Monday, March 23, 2009

"Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" - Don Mclean, 1971 (ballad)

Starry, starry night.
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer's day,
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills,
Sketch the trees and the daffodils,
Catch the breeze and the winter chills,
In colors on the snowy linen land.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.

Starry, starry night.
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue.
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.

For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.

Starry, starry night.
Portraits hung in empty halls,
Frameless head on nameless walls,
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget.
Like the strangers that you've met,
The ragged men in the ragged clothes,
The silver thorn of bloody rose,
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.

Now I think I know what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they're not listening still.
Perhaps they never will...

Most well known by its opening line, "Starry Starry Night" was one of Don Mclean's most popular songs. True to his tributary form, this song gives a nod to Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. Perhaps more than in any other song, the lyrics reveal Mclean's personal feelings for the artist and his works.

Van Gogh produced more than 2,000 works, including around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches, during the last ten years of his life, but he is particularly known for the works that he painted during the last two years of his life. These last two years are what Mclean focuses on in this tribute. They are also the years of which Van Gogh is most noted for...and ironically the ones during which he suffered the worst of an as-yet undiagnosed insanity. In his later life, it was his constant battle with severe mental illness that led to the infamous incident in which he stalked his friend and roommate Paul Gauguin with a razor and then cut off the lower part of his own left earlobe.

While Van Gogh experimented with many different kinds of media, his artwork is made unmistakable by three distinct characteristics: dots, yellow, and swirls. Looking closely, the viewer will see that each of his "signature" works (not counting earlier works, sketches, or commissioned works) contains each of these elements.

The use of dots, called 'pointillism' is a unique and creative approach to mixing colors. The canvas is stippled with tiny dots of primary colors. The dots are placed far enough apart to be individual, yet close enough that their proximity causes the viewer to see secondary and intermediary colors instead.

Van Gogh's predominant use of yellows has always been a point of intrigue, but he didn't use it because he liked it, and his use of it had nothing to do with any metaphorical color-related emotions. There are many medical theories as to why the artist used this color so often. One theory suggests that Van Gogh's affinity for drinking absinthe might have affected his vision. Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage that contains the neurotoxin 'thujone'; high doses of thujone have been reported to cause xanthopsia, which is a condition that causes the person to see objects in yellow (although recent studies have shown this cannot be possible before the person becomes unconscious from the amount of alcohol consumed to reach this point). Another theory speculates that his physician, Dr. Gachet, had prescribed him digitalis as a treatment for epilepsy. The evidence for this is found in one of the portraits of Dr. Gachet painted by Van Gogh, in which is depicted the stems of Common Foxglove from which the drug is derived. A side-effect of digitalis treatment was the yellow appearance of everyday objects surrounded by a lighter halo, which appear in many of Van Gogh's later paintings. It has also been supposed that Van Gogh may have suffered either lead poisoning, as this was the base of his paints, which causes swelling of the retina also possibly resulting in the appearance of a halo.

The final period in Van Gogh's career came during his self commitment to the mental hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in a former monastery in Saint Remy de Provence. While his brother saw to it that Van Gogh had a studio room to paint in, it merely consisted of an adjoining cell with a small barred window. During his confinement, it was the lack of subject matter that found him painting new interpretations of his own earlier works and the works of other artists. All of this he did from his own memory. This is how the swirls began. Those famous swirls landed him an invitation to participate in the annual art exhibition in Brussels, hosted by the illustrious, avant-garde artist society Les XX. This then later led to his works being on display in Paris, where contemporary Claude Monet declared them to be the best in show.

Though he was finally beginning to receive a little of the recognition he longed for all his life, it came too late to pull him from his downward spiral and 70 days after his release from Saint Remy, he tragically took his own life. His last words were reportedly, "The sadness will last forever."

**Note: In the song, there is an historical inaccuracy in the first verse. "Look out on a summer's day..." This would have been impossible for him to do since at the time The Starry Night was painted he was confined to the mental institution and had nothing more but a small, barred porthole for a window.

"Vincent (Starry Starry Night)" - Don Mclean, 1971

~information found swirling around all over the internet, and cool places like this:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Allentown" - Billy Joel, 1982 (rock)

Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to stay

Well we're waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we're waiting here in Allentown

But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be getting up today

And it's getting very hard to stay
And we're living here in Allentown

When the going gets tough, the tough get singing. There is no greater outlet for Man's emotions than through music. That's what it's for. It's the stuff of life, good and bad, that makes for a really good meaningful song. "Allentown" is no different, and the topical circumstances are no different than what we are experiencing right now...severe recession.

The song is about the steel industry in Pennsylvania, and even though the title is Allentown, PA, as there are no steel mills in Allentown, the lyrics are really talking about the city of Bethlehem, PA (the Bethlehem Steel Corporation) and the decline of the American manufacturing industry in the late 1970's, which Billy Joel personally witnessed. He chose to keep Allentown as the title city because he felt that using the name "Bethlehem" would create some confusion, causing people to think about Christmas and Baby Jesus instead of what the song's true focus was. Bethlehem Steel employed most of the people of Bethlehem, PA as well as other neighboring cities in the Lehigh Valley area, and yes, Allentown was one of them.

The song opens and closes with a distinct rhythm. It is the sound of a rolling mill, which is used to convert steel ingots into I-beams. During the industrial boom of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, this sound was heard all over the Lehigh Valley area...but if you go there, today, you won't hear it anymore. In the 1970s they were forced to close the mills and layoff most of the workers and sending the Lehigh Valley region into a disastrous economic slump, which is reflected in the lyrics, "Out in Bethlehem they're killing time/Filling out forms/Standing in line"...people trying desperately to get unemployment compensation before they lost everything. In 2003, the company closed its doors forever.

Realistically, the recession of the 70's and 80's didn't just affect Pennsylvania. The whole country was in distress, so one steel mill closing and putting people out of work was hardly newsworthy. Plus, recession is just one of the fluctuations that a free market economy will experience from time to time; it is inevitable, and it is the nature of that economic system. There are literally thousands of songs that talk about hard life during economic depression and recession. However, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation's demise is a big deal, historically because this corporation's life was an historical big deal.

"Well our fathers fought the Second World War/Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore/Met our mothers in the USO..." The corporation was born in 1857, and of course the steel industry was at the core of building America's modern infrastructure, but it was the mid-20th century, particularly during WWII, that Bethlehem Steel would enter its golden days. Legend has it that in September 1939 Bethlehem Steel Corp. Chairman Eugene Grace was teeing off at the Saucon Valley Country Club's Old Course when a caddie ran up to his foursome and announced that World War II had just begun. Upon hearing the news, Grace turned to his golfing partners, who were also his vice presidents, and said, "gentlemen, we are going to make a lot of money." That would later prove to be the understatement of the century. Bethlehem Steel didn't just make a lot of money. They supplied an entire army, built cities, and employed generations of workers. The company grew so large that it even had its own police force, which was actually bigger than the City of Bethlehem's. It also didn't just employ steel workers. It employed service personnel for its company kitchens, carpenters, landscapers, and electricians.

Much of Bethlehem Steel's production came from its enormous contribution to the World War II effort. As much as 70 percent of all airplane cylinder forgings, one-quarter of the armor plate for warships, and one-third of the big cannon forgings for the U.S armed forces were turned out by Bethlehem Steel, and the company was responsible for building nearly one-fifth of the U.S. Navy's two-ocean fleet.[1]. After the war, Bethlehem Steel continued working on the civilization it had begun before the war. It is responsible for the steel frames for many bridges throughout the U.S. such as the George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and buildings such as the Chrysler Building in New York City. In fact, 80% of the skyscrapers in NYC would collapse if Bethlehem's steel beams were removed. In it's glory days, it was the number two steel mill in the nation. In the race for number one on the Fortune 500 list, "The Corporation", as it was known as by the competition, was known as "Little Steel" and was second only to "Big Steel" - U.S. Steel (USX).

Alas, "as the nation goes, so steel goes" is how things work in the steel industry. Bethlehem Steel couldn't keep up with the invasion of foreign steel and mini mills and substitute materials such as aluminum and pressed concrete. These, however, have been threats to local steel for as long as local steel has been in business. Bethlehem Steel collapsed when other steel companies did not. Much of this is due in part because with the expansion of the free market, the increased availability of cheaper steel, and better methods of production, Bethlehem Steel did not grow and diversify as the competition did. During the recession of the 1970s and 1980s, the steel companies often made business ventures outside of their own industry, using new consolidations and purchases to fund their assets that were failing due to the economy. For example, U.S. Steel purchased the Marathon Oil company and used oil profits to bolster its sinking steel plants until the end of the recession. When its steel profits began to recover, the company then separated the two. Another aspect of Bethlehem's demise was its sloth in developing competitve but environmentally conscious production methods. The invasion of foreign materials made it very clear that steel consumers would prefer to use foreign components if the cost was lower and the quality just as good if not better than what was being produced locally. Many failing steel companies did not engage in this aspect of the competition, and in refusing to do so lost so much money that bankruptcy was inevitable, dispite a long, successful track record.

When the time for expansion was at hand, Bethlehem did not grow as the other steel mills did. It's top executives continued to pay themselves lavish salaries, dispite the toll and the distress the economy and lack of and business was putting on the company. Since the war years, the company had maintained the same people on the executive board. These men paid themselves and ran the business as if The Corporation was still reaping the profits of turning out warships, cannons, bridges, and buildings. Sadly, when fresh executives were brought in to clean up the company's fiscal mess, they attempted emergency repairs: freeze executive salaries and lay off workers. However, the fixes came too late, and the company inevitably failed because of itself. It didn't just fail itself, though. It put the entire Lehigh Valley out of a job. Entire families for generations had been employed by this company.

Given that information, the rest of the song's lyrical meanings are self explanatory.

"Allentown" - Billy Joel, 1982

~information rolled out from:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Scarborough Fair/Canticle" - Simon & Garfunkel, 1966 (folk rock)

Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(On the side of a hill in the deep forest green)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Tracing of sparrow on snow crested brown)
Without no seams nor needle work
(Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain)
Then she'll be a true love of mine
(Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)

Tell her to find me an acre of land
(On the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strands
(A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
(War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
(And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten)
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.

If my name was Peabody and your name was Sherman, then right about now I'd be telling you to get into the Wayback Machine and set the dial for waaaaaay back to merry old England in the '50s...the 1250s, that is. Here we will watch King Henry the VIII sign a charter (in 1253 to be precise) which began the annual tradition of a 45-day fair in the seaside city of Scarborough in North Yorkshire (on the North Sea side of the UK). The charter stated, "The Burgesses and their heirs forever may have a yearly fayre in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael next following".

For a brief time, the Scarborough Fair was a big deal; however, it wasn't a medieval fair like we picture as a place to go specifically for amusement. Rather, it was an enormous open-air trading center/market that attracted merchants and tradesmen from all over the country. This monumentous occasion drew impressively large crowds. In its heyday, we might say that a trip to Scarborough Fair would be the equivalent of taking a modern-day trip to, say, New York City. It had everything anyone could need, and from August 15-September 29, it was England's hot spot. It was the place to be. Of course, since many hundreds of people from far and near attended to sell their wares, naturally there also came those who sold food and various amenities to those who were far from home.

The song Scarborough Fair, was actually not written by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. In fact, the song predates them by about, oh, say at least 610 years; the tune and lyrics appeared somewhere around 1300. The song that was sung by this epic duo was actually a song that was written and sung by medieval bards throughout the English countryside. Because of the nature of song at the time, there is no single author credited with the song's inception. It was a folk tune that soon caught on with the local populous, and it became a tradition for the common folk to sing about participating in this auspicious occasion. As is true with most folk music, as time went on more lyrics and verses were added.

Although the song, itself, is a song about jilted love, in that respect it has little value for us. However, it does contain lyrics which do have some historical significance (and you know how we love that around here!)

If you know no other words in the song, you at least know the part that says, "Are you going to Scarborough Fair?/Parsley sage rosemary and thyme..." A good herbalist will tell you that Parsley isn't just for making a steak plate look good. It is an herb that is holistically used to treat indigestion. However, during medieval times herbs were believed to have an equivalent spiritual benefit. Indigestion is frequently referred to as "heartburn" because as too many Americans know, it makes the chest hurt in the are near where the heart is found. Due to general lack of understanding the medical sciences, this feeling of indigestion often led folks to believe that their heart hurt. Thus, parsley was prescribed to heal the hurting heart. The herb, Sage, has long been a symbol of strength. Rosemary represents faithfulness, love, and remembrance. The loving Greeks used to give sprigs of Rosemary to each other, and Greek brides traditionally wore a few sprigs of it in their hair on their wedding day. Rosemary, though, is usually symbolic of feminine love because this herb is very tough and strong, but it grows very slowly. Rosemary is also the symbol for prudence and sensibility. Ancient Roman doctors used to put Rosemary underneath the pillow of someone who had to perform a difficult mental job.

In the verses that follow, there is a secondary, simultaneous tune which is sung (you'll find it in the parentheses). The song that is sung here is "Canticle" (which has absolutely nothing to do with Scarborough, a fair, or any culinary herbs). It was written in 1963 by Art Garfunkel and is a re-working of the song "The Side of a Hill" (and is an anti-war ballad). Moving on...

The verses of Scarborough Fair are a list of impossible tasks for the man's sweetie to perform:

Verse 1 - She is to make a cambric shirt with no seams or needlework. This is impossible because cambric is a lightweight cotton fabric that was used specifically for making lace and needlework, so it is impossible because on its own the fabric does not do what it's supposed to. The purpose of requiring cambric for the shirt is so that the shirt will be slightly shiny. The fabric is tightly woven and when completed, it has a slight glossy finish. Cambric is what makes professional playing cards glossy, last longer, and easier to handle. This material wasn't actually available until the 1500s, having been discovered by the French, so this verse was probably not one of the originals.

Verse 2 - She is to find an acre tract of land between the ocean and the shore. It is quite obvious why this one is impossible. "Sea strands" was the poetic term used for shoreline or beach. Of course, she could go out and find him an island, but remember that Christopher Columbus did not sail until 1492; so, at the time this song was originally sung, the world as we knew it was flat and to try and go out and find an island of the prescribed proportions would have been suicide...she would fall off the face of the earth.

Verse 3 - She is to reap this one-acre "island" (from verse 2) with a sickle of leather and harvest it all in a bunch of heather. Leather is soft and flexible. A sickle is used to cut down the stalks of grain crops. Basically, she is to cut down all of the crop with what may result to nothing more than the sole of a shoe, and bring it home in bound up in a heather bunch. Heather is a small, compact shrub that grows with tiny, narrow leaves. It doesn't grow on the beach, nor does it do very well in salt water, but it was historically symbolic of luck.

Incidentally, I personally find it amusing that the song ends with a witty barb. It all sounds so lovely and forelorn until we get to the end and the man says, "Good luck!" and that makes me chuckle (considering that this song was intended to be a message passed along to the ex-lady). HA!

***Additional Note: It has been brought to my attention that there are quite a bit more impossible tasks for this good lady to perform before the man will give her the time of day. The tune from which this song and some of its lyrics was borrowed from is much older and pre-dates King Henry VIII. Check out: The Elfin Knight

"Scarborough Fair/Canticle" - Simon & Garfunkel, 1963

~finding this information wasn't impossible, but I did have to look hither and yond, including this place: