Friday, December 1, 2017

Revisiting Knives Don't Have Your Back by Emily Haines

Solo albums or side projects by established musicians can be a mixed bag.  Sometimes they can bring a new level of notoriety to an artist, but they can also massively overestimate the public’s interest in any music a well-loved band member has to offer.  For every Peter Gabriel or Sting solo record, there are at least 4 members of KISS willing to put out stuff like this.  Done well, though, a good side project or solo album can give the listener a new appreciation for an artist they thought they already knew. This article focuses on one such album, namely Knives Don’t Have Your Back (2006) by Emily Haines.  Since Haines just released her new solo record (the excellent Choir of the Mind) I figured now was as good a time as any to explore how Knives fits in with the rest of her extensive discography.

Haines is mostly known as the vocalist and keyboard player for Canadian indie rock band Metric.  By 2006, Metric had released two albums and had been working for years at establishing a dedicated (and growing) fan base, first in New York City and Los Angeles, and then in Haines’ hometown of Toronto.  Their songs on these two albums (2003’s Old World Underground, Where are You Now?, and 2005’s Live It Out) deal with topics one might expect a young rock band to cover.  Songs such as “Handshakes” and “Patriarch on a Vespa” question the power structures of society and how we get trapped by them or rebel against them. There’s a smattering of anti-war songs (“Succexy”, parts of “I.O.U.”).  When dealing with relationships (a common topic for any musician to cover), a fairly cynical approach is often expressed.  Songs like “Too Little, Too Late”, “Live It Out”, and “Wet Blanket” describe affairs gone sour or about to end.  Happy songs are occasionally thrown in to the mix, such as “Love is a Place”, the short and sweet song that closes out Old World Underground…, But the positive and cynical are mixed, with a cynical or skeptical view of relationships often winning out.  This overall tone would start to change with the release of the album Fantasies in 2009, and I think Knives Don’t Have Your Back played a role in that artistic evolution.

Haines’ distinctive voice, as well as the prominent and creative use of synthesizers (also provided mostly by her) are what truly set Metric apart.  At an early stage in their career, she had already established herself as a charismatic band leader and prolific songwriter.  To Metric fans, it perhaps seemed inevitable that she would eventually record solo material, and she was certainly no stranger to side projects (both Haines and Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw collaborate regularly with Broken Social Scene).  But what makes Knives Don’t Have Your Back unique is where and how it fits within Metric’s overall discography. We might tend to see solo projects as diversions from an artist’s usual gig.  Maybe a side project is an attempt to branch out and try something different or indulge in a new musical style. My point is that solo projects sometimes seem to be appreciated separately from an artist’s main act.  Mick Jagger’s solo albums are a good example- does anyone really consider them to be an essential part of the Rolling Stones’ output? 

I would argue that Knives was not a diversion for Haines, but a vital piece of the puzzle in understanding how Metric evolved as a band. The first curious thing about Knives is it’s timing.  Metric would eventually achieve greater success and notoriety (especially after the release of Fantasies), but 2006 might have seemed like a strange time for the lead singer of an up-and-coming band to release solo material. Metric had only released two albums at the time and were not widely known outside of Canada.  Therefore Knives cannot be seen as a cash-grab or a quickie release recorded only to capitalize off of a successful album.  This makes Knives feel more personal and urgent, like she had to get these songs out, regardless of whether or not anyone else wanted to hear them.  One could argue that she had nothing to lose in releasing it, but potentially nothing to gain either.  An album filled with sad songs might have seemed like a gamble after recording the defiant and angsty Live It Out.  Fans might have rejected it. The album did sell moderately well in Canada upon it’s initial release, but remains obscure pretty much everywhere else. I was a Metric fan for a while before I was aware of Knives Don’t Have Your Back, and I’ve met fans who have never heard it. It’s unfortunate that the album isn’t more well known, since it’s an impressive collection of songs that explore complex emotions and themes like depression and loss. I also believe the album is important because it marks a turning point in Metric’s overall songwriting and tone, signaling a shift from darker or more cynical topics to more positive and (dare I say) happy imagery.

(I should say before I go further that Knives Don’t Have Your Back is technically a side project (as opposed to a solo album).  Released under the name “Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton”, she recorded it with Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw, Scott Minor, Justin Peroff, and Even Cranley.  But, she wrote all of the songs and several of the concerts she played to support the album were solo affairs (just her and a piano), so I consider it a solo album and refer to it as such throughout this post.)

The narrative that often surrounds Knives is that Haines wrote it after the sudden death of her father, poet Paul Haines, in 2003.  That unfortunate event might have been the catalyst for recording the album, but some of the songs had been written before that, and only a couple of the tracks (namely “Winning”) seem to deal specifically with death. (The album cover, though, is a direct reference to Escalator Over the Hill, the album Paul Haines recorded with jazz pianist Carla Bley in 1971).  Instead, the album deals with the sadness and depression that can follow loss.  The loss of friendships and relationships is tackled in a stark, often harrowing manner throughout the album’s 11 tracks.  Make no mistakes going in- Knives Don’t Have Your Back is an intensely sad album.  From the opening track, the somber “Our Hell”, Haines lays out her thesis that she develops and revisits throughout the album:  Being happy is all well and good, but when something happens that upends that happy life, you’re just left longing for it.  “Our hell is a good life,” she sings, not because the good life is hellish, but because the good life might only be temporary.  The songs are filled with reflections on disappointments and dashed expectations.  Recorded when Haines was in her early 30s, the downbeat tone of the lyrics may be a result of growing older and experiencing both the good and bad in life.  The brashness and confidence of youth eventually collide with reality.  “What I thought it was it isn’t now” she sings later in “Our Hell.”  Ruminations such as this make Knives Don’t Have Your Back the soundtrack to things coming undone.

Still for the music video for "Doctor Blind."
“Our Hell” is followed by “Doctor Blind”, the closest thing Knives had to a hit.  “Doctor Blind” was originally a Metric song, and Haines and Shaw recorded a demo version early in their career that never made it on to a Metric album (hear it here).  The interesting thing about it’s inclusion on Knives is how Haines recycles and repurposes the older song to make it fit the themes of the rest of the album.  Originally a more upbeat condemnation of consumerism, Haines re-worked the lyrics and instrumentation to create a stunningly accurate portrayal of depression, and from the first notes “Doctor Blind” feels uneasy.  It uses a slowed down, wonky time signature that makes the opening piano chords feel disjointed (seriously, try to tap your foot to the melody- it’s not easy).  The first verse reinforces Haines’ view of an upended world (“Toothless dentists/ Cops that kill”) but it’s the chorus that hits home. “My baby’s got the lonesome lows/ Don’t quite go away overnight/ Doctor Blind, just prescribe the blue ones/ If the dizzying highs don’t subside overnight/ Doctor Blind, just prescribe the red ones.”  The lonesome lows that don’t quite go away overnight.  Has there ever been a more accurate and succinct description of depression?  As someone who’s suffered through depression in the past, I think “Doctor Blind” captures the feeling perfectly.  It’s a touching depiction of depression as well as a condemnation of doctors who are unable to treat it or indifferent towards it.  That medicine didn’t work?  Just take this one.  We might be over-medicated but we’re not better.  “Doctor Blind” is easily the standout track on Knives, and I think it’s one of the best meditations on depression ever written, as well as one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

 “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff” comes next, and with this song Haines doubles down on the sadness.  If “Doctor Blind” is about being depressed, then “Crowd Surf” is about being really, really depressed.   Played only on the piano and sung with slightly distorted vocals, the song is stripped down and ethereal.  Some of the darkest imagery on the album is conjured here, and it makes for a devastatingly sad song. It starts with a lamentation for a lost lover: “Rather give the world away/ than wake up lonely/ Every day and every way/ I see you with me” she sings, but the song soon slips in to other regrets as well.  It’s hard to see some lines as anything other than a reappraisal of her choice to pursue a music career.  “Are we breathing?/ Are we breathing?/ Are we wasting our breath?/ It won’t be enough to be rich/ All the babies tucked away in their beds/ We’re out here screaming.”   To me, the whole song really gets to the heart of what it’s like to suffer from depression.  When you’re depressed, you aren’t just sad about one thing- you’re sad about everything.  You feel that every choice you’ve made in your life has been the wrong one, and that’s really what the whole song’s about.  I just wrote that “Doctor Blind” is one of the saddest songs ever written, but “Crowd Surf” beats it by a mile.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Vincent Price Sells Art at Sears (Yes You Read That Correctly)

I spend a good amount of time searching for obscure videos on YouTube, and I always find surprises.  Recently, I found an old commercial for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (a museum I know well) featuring legendary screen actor Vincent Price.  It’s an interesting snapshot of the museum at the time, and after walking through the galleries Price stops in next to the large reclining figure by Henry Moore, a piece that’s long been off public view, most likely because of incidents like this.

After watching the video and searching a little more, I found that Price had recorded similar commercials for other museums in the U.S. Apart from being a little time capsule of the early 1980s, I was left with the question of why Vincent Price had been chosen in the first place.  Price was primarily known as a horror movie actor, and I really didn’t know much about his connections to art before researching this post.  I found out that he did, and it’s kind of an odd one.  He collected art throughout his life and in the early 1960s he was approached by the department store chain Sears and asked to collaborate on a project to sell fine art in their stores.  Price himself was responsible for choosing and buying the thousands of paintings and prints that would encompass the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art at Sears.

The most important video available that really helps to understand the relationship Price had with Sears is an instructional video created to train employees on the art that would be for sale.  In the film, Price himself admits that people may be skeptical about buying fine art at Sears, and he makes a point of separating what’s being sold here from the cheap, printed- on-cardboard images people might be used to.  This video goes a long way towards explaining what exactly Sears was selling.  He takes time to showcase some of the pieces and discus their merits.  I’ve identified the work and artist where possible.

The first piece Price highlights is a print by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige.  After doing a little digging, I was able to see that it’s a print from Hiroshige’s collection called The 53 Stations of the Takaido. Specifically, it’s #39- Chiryu:

As Price describes it, he refers to it as one of Hiroshige’s famous “views.”  When I heard this, I immediately thought of “36 Views of Mount Fuji” (of which The Great Wave Off Kanagawa) is the most famous image.  But, the views of Mount Fuji are prints made by Hokusai, not Hiroshige.  I can’t be too hard on Price for seemingly confusing the two artists, since lumping Hokusai and Hiroshige together unfortunately is fairly common.  Google “Hiroshige print” and images of Hokusai’s Great Wave are returned.  Moving on.

The next painting highlighted was one that stumped my.  Price says it’s a French artist who’s name sounds like “Boboline.”  I tried several spellings and was able to find nothing.

The drawing Price highlights after Boboline (Baubelline? Boboleine? Your guess is as good as mine) is an interesting one.  It’s by Heinrich Kley and appears to depict a satyr dancing with a woman.  Kley was a German illustrator and painter who was well regarded by Walt Disney, who was an avid collector of his work.  Kley’s illustrations (especially those of anthropomorphic animals) were a huge influence on the design of Disney’s Fantasia, released near the end of Kley’s life.

 wasn’t able to find the exact drawing that’s highlighted in the Sears video, but I was able to find part of it.  Searching for Kley images on Google is difficult because a lot of what comes up isn’t by Kley but is by people he influenced (Disney concept artists, other illustrators, etc.).  But a winery used a Kley drawing as a wine bottle label and it’s pretty clear that it’s the same drawing seen in the video (minus the figure on the right). 

 Next Price shows off two artists who I was able to find more information on but I wasn’t able to find images of the exact paintings shown here.  The first is an Italian artist Price calls Frederico Gentillini but his name was actually Franco Gentillini.  He also points out a piece by an artist named Gustav Likan.  Likan taught in Chicago, so he might have been familiar to those who worked at the Sears headquarters.

After showing off these two artists, Price gets into some of the more interesting pieces on display in the film.  The first of these is a print by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  To go off on a slight tangent here, one really fascinating aspect of old films like this is because they record the way people spoke and communicated that may sound a little antiquated today.  This is best captured he when Price refers to Toulouse-Lautrec as “really one of the extraordinary people.”  But, I digress.

The print at hand is called Por Toi! (For You!) (Desire Dihou with his Bassoon), and was originally printed in 1893.  If the print shown in the video was legit, it could be worth a lot of money today.  Other copies have sold for as much as $14,000.   I say “if” because prints can be problematic if the printing blocks or plates were used without the artist’s authorization of after the artist’s death.  I don’t know if that’s been an issue with this particular print, but prints seen later on are potentially problematic (keep reading).

The next piece seen is a small print of a bird and insect Price identifies as The Young Entomologist.  Googling that title or looking for similar images yielded nothing.

Sorry little guy, I don't know who made you.
What comes next are probably the most problematic pieces Price presents.  They are two prints by Goya from his famous series of etchings called Los Caprichos.  The lower one is easy to identify: it’s no. 39 in the series, entitled Hasta su Abuelo (And So Was His Grandfather), first published in 1799.

The upper one is hard to identify since it’s never shown in close-up, but I think it’s no. 47, Obsequio al maestro (A Gift for the Master):

Unscrupulous publishers churned out prints like this long after Goya’s death, and even though they used the original printing plates, they did so without Goya’s permission.  This flooded the market with unauthorized editions that degraded in quality as time went on.  The problem is so rampant that when you Google it, “Goya Caprichos forgery” autocompletes before “Goya Caprichos.”

Goya coupons now accepted at Sears.
Perhaps Sears is acknowledging a sketchy provenance with the price- they’re only $35 apiece.   Given the little I know about Goya’s prints, the chance of these prints being genuine is slim to none.  

The next work is one that’s almost impossible to identify based on the information given.  Price introduces it by saying it’s by “a woman in California who’s comparatively unknown.”  I think this piece (perhaps more than the others on display) really gets to the heart of what the Price/Sears collaboration was trying to do.  Namely, finding regional artists whose work was affordable and introducing it to a national audience.  They might never have received international attention on the art stage, but what was important was finding something you liked, regardless of value.  Price takes some time to talk about these very ideas before he moves on to the next piece, as print by Louis Legrand (or LeGrand):

I was able to find info on him but not this particular print.  He also highlights a small watercolor of a landscape that is unidentifiable as well (Price mentions it’s British, but that’s about it).

After all this comes the big one.  Price saves the best for (almost) last and it’s a doozy.  A print by none other than Rembrandt van Rijn.  It’s the print Angel Appearing to Shepherds and Price talks at length about the provenance of the piece.  Rembrandt (like Goya) also faces authenticity issues with his prints and Price seems to acknowledge this by detailing the print’s former owners. 

From the small amount of research I was able to do (I’m no Rembrandt print expert) this piece appears to have been the genuine article.  A YouTube commenter on the video claims his family member bought it, and years later Vincent Price himself tried (unsuccessfully) to buy it back.  If that story’s legit, someone got a great deal and owns a print that today is worth much, much more than they paid for it (the price on the tag that’s flashed on screen is $900.00.  Yes, that’s in 1960s dollars, but still probably a bargain).  A wall tag flashes briefly on the screen that seems to suggest that Sears sold (or at least planned to sell) other Rembrandt prints.  It reads:

“Angel Appearing to Shepherds”

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669)
Possibly the greatest artist that ever lived. Perhaps no as inquisitive a mind as Leonardo, but his concentration on the soul of his sitters makes him more understandably human. Almost no one can afford a Rembrandt painting but fortunately his etchings are considered by many as his greatest works and are within the financial reach of many. All the etchings and drypoints in this collection come from his studio during his lifetime. You can honestly say you own a masterpiece with the possession of any one of them.

The need to mention that all the prints available came from Rembrandts studio in his lifetime points to the idea that even in the 1960s, there could be authenticity problems with Rembrandt works.  Were any other Rembrandt prints sold at Sears in the 1960s?  Were any or all of them genuine?  I wasn’t able to find that out but it’s pretty bizarre to think that someone somewhere could have purchased a 300 year old print worth tens of thousands of dollars at a department store.

The last piece featured in the video is a painting by Karl Zerbe.  Price refers to him as “one of the best known Amercan artists.”  This is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  I was able to find some info on Zerbe but not a better reproduction of this particular painting.

Price with Karl Zerbe painting
That’s the work that Price runs through in the video.  Some big names in the forms of prints, some original paintings by lesser known artists.  As I researched this story, one advertisement from an old Sears catalog kept popping up, usually associated with the Vincent Price venture.  It’s apparently a page from the 1963 or 1967 catalog:

What often mentioned when people comment on this is that the ad claims to be selling paintings by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian.  And I should point out that the paintings aren’t just being used as d├ęcor for the fashion.  They’re catalog items with prices attached.  Was Sears selling original works by these artists and was Price attached?  The answer those questions are “of course they weren’t, don’t be silly” and “I don’t think so”. 

First, the paintings.  The Picasso is titled Girl With a Boat and is located in a gallery in Switzerland.  The Mondrian is called Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue, and was painted in 1921.  It’s currently in the collection of the Gemeentemusem in The Hague.  I don’t know when they acquired it but I think it’s a safe bet to say it didn’t come from Sears.  The museum has given it an object number of 0333329.  I don’t know very much about museum studies, but I do know it’s not uncommon for a museum to make the last 2 numbers of an identifying tag the year in which the piece was acquired.  If that’s the case here, it means that the painting entered their collection in 1929.  So what’s going on here and what was Sears selling?  The works are listed as oil paintings (not cheap reproductions on cardboard) and they’re not cheap, but they are copies.  They must have been mass produced copies too, since it’s listed in the Sears catalog and presumably more than one person might want one.

At this point, one could debate the ethical situation brought up by a major retailer passing off masterwork copies and not labelling them as such, and that’s certainly an interesting argument and discussion.  But what I want to point out here is that these reproductions appear to have nothing to do with Vincent Price’s venture.  His name does not appear on the ad, nor do the words “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art at Sears” which is what the project was usually called.  In fact, passing off copies like this would go directly against what Price wanted to accomplish. He repeatedly states in the film that the works he has chosen are authentic and original.  The catalog page is an interesting piece of kitsch history, for sure, but it’s got nothing to do with Vincent Price.

After researching Price’s venture, I’m still left with a couple of questions.  For example, how many Sears stores had galleries like this?  Sears had locations across the country, in small towns and big cities.  I would be surprised if art galleries like this cropped up in every one.  I’m guessing that the Price art collection was featured in only some stores, probably in bigger markets where consumers might have a little extra disposable income, but I don’t know for sure.

In conclusion, Price genuinely wanted to bring his love of art to everyone, and the choices he made set out to do just that.  Much of the work appears to have been prints, drawings, and watercolors, mediums that usually sell for less money.  The subject matters showcased were quaint landscapes, genre scenes, and safe modernism.  It was work that was meant to be palatable for everyone.  Was some of it middling work by artists who have been long forgotten?  Probably, but the point wasn’t to create a long-term investment portfolio of multi-million dollar pieces.  Price repeatedly states that someone should choose something they like that they can live with and looks good in their house.  Judging by the comments left on the YouTube videos, that’s exactly what happened.  It’s easy to find several commenters who remark that work bought at Sears hung in their homes (or their parent’s homes) for years and were much loved.

While reading article about this whole thing, I found articles that praised Price’s commitment to bringing art to the people, but there were just as many articles kind of mocking it as the ultimate in kitsch consumerism.  I think the criticisms miss the mark of what Price was trying to do.  He was thoroughly trained in art history and was an avid collector himself.  He donated thousands of works of art to East Los Angeles College and a museum there bears his name.  He was also an all-around decent guy.  He accepted his daughter as gay before that was even a thing, and was an early celebrity to speak up publicly about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.  He also said this:

I’d buy art from a guy like that.

Friday, April 21, 2017

No, Not That Star Wars Trailer, a Different One

Well, the teaser trailer for the new Star Wars film was released last weekend and it’s already been watched about 30 million times on YouTube.  Pretty impressive for a clip that showcases less than two minutes of footage, some of which might not even end up in the finished film (right, Rogue One trailer?).  I’m not going to link to the clip here, mainly because if you’re reading this you’ve probably already watched it a dozen times.  This is a post about other trailers, and I’m not going to pour over the scant footage to try to work out any and all plot points and clues from the- OH MY GOD THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE ON LUKE SKYWALKER’S ISLAND:

Oh wait, on closer inspection that just appears to be a rock. But, I digress.   Apart from showing Rey levitating several small stones and enough shots of Skellig Michael to make the Irish tourist council happy, there’s not much to glean from the teaser.  I should mention at this point that I myself am a huge Star Wars fan and watched the trailer almost immediately after it was posted over the weekend (and several more times since then).  Seeing the original Star Wars at the drive-in when I was three is potentially my earliest memory as a human on planet earth.  I realize that many fans are also excited about the new movie and will spend the next few months watching the trailer frame by frame, trying to figure out the entire plot based only on the back of Leia’s head, and that’s fine by me, you’re dedicated and I respect your commitment.  I just try to avoid the endless speculation, and I stay away from spoilers. So I’m using the release of the new trailer to talk about an older Star Wars trailer, as well as the evolution of movie trailers in general.

The idea of a highly anticipated movie trailer is a relatively new one.  Platforms like The Internet Movie Database and YouTube allows us to watch them whenever we want, as many times as we want, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.  You used to have to buy a movie ticket to see them, or settle for short 30 second TV commercials.  Now trailers are big business (and essentially free to watch), and movie studios spend time and money crafting them into mini movies, and their release is sometimes as eagerly awaited as the movie they’re advertising.  This can be taken to extremes (remember how the teaser for Rogue One had it’s own teaser?) but for the most part I think this just helps increase excitement for a film.

But trailers weren’t always an art form.  Older trailers, readily available to us today thanks to YouTube, often look like they were slapped together quickly, and seem like they’ve had only the slightest association with a thing called “editing”.  Take a look at this original trailer for the film Apocalypse Now to see what I mean (I have to link to it this way because Blogger isn't letting me embed the video I want)

Apocalypse Now is rightly considered a masterful film, but the trailer looks terrible.  The beginning, which features Martin Sheen’s voiceover, is o.k., but then it turns into a roughly chronological outline of the movie told through a bunch of strung-together clips.  There isn’t an overall soundtrack to the trailer, and it seems as if the music that’s playing is there because it was already in the scene.  This creates a disjointed rhythm to the whole thing and makes it look like kind of a mess.  This was the norm at the time.  There are many other old trailer you can find that look just as rushed as this one.  30 years ago, trailers just weren’t something that a studio put a lot of time and effort into, and it shows.  

To get back to Star Wars, the original trailer for The Empire Strikes Back upped the game a little.  It’s from around the same time as the Apocalypse Now trailer but seems to be showing a little more effort.  It’s not just a chronological series of shots, but aims more to reintroduce characters that are already familiar as well as introduce some new settings.  The music is still a mess, though, and seems choppy and random.  Compare this to the full trailer for The Force Awakens (which seems to have a soundtrack that was composed specifically for it) and the difference is clear.

Perhaps the strangest part of that original trailer is the voice-over narration.  Yes, it’s Harrison Ford, and no, I’m not the first person to notice this.  Voice-overs were incredibly common in older trailers, so it’s use here isn’t odd.  Don LaFontaine made a career out of it, but I always preferred the creepier narration of Percy Rodriguez I think LaFontaine's "in a world" shtick got old).  Rodriguez was doing trailer voice work in the late 1970s (he narrated the original trailer for Jaws), and even did the narration for the Star Wars special edition trailer in 1997.   So, why didn’t they get someone like that for The Empire Strikes Back?  I understand why the filmmakers might want to use one of the actors from the film, but Ford isn’t even narrating it in character as Han Solo (which admittedly would probably be stranger).  Instead, he gives us a corny delivery that makes it seem like he’s trying to rope us in to a sketchy ring-toss game at a carnival.  The disconnect between the tone of the film we all know today and that goofy, used car salesman narration is jarring.  Writer Lawrence Kasdan said that Empire was the film where “everything goes to hell”, and he’s right. Everyone’s betrayed at some point, Luke’s hand is cut off, and the rebellion loses so epically they actually have to flee the galaxy at the end.

Yes, cynical Family Guy writers, this is how it ends.  Everything the rebels are fighting for is visible through that window.
Why Ford chooses to narrate the trailer the way he does remains a mystery to me.  I wasn’t able to find much out about his involvement, other than confirmation that it is, indeed, him.  Was he intentionally trying to sound as cheesy as possible?  Was he trying to torpedo the whole thing by sounding as goofy as he could?  He famously hated the Star Wars dialogue, so perhaps this is meant to be his revenge? Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want him to be recognized, but then why even use him at all?  

How bad was the Holiay Special? Allow
me to present Exhibit A.
It’s almost as if there wasn’t a really clear direction that the franchise was heading in at this point, and the overall tone was just confused.  At this point in time, the only Star Wars based entertainments that had been released were the original film and the horrendous Star Wars Holiday Special.  I’ll take a second here to mention that the Holiday Special is just as terribly godawful as everyone says it is.  I was child in the 70s and was obsessed with the first film (I still can’t bring myself to call it A New Hope- it’ll always be Star Wars to me).  My family had a VCR at the time and my father taped the Holiay Special for me and my siblings (we couldn’t stay up late to watch it).   We watched it once the next day and then never watched it again.  We had recording technology in 1979 that would have allowed us to watch a Star Wars themed TV show as many times as we wanted and our response was “pass”.  That’s how bad the Star Wars Christmas Special was. Kids, who I'm presuming were the intended audience, wanted nothing to do with it.  George Lucas should be lucky that it didn’t kill all future interest in the franchise (and yes, I'm aware of the fact that Lucas was not involved in the planning of the Holiday Special, but viewers in 1979 wouldn't have necessarily known that).  Would future Star Wars films be adventure films that explored ideas of good and evil, or would they be variety show farces filled with goofy wookiees?  Ford’s narration of the trailer makes it sound like he was still in Holiday Special mode, ready to introduce Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman right after Lando Calrissian.

I think everyone exhaled a sigh of relief when Empire turned out to be such a great movie.  It’s consistently considered the best of the Star Wars films, and I don’t disagree with that.  George Lucas will repeatedly say that the Star Wars films are made for children, but I think Empire busts that idea a little.  Sure, it has space battles and giant ship-eating slugs, but also introduces more adult themes such as loss, love, personal responsibility, and destiny.  It vastly expands the story and improves on the first film, and is probably one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.  But you wouldn’t guess it from that corny trailer.

My last thought on the matter is a personal message to Harrison ford. Thank you for not using that cheesy carnival huckster voice while you were playing Han Solo. That might have traumatized me more than the Holiay Special.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cesar Pelli's Lost Oasis: The Niagara Falls Winter Garder

Cesar Pelli's Winter Garden, nearing the end.
I distinctly remember the first time I experienced Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden in Niagara Falls, New York.  I was in high school, and I was visiting the Falls with a friend.  We decided to poke around in the Rainbow Center Mall, which by then was already declining pretty badly.  It was the early 90s and I don’t remember there being many stores that were still open.  After wandering in and out of a couple of shops, we came to the southern end of the mall and entered into an unexpected oasis.  One doesn’t often expect to find a lush tropical botanical garden attached to something as banal as a shopping mall, but there it was.  I was intrigued by the building’s multiple raised walkways and elevators.  A tall spiral staircase stretched to the highest level of the greenhouse.  Pools and fountains trickled through the thick vegetation.  It was certainly unlike other Niagara Falls structures I was familiar with.  The Falls are a tourist destination, so is filled with the normal tourist trappings one would expect like souvenir shops (with a generous dose of wax museums and goofy haunted houses thrown in).  This was completely different from what I knew of the Falls.  As a kid growing up in Western New York, regular trips to the Falls are a rite of passage, but this building had somehow not entered into my previous visits.  But, once I discovered it I made a point of visiting it every time I was there.  I’m glad I got to experience it when I did, because it was eventually demolished.

The building has sort of a sad history that ties into the City of Niagara Falls in general.  It was built in the 1970s in an effort to revitalize the downtown core. Large sections of the city had been razed during ill-fated attempts at urban renewal, and Cesar Pelli was one of the modernist architects hired to re-build the city, pretty much from the ground up (buildings by Philip Johnson, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Paul Rudolph are also close by).  It was an attempt to create a tourist destination, but perhaps a tropical greenhouse was an odd, and eventually unsustainable, proposition.  As I researched the Winter Garden, I read about how it had been glazed using non-insulated single pane glass.  Heating the building during Western New York’s harsh winters became a burden for the city.  As time went on, the Winter Garden became difficult to support financially.  Niagara Falls may be an iconic world landmark, but the city itself has suffered with poverty and falling property values for decades.  Any fixes to the city-owned building would have been difficult and costly.  Re-glazing the structure with insulating glass would have cost millions.  Charging an admission fee for the building also posed problems (visiting the Winter Garden was free).  It was attached to a shopping mall, and the building itself was supposed to act as a pass-through from one side of the tourist district to the other.  The building had already been criticized for being built over what had once been a street, so closing it off to all but paying customers would have hurt business in the city even more.  There were other ideas proposed, such as converting the plantings to native species that could weather the cold, but nothing panned out.  In the end the plants were auctioned off and it was (for a brief time) converted into “Smokin’ Joe’s Family Fun Center.”  It was filled with video games and bounce houses, but that venture only lasted for a couple of years.  The Winter Garden was finally torn down in 2009.

Say what you will about the demolition and the successes or failures of modernist architecture in general, but there’s no doubt that a unique (and admission-free) attraction was lost when the Winter Garden came down.  It was an unexpected oasis in the middle of the city.

As I began writing this article a little while ago, I started researching the Winter Garden on-line, looking for photos that could give me information on the building’s design as well as the plantings within.  I came to the quick realization that there isn’t a lot out there, unfortunately.  For a building that stood in the middle of a major tourist destination for 30 years, it’s lack of representation on the internet was both puzzling and a little frustrating.  Pictures of the outside of the building are fairly easy to find, but interior photos that show the tropical plants and fountains are rare (maybe 12-15 pictures will show up in a Google search).  Of course there are photos out there.  I took pictures of the building during my visits, and I’m including some with this post. The building was also a common location for weddings in the Niagara Falls area, so countless wedding photos surely exist, they just haven’t been uploaded to the internet.   Many photos of the construction of the building’s interior spaces, as well as many people’s accounts of the building can be found in this post. (a good article that's definitely worth a read) 
I found this interior photo in an old architectural magazine.

This photo is from the same magazine article.
This is a photo I took in the late 90s.  The seating area was where special event like weddings were held.

This photo shows the pool and stairs, and shows the many different levels contained within the structure.
This pic was taken from an upper walkway, looking down at the main path that cut through the garden areas.
When I first visited the Winter Garden, the large dove-shaped decorations (visible in the above photo) were mounted on the front of the building, and were there for several years.  These are a vestige of the Festival of Lights, a winter/holiday themed event that was held throughout the city in the 1980s and 90s.  I was able to find one YouTube video that showed the doves illuminated. The footage of the Winter Garden comes near the end, but I took a screen cap:
This is literally the only footage I could find of the illuminated decorations.
On a final note, I noticed an interesting inconsistency while viewing the site of the Winter Garden in Google Maps.  I went to the street view in to see the area now (it’s essentially been turned into a large pedestrian walkway and plaza) and found something unexpected- some of the street views are old and still show the Winter Garden.  They’re all views from the periphery, as if you’re catching a glimpse of a ghost from the corner of your eye.
The street is now closed off, so when the Google cameras recently captured new images of the area, these shots couldn't be updated, so the Winter Garden's ghost lives on.
Now you see it, now you don't.
Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden: Once an oasis, now a mirage.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Not on The Wedding List: Kate Bush Gets Snubbed Again

When I choose topics for this blog, I try to pick things to write about that aren’t widely discussed on the internet.  That was the whole reason for starting this thing in the first place, since I wanted to highlight topics that might be under-reported or absent altogether from on-line sources.  I break from that format just this once to write about something that is mentioned fairly frequently on-line, and I’m far from the first person to do it.  You can also reference this site (and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one) to read similar pleas.  But, I always choose to write about things I care about, and that’s where this post is no different from my others, and this week I wanted to add my voice to the countless other music lovers who ask the same thing year after year: Why isn’t Kate Bush in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Bush in 1986

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame attracts its fair share of controversy, and far be it from me to try to explain it all here.  But one of the criticisms that’s dogged the intuition from the beginning is how inductees are chosen.  Only a handful of people control the nominating process, and they’re often criticized for appealing to their own tastes as opposed to more popular views (to their credit, popular views aren’t always right- Nickelback is very popular but shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Cleveland).  Nominees are chosen each year from all eligible acts, and the year’s inductees are whittled down from that list.  Only acts who are nominated that year can get in.   Any artist who released their first album more than 25 years ago is eligible, and by now that list of eligible acts is huge (and growing).   Acts can be nominated more than once (Chic hold the record- nominated 10 times and still not inducted).  Kate Bush has been eligible for induction since 2003 and has been nominated for inclusion a whopping 0 times.  Yes, that’s right- zero.  None.  In thirteen years or so of eligibility, she’s never even been in the running. 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland; Kate Bush free since 2003.

Kate Bush fans see this as a bit of a snub.  When considering musicians who came out of the 70s and 80s it’s hard to find anyone who was as wildly original or as influential, and therefore eligible for induction, as Bush.  She’s difficult to classify as a musician, straddling the line between music and art.  She’s a keyboard virtuoso, actress, dancer, and music video pioneer.  I think it’s fair and appropriate to place her on the same level as other groundbreaking British acts like David Bowie and the Peter Gabriel era of Genesis (both in the Hall of Fame, by the way).  They all crossed boundaries between music genres and dipped their toes in performance art, experimenting with elaborate costumes and stage shows.  Musically, she truly pushed the limits of what a synthesizer (a relatively new instrument at the time) could do, and on albums like Never For Ever created sounds that I daresay had never been heard before. 

That perhaps raises another aspect of Bush’s music the Hall of Fame might not fully embrace.  Simply put, Kate Bush’s music is strange.  Her voice can range from a whisper to a shriek to a howl.  She affects accents and plays characters.  She incorporates sound effects in her songs to build moods (breaking glass and footsteps on Never For Ever, birdsong throughout Aerial).  Thematically, her music is just as diverse.  She’s written songs about British composer Frederick Delius, philosopher and inventor Wilhelm Reich, and Adolf Hitler.  The second half of her epic album Hounds of Love is a concept album that describes the final moments of a girl drowning after falling through thin ice.  She has recorded albums that might be considered more “normal” (such as her debut The Kick Inside), but she’s truly at her best when she’s at her most experimental.  Her strangest and most complex work (The Dreaming, Hounds of Love, the double album Aerial), are clearly her strongest, and perhaps it’s this strangeness that’s prevented her from becoming more of a mainstream success in the U.S.    She remains somewhat of a cult figure in the States, and this also might be holding up her nomination.  Other cultish musicians (like Frank Zappa) have been inducted in the past, though, so maybe there’s still hope.

Her recorded work is unique within the music world and remains as lush, strange, and challenging as ever, but it’s her massive influence on others that also makes her eligible for inclusion in the Rock Hall.  Reading through Bush’s Wikipedia page (easiest for us researchers with limited time) the list of musicians she’s influenced is extremely diverse and crosses through musical styles and genders.  Tori Amos is the artist that’s cited most frequently as being extremely influenced by Bush, but the list of her admirers is much more exhaustive and inclusive; Allison Goldfrapp, k.d. lang, Robert Smith of The Cure, Tricky, even unexpected musicians like Johnny Rotten and Tupac freakin’ Shakur.  Her willingness to experiment with image and costume also be seen in the work of PJ Harvey.  Florence Welsh of Florence and the Machine is heavily influenced by Bush, and if you don’t believe me listen to Bush’s “Sat in Your Lap” and “Dog Days are Over”- even the music videos for the two songs are similar.  Joanna Newsom’s song “Leaving the City” could be a Kate Bush song, and the album that song appears on (2015’s Divers) is a direct descendant of Bush’s stranger and more experimental albums like Never For Ever and The Dreaming.

It’s easy to make the case for Bush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it’s hard to overlook the one glaring issue that may be keeping her from getting in- when it comes to inducting female musicians, the HoF has an absolutely awful track record.  While researching this post, I looked over the inductees to the Hall, choosing to focus on everyone inducted since the year 2000.  I did it this way because Bush has only been eligible since 2003, and I wanted to focus on her era of eligibility.  The breakdown isn’t particularly diverse, and looks something like this:

Since 2000, 103 acts have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.  That’s counting acts, not individuals (most inductees contain multiple band members, though some are solo performers).

Of those 103 inductees, only 8 have been female solo performers: Bonnie Raitt, Brenda Lee, Patti Smith, Madonna, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer, and Linda Ronstadt.

An additional 6 inductees have prominent female members:  Talking Heads, Pretenders, Blondie, ABBA, Heart, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.

One inductee contains multiple women (but no men): The Ronettes.

In total, that’s only 15 acts that are comprised of all women or some women.  This works out to about 15% of inductees.   If you calculate only the percentage of the inductees who are female solo performers, it’s less than 8% of the total.  8%.  Compare that to male solo performers, and the imbalance becomes even more glaring.  30 male solo performers have been inducted since 2000, making their contribution about 30% of the total. 

O.K., you might say, that’s just the numbers since the year 2000.  Female inductees may be a little scarce lately but surely the entire history of the institution doesn’t look this bad.  Well, not so fast.  Going back all the way to the first year of induction (1986), only an additional 7 female solo inductees can be found (Aretha Franklin, LaVerne Baker, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Dusty Springfield). 

That brings the all time total to 15.  The Hall has been inducting members for 30 years.  Hundreds of acts and musicians have gotten in.  Only 15 of those inductees have been female solo performers.  That averages out to 5 a decade.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame people, you can do better.  Start by inducting Kate Bush.

Ultimately, what’s it all matter what some music executives in Cleveland think?  Why do Kate Bush fans take it so personally?  After all, not being included in the HoF doesn’t change her music.  We can still listen to it and be inspired by it whether her name is on the list or not.  She’ll keep releasing albums (albeit slowly) regardless of whether or not she’s included.  She might not even care herself.  But fans can take these things personally and see induction as validation for a life’s work- just look at how much fans of the band Rush pushed to get them inducted.  They were relentless in their support of the band and eventually succeeded.  Kate Bush fans need to do the same thing (and I don’t mean to offend any Rush fans, because I know you’re a dedicated lot and I respect that, but Kate Bush is way more eligible for induction then Rush).  Induction also means preservation.  The Hall of Fame is also a museum, and induction means that her legacy, both musical and material, can be preserved for future generations. 

I close with a personal story about my introduction to her music, a story that I think underscores the personal connection that Kate Bush fans have with her music. When I was in college 20 years ago I found a second-hand copy of The Dreaming at the local Salvation Army (on cassette no less).  It cost a dollar.  I knew who Kate Bush was but didn’t really know that much about her music.  I bought it on a whim but was hooked from the first time I heard it.  It was complex and strange and it made me think.  It certainly wasn’t a passive listening experience.  I was studying art and was close to receiving my BFA degree, and I realized that this album was art too.  It had to be interpreted.  It was challenging and dense but also alluring and beautiful.
This is the album cover  I'm referring to.

 I was working as a DJ at the college radio station at the time and I eagerly raided the stacks of vinyl, looking for more Kate Bush albums.  It was always fun looking through the old records at the station since students would often write comments or reviews on the record sleeves.  Sometimes they would be general comments like “this is good” or “don’t waste your time”, and sometimes they’d be warnings to future DJs, like “track 7 uses the F word” or something like that.  As I browsed through the Kate Bush albums I found a simple three word comment written on one of her records that remains one of the most accurate and succinct statements I could ever find on her music.  The record was the 12” single for the song “Sat in Your Lap” and the cover features a bizarre looking portrait of Bush wearing an odd striped costume (see right).  Scrawled across the cover were the words “weird but good”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame holds their annual induction ceremony tonight (April 8) in New York City.  Kate Bush will not be in attendance.  Here’s hoping for next year.