Here’s one of the 20th century’s most influential interpreters of popular song, Frank Sinatra, glamorizing smoking, drinking, and leaving a bar drunk right after last call. So much of what I hate most about midcentury popular culture is wrapped up in this piece, yet I love this song. Why? Because it brings together three legendary musical talents in one perfect moment to tell a familiar story in a style so compelling that you have to lean in and pay attention.
Composer Harold Arlen wrote many of the greatest tunes of the last century, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blues in the Night” to “The Man that Got Away,” and, of course, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote 1500 pop tunes from “Laura” to “Moon River,” and was nominated for 19 Academy Awards for his songs, winning four of those Oscars. Some of the duo’s finest compositions were the songs they wrote together during the 1940s. Arlen wrote several of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and Mercer, though married to someone else, was Garland’s lover for a time in the early 1940s, and he considered her the love of his life. His beautiful song “Skylark,” written with Hoagy Carmichael and brimming with unfulfilled longing, was written for her.
Garland’s great friend Frank Sinatra was one of the key interpreters of both Arlen and Mercer, and when Frank gets a slow, melancholy song about lost love, he’s hard to beat. His styling here is impeccable: pained and haunted, dreamy and hopeless. The song seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of surprising intervals and clever internal rhymes—it’s one of those sophisticated compositions that begs for a clean, spare performance, and that’s exactly what Frank gives here.
In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, a short-subject film shown in cinemas prior to feature films. The Pathé Brothers of France owned the world’s largest film equipment and production company, and they saw the benefit of bringing news to life for moving picture fans and thus padding out an afternoon or evening’s cinematic entertainment. In the years before television, people grew to rely on newsreels during their weekly cinema visits to keep up with royal visits, war news, sports, fashion and celebrity events and travelogues that took them to far-away places.
Over time, many short subject films took on a nationalistic bent, and they were used as propaganda tools during World Wars I and II. Some showed women on the home front how to make do with rationed food and fabrics during and after World War II. Others showed teens at play, making them seem like laughable aliens, underscoring the generation gap that caused such rifts between teens and their parents in the 1950s and 1960s and played out in major culture clashes in both cinematic and real life.
News reels often depicted the people of other nations as quaint and exotic, and made women look like vain, silly, laughable lightweights. But they were wittily narrated, well-edited and often visually sumptuous, so they make for fascinating views into 20th century cultural history today.
Pathé short-subject films reached the height of their appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Many of these shorts involve women being made to look foolish while demonstrating outlandish fashion or beauty trends and inventions, all accompanied by an orchestra playing a peppy tune and a wry male narrator making snappy sexist comments.
It’s always interesting to see how much effort has been put into inventing odd machinery to distract women, perpetuate stereotypes and keep women “in their place.” It still goes on today, of course, but now women’s voices are used to make the narrated hype more palatable and to seem more “empowering” and less demeaning.
Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.
Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.
Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.
Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.
Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.
I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.
There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.
The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.
All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heckcurrently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.
His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.
Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.
Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.
It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.
The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.
Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later see him barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.
I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.
While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.
The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.
This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.
David Fear ofRolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”
I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.
But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.
I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.
I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.
Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.
It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.
Here’s some exquisite angst for you—a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” by Icelandic folksinger Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson. Ásgeir has toured the U.S. singing in English and Icelandic, and he now uses Ásgeir as a mononym. He also plays guitar in the Icelandic band The Lovely Lion.
Ásgeir’s spare piano arrangement, his high and softly plaintive voice, the careful but effective use of echo and percussion and the mounting layers of synthesized sound create something unique and lovely. This introverted, ethereal version has a very different energy than Nirvana’s original, but I find it every bit as captivating. In fact, it’s even more enthralling than the original for me; instead of pressing itself into my space insistently, it wraps its tendrils around me and pulls me slowly but inexorably into its dark heart.
One of the most sophisticated and exquisite of all jazz standards was written by a black, gay, teenage boy over the course of five years in the 1930s. Billy Strayhorn, who later became famously close to his mentor and writing partner Duke Ellington, wrote the majority of the elegantly jaded lyrics, surprising internal rhyming schemes and beautiful, unusual melody that became “Lush Life” when he was just sixteen years old. The song begins:
“I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails. / The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces / With distingué traces / That used to be there, you could see where / They’d been washed away / By too many through the day / Twelve o’clocktails.”
Vice News has created a powerful documentary on the murderous fascist violence that took over Charlottesville last weekend. It is hard to watch, but important to see. We must all bear witness to what is happening and not turn away from it but fight it together.
Fascism has been an undercurrent in American politics for many decades and has never been wiped out. But it now has thousands of newly emboldened, well-armed adherents who feel safe leaving their shadows, rifles in hand. They see themselves as part of a holy war. Aided and abetted by Trump and Bannon, American Nazis have gained the confidence to come out, threaten, attack, even murder. They act out more forcefully now because they fear no reprisals—they believe God and Trump are on their side. This makes them a much more powerful force for evil than they were only months ago.
Unless we stomp this fascist uprising down hard and fast with the rule of law, show immediate intervention between sides at rallies where fascists appear, and disallow armed proponents of violence from threatening others and brandishing weapons in the streets and elsewhere—unless we legislate against the legal arming of members of hate groups who actively support the murder of innocents and the overthrow of our government—we may enter an age of increasing white fascist terrorism.
The president has spit in the face of all who fought the Nazis during World War II. He has made a dirty joke of the sacrifices of all who were tortured and slaughtered by Hitler and his followers. Trump has all but welcomed the Klan into the White House. He daily proves himself to be an utterly unfit and illegitimate head of state, a leader opposed to his own people and his own nation, a traitor in support of a malign foreign power and a man with a malignant and severe personality disorder that keeps him from thinking rationally or caring about any interests other than his own.
If Trump should eventually be impeached and ousted by those in power who recognize his instability and moral bankruptcy, we may hear and see threats made against those who oppose him. Extremists who feel their fascist president was toppled by a communist coup d’etat will go after both liberals and conservatives who finally feel too soiled and disgusted to carry water for an unhinged tyrant who seems to be in league with Putin against the United States.
Whether Trump stays in power or not, he has unleashed heavily armed monsters without morals or mercy. So far, they have been given the benefit of the doubt by police and government agencies when they should have been held back. Legislators in the pocket of the NRA have allowed people with documented mental illness and histories of domestic violence to own and use deadly firearms and even purchase semi-automatic weapons of mass destruction. Our nation has been willing to coddle supporters of violence and support them in their efforts to arm themselves like professional soldiers and build up huge personal armories.
Fascists do not stop at threats. They do not stop at murder. There is a good chance that, emboldened by irrational hatred and violent tendencies, some will believe that it is their holy duty to engage in what they see as righteous war against members of the U.S. government. No, they cannot topple our government, but they have already infiltrated it. They are massively armed and exist in larger numbers than we have seen in decades. They are likely to continue to do great damage, and to distract us all from helping those who are in need and watching how international affairs affect us. We must speak against tyrants, demagogues and terrorists. We must change our gun laws. We must be ready to bring fascists down.
American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882. The spare, cool, detached way he depicts his subjects contrasts powerfully with his use of dramatic darkness, intense light and shadow and vivid colors. Hopper’s works are carefully composed to create interest and visual movement even though the subjects themselves are usually completely still.
Hopper painted many architecturally interesting exteriors, landscapes and interior scenes, and even his compositions involving human figures emphasize an architectural sense of balance, order and solidity. The compositions and settings are as much the subject of his paintings as the people portrayed in them are.
Most of Hopper’s masterwork, “Nighthawks,” was painted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was plunged into fear that there would be air attacks on the U.S. mainland. Americans began sewing blackout curtains for their windows as the people of Britain had been doing for years in efforts to make it harder for potential attackers to target their homes from the air. But while the country prepared for enemy attacks, Hopper continued to work into the evenings with his studio curtains wide open. Appropriately, “Nighthawks” featured four people awake late at night in an empty landscape, together yet somehow separated from each other in a bright but foreboding cafe.
In nature, nighthawks are nocturnal predators of the nightjar family. They, like the nighthawks of the painting, spend the night awake—restless, watching, waiting.
The contrast between still, calm, composed subjects and vibrant color surrounded by intense darkness makes his works visually exciting, but also inspires feelings of melancholy and alienation. Hopper has inspired many other visual artists, including filmmakers like Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott and the Coen Brothers. Mendes’s bleak and brilliant film “The Road to Perdition” in particular reads as a perfect visual homage to the painter, with each scene composed, colored and lit like a Hopper painting.