Category: Work (page 1 of 172)

Wild is the Wind (a song’s life)

A well-known newspaper runs a regular weekend feature about the life of songs. I have watched and waited for years but, strangely, the editor/authors of the feature have never hit upon what I consider to be a superb song, Wild is the Wind, and its wonderful story. If I were one of those authors, this (below) is what I would write. Indeed, I sent this off to the editor as a possible contribution, but despite several follow-up e-mails I have never heard back from anybody. So, in the absence of such a reply, here’s the story of Wild is the Wind

When Russian-born High Noon composer Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) and professional lyricist Ned Washington (1901-1976) teamed up to provide the love-interest ballad for Johnny Mathis to sing in the 1957 film Wild is the Wind they could have had little idea of how over the next four decades three great artists – Nina Simone, David Bowie and George Michael – would go on to make the song their emblematic own. The popular original, with its swooning strings and harmonica, reached number 22 on the Billboard chart and Mathis sang it at the 1958 Oscars. Within a year, Nina Simone had reinvented the song as ‘an eerily placid investigation of romantic hypnosis’ (Peter Doggett). She slowed the tempo, did away with the strings, and reduced the accompaniment to her own characteristic piano playing, with the rhythm intermittently provided by a quiet brush stroke on the hi hat cymbals. It was Simone’s genius to parse the lyrics differently, using distinctive syncopation and silences. (Both Bowie and Michael would follow her example; it was she who introduced the climatic silence at the end of the line Don’t you know your life itself …. that Bowie would make his own in his live performances.) Simone first performed her version live at Carnegie Hall, published on the 1959 LP Nina Simone – Live at Town Hall, and perfected it (with bass and guitar chords occasionally added in) on her eponymous 1964 album. By the early 1970s Simone, the ‘high priestess of soul’, had slumped to a low point of creative inactivity. In July, 1974 she took her daughter, Lisa, to a David Bowie concert at Madison Square Garden. Bowie had famously killed off Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon the year before and moved to New York City in search of a new musical direction (he’d later move on to Los Angeles). A week after Madison Square, Simone and Bowie met serendipitously at the Hippopotamus night club and an improbable friendship was born, with an admiring Bowie boosting Simone’s morale as an artist (Alan Light). Bowie would finally pay homage to his friend’s genius on his 1976 Station to Station album, the last track on the second side of the LP being his cover of her cover of Wild is the Wind. The echo on his vocals aside (perhaps a deliberate echo of the Mathis original), Bowie stayed broadly faithful to the Simone interpretation, but put his vocal emphasis on the howling wind that finally takes his voice up to a high B before subsiding to A. As ever, Bowie’s genius lay also in the artists he gathered around him: Carlos Alomar’s multiple-tracked rhythmic guitar strokes combining with Earl Slick’s overlaid lead accompaniment and drummer Dennis Davis’s tension-releasing cascade (well over half way through the song) to create an unforgettable portrayal of passionate desperation. In his 1999 version, on Songs From the Last Century, George Michael pulls the song back towards Mathis’s lyricism and Simone’s syncopation. Singing wistfully over a full orchestra and a jazz guitar, Michael’s immediately distinctive version suggests a last couple dancing languidly on a jazz club floor as dawn is breaking – this is the calm after the windstorm. Other great artists and great voices have tried original interpretations: Shirley Horn (1961 – pared back and very slow); Nancy Wilson (1963 – straighter jazz and a xylophone); Randy Crawford (2001); Barbra Streisand (2003 – flutes and lots of strings); Amel Larrieux (2007); and Dame Shirley Bassey (2014 – strings and a saxophone). And there have been plenty of more idiosyncratic interpretations: Clan of Xymox (1994); Fatal Shore (1997); Rialto (1998); Cat Power (2000); Billy MacKenzie (2005); Bat for Lashes (2010); and Esperanza Spalding (2010). None, however, is better able to communicate the tragic underlying ambiguity in Washington’s lyrics than Simone, Bowie and Michael: ‘cling to me’, urges the singer, ‘like the leaf clings to the tree,’ and yet the couple are ‘like creatures of the wind,’ and we all know what wild winds do to the leaves; these lovers are doomed, and the singers know it. It is instructive to listen to the four versions – Mathis, Simone, Bowie, Michael – in succession, each demonstrating distinctive musical genius in his or her own right and each also building on and reflecting the initial creative genius of Dimitri Zinovievich Tiomkin and Ned Washington. Copyright 31 January 2017 Martin Westlake

Winter landscape

We felt as though we were in a Breughelian lanscape this morning, walking out near Berthem. Here there was still some snow in the fields. The sky was magnificently grey and moody. The weather was wet and blustery and there was not a soul in sight… Except for about a hundred VTT (mountain bike) riders who invaded our path and thoroughly spoiled our communion with nature (what hope of seeing any wildlife?). Live and let live, of course, but it’s a funny old sport. I now know the collective noun for mountain bikers – a plague.

Back to school

Today we went back to school in Ottignies, back to a class room, from nine in the morning till gone six in the evening. Ugh. This was stage two in the process of earning our international licences for piloting larger motorised boats. We were taught an absurdly vast quantity of complicated material by our valiant and apologetic teacher, from international and national law through night lights and daytime signals to meteorology. By the early afternoon some of our younger fellow students were giggling openly as the teacher galloped through vast quantities of complicated material at great speed. Could you identify the night lights of an oncoming dredger with a barge tied alongside with a deep draught in a narrow shipping channel? Frankly, nor could I, but that’s the sort of ‘tricky’ question we are likely to get in our multiple choice examination in three weeks’ time…

Americans and the environment

I came across the following shocking statement in my Economist magazine this week (28 July): ‘America uses more energy for air conditioning than Africa uses for everything.’ One of the health challenges of traversing America in a heat wave is avoiding catching colds from all the changes in temperature. In every building and on every train where we have slept we have had to turn the air conditioning down (or is that up?) or off. I have blogged previously about the extraordinarily long coal trains that growl their way through the Rockies, pulled and pushed by massive diesel locomotives. And yet this is the America of the wonderful national parks and a strong environmental awareness. One of the many paradoxes of America is its almost cavalier attitude to energy use, mainly seen as an infinite resource, and to the environment. This was summed up for me by something the volunteer guide in the observation car on the train to San Francisco said. She had described all sorts of wonders of nature about us and then got on to the 1969 Santa Barabara oil spill. This was, she said, for a long time the ‘biggest oil spill that ever happened in the world’. She said it almost as though she was proud.

The drought

An erudite comment piece in the New Yorker (23 July) explained the complications of corn sex before going on to comment  ‘It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well.’ The problem is two-fold; consistently high temperatures, and the drought. Over half of America’s counties are now officially experiencing a natural disaster. We have ourselves experienced those high temperatures and sometimes, as we gazed out of our Amtrak trains, we have seen signs of the drought (stunted crops, low water levels, dried mud). The combination of water shortages and increased fire risks is in itself a potential disaster but the comment pieces in the newspapers are concentrating more on those corn crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been steadily revising down forecasts for this year’s crop. As a result, corn prices have been steadily rising and since a lot of corn is used to feed livestock, the prices of dairy products and beef are also likely to rise (the latter were already on the rise after a devastating drought in Texas last year). But the commentariat are looking further. A lot of grain is also used to produce ethanol and there may well come a moment when government will have to consider its priorities. And then there will almost certainly be knock-on effects on world food prices which, it is being predicted, means bad news for the poor and the hungry but also for inflation. Not good. Not good at all. Last but not least, the comment pages are asking, is this a consequence of climate change and, if so, what, if anything should be done about it?

Architectural bloopers

If you are an architect and you have ever had a problem once your building has been built, then cheer up. We came across two architectural ‘bloopers’ during our trip. The first was the Mile High Center, in Denver, Colorado. The tower was designed in the early 1950s by I.M. Pei, and considered to be Denver’s first modern high-rise. The building is part of a complex with the Wells Fargo Center and as can be seen in the photo, features the Wells Fargo “cash register” profile in the form of a glass atrium at the base. According to our guide, the problem with the curved roofs is that nobody thought about the risk of avalanches in the winter. After one such hefty avalanche occurred (fortunately, no deaths) the problem had to be solved by placing electric heaters in the roofs. The second was Frank Gehry’s beautiful Los Angeles Opera House. As the Wiki entry describes: ‘the Founders Room and Children’s Amphitheater were designed with highly polished mirror-like panels. The reflective qualities of the surface were amplified by the concave sections of the Founders Room walls. Some residents of the neighboring condominiums suffered glare caused by sunlight that was reflected off these surfaces and concentrated in a manner similar to a parabolic mirror. The resulting heat made some rooms of nearby condominiums unbearably warm, caused the air-conditioning costs of these residents to skyrocket and created hot spots on adjacent sidewalks of as much as 140 °F (60 °C). There was also the increased risk of traffic accidents due to blinding sunlight reflected from the polished surfaces. After complaints from neighboring buildings and residents, the owners asked Gehry Partners to come up with a solution. Their response was a computer analysis of the building’s surfaces identifying the offending panels. In 2005 these were dulled by lightly sanding the panels to eliminate unwanted glare.’ It can happen to the best of us.

Reflections on the Aurora Massacre

Nowhere has the health of America’s quality press been more in evidence than in its critical coverage and analyses of the Aurora massacre. Seen by this outsider at any rate, the coverage also illustrated a gloomy fatalism about the state of American society. In the Sundays, soon after the tragedy, commentators speculated that, a silver lining in the cloud, the tragic events might elevate the political discourse during the remainder of a campaign that has drawn much criticism for its smallness in the face of the country’s problems. By midweek editorials were more world-weary. Many of the victims – chance survivors of terrible bad luck – would have to pay for their medical costs and so a lot of the newspapers started running campaigns to raise funds for them (compare and contrast with Europe, where survival in such tragedies is not usually accompanied by the threat of bankruptcy or lifelong debt). It had also become plain that (notwithstanding what Mitt Romney opined in London) the killer had  ordered much of his equipment from the internet and had bought the rest legitimately over the counter. Here the commentaries very soon recognised that neither of the two presidential candidates could afford to show any critical attitude towards America’s all-powerful gun lobby, leading to (for example) the following depressing headline in Western Colorado’s The Daily Sentinel: ‘OBAMA WILL NOT PUSH FOR STRICTER GUN LAWS, WHITE HOUSE INSISTS.’ Ten days on, the press had subsided into several acknowledgements: while nothing substantive could or would be done, this sort of madness would surely occur again. In the meantime, on Tuesday, 24 July, the Chicago Tribune reported in a tiny article on a truck crash in Texas that had killed fourteen and injured nine. The dead and injured were suspected of being illegal immigrants. There was no further comment or analysis on this tragedy.

The Presidential election campaign

If you don’t watch live television, read a newspaper or follow the matter on the internet, then the US Presidential elections campaign could pretty much pass you by – and I suspect, at least for the time being, that is what is happening across the States for most Americans (in the last Presidential election only 63% of eligible voters voted – and that was the best showing in 48 years). Deep in the commentaries and analyses a number of trends have been highlighted that are probably going to change the way American Presidential campaigns are run in future. Obama has taken a few swipes at Fox News but surveys reveal that Americans are watching live television (where the all-important ads – and they are shockingly partisan to European eyes – are run) less and less. Surveys also  reveal that religious affiliation is in decline (one in five Americans are without religious affliations or beliefs). The image of suburbia as the hub of white affluence is fast fading: most American suburbanites now live in racially diverse areas. Texas will have a hispanic-origin majority in the near future. The national birthrate is at its lowest in 25 years. Republican efforts to fight voter fraud through tougher registration requirements have widely been regarded as a backdoor means of discouraging the ‘wrong sort of voter’ from registering, but the underlying trends I have touched upon here all hint, say the pundits, at a significant erosion of the GOP’s traditional electoral base. If Obama is currently edging it Romney could yet win, say those same pundits, if the economic outlook remains gloomy or declines. He would win by appealing more effectively to a core vote that may be evaporating.  Such a victory would illustrate an essential paradox of American presidential elections; to win you have to divide but to govern effectively you have to unite. Assuming the pundits and the trends they have identified are correct, it will be interesting to see how American party politics evolves over the next few decades…

Trans-Atlantic economic questions

About a third of Americans currently hold a passport. Until the aftermath of 9/11 imposed travel restrictions even for Canada and Mexico, that figure was much lower. Europeans traditionally cite this statistic as an illustration of how parochial most Americans are, but if coverage of the European economy is anything to go by, Americans are probably more aware of what is going on in Europe than Europeans are of what is going on in America. Doubtless this is in part because American economics commentators currently see the risk of a ‘perfect storm’ brewing, with continued recession in Europe and a slowing recovery in America leading to a global slump. Americans seem also to be more aware of their European responsibilities. The Ford company’s sales, for example, have stalled in Europe, leading to major losses, with consequences for the North American market in turn. (Factory closures are, alas, being predicted, and the Americans worry about this.) Seeing such coverage, it seems so obvious that there ought to be some sort of structured trans-Atlantic dialogue (something that, inter alia, the European Economic and Social Committee has been calling for for many years). The logic for the longstanding Trans-Atlantic Legislators’ dialogue is certainly strong. To quote from that website:  ‘The economic relationship between the European Union and the United States is perhaps the most defining feature of the global economy. The integration is broader and deeper than between any two other political regions in the world. The EU and US account for 35 percent of global merchandise trade, 45% of world trade in services and produce 57% of world GDP. The partnership is also the single most important driver of global economic growth, trade, and prosperity.’

He’ll be back…

In Hollywood, among the footprints we saw set in the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, are those of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Done in 1994, they are accompanied by his Terminator catchphrase, ‘I’ll be back.’ Since then Arnie has been back several times – not least as Governor of California (two terms). Now, he’s back again. Last Thursday (2 August) the Los Angeles Times reported that the University of South California and Arnold Schwarzenegger had announced a partnership to ‘establish a think tank that will seek bipartisan solutions to environmental problems, economic policy, political reform and other public policy issues.’ Schwarzenegger will chair the Institute’s Board of Advisors and will hold an appointment as the Governor Downey Professor of State and Global Policy at USC. Professor Schwrazenegger’s first lecture is planned for early December. That’s right; Professor. The Simpsons’ spoof phrase ‘I came here to lead, not to read,’ comes to mind. More seriously, Austrian-born Schwarzenegger’s constant reinventions are proof that the American dream is alive and well. Indeed, he has become the embodiment of it.

Older posts

© 2017 Martin Westlake

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑