Friday, 21 March 2008

“WHEN THE ICEBURG HIT…”: An Appreciation of Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator)


“Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name,
Lord I can’t go back this a-way”

-The Kingston Trio

i) “Who could know if I’m a traitor?”
It was the penultimate track Everything is Free that first drew me to this CD by country artist Gillian Welch. At first my fascination confused me; I didn’t find myself at all in sympathy with Welch’s theme, that its become harder and harder for artists to make a living these days. (“They figured it out, that we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.”) While I certainly wouldn’t claim to match Welch for creativity, I’ve never been paid much for any artistic endeavor I’ve ever pursued and reached the ‘gonna do it anyway’ point without thinking about it too much. Everything is free? I don’t see the downside. “I can get a straight job.” Yeah, join the bloody club girl!

Finally it struck me it wasn’t Welch’s subject that grabbed me so much as her tone. In a genre stuffed with tearjerking laments to dead dogs, Welch had cut through to country’s real heart – the point world-weary resignation becomes almost a Zen state. (“Try to make a little change, down at the bar.”) The song ends with her defiantly figuring it out, “I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” There was a shoulder-shrugging toughness in the face of hard times that had no place for sympathy nor time for sentimentality. Just like blues, country started as a poor people’s music. And poor people can’t, quite literally, afford such indulgences.

Listening further I realised that, though such a tone pervaded the album, the types of songs were very different - and it was really only one type which interested me. A more accurate (if less catchy) title for this screed might be ‘a critical appreciation of somewhere between half and two-thirds of this CD’. It’s not just that they’re recorded in different styles or have different tempos, it’s that they come from different worlds. For example, Red Clay Halo is a character song, sung in the first person and standing or falling on the sense of reality it conveys. We’re asked to visualise the red clay dust on the guy’s boots, a detail picked out to convey authenticity. The other songs are symbolist and multifaceted. The red in My First Lover recurs through different objects capturing the singer’s attention, indeed the objects are only there to illustrate the colour which floats through the song standing for something in its own right – an opposition to “that white wedding gown.”

If Red Clay Halo was a picture, it would seek to convince you that you were looking through a frame into real space. If many of the other songs were pictures they’d be strange Symbolist/Cubist arrangements, where symbols and objects floated in splendid isolation with no concern for normal rules of time, space or motion. Red Clay Halo has musical and vocal lines as straight and direct as the character, while the lines from the more metaphysical songs are twisted and interwoven. In fact you stop listening to them as separate lines, and focus instead on the inter-relationship between them.

Lyrically, pretty much the same thing happens. The line “saw a wheel within a wheel, heard a call within a call” sums things neatly up. Lines and phrases recur during and even between songs, sometimes with shifting words. (Listen out for “sails in rags with the staggers and the jags” for example, and no, I’ve no idea what ‘staggers’ or ‘jaggs’ are either!) The songs virtually finish each others’ sentences, in fact at one point they do that quite literally. (Ruination Day is Part Two of April the 14th and picks up the same line, even though the songs are in different styles and rhythms.) At the same time there’s as many paradoxes and contradictions, where every line seems to be stalked at some point by its own opposite. Every barb becomes double-edged, and ambiguities interbreed with other ambiguities… I like to imagine I’ll be diving to the bottom of this well, and coming back up with lungs still full of air and the magic wishing coins. I’ll probably just muddy the surface for the sake of some small change, but I’m willing to try anyway.

The CD often sounds the way a dream sequence in a film feels, where the edges of the frame washes out, apparently simple phrases taking on a numinous significance and everything happening with stately slowness. It also reminds me of a bright winters day, where everything’s lit with an almost forensic clarity but with an absence of warmth that creates an eerie sense of unreality. (There’s even some un-country references to winter, as we’ll see.)

Welch’s particular sub-genre is sometimes referred to as ‘neo-traditionalist country’. (Though Wikipedia attempts to lumber her with the horrific splice term ‘alternative neo-traditionalist country’!) It’s unlike alt.country, which works more like a punk’s spirit came to inhabit a country musician’s body. Neo-traditionalism tries to conjure up an alternative reality where Nashville never happened, and we never left the simpler unadorned sounds of Hank Williams and the Carter Family. (Welch’s previous album was tellingly titled Revival.)

Songs are littered with references to old country artists (such as Johnny Cash) or quotes from old songs. (For example the “they were one, they were two, they were three, they were four..” section is from The Kingston Trio’s 500 Miles.) This self-conscious referencing of past mythology is something I often find annoying in rock music, when served up by U2 and others. But rock music is supposed to be the soundtrack of modernity and innovation. Country, conversely, has the look back in its very marrow. It’s music that’s always had at least one eye on the past.

However, country may just have different pitfalls which are equally deep. You can easily end up like a folk purist; in trying to reconstruct a dead tradition you assemble a perfect fossil of what was once a living animal. But Welch’s triumph is not to shy from but to accentuate the perils and failings of this approach, at times seeming to insist on its impossibility the same time as she pursues it.

Welch takes such concerns head on in the near-title opening track Revelator, where she describes herself variously as “a pretender’, “a traitor” and finally “Queen of fakes and imitators”. However the full line is “who could know if I’m a traitor?, Time’s the revelator”. Or, in other words, the rest of the CD will reveal all. But for now only time knows, and time ain’t telling.

ii) “I wished that I played in a rock ‘n’ roll band”
The next song, My First Lover is ostensibly the story of Welch leaving her first boyfriend. However, it’s notable that she doesn’t leave him for anyone or anything else – the refrained line is “and she’s free.” Moreover, a combination of the elusive colour red and the Steve Miller song Quicksilver Girl inspires her decision, suggesting she didn’t merely swap one man for another but give up such human concerns for a life dedicated to music.

This implicit idea is taken up more clearly on the later April the 14th, picking up on the red metaphor with red skies and her visit to the “redeye zone”. A kind of cousin to Everything is Free, it details her inspiration to become a musician coming from watching a loser band (“sick and stoned and strangely dressed”) playing in a dive bar. When the song starts Welch is merely visiting the bar. But by the time it ends she’s shifted to clearing up like she works there. The song fits into a long tradition of songs where artistic talent is bestowed like a curse, falling unasked and leaving the victim to wander forever barred from leading a normal life. The song conveys this combination of curse and calling quite brilliantly.

But the event is also bookended with bizarre references to icebergs, shootings and Okies, themes taken up further in ‘part two’ Ruination Day. This starts to make more sense once you realise that April 14th was the day Lincoln was shot, the Titanic sunk and the ‘Black Sunday’ when a giant dust storm sparked a massive migration of farmers from Oklahoma. However this doesn’t mean that it’s a commemorative song, or that Welch is asking us to wear a poppy for some specific historical incident. The somewhat surreal image of Okies fleeing icebergs should be something of a clue that these events are being treated as images, to mix up and juxtapose, not mere chronological lists. The Titanic sections focus on how “far from home” its survivors were, like victims of a Biblical flood.

By unifying into one day every bad thing that befell the Earth, Welch has created a metaphor for the Fall - after which we are all lost in the water, miles from home. By including the Okies she carries the suggestion that this also meant the end of the golden days of country, where the music became rootless, dislocated, inauthentic. But by folding her own fall into musicianship into the moment, she creates a choice paradox - by picking up a guitar she was forced to join with a tradition she might forever be cut off from, yet her only chance is to play her way out.

Such themes are reminiscent of Dylan’s late 60s albums The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. Turning back on the hallucinogenic grotesquerie of his earlier years, Dylan resolves to “try to tell it like it is with no need of pranks.” Similarly Welch looks fondly back upon the time where Elvis just “put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air”. But Dylan’s once disdainful sneer has transformed into a yearning cry, which puts the emphasis all on the “trying to.” Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is just sing something simple. Welch sums it up with the line “think I’ll move back down to Memphis, and thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue.” Welch wants in her heart to sing Elvis’ direct sentiments, but marooned in the modern world, her tongue can only speak in allusion and metaphor. In both cases the words contain balances and nuances, both within and across songs, which rely upon repeated careful listenings. But this, the very subject of my praise, is also presented by the singer as an encumbrance, a kind of curse.

iii) “Step into the light, poor Lazarus”
The final track, I Dream a Highway (audaciously long for a country track at fourteen minutes) is in some ways a counterweight, the ‘answer’ song to such questions. Though the parade of symbols follows no narrative, there is a kind of temporal chronology at work – from the “moon in the mirror”, through “twilight” to “blind and blistered by the morning white” of the day she finally walks out into. The album’s called Time, but what kind of time are we talking about? Revelator was unable to guess the future. In My First Lover not just the future but even the present were absent, the point where the action moves offstage. April the 14th suggested life was locked inside a cyclic, recurring crisis. I Dream a Highway is linear, as linear as the highway that forms its central image.

The song’s mood also counters much of what has gone before. The first verse is “John he’s kicking out the footlights, the Grand Ole Oprey got a brand new band”. Typically double-edged, it refers to the time a drunken Johnny Cash smashed up the Grand Ole Oprey stage. Yet the song slows down the moment of destruction, bathes it in a tranquil glow. Against April the 14th and Ruination Day, the overriding tone is one of redemption, of a life lived to the full. (“Drank whiskey with my water, sugar in my tea.”)

But of course a highway can be traveled two ways, back (“back to you love”) and forward (“step into the light”.) And alongside the highway is the image of the “winding ribbon”, with no obvious up or down. The paradoxes that haunt earlier songs are here in spades, a getaway car that’s merely “an empty wagon full of rattling bones”.

And what of the “you” the highway is taking us back to? There’s repeated references to a Lazarus-like dead love, in some ways a mirror to the left lover in My First Lover. However, despite Welch’s penchant for such mirroring, to bring back the hazily half-remembered figure here doesn’t really fit. Some lines seem more to refer to Welch’s personal and musical partner, David Rawlings, for example:

Which lover are you, Jack of Diamonds?
Now you be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram
I send a letter, don’t know who I am


Such identity confusion seems reflective of their previously-mentioned habit of playing and singing in such an intertwined way you can’t really tell who’s doing what. But Rawlings is clearly neither dead nor reborn.

As noted earlier, the song refers to Johnny Cash, and an earlier track to the death of Elvis, “all alone in a long decline.” Elvis is even coloured in the same silver and gold as the highway and ribbon. All of these may be part, but only part, of the big picture - for it feels as though Welch is singing about something far greater than any single individual.

Despite the references to Hollywood the song takes place in rain and snow, and asks “who will sustain us through the winter?” But just as Welch manages to bring back Lazarus, it is he who sustains her. Lazarus is the whole of country music, yet simultaneously more than that. David Monaghon described Dylan as “calling on modern man to see the spiritual virtues that are to be found by looking in the past.” Lazarus is these, Lazarus is everything that has been expunged and drained from country music; a heart which once beat openly but is now buried under a shroud of WalMarts and multiplexes. Like an Arthurian King, the world is in winter without him. But memory maintains our connection. While we are capable of dreaming a highway back to him, he’s in sense revivable. Can Welch pull of the task she’s set herself, and make music worthy of the grand tradition? And can country’s heart be revived and rewoken? Ultimately, it’s the same question.

The album opens with “darling remember” and closes with “I dream a highway back to you”. But both songs are equally about the future. Welch contends the only way to look forward is to trust the past with your back. She doesn’t skimp on the knives and poisons that populate the past, instead she learns to live with them. Don’t deny the past’s mistakes or wish they could somehow be annulled but accept that they happened, and live today accordingly.

“What will sustain us through the winter?
Where did last years lessons go?
Walk me out into the rain and snow.”


World-weary resignation finally reached that Zen state.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

THE TRILOGY OF THE DEAD (PLUS ONE) - PART 2

PLOT SPOILERS continue in this second part, taking us from Dawn to Land.



DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)

Day most obviously returns to the set-up of Night, where a group of besieged humans fall not only to the dumbass army of zombies surrounding them but to their own inability to get along. The main conflict at first seems to be enlightened scientists versus small-minded military, that staple of genre fiction. Our hero’s even a scientist - Sarah. (With the CoolBlackGuy reduced to her pilot sidekick, John.) The military want to take on the zombies in naked battle, which as the film makes abundantly clear is absurd – they’re outnumbered many thousands to one. They’re reliant on instinct as much as the zombies they want to fight.

But while through Sarah the scientists initially appear more sympathetic, the more we learn of the blood-spattered chief scientist and his grotesque Dr. Moreau-like experiments the less clear this seems. Pursuit of abstract knowledge has disengaged him from the world and with it all humility, morality and ultimately sense of survival. Against a devotion to brawn, he has only an equal but opposite devotion to brain. Neither are what’s needed. Day originally intended the scientists to live in an electrified compound and the military in a bunker. Apart from providing corollaries for their respective ideologies, this neatly echoes the house vs. basement argument of the first film.

To get Day, you have to pinch the tag-line from Dawn - “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” (No-one from there will miss it much, it only gets alluded to briefly anyway.) The supernaturalism of Night returns, in a film set during Halloween. But while Night uses the supernatural merely to extinguish the rational, Day goes on to fully embrace it.

In Dawn’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Hell, CoolBlackGuy Peter mentions voodoo customs and that his ancestry is Jamaican. (Most black Americans are African in origin.) This time he’s called John, comes with a fully-fledged “yah-man” Carribbean accent, a fondness for wacky baccy and everything bar a rasta hat. Crucially he lives in a caravan outside the main bunker, with his Irish (equally non-Anglo Saxon) co-pilot. In what is probably the film’s skeleton key he offers us:

“You want to put some kind of explanation on all this? Here’s one as good as any other. We’re being punished by the Creator. He visited a curse on us. Maybe He didn’t want to see us blow ourselves up, put a big hole in the sky. Maybe He just wanted to show us He’s still the Boss Man. Maybe He figure, we getting’ too big for our britches, tryin’ to figure His shit out.”

True, this account never gets proven in any formal sort of way. But all the explanations from previous films (the meteorite in Night, the gas in The Crazies) have been standard McGuffins tossed in casually either to silence our questions or to taunt and confuse us further. This one sticks, largely because it suggests our very searching for the Rosebud of a ‘rational explanation’ is part of what’s getting God so pissed off in the first place.

While in Dawn it’s the characters with failings who don’t survive, here it’s much more explicitly the bad who get punished – from Sartre to Brecht to some combination of Dante and Bosch. Almost all the soldiers cross themselves before they die and the (probably over) extended scenes of them being torn apart and devoured are reminiscent of the folk-demons of the underworld who would rip apart their victims.

The film opens with a calendar showing October 31st and closes with another showing November 1st. (Meaning a lot of action gets compressed into one day, but never mind that.) The calendar itself stands for human audacity, us intent on imposing our will on the movements of the natural world. But there’s also a supernatural resonance to the dates. 31st is Halloween or the Celtic Samhain, where “the barriers between the worlds [would] fade and the forces of chaos invade the realms of order, the material world conjoining with the world of the dead.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain) November 1st is All Saint’s Day, the day when such barriers have been closed again.

John keeps saying they should escape their duties and flit off to an island, and in the final scene they do. In Dawn some characters are looking for “the island”. Asked what island they respond blankly – “any island”. Of course they’re all going to die. Dawn was about nomadism, staying settled means stepping into a trap. This island might be no less a state of mind, but it represents something other than folly. This island represents salvation, its white beaches the heaven the good guys have reserved for them.


LAND OF THE DEAD (2005)

Night is followed by dawn, in turn by day and then by…land? This trivial detail, unfortunately, is telling.

Land pushes even further into the zombie-ridden future than Day, with humanity pressed back into gated compounds. As Day was the de facto sequel to Night, this is to Dawn. Except this time the humans are divided along class lines, the super-rich inhabiting consumerist paradise Fiddler’s Green while the humbler humans camp in the outskirts - and must brave the zombie realms to forage for them.

The main failing of the film lies right there. The original trilogy is very much set in our world turned only half a notch towards horror. Pushing everything into the future makes everything bigger and more transparent, but works as a process of removal which blunts the social satire element. What’s more this post-apocalypse world is actually pretty clich├ęd Max Max stuff to boot, and would have looked out-dated in the Eighties (when it was first mooted). It’s got the borrowed Humphrey Bogart elements from all those films, the hero (Riley) who tries to avoid involvement in the rebel underground but finds himself getting pulled in etc etc. (It was originally called Dead Reckoning, the name of the tank-like device in the film everyone wants to possess, which was the title of an old Bogart flick.)

Worse, it even gets distracted from it’s own simple premise. Romero had for may years talked about making a movie about contemporary LA, with the zombies standing in for the homeless. The ‘exclusive’ Fiddler’s Green is meant to pre-exist the zombie apocalypse. (We see flickery ads for it.) But on top of this get grafted lots of September 11th and Iraq War parallels. For example, it’s made an office-block-like tower rather than the walled gardens you’d expect, all so missiles can be pointed at it and the World Trade Centre parallels emphasised. It’s as if Dawn had been continually sidetracked by a subplot about Watergate. (After seeing the film I read Romero admitting “sometime after the invasion of Iraq we… tried to put more emphasis on the new-normal post-9/11 era”.)

Another noticeable plot device is that the trouble-causing Cholo rebels not at the class imbalance but because as a Latino he’s not admitted even when he’s amassed the necessary cash. Caste not class is intended to be the object of our outrage here.

It would be tempting to say that in this film the zombies get the best lines. They definitely are given the best scenes. In the film’s greatest conceit the CoolBlackGuy of the earlier films is now made a zombie, nicknamed Big Daddy. His outrage at the frequent human forays into his territory, and consequent ‘murders’ of his undead mates, somehow instills in him the rudiments of intelligence and he leads an undead assault on Fiddler’s Green. Like in the early scenes of Animal Farm, you’re left to root for the underpriveliged zombies getting their own back! It’s perhaps significant that Land is the only film to start with a zombie scene, then move onto the human characters. The world is now theirs, it’s just that we’re obstinately refusing to concede it to them.

There’s some good scenes where he gets distracted by the petrol pump or can’t figure why the now-unplugged road-drill isn’t working. We could have done with more of those, suggesting his nascent intelligence is actually quite nebulous and can easily be derailed. Unfortunately the film takes it all the other way. He becomes a deux et machina figure of vengeance, remorselessly going after the evil head of Fiddler’s Green (Dennis Hopper) despite the fact he’s got no reason to even know who the guy is. As the ‘good’ zombie Big Daddy is only allowed to kill the villain. This selective morality is even more emphasised by the ending when, having killed anyone who’s (like) bad, the zombies en masse then decide to leave. A surviving human explains that maybe they weren’t so bad after all. Just peckish?

Romero’s as good as ever at capturing moments. There’s a classic one right at the beginning, with a zombie jazz band ‘playing’ a desultory parody of a New Orleans funeral march. Unfortunately he’s as bad as ever at capturing characters and in this more conventional film that starts to matter. Despite the Bogart comparisons Riley has none of his sense of moral ambiguity, he’s just plain bland in his goodness. Unlike the heroes of earlier films he won’t shoot his buddies when they get zombie-bit. (Needless to say, instead of the ramifications of this getting explored, someone less good just happens along and does it.)

Ultimately, the film only fitfully feels like part of the same universe as the others. There’s the pop-up shocks the others eschewed, but are a generic horror staple. (The zombies aren’t supposed to be smart enough to hide, but they manage it well enough.) It feels not only conventional but not a particularly good conventional film, or even a not particularly good conventional film from the eighties which has only just got released. Romero’s original ideas only occasionally turning up to surprise us into remembering who’s film we’re watching. Fourth films in trilogies. Never smart.

Friday, 7 March 2008

THE TRILOGY OF THE DEAD (PLUS ONE) - PART 1

With the release of Diary of the Dead, what better time to post this examination of George Romero’s famous four zombie movies, from the old print days of Lucid Frenzy. (Part two to follow)

PLOT SPOILERS? – Plot spoilers are here and start even within this plot spoiler warning! Read no further to avoid! Otherwise you will… the dead return to life and attack the living! Oh bugger, just slipped out!


THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1969)


Someone makes a good point in the American Nightmare documentary which accompanied the UK re-showing of this cult classic. Watching a Hitchcock horror was like putting yourself in the hands of a master craftsman, whose special skill was tingling your spine but only just enough, who you trusted to push you up to the edge but never take you over. Watching this film, or one of the others from the late Sixties crop, was like falling into the grip of the psychos and monsters who filled them – who seemed to have no sense of where to stop or what the rules or limits were. Suddenly, anything could happen.

For example, this film’s heavily indebted to Hitchcock’s The Birds. But while The Birds slowly built up character and situation before the first feathered assault, here the first zombie lurches itself at us after about five minutes (in broad daylight yet!), in the middle of what seems like the first character introductions. One is killed straight out, the other turned near-catatonic and stays like that for the duration.

Most ink has been spilt about Ben, the tough black survivor, and his similarities to Malcolm X et al. He’s certainly the central character. But the film’s core is Barbara, this traumatised victim. For the first quarter of the film we follow her as she stumbles, stupefied and uncomprehending. Even when we stop seeing events literally through her eyes, we still see them metaphorically. Talk of a meteor causing the dead to walk is included, but only to taunt us. This isn’t a world where a mystery is poised only to be neatly solved and dissolved by some “rational explanation”. This is a visceral and arbitrary world we’re thrust into, which defies sense and responds only to force. We’re in… quite literally… a nightmare.

At times it’s hard to tell this wilful defiance of explanation from the zombie mythos not being formed. Perhaps tellingly, they’re not even called zombies but “ghouls” or “things”. The zombies are stumbling, stupefied ids, primordially afraid of fire. The clothes or, in one case, shower-cap of their former lives hang off them, an insult to our humanity.

The film is given a low-key, docu-drama feel. It’s like the news reports of riots and assassinations that filled the telly at the (late Sixties) time, given only the slightest twist to be re-labelled drama. There’s a key moment when the surviving humans find a working TV, and hopefully switch it on for info. But they find only a jumbled and chaotic scene, a meteorite which may or may not be causing the outbreak, which gives them no help whatsoever. The media, the voice you turn to for guidance and reassurance, is just giving you more of what’s happening outside the window.

The film is itself built like a zombie, eschewing surprises and fairground-ride shocks. Watching it is like being slowly pounded by a blunt instrument. It’s as if we could turn the cameras round we’d find the director and crew were all undead. The plot lumbers forward rather than advances, towards an inevitable resolution with few twists or turns. Events along the way are jumbled and left deliberately incoherent, characters only briefly sketched in.

But for all the faux-docu feel, this film has a sense of style that was less followed by its sequels. It often feels like a latter-day expressionist film, composed of strong light-and-dark contracts and deep-field photography with objects shoved into the foreground. It could be argued the awareness of construction that comes with expressionism holds the film back from where its sequels go. But actually it’s appropriate. Expressionism was from the beginning about portraying inner, psychological states, eschewing the notion of an objective reality. As Bergman put it, “no form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions.” The menacing shadows and angles of expressionism have become Barbara’s fear-filled world.

There’s immense similarities to Peter Watkin’s faux-documentary agit-prop piece Punishment Park (1970), not just in the use of docu styles and ticks to unnerve and unsettle, but in the near-pathological need to mercilessly trample over any remaining shreds of Sixties optimism. (Watkins spoke of Punishment Park as a “fusion of two seemingly contrasting elements: realism and expressionism.”)

More to the point, it’s this mixture which ultimately makes the film. You, the film connoisseur, becomes confused watching it. Is it an art movie, avant garde in its refusal of conventional story structures? Or is it a crude exploitation flick, shedding unnecessary baggage because it can’t wait to serve up the meat? The usual handles to tell that sort of thing are taken away, our smarts are assaulted and rendered useless. The style of the film ultimately becomes as unsettling as the content.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979)



Dawn rests upon a kind of temporal sleight of hand, where the events seem to immediately succeed what’s happened in Night. (We even fly over the zombie-hunting rednecks, while the TV studio scenes echo the TV-watching scenes of Night.) But everything that happens is contemporary-set for ten years later, most especially the shopping mall. (Dawn’s almost official subtitle is “the one in the shopping mall.”)

It’s a more conventional film than Night, with story development, cross-cutting devices, and if not a happy ending a less absolutely downbeat one. It’s given a classic tryptich structure. The downbeat opener establishing the zombie threat, this time in the big city, is most similar to Night. Human society seems to be hopelessly hurtling towards hell in a handbasket. Then we get an almost idyllic middle section where our heroes believe themselves to be locked safely inside the shopping mall, surrounded by every consumer durable they could ever desire and looking down on the locked-out zombies. The final section you can probably guess…

If Night is Romero’s version of Sartre’s No Way Out (where the humans fail because they can’t get along), Dawn is Brecht’s Mother Courage. The humans fail individually through personal weaknesses, either greed (Flyboy) or conceit (the trooper). Despite the nihilistic surface, Dawn is actually a morality play – while the characters who exemplify these follies die for them, the others live.

By this point, we’re all used to the Mall setting. But at the time, taking zombies out of the standard shadows and into the garish neon lights must have seemed audacious. Gone are the menacing expressionist angles of its predecessor. (Or more accurately confined to one scene, where Flyboy’s followed down the Mall’s back corridors by the shadow of a single zombie, which may be the most expressionist moment in Romero’s career.)

Night has the celebrated climactic redneck scene where the zombies just become an absurd stumbling shooting gallery, but the film’s characters all fear them. Dawn is unafraid to play up their lumbering comic nature even within the film, there’s even a scene of the brutes getting custard pied! But even as we laugh we know the inevitable result. When the trooper gets bitten there’s no feigned surprise or attempt at a twist, he slowly, painfully becomes a zombie and is blown away by his buddy. Unlike Night, Romero plays us more than one note this time. But he’s just as keen as Brecht to tell us where all this is headed…

Unlike the supernatural ‘ghouls’ the zombies are here ‘things’, the superstitious element gone for an anti-consumerist satire. The zombies have to be given some human residue, or they wouldn’t be trying to get back in the Mall. With the extra ‘space’ to it’s mid-section, Dawn finally spells out some of it’s zombie mythos via radio voice-overs and the like. As Wikipedia put it, “…the movie standardised the practice of eating human flesh in zombies, and… the zombie outbreak being a contagious virus spread through being bitten by an infected being.” (Rules which seem to contradict somewhat. Once you’re bitten by a zombie you tend to get eaten, in which case how do you ever manage to come back to life? Maybe we’re better off not asking…)

Fran is poised between Barbara’s scream queen and Day’s post-Ripley survivalist Sarah. I’d guess that her whole character comes from Romero being unsure what to do with her, but he uses this ambiguity to good effect. At first she’s constantly having to be rescued by the menfolk and exhibiting women’s intuition (only she can see the Mall’s a trap). She’s even revealed to be pregnant, as if to underline her girly vulnerability. But by the end she’s transformed, shootin’, flyin’ and fully taking care of herself.

The anti-consumerist satire survives the screechy fate of other such Seventies movies, partly through Romero’s endless eye for detail. When the humans need to learn to shoot, the line up storefront mannequins to fire at. While the anti-consumerism’s little more sophisticated than Stairway to Heaven, and character development negligible, the film survives by being stitched together from such iconic moments. Romero would quite likely have been useless in any other medium. But with this eye he can make a film compelling even when telling you exactly what’s going to be happening.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

‘FROM BARBARY TO HERE’: THE DARK ACHIEVEMENT OF JOHN CALE'S PARIS 1919



“The road from Barbary to here
She sold then stole right back
The vanity, insanity
Her hungry heart forgave
The fading bride’s dull beauty grows
Just begging to be seen
Beneath the magic lights that reach
From Barbary to here”


Julian Cope once called Love’s Forever Changes a “dark achievement” and, while I don’t know if anyone ever specifically asked him, I expect Arthur Lee himself would concur. It’s a classic album of course, but a “dark achievement”? I see Forever Changes as more of a game played with the listener, a dance of psychedelic-coloured veils, a box of disguises, a series of feints never settling long enough to give itself away. It’s got a vein of darkness running through it, true, but it’s a vein of dark chocolate. Forever Changes is like one of those truly irresistible cakes that put something tangy in the mix in order to make the sweets taste sweeter. It’s exquisitely beautiful, but it’s a beautiful confection.

Now John Cale’s Paris 1919, that’s a dark achievement.

The location of the Velvet Undergound’s songs couldn’t have been any more American, with even the gaps between the tracks virtually oozing the Lower East Side. But with this album Cale took things back to his European origins. There’s more placenames adorning the lyric sheet than you’ll find on the average map, and in a sense it is a map – of a Europe, in Sylvia Plath’s phrase, “scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars”.

Paul Weller sang of “civilization built on slaughter”. Part of the genius of Cale’s conceit here is to specifically expose European civilization to its bloody roots. After all, none but the terminally stupid could miss this point if we were just talking about America. Its’ de rigeur in Euro-snob circles to dismiss America for cultural crassness and for booted imperialism, like the two always belong together. But juxtaposing the beauty of Euro-classicism with the brutality of its roots is something of a masterstroke. The very phrase ‘Paris 1919’ immediately conjures up visions of elegance, but is simultaneously reminiscent of the carve-up treaty that followed the First World War and led almost directly to the second. Cale’s cold yet melodic voice, the audial equivalent of cut glass, perfectly captures this combination. Cale himself described the album as “the nicest way of saying something nasty”. The point about the line “from Barbary to here” is that the line is a short one.

In some ways it reminds me of Kubrick’s near-contemperaneous Barry Lyndon (1975), where the sumptuous classical soundtrack and pompous annunciation of the characters vie with the brutish events. This was a full four years before Brit-punk upped and challenged the predominance of American accents in popular music, and the effect then must have been more striking. The Welshman even appropriates a parodic, strangulated Englishness - particularly in Graham Greene and the title track. (Ironically, the album was entirely recorded in LA with members of Little Feat!)

However, that’s not to say it merely juxtaposes form against content, the ornate arrangements concealing the nasty content, still less follows the polemic of Weller’s anti-Western rallying. (Maybe, just maybe, the more-for-laughs track Graham Greene matches that description.) It’s actually doing something much more existential. When you first listen, you’re seduced by the sweetness of the music. Then the dark achievement of the words start to stain. But soon the two become inextricable.

It’s like taking a tour around the ancient hearts of the cities of Europe. You know the architectural splendour of each exquisite building to be built with the wealth of war and plunder, like scented flowers growing out of shit. Admiring them is like admiring the finest markings on the most predatory spider. You’re unable to resist being seduced by their beauty but neither can you forget they’re the signs of a killing machine. The very same thing simultaneously attracts you and repels. Paris 1919 ultimately implicates you in a terminally paradoxical world where the sweet can never be separated from the savage.

“We burned and we looted
And frightened ourselves
Before we learnt mothers
Could haunt us with words”


There’s a debate about whether the character on the train in Half Past France is a German solider headed for war or Cale himself headed for a gig. People like to pin that sort of thing down, don’t they? Of course, on an album populated by ghosts, it’s both – but that point alone won’t get you to the heart of the matter. Like many songs it’s about capturing a moment, and asking who is supposed to be experiencing that moment is at best secondary.

Journeys on trains or ships can offer moments of encapsulated serenity, an escape into limbo, between the volatile world you just left and will soon be re-joining. As soon as we arrive there’s going to be some unspecified kind of battle, but the train moves at it’s own speed and for now there’s nothing to do but luxuriate in the emptiness of the moment, “looking out from here at half past France”. The song’s refrain is particularly serene.

In fact, for such a dark album it has several such serene moments, certainly more than you’d find on the later Music For a New Society. For example, check out:

“If the sacheting of gentlemen
Gives you grievance now and then
What’s needed are some memories of planning lakes
Those planning lakes will surely calm you down”


As Matthew Spektor puts it in the liner notes, “I still don’t know what ‘planing lakes’ are but calm me down they do”. (The alternate drone version on the expanded CD is perhaps still more serene, but fits less with the orchestration and thematic unity of the rest of the album.) However, serenity is notably achieved the Wordsworth way, by removing yourself from human interaction, by swapping sacheting gentlemen for planning lakes. The humanism of, say, Tom Waits couldn’t be more absent from Cale’s world. As he sings elsewhere “people always bored me anyway”.

In case it’s not obvious, all of this is to describe the mood which suffuses the album. It’s not like some equation where each line sung and each note played draw proceedings schematically towards some intended, calculated answer. I’ve not the faintest idea what, for example, “the cows that agriculture won’t allow” means any more than I did the “planning lakes’. But I don’t suppose Cale did either and I don’t imagine it matters much. When a song has lines in it like “then Martha said…” the worst thing you can do is start wondering who Martha might be, or start looking various Marthas up on the internet. You’re not getting into the song, you’re actually moving away from it. As much as a song can be said to have a ‘sense’, you get to it by succumbing yourself to it, then seeing what’s left after its washed over you.

As with any album there’s a few exceptions to this thematic rule. The title track’s orthodoxly surreal, pitting male clerical rationalism against an unspecified female apparition. The glorious opening line, “she makes me so unsure of myself”, even makes it sound like a kind of topsy turvy love song, with the Churchman as a befuddled suitor striving to “claim” his otherly love. The la-la-la chorus comes to sound like a child’s defensive incantation, a kind of “ghost, ghost, go away, come again some other day”. The “efficient” clock, by which we “get to know the date and tell the time of day”, is ironically turned into the place she “casually appears” from, like a cousin to Dali’s floppy watches.

At the song’s end the general theme reasserts, with allusions to the French Revolution…an event usually thought to have been over by 1919. Truth to tell, it makes a better title for the album than the track. The song sounds so thoroughly English, for one thing. But Cale had carelessly already used up the natural title, Ghost Story, on his first album.

There’s precisely one rock’n’roll track on the album, the glitter-beat Macbeth, and it’s hard not to see it’s stomping as a mis-step. It’s not bad exactly, though the vocal in particular seems oddly flat and subdued. It just doesn’t fit in with the company. It’s as if Elvis had turned up at a Versailles ball… actually, it’s as if Alvin Stardust had turned up at a Versailles ball and said he was Elvis.

Despite this minor blemish the album turned out to be a high-watermark in Cale’s career, marking the end of an informal anti-rockist trilogy with Church of Anthrax (1971) and The Academy in Peril (1972). I also associate this period with his work on the two best Nico albums, Marble Index (1969) and Desertshore (1971), albums that always remind me more of Cale than Nico. They breathe of that defiance of convention and brief sense of possibility that briefly fluttered in the early Seventies, but eventually led back to the bar-room. With the next album, Fear (1974) Cale himself was back to writing gutsy rock’n’roll music to chop up chickens to. Psychotic and often deranged rock’n’roll, true, but something more nebulous and precious had been lost. Only once, on the much later Music For a New Society (1981), would he ever return to such exulted themes. This gives the ghost-heavy, elegiac nature of Paris 1919 an extra poignancy.

“I can’t bring back
I can’t think back
It’s fading again
The tin boys and young girls
All fading away…”