Tag Archives: music

Black Flowers Blossom

Massive Attack’s gorgeous and haunting “Teardrop” is now widely and instantly recognizable as the “theme from House,” the only real shame of which is that the cut that plays over the opening credits drops Elizabeth Fraser’s reliably ethereal vocals.1 That aside, I’m not one to sniff in hipster disdain of something cool getting dispersed to the masses; I think it’s actually kind of wonderful that thousands of people who wouldn’t know trip-hop from trance have now spent years getting a weekly dose of high-quality downbeat electronica, even if the legacy of the entertainment it came with has proven to be a mixed blessing.2

Less well-known – by which I mean that I had no idea either until the other night – is that “Teardrop” has been given several worthy and interesting cover treatments. In particular, allow me to draw your eye and ear to this version by Jóse González, set to visuals that may be even more trippy and unsettling than the original.3 It’s a version I find to be powerful and beautiful in its own right, honoring the source material while not attempting to recreate it – qualities, IMHO, of most of the best covers. As a musician who can be  perhaps over-enthusiastic about adding songs I fall in love with to my performing repertoire, it’s a good thing to be reminded of – that the material should almost always be a vessel for the voice of the interpreter, and not the other way around.

(Hat-tip to Fred Clark of slacktivist for pointing to this, in case you want to know who to blame for your dreams tonight.)

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1 Which, really, though I’m all for wide dissemination of all things Fraseran, Liz has shown every sign of caring sod-all about being ready for prime time. Witness the Cocteau Twins’ first appearance on American network television on The Tonight Show in the ’90s, performing “Bluebeard” – what surely counts as one of the more accessible and radio-friendly tunes in the CT catalogue – when she was unable to resist tormenting the vocals to “Carolyn’s Fingers” levels of abstraction.

2 I’m not quite up for going into much depth about my mixed feelings concerning House, MD, but for now suffice it to say that I’m glad to see that the trope of the Asshole Genius Antihero is showing signs of waning.

3 Which video featured a singing animatronic fetus, so consider yourself duly warned.

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“Became the Special Man”: Ziggy at Forty

Catching up last night on my Internet reading after a long week, I was pleased to find out that this wonderful thing exists: a montage of David Bowie performing “Ziggy Stardust” over four decades, set to the original.

I would have been thirteen or fourteen, I think, when I had my first serious encounter with Bowie,1 and it was as he was in the Ziggy years: fey and glam and ambiguously queer, the messianic spaceman who’d happily fuck you and your girlfriend and leave you begging for another taste. Bowie himself had long moved on from that image – this was the mid-late ’80s – but that hardly mattered; it was his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust that I fell in love with, and that’s the mask of his I probably still adore the most, a quarter-century on.

I have a future post in mind where I mean to explore a little further the impact Bowie-as-Ziggy had on me, musically and otherwise. For now, though, it’s fascinating to see how this song has threaded through Bowie’s protean career, and how he’s kept it as part of his repertoire despite leaving behind nearly everything else about that persona. I’m not sure I could articulate what it is about “Ziggy Stardust” as a musical work that makes it so enduring – but it clearly is, and still resonates forty years later, when so much else of the decade it heralded has gone to glittery dust. Everyone who makes art should be so lucky as to create something as lasting.

(For more exploration of “Ziggy Stardust” as a song, see its entry on Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a smart and ambitious blog that’s in the process of dissecting Bowie’s entire ouvre one song at a time.)

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1 As a musician, that is. Labyrinth came out in the summer of my twelfth year, and made an impression that was nearly as significant, but of a different sort – though fey and glam and ambiguous were certainly in play there too, come to think of it.


Column of the Infinite

I was musing the other day about how “Eli, the Barrow Boy” is possibly the definitive Decemberists song because it has star-crossed lovers and death by drowning and Victoriana and a Doleful Ghost, which reminded me of one of the things I often come round to thinking about as both a consumer and creator of Art. It’s one of those “there are two kinds of people” constructions that’s nonsense as soon as you give it any real scrutiny, but as wrong-but-useful models go, it’s at least an interesting place to start meditating.

So, broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach creating and building a body of work. The one most people tend to admire more, at least at a glance, is the one typified by David Bowie and Neil Gaiman and the late John M. Ford, where the creator reinvents their work (and, perhaps, self) with each new project, rarely or never covering the same territory twice. This is very ambitious, and impressive, and unquestionably challenging; and the three examples there are certainly among my heroes and inspirations. My hat’s absolutely off to folks who can manage this protean, dynamic, ever-progressing approach.

But there’s also what I’ve come to think of as the Brancusi school, where an artist returns again and again to a handful of subjects to ring changes on them and explore new permutations on old themes. And I’ve come to realize that I have just as much admiration for creators who follow this path, the ones who wear their obsessions on their sleeves. My grandfather was certainly one of these – quite possibly a Brancusi follower in a literal sense.1 Lots of people on my bookshelves are as well: Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Patricia McKillip.2 And some of the music I most adore was created for projects centered around a single artist’s obsessive vision, like Current 93’s David Tibet or the Bevis Frond’s Nick Saloman.3

I take some comfort in this because I know in my own work (and work-in-progress) that I’m a Brancusi. I really can’t help myself, even as I’m aware I’m doing it; I look at my notes for future projects and I can see the patterns starting to form there, little singularities whose event horizons I’ll be unable to pull away from. I expect this will also be somewhat true of what I write here. (Hey, there’s a reason I chose the name I did for this blog.) So it’s probably good for me to take stock from time to time how many of the artists who inspire me have similar threads that run through so much of what they create. If nothing else, it gives me permission, in case I need it, to quit worrying so much and just embrace it.

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1 The Ray Gallucci ouvre is woefully underrepresented online, but his work is full of riffs on the same organic and quasi-organic shapes: circles and globes, spines and branches, layered strata, extended tubes.

2 Barker’s repeating themes, of course, are transformation, the intersection of beauty and monstrousness, the parade of the strange, and the secret otherworld. Barron has been noted for his exploration of the devouring cosmos, the hidden invading swarm, and the loss of self that happens when humanity comes face-to-face with the outer darkness. And McKillip has come back to the idea of the shapechanger so many times that her work is practically modern fantasy’s Metamorphoses.

I was going to put Grant Morrison on that list, and I think he very much belongs among the Brancusians; but damned if I can sum up the thread in his metatextual batshit mysticism enough to say why.

3 I mean to come back to these guys in more depth in future posts, but briefly: Aside from the way he’s made the through-line of his musical career the exploration of his very personal and idiosyncratic spiritual journey, Tibet gets extra credit for actually signposting some of his recurring motifs by making them into mantras that get repeated from one work to another. I’m not entirely clear on what “the inmost light” means when he says it, but I know it’s an awfully important idea to him. Saloman has a long list of interesting fixations, but I especially think there’s a very serious paper waiting to be written about the use of water as both a nurturing and destructive force in his work.


(Rilkean) Heart and Soul

The Missus and I were out and about earlier today when T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul” came over the radio, a song that’s in fairly frequent rotation on her preferred local station. I can’t help but like that tune; as far as siren-fronted ’80s synthpop goes, it may be pretty near the pinnacle. (Also, I did not realize the name was a Star Trek reference, which certainly brings up my estimation of them a notch or two.)

Watching the video now, which I probably haven’t done since before I was legal to drive, something else strikes me: neither the song nor its accompanying visuals are that many hallucinogens away from being a Cocteau Twins number. But I suppose that was true of lots of things c. 1986.