Essential Listening 02 - "Maybe I Know"

note: I originally wrote the following article for the website SceneSC.com for an (at the time) ongoing column in which I would discuss songs and artists I loved and spotlight the intermingling of music and imagery.  The column never really came to fruition, so I'll be reproducing the unused articles here so they may see the light of day.

This is the greatest pop song ever recorded.
Let that sink in a moment, because I’m dead serious.  Greatest.  Ever.
Recorded by Lesley Gore in 1964, “Maybe I Know” isn’t her most well-known single (that would be “It’s My Party”) or her most haunting (the magnificent proto-fem statement of self-reliance “You Don’t Own Me”), but it is Gore at her absolute best; a distilled essence of innocence, maturity, love,  forgiveness, pop-power and teenage wonder.  Try to listen to this song and not feel something - it’s impossible!
Gore’s singles are interesting in that they form a sort of narrative, following Gore’s innocent teen protagonist from first broken heart to independent woman, all on vinyl, and all within two short years.  “Maybe I Know” falls right in the middle of this story, an epic in which she’s stung by Johnny and Judy, steals her boy back, and eventually proclaims her identity outside of relationships.  She’s the original riot grrrl.
The formation of her personal identity is forged in the first run of the chorus, right up front, in which she proclaims, “Maybe I know that he’s been a-cheatin’ / Maybe I know that he’s been untrue / But what can I do?”  She’s still vulnerable, but learning.  She’s trying to find the answer outside of the traditional pop-identities shared by women at the time: predominantly the feeling that they’d die without a man to make them whole.  What crap.
In 1964, Gore performed for the T.A.M.I. SHOW, a concert film edited together from performances at two separate concert events, and her versions of “Maybe I Know” and “You Don’t Own Me” are particularly memorable.  She exudes energy, smiling, swaying, and really belting out the songs.  I’ve included the video below for you to check out.  The T.A.M.I. SHOW film is one of the key documents of American pop music, and was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006.  For those interested in the full film, there are also performances by James Brown (one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen), The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and Chuck Barry, among others.  It is available on DVD.
Back to the song: make no mistake, this is all Gore’s track.  Her performance is flawless, and the music is classic mid-60s girl-group pop.  Gore’s voice is one of the most memorable in all of American popular music, distinct and mature, and completely unwavering.  The song starts out all bouncy horns and soaring vocal, and over the course of 2:35 minutes, it trancends time and space, then brings us back to Earth again.  The experience of listening to “Maybe I Know” is always magical, ethereal, and completely jaw-dropping - it is never any different - and it brings me to my knees every single time.  “What can I do?,” indeed.


Essential Listening 01 - "Where The Wild Roses Grow"

note: I originally wrote the following article for the website SceneSC.com for an (at the time) ongoing column in which I would discuss songs and artists I loved and spotlight the intermingling of music and imagery.  The column never really came to fruition, so I'll be reproducing the unused articles here so they may see the light of day.

I think my Facebook friends are already tired of me going on and on (and on and on) about just how good this song and video are, and about the perfection of the duet by Cave and Minogue, from subject matter to its final execution, but dammit, I just can’t get enough.  This song is something like a religious experience - best experienced by yourself and then shared with others continuously throughout the rest of your life.
In the mid-90s, Cave came up with the idea of doing a full album of murder ballads, which had been a staple on every Bad Seeds album since From Her To Eternity in 1983.  Originally conceived as a joke - a sort of over-the-top “obvious” record, meant to be taken ironically - the resulting release is nonetheless a treasure trove of material.  In addition to this haunting and oddly romantic song, there’s also the rambunctious barnburner “The Curse of Millhaven” and the devastating, violent and explicit reinterpretation of the essential murder ballad, “Stagger Lee”.  But I digress.
“Where the Wild Roses Grow” is the song that makes the album, linking all of the songs together with Cave’s usual semi-crooner persona from this era in his career, the romantic who only sees heartbreak and loss around every corner.  Telling the story of a courtship that ends with the man killing his beloved by the riverside after determining she was too beautiful to ever grow old (and also from the point of view of the confused spirit of the deceased, Elisa Day), the song treads some truly disturbing ground, mostly because it’s such a damned gorgeous composition.
As a fan of both Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, the sheer logic of them recording together has never quite made sense (I could do a whole other bit on Kylie album “Fever”, but that’s another beast altogether).  But apparently, they had a thing for one another.  There’s a rather amazing little short edited together over on YouTube that tells the story of this pairing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFezNxypDK4), and it’s fascinating just to hear the pair of them discuss the song and its legacy.  I highly recommend it.  
But back to the task at hand.  Cave and Minogue’s vocal delivery, surely some of the most amazing to exist in all pop music, is perfection; lightning in a bottle.  It’s awful and beautiful and romantic and ugly in only the way a Nick Cave song can be.  That this album of songs about ugliness, greed, lust and, yes, murder is a prelude to the heartbreaking and tender follow-up The Boatman’s Call is evident in this very song.
And then there’s the video, which is based on painter John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia”, depicting the scene in Hamlet when Ophelia drowns herself in a river.  In the video, of course, Cave is constantly kneeling over his deceased love while she lay in the spot where the wild roses grow.  Visually, it’s all soft-focus photography on the gorgeous Minogue, and harsh shadow for the murdering Cave.  It sends shivers down my spine constantly.


Masculinity Under a Microscope - Writ Large, preliminary thoughts on VALHALLA RISING

I recently - and finally - caught Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn's breathtaking new film, VALHALLA RISING, via Video-on-Demand service.  Following the pagan warrior One Eye as he accompanies a band of crusaders in their journey to the Holy Land, the film plays out like an odd mixture of brooding uber-masculine Viking epic, with the pacing of a Terrence Malick venture and a dash of 70s Herzog/Kinski madness.  In scope, beauty, and pure brutality, I can't say I've ever seen anything truly like it.  It's not any one thing, but a mixture of things, and a pure, unadulterated work of imagery and poetry.  VALHALLA RISING is definitely not for everyone, but then again, few films are.

The film begins with a sequence depicting One Eye's enslavement to Scottish pagans and the constant hand-to-hand fights he competes in for their sporting pleasure.  After being introduced briefly to this situation, and the leaders of the clans discussing the coming Christians marauding the land and massacring the pagan tribes if they don't convert, One Eye escapes in a bloody rage, murdering the party that is to transport him to his new owners and heading off on his own, with the young Are - who fed him in captivity - in tow.  It's not long before they come upon the Christians, freshly off a massacre, and still sitting in the area where they killed another clan of heathens.

Instead of either side attacking the other, and thinking they could use a great warrior like One Eye on their side, the Christians invite One Eye to join them in the Crusades as they take back the Holy Land and fight for riches and the Lord.  Soon they are journeying across the ocean, and it's at this point the film becomes an increasingly spartan filmmaking exercise; the dialogue all but ceases to exist for long stretches, and the imagery really takes over even more than it had already.

One Eye also has some sort of ability to see events in his future, tinted a bright, bloody red, which makes you wonder if that's how he sees the world - through that blood-red hue.  He also carries a bit of a mystical quality about him in that he seems to be able to speak through Are, who constantly answers questions asked of One Eye and makes remarks on behalf of him.  This plays out to much stranger effect in the last half hour of the film, when the fates of the party and the events that lead to them play out.

The crew finds land after drifting for days in a fog that seems to have descended upon them for fateful purposes, but it's not Jerusalem, and is filled with lush greenery.  Once their party is attacked, two things become apparant: they are in fact in the New World, and are under threat from "primitives" and their pagan companion has brought them to Hell for suffering and death.

The contrast between One Eye and the Christians' reactions to their ultimate location is interesting to consider: One Eye is a warrior, a non-convert, and for him, death can only lead to his place in Valhalla, and some sort of Hell isn't really an option as long as he fought the best he could and died while fighting.  But the Christians think they've been corrupted by the pagan, this viking One Eye, and they blame their plight on him, descending into madness, sodomy, murder and, ultimately, their own deaths.

VALHALLA RISING is enigmatic, ethereal and difficult - having seen it twice now I'm still processing most of my thoughts on it.  It's completely unlike any other viking epic I've ever seen, and the cinematography is some of the most gorgeous I've ever encountered.  During the film's final two acts, slow-motion photography is employed to an extreme, giving the impression of characters walking through sludge to get to their destination.  The movements, the expressions on their faces - they're all highlighted in various forms of suffering, coping and acceptance.  The essence of VALHALLA RISING is in these final scenes: masculinity, under a microscope, on a large scale.  What it says to you - that's the interpretive part.