Monday, March 12, 2018

Women: Woman in Chains

Tears for Fears, featuring Oleta Adams: Woman in Chains


Oleta Adams has a great voice that too few people have heard. In fact, it took a fairly remarkable break for her to finally get her chance at stardom at age 37, and even then, her career never went as far as her talent possibly deserved. Adams learned to sing in church, and added jazz to her repertoire as she went along. In the late 1970s, she recorded a demo that she shopped to major labels, but they wanted disco divas if they signed a black woman at the time, so Adams got no offers. By the early 80s, Adams decided to make a brave move and released two albums on her own label. Remember that there was no internet at the time to allow a self-releasing artist to promote herself. There were independent labels at the time, even small ones, that were having some success with punk, new wave, and early rap, but Adams did not fit any of those categories. By 1985, she had moved to Kansas City, where she was doing a gig at a local hotel. That was where her moment happened. Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, aka Tears for Fears, came through town during their tour for their smash album Songs From the Big Chair, and they happened to stay at her hotel. It took two years for that to turn into an offer to join their band to record and tour for the follow-up album The Seeds of Love, and the album wasn’t released until 1989. But Adams played piano and sang backup on the first single and title track.

The second single was her moment. Woman in Chains is a duet, and the overlapping vocals by Roland Orzabal and Oleta Adams blend magically. Hearing this, it is hard to guess why they didn’t do more work together. In the event, Tears for Fears signed Adams as a solo artist to their vanity label within their major label, and her first two major label releases were hits, especially in the UK. Over the years, Adams has had the occasional chance to record some jazz, including one song with Antonio Carlos Jobim. But her albums, to my ear, have played it safe with smooth R&B. She does it well, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened if she had taken some chances artistically.

Woman in Chains is a long song, but the lyrics fit comfortably on a napkin. They leave a lot of space for the listener to fill in. It is almost as if the song was conceived alongside its video. Together, they paint a picture of an abusive relationship between a pole dancer and a boxer. The version I have chosen is not the album version, and this is not the official video. Instead, I found a live version that has a more muscular arrangement, and shows off Adams’ voice to even better advantage than the original. The video seen here uses enough of the original footage to tell the full story, but the performance portion of the original has been replaced with new concert footage.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Mar*: March of the Pigs

Purchase: March of the Pigs, from Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral

Maybe it's coincidence, maybe it's the magic of serendipity. Life doesn't always imitate art as much as it does take direction from what we see, hear, read and listen to. Or look at. Take for instance this: I'm teaching Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird right now, and focused heavily on one of the novel's most moving scenes, where Scout, through innocent determination unwittingly faces an angry mob back and causes at least a few of them to reflect, then turn back on their own murderous behavior after witnessing and being subject to the non-accusatory innocence of a child who doesn't know much more than right and wrong. One of my students brilliantly pointed out to me that this scene, so famous now, so ingrained in our memories of both the book and the film, was just like what is happening in Parkland, Florida: teenager victims and witnesses of the horrific mass murder at Stoneman High School are refusing to back down to the intimidations and insults NRA and inaction of their own state legislators to affect perhaps the most significant change to gun control policy in our country. Ever.

"Kids can change the world, sir." That is what this student told me, free of self-consciousness or irony. I was amazed, not only for the fact that she was right, but that once again, the art form I've dedicated my life to working with--literature--really and truly is the reflective authority on how to understand the world.

Now, off to less noble analogies: I've been reading the Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 bestseller, Helter Skelter. Helter Skelter is a true crime account of the 1969 Manson Murders, an event ingrained in our American folklore and artistic, sociological and artistic identity for numerous reasons, many I am trying to fathom as I read the book. I have read that the Mason murders marked a true end to the optimism of the 1960's flower power movement and the feel-good vibes of the hippies--the positive spin on the generational gap that blew wide open in the 1960s and the blossoming of the alternative culture and the wider acceptance of freer, less rigid values and a consenting to a wider, more interpretative moral code. Which was the nice part of the 60s, the pretty, techni-color expansiveness. Not the darker, grittier reality of drugs, a war that killed an untold number or people, an ushering in of a mistrust of our government and a righteous anger at the moral spiritual failings of our leaders. While not a new concept in history, it seems at least for America, that finally, the dishonesty, greed, self-preservation, perfidy and self-centered nature of our politicians had been brought into the open and I don't think we've forgiven any of it yet. Why would we? The corruption of the 1960s has given way, in a flood rather than a trickle, to an ever unprincipled, unethical and dishonorable parade of corrupted leaders and the havoc that they, and we, have unleashed on the world... But, I digress: history is a nightmare panoply of war and suffering--our current situation is nothing new, we just get to watch it unfold in an unending techno-digital stream..."all day, all night, MTV..."

The book itself is frightening in its clinical precision--the first chapter brings the Tate and Labianca murders into sharp, frightening focus, even if we only get to see the aftermath. I'm not too deep into the book yet, and I'm not sure why I'm reading it--after all, I know what happened, and truthfully, I could ask: do I really need anymore 'horror' in my life? Not that my life is filled with anything awful, but we seem to be at a premium of bad goings on, trouble times, waters on the rise and all the portents of evil rising in the darkening sky. We live in a Grimm's Fairy Tale landscape, and there's no real brightness to light us to a better way. Why I'd invite more of that darkness into my life, I'm not sure.

And while life in 2018 is more often a Ingmar Bergman film than it is a Will Ferrell one, there is something to be said in reveling in the depictions of out darker tendencies. You can't laugh at everything, and sometimes being inured to the gruesome and the ugly comes only from seeing enough to develop the think kind of skin that resists the lash. Hence, our thrill at being spooked by a horror film or, as is the case with me, fascinated with the real-life stories that inspire the horror genre. I'm not talking werewolves and vampires and the shambling dead come to life, but the real boogey men who populate the shadows of our waking world, playing the worst trick possible: denying us the enduring belief in the goodness of our fellow human. So, tales of serial killers and true crime documentaries, about fraud and kidnapping and crimes of passion, tales of mental disturbance that drive a seemingly normal human to give up their humanity in awful ways and at the expense of others, are an ever booming industry. Though it's a stretch to use the Manson murders to prove how life and art commingle in a strange, back and forth origin myth simply because there's so many similar stories in the world that all life and all art have blurred into one big mess, I can't deny the fascination of delving into those real stories, the stories who breathe a strange whisper into your ear, or run up the back of your neck for how close they are to the life you live, how easily they could become your story, if only, if just, thank god I've never been...

Trent Reznor's Nine Ince Nails has always struck me more as a project than a group, and his erratic, eclectic output over the past few years has done nothing but deepen the enigma that is NIN, while at the same time, further cement Rezonr's role as the composer of the soundtrack to our dark, tumultuous days. 1989's Pretty Hate Machine was a brutally loud and pulsing sonic message from the future--and it detailed a dark place. Flash forward, and Reznor gives us 1994's The Downward Spiral, which while leaping forward a few sonic decades, was also a step back into the past. The rhythms and the noise that make up this blood and wire and glass and tangle of wire and electricity collections of songs was wholly new and a throwback at the same time. The Downward Spiral is pure industrial--grinding machines at work to create pounding rhythms, giving way to static, broken reception, and sometimes soft, gentle piano and vocal brush strokes, butterfly wings, flitting dangerous about the chaotic, grinding of the gears. The music is big--it's close and claustrophobic and roaring, as well as open and expansive, sometimes as quiet as it once was raging. The Downward Spiral was a critical and commercial success: "March of the Pigs" and "Closer" charted; "Hurt" was an MTV staple that still haunts me today, even if it is soon to rival Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" for an auditory cue to get ready to cry now because the movie or TV show you are watching is now giving you a deep, serious, contemplative montage which to cry over.

"March of the Pigs", the third track on the album, is a furious mix of punishing guitar and overdrive, factory belt drums, but like much of the album, in deals in great dichotomy: the bashing, angry beats gives way multiple times to a strange little coda of a piano ditty, that sounds like a tag line from a commercial for cleaning products. Reznor quiets the storm of music to ask you, all innocence implied, "Doesn't it make you feel better?" I can't decide if it's theater or kind of like one of those NBC "The More You Know" PSA's from the 90s...The song and its little break is trippy and strange, and utterly misplaced, but somehow very natural to the lifeblood that gushes through the song and the album as a whole.

And, now, lest you think I forgot, to the thematic connection: The Downward Spiral got a lot of press not for the brilliance of the music, but the morbid nature of its creation, particularly the place it was recorded. Reznor rented the property at 10050 Ceilo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. This is better known as the site of the first of the infamous Manson murders. Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski was among the four victims who were brutally slain during the late night hours. So much surrounds the case, so much myth and strange symbol making, and Reznor invoked some of the more well known crime scene imagery of the scene, in particular the killers invective "Pigs", which the scrawled in blood on the front door of the home. I haven't gotten too far into the book, so I'm not going to analyze the use and meaning of the word as part of the killers' signature, but I do know that the album traffics in the sounds and the word in multiple places. Aside from song titles, there are pig squeals peppered throughout the music. This wouldn't stand out normally--it might just be a bit more of the edgy racket, meant to put the listener further on edge. Or, maybe not. Perhaps Reznor was just indulging his morbid streak. He was living in the place of and making full emblematic use of a horrific murder. But then again, the album was meant to be abrasive, destructive to the listener and comment upon said destruction, and our dwindling sense of humanity. It is a downward spiral, after all. One wonders what the album might sound like, and say, if was recorded now, or perhaps closer to the events of September 11, 2001. I have to say, the 90s look right quaint and soft when compared to the shit-storm world we have inherited.

So, a roundabout way to get back to...history? No, life imitating art? Perhaps. I've lost the thread, to be honest. I think what I meant to say is that, good or bad, dark or light, devastating or uplifting, art, especially music, is a great lens with which to inform and be informed. Music for me is an ever-evolving soundtrack and sound accompanies me in every physical and spiritual endeavor. Our feelings toward what surrounds us and effects us might change, going from sad to happy, the entire panoply of emotions, but I feel better knowing I have music to accompany me. With that kind of artistic grace, one can take the worst life has to offer hopefully make it make sense. Books teach you; painting and sculpture remind and show you; music guides you and softens the blows.