Saturday, 31 May 2008

BOB DYLAN'S SOUNDTRACK SONGS PART THREE:

CROSS THE GREEN MOUNTAIN

 …All must yield
To the Avenging God…


     In the mud and the blood of the makeshift trench, the soldier boy from Belvedere, South Carolina, is about to breathe his last. The Yankee bullet which had pierced his groin had come from some anonymous source, from the other side of the swirling mist mixed with the sulphurous battle smoke. The soldier boy had never had much chance to be a hero. He’d enlisted with the rebs at sixteen after his family farm had been burned out by Union raiders, killing his mama, his grandmama and his five year old little sister Ellie Mae. They were dirt poor. Couldn’t even afford a single nigger slave.  The soldier boy had been in town with his pa, getting supplies. By the time they got back the Union troops had come and gone. They stood on the hill next to the farm, as the sun went down, both open mouthed as they saw the smoke rising. Neither of them could speak. From that day on all the soldier boy had wanted to do was kill as many of them damn bastard Yankees as he could. The recruiting officer must have known he was under age, but it was said that the word had come down from Richmond not to be too particular about such things. The soldier boy never had a chance to kill no Yankees, though. This was his first battle and he’d been thrown right into the front line. As soon as they’d obeyed the order to charge, a hail of Yankee bullets had hit them. They seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe they’d just sprung up from the bowels of hell. The soldier boy is losing consciousness now, the memories of his life before the war flashing before him. Milking Jemimah, their only cow, at six in the morning. Raking in the corn. Digging and digging them seeds into the ground…
            But now the everyday memories disappear and all the soldier boy can see is a dark and angry red sky, out of which snarling demon Yankees keep falling and falling and falling, swords flashing and guns a-blazin’. As his eyes glaze over for the last time, he is pulled away into the depths of a fiery, monstrous dream…

            One of Bob Dylan’s thematic and sartorial obsessions in his music of the new millennium has been with the American Civil War. Onstage he seems to inhabit the persona of a southern riverboat gambler, dressed in fine silks and bowties. His songs frequently reference Henry Timrod, the ‘poet of the confederacy’. This lacing of contemporary material with apparently random nineteenth century phrases gives much of his modern writing a strangely timeless resonance. Dylan has stated publicly that he seems a great number of parallels between the US today and the Civil War period. This might seem like one of Bob’s deliberately gnomic utterances, designed perhaps to throw us off the scent of what he’s really thinking…  But the major theme of Dylan’s recent work is that of the shadows the past casts on the present. When asked about his view on the Iraq war Dylan merely shrugged and muttered … there’s ALWAYS a war on somewhere… His bizarre 2003 film Masked And Anonymous presented a vision of modern America as a kind of civil-war-torn banana republic. Dylan seems to take a heavily fatalistic view of history. By constantly referring to images and phrases from various stages of the past, he contextualises what is happening in the present as a kind of inevitable repetition of deeply inbuilt patterns, as if as a race we humans are acting out some kind of horribly predestined series of negative and destructive impulses.
            This is not to suggest that Cross The Green Mountain, written by Dylan for the soundtrack of the 2003 American Civil War epic Gods and Generals, is a song ‘about’ Iraq, or the ‘War on Terror’ or any of our other modern wars. Any attempt to read it as some kind of direct comment on contemporary politics can only struggle with superficial wish fulfilment. Dylan made his name as a singer who was not afraid to comment on the perverted morality of modern ‘Gods and Generals’. Many of his most powerful early ‘finger pointing’ songs commented directly on how religion is twisted to justify carnage on a vast scale - most obviously With God On Our Side, with its polemical and scathing view of such justifications through history, ending in the unambiguous …If God is on our side/ He’ll stop the next war…  In the greatest and most viciously scathing of these early ‘protest songs’, Masters Of War (still performed regularly in the post-millennial live shows) he adopts a tone of righteous spiritual outrage: … All the money you made will never buy back your soul… he spits. And later, most drastically of all …Even Jesus would never forget what you do…  As befits a man in his sixties, the modern Dylan has a less obviously ‘angry’ tone. Cross The Green Mountain progresses slowly, like a stately funeral march, with its sadly reflective narrative and tone. Yet, here perhaps more than in any other Dylan song of the 2000s, a potent and ultimately highly disturbing view of the basic corruption of human morality is suggested. But Dylan no longer needs to sneer. He’s ‘younger’ than that now.  In this song events are recounted with humility, even tenderness. The narrator does not cast judgements. Yet the horror of what he recounts cannot fail, if we listen closely, to chill us to the bone…

            The American Civil War was the first really modern war; the first to feature trench warfare on a major scale and the first in which new technology such as mines, torpedoes, rifles and ironclad ships were used, in which the existence of railways speeded up the movement of troops and the telegraph sent news and communications rapidly across the country. It was also the first war to be photographed.  For the first time, war became a truly industrialised process, a factor which resulted in far more widespread and efficient methods of slaughter than had previously been possible. Industrialised warfare also of course creates the opportunity for highly merchandised war-related industries and vast profits for the ‘Masters of War’ who owned and controlled them.  Perhaps this is why Dylan appears to view all modern wars as extensions of this model. So while it is fanciful to suggest that Cross The Green Mountain is ‘about’ Iraq or Afghanistan, by writing about the Civil War Dylan sets up poetic and historical resonances that make the feelings he expresses equally relevant to the conflicts of today.

  Cross The Green Mountain is a kind of slow, deathly waltz, dominated by highly evocative violin (presumably played by Larry Campbell), military-style drums, swirling organ and Dylan’s beautifully-paced, underplayed vocal. The ragged edges of that cracked voice set up a tension against the smooth, unhurried progression of the song’s distinctive and evocative melody. This ancient-sounding voice is steeped in a harshly-preserved dignity of tone which recalls that of the great mountain singers like Dylan’s hero Ralph Stanley. It is of this world, yet somehow not of it. This is highly appropriate as the events the song describes are simultaneously a depiction of grim reality and a terrible dream. The song’s circular timelessness and wistful quality recalls a previous Dylan epic Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. At times we can imagine him singing with eyes closed, completely enraptured in this meditation on death and spiritual transcendence.

            The poetry of the song is precise and very carefully constructed. Each line is short and perfectly regular, without any of Dylan’s characteristic metre-bending. Much of the language is deceptively simple - there is no ‘chain of flashing images’ here. In accordance with Dylan’s contemporary poetic method, many of the lines allude to or quote from a wide range of other sources. Not surprisingly, some of the phrases Dylan uses recall those late nineteenth century American poets who wrote about the Civil War itself. Consider the tone of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Killed At The Ford, describing the death of a young soldier…

             Sudden and swift a whistling ball
            Came out of a wood, and the voice was still;
            Something I heard in the darkness fall,
            And for a moment my blood grew chill;
            I spake in a whisper, as he who speaks
            In a room where some one lying dead;
            But he made no answer to what I said.

             One can almost imagine Dylan singing those lines in the same tone of hushed awe to the tune of Cross The Green Mountain. And here are some lines from Herman Melville’s poem Running The Batteries, describing the sinking of a ship:  

            The barge drifts doomed, a plague-struck one,
            Shoreward in yawls the sailors fly.
            But the gauntlet now is nearly run,
            The spleenful forts by fits reply,
            And the burning boat dies down in the morning's sky.

            Again there is a tone of reverent wonder so common in reactions to the Civil War, which even its main protagonists recognised as a terrible (and avoidable) tragedy. It’s possible to hear this tone not only in Timrod’s work but in that of the greatest of American poets of the era, Walt Whitman.  Whitman’s post-Civil War poem When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d might be seen as a kind of model for the near-death dreamscape of Cross The Green Mountain:

              Come lovely and soothing death
             Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
             In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
             Sooner or later delicate death.
             Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
             For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
             And for love, sweet love- but  praise! praise! praise!
             For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

             As with so many of his other modern songs, Dylan laces Cross The Green Mountain with quotes, allusions and half-references from a range of other works. This further helps in positioning the song’s lyrics in a kind of timeless space. Several of the references are from Civil War poets. The phrase …dim Atlantic line…  occurs in Timrod’s Charleston (1861). The line …the foe had crossed from the other side… can be found in Nathaniel Graham Shepherd’s Roll Call. Dylan’s lines  Something came up/ Out of the sea… recalls Longfellow’s poem Daybreak, which begins …A wind came up out of the sea… Dylan’s references to the ‘Captain’ as …the great leader laid low… seems to be a deliberate reference to Whitman’s lament for the murder of Abraham Lincoln O, Captain, My Captain! And the lines in the song’s penultimate stanza, where the mother is offered false hope about the son’s recovery directly recall Whitman’s Come Up From The Fields Father

              O a strange hand writes for our dear son –
             O stricken mother’s soul!
            All swims before her eyes- flashes with black-
                       she catches the main words only;
             Sentences broken—gun-shot wound in the breast,
                        cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
             At present low, but will soon be better.
            Alas poor boy, he will never be better…
            While they stand at home at the door he is dead already…

             There are other non-Civil War references. Dylan’s phrase …Stars fell over Alabama.. refers to the title of a 1934 jazz standard composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish, later recorded by (among many others) Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Ricky Nelson. The title refers back to a renowned meteor shower which occurred in 1833 and the phrase itself has now been incorporated into Alabama license plates. Dylan’s …Heaven blazing in my head…clearly recalls W.B. Yeats poem Lapis Lazuli, written about the coming of World War One, which includes the phrase ….Heaven blazing into the head….  Then, as ever, there are the Biblical allusions. A beast ‘rises from the sea’ in Daniel 7 and another, the ‘Great Beast’ in Revelations 13. The phrase …all must yield/ To the Avenging God… recalls Nahum 1:2:

… The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies…

            In Cross The Green Mountain we see a ruined, devastated landscape. Although the narrator - presumably a soldier on a battlefield in his death throes - has very pious hopes and dreams, the God which rules his world is a cruel one. Only death, like the ‘lovely and soothing death’ in Whitman’s poem above, brings relief. Everything is being swept aside by the hand of a malicious deity. Dylan’s tone is wistful, regretful, without a shred of anger. His narrator sounds like he has accepted his inevitable fate. Yet this otherworldly detachment only adds to the power of the bitter indictment of human corruption that the song presents. There are no graphic descriptions of carnage, but much betrayal and disillusionment. As the narrator descends into the spirit world beyond the ‘green mountain’ his hopeless resignation to his destiny only throws the harsh revelations he experiences into sharp relief.
            The first verse begins with the narrator sitting in a place of repose, by a stream which may well by the river of death. The mountain has been crossed and now is the time for reflection. In contrast to the water is the fire of …Heaven blazing in my head… Immediately we are thrown into his ‘monstrous dream’. The use of ‘monstrous’ suggests that whatever it is that …came up out of the sea…. is in fact some kind of monster, a Great Beast that will sweep all before it. The final lines here are perhaps the most telling. The ‘monster’ has Swept through the land of/ the rich and the free.… The USA is often referred to patriotically as the land of ‘the brave and the free’. The adaptation suggests great cynicism about how the ideals of America’s founding fathers have been compromised. To some these lines have suggested that the song has a direct correlation to the attack on The World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Such a resonance does seem to be implied, but the Great Beast we see rising here can also be taken to symbolise any kind of ‘monster’ that humanity’s folly may create.
            In the following lines the narrator’s closeness to death is made explicit. …I look into the eyes… he sings …of my merciful friend… Death itself is that ‘merciful friend’ who will soon release him not only from his physical pain but also from the sickening awareness of the awful nature of the great insanity that rages around him. He can taste the …sad yet sweet… memories of his life on his tongue, but already he is looking forward to a release into heaven. Yet right now he seems to be subsumed in a kind of hell on earth, where …altars are burning… The line …the foe has crossed over from the other side…, while it may on one level be a description of the movements of the enemy, also seems to suggest that the Devil is walking the Earth. …We can feel them come… he tells us, as if this is an enemy ‘within’ as well as without.
            The fourth verse is perhaps the most graphic and evocative in the song, and the most suggestively powerful. By borrowing Timrod’s …dim Atlantic line… Dylan places an authentic nineteenth century phrase into the song, conjuring up a vision of a line of troops in the distance with a …ravaged land… behind it. Yet the picture of part of East Coast America in ruins has strong resonances of the 9/11 attack. The next lines then take an extraordinary turn. …The light's coming forward/ And the streets are broad… Dylan sings …All must yield to the Avenging God… Is this ‘Avenging God’ the same ‘Great Beast’ which comes out of the sea in the first verse? Is this a kind of ‘God of War’? Certainly it seems to be the kind of God that the pious narrator believes in - one whose main purpose is to enact vengeance and destruction. The final line seems to be the key to the whole song - as if it is being suggested that the state of war is one which is brought about by human belief in a vicious, unforgiving deity, the existence of which justifies mass slaughter. The Old Testament Jehovah, perhaps, who slaughters the first born… or the version of Allah who rewards suicide bombers who an eternity of bliss for destroying the infidel… The fact that the narrator seems to accept such a deity so calmly only adds to how chilling these lines are, especially in the post-9/11 context.
            The rest of the song is less frightening, and shows the narrator preparing for death with a great degree of self-possession. The next lines …the world is old/ the world is gray… suggest that he knows there is no black and white morality here. At no point in the song does he suggest that one side in the war is more evil than the other. He narrator waxes philosophical: …Lessons of life/ Can't be learned in a day… he tells us, as he begins to drift into listening to …the music that comes from a far better land…  Already, heaven is calling him. His consciousness begins to drift and splinter. In the next verse he tells us the story of the ‘Great Leader’ who is killed by his own men. …Close the eyes of our Captain… he tells us. The allusion to Whitman’s Captain, O Captain is fairly clear here, suggesting that the ‘Great Leader’ refers to Abraham Lincoln, although the reference could be to one of the narrator’s own military commanders.
            The next four verses see the soldier preparing himself to meet his Maker. I feel that the unknown world is so near… he tells us.  He asserts that he was …loyal to truth and to right… and that  …virtue lives and cannot be forgot…, so staking his claim to heaven (or at least reassuring himself that it’s where he’s headed). He contrasts himself against those who have …blasphemy on every tongue… and tells himself, despite his predicament to …Serve God and be cheerful…, while paying tribute to his brave companions, who …never dreamed of surrendering/ They fell where they stood… In the last of these verses he already seems to see himself ascending to heaven. … Stars fell over Alabama/ I saw each star/ You're walking in dreams/ Whoever you are… he tells us, contrasting this with a description of the frozen ground he lies on and his knowledge of the finality of defeat: …the morning is lost…
         
In the penultimate verse, which again (as we saw earlier) references Whitman, there is a sudden shift away from the soldier’s perspective. Maybe the soldier is imagining the scene, though, as the mother receives the telegram saying her son is wounded but will recover soon. …But he'll never be better… he tells us, now so detached that he is looking down upon his own dead body. …He's already dead… The last verse sees our hero ascending into heaven, being …lifted away/ In an ancient light/ That is not of day… The final, rather strange and ambiguous lines  They were calm, they were blunt/ We knew them all too well/ We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell… seem to imply that the war has been between members of the same family (which in the American Civil War was often the case). This adds a poignant coda to the epic lament, suggesting just how unnecessary the entire conflict was.
            It may seem odd that such a major piece of work is hidden away on a relatively obscure film soundtrack. But throughout his career Dylan has always kept some of his best songs in partial obscurity, the most famous example being The Basement Tapes. Discovering such songs has always been part of a Dylan fan’s most joyous experiences. Cross The Green Mountain is, like Dylan’s other ‘soundtrack songs’, specifically written for a purpose - to illustrate the theme of a particular film. As with the other ‘soundtrack songs’, though, this process seems to have functioned as a creative spur, because here he takes us much further than the song’s origins might suggest. Although it could be called an ‘anti-war’ song, it is certainly not any kind of ‘protest song’ and though it may have resonances with current events it is more concerned with deep, universal themes. On one level it is a meditation on death. The narrator’s humble piety is immensely moving, as is his awe at the power of the ‘Avenging God’. But the way in which Dylan deliberately makes the narrator so naïve suggests that such unadorned faith may actually be insufficient for those of us who have to live in the real world today, in which we are caught up in a kind of ‘Civil War’ between apparent opposing but ultimately very similar religious world views. So the song does relate to the present human condition, although its conclusions could equally apply in say, 1914 or 1939 or 1962. Cross The Green Mountain stands with other great Dylan epics like A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall or  Chimes Of Freedom or Idiot Wind  as being both contemporary yet applicable to many other key moments in the unfolding of the tragically flawed human story.

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Saturday, 31 May 2008 08:01:53 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [13]  | 
Monday, 19 May 2008

 TESTAMENT

I, Joseph Ezekiel Green, am your humble servant, O Lord. It is with meekness and with reverence that I kneel here in supplication to ask you to receive this testament. Here at 23 Nelson Crescent, Brentwood, I am waiting by this telephone for your call. Outside I hear another thunder storm brewing. The trees are shaking dead leaves into the gathering wind. The earth is groaning and straining. The restless dead are stirring in their graves. The very sky aches with your wrath. Behold, the hour of your judgement is surely at hand. But I am calm now. I have no fear. I know I have won a great victory for you.

          Take me, Lord. Swallow me whole. Drink my essence. I am yours...          

          Before I came to you, Lord, I was the worst kind of sinner. Many were the times I poisoned my mind with alcohol and corrupted my body and soul by consorting with those who take money in exchange for giving up themselves to heinousÿsins of the flesh. Many were the lies I would tell to my wife Marjorie, and the more I lied, the deeper I sank into the fiery lake of mire and perversion. You know my darkest secret shame, Lord. Yea, I cannot hide from thy all-seeing eyes. Even now, when I think of the gross and unnatural practices I engaged in I shudder. I recall the vengeance and destruction you righteously brought down upon those two cities of Sodom and Gommorrah, and I marvel at the mercy you have shown to me. As I kneel here I can only give thanks to thee, for thy grace has surely saved me from the all-consuming fire.        

          O Lord, it has now been almost a year since I renounced my old life and accepted you fully into my heart. But it was only yesterday morning when the revelation came to me that I had been chosen as your sacred instrument. As usual I walked along Nelson Avenue, past Drake Crescent and down Hood Street to the railway station. I caught the usual 8.15 from Brentwood to Kings Cross. The train carriage was packed full of men and women with hard faces. Many were clearly in the grip of the Evil One. Some stared at the floor, others hid themselves behind newspapers. All were avoiding looking into each others' eyes, as if to do so would blind them. I could smell the fear and the corruption on their fetid breath.

          It was then that I saw The Beast himself. He was sitting directly across from me, looking smug as usual, polishing his shiny black leather shoes with a rag and studying his reflection. The surface of his skin was like unbaked clay, tight and ready to crack. Behind those deep crimson lips, which were moistened by a tiny film of white saliva, I knew that sharp black fangs were waiting to draw blood. He wore an immaculate single-breasted grey suit. Nothing but the best tailors for him, of course. His long silver-grey hair was slicked back with gel, held neatly in a pony-tail by a black leather thong. I buried my head in the Daily Telegraph but it was impossible to avoid those eyes. It was as if they were burning two black, smoking holes through the newspaper. They were huge and white, with no pupils, their edges defined in deepest red. Even as I joined the thronging crowds at Kings Cross they followed me. They glowed in the face of the shamelessly uncovered model on the Pepsi-Cola advert across the other side of the tracks. They winked in the face of the ticket collector as I emerged onto the street, and into the light. I breathed freely then, thinking they had no darkness to radiate in. But I was wrong.

          Minutes later, I was walking from Kings Cross to my office in Camden Town when I saw two young girls, no older than my daughter Angelica, displaying their pale white flesh, which was bound up in red leather and cheap black plastic. Then a blue Jaguar drew up. An automatic window slid down and the driver leaned out to negotiate. I recognised the man from the train. As the car door opened and the girls were carried away, I caught another flashing glimpse of those great white eyes. Caught by surprise, I was nearly transfixed. It was as if The Beast was calling me to join him. But my faith was strong and I looked away. As I walked I stared down at the paving stones, Lord, and prayed that you might hear me.

          As I turned into Caledonian Road the sky burst into a sudden downpour. As the other pedestrians ran to the shelter of the awnings outside the shops, I went down on my knees and raised up my arms. I knew you had given me a sign. I gave thanks to you, Lord, in your infinite mercy, for choosing me, a humble sinner, to begin the great process of enacting your judgement. I was filled by the Spirit, as water flows into an urn. And I began to overflow.

           Last night, I made my first move. Marjorie and Angelica were both asleep. I was alone, here in this living room, awaiting your instructions. I turned the television onto Channel Four. There was a man - at first it was hard to tell he was a man as his face was covered in thick make-up and he was dressed in women's clothing, sparkled in the sequins of perversion. He was laughing and clowning and telling obscene jokes. The studio audience, which the camera kept cutting to, looked at first like decent men and women but it was clear that they had been thoroughly corrupted because they were joining in with his laughter. In every one of their eyes I saw the whiteness, the red rims. As I stared closer I began to make out their horns and their hidden serpents' tails. They began to take on the shape of leopards, with bears' feet and lions' mouths. On each of their foreheads, beneath their wigs and their perms and their slicked-back hair, I could see the Beast's mark- the number 666 glowing for all to see. All, that is, who have eyes to see....

          Then I knew what I had to do. As the tears streamed down my face I heard your words, O Lord, booming clear and loud in my mind. It was clear what my mission was. From the kitchen, I chose a broad, sharp bread knife, perhaps not unlike the one you instructed your servant Abraham to use on Isaac to test his faith. And my faith was not lacking. I found a knife-sharpener in the draw and I began to prepare for my sacred task.

          Not far from this house, on the corner of Cook Avenue and Hudson Walk, there is a notorious public convenience where men meet to perform unnatural acts in the darkness amid the smell of their own urine and defecation. I waited there for some minutes before a man appeared. He was young, perhaps only twenty, but his breath was foul from alcohol. I swear I could also pick up the tang of sulphur. The man recognised me from my former days, before I was Saved. Steeling myself, I allowed the man to presume I would be prepared to engage in unspeakable practices with him. As he pressed his swollen flesh into mine, I could feel the Beast stirring within him. Yea, The Beast is powerful, Lord, and my flesh began to respond. Yet I did not fully yield to temptation. Suddenly I felt your presence in my heart, like a bright shining light... Luring the poor corrupted man into one of the cubicles I went down on my knees in front of him, in mock supplication. I took courage. With the knife the stroke was swift and merciful. I left him bleeding, screaming, but cleansed...

           I crept away quickly, making sure I was not seen. I knew you had more sacred tasks for me to perform, O Lord. When I reached home I was careful to be quiet whilst climbing the stairs. To my dismay Marjorie was still awake.

          "Where've you been?" she enquired.

          I knew it would be impossible for me to reveal the truth to Marjorie. Unlike me, she has not been touched by your hand, O Lord. Many were the times when I implored her to accept you into her heart. But she was deaf to my appeals. I cried for her, Lord... I wanted only that she might be Saved like me.

          "...For a walk.", I said.

          "In this weather?" She narrowed her eyes at me. "You must be crazy."

          As I climbed into bed she moved closer to me. I felt her arms around me and her feet rubbing lasciviously against my legs.            

          "Joe, come on...." she breathed. "It's been so long. Must be over a year. I'm getting desperate, Joe..... Don't you love me?"

          Her voice sounded strange. But I knew it was not really hers. When I turned round I saw the whiteness of her eyes and those red, red rims. As I smelled the overpowering stench that came up from between her thighs, I looked once again into the depths of the burning lake. But then I heard your voice, O Lord. Your instructions were clear. Suddenly I felt calm. I knew your love was inside me, filling me.I reached over into my jacket for my instrument of mercy. And you steadied and guided my hand with Your love.

          I new there was one more sacred task to perform. Taking the knife, I crept downstairs into Angelica's room. I turned on the light so that she could watch me tear down that poster she had insisted, against all my prayers and pleading, on putting up on her wall. It was an image of a young man, unclothed to the waist, covered in sweat, thrusting his nether regions towards a microphone. As I ripped the poster down and sliced it in half with the knife she leapt out of bed, naked, and began to struggle with me.

          "Daddy, no.... daddy, no!" she screamed. But your strength had taken me over, O Lord. I gripped her by the arm. Her long red hair flew back. And I saw the whites of her eyes.

            And now I wait. I know that the hour is at hand. Soon the dead will emerge from their graves. Earthquake and thunder and brimstone and fire will pour down from on high. The Beast will be swept away and I will be carried up with all the other pure souls to join you. But there is still more work for me to do. I know you have chosen me to fight The Beast, to weaken his power before you wreak your final revenge. So I am sitting by this telephone, just waiting for your call.

          Ah, yes. It is ringing at last...

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Monday, 19 May 2008 19:09:26 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [13]  | 
Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Book Review

MILLION DOLLAR BASH: BOB DYLAN, THE BAND AND THE       BASEMENT TAPES by Sid Griffin

 
 
       Year by year the legend of The Basement Tapes grows. Here’s a few personal memories. I remember reading about the legendary Great White Wonder when I was at school in the late ‘60s. A little later, as a spotty teenager, I acquired a copy of The Little White Wonder, a white pressed bootleg album, in a flea market (or is that fleamarkt?) in Amsterdam whilst on a ‘cultural tour’ (ahem!)  At the time Bob’s muse seemed to have dried up - this was in the interregnum between New Morning and Planet Waves. But this… Of course it was wonderful. Music from another planet. Totally unlike anything you’d ever heard. Even though it sounded a bit like it was recorded at the end of a tunnel. I played it to all my friends. Hardly any of them could understand what I was raving on about. Was that really Bob Dylan singing in that weird voice? Just what on earth did he mean? …The comic book and the comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus… … I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake… guarding fumes and making haste/ It ain't my cup of meat … And so on and so on. And who the hell was ‘Tiny Montgomery’ anyway? And why why why had he not brought out these songs? I Shall Be Released… they cried!

            Just a few years later (in 1975) we finally got the ‘official release’ with a great picture on the foldout sleeve of Bob and The Band (and Ringo??) looking really cool in a real Basement surrounded by Mrs. Henry and Tiny Montgomery and a real life Quinn The Eskimo. Wow! I could hardly wait. Now we’d hear the songs as they were supposed to be heard. But… wait a minute… why were Quinn The Eskimo and I Shall Be Released, two of the greatest songs, missing? OK, Dylan had already brought them out officially in inferior versions, but that was hardly an excuse. And as for the rest of it… well a couple of tracks, like the fantastic Goin’ To Acapulco and the lugubriously surreal Clothes Line Saga were revelations. And the - as then unheard - ‘new’ tracks by The Band were pretty cool. Some of the tracks we knew sounded pretty similar to that weird white bootleg. But… sad to say… they didn’t really sound any better… The biggest disappointment of the official release was that many of the songs now sounded somehow ‘flat’. And perhaps the greatest musical element of all - the weird and wonderful vocal interplay between Dylan, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko - had been mysteriously suppressed.
            Over the succeeding years we’ve heard many new Basement Tapes tracks that weren’t on the official set at all - including the wondrous Sign On The Cross and, perhaps most beguiling of all, the ultra-mysterious I’m Not There (I’m Gone), not to mention hours and hours more of other Dylan compositions and a huge array of amazing covers. And as those scratchy bootleg cassettes were replaced by shiny new CDs and anonymous persons began to lay hands on these recordings with the magic of digital remixing at their fingertips, suddenly it became possible to listen to really clear, great-sounding mixes of the songs ‘as nature intended’, with those glorious harmonies restored. Now the music sounded newly alive and The Basement Tapes revealed themselves as something way beyond what we’d even imagined. Recently Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There (whose soundtrack includes a beautifully clear mix of the title song, finally released after all these years) has placed The Basement Tapes even more in the spotlight.
            Sid Griffin’s new, lovingly-researched book Million Dollar Bash puts all this into context. He explains how and why the ’75 official release (largely masterminded by Robbie Robertson, not Dylan) sold The Basement Tapes short and he reveals that, although they were not recorded in a studio, they were in fact recorded in ‘wide stereo’ by The Band’s Garth Hudson (who Sid praises greatly as a recording engineer). He explains that, for the official release, the tracks were largely mixed down into mono and that much jiggery-pokery (including the addition of overdubbed parts and even a couple of complete new tracks) was actually done during the preparation of the album in 1975. Sid Griffin is a well-known alt. country musician himself, being a former member of The Lone Ryders, and this may have helped him with connections. The book benefits much from his access to Robertson and the other surviving members of the band as well as a number of other key players in the story. These interviews do much to bolster up the book’s credibility.
            Sid writes in an attractive, unpretentious way and structures the book cleverly, beginning with some background on the Woodstock area itself. We then get some well argued and detailed background as to how both Dylan and The Band came to end up together at Big Pink and the other locations where the Tapes were recorded. He gives us many illuminating details about these locations and pays particular attention to the technicalities of how the songs were recorded. We get a colourful picture of the scene in Woodstock at the time, although very little but supposition about Dylan’s private life.  But that’s perhaps how it should be… Sid also does an extremely well researched ‘track by track’ on all the Basement Tapes songs, giving full background on all the cover versions and their background. He also gives us a highly illuminating guide to who plays what and who is singing on every track. All this stuff is naturally of tremendous interest to Dylan/Band fans. He also discusses the musical qualities of the songs with some considerable skill and devotes much attention to the awesomeness of I’m Not There and Sign On The Cross. There’s also valuable background information on the origins of the many cover versions that grace the Tapes.
            We also get a detailed account of the ‘aftermath’ of the recordings, with quotes from many of those who were first privileged to hear and then even record the mysterious ‘lost Dylan songs’ as the original acetates from the sessions began to circulate. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is the way it puts The Basement Tapes in a musical/historical context, demonstrating how they really began the idea of ‘Americana’ as a form of music, how they helped The Band’s ‘country-funk’ sound emerge from the r and b of The Hawks, how they provided a counterweight to the contemporary excesses of psychedelia. Dylan, of course, never had a ‘Paisley period’…
            The one thing the book doesn’t really do, however - and this is perhaps strange for a work on Dylan - is to engage in much literary analysis of the songs on The Basement Tapes. This are doesn’t especially seem to be Sid’s strong point, and he does have a tendency to dismiss many of the lyrics as ‘nonsense’.  That seems a little bit of a copout to me - to my ears Dylan’s 1967 songs provide a wealth of literary and other allusions along with many elusive, shifting, but still; identifiable meanings. In his bizarre and sometimes wonderful Invisible Republic (namechecked by Dylan himself, no less, in Chronicles) the great Greil Marcus seems to be taking on this task of ‘decoding’ the songs, before he seems to forget he’s doing this and takes us off on his wild, colourful ride through ‘the old, weird America’. That book on The Basement Tapes has still to be written, perhaps. But, hey, nobody has a go ay Christopher Ricks or Aidan Day for concentrating solely on Dylan's lyrics. In Million Dollar Bash Sid Griffin has produced an absorbing work of Dylan scholarship for the benefit of present and uture generations.

           

            As Sid tells us rather tantalisingly, the powers that be at Sony or CBS or whatever they call it these days have hinted - just hinted - at the possibility of a proper Basement Tapes box set. Perhaps we should all bombard them with requests for this -The Complete Basement Tapes as the next Bootleg Series volume?  But if so we want the whole lot, including all the extra versions, weird covers etc, all beautifully, perfectly mixed, sounding even better than the best of today’s bootlegs.. It would be a six ort seven CD box set including, of course, the mysterious ‘lost’ studio version of Minstrel Boy which Sid refers to  - along with, perhaps, another bunch of unknown and terminally weird Dylan Basement songs, flashing with far out and extraordinary poetry that he just happens to be making up on the spot!

 

            All together now:

            Every boy and girl gonna get that bang/

            Cause Tiny Montgomery’s gonna shake that thing!

 

 




Wednesday, 14 May 2008 19:06:33 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [18]  | 
Saturday, 10 May 2008

 DYLAN, THE BEATLES AND A HARD DAY'S NIGHT Part Two

 

   The movie A Hard Day’s Night, despite being made in monochrome on a tiny budget, is decidedly cool, witty and fast moving. It has an ‘improvised’ atmosphere that recalls the contemporary methods of French Nouvelle Vague directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. As such it avoids many of the clichés of framing and narrative that characterise the ‘classical Hollywood’ style, which most British films tend to imitate. It features some use of handheld cameras and sudden ‘jump cuts’ and borrows some of the intimacy of its style from television. The sequences where the group has to escape from hysterical fans are convincingly staged and filmed, in a way that appears to resemble contemporary news footage. The director, American Dick Lester, who was approved by The Beatles mainly because, like George Martin, he had worked with John’s hero Spike Milligan, shot and cut the film to emphasise the zestful, irreverent wit of its stars. The script, by Liverpool playwright Alun Owen, is sharp, biting and subtly funny without ever attempting to raise a cheap laugh or cast The Beatles as ‘comedians’. A Hard Day’s Night is the first successful translation of the irreverent spirit of rock’n’roll roll into the cinematic idiom. Avoiding the pitfalls which had made the movies of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard so excruciatingly corny and conventional, it is constructed as a spoof cinema-verite documentary following the group’s journey to London for, and the preparations for and execution of, a live TV appearance. All the action in the film falls within one day. Along the way the group’s main preoccupation seems to be avoiding the attentions of massed hordes of screaming fans. Rather than attempting to create characters, the group appear as themselves, which creates a cleverly ‘knowing’ effect and allows the film to make sardonic comments on the hysteria of Beatlemania, which it simultaneously parodies and celebrates. The name ‘Beatles’ is never actually used, although it is naturally assumed that the audience knows full well who they are. The use of such smart, knowing, postmodern narrative devices in a ‘pop film’ was virtually unprecedented.

         Owen’s script cleverly catches the style of The Beatles’ own dry repartee, their irreverent attitude to the trappings of fame and their spontaneously witty exchanges with the press. In one rapidly cut sequence, the film features the members of the group responding to various press questions with characteristically Beatle-ish cheek. …How did you find America?… one reporter asks. John, not batting an eyelid, replies …Turn left at Greenland The movie becomes a clever and oblique (if not too serious) commentary on fame itself - a phenomenon which The Beatles, though still near the beginning of their public careers, were already sussed enough to see many of the contradictions of. John, Paul and George are a little stiff in front of camera at times, but the film’s self-mocking style turns this into a positive strength. Most of the time they maintain deadpan expressions, as if the madness that surrounds them doesn’t really impress them at all. They are perhaps most effective when playing ‘straight men’ to Wilfred Brambell (old man Steptoe in the monumental TV comedy Steptoe And Son), who plays Paul’s curmudgeonly Irish grandfather. But it is Ringo, with his natural goofy charm, permanently put-upon expression and slightly loping, almost Chaplinesque gait, who steals the film, particularly in a poignant wordless sequence (backed by an orchestrated version of This Boy) where, having escaped from the treadmill of the group’s rehearsals, he is seen kicking cans about on some waste ground by the Thames.

         The Beatles’ music, with its zestful confidence and joi de vivre, is an ideal counterpart for the fast-moving monochrome sequences that make up the film. This is perhaps best illustrated by a scene which features the group running madly around a field in a kind of manic silent-movie fashion, to no apparent purpose other than to celebrate a temporary freedom from the confines of their professional life. Partly shot from above, it is the most exhilarating and purely cinematic sequence of the movie, and the buoyant, optimistic Can’t Buy Me Love, with its dramatic and effervescent stop-start rhythms, is the perfect accompaniment. The encounter which follows this scene, in which John bumps into a young ‘intellectual’ woman who appears at first to recognise him, provides perhaps the film’s most telling moments. A laconic John denies being ‘him’ (i.e. himself), despite her examining him closely and saying …You look just like him… He claims his ‘eyes are lighter’ and finally the woman is convinced, retorting that …you don’t look like him at all… The scene, with its self-referential, almost Pinteresque dialogue, neatly parodies the pretentiousness of the intellectuals who were already beginning to lionise The Beatles, while slyly reflecting on the absurdities of fame.

            Released shortly after The Beatles made their first historic appearance in the USA, the film demonstrates quite clearly that the group are highly intelligent, self-aware individuals who are not content to be presented in the exploitative way that had previously been the norm for pop stars in the cinematic medium. Even though it appeared at the height of the frenzy of Beatlemania, its showings in cinemas frequently accompanied by the screams of fans, it succeeds in satirising the processes of ‘showbiz’. Although the songs in the film are still rather limited in terms of any lyrical ‘messages’, the film holds out the promise that The Beatles may soon be able to become more forcefully articulate and artistically expressive. This was a promise that, over the next year and a half, would reach fulfilment in ways that, in early 1964, even its stars could barely begin to imagine. The film perfectly freezes the historical moment of Beatlemania, and subtly points to what will succeed it.

      

         The Hard Day’s Night movie had arrived at exactly the right moment for The Beatles, presenting a definitive picture of them on the cusp of their phenomenal explosion of popularity. Their breakthrough in America had produced a staggering, unprecedented level of instant success which no musical artist or artists had ever achieved in such a short time. American promoters were soon rushing to Britain to book the top British ‘beat groups’ for US tours, heralding what became known as ‘The British invasion’. By the end of 1964 Beatlemania had become a worldwide phenomenon. For most of the year they were on tour, not only in ballparks and sports stadiums on a coast-to-coast US tour but also in Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Everywhere they went they were faced with civic receptions, TV cameras and press conferences and the inevitable screaming hordes of fans. Even their arrivals back in Britain from their foreign tours were met by huge crowds. At the Liverpool premiere of A Hard Day’s Night 200,000 people lined the streets to try to get a glimpse of them. But The Beatles were growing up fast. After the most intense and hard working year of their careers, they were already becoming jaded and disillusioned with being ‘pop idols’. Standing on a hotel balcony overlooking the thousands of fans at the Hard Days Night premiere (from which they were expected to dispense suitably condescending waves at their fawning admirers) John suddenly broke ranks and began giving Hitler salutes to the crowd - this in a city which, only two decades before, Hitler’s bombers had devastated in many bombing raids. Being John, the ‘cheekiest Beatle of all’, he somehow escaped any censure for this. The national press just seemed to think he had a weird sense of humour. But John was not stupid. He could see disturbing parallels between the ‘mob hysteria’ of Beatlemania and that of the Nuremberg rallies, and although his natural response to this was merely to ‘take the piss’, already the public were being shown aspects of his darkly cynical intelligence.

         At the same time, the group found themselves caught in a creative dilemma. With their series of ‘ecstatic’ singles they had perfected the ‘hit formula’ which had catapulted them to fame. But while the natural temptation of less creative souls would have been to stick with that formula, they were growing restless. From their first recordings, they had insisted on a high degree of creative freedom and control. And as their victorious tussle with George Martin over releasing only their own material on their singles had demonstrated, this insistence had been completely justified. It was one thing to be bigger than Elvis, but they certainly didn’t want to be Elvis. Their record company, EMI, were loathe to interfere with their work in the studio. After all, placing them with a non-mainstream producer like Martin, who was open to letting them have a great deal of creative freedom, certainly seemed to have worked on the commercial level. Indeed, record companies now began searching for groups who could write their own material. Through their own boldness, The Beatles had already changed the ground rules of the pop music industry. Now they were keen to explore the potential of the recording studio for creating newer sounds. This was not easy, as due to the constant pressure to keep touring they had little time to fit in recording sessions. But with the range of musical textures they had produced on the Hard Day’s Night album, they had already shown how rapidly they could progress in this area. At the same time, despite the perceived need to ‘feed’ their fans with songs they could fantasise over, the group were beginning to find the limitations of the boy-girl formula in lyric writing very constrictive. In mid-1964, John’s first book, In His Own Write - a collection of funny, often macabre little tales and vignettes accompanied by his own distinctive cartoons, which he had been working on since his schoolboy days - was published. It was acclaimed by many critics, who quite accurately identified the highly original way John played with language as being Joycean. John himself was rather bemused by this, as he had been by the attention some classical music critics had paid to his and Paul’s songs. He had never read Joyce, and his main ‘literary’ influences were Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan. But the disparity between John’s highly creative and imaginative use of language in his book and his formulaic lyric writing was fairly glaring. Meanwhile, The Beatles’ encounter with Dylan’s work (and with marijuana) had, as we have seen, pointed them in the direction of  more ‘meaningful’ self-expression. In the Hard Days Night album they had achieved a consistent, varied and constantly exuberant summation of their early style. Over the next year and a half, as they attempted to forge a new, more ‘adult’ approach, the quality of their work was to vary wildly, from the contrived to the inspired.

 

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Please send any comments to me at chris@chrisgregory.org




Saturday, 10 May 2008 16:50:33 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Thursday, 08 May 2008

                                   EXPLORING TELEVISUALITY...

 

              What is ‘televisuality’? The word has been bandied around rather loosely by media academics for a decade or so. Broadly speaking we can say that the word refers to the attempts that have been made to examine the fundamental nature of television as a form of communication. But there is little consensus between those concerned as to exactly why they are trying to do this. Certainly there has been a great lack of focus on what value the products of our most popular form of mass media have. One has to say that by and large television is still thought of as being ‘disposable’. If you venture into the average branch of Waterstones or Smiths or any other major book store, the chances are you will find reasonably well-stocked sections on Film and Popular Music. Although some of this stuff might be said to fall into the ‘facts and trivia’ and ‘picture book’ categories, there’s every possibility that you will find, say, a scholarly and well-researched volume on the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles or the songs of Bob Dylan. Film Studies is a well-established academic subject with its own theorists and its canon of ‘great works’. And there’s little doubt that albums like Sgt. Pepper or Blonde On Blonde or Dark Side Of The Moon are generally thought of as being important works of art. Yet where are the books on ‘television studies’? Which television series could we call ‘the classics’? After nearly six decades of TV, why is it that the humble ‘goggle box’ (or, more likely these days, the 40-inch plasma screen) still somehow mesmerises us so that we cannot get any distance from it? Why hasn’t a way of assessing the aesthetic qualities of TV become generally recognised? OK, television is studied as part of Media Studies. And some experimental work has been carried out over the past couple of decades. For instance, you might like to have a look at the online New University’s interesting course on what it calls ‘televisuality’ HERE. The problem, however, with the Media Studies approach is that it makes little attempt to discriminate between TV programmes in terms of aesthetic quality. Students of Media Studies can quite happily spend huge chunks of their courses studying the mind-numbing trivia of ‘Reality TV’ shows, the sickeningly superficial slickness of Celebrity Dance Competitions or the absurdly hollow posturing of hopeless talentless would be Popidols. A dissertation on the National Lottery Draw show, anyone? A thesis on the Most Embarrassing TV Blooper Moments Genre, perhaps?

            And yet, and yet….  Despite the seas of crap in the overflowing mutichannel oceans, we do live in a kind of Golden Age of television. The fact that shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood or Shameless (to lick just a few off the cream of the crop) can actually get made and reach huge audiences is immensely heartening.  Over the last two decades the whole form and sensibility of series television has moved forward immensely in terms of sheer aesthetic quality. A great part of the reason for this lies in the fact that the multichannel environment leaves a space for shows to be made that can target a more educated, book-reading, cinema-literate audience. No longer does every major TV series need to focus on lowest common denominators, like in the old days of Network TV dominance. Not only does this give the freedom for characters to swear or for the series to focus on more adult themes, it also allows the programme makers to treat the audience with respect, to assume their intelligence and understanding of the actual semiotic and dramatic codes of the television medium itself, to glory in them and to celebrate them.  Some of the most impressive products of modern series TV are in fact recreations from rather limited source material. Witness the recreation of the Star Trek series by writers and producers who could see the great ‘televisual’ qualities implicit in the original 60s series, yet who wanted to link those qualities to a far more sophisticated and modern sensibility. In recent years Russell T. Davies’ glorious recreation of Dr. Who has achieved pretty much the same effect.  Also the way in which Joss Whedon took the basic premise of a corny movie and turned it into the extended examination of contemporary mores that was Buffy The Vampire Slayer and ex- Trek writer Ronald D. Moore reinvented the equally corny 70s scifi show Battlestar Galactica and turned it into a barometer of America’s place in the post 9/11 political world…  While mainstream Hollywood still churns out mainly ‘safe’ generic ‘product’, often based around mindlessly expensive SFX, the TV series has a form has largely outstripped it visually, dramatically and intellectually.  It is the form which most expresses the current zeitgeist, as film did from the 20s to the 50s and popular music did in the 60s and 70s.

            In Exploring Televisuality I’m attempting to come to grips with this phenomenon. I will be writing about the major TV series I’ve watched and been inspired by. And I will be attempting to identify the specifically televisual elements which these series employ. The series will develop the themes I’ve been exploring in my books Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner (details HERE) and Star Trek: Parallel Narratives (details HERE). In my view it’s time to move beyond the cold, distanced logic of postmodern aesthetics and put a new emphasis on quality. We live in the twenty first century, the age of the internet – of the blog and Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and all these mediums by which individuals can express themselves without being mediated by ‘experts’. The postmodern perpective belongs to the latter half of the twentieth century. It is time to move beyond its stultifying emphasis on cultural relativity (and thus uniformity) which had become a mere excuse for and rationalisation of the apparent triumph of consumerist capitalist supposedly symbolised by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We live in a new cultural world now, one in which anyone can have a voice. Now that we can all make movies on cheap mobile phones, it won’t be long before televisuality moves into entirely new realms… but for the moment, let’s revel in the triumphs of contemporary series television, the most vital and relevant art form of our day….

            As Tony Soprano says “Whadda you gonna do?”

 

 

Exploring Televisuality 1:   THE TUDORS (SEASON ONE)

     The story of Henry VIII and his wives is pretty well known to every schoolkid in Britain. In fact it’s become a common complaint that school history these days seems to consist mainly of a diet of ‘Henry and Hitler’. Of course, there are some fairly sound historical reasons for the emphasis on our most celebrated serial bridegroom. During his reign England dropped its allegiance to the Catholic Church, setting in train a series of events that would lead to the Civil War, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, the pre-eminence of Britain in the industrial revolution and… well, all that stuff. However, the British audience could be forgiven for feeling rather jaded about the prospect of yet another TV version of the life of Henry. It’s been done before many times, and in recent years we’ve also had the story dramatically unfolded to us by stylish star historians like Simon Schama and David Starkey, shot against backdrops of Hampton Court and the like as they pace up and down, wringing their hands and gesturing dramatically as they try to pump new life into a story everyone already knows (and quite possibly has a GCSE in). But what a story it is. It’s got oodles of sex, murder, religion and loads of delicious intrigue, compared to which the lives of Charles, Diana, Camilla, Fergie and Andy and that modern bunch seem like an afternoon tea party.

            We all know about Henry, too, because we’ve seen him in a lot of movies and TV shows. We all know he’s a fat old git who slobbers over chicken legs as he tosses them over his shoulder (Thank you, Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII). We also know he’s a disgusting old pervert who shags his way around the kingdom, frequently divorces or chops the heads off his wives when he’s had enough of them and is riddled with so many STDs that his brain and body are destined to rot away in front of our eyes. But as it turns out The Tudors concentrates on Henry’s life when he was a strapping young chap. And there’s not a greasy chicken leg in sight. Though it has a largely British cast, it’s actually an international co-production aimed squarely at the more ‘specialist’ cable market in America. As such it’s a distinctly post-Sopranos enterprise, another story of the intrigues and corruption surrounding a family of power-hungry and violent go-getters led by a rather charming and personable sociopath. You don’t mess with Henry, just like you don’t mess with Tony. (Henry, however, could arguably use a loan of Tony’s shrink in order to get him to feel more OK with himself for causing all that murder and mayhem).

American TV series are pretty much all based around the notion of ‘family’. The main characters may comprise an actual family, as in classic shows like Peyton Place, The Waltons, Bonanza or The Simpsons. (Who can forget the elder George Bush’s publicly stated wish that ‘The American family be more like The Waltons than The Simpsons’?). Even shows like Star Trek (in its many incarnations), Cheers and NYPD Blue position their ensemble casts as surrogate families. TV is, after all, a ‘family medium’, largely watched in family homes, even if these days the kids are more actually likely to be upstairs watching the Extreme Sports Channel, playing Extreme Death Murder games or downloading porn. The ‘Waltons’ are probably still out there somewhere, but the ‘Simpsons’ are without doubt taking over… In the multi channel ‘televisual’ environment, the kinds of shows that tend to highlight dysfunctional families have, in the post-Sopranos era, worked extremely hard at stretching the limits of ‘taste’ that once kept all TV shows within the boundaries of what used to be called ‘family viewing’. Hob’s The Sopranos ingeniously and often brilliantly combines the Gangster genre with that of family Soap Opera, and in doing so constituted itself as both a commentary on Modern America and on contemporary mores.

The existence of cable networks in the US has meant that the over-riding ‘family viewing’ dictats of the major networks have been broken, so that censorship of explicitly sexual or violent scenes has been waived in the case of specifically adult post-Sopranos shows. Such a loosening of control has contributed greatly to putting such shows at the absolute cutting edge of popular media. It is a situation analogous to the break up of the monopoly of  studio system in cinema in the 1950s and 60s and the concurrent rise of independent film makers, allowing individual visions (such as those of David Chase, creator of The Sopranos) to be realised without them being watered down by generic and conventional compromise. A particularly impressive case in point was HBO’s magnificent Deadwood, a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the Western genre in all its filthy, foul-mouthed, nakedly racist, rampantly-capitalist American ‘glory’. Like The Sopranos, Deadwood had a profoundly cinematic look and feel, combined with a freedom of expression generally denied to mainstream American film.

The Tudors is never as consistently foul-mouthed as Deadwood (and does not perhaps have the latter series’ wonderfully picaresque, sometimes even quasi-Dickensian use of language) but in many ways it applies the same principle to the ‘History’ genre as Deadwood does to the Western. Firstly it acknowledges in a similar way that its historical and cultural setting is one in which raw violence and blatant sexuality play a crucial part, and where a new openness and realism about these matters can be used to make a genre beset by clichés seem fresh and relevant. British TV critics (so many of whom are still sadly stuck in the Clive James ‘snigger, snigger; look how clever I am, treat everything like trivia’ mode which is increasingly irrelevant in the age of televisuality) have been rather sniffy about The Tudors, seeing its explicit ‘sexiness’ as a purely commercial device, complaining that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is just ‘too good looking’ to play Henry. This is a bit rich, really, for a story which centres so much about sex. Just the kind of thing, our silly critics might think, that the Americans might do with Our Henry. Perhaps we think that all kings should look like Prince Charles. One critic I was reading recently attacked the series for not giving Henry red hair. Do they want him to look like Prince Harry? (Maybe to prove where the Prince got those genes from!) If you look up the series’ entry in Wikipedia they’ll give you the lowdown on its other historical inaccuracies. It has quite a few, of course. But that hardly matters really. What does matter is that The Tudors drags the genre of the TV historical drama kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The best historical fiction of any kind will always allow us to reflect on the contemporary resonances of the story. And the story of  the Tudors has plenty of that - battling religious fanatics, fundamentalism, official corruption, shifting alliances and devious conniving politicians.

The intense, brooding energy that Jonathan Rhys Meyers brings to his presentation of Henry as a kind of hyperactive man-child is a revelation. With his premier league footballer’s haircut and his range of quite stunning, tight fitting designer padded breeches and quilted jackets he’s young, he’s sexy and he loves to roar out for a spot of hunting with his mates. He doesn’t mind a spot of arm-wrestling before dinner, is a pretty dab hand at archery and even picks out a mean tune on the lute. In short he’s very Rock and Roll, and like any big rock star he’s surrounded by sycophants and groupies. He only has to cast his eye on some gorgeous young courtier and she’ll be instantly ready to cast off her expensive gown and service the royal member, crying …Majesty!… as he grimaces through another ten minutes of lust. This is a guy with absolute power who can have your head separated from your body as soon as look at you, who wants to declare war on various countries (France this week, Spain the next) largely because he thinks it would make him look good in the history books. You wouldn’t want to get in his way when he gets into a rage. Despite all this, however, he’s a kind of innocent. - a petulant, spoiled brat, maybe but still an innocent. He seems to care little for the minutiae of government, leaving the way open for his advisors to manipulate him at their will, while simultaneously scheming most deviously against each other. For most of Season One he lets his main Spin Doctor Cardinal Wolsey (played with smooth unctuousness by Sam Neill) do the real business of running the country. Wolsey himself is hardly Father Ted. He’s a big time political operator with ambitions to be Pope who keeps a mistress, expropriates loads of government funds and, if minded to do so, can be seen grabbing other aged cardinals by the throat and ramming them up against a wall. Yet compared to the others scheming around Henry he’s really quite loveable. When he finally falls from power (Sorry if I’m giving away the plot but this is history, you know - they haven’t changed it that much!) we genuinely feel for him. Just before the end, before he slits his own throat, we see him apologising to God for being, frankly, really quite crap at being holy. Of course, he knows perfectly well that God won’t forgive him. The God that he, and everybody else in The Tudors believes in, is hardly the ‘forgiving’ type.

         Scheming against Wolsey are the equally devious Duke of Norfolk and his brother Thomas Boleyn. Boleyn has the advantage of having two exceptionally ‘fit babes’ as daughters and he’s determined to use them to his own advantage, so he can gain as much power and wealth as possible. He’s had both of them brought up in the French court, which for him has the great advantage that this is where they’ll learn those ‘arts of l’amour’ which the English have always been a bit hopeless at. When visiting the French court in an early episode of the show old Thomas is mighty pleased when Henry’s roving eye settles on the older sister Mary and the old man encourages her to nip up to the king’s chamber where she immediately drops to her knees and demonstrates to the ever-horny English monarch her prowess in a particularly French technique she’s learned in her extensive period of education. Henry grunts and grimaces through this, but soon gets bored with her as she’s just too easy… After all, if you’re a king, you need a bit more of a challenge.

         The challenge arrives in the lithe form of little sister Anne, who abandons her lover, the poet Thomas Wyatt, for a studied and meticulously planned pursuit of Henry. Anne is a sultry temptress par excellence and a Grand Mistress of the (presumably French) art of  prick teasing. She drives Henry mad with lust, but only very gradually, as Henry gets more and more inflamed with her, does she let him have any access to her body. In reality, she’s a loyal daughter who has her family’s best interests at heart and as the king becomes more and more obsessed with her, she ensures that Daddy and Uncle get promoted to senior advisor’s posts, eventually becoming so powerful that they manage to fit up Wolsey and do away with him altogether. In one of the ‘climactic’ (though that is probably the wrong word!) scenes of Season One, Henry and Anne ride into a wood together whereupon they finally tear each others’ clothes of in a fit of lust and do the deed. But at the last moment Anne insists Henry withdraws, delaying the royal ejaculation yet again and he is left gnashing his teeth. Only when she is Queen will he finally be able to really satiate himself. In order to reach this long-delayed climax he’s quite prepared to ditch his long-suffering broody, sultry Spanish wife Catherine, abandon a thousand years of papal control over his country and quite possibly plunge the whole of Europe into bloody warfare.

         The Tudors depicts a world in which politics and religion are completely entwined, just as they are today in huge swathes of the world. It clearly demonstrates the consequences of religious fanaticism in all its forms. There are the Protestants, of course, neo-fundamentalists of their day, now gaining power and placing themselves everywhere, like the proverbial ‘reds under the bed’. There’s the scarily calm and calculating Thomas Cromwell, who has risen under Wolsey’s tenure to a senior position in the religious/civil administration. Really Cromwell is a Protestant infiltrator. At the opportune moment he begins to slip Henry books about how kings should only have to answer to God, not Popes. Given that the Pope and his Cardinals are refusing to swallow his rather ludicrous bullshit about his marriage to Catherine not being valid and grant him a divorce so he can finally complete that shag with the wily Anne Boleyn, Henry is well up for such ideas. The reformation, disillusion of the monasteries and all that stuff beckons for Season Two. The Protestants are a pretty scary bunch, decidedly unsexy and more concerned with talking directly to God while kneeling on plain wooden benches. They’re so convinced that the last thousand years of Catholicism have been a big screwup that they’re quite happy to get burned alive to prove the point. But the scariest of all the characters in The Tudors is Sir Thomas More (latterly, I believe, Saint Thomas More… you know, like Sir Paul McCartney) .

         If you remember that movie A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More was a Good Guy. He was Henry’s best buddy. (Henry was, as usual, a fat carrot-top in that movie). All More had to do was recant a few things he’d said and Henry would desist from chopping his head off. In the end Thomas does the saintly thing and refuses to drop his principles. Better dead than protestant. But seeing More’s head roll is something we’ll have to wait till Season Two for. Personally, I’m quite looking forward to that… As Season One ends he’s just been appointed Henry’s new Chancellor in succession to the deposed Wolsey. Highly principled, soft-spoken, without any of the worldly corruption of Wolsey, Thomas isn’t interested in making a single groat out of his new job. What he is really interested in is burning Protestants. For their own sake, of course. More is compassionate, civilised… a reasonable man. As he stands in front of one heretic he’s about to have burned he gives him until the last moments to recant. Of course he knows full well that the heretic, being one of those damned Protestants, will prefer being burnt to a crisp. As the fire is lit the saintly Thomas stands there, still quite calmly clutching his Bible. At one moment it’s all a bit much for him and he has to turn away. But then he makes himself look back as the heretic’s last screams are drowned out by the flames. It’s a seriously chilling moment, demonstrating in graphic terms exactly where religious fanaticism leads us to. At the end of the day, Thomas More makes Tony Soprano seem like a pussy. You wouldn’t catch Sir Thomas visiting a therapist to cure his panic attacks. Just like Bush and Blair after they launched their campaign of a different kind of burning of thousands and thousands of families in Iraq in 2003, his conscience, naturally, is clear. Some things have to be done. Some sins have to be purged, whatever the consequences.

         The Tudors also depicts a world in which people can regularly drop dead at any moment, in which plagues are rife and the art of medicine laughably hopeless. When one of the leading characters, Sir William (who earlier has had a steamy gay affair with long-haired court musician Thomas Tallis) catches one of these plagues, the physician’s only method of ‘treatment’ is to drive a mallet into his back. To, er… let the blood out, naturally… In the mindset the characters inhabit, though, it’s God who’s brought about the plagues, to punish the sinners. You may not know what sin you’ve committed but if you catch a plague then God must be angry with you. If you’re really lucky He might just let you pull through, as Anne Boleyn somehow does. But you probably won’t of course. You could try a little bit of medical treatment but not too much, of course, or you might be changing God’s will. And if God wants to rub you out… well, you don’t really have much choice. God is very much like an all-powerful mob boss. If he makes you an offer, you just can’t refuse it…

          Of course, if you know only a little bit about history, none of this is any great surprise. But what is so great about The Tudors is the way it makes all this barbarity so sexy (that’s ‘sexy’ in the modern vernacular ad-lingo sense). It pulls no punches. In an age when most rock and roll music is safe, tame and predictable a great Televisual series like this IS the rock and roll of NOW. The Tudors has also been criticised by the sniffy critics for its use of language - too modern, they say; not enough ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ – this is not history… Actually, as mentioned earlier, unlike the amazingly profane Deadwood, The Tudors keeps the vulgar language down to a minimum. But when it uses swearing it does it to great effect, with impeccable timing. My favourite moment in the entire First Season occurs when Cardinal Wolsey, appearing at one of the Papal Courts and charged with the hopeless task of trying to prove that Henry’s marriage to Catherine had never been lawful ‘in the eyes of God’, has had his pleas roundly rejected. He already knows that this is almost certainly going to bring about his own downfall. As he strides out of the courtroom he leans over one of the other cardinals who is sitting in judgement over him.

         “You cunt!” he whispers in his ear.

         Bless me father! Now that’s rock and roll!

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        Please send any comments to chris@chrisgregory.org


        

          

 

                       

 

 








Thursday, 08 May 2008 15:03:45 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Monday, 05 May 2008

DRUM FIRE



my restless fingers comb the surface

of this animal’s tight skin-

these fingers crack, these fingers flex-

sparks fly from my fingertips...

 

summoning the sullen beast’s power

into my heart, I can feel the ache

of its final mournful cry-

gentle bulk swaying,

great udders shaking,

final breath expelled in an anguished sigh

 

the fire builds up inside me,

the smoke fills my lungs,

deep oxygen breaths

catch the flickering flames

and lick them into life-

as living fiery words

that fall from my mouth

 

this rhythm that I build

is the rhythm of its heartbeat

but my heart is beating

to a different drum-

I close my eyes and dream

 

close my eyes and dream

close my eyes and dream

close my eyes and dream

of the fire to come….


Monday, 05 May 2008 16:07:22 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [27]  | 

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