
           There’s frogs inside my socks
           Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
           Inside the icebox
          Your daddy walks in wearin’
          A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
          Then you ask why I don’t live here
          Honey, do you have to ask?


The milkman is wearing a derby hat, her grandpa's cane turns into a sword, fist fights break out in the kitchen - whatever it does or doesn't mean, it's immensely entertaining.

"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" opens with Dylan breaking into uncontrollable laughter.   The song is another parade of surrealistic lyrics, describing Dylan's adventures riding on the Mayflower with Captain Arab (who resembles the Ahab of "Moby Dick"), and his encounter at the end with Columbus.   What it means is beyond me, but like most of the songs up to this point, it has a tight, rockabilly rhythm, and it's fun to ride along ...

At this point, on the vinyl of the original record, side one, the "electric side," ends.

Side two is mostly acoustic and solo and is comprised of four of the greatest songs Dylan or anyone else has ever written.   It opens with the awe inspiring, intensely personal and immensely moving "Mr. Tambourine Man", followed by the apocalyptic "The Gates of Eden", the intense "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and closes with the bittersweet "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".



"Mr Tambourine Man" was, of course, recorded by the Byrds, whose shortened version highlighted the drug use references and became a big hit.  It's true; the song is about a man asking his dealer for drugs, but the entire song with the additional verses the Byrds left out is about so much more.  It's about Dylan, the chronicler of the crazy and complex times, the voice of his generation, exhausted to the point of vanishing into himself ("to fade into my own parade") longing only to "forget about today until tomorrow". It's Dylan in crisis, arriving at a crossroads, the expectations raised from his first four albums pulling him one way and the sounds in his head that wanted to explore new directions pulling in the opposite direction.  The fear he expresses in his exhausted state is that he will be unable to satisfy either force, and he longs for escape, for rest:

Take me disappearing
through the smoke rings of my mind
down the foggy ruins of time
far past the frozen leaves
the haunted frightened trees
out to the windy beach
far from the twisted reach
of crazy sorrow

to dance beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free
silhouetted by the sea
circled by the circus sands
with all memory and fate
driven deep beneath the waves
let me forget about today
until tomorrow

Martin Scorsese has been quoted as saying that the job of the artist is to make the audience care about his obsessions.  In "Mister Tambourine Man", Dylan goes a step further, and bares his soul, poetically and powerfully, and takes "song" to where it had never gone before.  "Mister Tambourine Man" not only shows Dylan at the breaking point, it also shows him breaking through, answering the question it asks merely by asking it as honestly and as heartfelt as he could. Through the anguish and despair it becomes clear that the only master Dylan will obey will be his own genius.  He'd remain faithful to it for the next fifty years, letting it take him places that would sometimes leave even his most faithful fans scratching their heads.

The next song, "The Gates of Eden", is possibly the single most complex and interpreted lyric Dylan has ever written.  The lyrics are so vivid, so imaginative, that there is no denying their greatness. His delivery, his voice and the repetitive chords he plays on the acoustic guitar and the melody articulate an urgency that commands attention.

The nine verses of the song present a variety of bizarre characters in surreal settings, from a "cowboy angel" riding on "four legged forest clouds" to "Utopian hermit monks", "savage soldiers", "shoeless hunters", "motorcycle black Madonnas", "silver-studded phantoms", and "grey flannel dwarfs", all searching for some image of paradise that turns out to be false.  They are all outside, locked out by the gates of Eden.

The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden


At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden


It's a conundrum Dylan is describing, the search for truth while acknowledging that in our mortal lives truth is illusory.  At the end, after describing the fruitless and desperate searches of his bizarre parade of characters in their surreal landscape, it's only his lover who seems to accept, who tells him of his dreams with no attempt to shovel them into "the ditch of what each one means".

"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" contains many of Dylan's most famous lines, including "he not busy being born is busy dying" and "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked".  "It's Alright, Ma" is Dylan at his angriest, angry at the hypocrisy of consumerism that is so rampant in American culture.  His vitriol is cast against apocalyptic images.  The song opens with:

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying


The "darkness at the break of noon" hints that judgement is close at hand, and in that it "shadows even the silver spoon," no one will be spared. 

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred


While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked


Even the most powerful, "the human gods" and the president, and false prophets posing as preachers and teachers, are all culpable, will all stand trial.

His distrust of authority is again clearly stated:

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to


Dylan expands on the "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters" of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and saves his strongest vitriol for those who don't question or challenge these corruption infested institutions:

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in


While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him


It's a defiant Dylan that the song ends with, having taken fate's best shot and saying in effect, "is that all you got?".

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?


As a reminder, this was a song written in 1965, when the number one hit was Petula Clark's "Downtown", and Perry Como and Mitch Miller were still popular music acts.  It had never occurred to anyone before that a song could be a vehicle to explore areas that had been the domain of only poets and philosophers.


The album ends with the song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", on the surface a wistful goodbye to a lover.  But dig a little deeper and you quickly realize Dylan is saying goodbye to much more.  He's saying goodbye to the folk scene he'd been a part of, he's saying goodbye to the Bob Dylan that scene knew, and he's saying goodbye to the world we'd known up to that point, knowing that things were about to explode and never be the same:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin’ through
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue


The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue


The apocalyptic imagery of "The Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is present again.

Then, in the last verse of the song, and the last verse on the album, Dylan puts the folk-singer version of himself forever to rest:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue


He's now the vagabond "rapping at your door", standing in the clothes that he once wore.  He then strikes another match and burns the old Dylan down and proceeds to start anew.

It's a pattern he'd repeat many times over the years, each time his genius grew tired and demanded that he try something new, something different.  And while other artists fell prey to commercial and critical expectations, trying to please either their audience or the critics, Dylan would remain true to himself.  Say what you will about him, there is no denying that he's marched to his own drum.  Whether you think he can sing or not, his integrity remains beyond reproach to this day.

And that is everything.

Old Bob Dylan

2013/10/27

Elton John

by John Bloner, Jr.

Elton John at Dodger Stadium, October 1975
Who was your first crush?

This past summer of 2013, New York Times' critics and readers weighed in on their "firsts" in television, dance, video games, and visual arts, as well as classical and pop music.

My first crush was Elton John.

In my early teen years, I couldn't care less about pop radio or pop records, while my best friend tried to entice me with music from his favorites: the funk band, War, and the Allman Brothers. He thought there was something wrong with me for not sharing his enthusiasm. 

One afternoon in 1974, we played hooky from high school to visit a classmate's home, where "Elton John's Greatest Hits" was playing on the stereo. Man, I gotta tell you: the tiny bones in my middle ears were vibrating like the reborn at a tent revival when I first heard that record. Song after song sunk into my DNA, from the plaintive sounds of "Your Song" to the carefree 50s vibe of "Crocodile Rock". My ears--no, my entire being--would never be the same again.

The film, "Almost Famous", perfectly captures the giddiness I felt upon hearing Elton's tune "Tiny Dancer" for the first time.



Bernie Taupin with Elton John
I soon bought all of Elton John's music, reveling in both its rock and trippy tapestries, and read about his early life in England where he had met a young lyricist, Bernie Taupin, in 1967 through a newspaper and collaborated with him. 

Two years later, Elton (with words by Taupin) released the album, "Empty Sky", which included the hymn-like ballad, "Skyline Pigeon". 

Elton would record this song several times during his career; its starkness is a contrast to his bubblegum hits. Its lyrics evoke a rural setting.  "There was a period when I was going through that whole 'got to get back to my roots' thing," Taupin said. "I don't believe I was ever turning my back on success . . . I was just hoping that maybe there was a happy medium way to exist successfully in a more tranquil setting."

In the video below, Elton performs the song at the Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1976.



In the Spring of 1975, Elton's album, "Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy", arrived on Billboard's chart at Number One. No record had ever accomplished that feat. 

Despite this success, the record still feels like a closely-guarded secret. It contained only one single, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", which did not match the chart success of other songs, released originally only as singles during that year. They included "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Island Girl".

Despite my excitement of a new album by my musical hero, I searched its grooves for another "Rocket Man" or "Bennie and the Jets" and found it lacking in that regard.  Still, I was intrigued by the story it told of Elton and Bernie's early career in music. Amazon.com reviewer, Lonnie E. Holder expresses the feeling I shared. "What kind of music was this," he writes. "It was not simple pop with catchy tunes. It was, well, complicated and sophisticated."

Cover art by Alan Aldridge for Elton John's ninth studio album
My appreciation of "Captain Fantastic" and Elton John did not fade over the years that followed, but it stayed dormant for decades as my ears discovered other sounds outside of the pop music world.

Elton temporarily retired from music in 1977, then began producing records that often abandoned the piano-oriented sound I had loved in his early music, particularly on "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Honky Cat". I was deaf to most of his output in the 1980s and 1990s, as it sounded like a wind-up toy, built for the billfold rather than from the heart.

There were exceptions, however, such as the songs, "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" and "Empty Garden", a tribute to his late friend, John Lennon.


In 2005, a deluxe edition of the "Captain Fantastic" album was released, including a live concert of all of its songs. I renewed my love of Elton John's music at that time, finding, in particular, an even greater appreciation of that album.  While a larger and larger section of the music-buying public was downloading songs from iTunes, the "Captain Fantastic" album demands to be heard as one piece.  Its power is in scope of emotions from the countrified title track, the winsome tune, "Writing", and the bluster of "Better Off Dead", sounding as if it arrived straight from a turn-of-the-century British music hall.


Captain Fantastic's one hit single, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", played incessantly over the radio during the summer of 1975.  It was a different time when a ballad about an attempted suicide could climb the charts. I'd grown sick of hearing it, but that emotion was pushed aside years later when I saw the song in a different light.

Listening to it today, I think of Ryan White, a young boy with hemophilia who was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 13. At a time when many lived in fear of those with this disease, Ryan White caused them to reassess their prejudices. He was just a boy who wanted a normal life, but he helped to transform the public's perception of AIDS and led to a major program to treat it.  He became the "someone" who saved Elton John's life.


Ryan White, 1971-1990
In 2012, Elton John wrote, "I am here today because of Ryan." He added, "I was a huge cocaine addict at the time. My life was up and down like a yo-yo. I was still a good person underneath, otherwise I would never have reached out to the Whites in the first place. All I hoped was that I could bring this boy some comfort. In the end, the Whites would do far more for me than I ever did for them."

"Being around the White family made me want to be a better person. It took Ryan's death to do so. When his eyes closed, mine opened--and they've been open ever since."

Ryan White's mother, Jeanne, with Elton at the hospital
Starting with the record, "Songs from the West Coast", in 2001, Elton's best work no longer resides exclusively in the 1970s. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor for AllMusic.com, commented that "Songs from the West Coast" is "an album where it feel like a hit single is secondary to the sheer pleasure of craft."

In 2006, Elton and Bernie Taupin advanced the autobiographical tale that had begun with "Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy" when they released "The Captain & the Kid".  The title track gloriously quotes a melodic line from the "Captain Fantastic" album, as the lyrics tell of "an urban soul in a fine silk shirt" (Elton) and "a heart out west in a Wrangler shirt" (Bernie).  It's an excellent summation of nearly 40 years of friendship and collaboration between these two men.


Four years later, Elton joined with Leon Russell to create "The Union", which may contain the best song of Elton's (and Bernie Taupin's) long career, "Gone To Shiloh".  "I like miserable songs," Elton quipped. "What can I tell you?"



Now in his mid-60s, Elton's star is shining its brightest. Paired with producer T-Bone Burnett for "The Union" and his latest album, 2013's "The Diving Board", Elton's piano is once again at the forefront of his music. I find myself thinking of Elton's "Skyline Pigeon", as I listen over and over again to this record, particularly during the tune, "Home Again".

If "Skyline Pigeon" spoke from the perspective of a young man who needs to escape from the familiar, the man in "Home Again" recognizes the folly of his youth. "We all dream of leaving," he sings. "But wind up in the end/Spending all our time trying to get back home again."

I also think of Thomas Wolfe during this song and his words, "You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth." (from "You Can't Go Home Again".)

"The Diving Board" may be the finest album of 2013 and may also be the greatest record in Elton's long career. My first crush has turned to enduring love.


OUTTAKES: In each article that I write for 2nd First Look, I leave out far more material than I put into it.

I meant to write about the phenomenon of the reminiscence bump, in which people carry their strongest memories from their times as teens and young adults, an age in which we are all forging our identities, when we are all still skyline pigeons, waiting to be free.

I also left out my notes on Caribou Ranch, Colorado, where Elton recorded the "Captain Fantastic" album, and how this recording studio forged a perfect atmosphere for a perfect record.

If I had more space, I would have written about Nigel Olsson's powerful drumming on "Captain Fantastic", which reminds me of a seasoned boxer who doesn't throw a lot of punches, but knows how to land the right ones.

I had wanted to tell you about the July 1976 concert in which a friend and I attended Elton's show at Chicago Stadium, which began with a rocker, "Grow Some Funk of Your Own" and later included Kiki Dee for not only the hit duet,"Don't Go Breaking My Heart", but also a performance of her signature tune, "I Got The Music In Me," which brought down the house.

Thanks for reading, and happy listening to you.

Visit Elton John's website HERE.

2013/10/13

The Horror and the Awe

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


There's something inherently fun about being a little frightened when you know that it's all made up and you're perfectly safe (or is it, and are you?).  As Halloween approaches, below is a short list of some scary and not-so-scary things that either freak me out or delight me, not only at Halloween time, but all year ‘round.

The Exorcist

If there’s one movie that scared the daylights out of me when I was younger and still causes me to sleep with a couple of lights on when I’ve seen it as an adult, it’s The Exorcist.  I don’t think that I could ever pinpoint one particular thing that freaks me out the most about this film; there are way too many unsettling moments.  Maybe it’s the “based on a true story” claim that messes with my head, or the creepy sound effects in the scene where demonic noises are captured in a recording being played back.  Then there’s the always disturbing crucifix scene, and the horrible grin on the possessed girl’s face (Regan, played by Linda Blair) whenever the demon is tormenting the adults trying to cast it out.

Years ago, I saw an ad for an extended version of the movie, showing possessed Regan grotesquely crab-walking up the stairs.  I had a fleeting moment of thinking, “Whoa.  Maybe I should check the new version out…” That, however, was quickly followed by the thought, “Right.  And then lie awake for the next three weeks, jumping at every noise that you hear in the dark.” I decided to skip it.

One side note: as a fan of the TV show Supernatural, it was a fun surprise to see Linda Blair show up in a 2006 episode titled "The Usual Suspects".  At the end of the episode, a snarky reference is made to Blair in The Exorcist when Jensen Ackles’ character, Dean, asks Jared Padalecki’s character, Sam, if Blair looked familiar to him.  “Not really; why?”, Sam says.  “I don’t know…for some reason, I could really go for some pea soup”, Dean quips.



Tim Curry’s (Lord of) Darkness in Legend




I imagine that a reference to the Devil conjures up some kind of mental image in most people’s head.  The character design/F/X team for the 1985 movie Legend must’ve tapped into my psyche somehow, because if I had to give a description of what I think a devil might look like, Tim Curry’s (Lord of) Darkness is pretty much it.  Bravo to them for their excellent work in making Darkness such a striking and detailed character, physically.  Cloven hooves, huge horns, vampire-like incisors, serpentine eyes, claw-like black fingernails…Darkness is an imposing figure every time that he shows up onscreen.  It’s no wonder that Mia Sara’s Lili faints the first time that she gets up close and personal with him.  And kudos to Curry’s acting versatility; going from corset-wearing Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show to a menacing agent of evil in Legend couldn’t have been an easy feat.

The Nightmare Before Christmas



This film falls squarely in the “awe” category that I reference in my title.  I could go on for hours with all of the things that I love about this movie.  I’ll spare you that though.  A stop motion animation wonder that took about three years to create, it’s full of quirkiness and heart, boasts a fantastic soundtrack, and has a huge cast of imaginative creatures.  I love main characters Jack Skellington, Sally, Zero, and so on, but it’s some of the lesser known and sometimes fleetingly seen residents of Halloween Town that are among my favorites too.  Danny Elfman worked his magic with the music for the film, composing instant classics (the simple question “What’s this?” will forever cue up the movie’s song of the same name in my mind).

In my household, it’s just not the Halloween season without watching The Nightmare Before Christmas (for probably the seven thousandth time).  And sometimes we watch it again around Christmas time too, for good measure.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)


My friend and 2FL co-founder, Jav Rivera, was the one who first recommended El Orfanato (The Orphanage) to me, and all of the compliments that he paid it were completely spot on.  A supernatural thriller full of atmospheric intensity, this movie made me jump and kept me on edge.  More importantly though, it made me get emotionally invested in the film, so that when several key pieces of information were revealed towards the end, it was an “aha moment” and a quick punch in the gut, all at the same time.

I’ll admit that I didn’t like how the movie ended, but that hasn’t kept me from recommending it to other people and keeping it at the top of my list of films that are just great pieces of cinema.  (I featured El Orfanato in one of my previous articles.  To read it, go to 2FL: The Orphanage.

Pennywise


I know that clowns are supposed to bring joy and laughter to those around them, but try telling that to anyone who’s not a big fan.  No offense to anyone reading, but I’ve always been a little creeped out by them, ever since I was a little girl.  Pennywise, a product of Stephen King’s imagination, instantly cemented that for me when I saw the mini-series version of King’s novel, It.  A demon appearing as a clown (again with the demons!), Pennywise guaranteed my apprehension of clowns forever.  As my even-more-freaked-out-by-clowns friend, Peg, has said, “Clowns will eat you.”  In this case, yes--yes they will.

(Fun bit of trivia: above-mentioned actor Tim Curry played the part of Pennywise in the TV mini-series.)

I'll freely admit that I can be a big old chicken sometimes, so whether or not the horrors on my list will seem spooky to you too, I'm not sure.  But they're all worth checking out.  Happy Halloween season!

2013/09/29

65th Primetime Emmy Awards

By Jess Fitzi


Ahh, award shows. That wonderful three hours on a Sunday night when we all realize just how much we care about the lives of celebrities. Really, it is completely insane how much the world cares about what dress Jennifer Lawrence wore to the Academy Awards, yet most seem to care less about her feelings on actually winning one of the most prestigious awards of the evening. I’m not here to talk about the Oscars though, as I am currently more interested in the 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards, which aired Sunday, the 22nd of September. All in all, the show passed much as it does every year: the host made inappropriate jokes, celebrities looked lovely, awards were presented, and interviews were conducted. I am less interested in all of that, however, and much more interested in how nominees reacted to winning in their specific categories. Many give your typically excited, “Thank you, I am so honored!” acceptance speeches, while some are quite noteworthy.

Merritt Wever, who appears in "Nurse Jackie" and "New Girl", definitely had one of those noteworthy reactions. The actress was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. This was her first ever Emmy win and she did not try to hide her shock and nervousness. The look on her face as her name was read really said it all as she shakily made her way on stage. Merritt was handed her award and then, predictably, was expected to say something to the crowd, as well as the more than 30,000 viewers at home. “Thank you so much. Uhm... I gotta go, bye" were her exact words. While I cannot possibly imagine how it feels to stand up in front of all of those incredibly talented actors, actresses, directors, writers, etcetera and then be expected to give a profound speech, Merritt definitely displays how most Emmy Award Winners probably feel in that same incredible moment. When asked about the interesting and very short speech backstage, Wever admitted that she wanted to thank so many people, but was scared, and became unable to get the words out. Don’t worry, Merritt; we all would have choked up, too!

Tina Fey, always a hilarious asset to any live show, started off the evening right, by wearing 3D glasses and teaming up with fellow actress/comedian, Amy Poehler, to try convincing the host, Neil Patrick Harris, to take off his pants. Tina was a well deserving nominee for Outstanding Writing in Comedy for "30 Rock", alongside Tracy Wigfield. The two lovely ladies had a similar surprised and excited reaction, but the win did not render them speechless. Tina appeared slightly more calm than Tracy, cracking a joke when the latter finished her speech, shooing her out of the way and saying “Yeah, no one said you could talk, Tracy.” Tina turned on a more serious note then, thanking her longtime partner, Robert Carlock, claiming that there are few people who make her feel lazy and stupid, but that he does it daily, by comparison. It seems that even in a state of overwhelming disbelief and pure joy, Tina always has to make a crowd laugh. For that, we thank you, Ms. Tina Fey.

As an avid watcher of "The Big Bang Theory", it was no secret that I was thrilled for Jim Parsons and his Outstanding Lead Actor in Comedy win. Upon hearing his name, Jim did not move right away, seemingly at a loss for what to do with the news. When he did stand, making his way to the stage, he appeared to walk on shaky legs. He began his heartwarming acceptance by taking a deep breath and saying “Oh, my heart. My heart! Oh no.” His speech was actually pretty typical. With his awkward and adorable demeanor, he thanked the creators and crew, claiming to know how fortunate he was. It turned out to be the reactions of Jim’s cast mates, Kaley Couco and Mayim Bialik, that caught my attention. Both ladies had tears in their eyes as their friend and cast member very graciously accepted his Emmy. It is evident by those genuine emotional reactions of people he works with daily, that this is a man who deserves every second on camera and is truly thankful for the world of show business that he is a part of. In his speech, Jim started getting a bit teary himself, pausing to laugh a bit, saying, “Oh, it’s so silly to be emotional, isn’t it?” It was evident in the actor’s response that he did not expect to win and became increasingly more overwhelmed, the more it sunk in that he had. Sheldon may drive us all a bit insane with his snarky and strenuous personality, but Jim definitely saves his endearing and emotional characteristics for his out-of-character performances.

The winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in Comedy deservingly went to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The actress initially looked quite pleased with the announecment of her win, but quickly composed herself enough to put on an act as her character, Vice President of the United States, on "Veep". Pausing on her way to the stage, she summoned Tony Hale, who plays her assistant on the HBO series, and who also took home the award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in Comedy. The two hysterically kept up the facade of their characters throughout the speech, with Tony giving Julia reminders (as any great assistant would) of who she needed to thank for the award. The actress, jokingly of course, forgot to mention Tony when she thanked the cast of the show, to which he appeared sad, but gave her an encouraging thumbs-up, nonetheless. The duo clearly has wonderful chemistry and cherish their roles on the show. Acceptance speeches such as this keep the show humorous and fun, bringing the series to life.

Every win was ultimately deserved, with the speeches ranging from Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ hysterical skit and Tina Fey’s jokes, to Jim Parsons and Merritt Wever’s endearing nervousness. While the reactions of celebrities upon winning an award from any show, whether it be an Emmy, an Academy Award, a Grammy, etcetera, are generally overlooked or passed off as fake, I tend to view it as genuine and personal. What some do not realize is that for an actor or whoever may be winning such a prestigious honor, this is their career and their passion. The very talented artists that win these awards are often brought to tears because after all of the hard work they put into their art, in whatever form it may be, that work is being recognized and appreciated. It means more than some would think to an artist, to finally be taken seriously and given a small moment to shine and be proud of their accomplishments.


You can view the full list of Primetime Emmy Award winners of 2013 here: www.emmys.com

2013/09/22

The Last Temptation of Christ

by John Bloner, Jr.


"My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. Nothing else."  Martin Scorsese

When I think of film director Martin Scorsese, I think of New York, guns and fists, misfits and malcontents, mean streets and music--always, great music.  I've spent many hours soaking up the heat of the city by watching Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Good Fellas.

When Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Niko Kazantzakis' novel, I didn't see the connection between the picture--a fictional drama of Jesus' life --and the director's oeuvre to date. I'd already felt that Scorsese had lost his film-making mojo since Raging Bull was released in 1980, and only took an interest in Last Temptation  because it had elicited a storm of protest from TV televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell, who called it "utter blasphemy of the worst degree."

Willem Dafoe as Jesus retreats to the desert to face his demons
"I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God.' And the almond tree blossomed." Nikos Kazantzakis

The film was based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, who's also author of Zorba The Greek and many other fiction and non-fiction publications. While revisiting Last Temptation, over twenty-five years after its release, I read the novel for the first time, captivated by the means that Kazantzakis uses in order to allow this reader to look at a character named Jesus, who is similar but also contrary to the figure in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  Kazantzakis' Jesus is conflicted between his earthly desires and his calling to become Christ.

In the book and in the film, Jesus is unable to accept the profundity of being divine. As screenwriter Paul Schrader says, "God is a vicious headache that won't go away." He's at war with his body's yearnings for a domestic life, including sexual relations, just as he battles God who knows his every step.

To drive away the desire for the flesh, he wraps a nail-studded belt around his bare waist. To drive away God, he constructs crosses for the Romans.


Willem Dafoe plays the role of Jesus. The filmmaker intentionally cast an actor who could resemble the man seen in paintings and in films such as King of Kings, in order to upend the viewer's assumptions. This depiction is contrary to Kazantzakis' description, who describes the son of Mary as having "a curly coal-black beard. His nose was hooked, his lips thick, and since they were slightly parted, his teeth gleamed brilliantly white in the light."  His eyes are "large and black, full of light, full of darkness, they stared at you from beneath the long lashes, and your head reeled."

He appears somewhat like the illustration at left, taken from a Popular Mechanics article of 2002, in which Richard Neave, a retired medical artist, deployed methods of forensic anthropology to create an image of a Galilean Semite of the early 1st century in order to posit what Jesus might have looked like.

In the Judaean Wilderness
The Last Temptation of Christ tells its story across wide vistas of desert. The landscape serves an important role in the story, as Jesus retreats to it to cleanse himself of his human desires and become the Christ as a leader of men, ready to overturn the common practices of the day, including the tables of the money changers in the temple.

In their book, The Negev: The Challenges of a Desert, authors Michael Evenari, Leslie Shanan and Naphtali Tadmor write, "It is no whim of history that the birth of the first monotheistic faith took place in a desert, or that it was followed there by the other two great religions, Christianity and Islam. The prophets of Israel repeatedly sought and found inspiration in the desert. Christian hermits fled to it to escape the pollution of the work and to commune with God."

The desert challenges Jesus. It makes him vulnerable, cut off from society, from sustenance, and forced to face real or imagined demons, conjured from his own troubled soul. A tree with rotten fruit grows up in front of him. A snake with the voice of Mary Magdalene beckons him.

Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as Judas
Barbara Hershey
In 1972, Scorsese directed the film, Boxcar Bertha, featuring Barbara Hershey. During the shooting of that picture, she gave the a copy of Kazantzakis' novel to the director and told him that if he should ever make a feature film from it, she would like to play the role of Mary Magdalene.

Over a decade later, Scorsese offered her this role of the enigmatic, elusive figure of the woman from Magdala.

In Last Temptation, men wait in her chamber, watching as she fornicates with each customer. Jesus joins them, not to press his flesh against hers--although the tension between them suggests the desire--but to ask her for forgiveness. As a hired hand of the Romans, he has betrayed his own people and himself. He has fallen farther than anyone, even farther than Mary Magdalene has fallen.

Kazantzakis' novel provides a backstory to Jesus and Mary's relationship. As cousins, they had grown up together. At an age when he is able to choose a bride, he rejected her. Without the love of one man, she gave herself to the lust of all men.

Judas (Harvey Keitel) and Saul/Paul (Harry Dean Stanton)
The novel often refers to him only as "redbeard". He is Judas Iscariot, whose name is synonymous with "betrayal." Kazantzakis and Scorsese present a different Judas. He is a rough man, a villain tempted to kill Jesus for his acts against his people, yet he follows him, reluctantly at first, and becomes his most loyal disciple. His loyalty is so strong, he obeys Jesus' request to betray him by turning him over to the Romans and thereby aid him in meeting his destiny: death as a means to spread salvation to all people.



Is there anyone else who could play the role of John The Baptist other than Andre Gregory?  Only a few years removed from his participation in the film, My Dinner with Andre, Gregory brings the same wide-eyed, tent-revival intensity, to the man crying out in the wilderness. I revisited the screenplay to the Louis Malle film just to wrap myself in Gregory's visions once more.

"I remember being in the woods," he tells his friend, Wallace Shawn, "and I would look at a leaf, and I would actually see that thing that was alive in that leaf, and then I remember not just running through the woods as fast as I could, with this incredible laugh coming out of me, and really being in that state, you know, where laughter and tears seem to merge."

Scorsese could have set his cameras on that river for two hours, allowing Andre Gregory to revel even further in his role as the holy man on the east bank of the Jordan. 

Perhaps Peter Gabriel's greatest achievement, the recording, "Passion", released  in 1989
Movie soundtracks may precede the release of a film, giving the picture a boost at the box office. Former lead singer of the progressive rock band Genesis and a solo star ("Solsbury Hill", "Biko") on the charts, Peter Gabriel created the music to The Last Temptation, but it took him two years after the film was in theaters to share it with the public.  It was worth the long wait.

Peter Gabriel brings haunting sounds to "Passion", the film's soundtrack
Titled, "Passion", the soundtrack is more like a soundscape, weaving a tapestry of tablas, tambourine and Tibetan finger cymbals through chants, the bowing of a double violin, and a drone like desert wind.

Jason Ankeny of Allmusic.com writes of the record, "Remarkably dramatic, even visual, it is not only Gabriel's best film work but deserving of serious consideration as his finest music of any kind." 

Please give your ears the opportunity to be caressed by the haunting vibrations of "Passion", as performed by the Francesco Albano Open Ensemble, in this video.



"I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel all the powers of the universe whirling within me."  Nikos Kazantzakis

The Last Temptation does not deliver an alternate story of Jesus to rankle believers. It is a personal statement by its author and director, reflecting their own struggles. Carol Iannone, in her article, "The Last Temptation Reconsidered", indicates that Scorsese learned that the novel has been used in seminaries "not as a substitute for the Gospels, but as a parable that is fresh and alive." The director had considered the priesthood as a young man, but his religious meditations delivered images of women's ankles. 

Juliet Caton as an angel walks with Jesus away from the Crucifixion to his wedding
The Last Temptation provides a Jesus whose joys and anxieties are ageless. He laughs and dances, shares conversation with friends, and is a member of the working class, moving among the poor who earn their living through physical labor. He is often unsure of himself, speaks in a mild voice, and when the time arrives that he is able to perform a miracle of raising a man from the dead, the result astonishes him as much as it astounds the man's family.

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) as an old man
In his novel, Fifth Business, Robertson Davies considers a Jesus who was able to live out his life. "Am I at fault for wanting a Christ who will show me how to be an old man," he writes. "All Christ's teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years!"

The latter part of The Last Temptation gives the audience a look into the life of a aged, domestic Jesus, who has loved and felt pain like any mortal being. In the novel, an old woman has told Jesus that "God is not found in monasteries but in the homes of men!" She adds, "Wherever you find husband and wife, that's where you find God . . . Leave the other to those lazy, sterile idiots in the desert!"  

From Scorsese's film, "Mean Streets": Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is torn between his devotion and  mob ties
"You don't make up for your sins in church; you do it on the streets."  from Mean Streets directed by Martin Scorsese

In 1987, I couldn't see how an alternative story on the life of Christ could have come from the same man who had brought the fictional tale of Travis Bickle and real-life drama of Jake LaMotta to the screen. Over twenty-five years later, I can see in hindsight that Scorsese's work leading up to The Last Temptation were rehearsals to this film.

Emmanuel Levy calls it a "typical Scorsese film, dealing with sin, guilt and redemption. " David Frank, writing for "Rope of Silicon", speaks of the "themes of derangement, contrition and redemption of broken human beings" in Scorsese pictures that feature the screenwriting talents of Paul Schrader.  He calls The Last Temptation, "the best Jesus movie ever made. In fact, it's the best religious movie ever made."

Learn more about The Last Temptation of Christ at imdb.com.  Click HERE to visit this website.