Friday, December 29, 2006

In praise of the Pagan, Feminist, Vaudevillean Holiday Classic: The Year Without a Santa Claus

Od-ed on fruitcake? Reached your patience limit with your family, no matter how much you love them? The lazy hometowns bringing you down during the holidays? Fear not, deliverance from ennui is nigh. Check out Rankin and Bass's classic The Year Without a Santa Claus (TYWSC) available on DVD , sample clips of it available on You Tube (see them below).

Out of all the holiday specials, The Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and many others, it is TYWSC (1974) that I remember best and most fondly.

TYWSC is an animation masterpiece by the remarkable Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rankin/Bass had a prolific stretch of productions using stop-motion puppet animation (“Animagic"), beginning with the ever-popular Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1962.

Many of these Rankin/Bass “Animagic” productions are interesting on several levels, since they often pulled the holiday away from religious moorings (with a couple of exceptions) and contributed to the huge holiday commercial machine (music, decorations, TV, now video and DVD) but at the same time celebrated the secular-humanist qualities of Christmas, such as cheer and pleausure of giving or sharing for their own sake. TYWSC, like some of these others, is in fact a pagan, feminist and still moralizing tour de force.

The plot follows basic script-writing rules by introducing problems that must be resolved by a cast of heroes, foes, and helpers. The magic is in the details.

Santa is under the weather and is uninspired, thanks to the ingrates around the world. Christmas has lost its spirit and become reduced to a hollow, ugly "gimme gimme me" entitlement to things detached from any deeper human principles. So Santa decides to leave his red suit in moth balls this year (yes, there are moths in his North Pole chateau). Mrs. Claus is the heroine of the story. Behind the male lesser hero is a strong woman, and Rankin and Bass foreground her. In this sense, the production is a kind of unveiling of the hardly self-made cheer-giver by showing how dependent he is on his generous yet assertive wife. "Mrs. C" sees Santa is depressed by what he generalizes as a loss of Christmas spirit and cheer in the humanity he has served so generously over the years. So she sends two elves and a reindeer down to Southtown in search of evidence that will dispel Santa's suspicions and re-inspire him. But Jingle and Jangle, the charming and hapless elves, get into trouble and their tiny reindeer Vixen falls prey to a villainous dogcatcher.

The plot’s first basic problem to be resolved (Santa on strike) encounters a second plot requiring resolution: The mayor will spring Vixen from dog-jail if the elves can make it snow in Southtown, which has a kind of Southern California climate.

This new problem, getting snow to Southtown, brings viewers to what is unmistakably the most memorable parts of the show: the Broadwayesque scenes of brawling brothers Heatmiser and Snowmiser, given dominion over the northerly and southerly climes by their Mother Nature. Their song and dance routines are etched in the minds of millions of adults and even received an indirect homage in the film Batman and Robin (1997), where the villainous Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) encourages his minions to fête him with Snowmiser’s song.

Indeed, the entire show seems to owe much to Greek and other mythologies where gods are powerful, flawed, and sparring like humans and thus in need of a stronger and wiser deity to keep them in check. In the end, it is only the strong woman Mother Nature who can arrange the snowstorm in Southtown, which, importantly, is accomplished by teaching the boisterous boys the art of compromise: Heatmiser lets it snow in Southtown while his icicle-nosed sibling permits some global warming in the North. Unsurprisingly the resolution of these two subplots makes way for the central message: one should believe in Santa Claus who is a symbol of good cheer and benevolence toward humankind, which of course should be a year-long spirit annually re-charged. The latter is the real meaning of Christmas, and Santa finally finds convincing evidence of its existence. So he resumes his global sleigh ride with renewed vigor.

TYWSC is a heartwarming morality tale executed with superb animation and songs. If you’re experiencing a lull in the holiday stretch (or even if you’re not) I recommend you re-live your childhood and enrich your own children’s by watching this DVD. If you don’t remember it or believe me, take a peak at these clips of these supernatural siblings, and try to resist.
Happy holidays.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sigh: No more third-rate poetry

Thanks to those of you who have politely stuck around through this period of third-rate poetry saturation. Though this blog publishes on many topics, I dare say it can't be all genres. A few of you come here for anything but third-rate poetry or translation of first-rate poetry, so I have moved the poetry to a new site:

If you're interested in following my third-rate poetry, exchanging with me, seeing perhaps commenting on my translations, then you can easily go to that site and register for email alerts. I hereby free the rest of you of my third-rate poetry (though I may occasionally announce some special third-rate poetry event). Here is the explanation and Welcome to that new site:

Why am I here? Why are you here? Of course we don't really know.
But my profile to the right gives you a decidedly un-cosmological shot at explanation about why I think I'm here (you're free to try the same).

My harshest critics, though somewhat insightful, have pointed out the oddity that I've actually registered four blogs, though I'm only heavily active on two. It is telling of a person though. Let me just say, though, that "everything but the kitchen sink" blogs/sites may not be very pleasant to read. This is an age of narrowcasting. People want to customize and nichefy. So it is with blogs. One of my sites is broader, covering vast terrains of media, culture, and politics, and yet, it didn't really comfortably house my third-rate poetry. It was time to find a home for it somewhere else. There's the rationale, which no doubt works in tandem with the mysteries of the unconscious.

The volatile mix of life's demands and expectations and my own ill-considered actions brought me here, a third-rate poet by default. I was always impressed by the story of how the precociously Leviathan intellect John Stuart Mill, having learned Latin, Greek, and algebra by age eight, all the classics of history, much philosophy, and political economy by age 13, suffered a mental breakdown at age 21. In his Autobiography, he claims that nothing could comfort but the poems of William Wordsworth, his Lyrical Ballads. Like Mill, I have always turned to poetry in times of crisis, at least in moments when I could bring myself to read at all. I have also written some poetry in times of non-crisis over the years. I used to think that poetry was for me, as it was for Keats and Shelley, a time of youthful productivity that would blaze magnificently, then take its exit like the locust that sings short-lived in summer. But now I understand why some feel compelled to write across their lives, however so short or long.

Honestly, millions of people consider themselves "writers" and "poets," and good for them if writing makes them feel better. On the other hand, I don't believe all things are equal (though it's true that standards are culturally constructed--Rimbaud is not good poetry from the point of view of the courtly poets two hundred years before him). I don't pretend to be a first-rate poet, though writing does take practice. Much of this material will be constantly revised.

In addition, every Western monopolizer of world resources and his dog has a blog these days (indeed, I'm thinking of giving our dog M her own blog) . Most aren't seen or heard, sad trees falling into deafening inexistence, while others are out-of-control egos, substituting for unresolved inadequate parental love and childhood recognition traumas, resulting in obsessions with statcounters, hits, being seen, comments, and strategies to increase traffic on their sites: "Look at me! Please, will you pay attention! I exist! I'm smart! I'm beautiful! I'm loveable! Please say something nice about me (or go away)!" Sometimes the sites are little more than clubs of backscratchers, cyber-group therapy, criticism necessarily being expelled from a discourse of eternal positive regard. Networks are built and can be good or bad for mental health, since many people are afraid to explore their demons and so spend life bouncing around from one unconscious fix to another. Sometimes sites are little more than boring, poorly written, intellectually and stylistically arid diaries and effusions of "I": "I went to the park. I took a runny dump. I saw Cameron Diaz naked on a beach in San Torini. It was cool." Sometimes they are shallow but cleverly executed prose, period. And people like Harlequin romances and E entertainment as much as Virginia Wolf.

I'm sure this blog runs all those risks and will fall into some of those boxes, for some readers. Feel free to let me know if you think I'm doing exactly what I want to avoid. I'm surely not going to be the one to point it out to myself. I don't believe in self-made man bullshit. People change, with great effort and will, in dialog with others. I have a friend who told me she hates blogs. She finds them pathetic cries for attention and confessions about matters that should be private--it's the Clinton-Lewinsky phenomenon that people gobble up like pizza samples in the supermarket. She also thinks people are doing the same thing when they dress in ways that call attention to themselves. But if someone has something to say, they must do something to get attention. It's true writing on the internet at all requires some ego, some desire to share and be recognized, even if we don't really know why or what we want in the act of recognition itself. Perhaps that desire is worth the writer's scrutiny?

The poetry here is often that genre whose authors are said to "take themselves too seriously." Not everything written here is bleak, dark, morose, and tumultuous. It is a mix, but you'll see my view has a hearty dose of Baudelaire's spleen. I do have acid reflux. Perhaps, in the end, I bear more darkness than light. And yet I laugh, here and elsewhere. I love. Above all else, I make mistakes, try to learn from them on a life journey toward the man I've meant and mean to be. Some see it as romantic folly. So be it.

There will also be an ongoing series of poems about Paris, where I currently dwell.
I'm mainly speaking to other third-rate poets, those who take comfort and interest in third-rate poetry, and first-rate poets who feel better about themselves by comparing their work to that of third-rate poets.

Perhaps you're a third-rate poet, too? Or you gain comfort from third-rate poetry,too? I will be sharing my works in progress, which will also include translations of French first-rate poetry (eg. Francois Villon, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire,etc.). Perhaps you'd like to exchange comments and your poetry with me? This is not a gated community. It is hopelessly quaint: the front door is always unlocked, and I am usually on the porch, playing guitar or accordian, singing, weeping, thinking, laughing with a friend. Don't be shy.
j (p.s. My most recent entries are "Contemporary free men and women," "December, 1943," and "Trustworthy maps")

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Top 20 Melancholic New Year's Indie Songs

Solidarity in Pain, Regret, and Hope for the Holidays
(also published by Blogcritics on-line magazine)

Most of you know the routine of this column by now. If you don't, treat yourself to the warp speed explanations of columns past. Time's a wastin': let's get down to the business of music and the holiday season.

Holiday cheer? Humbugarama! Life does not take a holiday for most of the world from December 25 through January 1. War, heartache, poverty, work, grief, oppression march on unflinchingly. They deserve attention, even from us who struggle so much to lend it despite our best intentions.

Someone I know barely kept his life on Christmas Day when the navy ship on which he was serving was sunk, killing hundreds of comrades and from which he escaped with his body and only part of his mind. He hates Christmas, and not of his own volition. Others find the rampant and aggressive commercialization a cooptation of more human principles at the holiday’s heart. Others still, are in the midst of heartache not of their own choosing. Nor might an indie reviewer, however so attention-challenged, forget that many people in the world have not the resources for its commercial version and/or have no tie to its religious foundation.

So this exceptional IMRFAD goes out to the Attention-deficients who for various reasons find Christmas sad, superficial, lonely, or annoying—any and all of these things.

Focus. Here are twenty songs for those in need of comfort but repulsed by naïve cheer. The list is hardly exhaustive, but you and I have trouble concentrating, so I’m being considerate. Good luck making it through the list, and if you do and need more, you can email me.

1. Oscar the Grouch: “I hate Christmas.” You’re always in good company with this loveably mangy muppet. Raise a glass to the Grouch. He farts on Ikea obsessions and potpourri compulsiveness.

2. Steve Earle: “Christmas in Washington.” Like Cash, at unlikely times he turns an eye toward the underbelly of a situation, this time at Christmas. Earle hearkens back to a time when religion and collective celebration pointed to obligations to one’s fellow creatures, not just self-absorbed consumerism and selective moral criticism. His finale is a tour de force, as he summons the spiritual help of the freedom champions of Christmas Pasts to come back and inspire now: “Come back Woodie Guthrie …Come back Malcolm X/And Martin Luther King/We're marching into Selma/As the bells of freedom ring.”

3. John Doe (of X): “Someone Like You.” This also competes for number one on my sadcore list, depending on the day. Doe's voice yearns, his tears drip from the speakers, as the country guitar simulates the sniffling pedal steel. No one wants to admit it, but there are many out there who never ever recover from the grief of losing their greatest love: "Well it's cold at Dawn/You're so far gone/I still miss Someone like you." A lifetime of regret. May it not visit you, my friends.

4. Elliot Smith: “I Didn’t Understand.” Hard to choose from this tortured soul’s magnificent corpus. “Independence Day” is a close second, though one could find many more with very little effort. Smith is nearly incomparable in putting to music the pain of tortured minds who realize they’ve driven away those they love more than anything else and must face the dark possibility that such is their destiny. (Also worth mentioning, in association with Christmas special "The Year Without a Santa Claus," Smith was in a band called Heatmiser before he went solo.)

5. The Kinks: “Father Christmas” (a single from 1977). Surprising entry by the Kinks, who point out that Christmas has a class underbelly in its Western commercialized version. A sample: “But give my daddy a job cause he needs one/He's got lots of mouths to feed/But if you've got one, Ill have a machine gun/So I can scare all the kids down the street/Father Christmas, give us some money/We got no time for your silly toys/We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over/Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”

6. Sufjan Stevens: Okay, I'm going to depart from my usual routine here at the risk of losing you completely. Hang in there. This guy deserved his own Indie Music Review For the Attention Deficient this year for his album The Avalanche, the follow up to his excellent album "Illinois" (2005).

“Sister Winter” (from Songs for Christmas, 2006): The horns, the sleigh bells, the vocals--
"My heart is returned to Sister Winter...Oh my thoughts I returned to summer time…gave to a beloved who threw it all away.” He then apologizes to all his friends for returning “to Sister Winter.” He wishes them the best, a Happy Christmas, genuinely or ironically. This song perfectly captures the double-edged sword of the holidays; beneath the carolling horns and tinkerbell-ish sleigh and other bells is a drone, violins, a monotone sound constant with grief and inconsolable sorrow.

But a close Sufjan second would go to the acoustic version of “Chicago” (The Avalanche) especially if you’re haunted by regret, mistakes. His voice gently pets you into a dog: “you came to take us /all things go, all things go /to re-create us /all things grow, all things grow /we had our mindset /(I made a lot of mistakes) /all things know, all things know /(I made a lot of mistakes) /you had to find it /(I made a lot of mistakes) /all things go, all things go /(I made a lot of mistakes).” Once again the ambiguity is hope-tinged. Mistakes made, things get re-created, things go, things grow. Some may take this as utterly pessimistic about relationships. In fact, I like the metaphors of growth and re-creation here, which give it a kind of aura reminiscent of Heraclitus's maxim: you never step in the same river twice. Things change, but they also grow, not necessarily requiring total loss to grow and re-create us (not just you or him or her). But you know I'm a total optimist at heart.

7. Merle Haggard: “If We Make it Through December." He sings: "I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl/Now I don't mean to hate December/It's meant to be the happy time of year/And why my little girl don't understand/Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here." If you think you don’t like “country” (as if this is mainstream Nashville Garth Brooks drivel), then grow up. There’s a reason why recovering punk-rockers have turned to classic American country (John Doe of X, Jon Langford of the Mekons,etc.).

8. The Smiths: “There is a light that never goes out.” It’s tough to choose one Smith’s pearl out of their considerable showcases of sad jewels—they have a monopoly on them in underground niche markets of the last twenty years. But this one is inevitably sad-tinged and yet bold, romantic, hopeful: “And if a double-decker bus, crashes into us, to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” Morissey, a strange troubadoring hybrid descendant of Wilde, Goethe, and Poe.

9. The Cure: “Pictures of You.” Sadness, Regret, Hope aren’t just evoked by music. The visual evidence is a haunted house, a torture chamber, or an oasis on the horizon.

10. Johnny Cash: “Hurt.” The Man in Black—‘nuff said about qualifications. He wears it for the poor, broken-hearted, etc. and if you’re still reading this that includes you. In the last few years before he died, he did some of the most eery, astonishing, monumental covers in the history of modern popular music. This is my favorite, a cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” Throw all sharp objects out the window before listening to this.

11. Serge Gainsbourg: “Les Feuilles Mortes” (The Autumn Leaves). This classic (originally in France, 1942, lyrics by the poet Jacques Prevert) has been covered many, many times. If you've never heard it, time to grow up musically. Afterall, you're grown up unwillingly thanks to heartache, misery, doubt, bad luck, and angst. This dirge is suitably in French, but if you have an "English-only" policy, try Edith Piaf's version (she's the greatest French chanteuse of all time but sings this in English and French) or jazzed-up ones like Chet Baker's or Miles Davis'.

12. Jerry Jeff Walker: “Mr. Bojangles.” This gem has been covered many many times, by "the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Arlo Guthrie, Nina Simone, John Denver, David Bromberg, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis, Jr, Tom T. Hall, John Holt, Robbie Williams and David Campbell" among others, and for good reason. Another beautifully sad tale of a hapless man who finds some spring in his step (indeed, he’s a dancing man by métier).

13.Buffalo Tom: “Torchsinger” (Big Red Letter Day). BT’s songs are often poppy, which will veil their angst for some listeners. Excellent songwriting that somehow makes pain toe-tappable.

14. M. Ward: several possibilities, but let’s go with “Vincent O'Brien," in which Ward moves effortlessly from a warble to a Tom Waits: "He only sings when he's sad/and he's sad all the time/so he sings the whole night through/ and he sings in the daytime too." I hear a lot vocal similarity with the equally talented Bare Jr. (on, say, "Fool Says"--What say you?). Another master of melancholy who has but recently wept his way into the sadcore scene.

15. Patsy Cline: “Walkin’ After Midnight.” One of the most distinctive American female vocalists of any genre, and the yardstick of female singers of her generation and after. This is possibly her most famous number, and it is more than fitting for alternative holidays: “I stop to see a weepin' willow/cryin' on his pillow,/maybe he's cryin' for me, /and as the skies turn gloomy, /night winds whisper to me, /I'm lonesome as I can be/I go/out walkin' after midnight, /out in the moonlight,/just hopin' you may be somewhere a walkin' /after midnight searchin' for me.”

16.Cat Power: “Hate.” The Greatest is a feast of self-doubt, -hate, -regret. The Romantic poets don’t have much on these bare arrangements, Chan’s raspy voice a songbird with sinusitis. Only for those not on suicide watch: “they can give me pills/or let me drink my fill/the heart wants to explode/far away where nobody knows/do you believe she said that?/do you believe she said that?/I said I hate myself and I want to die.”

17. Jose Gonzales: “Remain.” Anything off the spectacularly melancholic Veneer will give you your fix, again and again, on a loop that will eventually rock you to sleep, when you feel there’s no way to sleep ever again. “Remain” is ambiguous, hope-tinged. The rain washes away everything, even bloodstains from hearts, and the lovers remain standing—but reconciled? Separate?

18. Richard Buckner: “Blue and Wonder.” His first album established him as a Prince of Indie singer-songwriter darkness (true he has several competitors). His first album, the gloomy masterpiece Bloomed, is one long, perversely sweet funeral procession. Expectations are a gun without a safety trigger. Keep them low: be happy.

19. Lucinda Williams: “ Metal Firecracker” (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road). Again, an artist with multiple offerings for a list about comfort through angst-ridden solidarity. This is one of my favorites, but check out Lucinda’s eponymous album, which features the perfect rhetorical question: “Am I Too Blue (for you)?”

20. Joel R. Phelps and the Downer Trio: “Calling for You.” Former Silkworm rocker has produced some of the saddest and most beautiful singer-songwriter efforts of the last ten years. This one is my favorite, an Iris Dement cover, and it is hard to beat Iris if that tells you anything about the power of this song and Phelps’ rendition. It also is hopeful about reconciliation after hurt has brought love to a dangerous precipice.

I said I would stop there, but Hank Williams Sr. sholdn't be neglected. I just couldn't narrow it to one. Honorable mention also goes to Nick Drake, Joy Division, George Jones, and the Old 97's, especially "Lonely Holiday" and "Valentine." Or, in haiku:

Consumer binges

Up yours! you cheery f-er.

Oscar the Grouch rules!

I wish you a Happy New Year in 2007, friends.

This article also appears in Blogcritics on-line magazine.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

First-rate Poetry, Villon revised 12/17/06

Ballad of the ladies of old Poème de François Villon Poem by François Villon

Tell me where, in what land, tell me
Is Flora, lovely Roman lady?
Where Archippa, where Thais fair,
Who was her cousin? Please tell me!
Where now is Echo, who bellered
Back at you o'er rivers and ponds,
Whose beauty surpassed any human's?
O where went the snows of past winters?

Where is Heloise chaste and wise,
For whom celibate and monk-made
Was Abelard in
For her love so much he suffered .
And likewise, where now is the queen
Who commanded that Buridan
Be bagged and cast into the
O where went the snows of past winters?

And Joan so dear of Lorraine
Whom the English lit bright at
Where are they all, Sovereign Lady?
O where went the snows of past winters?

My Prince, seek not endlessly the knowledge
Where now are they, why passed the time;
But only remember this chorus:
O where went the snows of past winters?

Translation, Harsin

Thursday, December 14, 2006

(Revised 12/14/2006)From September to March!

From September to March!

Women of the Repbulique,
We give you boots, boots!
Brave men of the Republique,
We give you femmes, femmes!
Women of the Republique,
We give you boots, boots!

Armies, Armies, Armies!

Sex in the city
"liberated boots."
"We feel good in boots."
"It's not for them boots."
"It is for us boots."
Women power boots.
Androscopophilic boots.
Les francaises are boots?

High-heeled ankle-bending boots;
“Tres Sexy” leopard-skin boots;
Pointy-toed canoe shaped boots.

“Ladies” over 22,
Get in your boots, boots!
Girls of the banlieue,
We give you boots, boots!

Boots, boots,
Over yer foots,
The boots you wear,
The boots you are,
Françaises in boots:
Feel the power!

Boots, boots,
Over yer foots;
Together in boots
The better you feel
Ignore the pain
Ignore your heels.

Boots, boots,
Things on your foots—

Liberty Boots,
Fraternity Boots,
Equality Boots--
Et ou sont les bottes d'antan?*

Do not ask, young prince,
in a day, a week, a year,
but remember this chorus:

Always leather,
boots, boots, boots, boots!
From September to March.

Note: this will probably be revised every few days; check back if ya please--Jayson Harsin, Dec. 3, 2006

*Thanks to Satchmo for "les bottes d'antan"