Monday, October 29, 2012

Disasters: It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Link removed at the request of the copyright owner.

I’m sitting here in my house in suburban New York, unable to get to work because the trains aren’t running. It’s raining and windy and I’m watching the President of the United States addressing emergency issues sharing a split screen with a video of churning waves. So far, things are OK here, but it is early in what is supposed to be a massive, long lasting and dangerous storm. I’m working remotely today, but am taking a break to post.

“Disasters” is a good theme for this week. The media and government officials have been talking about the potential dire effects of this storm for days, and in our current environment, if they are right, no one will give anyone credit, and if they overstated the risk, they will be mocked, and the next time, more people will ignore the warnings and put themselves in danger. This morning, I saw a report on the news about people who have ignored “mandatory evacuation orders.” Then, I guess, it really wasn’t mandatory, was it?

I had a bunch of different ideas for this week, from natural disasters—floods, hurricanes, cyclones, to man-made disasters—wars, famine, genocide, to alien and zombie attacks. But, when you come down to it, there is no bigger disaster than the end of the world, as we know it. I’ve been posting here for almost a year without repeating artists, and I did post an R.E.M. cover of Leonard Cohen a couple of weeks ago. But I’m going to argue that the Cohen cover was a “bonus” song, and not the focus of the previous post, so this isn’t a repeat. (As Marshall Eriksen, of How I Met Your Mother would say, “Lawyered!!”)

This is a great song, although the lyrics, in typical R.E.M. style, are difficult to make sense of. But the brilliance of R.E.M., especially in their early-middle periods, was that they were able to convey a mood or emotion without lyrics that were easily understood. Even the lyrics sites on the Internet don’t agree on all of them. I have a vague recollection of seeing this performed on TV once, and Michael Stipe needed to have a music stand with the lyrics available to him, presumably because there are just so damn many of them.

In the summer of 1988, my then-fiancée and her cousin Hilary were driving up to Connecticut to prepare for our wedding. The temperatures in the northeast that week approached those on the surface of Venus, and they drove together, listening to music and singing, including “End of the World,” which was still a pretty new song. Hilary, who was the maid of honor, cleverly worked the song into her toast at the wedding. So, despite the dire message, the song has some very happy connotations to me.

The wind is picking up, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I feel fine.

Disasters: Money For Floods

Richard Shindell: Money For Floods


We're About 9: Money For Floods (Richard Shindell cover)


Sandy is barreling down upon us here in the upper East Coast, and our home is quite rural, with a fragile power grid presence; as such, I may not have much time before the lights go out. But after a major post on songs that use the metaphor of the storm over at Cover Lay Down yesterday, I find myself left with a long list of "other" disaster songs just waiting to be shared. And a quick dip into the archives reveals one of my favorites has never been posted here, though its emotional potency easily rivals the more than a dozen songs we've previously shared from its creator.

Richard Shindell's original version of Money For Floods, recorded and released in 1997 on Reunion Hill, may be couched in the floodwaters, but it isn't so much a natural disaster song as it is a rich, layered tale of poverty and underclass desperation, really - a nuanced complaint about how the obvious and media-ready environmental disaster brings a kind of politicized attention to its victims that others desperately need in their daily lives, but never seem to garner. The fluid bass and guitar run through it like the river of its lyrics, smothering the voice of its narrator as she drowns; the combined effect of instrumentation, arrangement, and narrative is powerful, indeed, and it demonstrates aptly just why we post Shindell's work so much here at SMM.

But We're About 9's a capella take is stark and eerie, stripping away that river, and replacing it with the echoing silences of the deserted soul. Its hopelessness and exhaustion may be framed differently, but they are no less real.

And so I pass along Shindell's sentiment in both forms, as a reminder to us all: disaster comes in all types, to all people; those that watch silently when the trucks pass by their houses are no less needy, and no less ours. May those who weather the storm find community and support, in all cases. And may we remember them, when the storm has passed.

Disasters: They Were Not Alone

GuyMon & McCann : They Were Not Alone

On January 2, 2006, an explosion shook the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Thirteen men were trapped. This song is a tribute to the men who perished in that disaster. The credits at the end of the video indicate that the song called “They Were Not Alone” was recorded in Nashville in 2006 by GuyMon & McCann. That song and video were just their own personal way of remembering and honoring everyday guys like those 12 West Virginians: Martin Toler Jr., David Lewis, Marshall Winans, Alva Martin Bennett, Jesse Jones, George 'Junior' Hamner, Tom Anderson, Fred Ware, Terry Helms, Jerry Groves, Jim Bennett, and Jackie Weaver. Randy McCloy was the sole survivor.

I was similarly moved by the tragedy and wrote a song called “Pitch Black by the Ton.” If interested, you can read more about it here. That song tells about the events that unfolded in the miners’ final hours. As the oxygen dwindled, foreman Toler’s last words, scratched on a note, were “Tell all. I see them on the other side. It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you.” Just letting their families know that they didn’t suffer was a blessing.

Songs like these pay homage to these hardworking, proud men. Toler’s wife kindly wrote to thank me for my song and said, “Although days may be lonely, I have the secure knowledge that I will see him again.” With improved safety measures in the mines, let’s hope this kind of tragic event never happens again.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Disasters: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The Band: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (YouTube Video link)
[purchase the '69 album @ Amazon]

How about this saying: One man’s misfortune is another man’s gain. Agree?

I got started on this train of thought (no pun initially intended) on account of my choice for a “Disaster” song. Although my current formal US residence is in the Northwest, I spent a fair amount of time in Greensboro, NC. There, I imbibed a certain amount of Dixie air, where no small number of US citizen fly the Confederate flag to this day. As Robbie Robertson (of The Band) remarked: there is a pain, a sadness there [to this day, about the loss to the North].

Robertson says he had the music in his mind, and from there did extensive research about the events he relates in the song. The South had all but lost the war, and Vergil Caine is telling us about the hardships of re-supplying the Confederate army by train in “the winter of ‘65”. Suffering? Certainly. Disaster? Depends on your point of view. For General Robert E. Lee, despite his defeat, it could have been a lot worse: he is still revered as a great American – curiously, even in the North, despite his “treason”. For countless landholders (and young men) of the South, the war and defeat spelled disaster that has not been forgotten or forgiven to this day.
In this YouTube video, we've got drummer Levon Helm doing the lead vocals. As you ought to know, we lost him to cancer this past spring of 2012. Knowing that he grew up in the South, I can't help but wonder if it didn't play at least some role in the strength and conviction behind his rendition of the song.

Disasters: Trinidad Hurricane

 To kick off a week of disaster songs, may I present Wilmoth Houdini,  the Calyspo King of New York, and his "Trinidad Hurricane". The song seems to be recorded in the days surrounding a  big storm's arrival on the Caribbean Island Nation just as we, in Star Maker Machine land, anticipate the onslaught of the US East Coast Frankenstorm "Sandy". While we all hope for the best, there is a certain charm in a calypso song that almost cheerfully recounts the 1933 storm that destroyed hundreds of houses and killed 13 people:
      My sympathies to those that are going to eternity

"Trinidad Hurricane" can be found on Roosevelt In Trinidad, a collection of reportorial calypso songs from the 1930's  that includes "FDR in Trinidad", a song famously covered by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks.