Monday, March 30, 2009

Threads: Guns! Guns! Guns!

John Cale, Gun.
Nas, I Gave You Power.
Gene Autry, Guns and Guitars.
Cat Stevens, I'm Gonna Get Me a Gun.
Julie Brown, The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun.
Ray Ellington Quartet, I Didn't Know the Gun Was Loaded.
The Bobbettes, I Shot Mr. Lee.
Jimmie Rodgers, Pistol Packin' Papa.
Al Dexter, Pistol Packin' Mama.
Lulu, The Man With the Golden Gun.
Blondie, Rifle Range.
Bradley Kinkcaid, Dog and Gun (an Old English Ballad).
Roosevelt Sykes, 32-20 Blues.
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Give Me a 32-20.
Jack Newman, 38 Special.
Mose Vinson, 44 Blues.
Sunnyland Slim, Johnson Machine Gun.
Gang of Four, Armalite Rifle.
Heart Attack, Shotgun.
Cab Calloway, Shotgun Boogie.
Lightnin' Hopkins, Shotgun Blues.
Da Lench Mob, Who Ya Gonna Shoot Wit That?
Gene Pitney, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Beatnuts, Reign of the Tec.
Neil Young, Powderfinger (early version).
The Mutton Birds, A Thing Well Made.

A clip commonly holds 15 rounds.

Round 1:

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law, a silent Russian film from the '20s, is about a team of five gold prospectors in the Yukon. One of the group, an Irishman named Dennin, is the goat, the one the rest ridicule, the one who has to do all of the grunt work. At last one night, returning from a hunt, he snaps.

The sequence begins with the rest of the party eating dinner in their small shared cabin--an image of murky peace and camaraderie. The door jerks open and Dennin stands in the center of the frame. Closeups of the smiling, smug faces, welcoming him back. Dennin is still holding his hunting rifle. Kuleshov starts cutting rapidly, about once a second--Dennin firing his rifle; a woman's face screaming; a shot man falling, knocking plates off the table; Dennin, at an angle, firing again; a stunned man sitting with his mouth gaping open; a corpse whose head is in a bowl of soup; the woman leaping on the table like a cat; Dennin reloading; the screaming woman's face rushing to fill the frame.

The rest of the film is concerned with the survivors meting out Dennin's punishment: what is to be done with him in the absence of the law? It doesn't matter. In a minute, Dennin has upturned the order of things, forever; he has stamped himself upon the rest, upon the living and the dead.

(Here is the scene, though be warned this clip is chopped up, sped up & given incredibly horrendous musical accompaniment.)

By the Law: the aftermath

One Sunday night in New York in the early '90s, Leonard Cohen was interviewed on the radio. This was around the time of the first Trade Center bombing, and Cohen, in a rambling conversation, talked about the rise of what he called the "terrorist position," and the growing appeal of this point of view, not just among actual terrorists, but in the society at large.1

Cohen's terrorist position is one that no longer brooks any negotiation or compromise, it is the alternative that denies all others--it is a concise reply to a withered democratic society in which many feel they no longer have stakes. All that remains is power, and one's decision to use it, to inflict it, without remorse, to impose one's own point of view, to gratify one's needs or inflict one's grievances upon the weak material of the world. It is choosing to be an actor, and a gun is most often the prop at hand.

"I gave you power--I made you buck-wild," says the rapper Nas, in a set of verses in which he imagines himself as a gun, passing from street soldier to street soldier, used in drive-bys and stick-ups, leaving behind the dead, the maimed, the grieving. Like a cold little djinn, the gun simply does whatever is ordered. "When I'm empty I'm quiet."

John Cale got there two decades earlier: When you've begun to think like a gun, the days of the year have already gone.

Round 2:

Papo, Serial No. 381731 (series on Israeli girl soldiers)

"Look here!" he replied, pulling from his waistcoat a curiously constructed pistol, having a double-edged spring knife attached to the barrel. "That's a great tempter to a desperate man, is it not? I cannot resist going up with this every night,and trying his door. If once I find it open he's done for; I do it invariably, even though the minute before I have been recalling a hundred reasons that should make me refrain: it is some devil that urges me to thwart my own schemes by killing him. You fight against that devil for love as long as you may; when the time comes, not all the angels in heaven shall save him!"

I surveyed the weapon inquisitively. A hideous notion struck me: how powerful I should be possessing such an instrument! I took it from his hand, and touched the blade. He looked astonished at the expression my face assumed during a brief second: it was not horror, it was covetousness. He snatched the pistol back, jealously; shut the knife, and returned it to its concealment.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.

We got guns
They got guns
All god's chillun got guns

The Marx Brothers, Duck Soup.

Ted Kennedy has killed more people with his car than I have with my banned assault weapon.

Bumper sticker on van in Northampton, Mass. parking lot.

Kill'd by five bullets from an old gun-barrel.
I gazed upon him, for I knew him well;
And though I have seen many corpses, never
Saw one, whom such an accident befell,
So calm; though pierced through stomach, heart, and liver,
He seem'd to sleep,- for you could scarcely tell
(As he bled inwardly, no hideous river
Of gore divulged the cause) that he was dead...

George Gordon, Lord Byron, "Don Juan."

Sixteen in the clip and one in the hole,
Nate Dogg is about to make some bodies turn cold

Warren G. and Nate Dogg, "Regulate."

Round 3:

Peto: Pistol, Gate Latch and Powder Horn.

Spanish woman: You can't say Americans are not more violent than other people.

Fred: No.

Woman: All those people killed in shootings in America?

Fred: Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn't mean Americans are more violent than other people. We're just better shots.

Whit Stillman, Barcelona.

The guns used to kill or to attempt to kill U.S. presidents:

Andrew Jackson, 1835. Two pistols, at least one a pocket pistol. Both misfired--the caps went off but the powder didn't ignite. Between shots, Jackson charged at his would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, while raising his cane.

Abraham Lincoln, 1865. A .44 single-shot derringer. "It was manufactured by Henry Deringer of Philadelphia and so marked. It is about 6 inches long with a 2 1/2 inch barrel. Its weight is only eight ounces." John Wilkes Booth dropped the gun on the floor of the state box of Ford's Theatre; it is now kept in a showcase on the lower level.

James Garfield, 1881. A .442 Webley British Bulldog revolver, with a wooden handle. (Charles Guiteau, the assassin, had wanted an ivory handle, as he thought the gun would look nicer in a museum display case, but didn't want to spend the extra dollar to upgrade.)

William McKinley, 1901. A .32 caliber nickel-plated Iver-Johnson "Safety Automatic" revolver. Generally considered to be a bit of a cheap, if reliable, gun. Sirhan Sirhan used a .22 Iver-Johnson to shoot Robert Kennedy seventy years later.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1912. A .38 caliber Colt "with a 44 frame." TR took a shot to the chest and kept on giving his speech. "Col. Cecil Lyon held the gun up to us to look at, and it was an ugly-looking weapon," wrote the authors of the awkwardly-titled The Attempted Assassination of Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933
. A .32 caliber pistol, bought from a pawn shop. The would-be killer missed FDR but did kill Chicago Mayor Anton Cernak.

Harry S. Truman, 1950. A Walther P38 and a 9mm Luger. They really never got near him.

Okay, he fired early the first time, hitting the President below the head, near the neck area somewhere. It was a foolishness he could dismiss on a certain level. Okay, he missed the President with the second shot and hit Connally. But the car was still sitting there, barely moving. He saw the First Lady lean toward the President, who was slumped down now. A man stood applauding at the edge of the telescopic frame.

Lee jerked the handle down and aimed. He heard the second spent shell roll across the floor.

Don DeLillo, Libra.

John F. Kennedy, 1963. A 6.5 mm Carcano rifle, Italian made. Bought by Lee Harvey Oswald via mail order. Cue conspiracy theorists.

Gerald Ford, 1975. A Colt .45 (Squeaky Fromme); a .38 caliber revolver (Sara Jane Moore).

Ronald Reagan, 1981. A .22 Short Röhm RG-14 revolver. Generally believed to be a cheap, inaccurate gun; critics point to the fact that John Hinckley fired six shots at Reagan, and the only one that hit the president was one that ricocheted off the pavement.

Bill Clinton, 1994. An SKS semi-automatic rifle, Chinese made.

Round 4:

I was sick, but more than that, I was mad
At the crooked police, and the crooked game of life.
So I wrote to the Chief of Police at Peoria:
“I am here in my girlhood home in Spoon River,
Gradually wasting away.
But come and take me, I killed the son
Of the merchant prince, in Madam Lou’s,
And the papers that said he killed himself
In his home while cleaning a hunting gun—
Lied like the devil to hush up scandal,
For the bribe of advertising.
In my room I shot him, at Madam Lou’s,
Because he knocked me down when I said
That, in spite of all the money he had,
I’d see my lover that night.”

Edgar Lee Masters, "Rosie Roberts."

"I ain't takin' you for no kid," answered Potter. His heels had not moved an inch backward. "I'm takin' you for a damn fool. I tell you I ain't got a gun, and I ain't. If you're goin' to shoot me up, you better begin now. You'll never get a chance like this again."

So much enforced reasoning had told on Wilson's rage. He was calmer. "If you ain't got a gun, why ain't you got a gun?" he sneered. "Been to Sunday-school?"

"I ain't got a gun because I've just come from San Anton' with my wife. I'm married," said Potter. "And if I'd thought there was going to be any galoots like you prowling around when I brought my wife home, I'd had a gun, and don't you forget it."

Stephen Crane, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky."

His eyes slid to the gun and holster on the desk. He thought of his fifteen years' marriage to the ugly bit of metal. He remembered the times its single word had saved his life--and the times when its threat alone had been enough. He thought of the days when he had dismantled the gun and oiled it and packed the bullets carefully into the springloaded magazine and tried the action once or twice, pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world. Then the last wipe of a dry rag and the gun into the little holster and a pause in front of the mirror to see that nothing showed. How many times had it saved his life? How many death sentences had it signed?

M swivelled back to face him. "Sorry, James," and there was no sympathy in his voice. "I know how you like that bit of iron. But I'm afraid it's got to go. Never give a weapon a second chance--any more than a man."

Ian Fleming, Doctor No.

Now life is funny. You can only know so much about it. What you know at any given moment is what you need to know. If everything go like it's supposed to go, you gonna find out something else. If you willing and you need to know. When Leroy pulled that gun on me it gave me a headache. It wouldn't go away...Leroy started to get out of the chair. He was coming straight at me when I fired the gun. Gator said, "Damn, Elmore, Damn." The bullet hit him right smack in the middle of the forehead. That was the first bullet.

August Wilson, King Hedley II.

Round 5:

We were transplanted New Englanders in Virginia and so were helpless: someone finally decided that we needed a gun. I'm not sure who gave us the .22 rifle--a friend, a neighbor--but we kept it on a shelf in the basement, along with a box of bullets, which, packed neatly in rows in the square plastic case, looked like a set of pushpins.

Sometimes after school I'd go down to the basement. I wouldn't load the rifle, being a very cautious child by nature, but I would stand in the back yard and hoist and aim it, wedging the butt against my left shoulder. I would squint through the scope and pull the voiceless trigger, aiming at the frogs in the creek, the packs of starlings, the occasional possum or skunk slinking off in the distance, the nasty stray dog who no one in the neighborhood liked, and who eventually was shot during deer hunting season, as were several of my own dogs.

I showed the rifle to my friend Gavin. "You can't kill nothing with that thing," he said.

There was a kid nearby named Armentrot who we nicknamed Ramentrot because he loved the Rambo movies. He wore camouflage parachute pants and camouflage t-shirts and had a collection of five or six guns. He spoke about war with a vigorous, exacting sense of detail and even a feigned weariness, as though he already had cycled through a tour of duty. Ramentrot was convinced that we could've won in Vietnam if we'd only had soldiers willing to do what it takes, and if the politicians hadn't gotten in the way. We could still win in Vietnam if we wanted, he said. This was in 1984 or so.

Sometimes he would act out battles from this reconquista. He would extend his forearms straight out, playing the part of his M-16s, and strafe everyone on the school bus. Occasionally he'd suffer a casualty, out of a sense of fairness or a commitment to realism. "My BUDDY!" he would howl towards the empty seat that signified a fallen comrade.

One time on the bus I heard Ramentrot talking about nuclear war. When the missiles fell, he'd put his gun in his mouth, he said.

Round 6:

Dick Cheney in the field

Since November, sales of handguns and tactical or semiautomatic rifles have increased by 50 percent in 15 states as gun shops and sporting-goods stores like the Kittery Trading Post and Dick's Sporting Goods have benefited from concerns, real or not, that the Obama administration will enact strict gun-control laws such as a revival of the 1994 assault weapons ban — or even, as some pro-gun Web sites have suggested, take guns away from lawful owners.

Nationwide, according to data from the FBI and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, November gun background checks increased 42 percent from the year before. In December, background checks were up 24 percent, 29 percent in January, and 23 percent in February. Background checks are considered an indication of retail sale activity.

"We've had a double-digit increase in sales of handguns and tactical rifles beginning about a week before the election...," said Fox Keim, vice president of the Kittery Trading Post. "Manufacturers can't keep up with demand and we are seeing a backlog of orders ranging from six months to two years for certain products."

Golub, White Squad V.

"People are afraid and rightly so," said Penny Dean, attorney for Gun Owners of New Hampshire. Dean believes the spike in gun sales is due to a combination of factors for lawful gun owners — the country's fiscal crisis, rising unemployment, and fears the Obama administration will tax guns and ammunition so heavily that it will make them unaffordable.

"They are trying to price the average person out of the market," Dean said about a piece of legislation in Congress. "If you look at Obama's record, you know he's not a pro-gun person. This is like normal consumer behavior. If you like spring water and hear someone is going to ban it, you're going to bring a pickup (truck) and stock up."

Michael McCord,"Going Great Guns: Handheld, semiautomatic sales increase," 15 March 2009.

Round 7:

Jean-Luc Godard intended to give the public what it wanted. His next film was going to be about a girl and a gun--"A sure-fire story which will sell a lot of tickets."

Pauline Kael, review of Godard's Band of Outsiders, The New Republic, 10 September 1966.2

Guns are inescapable in popular music, as common as raindrops, fast cars, airplanes, long-distance operators, Sweet 16 celebrations and roses. Choose ten songs at random: a gun will likely turn up in one of them, in the way if you deal ten straight cards you're likely to get a diamond. Frankie shoots Johnny. Stagger Lee shoots Billy. I shot the sheriff. I don't like Mondays. Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he's dead. Janie's got a gun. Sex shooter. Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun. Shooting down the walls of heartache, bang bang. Robbing people with a six gun. Joe goes off with a gun in his hand to shoot his woman down. Bang bang, my baby shot me down. Down by the river. Shoot me, John Lennon murmurs in "Come Together," a decade before someone does. Kurt Cobain moans that he doesn't have a gun, but he will. Who's the man with the master plan?

Part of the reason, of course, is that guns work as crude phallic metaphors, from Jimmie Rodgers' "Pistol Packin' Papa" (still lurid eighty years after its recording) to Lulu's absurd "Man With the Golden Gun," whose title character "comes just before the kill." And KISS, a band one can rely on to spell things out, simply offered Love Gun.

Still, beyond that, the gun can be a figure of romance--because its promise of power, its conflation of sex and death? Who knows. But it works, from Debbie Harry losing her heart at the rifle range to the aristocratic lady in the old English ballad "Dog and Gun," who goes out hunting to poach herself a husband.

Even the sound of a gun, whether the click rhythms of its loading or the percussion of its firing, can be musical--from the blast that opens Junior Walker's "Shotgun" to the four-shot chorus of MIA's "Paper Planes."

Round 8:

Depiction of the 1880s masked vigilante gang The Bald Knobbers in the 1919 film The Shepherd of the Hills.

A cardinal rule of the superhero genre is that superheroes don't carry guns. Most don't need them, of course, but even those who don't have superpowers tend to shun firearms. This is a crumb of chivalry that has survived the centuries--it's the mounted knight's disgust at the plebian soldier who, without much training and little bravado, can pick off his betters with a rifle. (The Confederate Army cavalryman John Mosby spoke of how "the remorseless revolver" had made his traditional sabre "as harmless as the wooden sword of harlequin.")

The exceptions tend to be borderline psychotics or proto-fascists like the Punisher or the Comedian, of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. The Comedian always carries a gun, which he uses to disperse rioters, shoot Vietnamese women and even kill JFK (something cleverly hinted at in the book and bluntly depicted in the film).

(Spoilers ahead about Watchmen, for those who give a toss about such things).

One of the story's revelations is that a second-generation heroine named Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) is the Comedian's illegitimate daughter. Laurie is a fascinating mess of a character, one whose nuances are entirely lost in Malin Akerman's rather mannequin-like portrayal of her in the film.

Laurie, at 36, has spent her life trying to live up to the expectations of her overbearing stage mother, clinging to whatever male hero she fancies and generally being at the world's mercy. As the world falls apart, as the bodies pile up, Laurie takes a gun from the corpse of a murdered policeman in Times Square, and later uses it. It doesn't do her much good, though she gets a better chance of offering retribution than her male counterparts do.

At the end, in the ruined and reborn world, Laurie is considering ditching her flimsy costume for tougher leather gear, as well as wearing a mask. Whatever horrors have occurred, she's her own woman at last, and her father's heir. Her last line, as she walks off stage, is "Maybe I oughtta carry a gun."

Round 9:

Similar frames from Allen Baron's Blast of Silence and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, as noted by Tom Sutpen.

Round 10:

Fidel Castro and several people who later took part in his attempts to overthrow Cuban ruler Fulgencio Batista unwittingly practised shooting with rifles belonging to US author Ernest Hemingway.

"There is something that no one knows. In 1953, at the CCC (the shooting range El Cerro in Havana) several young men practised shooting without knowing that they did so with rifles belonging to 'Papa'," Fernando Nuez, then custodian of the weapons, said using a nickname for the author of novels such as The Old Man and the Sea.

Nuez, 75, a former judge and former international sports shooting referee, was a teenager at the time.

"I lent them (the guns) but I did not know at the time that they were preparing the historic assaults on Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo," said Nuez, who also accompanied Hemingway in his shooting practices.

"Fidel would shoot any rifle, but I used to give him Hemingway's favourite, the one he called "the mare" - a .12 calibre with double barrel which was like thunder. But Fidel knew more about weapons than me and than many others who shot there," he said.

Luis Hernández Serrano, "Castro Trained Using Hemingway's Shotguns," 24 October 2007.

Round 11:

Mrs. Palin takes aim

A few years ago I looked up an old high-school friend on the Internet. We had lost touch a long time ago. He had an unusual name, so it was easy: it turned out he had run a tomato gardening website, apparently defunct for years, and he also was a regular contributor on a right-wing political message board.

I spent much of the evening going through his many posts, finding scraps of his life buried in his digressions on baseball and terrorism and taxes, and so was able to piece together something of a narrative--two stillborn marriages, a disappointing, boring job, family troubles.

As I read through the various threads he had posted in, one common belief appeared again and again, offered by many of the commenters, including my friend. The belief was that any catastrophe, barring an act of God, could have been avoided had someone been armed. Any robbery or workplace massacre could have been prevented by an armed citizen, any school shooting could have been stopped by an armed teacher or student.

So even if you are a college kid and it's eight in the morning on a Wednesday and you're sitting in a lecture hall in your pajama bottoms trying not to fall asleep, you still need to be ready, as soon as the shooter enters the room, to crouch behind your desk, take aim and dispatch him.

Mrs. Adolph Topperwain (with gun), ca. 1910-1915.

My friend was popular on the board. He had renounced his atheism, something that had defined him back in high school. There was a calm assurance to some of his posts, as there was for many of his fellow commenters'--one man wrote a poignant description of watching his children play in his backyard while he worked at his desk. "In the top drawer, as always, I keep a loaded firearm," he added.

If there was a general board philosophy, it was that one needs to live each day as though one were a soldier, operating against a vast, unknowable insurgency. To have a gun is simply to have full citizenship.

Warhol, Gun (in Tate Gallery).

The longest thread on the site, the one I spent the most time reading, was the communal tribute to my friend. About six months before, he had killed himself. His second ex-wife had broken the news to the board.

Round 12:

Picasso is a gunslinger

I had thought earlier in the night that you can't run when you are sodden from head to foot and weighted down with a rifle and cartridges; I learned now you can always run when you think you have fifty or one hundred armed men after you.

George Orwell, "Homage to Catalonia."

The guns spell money's ultimate reason
In letters of lead on the Spring hillside.
But the boy lying dead under the olive trees
Was too young and too silly
To have been notable to their important eye.
He was a better target for a kiss.

Stephen Spender, "Ultima Ratio Regum."

If you find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed,
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist.
Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet
How many monks did the Chinese get?

Joe Strummer, "Washington Bullets."

He carried a shotgun--I weapon I thought was outlawed in international war--and the shotgun itself was a measure of his professionalism, for to use it effectively requires an exact blend of courage and skill and self-confidence. The weapon is neither accurate nor lethal at much over seventy yards. So it shows the skill of the carrier, a man who must work his way close enough to the prey to make a shot, close enough to see the enemy's retina and the tone of his skin. The shotgun is not an automatic weapon. You must hit once, on the first shot, and the hit must kill.

Tim O'Brien, "If I Die in a Combat Zone."

Round 13:

Se rentan armas:

Round 14:

The Mutton Birds' "A Thing Well Made" opens with a bad morning at the narrator's house. His wife is angry at him, so he sulks off and leaves for work early. That's fine, as he likes to open his sporting goods shop before the morning commute anyhow, "so fellows can come in [and] daydream around the rods and reels...while their breakfast is still warm inside them."

He makes a sale, he shows a customer a gun, talking up its qualities, and perhaps the sourness of the morning leads the narrator to be captivated by his own pitch. He watches himself speaking. The gun is solid, well-crafted, it is the work of a professional--it is a precise thing, its function is known. He holds it in a tight grip and imagines the gunsmith somewhere looking down upon his work, knowing instinctively the moment when his work was done, that the thing was perfect--a grace denied to many of us.

At a time like that you wouldn't care about your job
or your mortgage
or the fight you had with your wife
'cause when a man holds a thing well made
when a man holds a thing well made
there's connection
there's completeness

The music has quietly circled around for much of the track--a basic syncopated beat, twining guitars, a sweet melody carried on Don McGlashan's euphonium that comes and goes like a wistful thought. Now it builds, goes to a higher key. Is it just our expectations, as listeners, that give the track a growing sense of menace? The dread that seeps in, the thought that someone will be on the floor at the end of the song.

But instead the gun shop owner sees his customer off, goes back to work. Later in the day he goes through the mail orders, readies an AK-47 to ship to a regular customer. The day ends as quietly as it began, with only a few encounters with sublimity--the things well made--to mark its progress.

Round 15:

An arsenal of gun songs:

Preambles: John Cale (Fear, 1974); Nas, (It Was Written, 1996); Gene Autry, 1936 (Last Round Up).

Harbingers: Cat Stevens (Matthew and Son, 1967); the brilliant Julie Brown (1984 single, collected on Trapped in the Body of a White Girl, 1987--out of print).

Outliers: The Ray Ellington Quartet, 1948 (The Three Bears); The Bobbettes, 1960 (Golden Age of American Rock N Roll Vol. 10).

Love guns: Jimmie Rodgers, 1930 (Essential); Al Dexter, 1942 (I'm Beginning To See The Light); Lulu's "Man With the Golden Gun," from the 1974 Bond movie (OST); Blondie (self-titled, 1976); Bradley Kincaid, 1933 (Anthology of American Folk Music Vol. 4).

Thoughts on various weapons and how they can be used to shoot your lover: Roosevelt Sykes, 1930 (Complete Recorded Works in Chron. Order Vol. 2); Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, 1945 (Vol. 1); Jack Newman, 1938 (Complete Recorded Works); Mose Vinson, 1953 (25 Rare Sun Blues).

Heavier gear: Sunnyland Slim, 1947 (Chess Blues); Cab Calloway, 1950 (For Jumpers Only); Lightnin' Hopkins, 1948 (Blues Masters); Heart Attack, a great lost punk band, 1981 (The Last War); Gang of Four, 1978 single (appended to the re-release of Entertainment!).

Gunslingers, ancient and modern, urban and rural: Gene Pitney, 1962 (25 Greatest Hits); Da Lench Mob, 1992 (Guerrillas in tha Mist); The Beatnuts, 1993 (Intoxicated Demons);Neil Young first recorded "Powderfinger" in 1975 for one of his many unreleased LPs, Chrome Dreams, and revived & electrified it on Rust Never Sleeps.

Epilogue: The Mutton Birds (self-titled, 1992--now out of print).

More firepower at Snuh.

1: Also during this interview Cohen said something (I'm paraphrasing from distant memory) like "the highlights of Western Civilization--Shakespeare, Mozart--are just nail polish on the claws. And the polish is chipping off." It was a strange night. This was on Vin Scelsa's great "Idiot's Delight" Sunday night radio show.

2: Godard later credited his notorious statement--"All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun"--to D.W. Griffith, though there is no record of Griffith saying this, and it seems a bit of a blunt thing for the Victorian sensationalist Griffith to have said.

Next: The Troglodyte World (back to the war)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Planes and Lines: 1915

Australian soldier with wounded comrade, Gallipoli.

Peerless Quartet, Alagazam (To the Music of the Band).
Lionel Belasco, Bajan Girl.
Ernest Farrar, English Pastoral Impressions: Over the Hills and Far Away.
Alfred Lester, A Concientious Objector.
Sam Mayo, Bread and Marmalade.
John Young and Frederick Wheeler, When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.
Claude Debussy, Sonata For Flute, Viola and Harp: Pastorale.

I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of life.

HUMAN MASSES teem and move, are destroyed and crop up again.

HORSES are worn out in three weeks, die by the roadside.

DOGS wander, are destroyed, and others come along.


THE BURSTING SHELLS, the volleys, wire entanglements, projectors, motors, the chaos of battle DO NOT ALTER IN THE LEAST, the outlines of the hill we are besieging. A company of PARTRIDGES scuttle along before our very trench.







Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, letter to Wyndham Lewis, 1915, written shortly before Gaudier-Brzeska was killed on a charge at Neuville St. Vaast, on 5 June 1915. Reprinted in Blast, July 1915.

Strand, Wall Street.

The Peerless Quartet was a studio supergroup, something like the Asia of the cylinder era. Founded by the bass singer Frank C. Stanley, the quartet's members included Henry Burr, Steve Porter, Albert Campbell and Arthur Collins. They were originally known as the Columbia Quartet until, although still recording for Columbia, they changed their name to "Peerless" (a name allegedly nicked from an African-American quartet of the late 19th C) around 1912.

The group in its various incarnations made thousands of records for a variety of labels, until it finally disbanded in 1928, with Burr its only remaining original member.

"Alagazam," written by Andrew Sterling and Harry Von Tilzer, is a lampoon about a "coffee colored" regiment, complete with all the expected Samboisms: the song's all-black regiment is a goon squad that can't shoot straight, and, one sadly assumes, would run away from the front lines flapping their arms and shouting "lawsy!" A few years after it was released, the "Harlem Hellfighters," an all-black infantry regiment (whose members included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and James Reese Europe) fought with valor in the last months of WWI. They had to fight under French command, though.

Recorded in Camden, NJ, on 25 October 1915 and released as Victor 17904 c/w "When Old Bill Bailey Plays the Ukalele".

Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers.

28 January 1915: Time drags in the trenches. We lie pressed against each other like pigs. Dirty, soiled, unwashed, we stink like old men. There is nowhere to have a shave or a haircut. I hang my black watch on the wall and we sit staring at it.

11 April: I go with my mate Kozhukhin to get our pictures taken. Dear God. I look like an old man in the photo. I don't recognize myself at all. How quickly war can ruin a man...I don't want to look like this. I worry that I shouldn't send this photo to Nyura [his wife]. It is bound to upset my sweet lady. She is still young, she still likes the look of a healthy young man, she wants to still fancy me.

18 April: We take the binoculars and watch the enemy. Visibility is amazing today, everything is crystal clear. The Germans are putting their trench in order, and we can see them taking their mess tins to fetch water...This is our enemy! They look like good, normal people, they all want to live and yet here we are, gathered together to take each other's lives away.

Diary of Vasily Mishnin, Russian soldier, on the Eastern Front, north of Warsaw.

Canadian Armed Forces recruitment poster, designed for the Québécois

Lionel Belasco
, born in Barbados and raised in Trinidad, followed the now-established pattern of training as a classical pianist and working in ragtime and dance music. After making some initial records in Trinidad, Belasco moved to New York around 1915, and lived there for the rest of his life.

Belasco is considered a pioneer of calypso, though it would be fairer to say he was the first, most adept popularizer of the music. His "Bajan Girl" is a quiet, lovely piece, suggesting ragtime elevated to the concert hall.

Recorded 7 September 1915 and released as Victor 67674 c/w "My Little Man's Gone Down to Maine" (it was the third time Belasco had cut "Bajan Girl" for Victor--for whatever reason, they rejected two takes he made in August 1915).

"Elinor Blevins, Auto Fiend," ca. 1915-1916 (Shorpy).

22nd November: Daydream about a happy family and nice kids. Will I live to see the day when I have some? I know I should be infinitely grateful for what I do have, but why have I not, to this day, been able to find real happiness, the kind that sets the heart free and brings comfort to the soul? Dear God! Will you ever grant such things to be my lot in life?...What is in store for us? Whatever happens, we will get used to it. If we had to die twice, we would get used to that too.

24th November: When I finally reach our trenches I find a large pool of blood. It has coagulated and turned black. Bits of brain, bone and flesh are mixed in with it. Shell fragments are scattered around. The trail of blood leads to the front of my dugout.

27th November: We find Agati (a fellow officer) distraught. Even though he prodded his men with bayonets, some of them refused to leave the trench and started crying like women. Those who did go suffered heavy casualties from the enemy fire and shells. The entire unit is demoralized.

Diary of 2nd Lt. Mehmed Fasih, officer in the 47th Regiment of the Ottoman Empire, fighting at Gallipoli.

Soon after Ernest Farrar composed his English Pastoral Impressions, op. 26, he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards, and was eventually commissioned as Second Lieutenant, 3rd Battalion Devonshire Regiment. He was killed on a foggy morning about two months before the armistice in 1918, at the battle of Épehy Ronssoy.

Imagine if there had been a global war in the mid-'60s in which John Lennon, Jean-Luc Godard, Smokey Robinson, Philip Roth, Steve Reich, Thomas Pynchon, Daniel Barenboim, Joseph Brodsky, George Clinton, Werner Herzog, James Rosenquist, Wayne Shorter, and Krystof Penderecki were all killed. Something akin to this hypothetical slaughter actually happened in WWI.

All that remains are the great silences, the imagined outlines of the works never made: the stories, poems and novels never written by Trakl, Saki, Alain-Fournier, Apollinaire, Owen, Sorely, Rosenberg; the music not composed by Magnard or Granados or Butterworth; the unmade paintings, buildings and sculptures of Sant'Elia, Marc, Gaudier-Brzeska, Macke, Boccioni. Or the thousands of others who never even got started.

Here is the final movement of Farrar's Pastoral Impressions, "Over the Hills and Far Away." As Paul Fussell wrote in The Great War and Modern Memory, the idea of the pastoral, seen as a lost world forever severed from reality by the war, is infused in the writing of many British soldiers during WWI, from Guy Chapman's "hedges of wire" on the front to Stephen Hewitt, quoting Milton's "tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new" in reference to his return to the trenches.

Performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Alasdair Mitchell; find here.

Fussell's book (which you should read) also delves into the surreal English homefront experience, in which the British soldier, after a stretch of death-and-mud-filled months on the front, would ship back across the Channel to go on leave, returning home to a country that seemed nearly untouched by the war, and reading in the papers that he was winning glorious victory after victory and had the Huns on the run. The '70s TV series Upstairs, Downstairs captures this: the randy footman, Edward, comes home from the war a glassy-eyed, timid shellshock, and the haughty, upper-crust James Bellamy becomes a cynical, chain-smoking wraith.

The wartime reporter Philip Gibbs later recounted how many British soldiers came to despise civilians: "They hated the smiling women in the streets. They loathed the old men...they prayed God to get the Germans to send Zeppelins to England--to make the people know what war meant." Siegfried Sassoon, in "Blighters," fantasizes about a group of happy patriotic civilians at a music hall getting mowed down by a tank, and in "Fight to a Finish," imagines returning veterans bayonetting journalists to death in the streets.

Here are two songs a soldier on leave in London, in 1915, may have heard: Alfred Lester's "A Concientious Objector" ("I don't object to fighting Huns/but should hate them fighting me") and Sam Mayo's "Bread and Marmalade," in which Mayo delivers a wonderfully drunken vocal.

Lester's "Objector" can be found in this archive and Mayo's "Marmalade" was released on 9 January 1915 as Zonophone 2222; find on A Night at the Music Hall.

25 April 1915 [the Gallipoli landing]: Lord, what a day...A galling fire rained on us from the left where there were high cliffs. One man dropped down alongside me laughing. I broke the news to him gently: "you've got yourself into the hottest corner you'll ever strike." I had shown him where the enemy were, he fired a few shots. And again I heard the sickening thud of a bullet. I look at him in horror. The bullet had fearfully mashed his face and gone down his throat, rendering him dumb. But his eyes were dreadful to behold. How he squirmed in agony. There was nothing I could do for him, but pray that he might die swiftly. It took him about twenty minutes...I saw the waxy colour creep over his cheek and breathed freer.

19 May: Every bush seemed to hide a Turk. Suddenly from the gulley 150 yards from in the front came clear and distinct "Allah!"And at the same second I caught a flicker of a bayonet in the scrub not far ahead. It was a massacre. In half an hour it was over...A wounded Turk told us they regard Australians as fiends incarnate. The Germans told them we were an undisciplined rabble, armed mostly with sticks, axes, etc. But he reckoned we were a lot of mad devils when it came to the bayonet.

Diary of Corporal George Mitchell, Australia, member of the Allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, fighting in Gallipoli.

Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a German Officer.

"When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" was written by James M. Black, a Williamsport, Penn., singing school teacher and an editor of gospel songbooks; it first appeared in Black's 1894 Songs of the Soul, which sold more than 400,000 copies. Black's inspiration came after he called roll at a Sunday school consecration meeting and found that one girl, in his words "poorly clad and the child of a drunkard," wasn't there. This led to Black pondering aloud how woeful it would be at the Resurrection, if the Lord called your name and you were absent. To complete the grim anecdote, the poor girl in question soon caught pneumonia and died.

In 1913, in response to a request to use his song in a hymnal, Black wrote: "Everyone else is raising the prices of the great songs and why should not I? It is the common consent that "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" is the greatest song that has ever been written in the past twenty-five years. I am of that opinion myself...Hereafter, the price of that song shall be $25 ($500 today). Do you blame me?" (From 101 More Hymn Stories).

This is reportedly the first-ever recording. Recorded ca. April 1915 and released as Edison Diamond Disc 80276-R; find here.

Halloween party, Culver Academy, Culver, Indiana, 1915

At 5 p.m. we located four tents, fires burning and, by the mercy of God, no precautions, no sentries and men lounging about. The country was good for stalking and we were well in position for a rush at dusk. We used bayonets only and I think we each got our man. Drought got three, a great effort. I rushed into the officers' tent, where I found a stout German on a camp bed. On a table was a most excellent Xmas dinner. I covered him with my rifle and shouted to him to hold his hands up. He at once groped under his pillow and I had to shoot, killing him at once...

We covered the dead with bushes and I placed sentries round the camp and sent out a patrol of three men. Drought said he was hungry, so was I, and why waste that good dinner? So we set to and had one of the best though most gruesome dinners I have ever had, including an excellent Xmas pudding. The fat German dead in bed did not disturb us in the least, nor restrain our appetites.

Diary entry of 28 December 1915 of Richard Meinertzhagen, officer in the British Expeditionary Force, fighting in German East Africa.

De Chirico, The Double Dream of Spring.

During what would be the last years of his life, Claude Debussy suffered from rectal cancer and heard Western civilization thunder to pieces not far from his Parisian home. He turned bleak, nationalist, despairing--in letters, he would disparage the works of Strauss and Schoenberg (indirectly) as "Austro-Boche microbes...spreading through art."

Still, Debussy hoped for some sort of renewal when the war finally ended, writing to Stravinsky that new beauty would be needed when the cannons ceased firing. He embarked on a sextet of sonatas for diverse, unusual instruments (e.g., the never-completed fourth was for oboe, French horn and harpsichord). He only finished three.

The second, Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, composed in 1915, seems to be Debussy returning to an idyllic past--in particular, to his early glories L'Apres Midi d'un Faune and Syrinx. As James McCalla wrote, both the flute and the harp have pastoral associations, with the viola "acting as a timbral meditation between the other two instruments." And the first movement, featured here, is simply entitled "pastorale."

Debussy died in March 1918, just as Paris was being shelled from the air by Gotha planes and by "Big Bertha" guns, stationed 75 miles out of town. (I recall reading somewhere that shells that hit the Seine would scatter fish over the riverside Paris streets.) Given the chaos of the period, Debussy's death was ignored, his funeral almost a secret--Walter Morse Rummel wrote that you could have counted on your fingers the number of mourners at the cemetery gates. A while later, some French critics wrote in the newspapers that Debussy's death was something of a national sacrifice.

Performed by Ernestine Stoop (h), Eleonore Parmejier (f) and Prunella Pacey (v); on Debussy's Harp Works.

Next: Threads (bang bang, shoot shoot)