If I were to say the phrase cover tune to you, what would come to mind? In all likelihood, you would think of modern music and, in particular, the history of rock n’ roll which is replete with examples of singers and bands “covering” music that was originally written and performed by others. In fact there are many examples of local bands who thrive by exclusively covering the music of one band, such as The Practically Hip who, as you may guess, play non-stop Tragically Hip songs in concert. This makes the cover song a time-honoured tradition in modern music. As one would expect, there have been instances when an artist covering a popular tune does a tremendous job, just as there have been some really bad mash-ups, as well. One of the best instances of a cover song being done well is particularly relevant to today’s post. That was the time that the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, did his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”.
“Hurt” was originally written by the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor. The song is about drug use and depression and survival. It is moody and atmospheric and stands as one of Reznor’s most beloved and recognizable songs. “Hurt” was released in 1994 and is regarded as one of the all-time greatest songs in Alternative music history. In addition, the live video of “Hurt” that was filmed at Woodstock in 1995, against the backdrop of disturbing onscreen images, is easily one of the most memorable music videos of the 1990s. Personally, I have always loved the way Trent Reznor sings this song. It is the perfect mix of substantive content and performative theatricality, coming as it did from Reznor’s soul at a time when he was living in the very same house in Los Angeles that actress Sharon Tate had been murdered in by Charles Manson’s followers. Reznor often called “Hurt” a valentine for the sufferer. Proof that the Nine Inch Nails version of this song is a classic can be seen in the fact that “Hurt” was rarely, if ever, covered by another musician of note. The reason for that is simple: how is it possible to cover a song and make it your own when it already exists in its definitive form? That was the thinking that still existed when it was announced that a musician of note was actually going to cover “Hurt” for his upcoming album. That musician of note turned out to be Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was approaching the end of his life when he recorded his cover of “Hurt”. He had been working on an album of cover songs with famed producer Rick Rubin. It was Rubin who suggested to Cash that he take a run at “Hurt”. Rubin felt that there was just something within the anguish that permeated Trent Reznor’s lyrics that might find purchase in Johnny Cash’s lived experiences. At first, Cash was reluctant to try a song that was so far from his musical roots. He was afraid of publishing something that might end up more akin to parody than compliment. But Rubin asked him to trust him and give the song a try. Cash finally agreed. The one change that was made was to pare the core of the musical structure down and move it from electric keyboard to a standard piano. Members of Tom Petty’s back up band, The Heartbreakers, played with Johnny Cash on “Hurt”. When the track was finished, everyone who heard immediately knew that Cash had reached within himself and had laid his soul within Reznor’s very personal lyrics. When the video was created for this new cover version, “Hurt” played like the story of Johnny Cash’s life. It was an absolute masterpiece. Many call the Johnny Cash video for “Hurt” as being the best music video ever made. When Trent Reznor heard Cash’s version of his song, he felt a range of emotions, the core of which felt invasive. Reznor is quoted as saying, “Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend”. That someone else could take such a personal song and completely reinterpret it was as stunning to Reznor as it was to the rest of the world. As Reznor glumly said, “The song wasn’t mine anymore”.
To read this post thus far, one would have the impression that cover tunes are more of a modern phenomenon in the world of music. But, did you know that one of the very first popular cover versions occurred almost one hundred and fifty years ago? In the late 1720s, German composer Johann Sebastian Bach composed a series of four orchestral suiteswhich were designed to accompany courtly dances. The style of suite that Bach created was very popular in Germany and France at the time. The most well received of these suites was “Suite #3 in D Major”. This suite was made up of five distinct parts, of which “Air in D Major” was the second part. In this particular case, the term “Air” does not mean oxygen and blue skies. Instead, it refers to a style of instrumental music that acts in the same capacity as an operatic aria does. Bach’s “Air in D Major” became the most recognizable portion of the five-part suite and has lived on in history as a stand-alone classical music piece that is often played at formal events such as weddings and graduations. In fact, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air in D Major” is regarded as one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. I guarantee you that even if you don’t recognize the title of this composition, you will recognize the music when it is played from the very first notes.
Just as was the case with Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt”, Johann Sebastian Bach’s version of “Air in D Major” was regarded as the definitive version of that composition. If other orchestras dared to play it publicly, they did so by faithfully reproducing what Bach had created, note for note. That was until a violin teacher named August Wilhelmj came along in 1871 and viewed Bach’s composition with fresh eyes. Just as Rick Rubin tweaked “Hurt” by changing from electric keyboard to standard piano for Johnny Cash, Wilhelmj changed Bach’s “Air” from D Major to C. This simple change made the playing of the “Air” much easier because all of the violinists could now play the entire piece on the lowest string on their violin which was the G string. Wilhelmj’s “Air on a G String” is a slight variation on Bach’s original version, but because it was so much easier to play, it has become the version that is most commonly associated with this piece of music today. Consequently, if you are ever at a gathering that features orchestral music being played and you hear “Air” begin, chances are that you are actually listening to the oldest cover tune in the world and not Bach’s original version. A classical cover tune! Who knew?! Now you do.
The link to the video for the song “Hurt” by Trent Reznor can be found here.
The link to the video for the cover version of the song “Hurt” by Johnny Cash can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the composition “Air in D Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to the video for the composition “Air on a G String” by August Wilhelmj can be found here.
The link to the Johann Sebastian Bach Museum can be found here.
I have a friend who talks a lot about the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. To listen to him speak, one might come away with the impression that Winnipeg is the centre of the whole entire universe! To that I say, …well, he might just be correct, at least when it comes to music. Winnipeg certainly has been the birthplace/hometown of a number of well known Canadian musicians and bands over the years, such as The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Chantal Kreviazuk, The Weakerthans with John K. Samson, Econoline Crush, The Watchmen, producer Bob Rock, Bif Naked, The Wailin’ Jennys, Tom Jackson, William Prince, even the worldly Neil Young has roots in the city. *(If a band/musician is highlighted, it means that I have written about them in a previous post that you can read by clicking on their name). So yeah, there might be something to my friend’s claims regarding Winnipeg’s greatness. But I am going to take this one step further. For any place to have produced so much talent, there has to be an Arts ecosystem in place that helps support musicians while they are still local acts. For the purposes of this post, I am going to talk about a place called the Blue Note Café. In particular, I am going to talk about someone who used to wash the dishes there. His name was Brad Roberts. You may know him as the man with the deepest, richest voice in Canadian music history and as the frontman for the band Crash Test Dummies. This is the story of how a song about the waning nature of civic engagement and responsibility went to #1 on the charts and added another shining star to Winnipeg’s musical firmament. This is “Superman’s Song”.
Ever since I was a young boy, I have found Winnipeg to be kinda cool. My first real memory of Winnipeg occurred as a child. This memory had nothing to do with music. It had everything to do with hockey. I didn’t know a lot about Canada or the world back when the news was announced that NHL superstar Bobby Hull was leaving the Chicago Blackhawks to join some seemingly made-up league called The World Hockey Association. Not only that, he was being paid one million dollars to make the jump to this new league! If that wasn’t all shocking enough, his new hockey team, the Winnipeg Jets, were signing two Swedish players named Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilson for a princely sum as well. I grew up watching Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday nights with my Dad. It was one of those comforting rituals that grounded my life with a sense of security by letting me know that everything was dependable and could be trusted. But what was I to think now that Bobby Hull and his Winnipeg Jets were turning hockey on its collective ear?! It all seemed unreal to me in my little world on Cape Breton Island. But in the end, what made it seem real and cool was when the O’Pee-Chee hockey card company released its first set of WHA hockey cards. I had always collected hockey cards as a boy, but they had always been of players from the old NHL teams. Now, I had players from teams such as the Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Hartford Whalers, the Indianapolis Racers (who had signed some teenage phenom named Wayne Gretzky), the Quebec Nordique and Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets. Bobby Hull and Dave Keon (from my favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs) were the biggest names that I knew who now played in the WHA so, naturally, I cheered for them in their new locations. That meant I got to learn a little about Winnipeg (and Hartford, Connecticut, where Keon played). The history of hockey in Winnipeg from that point on goes as follows: Winnipeg got its own WHA hockey team. They would end up joining the NHL a few years later after the two leagues merged, only to lose its NHL team to interests in Atlanta a decade or so later. Finally, to complete the sports circle, Winnipeg reacquired its own NHL team again and has held on to it ever since. While Winnipeg’s sporting fortunes ebbed and flowed over the years, a lot had happened in the city in terms of music and the Arts.
Winnipeg has an interesting geographic location in Canada. It sits at the eastern edge of western Canada and acts as a nexus to the southern plunge into Central Canada that happens after you enter Ontario and pass through Thunder Bay. This has great meaning when it comes to musicians and bands who have embarked on national tours. For many younger bands, traveling across Canada means driving in vans and/or motor homes. Doing so is the surest way for anyone to realize how vast the geography of Canada actually is. The drive from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, Ontario and then down into central Canada and on to Toronto takes over twenty hours! That long drive is made mostly through endless kilometers of forest and rock, with nary a large town or city in sight. Thus, Winnipeg has become an important pit stop on journeys westward from Ontario and a rest up spot for those heading east. Because so many bands and musicians stop in Winnipeg, the many players who come through town have come to be great role models for local acts to emulate. This has resulted in a robust local music scene in Winnipeg. A characteristic of any town or city with a vibrant Arts scene is that there are plenty of places available to perform at. For the purposes of this post, we are going to focus on one of the spots in Winnipeg that played host to many local, as well as national acts. It was a bar called The Blue Note Café.
The Blue Note Café was owned by a man named Curtis Riddell, who always owned a second music venue called The Spectrum Cabaret. It was located right beside Winnipeg’s oldest building,The Winnipeg Hotel, which, in turn, was located directly across the street from the train station. The Blue Note Café is no longer in existence. But, in its day, it hosted live music several times a week. If there was no formal act booked to play then the stage would be transformed into an open mic night. Many musicians passing through Winnipeg would end up at The Blue Note Café’s open mic nights. One of the most notable of these times was when Neil Young showed up and performed some songs with a group of locals. This is noteworthy because the title of his very next album was Neil Young and the Blue Notes, which was a shout-out to this venerable club. However, for the most part, these open mic nights served as opportunities for local singers and musicians to practise their trade in front of a small and, hopefully, friendly audience. One of the best stories to come out of this tradition was that of dishwasher extraordinaire, Brad Roberts.
Brad Roberts worked as a dishwasher at The Blue Note Café. Every so often, on open mic nights, Roberts would ask for permission to let the dishes sit in the water for a few moments while he went on stage and sang. Initially this amounted to nothing of any consequence. But soon enough, word began to travel throughout Winnipeg of this man with the deep baritone voice who worked on staff at The Blue Note Café. People began showing up at the door asking the owner, Curtis Riddell, if that hot new singer was going to be singing that night. Riddell was a smart enough businessman that he promoted Roberts from dish duty to singing duty. Soon a group of local musicians was assembled to play behind Roberts as he sang. They jokingly called themselves The Crash Test Dummies and became the house band at The Blue Note Café. It was while working there that the band decided to write some of their own songs. Soon enough they had enough to record an album, which was called The Ghosts That Haunt Me. On that album was a song called “Superman’s Song”.
When “Superman’s Song” was released, no one in Canada had ever heard a lead singer who sounded like Roberts. His voice was so low and deep that it seemed like it was coming from beneath the floorboards when he sang. Brad Roberts is, technically, a bass baritone. He reminded some people of Frank Sinatra, but he wasn’t a crooner like Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Crash Test Dummies transitioned through numerous performing styles over the course of their career as a band, so it is difficult to pigeonhole Roberts as being a rock singer or a folk singer or a pop singer or a jazz singer. He was all of those at one time or another, making him unique among Canadian singers, for sure.
The Crash Test Dummies had several hit songs but are best known for two songs called “Superman’s Song” and “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm”. Both songs went to #1. Both songs actually sold better in the US than they did in Canada, but having said that, they were both hits in their homeland, too. “Superman’s Song” is a eulogy being sung at a funeral for Superman. In the song, Roberts contrasts Superman with Tarzan. When asked about the song, Roberts said that it was a political commentary disguised with the use of superheroes as characters. Essentially, Roberts says that he is lamenting the decline of civic responsibility in society, as championed by Superman who did his good deeds with no expectation of material reward…he simply did good because it needed to be done. Tarzan, on the other hand, is symbolic of our increasingly more individualistic nature. He lived alone instead of in town like Superman did. He doesn’t care to become literate or to communicate with others and so on. The video for this song shows other superheroes attending the funeral. Everyone is sad. The video won the Much Music Award for Video of the Year in 1992, the year it was released. The Crash Test Dummies are not exactly one-hit wonders, but they never did manage to scale the dizzying heights they did with “Superman’s Song” and “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm”. At last report, Brad Roberts was teaching yoga and holistic healing in New York to patrons who dig his meditative chants.
Having said all of this, I guess I would have to agree that Winnipeg is a pretty special place. Thanks for being such a civic booster, rawgod. It was a pleasure shining a spotlight on one of the shining jewels of our nation’s crown. Have a great day everyone!
The link to the official website for The Crash Test Dummies can be found here.
The link to a newspaper article about Winnipeg and The Blue Note Café can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Superman’s Song” by The Crash Test Dummies can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the official websites for my pal rawgod can be found here and here.
The link to the official website for the city of Winnipeg can be found here.
Today you are getting two posts in one! The first part of this post will be standard fare regarding an underrated song called “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” from a superb album called Turn On The Bright Lights by post-punk revival darlings Interpol. The second half of this post will be a trip down the rabbit hole that came about as a result of this song and a warning about being a critical consumer of the information we view on the Interweb. All in all, there is lots to talk about so let’s get down to business. Here is the story of a girl called Stella and a band called Interpol and why sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be.
Like all music genres, punk music has gone through its share of evolutionary phases. The first phase is generally called pre-punk or proto-punk and involves those bands who introduced punk music to the world. These bands include Iggy and the Stooges, along with MC5. They generally played in the late 1960s and early 70s. The period that most casual fans think of as being the time of punk rock occurred throughout the rest of the 1970s. That is when we saw the emergence of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees and many more. As the 1970s ended and the 80s began, we entered what is known as the post-punk period. This era saw the birth of The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and a whole lot more than that. Post-punk branched off into Synth Pop, New Wave and Alternative music, as the bands began branching out by becoming more melodic. Fast forward past Grunge in the 90s (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Bikini Kill) and you have Y2K and the birth of a new generation of bands that were called post-punk revival. These bands included The Strokes, Yeah, Yeah Yeahs, The White Stripes and today’s featured band, Interpol. Many of the post-punk revival bands started playing in and around New York City. They featured fresh and innovative songwriting and a style of musicianship that harkened back to the days of the post-punk bands of the early 1980s, hence the term post-punk revival.
In August of 2002. Interpol decided to release their debut album entitled Turn on the Bright Lights. This album was very well received by fans and critics alike. It was hailed as one of the Top Ten albums of the year on many year-end lists. Influential music magazine Pitchfork actually named it as Album of the Year for 2002. The biggest hit single that came from Bring on the Bright Lights was called “PDA”. *(I wrote about that song in a previous post that you can read here). One of the things that pleased people the most about the songs on this album was how literate and cinematic they seemed to be. Lead singer and principal songwriter Paul Banks was a graduate of NYU, where he earned a degree in Comparative Literature. Banks also grew up in a family that moved all over the world because of his father’s work. Consequently, Banks approached the songs on Turn on the Bright Lights with a worldly, literary sense that many young writers are unable to draw upon. As a result, many of the song lyrics feature evocative, almost poetic words and phrases that paint intimate portraits of scenes and dramatic scenarios that read like plays or novels. Furthermore, Banks and his bandmates made the deliberate decision to create songs that were open to interpretation. One such perfect example of this is a song called “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”.
There are several things that I like about this song but the first thing is that, stylistically, it is an obvious homage to Joy Division. Those post-punk bands such as Joy Division all came from a time period where I was discovering the music that became the foundation of my collection. I always consider The Cure and Dépêche Mode, early Simple Minds, Ultravox and others to be the bands that introduced me to the music that has gone on to become an important part of my life. So, when Paul Banks of Interpol channels his best Ian Curtis and the boys from Interpol jangle their way through this song in down stroke unison, I was immediately drawn to the music. The other thing about “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” that I like is the story being told. First of all, I like story songs, as a general rule. In the case of this song, in particular, I like that Banks paints a portrait of Stella that reads like a character in a good book. Because ambiguity is such a feature of his songwriting, Banks never says exactly who Stella is or what she is going through but I am invested, just the same. There tend to be three categories of thought as to what this song is actually about. First of all, there are those who think Stella is a prostitute and that “diving” and “always being down” mean the obvious sexual innuendos that one would think they do. Secondly, there is a school of thought that suggests that this song is about addiction and that it is about having a dear friend named Stella fall into addiction and being unable to help her climb out of it. A final theory about the meaning of “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” relies on the educational background of Paul Banks. This theory states that Banks was influenced by a series of books known as the Illuminatus Trilogy. *(If you want to learn more about these books, click here). For our purposes, all we need to know is that in these books, one of the main characters has a relationship with a girl named Stella aboard a submarine named the Leif Erikson. On Bring On The Bright Lights, there is a song called “Leif Erikson”, too, which adds fuel to the theory that today’s song is based on those books. Whatever the case, “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” is a modern, dramatic, literate song that plays like a classic throwback tune. I liked it when I first heard it years ago and I still like it today.
This brings us to our rabbit hole.
YouTube, being what it is, uses its algorithm-based formula to throw music videos at me based on my previous choices. I must have spent much of this past spring time listening to/watching The Cure, Dépêche Mode and others because one day when I clicked on YouTube, there was “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” sitting there waiting for me. I hadn’t listened to the song in a while, so seeing it there was like reconnecting with a long lost friend. The video’s thumbnail was that of a teenage/twenty-something girl who looked like she was high. I clicked on the link and was taken to a video that starts off with the band playing live for a few moments and then launches into a story that plays out like a movie. The story was gritty and harsh. But the action on screen meshed perfectly with the lyrics. As a work of creative Art, I was captivated and thought it was excellent. In order to go down the rabbit hole with me and learn the lesson that I took out of it, I need you to stop reading and watch this video now. Doing so will put the rest of this post into context and will make it a more enjoyable and easier to understand piece for you. However, having said that, this video depicts drug use, prostitution and addiction. The depictions in the video appear to be very real. Viewer discretion is advised. To watch the video of “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” click here.
After watching this video several times over the course of the summer and mulling over in my mind whether or not I should launch a blog post series about Punk rock and then deciding to actually do so, I thought that this song would be one that I would include. Having made that call, I thought it prudent to learn as much as I could about the song and the music video so I could talk about both knowledgeably. When I began to focus on the background of the video itself, I did so reading some of the viewer comments that accompanied it. In the past I have often found viewer comments to be quite helpful in determining why others found the video/song important to them, as well as other technical aspects of the video that I may not have been privy to otherwise. In the case of this particular video, I noticed that people in the comments kept referring to an actual movie called Christianne F. I had never heard of this film so I looked it up, and then, this is where the rabbit hole began to swallow me whole.
Christianne F. is a German film that was based on a book called Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children of Zoo Station) which is the true story of a young 13 year old girl who ran away from her middle-class home and found herself becoming addicted to heroin, acting as a teenage prostitute to support her habit and spending much time at one of Berlin’s main train stations most commonly known as Zoo Station. The people in the video comments raved about this movie, saying how important and influential it was in Germany in the early 1980s. From what I learned while doing my research into Christianne F., there was a thriving drug and teenage prostitution scene that revolved around Zoo Station back then. Berlin, in the late 70s/early 80s was also home to someone named David Bowie. You may recall that during his Berlin period, Bowie lived in Germany with Iggy Pop and ended up writing “China Girl” for Pop and “Heroes” for himself. Bowie plays an important role in the film Christianne F. because it was a nightclub concert of his that acts as the impetus for the teenage Christianne F. to sneak in and watch his show, which, in turn, is when she was introduced to heroin for the first time. Bowie appears as himself in the movie. He also supplied most of the songs for the movie soundtrack. On a different but related note, a decade later Irish band U2 would record an album in Germany called Achtung Baby! The first song on that album was called “Zoo Station”. I guess that station is a place that has more to do than simply catching a train ride.
After learning all of this background information, I suddenly found myself thinking that the timing of the film and the music from its soundtrack didn’t add up to being in sync with when Interpol became a band and released “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”. Once I thought that thought, I immediately returned to the video I had watched of the song on YouTube to see what exactly I had been watching and how this video came to be. This is where the lesson about being a critical consumer of information comes into play. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the video for this song….a video that I thought was so well put together…was not an Interpol video at all! The band had nothing to do with any of it! To confirm this, I went to Interpol’s official website and checked to see what their “official” video of “Stella” was. There is none. Well, that is not completely true. There is an audio-only video. But there is no live video nor a dramatic recreation video by the band in existence on the planet. So then, what the heck was I watching all these months?!
As it turns out, the video I was watching was the creation of an Interpol fan who goes by the YouTube name of Lichtwerk3. I couldn’t find out anything about this person, but by examining the various other videos on their playlist, it seems like Lichtwerk3 is a fan of the band and focuses on creating videos based on Interpol songs. I am not sure if this is a form of fanzine *(homemade magazines created by fans of bands, sold and/or passed around to other fans), but whatever the case, the video that I had been watching (and that you watched above) was a fan-created video that paired “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” by Interpol with a German movie starring David Bowie called Christianne F.
Secondly, as I researched the film, I discovered that there is a veritable cottage industry online of people who pair clips from the movie with songs that they like. There are dozens of songs used in this manner. Just for the sake of interest, click here to watch a video for a song called “When the Sun Hits” by a band called Slowdive. This is just one example of the movie being used as the backdrop to a song. There are literally dozens and dozens of music videos available that all use Christianne F. movie clips. It just goes to illustrate how important it is to know exactly what it is you are watching and/or reading when online. I spent months thinking that I was watching the official Interpol video for their song “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”, when no such video ever existed. Instead, I was unknowingly watching what was essentially a movie trailer for a foreign film. It makes me wonder how many other things that I see and/or read are actually one thing when I thought they were something else. Perhaps this is how Nazi soldiers from WWII turn into Ukrainian freedom fighters who then morph back into Nazi soldiers before our bewildered eyes in Canada’s parliament, too. Things aren’t always what they appear at first blush in politics or in music..
I will end this post with the simple declaration that I like Interpol’s music. I adore their album Turn on the Bright Lights. I have liked “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” from the very first time I heard it. I still like it today. I have learned a lot about being more careful with what I am watching on YouTube as well. You should, too. I want to give a shout-out to an online friend of mine who runs his own blog called Christian’s Music Musings. Like me, Christian writes about music. He grew up in Germany and was a big help in filling me in on the popularity and importance of the movie Christianne F. and of the goings on at Zoo Station. His blog can be reached by clicking here. Have a great rest of your day, everyone! Bye for now.
The link to the official Interpol audio-only video for their song “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to a video of a live performance of “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” by Interpol…as filmed by a fan…can be found here. ***This is an excellent live recording and shows why the band is so highly respected and why the song is such a fan favourite.
The link to the official website for Interpol can be found here.
The link to the official website for Pitchfork Magazine can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Christianne F. can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Station to Station” by David Bowie from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the movie, Christianne F. can be found here.
***NOTE: The title for this series on punk rock is taken from the lyrics of a song called “Boxcar” by an amazing punk band out of San Francisco called Jawbreaker. Please show these guys some love and visit their website. While you are there, feel free to pick up some tickets to a show or to buy some cool merch. I thank the band for helping to inspire the writing of this post and for the creation of this series, as a whole. You can find their official website here.
The very first professional music concert I ever attended in my life was seeing Pat Benatar play at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1982. For someone who was barely five feet tall, the voice that roared out of her was unbelievable! Such power and range. At the time I was unaware of her personal background. There was no internet back then. All that I knew about her came from her first three albums and hit songs, such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, “Shadows of the Night”, “Heartbreaker”, “We Live for Love” and many more. But I came to learn that my favourite singer at the time possessed a singing voice known as a coloratura soprano and that she had been accepted for music at the Juilliard School. But that night in Toronto, all that I cared about was the music. For my first concert, it was unforgettable. She was, and still is, amazing!
Pat Benatar turns 70 years old this year and is still actively performing. She was recently inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside her husband of over forty years, guitarist Neil Giraldo. She is mother to two girls named Haley and Hana, who are both television actresses. Over the course of her career, Benatar has sold a whopping 35 million albums (including a half dozen or so to me), she has won four Grammy Awards in the Rock category, she released seven albums that went platinum or multi-platinum, along with having fifteen Top 40 hits and one #1 hit song. Ironically enough, Pat Benatar refuses to perform her only #1 hit song in public anymore. That song was “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. Originally, I was going to feature that song in this post. But then I read about how the fact that many listeners in the States paired her song with gun play on YouTube and/or in video games. She was so appalled when she learned that a song about determination and never giving up had been appropriated by those in league with the N.R.A. that she declared that hit song to be off limits during public performances. In her words, “How can I sing of ‘taking a shot’, even though it has nothing to do with guns, when there are so many lives being lost to gun violence?” If nothing else, such action is a testament to the quality of her character. As much as she is known for her pipes, Pat Benatar is also highly respected as a person. She takes great pride in being a positive role model for others, especially for young women who may wish to make a career for themselves in the music business. Not singing her greatest hit in public is just one example that proves she puts her principles before her profit.
If I can’t use her only #1 hit song in today’s post, then I will go with a song that made it all the way to #2 on the charts…”Love Is a Battlefield”. This song is about the fact that some relationships require a lot of work in order for them to survive over time and that, at other times, the hardships are not worth it and it is better to walk away. This song is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, it was released in the early 1980s. When it came to the musical side of this song, “Love Is a Battlefield” was one of the first songs to use a drum machine that used real drum beats. Synthesizers were just coming into vogue then, and as they became more common, other music-making machines appeared on the scene. The first drum machines produced artificial beats that tended to sound weak and tinny. However, for “Love Is a Battlefield”, one of the very first machines that captured the richness and depth of actual drum beats was used, giving the song a rich bass beat. Secondly, the video for this song is the answer to a trivia question. Most people who follow music can tell you that the first video played on MTV was a song called “Video Killed the Radio Star” by a band called The Buggles. The second video played ever on MTV was “Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar. In fact, Benatar really benefited because of the arrival of MTV on the music scene. Being one of the few female rockers at the time, her videos made her a unique and in-demand commodity on MTV. Consequently, all of her hit songs released during the early 1980s went into heavy rotation, which helped with record sales despite the fact that she only had the one #1 radio chart hit. The third notable aspect of this song is that the video is actually a dramatic play. In this case, the video showed a young woman who runs away from home after her father objects to her lifestyle choices. As part of the video, there are several lines of spoken word dialogue between Benatar’s character and the man who plays her father. This was the first time that spoken word dialogue ever appeared in a music video. The final thing that makes the video for “Love Is a Battlefield” stand out is that it contains a choreographed dance scene. Although Benatar was not a trained dancer, she gave it the old college try. Some viewers snickered at the scene in which Benatar leads a group of dancers out on strike from a ruthless, uncaring boss. But the joke ended up being on them, because one of the people who watched this video was a fellow performer named Michael Jackson. When he saw Benatar’s dance scene, he immediately knew that he wanted to have one in his next video, too. That subsequent video turned out to be for a little song known as “Beat It”.
As careers go, Pat Benatar’s stands out. She is the very model of success. She has had a Hall of Fame career, she is recognized as possessing one of the most distinctive and powerful voices of any female singer, she is respected for the principles by which she lives her life, she is happily married and has been for over forty years, she is scandal free, addiction free and still singing beautifully even as she turns seventy years of age. Even though I no longer have her poster on my wall, as I did at the time of that first concert, Pat Benatar remains one of my Top 5 favourite female singers of all time. In the video links below, I am going to include a recent performance that she and her husband, Neil Giraldo, gave on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. They play three songs there and banter about in between songs. You really get a sense of the quality of their individual characters, the easy rapport they possess and the talent that pours forth seemingly with ease. Please enjoy.
That is it for this edition of Reader’s Choice/Tom’s Top Tunes. Please remember to submit your own song requests and I will happily, joyfully and accurately tell the story of your song and the band/musician who performed it. For now, “Love Is a Battlefield” was a Tom’s Top Tune selection. If you have any comments or memories about Pat Benatar that you would like to share, feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks for taking the time to read my post. Take care. Bye for now.
The link to the official website for Pat Benatar can be found here.
The link to the video for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert by Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo can be found here.
The link to the official video for “Love Is A Battlefield” can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
I once took a philosophy course in university. We met in a round room for three hours a session and talked endlessly in circles. True story. Up until that class I had always considered myself to be somewhat of a deep thinker. I was not afraid to be alone with my thoughts in the dark. I thought that the conclusions I drew regarding the state of the world’s affairs were always spot on. If only everybody would see things as I did the world would be in such better shape. Then I took this philosophy class in the round room and my way of thinking changed. After having experienced immersive philosophy, I knew that there was another much deeper level of thinking that was going on in some parts of the world. This round room I found myself in was, for me, more of a carousel upon which I was merely a child bobbing up and down wondering when the ride was going to be over. It reminded me of the Dennis Miller joke that goes: “I was making love to my wife and she started moaning, “Deeper! Deeper!”, so I started whispering Nietzsche quotes in her ear and she yelled, “Whoa, Dennis! Enough! I’m trying to get off over here.” Which brings us nicely to the topic of today’s post, Richard Strauss’ masterful tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30”.
“Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30” is a tone poem created by German composer Richard Strauss in 1896. This composition was inspired by the novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Friedrich Nietzsche considered Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be his magnum opus. It is a book that chronicles the journey of a prophet named Zarathustra who, in turn, was based on a real life Iranian prophet named Zoroaster. In the book, Zarathustra spends much time contemplating life while alone on a mountaintop. He alternates those wisdom accruing sessions with actual interactions down in the towns and villages located in the valley below. Each chapter of the book explores one aspect of Man’s evolutionary progress, with the end goal being the process we must undergo to become an Ubermensch, or a “Superior man who justifies the existence of the human race”. As part of his journey, Zarathustra discovers the restrictive nature of faith in God and states that humans can never achieve greatness as long as we subjugate ourselves to a deity such as the Christian God. Therefore, Nietzsche famously declared God as being “dead”, along with organized religion and all that this entailed. Nietzsche also had thoughts on Man vs. Nature, the education process, the nature of power and authority and so on. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is considered one of the great literary works of all time. It is certainly one of the most influential books on philosophy that exists. It also inspired the creative mind of fellow German Richard Strauss, who recognized, within the structure of the language Nietzsche used, a cadence that he felt could be transformed into a musical structure. The end result of this transformation was the tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30”.
Strauss believed in the philosophical premise posed by Nietzsche that self-actualization was possible but only through complete and total dedication to the process. His tone poem focuses on ten of Neitzsche’s 80 chapters. Each of these ten chapters is dedicated to one aspect of Man’s evolution as a species. While his tone poem has ten sections, it is played as one consolidated piece of music. A tone poem is different from a symphony, for example, because the format it follows is meant to inspire imaginative reactions from the audience, to set a mood where reflection and deeper understanding may happen. On the other hand, a symphony has a structure that consists of four standard parts. Because of the nature of how a symphony is structured, the audience is attuned more to what is happening in each section of the symphony, rather than drawing deeper conclusions based on the entirety of the work. Because Richard Strauss understood the nature of Nietzsche’s arguments, he incorporated several clever techniques within the body of the tone poem which helped give it greater depth. For instance, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is most widely known for the opening fanfare, which lasts approximately two minutes and is centered on a chapter of Neitzsche’s book concerned with the Dawn of Man. One of the clever things that Strauss did was to compose the fanfare in the key of C, which is known as the universal music key. Using a universal tone structure to create a backdrop to the Dawn of Mankind segment helped reinforce the commonality we all share from birth to death. One further thing to note is with the fanfare in particular, the note structure is in groups of three linked notes ascending the scale. It is easy to feel the magnitude of the subject matter…the Dawn of Man…as the scales ascend. This fanfare was most famously used by movie director Stanley Kubrick in the opening scene of his classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film, as you may know, is also a look at the place of Humankind in the grand spectrum of all creatures and things in the universe. It is a weighty movie that contrasts us, as humans, with the vastness of outer space, as well as the intelligence of the computer known as HAL.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there was a time when I considered myself to be a deep thinker. But now I look at people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Strauss and Stanley Kubrick and realize what an intellectual lightweight I probably am compared to them. Imagine how awkward it would feel for me if the four of us were placed in a round room and left to discuss whatever was on our minds. While I do dwell on the state of our world and worry about what the future holds for us as a species, I also worry about getting up carefully from the couch so as not to pull a muscle. For some of us, toilet humour and a good pie-in-the-face comedy sketch on TV or YouTube is more than enough deep thinking. For others, it takes a round room and the eternal recurrence of debates about things that just don’t seem to matter that much to make one realize that some deep thoughts are better left for the minds of others. To those special people for whom thinking deep thoughts is your jam, good for you. But I have to wonder if the knowledge that comes from knowing the answers to life’s greatest and most important questions is worth the journey it took to get there. I don’t have the answer to that because, after all, I am becoming more and more like Dennis Miller’s wife…”Whoa! Enough! I’m trying to get off here!” Now comes the hard part…putting my laptop down and getting safely up off of the couch. Be careful out there, my friends.
The link to the official website for Friedrich Nietzsche can be found here.
The link to the official website for Richard Strauss can be found here.
The link to the official website for Stanley Kubrick can be found here.
The link to the video for the composition “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss can be found here. ***Note: This is just the fanfare, not the entire composition.
The link to the video for the composition “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as used in the opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey can be found here.
The link to the video of the Dennis MIller comedy special with the joke about the use of Neitzsche quotes with his wife can be found here.
“Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks sold over 14 million copies worldwide. It went to the #1 spot on the charts in Canada, as well as the U.S. Terry Jacks won two Juno Awards because of “Seasons in the Sun”. It remains one of the songs that most people associate with being a “Canadian” song. And yet, it was a song that was never intended to be recorded by Jacks. In fact, his take on “Seasons in the Sun” was actually the fourth version that made it to the airwaves. Finally, despite its overwhelming sales success, “Seasons in the Sun” is a polarizing song that has regularly been voted as being one of the most overwrought, maudlin songs in the entire history of modern rock. What is it exactly about this song that so many people love and so many others find repugnant? Let’s find out. Here is the story of a song that is woven into the musical tapestry of a country called Canada. Here is “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.
Terry Jacks was born in Winnipeg in 1944 but moved to Vancouver in his early teen years. Jacks always had an affinity for music. While in high school, he formed a band with some friends that was called The Chessmen. This band proved to be popular with the teen crowd on the west coast. They managed to have a few of their songs appear on local station CFUN in the mid 1960s. They even managed to have some of their music make it into CFUN’s Top 40 chart. This entire experience convinced a young Terry Jacks that the potential existed for a career in music. As the 1960s came to an end, Jacks met a young woman named Susan Pesklevits. They eventually married. Along with a few other friends, Terry and Susan formed a band known as The Poppy Family. They had a number of minor hits and one major one with a song called “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”, which hit #1 in Canada and Top Ten in the U.S. This song was written and produced by Terry Jacks and helped him win his first Juno as a record producer. The success of “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” was important for more than monetary reasons for Jacks. It was a song that introduced him to the west coast music scene in North America as a producer, as much as it did as a songwriter. Because the song was so well received in the U.S., it came to the attention of a man named Al Jardine. Jardine, as you may know, was a member of a little band known as The Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys asked Terry Jacks to help produce their latest album at the time called Surf’s Up. It was during this time that Jacks came to be working on a song of his own called “Seasons in the Sun”. This was not his own song. Instead, it was a reworking of a song by French singer Jacques Brel called “Le Moribond” or “The Dying Man”. In Brel’s original version of the song, the story involved a dying man who was coming to terms with the unfaithfulness of his wife and best friend. It was a song about accepting the hand that life has dealt the man, as well as being about forgiveness and personal peace. “Le Moribond” was translated into English by American singer and poet Rod McKuen. In America, the first time “Seasons in the Sun” achieved chart success was when The Kingston Trio cracked the Top 40 in the mid-1960s. But the song was never a huge hit for that group, nor did the song make that great an impression on audiences in general. The song would have faded into obscurity if not for the fact that Terry Jacks decided to play with the lyrics a bit to see if he could tell a story that may have been slightly more palatable to audiences in North America. So Jacks changed the plot line of the song’s story away from infidelity. In his version of the song, there still is a man who is dying, but instead of confronting those who have done him wrong, the dying man revisits those who have made a difference in his life…his father, his wife, his friends…and thanks them. Terry Jacks felt that his version of the lyrics made the song more uplifting and positive. He felt it was the perfect vehicle for the band he was working with at the time, The Beach Boys, and offered the song to them through Al Jardine. In a bit of foreshadowing of the song’s eventual legacy, the members of The Beach Boys had mixed reactions to “Seasons in the Sun”. Some, like Jardine, thought that the song had potential as a Beach Boys tune. But other members, such as Mike Love, dismissed the song as depressing drivel that didn’t mesh with The Beach Boys’ cool California sound. In the end, The Beach Boys passed on “Seasons in the Sun”. Terry Jacks still had a soft spot for the song so he produced it himself. The rest, as they say, is music history.
Terry Jacks released “Seasons in the Sun” on his own record label as a solo artist. As we have seen with many others, whenever a solo artist has a huge hit right out of the gate, it either helps set the stage for future success as a musical superstar or else it crushes them under the weight of those same future expectations. In the case of Terry Jacks, he never again came close to achieving the same level of chart success as he did with “Seasons in the Sun”. This did not mean that he became a failure or anything like that. Instead, the experience of having a monster hit sent him spiraling sideways, in new creative and personal directions. One of the first consequences for Jacks was that his singing career came to a close. It wasn’t easy to sing a song about death, day in and day out. The strain took a toll on his marriage (which ended in divorce in the mid-1970s), and it caused Jacks to decide that singing in the spotlight wasn’t where he found the most satisfaction from music. So, Jacks stepped away from performing. He focussed solely on being a record producer. As the 1970s progressed, Jacks produced hit songs for a wide variety of performers, such as Country star George Jones (“White Lightnin’”), Valdy (“Rock n’ Roll Song”) as well as Nana Mouskouri (“Loving Arms”).
However, in the 1980s, Terry Jacks stepped away from music altogether. He was drawn to environmental issues and began creating documentary films. He has received several awards for his contributions to the national conversation regarding Climate Change and other pressing environmental issues which, according to Jacks, were the real pressing issues of our times. While Terry Jacks is regarded by some as a one-hit wonder, it is obvious to see that he enjoyed many successes prior to the release of “Seasons in the Sun” and that he was a respected producer and film documentarian in the years that followed the chart-topping breakthrough of the song most closely associated with his name.
However, the song,“Seasons in the Sun”, has a much more complicated legacy than the man who had a hit with it. There are those who view “Seasons in the Sun” as being an embarrassment because of how over the top it is with sadness and sentimentality. To those people, having the song play such a prominent role in the formative years of the industry speaks to how barren the musical landscape was in Canada back then. To many others, “Seasons in the Sun” was a very important song in terms of helping to create the vibrant Canadian music scene that we enjoy today. Having such a huge homegrown hit song that did well south of the border (which was always important to Canadians), did much to help establish the music industry in Canada. Along with other homegrown musical acts from the 1960s and 70s such as Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Wilf Carter, Hank Snow, Tommy Hunter, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni MItchell, April Wine, Trooper, The Stampeders and many others, Terry Jacks became one of the homegrown Canadian musical acts who delivered increasingly distinctive Canadian sounding songs which, in turn, helped blaze a trail for the likes of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion to follow. If you are interested in learning more about how people like Terry Jacks helped us, as a nation, develop a healthy, respected music industry in Canada, I can recommend a great book by my friend, Ian Jack (no relation to Terry Jacks), along with his colleagues Michael Barclay and Jason Schneider called Have Not Been the Same. This book is a thoroughly-researched, expertly told story of how the Canadian music industry grew to thrive in the mid-1980s and how it has managed to adapt to new innovations in the world of technology to continue to achieve success going forward. As much as “Seasons in the Sun” grates on the nerves of many, it was beloved by many others, too. Songs such as this one helped lay the foundation of what has become the great Canadian musical canon. For that, Terry Jacks and “Seasons in the Sun” are deserving of all the respect we can muster. Thanks, Terry.
The link for the official website for Terry Jacks can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Seasons in the Sun” can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to purchase the book Have Not Been the Same by Ian Jack, Michael Barclay and Jason Schneider can be found here.
You can tell a lot about a person and a society by how they treat those who, for whatever reason, come to be viewed as being different. For the sake of this post, I am going to refer to the term “different” as being people who possess intellectual and/or physical challenges. When I started working as an elementary school teacher in Ontario, it was the 1989/90 school year. Back in the early stages of my career, those students who possessed intellectual or physical challenges were often segregated from classrooms such as mine. They weren’t being punished or regarded with disdain. But the thinking definitely existed that these students were better off in a self-contained setting that could be designed specifically to meet their many needs. But, as my career reached the one-third mark in the mid-1990s, government legislation was introduced in Ontario that mandated a policy known as integration. What this meant in practical terms was that students with special needs would become part of so-called regular classroom life as much as was possible. Being Mr. Cynical Pants as I tend to be when it comes to the motives of governments, I believe that part of the impetus for this legislation was that it was the government’s way of reducing education expenditures by eliminating/scaling back the existence of parallel spaces within schools that were being dedicated for students with special needs. But, one of the very clear benefits that came about both for students with special needs and for the students in regular classrooms like mine was the opportunity to get to know one another and break down the walls of ignorance that kept us separated for so long. Working with students with special needs and the wonderful staff who accompanied them was a game changer for me as a teacher. In addition to teaching ABCs and 1-2-3s, we were all provided with real-time lessons in compassion and empathy and caring for others who were different from ourselves. The personal growth we received was self-evident. The students with special needs that joined our classroom ceased being mysterious entities and soon became friends that we welcomed without question. As they became part of our classroom world, the kids grew to become protective of their new friends. They viewed these children as being the same as anybody else, minus a few quirks and quarks that may have existed. A level of understanding and acceptance grew. We became a complete classroom family.
Up until the years of the Covid pandemic, I would have been willing to state that we, as a society, had made progress in how we view and treat those that we deem as being different from us. But, the Covid pandemic turned out to be more than just a health scare. It became a social experiment that was weaponized by people with certain right wing views. Those views included a return to a world in which white is right and only Christians need bother to apply for membership. All other minority groups have seen setbacks in the past few years that are both societal and legislative. It isn’t easy being a person of colour, a woman seeking bodily autonomy, a child with special needs in schools, someone experiencing poverty, an immigrant, almost anyone on the LGBQTIA2S+ spectrum and so on. Our world has gotten crueler and colder as those harbouring hateful thoughts have gone on the march. The whole notion of racial purity and strength being one of the foundational aspects of these political movements does not bode well for those who are viewed as being different. If allowed to proceed unabated, it is not too far-fetched a notion to envision a world in which people with physical and/or intellectual challenges will be segregated away again …or even worse.
Despite how it may seem so far, this is actually a music post about a song that is based upon a famous/infamous movie about the very topic of how we treat those we view as being different from ourselves. That movie is called Freaks. The song of the day is called “Pinhead” by The Ramones. I will end this post by connecting the dots to reveal a television show that drew the inspiration for its creation directly from a line in “Pinhead” and, by doing so, offers us all a utopian vision of how we can all live together in harmony regardless of our appearance and our capabilities. Let’s get on with the show!
The world was very different in 1923. One of the most common ways that society dealt with people who possessed intellectual and/or physical challenges was to lock them away in sanitariums or insane asylums. Mental illness was not viewed as an acceptable condition that was treatable. In fact, even shell shocked soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe in WWI were often locked away from the general public. There was a very out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality at play. However, every now and again, it was deemed as being socially acceptable for the general public to come into contact with people who would otherwise be locked away. One of those socially acceptable times occurred whenever a circus would come to town. In those days, many traveling circuses had acts called Sideshow Freaks. In essence, the people who performed in sideshows tended to be advertised as being frightening creatures, maybe even dangerous, some were even billed as being evil. In reality, they were people with medical conditions such as being conjoined twins, people born without limbs or with smaller than usual heads or tiny bodies and so on. Many of these performers were kept in very cruel and inhumane conditions behind the scenes. Many were intellectually disabled and unable to advocate for themselves. It was an awful life for these vulnerable people who required protection and compassion and only ever received exploitation. It says a lot about the state of social mores back in 1923 that the most common reactions from paying customers to these “freak shows” was fear and revulsion.
Against this backdrop, an author named Tod Robbins wrote a short story in 1923 called Spurs. This story was a murder mystery set in the world of a traveling circus in France. The plot involved one of the sideshow performers known as “The Dwarf” inheriting a large sum of money. Afterwards, a beautiful female con artist of “normal height and looks” decides to trick the man out of his money by pretending to fall in love with him. Needless to say, the story does not end well for this woman. Readers were given a glimpse of the environment of a traveling circus, along with the details of a crime plot gone wrong. In the end, the film rights to Spurs was purchased by MGM Studios. In 1931, MGM Studios released one of the first great horror movies called Dracula. This movie introduced the world to Bela Lugosi. The director of Dracula was a man called Tod Browning. Because of the success of his movie with Lugosi, Browning was given free rein to choose his next project. Out of several that were brought to his attention, Browning opted to adapt for the screen the short story Spurs.
Browning discarded much of the storyline of the short story because he realized that the real story that needed to be explored was the world of the sideshow performers. Browning understood how society viewed them and wondered what it must be like to live one’s entire life being viewed with fear and hostility, living essentially in indentured servitude, with no one to care for you in any regard at all. So Browning created a film that came to be known as Freaks. The film followed some of the storyline from the short story Spurs, but it really focussed on exposing the attitudes of those who claimed to be “normal”. Browning hired actual sideshow performers and dared film audiences to look at them in all their humanity and then look at themselves as reflected in the performance of the blonde femme fatale who tries to con “The Dwarf” out of his money. Browning used his horror skills to good use. Because people were not used to being confronted by others who were missing limbs or had misshapen heads, etc., many audience members found Freaks to be horrifying in the extreme and unsettling at best. The movie’s pivotal scene involves a gathering of all the performers at a dinner. There is a sense of community among them all. The reason for the gathering is that they had all fallen for the charms of this con artist and had prepared a community dinner at which time they were going to officially welcome her into their traveling family. There is a clip for the movie that I urge you to watch by clicking here. If you watch the clip, you will see the reaction this woman has when she realizes that the performers consider her to be one of them now as they chant, “Gobble! Gobble! We Accept you! We accept you! One of us! One of us!”. The scene is not gruesome or horrifying. To me, it plays more like an episode of The Twilight Zone TV show. However, Freaks ended up being banned for decades in the US and around the world. People were just not prepared to welcome into their lives other people who may have been different from them. It says a lot about the state of society back then, and as Browning was trying to point out, it accurately showcased who the real freaks were. And they weren’t the sideshow performers.
Flash forward to the 1970s. Punk rock had taken root in America. One of the bands who became the face of the genre in the U.S was The Ramones. As you may know from previous posts about The Ramones *(that you can read here and here), they were a band who played songs with lightning speed. Although the lyrical content was often sparse, The Ramones were songwriters who had a flair for coining terms that captured the mood of the world at the time. For example, they are credited with introducing the term punk rock in their song “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”. In any case, one thing that The Ramones understood as well as anyone was that their music was different from much of what passed for rock n’ roll in the 1970s. By extension, they understood that a majority of their fans felt as though they were different, too. These fans felt like outsiders who were being given voice by these skinny dudes in leather jackets and tight, tight jeans.
And so it was that The Ramones found themselves in Cleveland, Ohio one day. They had been scheduled to play at an outdoor event, but unfortunately, there was lightning in the area and the event was canceled. Suddenly, the band had time on their hands so they decided to spend the afternoon by seeing a movie. As it turned out, the movie Freaks had been given a new lease on life by folks who had come to realize that its portrayal of sideshow performers was nowhere as frightening in the 1970s as it had been in the 1930s. The ban on the film was lifted, and as it happened, the film was playing that rainy day in Cleveland. Immediately, the members of The Ramones identified with the sideshow performers’ sense of alienation as well as their sense of community. The boys were particularly drawn to a performer known as Pinhead in the film. This character was based upon a real person who went by the name of Schlitzie. In real life, Schlitzie suffered from a medical condition known as microcephaly. This condition causes the skull to become misshapen, which, in turn, often causes pressures on the brain which result in speech and language impairments, intellectual difficulties and so on. The whole idea that these sideshow performers, who had so much going against them, exercised such solidarity and humanity by the end of the film struck a chord within the band. In particular, they recognized the rallying cry inherent in the chanted phrases of “Gobble! Gobble! We Accept You! We Accept You! One of us! One of us!”. The Ramones felt they could apply the same sort of rallying cry at their concerts. In doing so, there would be a tacit acknowledgement between the band and their fans that they may be outsiders, but they were outsiders together as a community. When the band left the theatre, they came up with the song called “Pinhead”. Within the sparse lyrical content of the song is the rallying cry at the end that goes, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” This was their take on the “Gobble! Gobble!” chant from Freaks. One of the things that allowed The Ramones to become such a fan-friendly punk band was their ability to build in audience participation moments throughout their show. They were known for starting songs with “1-2-3-4!” or using chants such as “Hey ho! Let’s go!” Add to that, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” and you have a fun evening singing, chanting and dancing with friends.
While The Ramones did much to bring punk rock into the mainstream of American music, the truth was that many “normal” music lovers still regarded them and their fans as being a niche group that occupied their own small space on the musical spectrum way off to the side, away from the rest of the bands and their fans. But, there was no denying the influence of The Ramones. One of the best examples of the groundwork that The Ramones laid with “Pinhead” and the “Gabba Gabba Hey!” chants bearing the fruit of social acceptance happened with two musicians named Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz. These guys decided to develop the idea of creating a utopian version of Freaks, but for children, that was based directly on The Ramones’ song “Pinhead”. That show aired for the first time in 2007 and was called Yo Gabba Gabba. While Sesame Street remains the gold standard of children’s television shows, Yo Gabba Gabba is one that, for me, ranks right up there! It was an awesome show to watch as an adult when my girls were younger. The show had a DJ as host (DJ Lance) and was populated by a community of characters, none of whom looked like they were human. The segments on the show dealt with things you would expect, such as lessons on kindness and courage and sharing. But the best part was that cutting edge music was played all throughout the show. Real alternative and indie bands such as Hot, Hot Heat, Devo, MGMT, Sean Kingston, Eryka Badu, The Flaming Lips, The Roots, Weezer, My Chemical Romance and even Paul Williams singing an artsy, trippy rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” all appeared on the show. ***Manchester band, The Ting Tings performed a song that they called “Happy Birthday” which was something I used to play for my kids in class whenever it was their birthday. The whole show was filled with colour and music and characters who looked nothing like you or me, all living in harmony. Yo Gabba Gabba was a quirky show, but there was something there for everyone, if only we would take the time to look.
I make no bones about it, I have always had a special spot in my heart for the underdog. I believe that the very essence of their humanity is as valid and vital as anything that a so-called normal guy like me can share with the world. That so many of our fellow humans may require extra care or assistance to be their true selves does not diminish their right to be allowed to thrive. I was always happy to help. I would rather spend one thousand days in a row in the company of some of those kids who joined our classroom in the 2000s or those sideshow performers from Freaks or the fans of The Ramones or in the world of Yo Gabba Gabba than I would one single second in the company of those who recently protested against the rights of trans children recently in Canada. In the end, I want to live in a world where everyone is welcome and all are respected and cared for and loved. That is all. Gabba Gabba Hey!
The link to the official website for The Ramones can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Pinhead” by The Ramones can be found here.
NOTE: The lyrics in this song borrow from the plot of Freaks but with a small change. Instead of a female con artist, The Ramones sing of a nurse who is going to take them away from being a pinhead and give them a normal life. However, in the end, the nurse accuses them of being “dumb” because they are pinheads after all. The song is mostly thrashing guitars, with the famous “Gabba Gabba Hey!” line at the end of the song.PS: A member of their crew will appear on stage as Schlitzie.
The link to the official website for Yo Gabba Gabba can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Happy Birthday” by The Ting Tings that I showed to my students in class whenever it was someone’s birthday can be found here.
***The title for this series comes from a song “Boxcar” by the band Jawbreaker. I encourage all who read this post to go and check out their website, maybe buy some merch, purchase a concert ticket and/or listen to some other songs from their catalogue of great tunes. You can reach their website by clicking here. To Jawbreaker, thanks for helping to inspire the writing of this series on Punk music.
NOTE: Starting todayI am tweaking the Reader’s Choice series a little bit. In the past I have used this series to accept song requests from you, my dear readers. I am still willing and able to do that, so feel free to send in any song from any era in any musical genre and I will do my best to tell your story with grace and thoughtful consideration. However, I decided to allow myself some greater flexibility in how I use this series going forward. While I was on hiatus, helping my mother get settled in her nursing home in Nova Scotia, I had time to create a new list of songs to augment those I have received from my readers. These songs may or may not have been a #1 hit in their day but all of them were noteworthy for one reason or another and all enjoyed their own “fifteen minutes of fame”. So, in that light, I introduce to you songs that I am simply calling Tom’s Top Tunes. I hope that you enjoy learning about how these popular songs came to be as much as you enjoy reading about your Reader’s Choice entries. With that having been said, here is our very first Tom’s Top Tune….”Play That Funky Music, White Boy” by Wild Cherry. Enjoy. 🙂
Wild Cherry was a rock band that played out of the Cleveland, Ohio area during the 1970s. The band played straight-ahead guitar driven rock music and were quite popular in the local area. While Wild Cherry didn’t have any chart topping original songs, they did do a variety of rock covers, and they had some of their own material that was sprinkled into their sets. They were a well-received bar band, and for a while, that was good enough for them to find consistent bookings. Getting paid to do something each band member liked seemed like incredibly good fortune. But then, through no fault of their own, the musical sands shifted beneath their feet and everything changed.
Cleveland, Ohio is not exactly an east coast town. But it does have east-west and northern connections to places such as Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York City. These connections exist primarily due to the transportation corridor that runs from the Great Lakes all the way to the Atlantic coastline. Because of the comings and goings of so many people and goods along this corridor, Cleveland has often ended up on the receiving end of many cultural trends that began in places like NYC and ended up moving westward across America. In the mid-1970s, one of the biggest cultural trends in music was Disco.
Disco music, disco dancing and disco clubs spread like wildfire throughout the eastern part of the U.S. in the mid-1970s, with the epicentre being New York City. Clubs such as Studio 54 became the mecca of this new world. Everyone who was anyone vied to gain entry through Studio 54’s famous doors and into the decadent world that existed inside. Bands like Blondie had #1 smash hits. Movies such as Saturday Night Fever became cultural touchstones that launched a fashion scene that swept the country. Even television shows like American Bandstand followed the Disco trends. And when Dick Clark put his stamp of approval on a scene, then that scene would start showing up everywhere. One of the places that the Disco subculture took root was along that east-west corridor in Cleveland, Ohio. Because people always wanted to feel as though they had their fingers on the pulse of what was new and hip, many of the folks who went to bars in the Cleveland area did so in the hopes of disco dancing the night away. This was how a band like Wild Cherry suddenly found themselves at odds with their own local music scene that had nurtured them for so long.
The story goes that in the late 1970s, Wild Cherry was playing in a bar. They were running through their typical set of guitar rock. Usually, these sets were welcomed by their audience, but on this night, the band found that the connection that usually existed between the band and the crowd just wasn’t there. On this night, the audience grew increasingly restless as the evening went on. Finally, one man finally took it upon himself to express the frustration everyone was feeling. He stood in front of the stage and shouted at the band and, in particular, at lead singer Rob Parissi and asked, “Are you gonna play some funky music, white boys?!” Parissi and his bandmates knew that their brand of rock was out of fashion, but they had hoped that this fad would pass and that they would be able to weather the musical storm and just keep playing good old rock n’ roll. But once this challenge was publicly uttered, it seemed to demand a response from the band. So, Parissi paused the set. He and the band took a break to discuss their next move. During the break, a lot of the thoughts and feelings that Parissi had been feeling about the pressure to adapt and begin playing disco music (which he did not actually like) came bubbling to the surface. According to Parissi, the lyrics to a song about their exact situation formed immediately in his mind. He claims that he grabbed a sheet of order paper from a passing waitress and wrote out the lyrics on a piece of paper in approximately five minutes. Then he showed them to the band. The band members felt that they had nothing to lose, so a few minutes later, they went back out on stage and played the song live for their audience. The crowd responded positively to Wild Cherry’s efforts. The response was enthusiastic enough that the band decided to polish the song and record it. The song was released locally and became a hit in the Cleveland area. Word quickly spread up and down the east-west corridor, and soon Wild Cherry was appearing on American Bandstand and other nationally-televised shows. They called their song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”. The song went all the way to #1, selling over two million copies worldwide. It became Wild Cherry’s only Top 40 hit. But the success of the song allowed Parissi and his bandmates to enjoy a healthy living because of strong royalty returns in the years since.
As many of you know, the Disco era burned brightly while it existed, but soon enough, it faded away in part because of a backlash against it from many of those very same rock fans who originally watched Wild Cherry play back in the day. Wild Cherry did weather the musical storm in a sense. They never had another big hit to follow up “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” but that seemed ok with their local fans. The song, while inspired by Disco from New York, was still funky enough to survive the transition back into more standard rock fare in Cleveland. Almost forty-five years later, it remains a crowd pleaser whenever it is played at a bar, wedding reception or party. It was lightning in a bottle for Wild Cherry. Because of that one moment, Wild Cherry created a song that will always be remembered as marrying the fortunes of Disco and Rock together.
If you require proof that “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” has remained relevant decades later, that proof can be seen in how it was used in a television show called Big Bang Theory. If you know about the show at all, then you will be aware that two of the main characters were roommates named Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter. Both men were scientists. Both were on the nerdy side of the social spectrum, with Sheldon being the one who is far more unaware of social cues, as well as being fixated on rules and order and organization, etc. Part of the show’s foundation was built upon Leonard helping Sheldon to better understand and function in the world around him. One such example of this revolved around the song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” by Wild Cherry. In the scene, Leonard takes Sheldon for a drive. While doing so he puts on some music. He explains to Sheldon that listening to music while driving makes the experience of getting from here to there more pleasurable. Sheldon ponders the accuracy of that statement and decides to give music a try to see if listening to music brings him pleasure, too. The song that is playing is “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”. At first, Sheldon bops along with the beat and is, indeed, enjoying himself. Then the song comes to the chorus. This causes Sheldon to start analyzing the lyrics. He pauses to seek clarification from Leonard by asking if this song is representative of a style called funky. Unsure of where he is going with this, Leonard warily responds with, “Sure”. Immediately Sheldon turns to Leonard and announces that this song is a perfect example of something known as Russell’s Paradox. When Leonard adopts a quizzical look, Sheldon explains that Russell’s Paradox is a scientific theorem that states that something scientific can be a subset of the factors that cause the original scientific theory to be true. Leonard remains confused. Then Sheldon attempts to simplify his explanation, as he often felt the need to do throughout the course of the series, by stating that if the song was already an example of something funky, then why was the singer being asked to play a song that he was already playing? Then Sheldon threw his hands up in disgust and claimed that “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” was ruined for him now. He ended by stating a line that Keri often says to me when I feel the need to explain the meaning of and/or the story behind every song…he said, “Shouldn’t music just be fun?!”
As I hoist myself on my own petard, I will stop talking and wish you all a great rest of your day. 🙂
The link to the official website for Wild Cherry can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” by Wild Cherry can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” scene from the TV show Big Bang Theory can be found here.
When it comes to the world of movies and television shows aimed at children, one of the colossal figures in the scene…or should I say, under that scene, was a man named Jim Henson. Mr. Henson was a master puppeteer. His career began with a little TV show that you may have heard of called Sesame Street. As a child, I was a devoted follower of Sesame Street. I knew everyone who lived in that neighbourhood, whether they were in human form or whether they existed as a puppet. As a child, I know that I found the show to be funny and entertaining, and it helped place me in an environment where I thought that learning about things was a natural way to spend my time. As an adult, I look back upon Sesame Street and I marvel at how incredible it all was. The people responsible for programming those episodes deserve special recognition for how easily and seamlessly they introduced such politically sensitive topics as racial harmony, women’s rights and so on in ways that made sense to the young children watching at home. I have said this in a previous post, but my favourite TV episode of all time, in any era and from any style of television show, was the episode when long time character Mr. Hooper dies (as he did in real life). The writers of Sesame Street wrote it into the show and framed the episode around Big Bird’s character learning about what had happened to his friend and what it means when someone you care for actually dies. *(You can read that previous post here). That Sesame Street could tackle the topic of death in such a respectful way spoke volumes to me about the quality of the character of the people who were running the show. One of those people was Jim Henson.
Jim Henson learned about puppeteering in college in the late 1950s. He began his professional career as a puppeteer by making a short five-minute show segment that appeared as part of a TV show called Sam and Friends that appeared on Public TV in Washington. One of his early puppets was the early version of a talking frog. That talking frog would eventually go on to become the character we all know as Kermit the Frog. As Henson began to receive attention from his Sam and Friends segments, he began to appear with his puppets as a guest on TV shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. His work on those national television shows brought him to the attention of the producers of Sesame Street, who hired Henson to join their production team. He agreed and, along with friend and fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, went on to create some of the most iconic characters in the history of television, such as Bert and Ernie, Big Bird (who was played by Caroll Spinney on the show), Oscar the Grouch, game show host Guy Smiley and many more. Henson believed that puppets could be made to seem so realistic in their appearance, their movements and their speaking ability that they would appear to be real and thus, would be believable to children. Thus, all of Henson’s puppets (which he called Muppets) were created using soft material, with movable rods hidden inside their bodies (as opposed to strings hanging down from above) and mouths that were easily manipulated from within the puppet. The overwhelming success of puppets such as Kermit the Frog led to a spinoff television show simply called The Muppet Show, a further spinoff called Fraggle Rock and a series of movies based upon the Muppet characters. The very first of these movies was given an equally simple title as the TV show had been given. It was called The Muppet Movie. From that movie came a song about rainbows that was about rainbows and so much more. “The Rainbow Connection” was a song written by the team of Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher. This song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song in a Feature Film. The entire musical score was nominated for Best Film Score. “The Rainbow Connection” actually cracked the Top 30 Pop charts in 1979, making it as high as position #25. The song has since been selected for inclusion at The Library of Congress because of its cultural significance.
The Muppet Movie opens with a scene in which Kermit the Frog is sitting on a log in a pond. Kermit sings the song “The Rainbow Connection” as he wonders about his purpose in life. Someone overhears him singing and tells Kermit that he could be an entertainer who brings joy into the hearts of millions of people. Kermit takes this suggestion as being a sign that his “rainbow connection”….his purpose in life… lay in finding a career in show business. To do that, he travels across America in search of Hollywood. Along the way, Kermit meets all manner of Muppet friends who, in the end, become like his family. The movie concludes by Kermit having his dream realized in a most explosive and unusual way that also involves a rainbow appearing, which he takes as a sign that he has made the correct choice in life. One of the things that most people in the audience for this movie didn’t realize was how difficult it was to film that opening scene where Kermit sits on a log in the middle of a pond and sings “The Rainbow Connection” song.
If you think back to how Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked with the Muppets, they did so from below. Thus, all of the sets used in The Muppet Movie had to be built five feet into the air so that Oz and Henson could stand and move about freely from below. So every time you saw a scene using a muppet in the movie (or on Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock) keep in mind that those puppets were actually five feet in the air and a whole lot was going on under the camera’s view. In the case of “The Rainbow Connection” scene, Jim Henson couldn’t stand underneath Kermit the Frog because they were using real water to film the scene. So, in order for Henson to be able to operate Kermit from below, they had to build a sealed diving bell-like contraption. The diving bell was a fully sealed submersible device. Henson was able to breathe for the several hours it took to film the scene because oxygen was being pumped in from behind the bell. In order to feed him, food and water was brought in through a hatchway that could be opened from the outside yet remain sealed from the inside. The hatchway would be opened, the food would be placed in a cubby way, the outside door sealed shut and then, at that time, Henson could open the hatchway from inside and retrieve his food and drink. So, as you watch the video for this song, try and imagine all that went into creating this scene. What a lot of ingenuity was at play!
I will end this post with the following thought. The song “The Rainbow Connection” is about finding your purpose in life and believing yourself capable and worthy of finding it at all. There is no one single, universal “rainbow connection” out there. But there is one such connection waiting for us to find that is meant just for us. I truly believe that we are all worthy of finding a path in life that works for us and will help us become the person we were always meant to be. No one can dictate what that connection is any more than you can buy it from a store. Whatever your true rainbow connection turns out to be, it will be beautiful and wonderful. If you haven’t discovered it yet, keep looking. The journey may be long, but the reward for your heart and mind is immeasurable. To all those who believe in rainbows, I salute you. Good luck on your journey.
The link to the video for the song “The Rainbow Connection” as sung by Kermit the Frog from the original motion picture soundtrack of the film The Muppet Movie can be found here. *The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to The Muppet Movie can be found here.
The link to the official website for Jim Henson can be found here.
If you are anything like me, then somewhere in your home…in a closet, under your bed, in the back of a drawer….somewhere, you have a stash of letters and photographs that remain as evidence of your courting days with the one you love. For most of us, the story that our heart tells is well known by those who know us. However, for some people, their deepest desires were required to remain hidden. So imagine the scandal that might arise if you penned intimate odes of affection to another but never sent them, only to have those same letters discovered upon your death and reinterpreted by those who never knew the true facts. This happened to the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven. The enduring consequence of the discovery, after his death, of a stack of letters addressed to an unnamed Immortal Beloved, was to have others begin to view him and his work with new eyes. Thus, the romanticization of Ludwig van Beethoven and his many compositions began in earnest. The most egregious example of this was the renaming of his composition “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” as The Moonlight Sonata. Here is the story of how that renaming came to be and what it meant, in the broader sense, for Beethoven’s personal and professional legacy.
Ludwig van Beethoven lived a complicated life. He was a commoner by birth yet lived his whole adult life in the company of some of the richest and most powerful people of his time. He was a composer who had a gift for making beautiful music, yet, not far into his adult life, he began to go deaf. He was lauded as a genius by those who had the pleasure of listening to him play, yet he often felt lonely and devoid of happiness. Finally, he possessed innovative skills when it came to the musical structure of his compositions and yet never felt fully appreciated in his time. He desperately desired the company of an equal such as Mozart, but with Mozart’s early death while Beethoven was still young, there was never anyone for Beethoven to trade ideas with. His was an island of virtuosity. More than anything, he longed to not be alone and even more than that, to be understood.
In the late 1790s, Beethoven was just beginning to earn a reputation as an innovative composer. Up until that time, he had spent many years studying under such composers as Gustav Haydn and Antonio Salieri. It was only as the 1800s approached that Beethoven began to develop the reputation of being a composer of note among those who populated the upper classes of society. Having the trust of those in society circles was important to Beethoven, as well as any composer, because one of the chief sources of income for a composer was being a music instructor for the children of the elite. In order to be hired in such a position of trust, a composer had to first impress the parents of his potential students by performing concerts of original work in the salons and royal ballrooms of Europe. For Beethoven, the two parts of this process went hand-in-hand.
As the 1790s progressed, the French Revolution loomed large over the continent. Beethoven left the comfort of his homeland of Germany and moved east to Vienna, Austria, in the hopes of avoiding Napoleon’s army. By doing so, Beethoven gave himself a fresh start in a new city. Because he had no personal connections as he arrived in Vienna, he felt a sense of freedom to experiment with the limits of his creativity. This new sense of freedom coincided with the first stages of his hearing loss. Thus, Beethoven approached his compositions with a zeal and a fervor so far unknown to him. His work seemed fresh and interesting to him. One of the ways he pushed at the boundaries of convention was by attempting to reinvent the classical sonata form. Back in the 1700s, composers were expected to follow a structural formula when creating new work. In the case of the sonata form, composers were all tasked with creating compositions in three parts, or movements. The structure of these three movements was that the first movement was to be vibrant and fast-paced, so as to grab the attention of the audience. The second movement was to be calmer and more subtle, so as to allow the audience to catch their breath and delve deeper into the meaning of the composition. Finally, the third and final movement was to ramp back up in intensity, leading to a glorious conclusion that would leave audiences drained of emotion and breath. The sonata form existed as described for well over a century without any attempt at modification. That was until Ludwig van Beethoven moved to Vienna. Under the pressure of his health concerns, but also feeling the freedom of the complete lack of expectations placed upon him in his new home city, Beethoven decided that there would never be a better time to try something new and different. With that mindset at play, Beethoven began working on a composition that he titled “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op 27, No. 2”. What was different and revolutionary about this sonata composition was that Beethoven abandoned the traditional sonata form and, instead, opted to start with a quiet, almost dreamlike first movement and build in intensity from there. Not only that, he employed a piano playing technique that was, at turns, very rudimentary and simplistic, and yet it remained incredibly difficult to play properly, requiring much concentration and dexterity. Because Beethoven was experimenting to see how his new sonata form sounded and how it would be received, he never considered it to be a major work. To him, “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No.2” was always viewed as being a stepping stone, or as part of the process of developing his skills as an innovative composer. Even when the composition was completed and first performed in public, Beethoven always regarded the work as being nothing special in its own right.
However, to those Viennese audiences, Beethoven seemed like a breath of fresh air. He was welcomed into the castles and drawing rooms of the aristocracy. He quickly gained the trust of a number of prominent families who all vied for his services as musical instructor for their young daughters. One such family who admired the upstart young composer was a family named Brunsvik. The Brunsviks had two daughters named Therese and Josephine. While providing instruction in music to these two girls, Beethoven began an intimate relationship with the younger sister, Josephine, who was 16 at the time. This relationship was discreet, but it was well known to Josephine’s sister, Therese. At the same time as he was instructing the Brunsvik daughters, Beethoven was introduced to Count Guicciardi and his wife, Countess von Brunswik and their daughter Giulietta. Giulietta Guicciardi was a young woman who was described as being beautiful and enchanting by those who saw her. She had many admirers who all sought to win her hand. Ludwig van Beethoven was considered extremely lucky to have had such exclusive access to such a sought after young woman. Beethoven considered himself to be more than lucky, he was extremely infatuated with his new student. He wrote letters to a friend in which he publicly stated his desires but tempered expectations with the realization that, as a commoner, he had no realistic chance of being allowed to marry her. Nevertheless, he did manage to make one public gesture of affection toward his student. He dedicated his “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” to Giulietta.
Fast forward to 1840, a few years after Beethoven’s death. By this time, Beethoven’s reputation was unmatched in the world of classical music. Works such as his Fifth and Ninth symphonies and many others established Beethoven as one of the greatest composers of all time. Because of his tremendously important position in the hierarchy of the world’s great composers, the books, letters and unfinished manuscripts left behind when he died became of great interest to music scholars. As a result, his possessions were sifted through by music experts and critics with great attention to detail. Among the many interesting things that were discovered was a stack of personal letters that Beethoven wrote to someone that he called his Immortal Beloved. The discovery of these letters led to much speculation and debate as to who this mystery lady might have been. The easiest answer is that his Immortal Beloved was his student Josephine Brunsvik. Those who claim that she was the object of his undelivered letters base this theory upon the many instances of the sister Therese making public comments about the relationship that her sister was having with Beethoven. Therefore, their relationship was hardly a career-threatening secret and was, in fact, considered to be common knowledge. However, there were those who thought that they knew Beethoven well enough to see into his heart. To those people, the only person who could possibly have been his Immortal Beloved was Countess Giulietta. That Beethoven knew he was beneath her social station in life, and, as a result, that the two could never wed, spoke to the fact that he exercised discretion in never delivering the love letters to her. This take on the speculation of who his Immortal Beloved may have been painted Beethoven as a hopeless romantic who lived out his life filled with unrequited love. It also started a chain reaction of reassessment by others with regard to his whole body of work, especially from around the time he was working with both Josephine Brunsvik and Countess Giulietta. Perhaps, the experts claim, the real fuel that sparked Beethoven’s creative impulses all throughout the most productive part of his adult life was the romantic love that existed within his heart. As a consequence of this new train of thought, many of his earlier compositions were re-examined to see if any hint of love could be found within his musical notes.
The one composition that was most impacted by this new critical lens that was applied to Beethoven’s work was “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2”. Influenced by the discoveries of how Beethoven pined away in solitude for a lover he could never have, music experts and critics took another scholarly look at “Piano Sonata No. 14”, (which had been publicly dedicated to Countess Giulietta), to see if the words in those letters could explain why Beethoven decided to veer away from convention and create a composition that used a new sonata form. In particular, critics looked closely at the very slow, haunting, dreamy Movement #1. One music scholar named Ludwig Rellstab compared the musical structure of Movement #1 to being on the waters of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and seeing the moonlight reflecting in the waves. The romantic descriptiveness of Rellstab’s interpretation caught the imagination of the public and of other musicologists. From that point onward, “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” became referred to as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Truth be told, I find the Moonlight Sonata to be a very beautiful piece of music, especially the opening movement. Could it have been born from a love that could never be? Perhaps. But it is just as likely that such glorious music was born from the imagination of a creative genius who chafed at the constraints of conventional wisdom and who sought to create something new and magical and beautiful out of the sounds that he was increasingly becoming unable to hear. Whatever the case, we are left with a wonderful sonata, as well as a juicy romantic mystery that we may never conclusively be able to solve. As for me and my wife and our story, I know that when we are dead and gone and the time comes for people to find the letters that we wrote in our courting days, that they will find confirmation that we were each other’s Immortal Beloved. Nothing else matters beyond that.
The link to the official website for Ludwig van Beethoven can be found here.
The link to a video that shows the note structure of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata can be found here.
The link to the video from a scene in the movie Immortal Beloved that shows Countess Giulietta watching Beethoven as he plays the Moonlight Sonata can be found here.