My Hana’s Suitcase Story

The power of books to transform lives. Read about my favourite experience in my teaching career and the book that inspired it.

Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂

Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.

That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.

Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.

As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.

As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂

My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.

My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.

And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.

Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.

That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.

Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her own initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.

So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.

The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.

Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.

About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.”

I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.

That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.

So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as much to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.

So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.

I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.

A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.

I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.

Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.

Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too


My First Tuesday: Welcome To My Blog.

The new school year started today for my wife and my two daughters. For me, today is the day my retirement officially started. A new start for them, a new world for me.

For the past few years, my school day would begin by taking my daughters to school and waiting there until the bell rang and they were safely inside. Then, as the other Moms and Dads would make their coffee clutch plans, I would head to my car and drive to school to prepare for my own day.  How I begrudged those other parents their freedom.  It was never the fact that I didn’t want to be with my own students or that I preferred coffee that much. It was the fact that I didn’t have the freedom to control my fate. I had to go to work. No choice. I had to go.

No longer.

Today, I saw my youngest safely inside her school and I……….and I……….well, I went for coffee!!!!!   I did.  I got into my car and drove downtown and met two friends, also retired teachers, and we had coffee together on a sidewalk patio. The sun shone down upon our skin. We waved to friendly passersby. We chatted about weighty matters and feather-light ones, too.  But, best of all, there was a school bell there that I was asked to ring. Not a tentative, self-conscience tinkle of a ring but, instead, a full-throttled, lusty declarative ring of freedom for all to hear. So, I rang that bell, loud and long and clear. Every time someone looked our way in puzzlement, my friends would point to me and announce, “It’s his first Tuesday!”, as if that explained everything.

But, it is my first Tuesday in this new life of mine. School traditionally starts on the first Tuesday after Labour Day in Canada. For the first time in 49 years, I was not in school on the first Tuesday. On this day, I was free.  Freedom is intoxicating and I admit to feeling slightly off balance by it all but, in a good way.  The best way I can describe it all is to point to those near-death experiences you read about. You know, the ones with the bright light that you are drawn toward and the loved ones awaiting you on the other side. Today, I got to experience the bright light that is the freedom to chart my own course. I am thankful to my two friends, Pat and Tracy, for being there to help me transition to the other side, as it were.

This is my first post on my new blog. Thank you for reading. I hope to see many of you following along as I embark on my journey with words.  Thanks for being part of my first Tuesday.  It is awesome to be here……on the other side!!!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #33/50: Symphony No.3 in E Major, Op. 56 (or, as it is also known, “Eroica”) by Ludwig van Beethoven

The stories behind the most memorable classical music compositions in history.

Do you know this man? I am willing to bet that you do.

I am willing to place a rather sizeable bet, that if I were to survey a crowd of one hundred people who claimed to know absolutely nothing about the world of classical music and asked them to name any one individual composer that they might know, the one name they would be able to come up with would be that of Ludwig van Beethoven. In a world of talented composers, Beethoven easily rates as one of the most talented of them all. But more to the point, he has created works of such importance and magnitude that even non-classical music fans can recognize their worth. The two compositions that spring most readily to mind are his 5th and 9th symphonies (which we will discuss in more detail in future posts). But, for those who admire Beethoven and who know him best, the consensus is that his most important work is a symphony that has become known simply as “Eroica”. “Eroica” translates roughly as “Heroic”. There are times when great artists rise up to meet the temper of the times in which they find themselves. This is surely the case of “Eroica”. It was a symphony composed in times that many felt were the most glorious in European history, composed for a man who Beethoven and many others first believed to be a saviour, Napoleon Bonaparte. In time, this symphony ended up causing the world to reevaluate the life’s work of one of Beethoven’s most admired contemporaries, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It also ended the Classical era of compositional style music with a declarative bang, ushering in the era of Romanticism. As if this wasn’t enough, “Eroica” is a piece of music that many claim helped to save Beethoven’s life. In short, “Eroica” changed the lives of two major composers and changed the world of classical music forever. It is simply one of the most important pieces of music ever created. This is the story of Beethoven’s “Eroica”.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ludwig van Beethoven was born at the right time. Some people are lucky that way. He was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. As he grew up, he did so in the brotherly shadow of another musical child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beethoven was a full generation younger than Mozart. But Beethoven, being born into a musical family, was well aware of who Mozart was. In fact, Beethoven’s earliest days were spent in mirror image to those of Mozart. Like his musical compatriot, Beethoven’s talent was noted at a very young age. In addition, like Mozart, Beethoven had a father who pressured him relentlessly in an attempt to bring recognition to the family through the prodigy-like reputation of his child. However, that is where the similarities ended. Despite being a prodigious composer, Mozart lived most of his life in near poverty. Beethoven, on the other hand, began life as the grandson of the Kapellmeister (Musical director) of Bonn. He was afforded the most capable of mentors simply because of his family’s connections in society circles. While Mozart composed over 800 pieces of music by the time he had reached his mid-thirties, Beethoven hadn’t formally published almost any original works until he was well into adulthood. Instead, Beethoven grew up studying the works of Mozart and Hadyn with an eye to making a career out of being a classical pianist or, more succinctly, a performer of the works of others he admired. In fact, the career of Ludwig van Beethoven is generally broken down into three distinct periods. In the first phase of his career, he composed some original works, but those were mainly steeped in the classical traditions of those composers who had come before him. The period in his life prior to 1802 is best noted as being that time when he learned to be a highly trained musician. It was while emulating the greatest works of other musical geniuses that Beethoven learned how to play the piano with great skill. As he did so, that knowledge became innate and provided him with the foundation necessary to begin writing piano-based compositions in his own hand. In this formative stage of his career, he most admired the work of Mozart. When he played compositions on the piano that had been created by Mozart, Beethoven was sufficiently skilled to recognize how innovative these works were. That experience of performing Mozart’s works inspired Beethoven to trust his own instincts when it came to creating original works in the future. That future looked bright for Beethoven until 1802. That was the year he began to go deaf.

One letter, from a collection of letters that Beethoven wrote, that have become known as The Heiligenstadt Testament.

Like a dancer who becomes lame or a painter who becomes blind, losing one’s hearing can be a career-ending turn of events for a musician and composer. When Beethoven first started to turn deaf, he sought advice as to how to best deal with this situation. One of the first things he was advised to do was to move away from larger centres such as Bonn or Vienna and move to the countryside where there would naturally be less ambient noise. So, Beethoven moved to the village of Heiligenstadt. This is noteworthy because, after his death in 1827, a group of letters that he had written while in Heiligenstadt (but never mailed) was discovered. These letters became known as Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. In these letters, Beethoven disclosed that the onset of deafness had brought on a state of depression that was leading him to think suicidal thoughts. He quickly added that what allowed him to carry on was his belief in his ability to create dynamic, original Art. Beethoven stated that his entire catalogue of music up until that point now left him deeply unsatisfied. He ended off by making a vow to live with greater boldness going forward. A second group of letters was discovered. These letters were addressed to a mysterious figure referred to only as “My Immortal Beloved”. The identity of this mystery woman has never been revealed. That didn’t stop many from speculating, which led to the creation of a movie entitled “Immortal Beloved” starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. (You can watch a scene from that movie here).

Napoleon Bonaparte

As Beethoven forced himself to rise up from the depths of his despair, two important historical events happened. The first was that the French Revolution had ended, and the second was that Napoleon Bonaparte became the leader of France. Without writing an entire essay on the subject, the French Revolution was a watershed moment in world history because it helped usher in a period of reforms that in many ways formed the foundational principles of a system of governance called Democracy. After having lived under centuries of oppressive Monarchist rule, the notion that ordinary citizens might come to have a greater say in how they lived their lives was a thrilling notion to many, including to a thirty-something young man named Ludwig van Beethoven. When the Napoleonic Wars spread across Europe and into Russia, the idea that democracy might come to the entire continent was breathtaking. So, just as Beethoven was committing himself to a bolder future as a composer, the image of Napoleon Bonaparte as a liberator of the oppressed appeared before him. Beethoven channeled those feelings of admiration and hopefulness for a better tomorrow for himself and for the citizens of Europe into a new symphony that he called “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55”, or as he wrote across the top of his original manuscript, “Eroica”. He dedicated this new symphony to Napoleon.

“Eroica” was a symphony unlike any the world had seen before. Like many of the works of Mozart, Beethoven took the best parts of the classical form in which he was so well versed and turned them on their ear. “Eroica” was twice as long as any other symphony in history. But most importantly of all, Beethoven’s symphony did not rely on the usual odes to God or to nobility; instead, it laid bare the emotional story of his own life. Never before had such emotion been interwoven into the score of a symphony. When “Eroica” was first performed, audiences were confused and upset. It was too long. It was too personal. What was Beethoven trying to say anyway?! But in time, “Eroica” became well known and respected precisely because of the emotion it contained. Beethoven’s vulnerability was being displayed for all to see because a new age of personal freedoms was dawning all across the land. His emotional display was actually symbolic of the freedom that a whole continent was set to experience for themselves and enjoy. It was the dawn of a new age, and as a result, nothing less than a reinvention of classical form was called for. That’s what “Eroica” really was. It heralded a new beginning in European history by being new and fresh and completely innovative in the structure of the composition and in the substance of its musical expression.

In many ways, Beethoven didn’t do anything with “Eroica” that Mozart hadn’t done with countless compositions a generation earlier. The difference was that the time and circumstances weren’t right for Mozart to have been credited with ushering in a new era of music prior to the start of The French Revolution. In the 1760s, life in Europe was dictated by the ruling classes, and for them, the introduction of revolutionary concepts in music was not welcomed at all. This accounts in large part for why Mozart lived much of his life in poverty and why he ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave. For Beethoven, the rampant optimism that existed across central Europe, in particular, as the 1800s began was the perfect opportunity to have something as new and inventive as “Eroica” accepted by audiences (which it eventually was). His “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” changed the way composers approached their craft from that point onward. This symphony is said to have initiated a period in classical music known as the Romantic Era. This era is characterized by a general acceptance of the idea that composers are free to follow their muse when it comes to creating new works. They are no longer forced to follow rigid parameters as established by those who first practiced their craft centuries prior.

The original manuscript to “Eroica” minus one word that had been unceremoniously erased by Beethoven, himself.

As time progressed, “Eroica” underwent one fundamental change and had another aspect of it endure and become symbolic of Beethoven’s genius as a composer through to these modern times today. The one thing that ended up changing was that Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon. Specifically, when Beethoven found out that Napoleon had unilaterally declared himself to be Emperor (i.e., singular ruler with authority over all other citizens or, in other words, the opposite of being a democratic ruler who is elected by the people and who serves at their will), he angrily withdrew the part of “Eroica” where he had dedicated it to Napoleon. The original manuscript now bore a hole where the name “Napoleon” had once proudly stood.

But over time, one section of “Eroica” has emerged to stand as one of the great moments in musical history. In the second movement of “Eroica”, Beethoven included a three-minute funeral march. Some claim that this three-minute section of music is the saddest and most sombre music ever created. So much so that it has been played as the official funeral music of such public figures as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, German General Erwin Rommel, composer Felix Mendelssohn and most poignantly, at the funerals of the twelve Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

When personal challenges present themselves we, as humans, can either face them or flee from them. Deafness is an almost catastrophic challenge for anyone who bases their life on arranging sounds in ways that move the hearts and minds of others. That “Eroica” was just the beginning of the most prolific chapter of Beethoven’s professional career stands as proof of his motivation and of his creative genius. We will delve more into how he managed to make such beautiful and important music while existing in a world of silence in future posts when we examine his 5th and 9th symphonies. Until then, please enjoy this incredibly innovative and important composition (especially, the very moving second part which you should be able to find time stamped in the video’s description section). Ludwig van Beethoven is the world’s most recognizable name in classical music history for a reason. “Eroica” is the reason many consider him the most important and talented composer as well. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” or, as it is better known, “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven can be found here. ***The funeral march begins at the 16:13 mark of the symphony if you wish to only listen to that proton of the entire symphony.

The link to the Beethoven Museum in Heiligenstadt can be found here.

The link to the official website for Heiligenstadt, Austria (where Beethoven stayed when he first began to develop deafness) can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music station…Classical 103.1….streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Reader’s Choice: Song #28/250: A Day in the Life by The Beatles

The stories behind your favourite songs.

Mop tops no longer. Here are Ringo, John Paul and George in their Sgt. Pepper regalia.

Today we are going to spend some time together discussing one of the most grand and glorious songs ever recorded in modern music history, ”A Day in the Life” by The Beatles. At the time it was recorded in 1967, it clocked in at well over four minutes long, which at the time made it the longest song The Beatles had ever created. “A Day in the Life” is the final song on Side #2 of The Beatles’ biggest selling album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For me, Sgt. Pepper marks the end of The Beatles as we knew them. Sure, they still had The White Album, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be to come, but by then the members of the band had begun pursuing more individualized agendas within the group. Whenever I listen to “A Day in the Life”, I hear it as one of the most audacious and original compositions ever. I also feel and hear quite clearly all of the collaboration, co-operation, creativity, innovation and problem-solving that took place during the recording of that song. I adore creative environments, and there was no greater alchemist’s kitchen anywhere in the world at the time than where The Beatles were during the creation of this song. If you remember your Beatles history, you will know that The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 and became a studio-only band from that point on. This transition allowed them to dabble into drug use, eastern mysticism, as well as exploring new technological innovations that allowed them to play around with the sounds they were making. The extent to which The Beatles were growing in creative confidence first manifested itself in the album Revolver. While that album was a quantum leap forward for the band in terms of their mastery over the music they were making and the creativity of their ideas, it was really the next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that cemented their reputation as geniuses on a level that no one else had yet attained. The final word on that most ambitious album was “A Day in the Life”. It was the last great Lennon-McCartney collaboration before they began the process of growing apart. It was also one of the band’s most integrated efforts with almost fifty people in total being involved in the process of bringing this masterpiece to fruition. In order to give a song of this magnitude its due, I am going to offer up some general background information and then I will proceed to break the song down into its component parts to show the unified vision behind what some consider to be a cacophony of sound. Thanks to my pal Allister Matheson for nominating this one of a kind, world class piece of music. It doesn’t get much better than this! Here we go!

“A Day in the Life” was written collaboratively by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The inspiration for the song arose from several newspaper articles that John had read in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The song’s fantastic opening line draws upon this fact.

I read the news today, oh boy!

There are four verses that touch upon three bits of news from the paper that particular day. One was the death of a young man named Tara Browne who was the heir to the Guinness Brewery fortune. A second story was about a movie John was in. The final story was an odd one about potholes in the town of Blackburn, Lancashire that struck John as being absurd in a way that delighted him. While he brought the opening line to the group, it was he and Paul who fleshed out the lyrics. Paul contributed a middle eight verse about getting ready for school which ended with a reference to smoking that was assumed to be about drug use and caused the BBC to ban the song for over five years. But the most imaginative parts of “A Day in the Life” have nothing to do with the lyrics at all. Instead, the genius and musical confidence that the band now possessed showed itself most in how they made use of empty space and how they filled that space with sound. It was actually their use of instrumental music in a completely original manner that stunned so many of their peers in the music business. One of the first to hear the completed track was musician David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) who happened to be in London at the time. His recollection of first hearing “A Day in the Life” was that after the final note sounded, his brain had melted onto the floor. The manager of the band, The Hollies was said to have put his head into his hands and lamented aloud, “What are the rest of us supposed to do now?!” In order to show you how this all came to be, let me walk you through the various parts of the song. All in all, this is an amazing accomplishment by a group of people at the height of their creative powers.

Guinness Brewery heir, Tara Browne.

The first two verses of the song concern the news story John had read about the death of Tara Browne. Browne was only twenty-one years of age when he drove through a stop light and smashed his car into a parked truck. Being around the same age as the band members, Browne had actually been an acquaintance, so when John opened with the exclamation of “Oh boy!”, the sentiment of loss and regret was sincere. In real life, Browne had been set to inherit his family’s fortune when he turned 25, so his death, mere years prior to this happening, added to the tragedy of it all. The news story dealt with a custody battle of who would care for his children. In writing the opening two verses, Lennon and McCartney wanted to acknowledge the loss of Browne, but out of respect for the family they opted to create a fictionalized account of the accident. The only thing that was lifted from the pages of the Daily Telegraph was the line about a crowd gathering to stand and stare.

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

Nobody was really sure if he was from The House of Lords.

Such is the nature of a celebrity death.

John Lennon in How I Won The War by Richard Lester.

The third verse concerned an account of a film that John Lennon had acted in called How I Won the War. This film was directed by a man named Richard Lester, who had directed Hard Day’s Night and Help! This film was the first time any of the Beatles had involved themselves in a solo project. The significance of that move by John Lennon would become apparent in the very near future, as it seemed to spark a wave of individuality that overtook the band following the completion of “A Day in the Life”. However, with regards to the song itself, the most significant part of the third verse was its closing line.

I saw a film today, oh boy!

The English Army had just won the war.

A crowd of people turned away

But I just had to look

Having read the book.

I’d love to turn you on

John and Yoko at their famous “Bed-in for Peace” alongside Rosemary and Timothy Leary.

The line, “I’d love to turn you on”, was the nail in the coffin, as it were, for this song when it came to drug-related inferences. At the time of the writing of “A Day in the Life”, LSD advocate Timothy Leary was making headlines by advising the youth of the world to “Turn on, tune in and drop out”. Needless to say, the powers that be did not take kindly to the methods that Leary was advocating. So, when such a high-profile band as The Beatles appeared to endorse Leary via this line in the song, it only further confirmed for the authorities that “A Day in the Life” was a drug song and, as such, had no business being on the BBC.

Connecting Lennon’s verses with Paul’s middle eight to come was a 24-bar instrumental segment that acts as a prelude to the orchestral finale that arrives at the conclusion of the lyrical verses. It began as a repetitive piano chord accompanied by studio manager Mal Evans counting off the bars and was augmented in future recording sessions with additional instrumentation. This bridge section, as it became known, ended with the tempered ringing of an alarm clock which led directly to the beginning of Paul’s verse about getting up for school.

After the third verse comes Paul McCartney’s middle eight verse. You will recall from my recent post about Paul Simon and his song “Still Crazy After All These Years” (which you can read here), that a middle eight verse is one in which the flow of the song is taken sideways on tangent-like journey, only to be brought back to the original song after eight bars have gone by. In the case of this song, McCartney drew upon the same sense of childhood nostalgia that informed “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Both of those songs were written for inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album but, instead, were released as double A-side singles. But the longing to reminisce about fond childhood memories allowed Paul to create a middle eight verse about getting ready for school as a teenager. If the intent of the whole song was to touch upon some of the ordinary events happening on an ordinary day in their lives, then the inclusion of a memory about a normal day for a band member helped portray the band members as each being the same type of person as everyone else was, too. It helped unify the connection the Beatles members had with their fans. Of course, as already mentioned, Paul’s middle eight ended with his reference to having a smoke and lapsing into a dream which was the other supposed drug reference that earned “A Day in the Life” its ban by the BBC.

Found my way upstairs and had a smoke

And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.

The fact that Paul’s closing line is followed by a series of voices singing, “Aaaah!”only fuelled the drug reference conspiracy theories. It also compounded the aural gambit that showed how The Beatles had made the deliberate decision to create open bits of space within the song that would be filled with various soundscapes. The soundscapes began here with the “Aaah” segments but would grow in volume and scope very soon into something completely unheard of and totally unforgettable.

Apparently this is one of the 4000 potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

Coming out of Paul’s middle eight verse, the song concludes the lyrics section with John’s take on the article about there being 4000 potholes in need of filling in Blackburn, Lancashire. In the newspaper, the article was a very straight-forward retelling of a municipal council report about the state of Blackburn’s roads. The notion of there being 4000 holes struck John as being whimsical. This caused him to create the verse that equated the 4000 potholes with being the exact number needed to fill all of the seats in Albert Hall. While John denied that there was anything more to the verse that the nonsense it appears to be at first blush, some have taken his reference to be a swipe at the state of music in London at the time by calling those who attended concerts at Albert Hall as being nothing more than empty space (like “holes”).

I read the news today, oh boy

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

And though the holes were rather small

They had to count them all.

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on.

Note how John doubles down on the Timothy Leary, “Turn you on” line. If anyone thought it was an accident the first time, this verse leaves no doubt where The Beatles stood on the topic of mind-altering substances.

This verse concludes the spoken word portion of the song. Up until this point, there are arguments to be made about how clever this song is and about how well it managed to achieve its goal of documenting a day in the life of English citizens, as well as The Beatles. But it is what happens next that separates “A Day in the Life” from all songs that came before it. The boys in the band decided to weaponize empty space by dedicating another whooping 28 consecutive bars of it to follow John’s final verse. This decision was influenced, not only by LSD and eastern mysticism, but also by the fact that the members of The Beatles were becoming fans of avant garde musicians. Part of the reason for this attraction was their growing realization that sounds could be expressed in an almost infinite variety of ways and still hold their credibility as a source of music. Without veering off on too much of a tangent, one of the reasons that John Lennnon left his wife, Cynthia, was that he found her conventional way of thinking to be frustrating and limiting to him. Part of his attraction to Yoko Ono was her wide open mindset as to what could be considered music and Art.

This is the orchestra hired to perform the 28-bar finale. It is difficult to see the accessories they were asked to wear by The Beatles in this photo. But, the accessories clearly show up in the video at the end of this post.

So it was that The Beatles decided to create an aural soundscape that would act in the same way as a lyrical verse would. It would hold the same basic physical space within the structure of the song. Specifically, it would last for 28 bars. In order to fill this space with an avant garde-type of sound, The Beatles brought in a full forty-piece orchestra. Producer George Martin instructed the orchestra members to start at the lowest notes possible for their instruments and then, in a coordinated fashion, they would all move up through the scales together until they reached the highest notes possible. The task was simplified, in a way, by having to do this all within the 28 bar limit. The orchestra members had never played in this fashion before. In order to help them adapt to the revolutionary nature of the task at hand, they were each given props to wear such as red clown noses, wigs, feather boas, etc. The Beatles treated this session as if it was a Hollywood movie premiere. They invited all sorts of celebrity friends to attend the recording session. A film was made of the event which, as it turns out, was transformed into the music video you will see at the end of this post.

To critics of this song, this 28-bar segment is nothing but calamitous noise and, in fact ruins whatever musical qualities the initial part of the song may have contained. But to those in the band and to their peers (like David Crosby), this 28-bar segment was the musical equivalent of releasing the Kraken. It was a declarative statement by The Beatles that any organized collection of sounds could be and should be considered as music. It was a challenge to the orthodoxy of traditionalists who stressed that the only good music was music that contained harmonies and melodies. With their 28-bar segment, The Beatles gave permission to all other musicians and bands around the world to use sounds as they saw fit. It really changed the creative process for everyone who followed in their wake. In this way, the Sgt. Pepper album, in general, and “A Day in the Life”, specifically, were groundbreaking in their influence and importance.

One of the four pianos used to create the note that closes out the song. The Beatles used two grand pianos like the one shown in the photo, an upright piano and a harmonium.

But, the final note of the 28-bar segment did not end the song. Instead, in case anyone missed the message that The Beatles were attempting to make, they formally ended the song with a bang! George Martin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and studio head Mal Evans used four pianos to simultaneously play one note as hard and with as much vigor as they could manage. Each take was recorded at the highest possible level the recording equipment could muster in an attempt to track the reverberations of this single note for as long as was possible. On the ninth take, the recording equipment detected the sound of that note for 53 seconds. The microphones were at such a sensitive point that they managed to pick up the sound of breathing, the movement of a single sheet of paper and the shuffling of someone’s foot. That authoritative final note ended the song and the album. The world of music was forever changed because of it.

While I like the music that The Beatles created after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, songs like “Let It Be” and “Here Comes the Sun” always seem more like solo projects released on band albums. If there is a musical hill for me to die on, it is my view that “A Day in the Life” was the last true piece of music that The Beatles produced as a band. I so admire the ingenuity, the courage, the confidence with which each member of the band approached this final song. The completion of “A Day in the Life” was truly a team effort. I feel that our world is better as a result.

The link to the video for the song “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles can be found here. ***This video was composed using film from the night of the orchestral recording session. Many celebrities can be seen throughout the course of the film. Lyrics are provided on screen.

The link to the official website for The Beatles can be found here.

The link to the video trailer for the movie How I Won The War can be found here.

***If you have any song requests that you would like to see me cover for you, feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Any song in any genre from any era is welcome.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film, Pretty in Pink…Song #35/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

The stories behind the most memorable songs found in Broadway musicals or Hollywood films

Writer-Director, John Hughes

It is really difficult to nitpick at a man like John Hughes. His filmography reads like an honour roll of the best and/or most popular films of the 1980s and 90s. For example, he wrote the script and/or directed all of the following classic films: Uncle Buck, Home Alone, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and, of course, today’s featured film, Pretty in Pink. Not only did Hughes gain fame for himself as a director, but he also helped to establish the careers of many young Hollywood actors, such as Emilio Estevez, Mare Winningham, Michael Anthony-Hall, Macaulay Culkin, Matthew Broderick, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald, just to name a few. John Hughes seemed to have a magician’s touch when it came to his ability to present the world of children and teenagers with a sense of realism and respectfulness. Through his films, Hughes was able to touch upon the childhood dream of living a life without rules and then counterbalance it with an exploration of accepting the responsibility for your subsequent actions. He was also able to take us into the world of high school and help us to understand the inner angst that comes from trying to navigate the social world of teenage life. John Hughes’ films were at times funny, action packed and often poignant, too. He is considered one of the most successful directors of the past half century for a reason. So, how did one of his movies…Pretty in Pink…seemingly get so much wrong?! In today’s post we are going to take a closer look at a film that appears to have gotten some of the character relationships wrong, needed a reshoot of the ending and uses a song as its title track that, at first glance, doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with the storyline of the film. And yet, Pretty in Pink continues to be held up as a model of what a great teen movie should be. So, get your swim trunks on and come with me as I take a deeper dive into the story of one of the most misunderstood songs and films of all time. This is the story of Pretty in Pink.

For those who may not be familiar with the storyline of Pretty in Pink, here is a quick summary. The movie is set in high school as the annual prom approaches. Molly Ringwald plays a girl named Andie. She has a male friend named Duckie who is played by Jon Cryer. Duckie has feelings for Andie, but she has placed him clearly in the “friend zone”. Instead of returning Duckie’s sincere affection, Andie has her eyes set on a preppy boy named Blane played by Andrew McCarthy. Blane’s best friend is a fellow “richie” named Steff, who is played by James Spader. Steff once asked Andie out and was rebuffed. Since that time, he has made it his mission to mock her at every turn. As the movie plays out, Andie and Blane get together and agree to go to the prom as a couple, but Blane is getting ridden unmercifully by his friend Steff about it and Andie is embarrassed about Blane seeing where she lives, the state of her dress and so on, all because she comes from a lower-class section of town. The contrast between the socio-economic classes that Andie/Duckie come from compared to that which Steff and Blane come from propels the plotline forward and provides most of the dramatic tension of the film. As the movie reaches its climactic scene, those characters whose hearts were true are taken care of nicely, while those in need of a comeuppance get that, too. I won’t give away the ending except to say that when the film was officially released, it left audiences with a satisfied feeling. Thus, the reputation of Pretty in Pink as being a classic in the teen movie genre was born. However, if we go back to how this film even came to be in the first place, you will see that it is a movie that was built upon misconceptions that damaged/helped the career of the band, The Psychedelic Furs, that confused members of the cast and that caused the ending of the movie to have to be re-shot long after production had wrapped up and the actors had moved on to other projects.

The Psychedelic Furs and the somewhat unexpected and unwanted hit they had on their hands.

The movie, itself, was inspired by a song of the same name by one of the original New Wave bands, The Psychedelic Furs. In 1981, the band released an album called Talk, Talk, Talk. On that album was a song called “Pretty in Pink”. Way back in 1981, New Wave, Punk Rock and Alternative were the emerging trends across the western world when it came to music. Bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Tears for Fears, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and many more were what the “cool kids” were listening to. One of those cool kids was a young actress named Molly Ringwald. She had heard the song “Pretty in Pink” at a party. She thought that the song told an interesting story and brought it to director John Hughes to listen to. At the time, Ringwald had completed Sixteen Candles with Hughes and was wrapping up work on The Breakfast Club. As she handed a cassette of the song to Hughes, she remarked that she thought this could be the basis of their next movie together. This is where things begin to get murky. The story goes that Hughes listened to the song that Ringwald gave to him. Apparently, he agreed with her that there was the nugget of a movie contained within the lyrics of this song. So, off he went. When he came back a few weeks later, he had a draft of a script that ended up becoming the movie, Pretty in Pink. The problem with that is the story contained within the lyrics of the song is nothing at all like the story Hughes wrote for the movie. What Hughes ended up doing was akin to listening to a Christmas carol and then writing an Easter movie.

The original version of the song “Pretty in Pink” by The Psychedelic Furs is about a girl named Caroline. Caroline is a popular girl at school. She is popular, in part, because she is sexually promiscuous. In fact, the phrase “pretty in pink” is actually a derogatory phrase that means that a girl is prettiest to boys when she is pink or naked. Because she is constantly surrounded by the boys at her school, Caroline begins to believe that she is really “all that”. In fact, the boys regard her with disdain because she is such an easy mark, as it were. Behind her back, they are all laughing at her and about her. The song explored the question of who is really controlling the situation. Was it Caroline by taking control of her sexual experiences or was it the boys who were happy to let her believe that she was the one on top, so to speak? The 1981 version that first appeared on The Psychedelic Furs albums was rough and raw and sounded completely in tune with the sound of many other New Wave bands at the time. Through the first half of the 1980s The Psychedelic Furs enjoyed some modest success with songs such as “Love My Way”, “Heaven” and “The Ghost In You”, but they never exploded to the top of the charts the way some other bands did. Consequently, when they were approached by John Hughes about using their song as the title track for his latest movie, there was some sense that what happened to Simple Minds with the song “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” for The Breakfast Club movie was about to happen for them with “Pretty in Pink”.

Feeling that their big break was about to happen, the band agreed to lend their song to Hughes for his new movie. Immediately, they were informed that they would have to re-record their song in order to make it “more suitable” for a mass audience. Making the song “more suitable” meant polishing the rough edges off of the song and making it sound more like a Pop song. To their original fan base, going “Pop” was essentially selling out. By opting for a more commercial sound, many fans felt that the band was turning its back on its roots. But, if the members of The Psychedelic Furs had any internal debates about whether to go “commercial” or not with their song, those doubts and debates disappeared in a negative way when they finally were able to watch the movie. When the movie came out and they saw that it had absolutely nothing at all to do with the story they were telling in their song, they felt a sense of betrayal and embarrassment. There is no one named Caroline in the movie. Molly Ringwald’s character is not promiscuous at all. In fact, Ringwald has been quoted as saying that she always felt a great moral responsibility to portray her characters in a certain way because she knew that her onscreen actions would have real-life ramifications for many teenage girls. So, even though the song “Pretty in Pink” is the title track for the movie, it has absolutely nothing to do with what actually transpires on screen. This left The Psychedelic Furs in a precarious position. As predicted, the popularity of the film, along with the success of the movie soundtrack brought a level of attention to the band that they may never have achieved on their own. But, they were left with the dilemma of debating how much they valued their integrity as a band. To their credit, they have publicly disavowed how their song was used in the movie. However, they continue to play the revised version in concert and collect royalties from the song to this very day so…..

Blane, Andie and Duckie

The other aspect of this movie that sits funny is the ending. SPOILER ALERT TIME!!!! If you have never watched the movie and feel that you may wish to as a result of this post, then please stop reading now and begin again at the start of the next paragraph….off you go! Bye for now….ok, good! For those of you still with me, the ending of the movie was problematic for the cast and for test audiences as well. It is a fairly common plot line to have one character seek true love with another all the while not realizing that the one who truly loves them is the quiet “friend”-type who has been there all along and who the original character has never thought of in that way. Well, there were many who felt that Andie and Duckie were meant to find each other while the prom unfolded at the end of the movie and, in fact, that was the original ending. Initially, the closing scene had Andie and Blane having a falling out and Duckie showing up at just the opportune time to allow her to finally see that he was the one for her all along and that the preppy boy was never her true match. However, when test audiences watched the film, they were dismayed that Andie never got to be with the one that she wanted all along. So, months after production had wrapped, the final scenes were reshot and the movie now had a happy ending for Andie and Blane. In order to not leave Duckie heartbroken, a new love interest was provided for him at the last second as a bystander emerged from a crowd and asked him to dance. Because his love for Andie was true, he now let her leave for her beloved while he turned to this new girl and went with her. That is how Pretty in Pink ends in the version that most people saw in theatres and in their homes on their VCRs or on DVD.

In many ways, the dilemma over the way the movie ended is exactly what the original song by The Psychedelic Furs was about. Pretty in Pink (the movie) and “Pretty in Pink” (the original song) both pivot on the central idea of which character is getting to control the narrative. In both the song and the movie, when the story is told from the woman’s perspective, the woman gets what she wants in the end. When the story is told from the perspective of the men in the story, the men get what they want at the expense of what the woman may have really wanted deep down inside. So, even though the lyrics of the song and the script of the movie have their great differences, the central idea of allowing the story of the female character to be told in the end is what helped make the movie and the song both resonate so much at the time. John Hughes passed in 2009, so he is not around to shed any light upon the decision-making that went into his film. So, it is left to us to debate whether or not he knew all along that he was going for a figurative retelling of the song handed to him by Molly Ringwald instead of a literal retelling. Perhaps it is a case that he made a mess of things and did his best to straighten everything out in the end, which many believe he managed to do. Regardless of which take you believe, the decisions that John Hughes made along the way had consequences for many who were involved in the project.

For Jon Cryer (as Duckie), he didn’t have the big romantic lead breakout role he envisioned, which, in many ways, lead to his casting as Allan, the unlucky in love sidekick to suave Charlie Sheen’s character in the TV show, Two and a Half Men. The Psychedelic Furs had to deal with the problem of their most commercially successful song always being a version that was never their original intent and which seemed to portray the band in a way that alienated them from their fan base. As mentioned earlier, their response was to swallow their pride and accept the push to their careers provided for them by the magical hand of John Hughes. Molly Ringwald deserves credit for her taste in music back in the day. Without that, one of the best movie soundtracks of all time would never have seen the light of day. As for her career, that trio of John Hughes movies was the apex of her time in the Hollywood spotlight. But, having said that, Ringwald has had steady work over the years in all sorts of projects ranging from being the voice of Darla on the animated children’s show Doc McStuffins, to appearing as a cast member on the show Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, to making a star turn on the recent mini-series about the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In the end, I guess that the world of Pretty in Pink did a pretty good job of capturing the ins and outs and the ups and downs of life. Perhaps, instead of nitpicking at a man like John Hughes, he is actually deserving of much credit for a job well done.

The link to the video for the original version of “Pretty in Pink” by The Psychedelic Furs can be found here. ***The lyrics video is here.

The link to the video for the song “Pretty in Pink” by The Psychedelic Furs as used in the movie, Pretty in Pink, can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Pretty in Pink can be found here.

The link to the video for the entire official soundtrack to the movie Pretty in Pink can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Psychedelic Furs can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #36/250: Man! I Feel Like a Woman by Shania Twain

Eileen Twain as she appeared in elementary school.

Please allow me to introduce you to Eileen Regina Edwards. Edwards was born in Windsor, Ontario in 1965. At the age of two, her parents divorced and her mother Sharon moved to Timmins, Ontario where Eileen and her two sisters were raised. Her mother got remarried to a man named Jerry Twain. A few years later, Twain legally adopted Eileen and her sisters, changing their last name to Twain as well. Eileen’s parents gave birth to a boy and then, a short time later, adopted another child bringing the total number of siblings to five. Times were tough for Eileen growing up. Because she was the eldest sibling, she began earning money for the family at the tender age of eight. Her first job was to sing cover songs near closing times in local bars. From this early age, Twain got used to the dual sensations of the thrill that comes from singing on stage and having an audience respond enthusiastically, coupled with the negative attention from men regarding her physical appearance. Eileen Twain knew from an early age that her looks would give her opportunities that she might not have had otherwise, but, all the same, she grew to hate being defined by her appearance. As a teenager, Twain witnessed bouts of domestic violence and often had little or nothing to eat. At one point, she and her mother and siblings ran away and spent time in a family shelter in Toronto. Eventually her mom returned to the family home in Timmins along with Eileen and the rest of the children. When asked how she managed to keep her spirits up during her childhood days, Twain spoke of always having her songwriting to lean on. She has stated that some of her fondest memories as a teen were of times when she would work as a tree planter and would stay in the woods for weeks at a time, alone with her saplings, her guitar and her notebook. At the age of 22, Twain’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident. Suddenly, just like that, Twain found herself responsible for the wellbeing of her four younger siblings. As luck would have it, she was able to find employment at a resort near Huntsville, Ontario called Deerhurst Resort. All four Twain siblings moved with her. It was there that she worked clearing tables in the restaurant and working as a maid. There were no dreams of a music career in her mind when an opportunity arose to sing on the Deerhurst stage. At that time in her life, Eileen Twain was merely trying to survive.

Eileen Twain performing on stage in her pre-Shania days.

The audiences at Deerhurst Resort took to Eileen as she performed cover song after cover song on stage. Eventually, she worked up the courage to start performing some of her original material. That went well, too. The positive reaction to her own songs allowed Eileen Twain to consider a career in music as actually being a possibility. Through her work at the Resort, she eventually was noticed by a Toronto-based record producer/D.J. who thought she had the singing, as well as the songwriting voice to make it in the world of Country music. Before agreeing to record anything, Eileen made a decision that added a layer of mystique about her. She decided to rebrand herself by changing her first name from Eileen to Shania. Twain’s family background was a mixture of Cree and Ojibway so she chose the name Shania because, according to her, it meant “on her way” in Ojibway. The newly named Shania Twain recorded some songs and made connections that allowed her to do some backup singing sessions. Eventually, she made enough contacts within the recording industry that a special session was held at Deerhurst for her. Many talent scouts were in attendance. Out of that session she was given a recording contract. By the time this happened, her younger siblings had grown up and were old enough to head out on their own journey through life. So, for the first time in her entire life, Shania Twain felt free to chart her own course in life. That started with the release of her first, self-titled album. She was, as the name implies, finally on her way.

From those humble beginnings, Shania Twain has enjoyed a career in which she has sold over 100 million albums worldwide. She is one of the biggest selling Country music stars of all time and has won just about every conceivable type of music award along the way in Canada and in the U.S. Her hits include such well known songs as “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under”, “Don’t Impress Me Much”, “From This Moment”, “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!”, “You’re Still The One”, “Up”, “Any Man of Mine”, “You’ve Got a Way” and many others including today’s song, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”.

Shania Twain took the music world by storm, blazing her own path right from the beginning.

One of the things that helped break Shania Twain’s career was something that she initially found distasteful, and that was her looks. Twain came into her own in the world of music not long after MTV had established itself as the new way for musicians and bands to market their music to larger audiences. Music videos were a prerequisite for any new song being released. Fortunately for Twain, she had been hardened by years of experience singing in dive bars and knew well that it was important for her to take control of how she was being presented before the music industry took control of it for her. Twain knew that people thought she was attractive, but she didn’t want to be marketed as a sex symbol and dressed up in all manner of provocative outfits. In her own mind, she viewed herself as a strong, healthy woman and wanted to convey the sense that she was proud of her appearance and was in control of it, too. In a way, she projected a strong “my body-my choice” type of image. In the world of Country music, baring one’s midriff was not what singers traditionally did. But Shania Twain believed in herself and wanted to connect with other women in her audience in a way that told them that they, too, could be in charge of what they wore and how they presented themselves in public. Shania Twain always maintained that it wasn’t up to some arbitrarily conceived societal rules about the nature of femininity to dictate how a woman should feel about herself. If nothing else, Shania Twain wanted women (and men, too) to understand that women had as much right as men to dress how they pleased, go where they wished and have fun on their own terms. Many in the Country music establishment viewed her as a Barbie doll and didn’t take her seriously. But to younger female singers such as Carrie Underwood, for example, the message that a woman could write her own music (thus controlling what she was singing and recording) as well as control her own personal and professional image was very important.

The Deerhurst Resort’s convention centre. A young Eileen Twain watched drag shows on this stage before performing there herself.

One of the ways in which Shania Twain got her point across was via the song, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”. This song was inspired by her experiences watching drag shows at Deerhurst Resort before she became famous. Twain remembers how transformative it was for the performers to change out of their everyday clothes and don their wardrobe for the show. She says there were many times when, after these drag queens would be fully dressed in their outfits, they would cry out about how much they felt like a woman and how ready they were to perform. To Twain, she likened those memories with her own experiences going from being a hotel maid to going on stage in the Deerhurst spotlight and how emboldened she felt doing so and how differently she was viewed by others once on stage. To be able to leave her old life behind, even just for a little while, and become this “character” on stage was all very liberating for Twain. She has stated that the main message in “Man! I Feel LIke a Woman” is to embrace who you truly are. Because of this, many have taken this song to be an empowerment song for women. Others feel that she is championing Gay Rights and attempting to pave the way for a more inclusive world. Twain says that both assertions are correct, but more to the point, she wants anyone and everyone to be able to live in a world where they can be free to call their own shots in life, as it were. Twain says that her song is a rallying cry in the same way that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper is a rallying cry for personal freedom, too.

Shania Twain’s answer to Robert Palmer’s music video for “Addicted To Love”.

The other groundbreaking aspect of the release of this song came in the form of the music video that accompanied it. A year or so prior to the release of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”, British singer Robert Palmer created a stir with the video for his song, “Addicted To Love” (which you can watch here). In his video, he performs in front of a bevy of beautiful women who sway in unison and who all wear skin tight body stockings and bright red lipstick. Many accused Palmer of making the statement that the individuality of women didn’t matter and that they all were really nothing more than sex objects, one no different or special than the next. Twain responded with intelligent humour. She took charge of the narrative by creating a video of her own that was almost identical to Palmer’s video with the exception being that roles were reversed and she was the one singing in front of a bunch of hunky guys all dressed the same. What made Twain’s version such a potent response was how easily she laughed off Palmer’s old school women-can-only-look-a-certain-way attitude. In the video, she constantly changes her outfit and makes the point in words and images that a woman can and should be the only one who determines how she looks. There is power in personal choice. That message, delivered in a humorous manner, helped to propel the video and the song, itself, to the top of the charts.

After the mega success of her trio of albums: “The Woman In Me”, “Come On Over” and “Up!” (where most of her hit songs can be found), Shania Twain retreated away from the limelight to a certain degree. She did hold a two-year “residency” in Las Vegas, but, other than that and few individual concerts here and there, she has mostly kept to her own private life. Shania Twain was married to her producer, “Mutt” Lange, for almost seventeen years before the couple recently divorced. She currently lives in Switzerland and has devoted herself to raising her own children. In many ways, Shania Twain has always placed the idea of “family” at the heart of her life. While she may be viewed by some as the sexy, genre-bending songstress from Canada, the truth of the matter is more that she has always been determined to look after those in her care and to always maintain a sense of pride and confidence for the person she really believes herself to be. For me, I find it easy to respect anyone who has such a well grounded sense of self. So, for what it is worth, I tip my hat in admiration to someone who has experienced much in life but who has given back much in reply.

The link to the video for the song “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Shania Twain can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Deerhurst Resort can be found here.

The link to the official website for Timmins, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #32/50: Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

As mentioned in the two previous posts (which you can read here and here), the period from the very late 1800s up through the 1920s was a time of great advancement in the world of The Arts all across the world. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin were transforming the world of film. Frank Lloyd Wright and others from the Prairie School of Design were changing the way people imagined buildings could look and function. As painters, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso were producing astoundingly original work in comparison to their predecessors. As we have seen previously in this series, Igor Stravinsky and his Russian compatriots Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were busy reinventing the idea of what classical composition and ballet could and should be. In the world of dance, no one was taking greater advantage of those artistically expansive times than a woman named Martha Graham. Not only did Martha Graham help advance the notion of what emotive dance performance could look like, her techniques have become the standard by which other dancers from around the world have learned their craft for over a century now. Furthermore, her importance as a role model for women in many other fields cannot be overstated. Even though she rose to prominence during a time of cultural enlightenment, she did so while still having to navigate the corridors of power occupied mainly by men. Her success as a dancer, teacher and power broker in the world of The Arts served as an inspiration for generations of women who followed in her wake.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894 – 1991) performs ‘Lamentation,’ 1935. (Photo by Barbara Morgan/Getty Images)

As Martha Graham established herself as the preeminent dancer and choreographer in the world of American Dance in the 1920s, one of her greatest skills had nothing to do with music and movement but, instead, had everything to do with her ability to build relationships. Graham had a wonderful ability to connect with a wide variety of people who could help bring her artistic visions to fruition. Some of her networking skills involved those in the world of finance, whether bankers, well-heeled society types who could act as patrons of The Arts and/or government officials who could be influenced to pass legislation favourable to her endeavours and to The Arts, in general. Graham enjoyed working with artists, architects, engineers and graphic designers of all types so as to give her productions the “look” that would make them extraordinary. Needless to say, Graham was a friend, mentor, critic and inspiration to a league of dancers and musicians as well. One of Martha Graham’s greatest networking attributes is that she was blind to issues of colour, gender, religion and so on. She would work with anyone who believed in The Arts and who approached life with the belief that anything was possible when one truly believed it could be so. One example of Martha Graham in action can be found in the story of “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland. Many critics and experts point to this composition as possessing the quintessential “American sound”. Let’s take a closer look at a piece of music that holds a rightful place in the great American Songbook. This is the story of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Erick Hawkins, and Martha Graham at the premiere of 201cAppalachian Spring,201d 1944. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It is difficult for many of us to appreciate what it must feel like to have survived a global conflict such as World War I. As the War ended in 1918, much of the anxiety and self-sacrifice that so characterized the people of many nations gave way to a feeling of unbridled joy and optimism for what lay ahead. Much of the time and money and effort that had previously been devoted to the war effort was now unleashed in the opposite direction toward commerce, scientific advancement and toward The Arts. The Roaring Twenties, as the decade that followed WWI came to be called, was a time teeming with possibilities. One of those who understood the potential for good that existed at this time was Martha Graham. Not only did Graham believe that the 1920s was a wonderful boom time for The Arts, but she believed in her heart that The Arts had an important role in helping America and the rest of the world to heal and move forward in a positive way. One way in which Graham sought to sow the seeds of creativity and help to develop a sense of national identity in America was by commissioning a new ballet in which she would star. This ballet would not only act as a showcase for new and innovative ways to communicate to the world through dance, it would also set a tone for a new spirit of pride in America. In order to finance this new work, Graham teamed up with a woman named Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was known as a promoter and patron of The Arts. For the designing of her set, she turned to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. For the musical score, Martha Graham recruited Aaron Copland.

Sculptor and Martha Graham set designer Isamu Noguchi

Aaron Copland was a composer who had studied abroad in Paris under the musical direction of a woman named Nadia Boulanger. Like Graham, Nadia Boulanger developed a well-deserved reputation as an excellent music instructor at a time in our social history when it was not all that common for men to take instruction from a woman. But Boulanger had such a vast knowledge of the personalities, repertoire and musical techniques of all of the major classical composers in history that she was respected without regard for her gender. She was simply the best instructor available, and so students such as Copland, Philip Glass and even Quincy Jones sat by her side and absorbed her great wisdom. Aaron Copland came into contact with Martha Graham during a period in his career when he had tried various styles of composition but had yet to develop the style that would make him famous in the annals of American music. At that time, Copland found that he could master various technical styles of composition but that he felt those pieces of music were not in sync with the mood of the nation. Thus, when Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge approached him with regard to their desire to commission a new ballet score that would come to define America as it felt in the 1920s, Copland felt as though a creative door had opened for him. The vision that Martha Graham wished to bring to the stage was exactly the connection with an audience Copland was desiring to achieve with his music. So, he immediately set to work.

Aaron Copland at home in his studio

As he allowed himself to think about the mythological idea of what America was, he started to conjure images in his mind of the vastness of the Great Plains, of open sky and of mountains harbouring cool, clear springs of water. To Copland, the openness and vastness of the land symbolized the vastness of its potential as a nation. Thus, he set to work creating a composition that sought to replicate that majestic vista in sound. The result of his efforts was a new work called “Appalachian Spring”. As the following years unfolded, “Appalachian Spring” ended up becoming two distinct works. First of all, it became the score of the ballet that Martha Graham had commissioned and ended up dancing to. The story told in the ballet was of a young couple arriving on the Great Plains to begin a new life as husband and wife. There were other characters living nearby who imparted their advice about life in a new land. The young couple accepted the dangers inherent in this new chapter of their lives but believed that through love and hard work, their dreams could be realized and that a better tomorrow was theirs to be had. In many ways, Graham’s ballet was a visual manifestation of the “American Dream”. Copland’s score was slow and sweeping. Coupled with Graham’s expressive manifestation of good old American values, “Appalachian Spring” became an immediate sensation. In time, Copland was asked to modify his score so that it could be performed by orchestras without the ballet component being necessary. So, Aaron Copland tweaked his score and made it possible for chamber-style groups to perform “Appalachian Spring”, too. There is a jazzy component to “Appalachian Spring” which is reflective of how prominent a genre of music Jazz was becoming in the 1920s. Even though the sound of Jazz doesn’t usually cause images of the Great Plains to appear in one’s mind, Copland combined the two in a very original and innovative manner and helped to create a new soundscape for a nation. Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his efforts.

All through the course of my life, I have witnessed the ebbs and flows of opinion with regard to the value of The Arts in our society. Much of this debate concerns the investment of public funds (in the form of taxes) into having The Arts taught in our public schools. It shouldn’t surprise any of my regular readers to know that I value The Arts highly. There is no debate for me regarding their importance. I firmly believe that anything in life that can touch your heart and stimulate your mind is something that possesses great value. The Arts do that. Not every painting needs to be your cup of tea; not every song needs to make you feel something, either. But what The Arts do provide is a way of looking at the world that holds the potential to inspire individuals and whole countries. It is not without reason that Fourth of July festivities in the U.S. traditionally end with a concert by The Boston Pops or some other orchestra and that, as part of that concert, a piece of music called “Appalachian Spring” is played. When done well, The Arts can uplift the hearts of everyone who sees or hears the manifestation of that creative expression. We should all be grateful to the Martha Grahams and Aaron Coplands of the world for their efforts to prove the one great value of The Arts above all else…they show us the way forward toward a better tomorrow. And when there is Hope, there is Life.

The link to the video for the composition “Appalachian Spring” (ballet) by Aaron Copland can be found here. The Chamber version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Aaron Copland can be found here.

The link to the official website for Martha Graham can be found here.

The link to the official website for designer Isamu Noguchi can be found here. ***Apparently, if you Google “Noguchi table”, you can buy one from Walmart. I kid you not. Go ahead. Try it for yourself.

The link to the official website for Arts Patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Reader’s Choice: Song #27/250: Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon

According to Simon, wearing the turkey outfit on SNL was all his idea. He was hoping it would soften his serious image.

“Still Crazy After All These Years” was the title track and the third single released from Paul Simon’s fourth solo album. It hit the airwaves in 1975 and went on to help Simon win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, as well as for Album of the Year. It was at this particular edition of the Grammy Awards that Simon famously thanked Stevie Wonder for not having an album out that year (Wonder had won the previous two years in a row and would win the next year as well). Paul Simon also used the song to open the second show ever in the history of Saturday Night Live. A few years later, he hosted a second time (on US Thanksgiving Day) and reprised the song while dressed in a turkey costume, stopping halfway through to mockingly complain to producer Lorne Michaels that his “serious image” was taking a beating because of the turkey suit. In all, Paul Simon has released fifteen solo albums and has continued to win Grammy awards for many years. He is in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice because of his work as part of Simon and Garfunkel and because of his stellar solo career.

Paul Simon and Dick Cavett: the magician reveals his tricks

There is much to admire and like about Paul Simon, but the one aspect of his career that the majority of people point to as being the most important is his songwriting ability. The man knows how to tell a story. This brings us back to “Still Crazy After All These Years”. This song is a tune that has been studied by experts and held up in English Lit./Creative Writing classes as an excellent example of story structure, word usage and the cadence of storytelling. To further mythologize the writing aspect of “Still Crazy After All These Years”, a few months before it was finished, Paul Simon appeared on the Dick Cavett Show (which was a television interview-style show for those who may be unaware). During his segment with Cavett, Simon was asked about his songwriting process. Paul Simon then proceeded to use an unfinished song as an example of a work-in-progress. That song was “Still Crazy After All These Years”. In the interview, Simon broke down the musical, as well as the linguistic structure of this song and explained his creative thought processes. Many songwriters point to that interview as being a masterclass in how to write a song. So, let’s take a bit of a closer look at this terrific song. Here is the story of “Still Crazy After All These Years”.

To this day, Paul Simon has never stated what the song was supposed to be about. The only hint he has given was when he said that the idea for the song came to him in the shower, with the warm water flowing over him as he stood there contemplating the state of his life. At the time, Paul Simon was entering his thirties; he had recently divorced his first wife and was attempting to build a career for himself after leaving one of the most successful musical partnerships of all time. He had much to contemplate. Consequently, many who have analyzed “Still Crazy After All These Years” believe that when Paul Simon wrote about meeting “an old lover on the street last night. She seemed so glad to see me. I just smiled” to mean that while he enjoyed his old relationships (with his ex-wife and/or with Art Garfunkel), he was satisfied with his choice to move on without them. Only Paul Simon knows the truth of the matter. But, as someone who has experienced that transitory process of leaving your youthful twenties and entering the real adult phase of life in your thirties, there is a lot to reflect upon and evaluate when it comes to life choices. One can only hope that you can be at peace with the path you are on, moving forward. In the hands of a less talented songwriter, “Still Crazy After All These Years” would go on to answer the questions as to the emotional state of Paul Simon’s mind. But Paul Simon is not a “less talented” songwriter. He knows that life is complex, so he muddies the waters by introducing a lyrical concept known as “the middle eight”.

David Bowie’s “Changes” is one of the most famous songs to incorporate the songwriting device known as a middle eight verse.

Most Pop songs possess a song structure that goes “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” or else, “verse-verse-chorus, verse-verse-chorus”. It is a song structure that helps audiences know how to anticipate what almost any given song is going to sound and feel like. It is said that there is a formula used in the crafting of Pop songs. Part of that formula lies with its structure of verse-chorus or verse-verse-chorus. However, in many of the most memorable songs of all time, the songwriters have changed the flow of their song by introducing a verse known as “the middle eight”. In simple terms, a middle eight is an eight-bar verse that interrupts the flow of a song, taking it in an entirely different direction before returning the listener to the original song. It is almost like when a television show is paused for a public service announcement or a commercial. There have been many examples of this technique being used. For instance, in the David Bowie hit song, “Changes”, we have the sudden change in pacing with the introduction of the lines, “Strange fascination, fascinating me”. “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles has the middle eight verse that begins, “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend”. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, with all of its wonderful harmonies about good vibrations and excitations, changes dramatically after the second chorus. In most cases, a middle eight verse is inserted after the second chorus or verse. By this point in the song, the listener has begun to form an opinion or idea of what the message of the song is all about. But the addition of a middle eight verse is intentional by the songwriter and is meant to draw attention to a particular aspect of the song’s message. When it happens, this process usually causes the song to take on a deeper, more complex meaning.

In “Still Crazy After All These Years”, the first two verses of the song tend to lead one to believe that Paul Simon is telling a story about reflecting on his life choices to date and being OK with how things have turned out. Then, out of the blue, he changes the narrative by throwing in a middle eight verse about waking up at “Four in the morning, crapped out, yawning…longing my life away”. The middle eight verse ends with the introduction of beautiful saxophone work which fills up enough time within the framework of the song as to constitute another whole verse or two on its own. Simon comes out of the orchestral segment by declaring that he feels that he still has some good years ahead of him and that he will be judged accordingly as having chosen the correct path, “Now I sit by my window and I watch the cars, I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day. But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers, still crazy after all these years”.

What adds to the debate about what this song is about has to do with an additional wrinkle that Paul Simon has incorporated into the structure of the song. A song has words. We have seen how he uses words in a different way by introducing a verse called the middle eight. But a song has a musical structure, too. I am no expert in song keys and chord changes, but I do know enough to know that composers use minor keys and major keys to help them create certain moods in the listener. Major keys are more upbeat while minor keys are more sombre. In “Still Crazy After All These Years”, Paul Simon not only makes very careful and considered language choices when telling his story, but he also plays around with chord structures all throughout the song so that a variety of emotional manipulations are at work beneath the story his words are attempting to tell. Is his message a determined one? Is he sad and contemplative? Is he resigned to his fate or making a strong declarative statement of belief in himself? His words say one thing while the emotional sea changes embedded within the chord variations suggest something else. As stated earlier in this post, Paul Simon has never actually stated what the true nature of this song is all about.

Is that an appropriate thing for a songwriter to do? After all, life is busy, our minds are often full to overflowing with thoughts we would rather not entertain. Is it too much to ask that the music we listen to be clear and easy to understand?! In some cases I believe that the answer is that music should be fun and easy to understand and enjoy. That’s why Pop music is the genre that it is. It is music that, by definition, is popular (which is where the “Pop” in Pop music comes from). There is a comfort in being able to predict how the melody of a song will play out so you can bop and groove while letting your mind shut down and your daily woes melt away. But I also believe that this shouldn’t be the way it is all of the time. When I used to be a teacher, there were always times within a school year that I would be attempting to introduce a new academic concept (particularly in Math) only to have the kids grow frustrated because it was new and different and was hard to understand in the beginning. Somewhere along the way someone was sure to cry out, “Why don’t you just tell us the answer!?” (instead of making them figure it out). The correct response to that question is always that to tell someone the answer each and every time would rob them of the opportunity to figure it out for themselves and would not help their mind to grow as a result. Not everyone appreciated hearing that. However, the easy way is not always the most beneficial to us in our development as human beings. Thus, when someone like Paul Simon comes along and creates a song that makes the listener think deeper thoughts than they may wish to, it isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, it may be a necessary tonic.

If you are a fan of Saturday Night Live, then you will have heard part of this song played during every episode throughout the whole forty-plus years the show has been on the air. The instrumental saxophone segment plays at some point in every show. The link between Paul Simon and the comedy of Saturday Night Live is strong and has obviously stood the test of time. It is not just a matter of producer Lorne Michaels’ personal musical taste, either. Both the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” and the comedy of Saturday Night Live are meant to offer food for thought, as it were. Many people underestimate comedy as a vehicle to expand our understanding of complex topics in the same way that Pop music can be misunderstood as a literary art form. Storytelling can appear in many guises. Perhaps that’s the real message of “Still Crazy After All These Years”? Only Paul Simon can really say for sure. And I am OK with that.

The link to the video for the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon can be found here.

The link to the video of Paul Simon appearing on The Dick Cavett Show can be found here.

The link to the official website for Paul Simon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Saturday Night Live can be found here.

***If there are any songs that you wish I would cover, then by all means, drop me a line in the comment box below. I will do my best to do right by your song choice.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Today’s/Tomorrow’s Top 40: March 1, 2023…Feist, Beck, Hayden, Murray A. Lightburn, Eamon McGrath, Screaming Females

In today’s post we have six brand new tunes for your reading and listening pleasure! It has been a while since so much good new music has been released all at the same time so I am excited to get started. Without any further delay, let’s jump right in with a gorgeous new song from one of the most beautiful and distinctive voices in all of Canada! Enjoy the show, folks!

In Lightning by Leslie Feist

Leslie Feist

From winning a Battle of the Bands and getting to appear on a bill with The Ramones, to being a member of Canadian indie supergroup Broken Social Scene, to releasing Juno award-winning albums as a solo artist, Leslie Feist has nearly done it all as a singer and songwriter in Canada. The singer, who is known simply as Feist, is releasing a new album this month called Multitudes. From that album, she has released three singles already, including the song I am highlighting today called “In Lightning”. Kate Bush and Bjork are two of my favourite singers. I hold Feist in the same lofty company as them in terms of the timbre of her voice and the artsy nature of her lyrics and singing style. If this is your first time hearing Feist sing, then you are in for a treat. She is one of Canada’s most highly respected singers for a reason. The video for “In Lightning” can be found here. ***There is no lyrics video for this song yet.

Thinking About You by Beck

Beck arriving for a performance on The Jimmy Kimmel Show

Beck has been one of the most innovative and creative singers in the world of music for several decades now. He burst into the public eye back in the 1990s when he helped popularize the art of sampling on his album Odelay. He won several Grammy Awards for that album and has never looked back. Beck has definitely had a career that has been more about the craft of creating interesting songs, rather than being about celebrity and having the noisiest voice. He has been a private person, shunning the spotlight for the most part. Thus, his new song, “Thinking About You”, is startling in many respects because it is deeply personal. For a man who has purposely avoided the limelight, this new song speaks clearly about his thoughts on religion as well as on the demise of his marriage. For a quiet piece of music, Beck has never been more forthcoming and forward. The video for “Thinking About You” can be found here. The lyrics version is here.

Miss Fort Erie by Hayden

Hayden Desser

Hayden Desser is one of Canada’s hidden gems. In the world of indie and alternative music, Hayden has established himself as a songwriter of note. In the larger world of popular music, he has very much spent his entire career somewhat under the radar. The truth is that those who call themselves fans recognize the artistry inherent in his songwriting, causing him to have some of the most devoted supporters of any Canadian artist. “Miss Fort Erie” is only Hayden’s second new song since 2015! In the time since then, he stepped back from his career to focus on helping to raise a family with his wife. This new song is really an old song that Hayden wrote several years ago and is only bringing out now. The video for this song was filmed in a hotel in Newfoundland. In the video, a television set is turned on and plays in the background. On the screen is a montage of every music video Hayden has ever made. For fans of the singer, it is like watching a “greatest hits” retrospective of his career. Like most Hayden songs, “Miss Fort Erie” is a very literate, artful and intelligently written song. There is a definite story being told for those who take the time to listen. The video for the song “Miss Fort Erie” can be found here. The lyrics version is here.

Dumpster Gold by Murray A. Lightburn

Murray A. Lightburn

Many people know Murray A. Lightburn as the lead singer and principal songwriter of the Montreal-based band, The Dears. In that role, Lightburn has earned comparisons to the legendary frontman, Morrissey. The Dears, in turn, have been favourably compared to such innovative bands as Radiohead. Heady praise, indeed, on both accounts. But Murray A. Lightburn has also released several solo albums and is making a name for himself in the international world of music, too. Lightburn’s latest album is entitled Once Upon a Time in Montreal. The first single from that album is called “Dumpster Gold”. The story behind “Dumpster Gold” is a very personal one. Lightburn’s father was a jazz musician, but the two were never close as father and son. However, his father loved his mother. They were married for over fifty years. In his later years, Lightburn’s father developed Alzheimer’s Disease and it became apparent that he could no longer safely live in the home in which Murray Lightburn grew up. So, Lightburn’s mother put the house up for sale. As part of the process of moving, Lightburn was asked to help clear most of the family’s possessions out of the house. It was during this purging process that Lightburn was able to see a side of his father that he was never afforded the luxury of having when his Dad was healthy and present. The letters, photographs and other mementos he found had enormous personal value to him, even though most other people would have considered them to be nothing but junk. Thus, these bits of “Dumpster Gold” became the connective tissue that brought Lightburn closer to his father. The video for “Dumpster Gold” can be found here. ***There is no lyrics video for this song yet.

Teenager by Eamon McGrath

Eamon McGrath

Eamon McGrath is a Canadian singer/songwriter who alternates between performing quiet acoustic sets on his own, and employing an upbeat, alternative-punk vibe when he is playing with a band such as the folks from influential 1980/90s indie band, Eric’s Trip. McGrath has released almost twenty albums of original music between the year 2008 and now. He has also written several books about life on the road as a musician. In addition to his solo career, McGrath has been involved with several collaborations including ones with singer Julie Dorion from Eric’s Trip and currently The Wrong Guys, as well as with drummer Danny Miles of the band July Talk. Eamon McGrath tours extensively across Canada, appearing at festivals and taverns near you in all likelihood. His latest album is entitled Trout River Conspiracy. The first single is “Teenager”. The video for “Teenager” can be found here. ***There is no lyrics video for this song yet.

Brass Bell by Screaming Females

Screaming Females: Mike Abbate, Marissa Paternoster, Jarrett Dougherty

Screaming Females is a trio out of New Brunswick, New Jersey that employs only one female, but what a performer she is! Marissa Paternoster is lead singer and guitarist for the band that she formed in high school with her friend, bassist Mike Abbate. (Jarrett Dougherty is the drummer and helped complete the band). Paternoster was a shy and introverted person as a teenager and only felt confident in public when she was able to stand behind a microphone and play a guitar. Screaming Females based themselves on the style of Sleater-Kinney. They gained a reputation for giving blistering shows by way of starting their career only playing small venues such as the basements of friends, small bars and so on. As time went on, Paternoster gained much confidence on stage, to the point where, in a recent ranking of the top 100 guitarists in the entire world, she came in at position #77! She is a tiny physical presence who can shred with the giants! I first saw her on video performing with Shirley Manson of the band, Garbage. They performed an excellent cover of Springsteen’s “Because the Night”. Manson is an excellent performer in her own right, but in this video (which you can watch here) she wisely stepped back and yielded the stage to Paternoster, who absolutely killed it in the spotlight. Screaming Females’ latest album is called Desire Pathway. The lead single is “Brass Bell”. Buckle up! The video for “Brass Bell” can be found here. ***There is no lyrics video available yet for this song.

That’s it for today’s new music offerings. What did you think? Did any impress you? Are there other new songs that you think are worthy of the spotlight? If so, let me know in the comments below and I will give them an airing in a subsequent post. Thanks for reading my words. I hope you enjoyed these new songs as much as I did. Have a great rest of your day!

***FYI: the link on the band name takes you to their website. The link to their new song will be within the body of the paragraph devoted to them.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim from the Original Cast Recording of Sunday in the Park with George…Song #34/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

The stories behind the most memorable songs from Broadway and Hollywood.

In music, it is customary to refer to musicians or bands in terms of the genre of music they play. For example, if you went to a Black Sabbath concert you probably heard a style of music called Heavy Metal. If you went to see Tammy Wynette perform when she was alive then you, no doubt, heard Country music played. If you went today to a Cardi B. show, I am sure that Hip Hop would be on the menu. While most musicians are capable of performing in a wide range of styles, we often associate them with a certain brand or a style. The same holds true for artists who paint. Rembrandt had a certain style when it came to his portraiture work. The faces of his subjects would be clearly in light while the background would often be so dark as to be almost black. Vincent Van Gogh was known for the short, feather-like paint strokes he filled his paintings with. His brush stroke style is one of the most characteristic traits he had as an artist. This brings us to a painter who you may or may not have heard of named Georges Seurat. Georges Seurat is an artist who has become the poster boy for a style of art called pointillism. Pointillism is a style of painting in which the artist creates whole images by making a series of very small point-like marks on the canvas. The idea is similar to the way we view pixels on a screen. Pointillism works because the artist knows the viewer will not view the individual dots or points on the canvas but will, instead look at the totality of the image the points create in the mind’s eye, much as we look at a screen and see whole images as opposed to individual pixels. Georges Seurat is the most well known practitioner of pointillism. His most famous painting that employs this technique is called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (which you can see at the top of this post).

25th April 1985, American composer Stephen Sondheim, left, and playwright James Lapine pose in front of the marquee of the Booth Theatre on 45th Street, New York City, where their Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical, ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ is playing. (Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

The story of today’s song begins with this very painting. One day a writer named James Lapine was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and happened upon Seurat’s painting. He found the painting to be captivating. As he studied the scene before him, two things popped into his head: 1- he noticed that the many people who were incorporated into the scene were all looking away from each other. Not one single person in the park was interacting with another. They were all a collection of individuals in a group setting, all staring off into the distance. 2- Lapine noticed that Seurat, himself, was not represented in the painting. The longer Lapine stood before A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the more he found the painting speaking to him about the artist, Georges Seurat. As a result, Lapine decided to look more into the life of Georges Seurat. In doing so, Lapine believed that a special story was waiting to be told. So he wrote a story treatment that he called Sunday in the Park with George. This story was not a biography in the true sense of that genre but was a fictionalized account of the artist and his life. James Lapine was a frequent collaborator on Broadway with Stephen Sondheim. After showing Sondheim his story about Seurat, Sondheim agreed that it was a tale worth telling. So the pair adapted Lapine’s work for the stage, with Sondheim creating the music and song lyrics. In 1985, Sunday in the Park with George debuted on Broadway. It ended up winning two Tony Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Mandy Patinkin as George and Bernadette Peters as Dot from the original cast of Sunday in the Park with George.

The story that Sunday in the Park with George tells is essentially about the vision that people have about their life and how they wish it to unfold. The play centers upon the two main characters of George (painter Georges Seurat) and his mistress, Dot. The short strokes of the story are that Dot has agreed to be George’s mistress because she admires his skill as an artist. However, Dot has dreams that go beyond merely being a mistress to a successful man. She envisions a fully-formed life with George. Dot wishes for romance and attention and fame-by-association. However, the very thing she admires most about George…his skill as a painter…is the one thing that makes such a union impossible. George is such a successful artist because he has skills, for sure, but more, because he is driven to perfection. He has set impossibly high standards for his art and therefore, never feels as though he is ever truly finished with his work. Thus, he works tirelessly on each painting, devoting all of his being toward the canvas and never toward Dot. When the play debuted on Broadway, Mandy Patinkin played George and Bernadette Peters played Dot. At a certain point as the story unfolds, the audience begins to sense that both parties have different desires and priorities. This sense of foreboding is confirmed in a song entitled “Finishing the Hat”. As the song is sung, George has promised to take Dot out on the town. Dot is very excited because she believes her dreams of the two of them becoming a real couple may be about to happen. But as the scene goes on, we see that George cannot seem to pull himself away from his painting because he needs to “finish the hat” on one of the character’s heads. However, the audience soon comes to learn that George can never actually finish the hat because of his perfectionist nature. He will never be fully satisfied with the hat he is painting and therefore, he can never leave his easel. In time, as this scene unfolds, Dot comes to recognize that she will always be second to his art in George’s mind. “Finishing the Hat” is a simple song about a small moment in the lives of two people, but, like all good art, it captures a much deeper and more profound layer of emotion and meaning between them. It may be a song about painting a hat, but in the end it is a song about dreams dying and love ending in a way that both people seem powerless to stop.

There is no other hand I wish to hold.

Sunday in the Park with George is a musical in two acts. The storyline involving George and Dot ends with the conclusion of Act One. Many people feel that the musical could have ended there, too. However, Act Two opens two generations later and focuses upon George’s grandson. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how it all wraps up, but I will say that generational trauma takes many forms, and if you ever go to watch this musical being performed, you will be able to recognize George in Act Two because of some of the behaviours and attitudes possessed by his grandson. Whether the grandson has better luck with finding a balance between love and his career is something that you will have to discover for yourself. As many of us understand, it isn’t always easy to strike that perfect balance between having a successful career, a loving relationship with someone, raising a family and so on. Some people equate balance with mediocrity and feel that to be successful requires uncompromising commitment and drive. At the end of the day, the question this musical really asks is what do you value most in life and are you prepared for the costs associated with experiencing that version of your dream life? For me, I have chosen love and I have chosen my family. I will probably never make the best seller lists with my writing because I am more than willing to “finish the hat” as it were and move on to spend time with those I love and hold dear. A long time ago I was like Dot and George were at the beginning of the musical. I had a clear vision of what was important to me in life and what I considered to be the true measure of that success. I wanted to be a father and I wanted a hand to hold as I grew older. I have been blessed to have had both parts of my dream come true. I can’t imagine how different life would be if, early on in our courting days, I had turned my back on Keri because I had a novel to write that I just couldn’t seem to finish. We all make our choices in life. In the musical, George chooses his art. In real life, I chose family and true love. I’m OK with my choices. I hope that Georges Seurat was OK with his choices in his own life, as well.

The link to the video for the song “Finishing the Hat” from the Original Cast Recording of the Musical Sunday in the Park with George can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the Musical Sunday in the Park with George can be found here.

The link to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Seurat’s famous painting is on display, can be found here.

The link to the official website for artist Georges Seurat can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #35/250: Avalanche by Matt Good ft. the Visual Storytelling of Tim Thompson

The stories behind great songs about Canada.

Hockey has always been a part of my life. There is something almost mythical about being a young boy and having a stick in your hands, your words a fog of vapour in the air, the camaraderie of scoring a goal and celebrating with your friends and teammates. I was never a skater on a league team, but I spent countless days and nights playing road hockey on my street or in boots on the backyard rinks of my friends. All of us had plastic blades attached to our stick handles, all curved and sharpened into scythes in the belief that it made our shots trickier to stop for the goalie. We played under the sun. We played under the stars. We played in the snow. We played on the ice. We played until our cheeks burned red and our Moms called us in for supper. We were our heroes, only tinier. I liked Paul Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many of my friends were Guy LaFleur of the Montreal Canadiens. We heard the voice of Danny Gallivan in our heads as we attempted our own version of the Savardian Spin-o-rama. Hockey was our world in the winter in Canada.

The importance of hockey in Canada was captured very well in a children’s book called The Hockey Sweater written by Roch Carrier. This book describes the all-or-nothing mentality of hockey life in small towns. The games all played out on sheets of ice or streets of asphalt by young boys and girls who were emulating their favourite players. But more than this, Carrier’s book showed how important hockey had become in a political and cultural sense. For those unaware, The Hockey Sweater takes place in a small French community in Quebec. It concerns a group of boys who are all fans of The Montreal Canadiens, and in particular, they all idolized one player, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. In the story, one boy’s Richard jersey develops a tear and needs to be replaced. His mother, who does not care about hockey, orders him a new one from the Eatons catalogue. When it arrives, the boy is horror struck to discover the new sweater belongs to the dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs. That the Leafs were the professional rivals of the Montreal Canadiens was one thing, but, in the much bigger picture of life in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs represented English-speaking Canada while the Canadiens represented those who were French. The “two solitudes” of Canada as it existed in the 1950s were laid bare in this classic children’s book. In that light, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was much more than just a hockey player, he was a powerful cultural symbol of strength to many in Quebec. To wear a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater in Quebec was sacrilege of the highest order. The boy’s mom makes him wear his new sweater to the next game. The boy ends up being shunned by everyone, including his coach and the referee. Sometimes moms just don’t understand. Hockey means everything.

Maurice “The Rocket” Richard: more than simply a hockey player.

Flash forward to a decade or so ago. Hockey Night in Canada is no longer reserved just for Saturday nights. The six-team league of my youth has grown to over five times that number. Montreal and Toronto are still rivals, but generations of poor Leafs teams had watered down that rivalry quite a bit. In the 2000s, the biggest rivals the Montreal Canadiens had were the Boston Bruins. The “Big Bad” Bruins had been a good team since the 1970s and had enjoyed just as much success on the ice as the storied Montreal Canadiens had. In 2012, the two teams were slated to meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins were fast and tough and highly skilled. The Canadiens had two exciting star players in all-world goaltender Carey Price and hotshot young defenceman P.K. Subban. I tuned in to watch the sixth game of a tight series with much excitement and anticipation. The broadcast began with the announcement that “the following is a live presentation of CBC Sports”, but then, instead of going live to a rink side commentator or the in-studio host, music began to play and a film started. The film was created by an ex-hockey player turned filmmaker, Tim Thompson. It was a montage of tightly edited images and video clips that showed the entire history of the Boston-Montreal rivalry, including the series up until that point. The images were shown over the soundtrack of a song called “Avalanche” by Canadian singer Matt Good. The song itself speaks of the enormous effort it takes to move through life sometimes (Matt Good battles mental illness and addiction, so he knows of what he speaks). Against the backdrop of the whole history of both teams, the song took on another meaning about the sacrifice it took these players to make it to this point in their careers and specifically, to that point in the series and how much of a battle it is to win in the playoffs. Thompson does a stunningly good job of showing both sides of the rivalry equally. There are images of Bruins legends like Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, as well as the fiery eyes of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and the stoicism of Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden leaning on his stick, seemingly without a care in the world. The respect for the history of the teams was only matched by Thompson’s gift for storytelling and his skill as a film editor. While I had always been a fan of Matt Good and the Matthew Good Band, this musical hockey montage took “Avalanche” to a whole new level of meaning for me. To say I was pumped for the game is an understatement. I really, truly believe that you should stop what you are doing and watch this montage before going on. I have watched it dozens of times and get goosebumps with every viewing. It is the very best example of combining my love of storytelling with my love of music and of hockey, too. Simply excellent work! So, click here and let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Tim Thompson

We are linked together as a nation by our love of hockey and linked together in the present because of all that has come from the past. Tim Thompson understands this and has created many other wonderful hockey montage films that capture the enormity of the effort that it takes to win at any level. He was also the man who created the montages for the CBC coverage of the summer and winter Olympic Games. He is a very talented young man who lives in Port Hope, Ontario which is just one town over from where I live in Cobourg. We follow each other on social media. He knows me enough from that to call me Tom. You can watch more of his great work on YouTube by searching for Hockey Films by Tim Thompson. There are dozens. He tends to use cool Canadian songs by great Canadian singers and bands which is just one more reason to love his work.

Singer Matt Good

As for Matt Good, he does not know me enough to call me Tom. Matt Good was born in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and still lives in B.C. to this day. I have always been a fan of his music from his very earliest days when he performed under the moniker of The Matthew Good Band. Songs like “Apparitions”, “Hello Time Bomb”, “Everything Is Automatic”, “Rico”, “Weapon”, “Non Populus” and “Avalanche” all have a place on my own personal playlists. Good has been nominated for many Juno Awards and has won several as part of a band or as a solo artist. Many of Matt Good’s song lyrics contain terrific imagery and pack an emotional punch. His singing voice can be strong and powerful when it needs to be, but it can also be whisper-quiet, too. Good sings with a lot of emotion and plays guitar with a lot of skill. He is one of my favourite Canadian performers and one that I have seen in concert more than once. I would happily see him again, too. On the personal side, Matt Good has had a tough go. He has been diagnosed as being bi-polar and has also battled depression, at times. At one point, he developed an addiction to the prescription medication he was taking for his mental health. He has also experienced health problems that have made touring a hit-or-miss affair in recent years. However, having said that, Matt Good persists. He is currently on a solo acoustic tour and is well worth checking out should he be performing in your area. In the video link below, I will include an acoustic version of Good singing “Avalanche”, so you can get a good sense of how he sounds with just his voice and his guitar.

Music. Storytelling. Hockey. This post combines many of the things that I enjoy most in life. To me they are all important. All three resonate with me on a very personal level, and yet all three things are integral parts of our national identity, too. It is not without reason that an image from the book The Hockey Sweater adorned the back of our five dollar bill for many years. It is also not without reason that when Maurice “The Rocket” Richard passed away he was accorded a state funeral. We are the stories we tell and the experiences we share. It is part of what makes us Canadians.

What a good Canadian garage door should look like.

Although the Toronto Maple Leafs have broken my heart continuously over the course of my lifetime, hope springs eternal once again in my heart as the playoffs approach. Maybe this is the year they will win it all. Maybe, just maybe. However, it is more likely that I will end up crying at the end of my driveway as Gord Downie and his brother, Mike did when their favourite team, Boston, was eliminated that year. I don’t take shots against my garage door anymore, but my neighbour’s kid does. Their pock-marked garage door is every bit a symbol of Canada as is the call of the loon or the red maple leaf.

I will close by telling you all that one time I spoke with Tim Thompson online to congratulate him on the success of one of his montages, and I asked him if, when I die, he would put together a musical montage of images from my life. He hasn’t responded, but if he were to do so, I wonder what my life’s song would be? If you could do the same, what would your song be? What story about you would it tell?

The link to the video for the song “Avalanche” by Matt Good can be found here. ***The lyrics version is unavailable.

The link to the official website for Matt Good can be found here.

The link to the official website for Tim Thompson can be found here.

Since Matt Good is originally from Coquitlam, B.C., let’s go there for our pit stop. The official website for Coquitlam, British Columbia can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #31/50: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock (7450793a) The cemetery of San Michele is located in the homonymous island in the Venetian Lagoon, located between Venice and Murano The San Michele Cemetery, Venice, Italy – 22 Nov 2016

The city of Venice, Italy is divided into six districts or sestieri. The northernmost of these is called Cannaregio. This district got its name because it contained the main canal that formed a transportation corridor in and out of the city proper to the mainland. Cannaregio is Italian for “Royal Canal”. In a lagoon just outside of Cannaregio lies the Isle of San Michele. Several centuries ago, the Isle of San Michele was designated for use as a cemetery. Over the years, many famous people have been buried there. One of those whose gravesite can be found there is Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Not far from his gravesite is another one that contains the remains of Russian Arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Forever united in life, they remain united in death as well. Today we shall learn the story of how they came to know each other and how that relationship resulted in one of the most famous moments in modern music history: the Paris Riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s symphonic opera, “The Rite of Spring”.

Sergei Diaghilev

In the late 1800s, the Diaghilev family was one of the most prominent families in all of Russia when it came to their involvement in The Arts. They hosted concerts at their estate every other Tuesday. They funded new ballets, symphonies and exhibits by all of the most popular writers, poets, painters and sculptors that Russia had to offer. In this environment, young Sergei Diaghilev grew up. He was encouraged to learn to play the piano and was giving public recitals of his own original works by the time he was only fifteen years of age. But more than possessing a love of music, Sergei Diaghilev possessed an amazing ability to organize the exhibits and concerts that happened at his family’s estate. In time, Diaghilev took his organizational talents beyond the walls of his home and began organizing concerts and art exhibitions throughout Russia. In doing so, he came into contact with a large group of talented young dancers, composers, writers and artists. In order to help promote the work of his new-found friends, Diaghilev founded an influential Arts magazine called Mir iskusstva or World of Art. Diaghilev became known as one of Russia’s leading promoters of The Arts, which earned him the protection and support of Czar Nicholas II. In time, Diaghilev wanted to extend the reach of Russian Arts so he began organizing art exhibits in Paris, France. When those went well, Diaghilev decided to bring Russian music into the cultural heart of Europe. To do this, he contacted one of the young, rising stars of Russian classical music, his friend Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky accepted Diaghilev’s commission and began work on a symphonic opera/ballet that came to be called “The Rite of Spring”. What happened next did nothing less than change the course of modern music.

As the early 1900s progressed, the Arts scene in Russia was filled with young artists in all disciplines who possessed a thorough grounding in Arts theories and traditions but who also wished to bring their own unique vision to bear in the new works that they were creating. It was a time of great creative innovation in the Arts, regardless of the discipline in question. Igor Stravinsky, along with fellow composers Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, formed the new vanguard of compositional thought when it came to creating symphonies, operas and ballets. Stravinsky believed that his work should be steeped in history but performed with unbridled imagination. Thus, the creative vision of Igor Stravinsky seemed a perfect match for the promotional vision of Sergei Diaghilev.

In composing “The Rite of Spring”, Igor Stravinsky drew upon cultural folklore for a story about the coming of spring and the rebirth of nature that accompanies the change of seasons. As you may remember from a previous post (which you can read here), the song “Carol of the Bells” was originally based upon a Ukrainian folk song called “The Little Swallow”, which also heralded the coming of spring and offered blessings for a good growing season and harvest to follow. So, by tapping into the coming of spring as the foundation for his new work, Stravinsky was bringing forth one of Russia’s most cherished and time-honoured aspects of its folklore. There was nothing controversial in this at all.

Composer Igor Stravinsky

However, Igor Stravinsky had no intention of simply creating a peaceful, pastoral composition for his own debut in Paris. In his mind, this was his golden opportunity to make a bold artistic statement. So, Igor Stravinsky decided to create a musical work called a symphonic opera ballet. What this means is that his work would have a unified theme running over two acts. The first act would be a traditional symphony and opera combination. In the second act, the visual element would change into a ballet. Both acts would tell a continuous story about the birth of spring. As he began his work, Stravinsky surrounded himself with the most creative people he could find. Thus, Maria Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were hired as dancers and choreographers. The stage design and costumes were made by a man named Nicholas Roerich. The world of opera in Paris at the time was one in which tradition and refinement were the orders of the day. However, these young Russian artists had something else in mind when they created all aspects of “The Rite of Spring”. It was decided early on that this production would turn everything the world knew about music and dance inside out and upside down.

These dancers don’t look like ballet dancers to me! They didn’t look that way to Parisians, either.

With the luxury of retrospection, the term avant-garde would come to be coined to describe what Igor Stravinsky and his friends unleashed upon an unsuspecting Parisian audience that day. There was almost nothing about “The Rite of Spring” that conformed to any preconceived notions of what a symphony, opera or ballet should be like. Stravinsky believed his work to be grand and glorious. Fellow composer Giacomo Puccini, who was in attendance that evening, called it “a cacophony of noise”. The other members of the audience didn’t know what to make of a score in which notes clashed and competed for attention instead of working together in harmony as they were used to hearing. “The Rite of Spring” was not what they were expecting, which was exactly what Igor Stravinsky and friends had intended. Although this debut performance of “The Rite of Spring” was met with boos and jeers and with objects hurled toward the stage (which resulted in the Paris police being summoned), the concert never stopped for a single second. In the end, what saved Stravinsky’s performance, as well as Diaghilev’s promotional reputation, was that there were enough savvy Parisians there who came to realize that what, at first, seemed to be nothing more than noisy confusion was actually a revolutionary way of producing music as Art. While traditionalists balked at what Diaghilev, Stravinsky and company had achieved, history would render a more flattering judgment. “The Rite of Spring” is now viewed as a turning point in the world of modern music because it was the moment when someone proved that the “rules” of musical composition needn’t be confining and limiting. In fact, the exact opposite was possible. The foundational aspects of composing operas and ballets could be used to springboard in all sorts of new and interesting directions. Throughout the history of music, there have been moments of courage such as this (think about Bob Dylan going “electric” at the Newport Jazz Festival). Doing what is comfortable and expected is often the easier route for creators to take when creating new work. It takes courage to go against the grain on principle, but that is what Sergei Diaghilev believed was the necessary next step for Russian Arts at home and around the world. His sponsorship of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal work was to be just the beginning of a brave new world for Art everywhere. It was a revolutionary idea. But then came the real Revolution back home in Russia, and everything changed for people like Diaghilev and all those involved in the Russian Arts community.

As we saw in a previous post, the rise of Lenin and then Stalin to the top political post in Russia cast a pall over everyone who had enjoyed free rein under the Imperialist regime of Czar Nicholas II. Those who opted to remain in Russia were expected to follow the exacting dictates of Josef Stalin or, as happened to Dimtri Shostakovich, face the consequences. Personal creative freedom quickly gave way to The Arts being used to promote patriotic nationalism. Directors of The Bolshoi Ballet stopped performing anything remotely artistically innovative and original and instead, only put on shows that were deemed to be “good Russian productions”. If you stayed in Russia, like Sergei Prokofiev did, you created new work that conformed to what was expected and nothing more. Avoiding the wrath of those in positions of power was now the primary motivating factor behind most artistic decisions made by the Arts community in Russia under Stalin.

Not long after Stalin assumed control, Sergei Diaghilev was summoned home. He refused to return. As a consequence, he was officially condemned as a “bourgeois intellectual” in perpetuity, meaning he could never return to his homeland while Stalin was in power. Now considered an “artistic refugee”, Diaghilev centered his promotional efforts around The Ballets Russes and lived out the remainder of his days arranging for new works to be brought to international stages. One of the consequences of living in exile was that acquiring financial backing became difficult. He was no longer able to count on the support of patrons such as Czar Nicholas II (who had been killed during the Revolution). One of the people he would come into conflict with because of financial considerations was his friend, Igor Stravinksy.

A poster advertising a recording of the concert Stravinsky conducted at Massey Hall at age 85.

Like Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky refused his own summons back to Russia. He knew that he could never put the necessary shackles on his creativity that would be required in order to return home. So, he remained abroad for the remainder of his days as well. Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s income dwindled to almost nothing after losing access to Diaghilev’s patronage. Diaghilev never wanted to cut off Stravinsky’s income, but he could barely afford to mount the small productions that he was doing, let alone continue to provide his friend with an allowance. As a result, Igor Stravinsky spent the rest of his days adrift. He lived in Switzerland for a while and then moved with his family into the home of Coco Chanel in France. While there, he agreed to sell the rights to all of his piano-based compositions to the Pleyel Piano Company for inclusion in their line of player pianos. (It was a Pleyel piano that Frederic Chopin had shipped to the island of Majorca when he stayed there with writer/partner, George Sand. You can read a post about that here). Eventually, Stravinsky immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. His final opera featured the poet Dylan Thomas as librettist. Igor Stravinsky’s final public concert was as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during a performance at Massey Hall. It is a small world.

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

As the final wish of both Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, they were buried in the “Russian corner” of the cemetery on the Isle of San Michele near Venice, Italy. The Isle of San Michele is now their home. Even in death, the pair continue to make bold artistic statements.

The link to the video of the composition “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Les Ballets Russes, founded by Sergei Diaghilev, can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Isle of San Michele can be found here.

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