Saturday, September 28, 2013

Phillis Wheatley: Some Biographical, Historical, Literary and Religious Context (with a reading of “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” & one other poem)

I may be offered a paying-gig working on a text to introduce high-school students to some canonical (public domain) poems in the "Common Core Curriculum." Since I hated poetry in high-school (largely because of the way it's taught), I find writing a "sample essay" to be a daunting task--especially as I try to simplify my grad-school theory-speak, but I need a it's worth a shot. Here's one of my first attempts to speak to high school students in writing.

Phillis Wheatley: Biographical, Historical, Literary and Religious Context (with a reading of “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” & one other poem)

I. A Revolutionary War Poet

Phillis Wheatley’s poetry embodies the highest hopes for liberty of Colonial America which the spirit the revolutionary war, at its best, embodied, but the tragedy of her early death also reveals the betrayal of those hopes.

In her poem, “To His Excellency General Washington,” Wheatley adeptly and eloquently employs classical myths and poetic rhetoric to praise General George Washington in the fight for liberty against the tyrannical King of England, George III.

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

 The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise….

“Columbia” was the word used to describe colonial America in the 18th century, and was often personified as a female goddess in this neo-classical era. Wheatley rarely wrote of her own personal life in her poetry, but these “glorious toils” are also her own:

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late….

Among George III’s many atrocities was his continued encouragement and legal sanction for the capturing people from Africa to become slaves in the Colonial Empire. As a slave forcibly taken from her native land, Wheatley had great hopes that the demand for “liberty” was not an idle word, and felt tremendous solidarity with the cause that lead to the founding of this country.

In this patriotic poem written in 1775, when she was 22 years old, Wheatley works within the parameters of the classical British and European poetry (Pope, Milton, Horace, Virgil and Homer) in which she steeped herself upon being taken from her native land at the age of 7, but also adeptly includes references to her native culture and religion (in this case “mother earth”) that many other fellow-slaves (literate or not) could relate to, if able to hear. Her intermingling of the traditions of Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship, evident in such poems as her “Ode To Neptune,” suggests one way of creating a distinctly American poetic and religious language that speaks to all the colonists, secular and sacred, free and slave, white and black.

II. A Religious Poet

According to John C. Shields, "her allusions to the sun god and to the goddess of the morn, always appearing as they do here in close association with her quest for poetic inspiration, are of central importance to her." The hierophantic solar worship is what she brought with her from Africa; the worship of sun gods is expressed as part of her African culture. As her parents were sun worshipers, it may be why she used so many different words for the sun. For instance, she uses Aurora eight times, "Apollo seven, Phoebus twelve, and Sol twice." Shields believes that the word "light" is significant to her as it marks her African history, a past which she has left physically behind. He notes that Sun is a homonym for Son, and that Wheatley intended a double reference to Christ.[1]

From a strict Christian religious perspective, even the use of Classical European (Greek and Roman) myths, and invocations of Apollo, Zeus, and Athena, was considered heresy, but accepted because of their literary value. The Gods the African worshipped were not even afforded literary status, since it was primarily an oral culture. It makes sense that Wheatley would see more in common with her native religion in these Greek and Roman myths (which, in most accounts, were derived from African myths in the first place; Homer didn’t write), than in the monotheistic (and increasingly rationalistic Deist philosophies of) Christianity. Yet once she became aware of the Christian evangelists whose mission was to educate and convert, she soon found a way, at a young age, to incorporate the dominant religion of her new land into her parents’ religion.

III. “On Being Brought From Africa To America”

Five years before she had written her poem to George Washington, she wrote a short poem on the death of Calvinist minister George Whitefield, at the age of 17. While this poem is less ambitious, both literarily and religiously, than her later work, it remains her most well-known and anthologized piece.

The 8-line poem in simple end-stopped rhyming couplets begins by placing itself firmly in the tradition of Christian missionary verse and letters from its beginnings with St. Paul, who converted from Judaism, tried to convince others to do the same. Wheatley begins: “Twas’ mercy that brought me from my Pagan land,/Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too.” But after these three lines, Wheatley departs from the “missionary” tradition in one crucial way: While most “converts” (from St. Paul to St. Augustine) address those who they are trying to convert, Wheatley’s main audience is not Africans, much less those who were brought to America on slave ships; she’s not trying to convert them to Christianity. Instead, her main audience is white Christians. She’s trying to convert, or at least convince, Christians, or those who call themselves Christians, to show their much-touted virtue of “mercy” on her race, rather than the scorn based on racial prejudice used to justify slave-labor.

As the 17 year-old Wheatley continues:

“Some view our sable race with a scornful eye,
Their color is a diabolic dye.’”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

If given the chance, we can speak your language, culture, and religion, which you claim is more “refined” than ours. She understands there’s “a Saviour,” but she’s not bragging that she’s been “saved.” Knowing her other poetry helps put these lines in poetic and religious context; she’s not exactly rejecting her “pagan” religion. “Pagan” needn’t not be a judgmental moral term, but rather a descriptive term to describe any religion aside from the dominant one, in this case Christianity. But clearly a light flashed in her head when she saw the similarities between the Christian God, and the Sky-God of her native religion. In this early poem, Wheatley is thus already speaking in code, in what the later writer and statesman, W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as a “double consciousness.”

The ironies of this poem may have fallen on deaf ears to her largely white audience at the time, but it’s crucial to note that she refuses to state in this poem that she’s renouncing, or turning her back, on her native religion. Rather, she’s attempting to “refine” it to fit within the context of the alien culture she’s toiling to make the best of, in an attempt to find continuity with the culture she was forced to leave behind (just as many immigrants from other countries become culturally bilingual; something that was not allowed for the vast majority of African-Americans). And this task becomes more evident in the poetry she wrote in subsequent years. In her tribute to George Washington, for instance, “the land of freedom’s heaven defended race” could refer to both America and her “pagan land.”

Wheatley herself was one of the very few Africans who had been shown even a smidgeon of “mercy” when she arrived in America, and even that was very hard-won. She received “an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis' education and left the household labor to their other domestic slaves. The Wheatleys often showed off Phillis' abilities to friends and family” (Wikipedia). But she still met with scorn, and at best was celebrated as a “token” during the war effort. Even when her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) brought her fame both in England and the American colonies, she was brought to court to defend her authorship of the work; some people still couldn’t believe that she could write so “refin’d.”

IV: Subsequent Life and Tragedy

Unfortunately, the course of history took a tragic turn for Wheatley in particular, and for millions of other Africans who were now living in America. The Colonies did gain “independence” from England in this war, but independence was not granted to slaves, or even extended fully to women. Wheatley was thus doubly disenfranchised, and even though she was legally freed from slavery on her master’ death in 1778, such “freedom” resulted in even worse living conditions than she had known as a slave. Shortly after being freed, she married John Peters, a free black grocer. As Wikipedia sums up her life from this point, “They struggled with poor living conditions and the deaths of two infant children. Wheatley wrote another volume of poetry but was unable to publish it because of her financial circumstances, the loss of patrons after her emancipation (often publication of books was based on gaining subscriptions for guaranteed sales beforehand), and the competition from the Revolutionary War.

Her husband John Peters was imprisoned for debt in 1784, leaving an impoverished Wheatley with a sickly infant son. She went to work as a scullery maid at a boarding house to support them. The racism and sexism that marked the era had forced her into a kind of domestic labor that she had not been forced to do while her freedom was held by her masters. Wheatley died on December 5, 1784, at age 31. Her infant son died three and a half hours after her death.”

Forgotten by her early supporters, one of whom was on his way to becoming “the father of the country,” the promise of her early poetry remained unfulfilled, and the tragedy is not merely personal. What Wheatley could have contributed to the new country had she been able to continue to write and publish her work remains a tragedy of the utmost magnitude. Yet her heroic struggle from the chains of the slave ship “Phillis” to writing poetry in the most fashionable and sophisticated style (praised by the likes of Voltaire and Thomas Paine amongst others) in her short life stand as a testimony to the human spirit, but also, alas, of the legacy of slavery, institutional Racism, and the limits of Christian “mercy.”

[1] Shields, John C. "Phillis Wheatley's Use of Classicism", American Literature 52.1 (1980): 97-111. Web. 2 Nov 2009., p. 102.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project: Number One (The Rutles), with KRAMER

How Covering Neil Innes Made Me Think About The Isley Brothers' Role In The Black Art Aesthetic (The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project: "Number One" [The Rutles], with Kramer

Number One” by Neil Innes, recorded and performed by his legendary band The Rutles in 1978 (pretending to be 1963), is different than most Rutles songs, in that it is not simply a parody, or even tribute, of The Beatles. A dance song in its own right (still played in clubs on “mod night” and not just for joke value), it’s debatably the most rocking song on the All You Need Is Cash soundtrack (especially since they didn’t include “Get Up And Go” after John Lennon warned Innes that McCartney would sue him for plagiarism).

Unlike “Twist And Shout,” the lyrics are not about dancing, but based on pun on how your “significant other” is like a chart-topping hit (“Toppermost to the poppermost” was an early Beatles mantra, and this is played up in the documentary, for which the song was a soundtrack). It also manages to use the “love/shove” rhyme in a way that doesn’t make me cringe!

Though performed in that style the Beatles perfected in the early 60s, it uses the “La Bamba” chords and recognizable call-and-response vocals, but also adds a weird guitar riff with cowbell and a bridge with handclaps and minor chords entirely lacking in The Beatles version of “Twist In Shout.” Because of this, some claim it’s even better. Since it’s based primarily on a song that The Beatles themselves didn’t write, the song calls attention, and pays tribute, to the original hit by The Isley Brothers—who were themselves multi-platinum mega-stars by 1978 when The Rutles recorded “Number One.”

“Twist And Shout” is a fun dance song that endures over 50 years beyond its original composition and recording. It has basically become a “standard” in the “great American song book”—even if the most famous version these days is by a British band. Written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, it was originally recorded by the Top Notes, but for practical purposes the definitive, sanctioned and sanctified, original version is by The Isley Brothers.

The Top Notes version was actually produced by Phil Spector in 1961—but before he had developed his signature recording style. Songwriter Berns, who later wrote other 60s classics as “Here Comes The Night,” “Piece Of My Heart,” and “Hang On Sloopy,” before dying at that age of 38 in 1967, felt Spector had ruined the song, which lacked energy, soul, and rawness, and did not catch on. So he decided to go back in the studio with The Isley Brothers in 1962 to show Spector how he intended the record to sound.

The choice of the high-energy gospel-influenced Isleys, who had already hit with their classic “frat-party” song “Shout” a few years earlier, proved to be fortuitous, as the song reached #2 on the US R&B charts, and #17 on the crossover US Pop hits, serving as a perfect follow-up to early signature song, “Shout” and capitalizing on the Twist dance craze. Within a year, the Beatles covered it on their first album Please Please Me.

In England, The Isleys version hadn’t been a hit, yet The Beatles were avid listeners of American R&B and turned the song on to a wider audience, as it became the showcase to the album and their live shows (which often opened or closed with this high-energy number). When Beatlemania hit in America in 1964, they brought “Twist And Shout” back to the states---and the song may have even played a bigger part in establishing them as a high-energy rock and roll band—who could shout-- here than their originals like “I Wanna Hold Your Hold,” which seem tame by comparison.

In fact, the song, which was not intended as a single (during an era when singles were more the industry standard than the album), became so popular that Vee-Jay records, who still owned the American rights, released it as a single to cannibalize on Beatlemania, and it reached #2 on the charts in 1964, only prevented from reaching #1 (Number One) by the fact that Capitol Record’s official Beatles single, the long-awaited for, and much hyped, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” was occupying the #1 position. [1]

In England the song, like many of the Beatles other covers, had the effect of popularizing the original American R&B hit by The Isley Brothers, but in America it had a different effect. One can understand why many R&B acts felt the “British Invasion” was being used by the major labels to cannibalize, and even erase, the crossover popularity that many black acts were beginning to have. While the Isley Brothers version wasn’t exactly forgotten (as say Irma Thomas’s original version of “Time Is On My Side” was), its popularity was certainly eclipsed by the Beatles version in “white America” at least. The Isleys themselves, who were going through a chart dry-spell in 1964, (even though they were writing and recording such songs that later became classics, including “Who’s That Lady?” and “Nobody But Me”---later a hit for The Human Beinz) had some very interesting things to say, and to testify about this song.

II. The Isley's "Testify"

In 1964, The Isleys wrote and recorded a song called “Testify,” featuring Ronald Isley’s amazing lead vocals, and Rudolph Isley’s spoken, shouted vocals, alongside the amazing guitarwork of their new, young, guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. It’s a fun, funny, complex, but also incredibly raw (even sloppy?) and even strangely defiant song. It doesn’t seem they cared about having a big hit at this point—but were relishing their role as a soulful, albeit comic, dance-band beloved on the “chitlin circuit,” which this song celebrates, and it’s amazing that it was even released on vinyl. At over 6 minutes, it occupied two sides of a single, which was released on their own T-Neck records to be sold at shows, and for posterity.

In “Testify,” Rudolph Isley adopts the role of the sanctified preacher even more exuberantly and loosely than on “Twist And Shout.” It makes much more room for improvisation, while keeping the beat.  After a brief organ and guitar trade off, here’s how Rudolph verbally introduces the song on the record:

(talks/shouts) Brothers and sisters, and to ALLL this song may concern,
If you wanna have some soul, if you wanna be a witness,
I want you to listen while I testify. Maybe I can help you get some soul to be a witness baby,
You wanna be a witness?
ALLL it takes it the rhythm (yeah, yeah)
In your feet (yeah, yeah)
Don’t worry bout the music, baby (yeah, yeah)
You gotta have the beat (yeah, yeah)
Now you got soul (horns) You got soul (horns) You got SOUL (horns)

At this point, it goes into a fairly conventional James Brown-esque song with horns,
but then a great early Hendrix solo, as they prepare for the next movement, which takes the song to a whole new level. As they introduce the choral theme:
I’m so glad, I’m so glad, I’m so glad That I got some soul….

Once this chorus is established, they impersonate Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Stevie Wonder, and Jackie Wilson-- all whom testify how they “got some soul.” The line between talking and singing beautifully blurs in the testifyin’. After about 5 minutes of this comic, theatrical, musical tribute in which various Isley brothers take turns imitating these classic, and notably all more popular, crossover acts, they take a detour:

Rudolph Isley:
Thank you very much, thank you very much Jackie, you truly burnt this morning,
Yes, You truly testified this morning, son. Yes, you testified this morning.
If you don’t testify no more, you testified this morning. But right about now,
We goin way ‘cross the water (“Jackie” does one more scream)—
Testify, I heard you baby—But we goin’ way ‘cross the water, Jackie.
Waaay over there,  (and some cats with?) long hair—
By now they got some soul. I said BY NOW they got some soul.
I don’t know about yesterday, but by now
(Isleys break into silly Beatles impersonation:
“I’m so bad, I’m so bad, I’m so bad, I’m so bad.”
And then switch into the “I’m so glad that I got some soul” chorus)
As the song fades to its ending….

The pun on bad is hilarious! While the Isleys do give the Beatles some credit for bringing some “soul” into popular consciousness during this time, for obvious reasons (with a knowing wink), they have to remind their audience (the live audience who needs no reminder, but also people like us who only get to hear the song on record, in retrospect, and were drawn to it, in part because of the presence of Hendrix, or our interest in the Isleys because of their bigger later hits) where the Beatles got it from. And, yes, “Twist And Shout,” may have written by a white guy, but the Isleys “own” it, at least as much as The Beatles do.

In a way, “Testify” (not to be confused with the George Clinton song of the same name) fits in very much with the separatism of Malcolm X, during this time, playing to, and celebrating the entirely black crowd and encouraging self-determination in contrast to Malcolm’s criticism’s of Martin Luther King as an assimilationalist. If we can build economically self-sustaining communities, we don’t need the approval of “white America” unless it’s under our own terms (and when will be paid those reparations you promised).

In a musical context, it’s a far cry from Berry Gordy’s Motown’s vision at the time. Yet, this somewhat autonomous chitlin circuit was under siege,[2] and the Isleys themselves realized they could create beautiful music and have a crossover hit on Motown (The Holland-Dozier-Holland penned “This Old Heart Of Mine”), but it would be a mistake to reduce Motown to a mere assimilationalist organization. At its peak, when it was still based in Detroit during most of the 1960s, this organization presented a paradigm for black capitalism (small c capitalism) that, in retrospect, comes closer to Malcolm’s vision for self-determination than has been achieved in the music business since that time. As entertainers, the Isleys could have it both ways, soon breaking away from Motown to create amazing funk grooves and soul ballads (and even covers of 70s white “soft rock”) to showcase Ronald’s voice in their biggest hits during the late 60s and mid-70s (including “Fight The Power,” which later influenced Public Enemy).

“Testify” itself has become something of a lost-classic, and gained a life of its own, largely because of the presence of Jimi Hendrix, for both black and white fans who are fascinated by his “early work” as he developed his chops, even more showcased in his other single with the Isleys, the self-referential “Move Over And Let Me Dance” (move over rover, and let Jimi take over). Most myths of Hendrix’s brief stint with the Isleys propounded by the largely white rock critical establishment emphasize how Hendrix was hemmed in by this relatively conventional soul band at that time—yet one listen to “Testify,” should show how this song is anything but conventional! In fact, as Hendrix himself came back from “way across the water,” and began to work with more black musicians (from Buddy Miles to Arthur Lee), Hendrix’s own career was on the verge of taking another turn, which could be its own essay (see David Henderson’s epic biography).

But to get back to the Isleys’ point in parodying the Beatles in “Testify”—it’s true;  the Beatles did learn the art of soul from performing their own covers of R&B songs, specifically when Lennon sang lead. You can hear how their cover of Berry Gordy’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” became a huge influence on songs like “You Can’t Do That” while an original like “All I’ve Gotta Do” came out of Arthur Alexander’s “Anna” for instance. There is no song in the Beatles songbook, however, based on “Twist And Shout” in similar ways—they left that for The Rutles to do with “Number One”—which may be a parody, but it has just a little too much soul to be a mere joke.

As far as I know, The Isley Brothers felt no particular solidarity, or even interest, in The Rutles, and Neil Innes, “way cross the water,” may not have been thinking about The Isleys much for that matter. Certainly, I wouldn’t even try to cover The Isley Brothers “Testify” in a “piano van” even with a musician as a great as Mark Kramer joining in. It was hard enough to rock, and have some soul, in this band-less, dancefloor-less context, to pull off “Number One,” or “Twist And Shout” which I often collage with “Number One” when I’m playing for audiences in supermarket parking lots, who know “Twist And Shout” more than “Number One.” But, man, I would love to be even a teeny-weeny part of a band that can create such a raucous, sanctified,----and thought-provoking- piece as “Testify.” And if that remains impossible, at least play the three, or is it 4 songs, alongside of each on a “mod night” radio show, or if it that’s impossible, at least write this essay, for inclusion in the “Piano van” art installation piece in a gallery.

Here’s the Isley’s 6 minute single version of “Testify”

I also include this alternate version---from a live performance, which unfortunately was not filmed (as far as I know), but you can see The Isleys with Jimi rocking an all black crowd at a small venue. This version doesn’t have as many verbal comic theatrics, but gives Jimi more room to let loose.

Here’s the version of Kramer & I performing The Rutles “Number One” in 2013:

Here’s the Isley’s Recorded version of “Twist And Shout” that was a hit:
Here’s the Top Notes “original” version.
And here’s the Rutles performing “Number One” on NBC TV’s “All You Need Is Cash.”

[1] I will avoid an aesthetic contrast between the two-records. Both have their advantages, and I ultimately see it as a draw (and both The Bealtes and The Isleys did it better live, especially when they were still able to play in small clubs where people could dance!)

[2] (see my chapter on the murder of Charles Sullivan in 1966),

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

John Donne: Song (“Goe And Catche A Falling Starre”): A Reading

I may be offered a paying-gig working on a text to introduce high-school students to some canonical (public domain) poems in the "Common Core Curriculum." Since I hated poetry in high-school (largely because of the way it's taught), I find writing a "sample essay" to be a daunting task--especially as I try to simplify my grad-school theory-speak, but I need a it's worth a shot. Here's one of my first attempts to speak to high school students in writing.

John Donne: Song (“Goe And Catche A Falling Starre”): A Reading

I. Starting From The Ending

When I first read “Goe And Catche A Falling Starre,” the lines that jumped out for me were the simplest, seemingly most direct lines in the poem: “No where/Lives a woman true, and fair.” If that wasn’t enough, Donne concludes: “Yet she/ Will be/ false, ere I come, to two or three.” The message seems clear, and, indeed, many others read this early poem of John Donne’s in a similar way. As one critical analysis puts it, Donne “argues that is impossible to find a woman who is both attractive and faithful to one man.”[1] Another writer even goes so far as to say “he blames the evilness of woman for his pain and heartbreak.”[2]

Since most other people take this as the point of the poem, it got me thinking of John Donne’ character. Is he just heartbroken or is this a cynical, misogynistic, stance? Is John Donne a bragging rakish swashbuckler, a “scorner of love,” like the character Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing?  Is he a young, bratty, punk like the young Mick Jagger or the young rappers who sing about ‘bitches and hos”? Does he even believe what he’s saying? And, if he believes what he’s saying, what does he propose to do about it? Is he going to simply ignore women for the rest of his life? Or has he just given up looking for a woman who is both attractive and faithful, and will choose one or the other?

There’s two ways to do that, of course: there’s a much more recent song (though it’s an oldie from the early 1960s) that sings: “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life/never make a pretty woman your wife/so from my personal point of view/ get an ugly girl to marry you.” Is John Donne’s “Song” saying that? Or is he choosing the “fair” woman over the “true” woman, and saying since she’s going to play the field, I might as well play the field too! Is the poem, then, simply a defense of his inconstancy?

Even that simple statement in the last line suggests a double meaning with its strained syntax: “Yet she/will be/ False, ere I come, to two, or three.” While the commas make it clear that he means, “she will be false to two or three,” when you hear the poem, it sounds like he’s saying “she will be false ere I come to two or three.” When I heard this, I knew I had to go deeper into the poem. I wondered, are we all, in fact, asking the wrong questions, and taking the lines out of context?

II. Looking At Those Lines In Context Of The Poem

There’s a lot of other information in the poem than these lines, which are the hook that gets most of the attention, there’s no need to read a biography of John Donne in hope it will tell us the author’s real intention (poets usually don’t tell you their intention, and even when they do, they may not even entirely know themselves).

III. The First Stanza

The more one looks at “Song (Go And Catch A Falling Star),” the more complex the seemingly simply moral (or immoral, amoral, moral) becomes, and each stanza becomes more dramatically complex than the previous one. The poem actually has three characters: I (the writer); “thou”(the male it is addressed to); and “she” (the hypothetical woman in the third stanza)—though they aren’t really put into relationship with each other until this last stanza.

In the first stanza, there is no mention of this woman, or of women in general, but we do see the writer talking to this male reader (though we don’t know he’s a male yet).[3] He’s either commanding or asking the reader to do a series of tasks. Some of them are clearly impossible—and the stuff fantasy is made of. But many people still turn to writing, or movies, for fantasies such as these (from The X-Men to The Littlest Mermaid). Is it really impossible to “find/what wind/ Serves to advance an honest mind?” That question may be at least as important as any statement Donne makes about women at the end of the poem.[4] Donne himself can’t answer that question, but the second stanza tells us more about who Donne it talking to, and satirizing.

IV. Second Stanza

 “If thou be’est born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights…”

He’s clearly talking to a young man, who fancies himself an epic-poet, or fantasy story-teller, just like the most poetry that was more fashionable, and famous in the Elizabethan Era (Spenser’s Epic The Fairy Queen and Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophil And Stella) of the 1590s when Donne wrote this poem. Like Shakespeare’s Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), he doesn’t believe these “fairy tales,” but tries to look at them with the eyes of cool reason.[5] And here’s where the deeper point of the poem becomes evident:
“Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All the strange wonders that before me,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true, and fair”

In context, Donne is not saying that he believes this is the case, he’s saying that “thou wilt tell me” that. The man has now spent 10, 000 days, and he’s 27 years older, with “snow-white” hairs, and has wasted his whole life on “living the dream” and still is wondering why he can find a singing mermaid, etc.! Why? Is it possible the reason that “thou” wilt tell him that is because he’s what we would call “a hopeless romantic” or a restless “desperado” who is so busy travelling, wandering the earth in his magical, heroic, quest, like Don Quixote dreaming the impossible dream, that his character cannot settle down enough to let this woman love him, even if she were staring him in the face? Certainly he’s less “fair” than he was 27 years earlier. The passage of Time becomes an issue: a young man and woman may be fair, but as we get older we’re supposed to lose that “fairness.” It becomes a ridiculous ideal to hold onto.
V. The Third Stanza
The third stanza makes it even clearer that Donne’s main focus is to satirize this particular type of male attitude toward life, as well as to love (and women). And here’s where the poem get most interesting and dramatic, and the three characters  are put into an imagined relationship with each other:

“If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Looking at the whole stanza, the emphasis of Donne’s primary satire remains on this self-proclaimed “pilgrim of love.” The confidence with which Donne writes: “Yet do not, I would not go” needs to be emphasized, because it reveals, beyond a doubt, that all the “commands” he was giving earlier in the poem were put-ons, mocking those who already think and write that way. Because “I” now enters so boldly, the sharp contrast between him and “you” becomes clearer than it had been before:

Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter”

He purposely doesn’t say whom the letter is written to. Some readers assume that the letter is written to the “speaker”—to Donne himself, [6] but there’s nothing in the poem to confirm that. He writes “let me know;” that could be a letter, but it could also be verbal (they didn’t have phones back then). Yet poets do write love-letters to women—and sometimes the letter may change the way the woman feels about the man, for the worse (in fact, many of Shakespeare’s plays are based on women mocking a letter written by a man protesting his love, and calling her “fair and true.”). Even if he can’t prove that this letter was written to the woman, it’s at least as plausible as the reading that the letter is to Donne. The woman remains silent in Donne’s “Song,” but Donne is well versed in the art of love to know that women often respond this way to such men.

This is the subject of the real satire. Donne’s telling this fanciful “pilgrim” that your letter can make this woman false; if your unrealistic attitudes toward life and love are any indication, your letter will certainly fail to convince her of your truth just as your poetry does!  As a writer, he gives a lot of importance to this letter, and boldly announces he’s a different kind of writer and person: a thinker. In fact, she may even be false to you (ere I come) because she’s with Donne! She might even end true to Donne. He’s not denying that women can be “false” to “two, or three,” but that could be just a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, once they learn more about this travelling man who has been chasing after “her.”

“Song” is indeed a poem about misogyny, but it’s primarily about the seemingly hidden kind of misogyny that happens when a writer over-idealizes a woman. This over-idealization had become a convention and even a cliché in 16th Century European poetry, and Shakespeare also satirized this in his later dark lady sonnets. Today, you find a similar attitude of over-idealization of the woman in many popular songs. As one woman put it, “you just put women on a pedestal so you can look up our dresses.”

VI. Meter And Rhyme Scheme: Suggestion For Further Reading

[3] as the gradesaver puts it, “an unseen actor (who can be interpreted as another young man, or perhaps the poet himself),
[4] In this line Donne makes it clear that he’s genuinely looking to learn something; he doesn’t just want a sweet, pretty poem or song; he wants what the 20th century literary critic Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living.”
[5] (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1, 1-18)

[6] For instance—“ by the time the traveler’s letter was written to Donne telling him of her beauty and loyalty, she would have become unfaithful to two or even three men.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Feuerzeig Covers Project #15: "I Wanna Be With You" (The Raspberries)

The Feuerzeig Covers Project #15: "I Wanna Be With You" (The Raspberries)
Chris Stroffolino, vocals & piano Barrett Avner, Electric Guitar

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project #15: "I Wanna Be With You" (The Raspberries)

Lyrically, “I Wanna Be With You,” may have few words and lack the ambiguity of more ‘sophisticated,’ but darker, songs I’ve written about---but the words are the perfect complement to its complex musical arrangement.[1] Their power is precisely in getting to the point quick, and letting the music do the talking-- a lesson probably learned from the woman in the Raspberries first hit, “Go All The Way.” It’s one of the most convincing romantic rock songs in a “teen-love” setting (and can even convince those of us who also can groove on the cynicism of songs like No Trend’s “Teen Love”).

The singer’s persona, and his lover are presumably both under 18, living with their parents (“if we were older, we wouldn’t have to be worried tonight”)[2] Such themes were more common in 50s and early 60s rock and roll (when that was the majority demographic), but it’s the bridge that make it more convincing as Carmen’s voice reassures the woman that he will indeed still love her tomorrow, and doesn’t just want sex or even a kiss. He wants to soothe, to ease, and please her, as he asks her permission (“if you believe”) before telling her to close her eyes. Lyrically, it’s the perfect complement to “Go All The Way,” in which the woman taught the man what the man is teaching the woman here. The earlier song was in the present (and immediate future); this follow up emphasizes the future: “be with you” means “stay with you,” “live with you.”

In the Shadow of “Go All The Way”

In order to write about the music of “I Wanna Be With You,” I have to take a closer look at what its prequel does. By 1972, was difficult not to take sides between “heavy rock” and “light rock”—as the radio playlists, and the culture in general, was fragmenting into more specialized, segregated, niches. But if you were a band who loved to rock, but also loved the glories of a mid-tempo melodic romantic ballad, what do you do if you want a “hit record, one they play on the radio?” You write and record a song that does both, as they’ve never been done before!

“Go All The Way” burst on the scene with the sound that sufficiently establishes a heavy cred for many—but it amazingly and seamlessly slows down, quiets down, and opens the curtains of the heart, to a beautifully melody, and a short, but intimate testimony in the verse: “I didn’t know what I wanted to say/ till she kissed me and said baby, please Go All The Way.” On the chorus, the choral harmonies and countermelodies enter, obviously influenced by the Beach Boys & Beatles (but in my opinion even more glorious in the context of this song), to soothe with their power.

But the song can work on the dance floor too--the heavy rock returns on the bridge, when lead singer Eric Carmon exhibits a Small-Faces-era Steve Marriot vocal range (“before her love I was cruel and mean”) and Wally Bryson rips some the most tasty guitar leads ever in pop & rock music. After this pay-off, it quiets down into rhythmic build up with call & response vocals, which makes me want to clap your hands as they build back up the pretty chorus. The “come ons” here are as close to the musical equivalent of sexual foreplay as you can achieve in a romantic pop song. The words say what the music does; or is it the other way around?

The woman in this song makes the first move. We don’t even know if she wants to stay with him forever—but in this song, the singer doesn’t mind or need that. He’s happy she took the lead, and it has unlocked him. In the process, “Go All The Way” fulfills a male fantasy and lives up to its name as it pulls out almost every hook in the book to balance melody and rock, harmonizes the yin in this all-made band with the yang, at least as much as Chicago’s “Make Me Smile,” but lyrically it’s especially refreshing, as it balances a rock and roll swagger (that could be ‘cruel and mean’ by itself) with a vulnerability and shyness on both a musical and lyrical level.[3] They may have looked to “femme” for some men, or some women for that matter, but by the end of the song, the male singer is transformed, as if he’s the one saying “Go All The Way” as much as woman who unlocked him.

When a rock/pop band comes out of the gates this strong, on the strength of one song, the challenge of the follow-up inevitably arises. How do you top it? Or even repeat it? One answer is, you don’t try. You can fill it in. The range of this song left enough wiggle room so you wouldn’t have to worry about getting pinned in, as if the song is like a woman you can go back to for inspiration and mystery so much, you gotta be with her, even if we have to pretend this night could last forever and dream it might come true.

“I Wanna Be With You,” certainly borrows from the “Go All The Way” formula musically as well. It’s much shorter, and doesn’t include as many various elements as that earlier gate-smashing song, but the chords are surprisingly complex---as Barrett Avner and I discovered while rehearsing it for the video. It’s an education to experience the song from within its structure, and learn from Carmen how to include chords that deviate from the standard I-iv-IV-V chord progression it’s based on. These chords may not necessarily be crucial for the melody to be carried, but give the overall arrangement a magic, and help underscore the maturity that probably wouldn’t come off in a ‘rock lyrics as poetry as class.’ But the song—taken a whole—does something the post-“Wasteland” modernist poetry of complexity often fails to achieve. It makes much of the ‘poetic rock’ seem more ‘cruel and mean’ by comparison. It speaks in vocal harmonies and ‘beat group’ instrumentation, without mincing words. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings....

Here's the video:

[1] just as the complex lyrics of Leonard Cohen work best when complemented by simpler melodies, chord structures and arrangements.
[3] 1972 was also the height of “feminism” (in pop-culture at least); which may or may not play a part in this song’s popularity. Would love to hear your thoughts or feelings!!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project: Luna (Lost in Space), with Dean & Britta

Luna’s “Lost In Space” is a classic happy-sad song, both musically and lyrically: it cannot be reduced to either of these names for moods. Rather, it explores a primal ineffable feeling prior to being divvied up by language into discrete names for moods (or diagnoses of a blessing or affliction). Structurally, it’s a very simple, even sparse song: verse chorus, verse chorus, instrumental interlude and chorus; 3 simple Lou-Reed-esque chords throughout—with no chordal variation between verse and chorus. Yet it shows how a lot can be done with very simple elements; even though the song doesn’t officially begin with the chorus, that’s what many listeners hear first.

The Chorus

Its musical and lyrical hook is the catchy sing along chorus, which you have to hear in time, with the music, to grasp the meaning, and the feeling, of.

You heard it all before, they said your case was tragic
You heard it all before, now they say it’s magic

The lyrics seem simple enough, and may even remind one of the fairy-tale of the Ugly Duckling who becomes the Swan, but “Lost In Space” goes beyond such a fairy tale “Happy Ending” to suggest the swan song, the final cry of the dying swan. While this simple “tragic/magic” end rhyme certainly seems more uplifting than were it the other way around—a feeling which is heightened by the musical arrangement’s brightening as is moves from the sadder, introspective, feel of the verses into this anthemic chorus (which Luna often played faster, and more rocking, live than it was on the recorded version).

Indeed, this end rhyme has been used so many times it has almost become meaningless (and certainly there are countless songs that render this rhyme ridiculous), and Dean even sings them in such a way. Part of Dean Wareham’s brilliance with these simple, understated, lyrics and vocal delivery, is to also point out the ridiculousness of such simple binary thinking/talking. It may take a few listens, but once hooked, the words “they said” and “they say” take on the primary emphasis.

They have changed, but your life may stay the same. As they change what they call you from tragic (the isolated hero who dies alone) to this magical, generative being, there’s always the possibility that this naming, this assessment or diagnosis, can, in fact, change your case, and maybe even your essence (if you believe you have one—which you may not, if you’re “lost in space.”)

But because “you’ve heard it all before,” it’s hard to believe what they said before (your case was tragic) or what they say now. The lyrics don’t exactly spell out why they changed what they say (or think): was it something you did or said? Or was it something they finally perceived (whether truer, or more illusory than their previous perceptions)? But does this change in their perception and/or conception of your case really suggest comfort (or even ‘hope’) for the “you” of the song?

The Verses

As with many songs with catchy, sing along choruses, these lines are often the only lines of the song many casual listeners know, or have made it into long-term memory. They sink in, but on repeated listens, they call attention to the verses, especially if you’re looking for insights into unanswered questions about the significance of the chorus’s words.

The verses are certainly sad; perhaps tragic, but definitely ridden with pathos. The singer is non-judgmental and sympathetic with the struggle the “you” is going through, as if he’s also talking to himself. Since the sadness is at least as present in the second verse (after the chorus) as in the first, it shows how the chorus (despite their now calling you magic) didn’t really change much.

There is little lyrical variation between the two verses, but while the first verse is more like an impressionistic puzzle, the second verse hints at a story, or at least a situation that “you” are going through. It only takes one line to create the keystone that holds the lyrics together. As Dean slowly stretches the simple sentence “You need/ time off/ for good/ behavior” over four distinct musical phrases (with pauses between each phrase for the riff), the weight of this sentence is emphasized more than the other lines.

This forces me to hear this “everyday” phrase as I’ve never heard it before, with a suggestive richness and poetic ambiguity it conventionally lacks. It’s the only line in the song that expresses what “you” need, and lack. But these needs can be taken two different ways: “you need/time off” first suggests you need a vacation. But “you need time off for good behavior” comes from prison, in which “good behavior” can knock months, or even years, off your sentence. In the song, the sentence itself is excrutiatingly long, as the singer purposefully stretches the word “be-hav-ior” out, so it takes awhile for its mystery to sink in. But once I realize it comes from prison, the entire song—including the chorus—takes on a darker significance, in words at least.

If you’re a model prisoner (like, say, James Brown was, when he formed a gospel band in prison to “sing songs for the Lord!”), you can get such time off, but you need an authority figure to testify on your behalf that your actions (or even inactions) can be deemed worthy of “good behavior.” You need to show signs that you have “reformed” in ways that he, she, or they, take as evidence for your fitness to return to the “real world” while you’re waiting for your case to come up. How you ended up in prison doesn’t matter (were you falsely accused? Or caught red-handed?), but now that you’re here, can your actions be called “good behavior?”
That’s the question!

Let The Hearing Begin
Judge: In considering the case of this subject, is there any evidence to suggest that this case is fit for being a productive member of society, of making an honest buck? We will hear initial arguments from the state and from the prisoner’s advocate:

Prosecutor: By his own admission, this case is lazy, and even crazy…

Advocate: Objection!

Judge: On what grounds?

Advocate: Those lines were never uttered in the first person…they were uttered in the second person

Judge: Objection over-ruled. The appellant clearly speaks of himself in the second person. (to Prosecutor) Proceed.

Prosecutor: He laziness is evident in his perpetual yearning for “something else”
he can’t even name. Even his fantasy heroes who he once looked to as exemplary role models seem tame to him. He would rather be “crazy” than “tame” and thus cannot contribute to society in a functioning, or even productive, way. This case is “lost in space,” and will not listen to the advice of those who are trying to help him. His actions present no evidence of any rehabilitation, and clearly his sentence should not be shortened.

Judge: We will now hear from the advocate:

Advocate: The Prosecutor neglects to take into account all the evidence. The defendant is clearly overworked. He certainly acts tame: he’s tired, and needs time off, in order to continue to perform his exceptional, and exemplary—and even magical—duties that he has performed in the penitentiary.

Prosecutor: Objection!

Judge (wearily): On what grounds?

Prosecutor: The appellant is “tired” because he doesn’t work enough. He tires himself on dreaming of “something else”….

Judge: Objection Over-ruled. Immaterial. Delete that from the transcript (to advocate): Proceed:

Advocate: Let me address that. It’s true the appellant has admitted under duress he’s both tired and lazy, but only because others have called him lazy. He was bearing false witness against himself. We need to take the environmental factors into account. No matter how hard he tries, and works, it’s still not good enough for some (glowers at the prosecutor). After all, the term “lazy n-word,” (which is still used today, even in this penitentiary) was first used to describe people who worked 60 plus hours a week in contrast to compulsory 24/7 slave-labor! If this prison claims to be truly a facility of rehabilitation, rather than simply of punishment and confinement, we need to consider the appellant’s justifiable tiredness in the light of his good behavior. The defendant’s actions have clearly been harmless and his work ethic has been exemplary!

Prosecutor: While my esteemed colleague certainly argues eloquently and passionately on behalf of the appellant, he weighs the appellant’s needs much more heavily than his actions and achievements. If we set this legal precedent, we’d consider the needs of much more disruptive prisoners to be greater than their actions, and open up the streets to clearly unreformed mass-murderers and rapists.

Advocate: The appellant, as the prosecutor himself is well aware, is not a mass murderer or a rapist. That’s a slippery slope argument. When he’s finished all his required duties, he keeps to himself, writing and reading, and, when allowed, plays his guitar. The prisoners and guards have been amazed by his brilliance.

Prosecutor: But he exhibits a failure to commit to any specific role in society, and lacks a sense of personal grounding that makes him unable to function in social settings!

Advocate: Not if his needs are considered as well as his abilities. Have you read his manuscripts? Have you heard his music? Record labels and publishers are interested. They say it’s magic!

Prosecutor: There’s a thin-line between magic and madness. Even if we grant that he’s magic, that doesn’t mean he’s employable or could even function as a freeman in society. I will conclude with a quote from no less of an authority figure on civic society and poetry than Shakespeare:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1, 12-18)

The appellant, however, is not even able to do this. He may know there’s something more, but he can’t even give it a name, much less a “local habitation.” Sure, publishers and record labels are interested, but he doesn’t even like that his heroes are being sold. I rest my case!

Advocate: He doesn’t have to give it a “name” if he can give it a song! Furthermore, he doesn’t like the way they’re being sold; there’s a crucial difference. He’s passive; he understands he needs someone to sell him. He’s letting me sell him.

Prosecutor: He’s projecting his own depression and passivity onto his heroes. This also reveals his delusions (and choice of heroes who died young or tragically). Survival demands being tamed, whether someone else sells you or you’re able to sell yourself!

Defendant: He’ll get over it, once he’s out of this prison. I, too, rest my case.

Judge: Court adjourned. A decision will be made on whether the appellant is granted his shortening of sentence “with all deliberate speed” (

A Work Song or An Introvert Anthem?

Of course, we don’t have to see the “you” as being in an actual prison (just as we don’t have to see “Unchained Melody” or “I Shall Be Released” as about an actual prison). Placing it in the context of any work in the so-called “free world” could also give it a local habitation and a name. In such an interpretation, the need for time off is simply the need for a vacation, or what I like to call “homework.” The “time off” becomes part of the job--especially if it’s your job to create magic (a “crazy” job, but apparently the only one some of us can get).

As one who has spent my entire adult life laboring in the culture industry, rather than in prison, I personally hear “you need/ time off/for good/ be-hav-ior” as a defense of the dual-activities that both the teaching and music businesses demand. For instance, as a musician, you have to both perform and compose. As many musicians will attest, relentless touring can get in the way of actually writing and recording the music, but at the same time recording and writing the music can get in the way of performing. You’re working all the time, but these two roles are very different. Ideally, they can feed each other symbiotically, as many create their best records­ while taking a brief break from a lengthy tour (i.e. Revolver and Rubber Soul, as but two examples), but “time off” from a tour booker is often “time on” for a music publisher or label who wants a new magical song. Without a balance between the two, it’s easy to feel “lost in space.”

Likewise, in the college teaching industry, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the activities you perform in the classroom itself, and the homework (so-called “prep” of syllabi, or reading lists, and grading papers and emailing students).  Most of us never would’ve been employed as college professors had we not written books, and in order to write books, we need “time off” from teaching to exhibit good behavior as an effective mediator of classroom discussions. And, ideally, the kind of discussions one can facilitate as a teacher feed back into the writing one creates. Without a balance between the two, it’s easy to feel lost in space (which is why some of us can teach college exceptionally well, but cannot teach high-school with its long hours, and little room for the kind of intellectual and creative homework that allows us to be “magical” in the classroom to people who appreciate it!).

In this sense, the song takes on a very personal significance for me, as a plea for understanding---whether or not that was Dean Wareham’s attention—but I know others who have highly personal, and very different interpretations of the song.

I can understand why some see this as an anthem of early 1990s “slacker culture,” the archetype of the lost-in-space 20-something sitting in a coffee shop with a huge unpaid college debt trying to figure out what the hell to do with their life—but it can be so much more. For me, much of what I say about “prison” becomes all too true of the “lost in space” reality I’ve been living as a context-less homelessman over the past year, but the song is not simply a complaint (and certainly having the privilege of covering the song with Dean & Britta themselves brought some “magic” into the potential tragedy of my life).

Conclusion: “It Must Appear In Other Ways Than Words”

Though much of my interpretation emphasizes the sadness and pathos in the lyrics, I still conclude it is a “happy-sad,” or even “sad-happy" song. If the “tragic/magic” rhyme is ridiculous, Dean’s rendering of it reveals the necessary ridiculousness of such binary thinking that may be the only thing that can save one from being lost-in-space.

Aside from the word “magic” in the chorus, there may not be many words to suggest the magic, but after the two verses are finished, and the second chorus ends with the word “magic,” the final 33% of the song is devoted to a beautiful instrumental (that is itself both happy and sad), before returning to the final chorus. This chorus, perhaps more than any of the words in the song, is evidence of the “magic” that can (perhaps) transcend the potential tragedy in the lyrics—so when the chorus returns after the solo, there is a sense of transformation there hadn’t been earlier. I wouldn’t call it a classic “happy ending,” like conventional romantic comedies, but at the very least it’s a “problem comedy” which “must appear in other ways than words” as Shakespeare’s Portia puts it (MV, Act 5, Scene I, Line 139).