Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
(Tiny Tim)

That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.

If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.

It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.

Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.

Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.

Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.

Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.

In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.

But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).

According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.

But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.

Lanterns of the Dead

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In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.

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Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).

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A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.

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But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.

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One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.

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Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

Canti della Forca

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In ogni adulto veramente tale si cela un fanciullo

e questo fanciullo vuole giocare.

(Friederich Willielm Nietzsche)

Si apre con questa citazione – una vera e propria dichiarazione d’intenti – il nuovo lavoro di Stefano Bessoni, illustratore e filmmaker romano ormai familiare ai lettori assidui di Bizzarro Bazar, e che da questo mese ritorna in libreria con un volume che, è il caso di dirlo, riserva più di una sorpresa.

La prima sorpresa è che Canti della Forca – Galgenlieder, edito da Logos in formato più grande rispetto ai precedenti Wunderkammer, Homunculus e Alice Sotto Terra, ci introduce alla curiosa ed eccentrica opera di Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), autore perlopiù sconosciuto in Italia.

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Il libro prende infatti spunto da una serie di oscuri componimenti in versi che l’autore monacense ideò durante un’escursione a Werder, dove si trovavano i resti di un vecchio patibolo. In tale occasione creò, insieme ad alcuni amici, una confraternita goliardica detta “della Forca”. Da quel soggiorno nacquero le poesie raccolte sotto i titoli Galgenlieder, Palmström e Palma Kunkel, strani poemetti che davano voce ad un gruppo di impiccati per i quali il patibolo diveniva un punto d’osservazione privilegiato, in cui finalmente la vita umana, con le sue debolezze e le sue paure, veniva messa nella giusta prospettiva. Queste “poesie del patibolo” sono dunque apparentemente infantili, sconclusionate, accomunabili al nonsense britannico, e prefigurano a loro modo l’approccio dadaista o surrealista; ma nascondono, sotto questa facciata giocosa, una vera e propria riflessione sull’uomo e sulle priorità della vita. Lo stesso stile poetico irriverente sembra spernacchiare la poesia “alta” e i suoi dettami: gli impiccati, che hanno visto cosa c’è dall’altra parte, si fanno beffe della seriosità degli accademici, e sono in grado di ridere di tutto e di tutti.

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Gli impiccati di Morgenstern, Bessoni li ha scoperti per puro caso anni fa scartabellando fra le vecchie edizioni di una bottega di libri usati, e ne è rimasto folgorato. In effetti queste poesie stralunate si sposano perfettamente con il mondo grottesco, fragile e poetico delle sue illustrazioni: portati sulla carta dalla matita e dal pennello dell’artista, i personaggi tutto sommato un po’ criptici dei Galgenlieder aquistano una nuova dimensione, grazie anche alla favola di cui Bessoni ha deciso di renderli protagonisti. Una fiaba macabra che, rispetto ad altri suoi lavori, tradisce maggiormente l’ironia che ha sempre fatto da sottofondo a tutte le “rivisitazioni” e riletture che ci ha proposto in questi anni – Alice su tutte.

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La seconda sorpresa, ancora più gustosa, si trova sulla terza di copertina: in allegato al libro è proposto un DVD contenente un cortometraggio realizzato con un misto di live action e stop-motion. Ecco che, grazie a questa ulteriore fatica, i bislacchi impiccati che abbiamo conosciuto fra le pagine del libro prendono letteralmente vita.

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Il film è davvero un piccolo gioiellino. Ripropone, nella cornice delle sequenze animate, un “narratore” molto simile al protagonista di Krokodyle, interpretato dallo stesso Lorenzo Pedrotti, come se il cortometraggio Canti della Forca fosse un prolungamento, uno spin-off o una fantasia collegata dichiaratamente all’universo del film precedente. Ma sono le animazioni a passo uno, curatissime nella scenografia e nella realizzazione dei pupazzi, e le splendide canzoni create appositamente dagli Za-Bùm, che ci trasportano immediatamente in un mondo cupo e strampalato, meraviglioso.

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Il cortometraggio ribadisce quanto, per Stefano Bessoni, illustrazione e cinema siano indissolubili e complementari: il regista trova qui la sua dimensione ideale, riuscendo a donare la profondità e il movimento ai personaggi usciti direttamente dal suo tavolo da disegno. In totale indipendenza creativa (il team produttivo è praticamente lo stesso di Krokodyle), Bessoni dà vita al suo immaginario in maniera forse mai così convincente: d’altronde, per quanto sia un processo lungo e laborioso, la stop-motion dei Canti della Forca è evidentemente anche ludica.

A questo proposito, Rick Baker diceva di Harryhausen, maestro dell’animazione a passo uno: “Ray ci ha dimostrato che un adulto poteva giocare con i mostri, e farla franca”. Anche Bessoni nasconde un fanciullo: siamo grati che quel fanciullo abbia ancora voglia e forza di giocare.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=r__R5LVSnv8]

Canti della Forca – Galgenlieder è prenotabile qui.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie – VII

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Concita De Gregorio

COSÌ È LA VITA – Imparare a dirsi addio

(2011, Einaudi)

Ancora un libro sulla morte, ma questa volta è una piccola gemma del tutto particolare. Una reazione, una ribellione etica e morale quella che anima Concita De Gregorio in questo libro a tratti doloroso, a tratti dolcissimo: la rivolta contro la scomparsa della vecchiaia e della morte dalle nostre quotidianità. La voglia, anzi, la necessità di essere in grado di rispondere alle domande dei nostri bambini: “a quanti anni si muore?”, “ma si muore per sempre?”, “mamma, per favore, potrei morire io prima di te?”. Perché molto spesso sono gli adulti, ad essere impreparati. E così la De Gregorio cerca di trovare un senso sul filo dei ricordi, di vari funerali sorprendenti che hanno trasformato il momento del dolore in occasione di vita e di meraviglia. Di fronte ad un mondo che predica l’estetica dell’eterna giovinezza, avere la possibilità di invecchiare è divenuta ormai una questione di dignità: e così lo è anche imparare il senso della perdita, accettare la possibile sconfitta, e insegnare anche questo ai bambini.

“Penso a Stefania Sandrelli morente che, ne La prima cosa bella, chiede a suo figlio se ha bisogno di mutande, calzini. Poi sospira: “Però ci siamo tanto divertiti”. È una fatica, raccontarsela tutta, ma una grande soddisfazione, un sollievo e una cura. Un’avventura magnifica. Ci siamo tanto divertiti, si dice sempre alla fine”.

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Christian Uva

IL TERRORE CORRE SUL VIDEO

(2008, Rubbettino Editore)

Il sottotiolo del libro di Christian Uva è Estetica della violenza dalle BR ad Al Quaeda. È l’immaginario del terrore che quotidianamente si riversa nelle nostre case attraverso TV, internet, telefonini: il crollo dell’11 Settembre, le minacce dei jihadisti, le esecuzioni sommarie, le decapitazioni degli ostaggi, l’impiccagione di Saddam Hussein ripresa con un videofonino, i video-messaggi di Bin Laden, le foto delle torture di Abu Ghraib, e via dicendo. Un fiume di immagini feroci che costellano e modificano il nostro stesso modo di vedere e interpretare il mondo. Christian Uva analizza il mutare nel tempo di questo genere di audiovisivi iperrealisti, e ne scandaglia l’estetica e la composizione semiotica. Scopriamo così i messaggi nascosti, inaspettati, che quelle immagini elettroniche contengono; capiamo come agiscono a livello visivo, qual è l’idea registica che sta alla base; e comprendiamo quanto l’utilizzo di questi filmati sia paragonabile a un’arma vera e propria, che si infiltra nelle più piccole crepe del nostro immaginario.

La discoteca ideale – I

Quanti fra voi non hanno mai provato una tenera nostalgia nei confronti dei vecchi 33 giri in vinile? Eccovi una rassegna delle migliori copertine di album che, se non hanno mai cambiato la storia della musica, potrebbero cambiare comunque la vostra vita.

Partiamo, in questo primo articolo, con una serie di titoli a tema religioso. I ragazzi del Minister Quartet implorano un devoto “Lasciami toccarlo!”, mentre i Christian Crusaders fanno sfoggio di tutta la loro eleganza sulla copertina del loro disco in collaborazione con il peso massimo Al Davis.

Il padre Robert White fuma con saggia espressione la sua pipa, mentre Mike Adkins ringrazia il Signore per le sue colombe.

Le gemelle Amason sfoggiano dei coraggiosi tailleur; invece padre McManus, il prete cantante, non può fare a meno del suo saio.

I Louvin Brothers ci ricordano che Satana è reale e si può combattere soltanto con il potere di Dio – illustrato alla perfezione sulla copertina di Mike Crain.

La signora Behanna sostiene che Dio non sia morto, sullo sfondo ambiguo di una serie di bottiglie di alcolici. Forse è da ascrivere all’abuso di alcol anche  la copertina del Celebration Read Show, che associa la foto di un bambino a quella di un senzatetto (?!).

Se aveste ancora qualche dubbio sull’esistenza di Satana, “Crying Demons” è la compilation di registrazioni di gente indemoniata che fa per voi (come è evidente dalla foto del ragazzo di colore, chiaramente posseduto).
E terminiamo con Dan Bitzer, che aiutato dal suo piccolo Louie, ci racconta alcuni classici della Bibbia.

Attenti, perché nel prossimo episodio tratteremo di album sexy ed estremamente piccanti… quindi tenete in caldo il giradischi!