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.

Dreams of Stone

Stone appears to be still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings.
Being outside of time, it always pointed back to the concept fo Creation.
Nestled, inaccessible, closed inside the natural chest of rock, those anomalies we called treasures lie waiting to be discovered: minerals of the strangest shape, unexpected colors, otherworldly transparency.
Upon breaking a stone, some designs may be uncovered which seem to be a work of intellect. One could recognize panoramas, human figures, cities, plants, cliffs, ocean waves.

Who is the artist that hides these fantasies inside the rock? Are they created by God’s hand? Or were these visions and landscapes dreamed by the stone itself, and engraved in its heart?

If during the Middle Ages these stone motifs were probably seen as an evidence of the anima mundi, at the beginning of the modern period they had already been relegated to the status of simple curiosities.
XVI and XVII Century naturalists, in their wunderkammern and in books devoted to the wonders of the world, classified the pictures discovered in stone as “jokes of Nature” (lusus naturæ). In fact, Roger Caillois writes (La scrittura delle pietre, Marietti, 1986):

The erudite scholars, Aldrovandi and Kircher among others, divided these wonders into genres and species according to the image they saw in them: Moors, bishops, shrimps or water streams, faces, plants, dogs or even fish, tortoises, dragons, skulls, crucifixes, anything a fervid imagination could recognize and identify. In reality there is no being, monster, monument, event or spectacle of nature, of history, of fairy tales or dreams, nothing that an enchanted gaze couldn’t see inside the spots, designs and profiles of these stones.

It is curious to note, incidentally, that these “caprices” were brought up many times during the long debate regarding the mystery of fossils. Leonardo Da Vinci had already guessed that sea creatures found petrified on mountain tops could be remnants of living organisms, but in the following centuries fossils came to be thought of as mere whims of Nature: if stone was able to reproduce a city skyline, it could well create imitations of seashells or living things. Only by the half of XVIII Century fossils were no longer considered lusus naturæ.

Among all kinds of pierre à images (“image stones”), there was one in which the miracle most often recurred. A specific kind of marble, found near Florence, was called pietra paesina (“landscape stone”, or “ruin marble”) because its veinings looked like landscapes and silhouettes of ruined cities. Maybe the fact that quarries of this particular marble were located in Tuscany was the reason why the first school of stone painting was established at the court of Medici Family; other workshops specializing in this minor genre arose in Rome, in France and the Netherlands.

 

Aside from the pietra paesina, which was perfect for conjuring marine landscapes or rugged desolation, other kinds of stone were used, such as alabaster (for celestial and angelic suggestions) and basanite, used to depict night views or to represent a burning city.

Perhaps it all started with Sebastiano del Piombo‘s experiments with oil on stone, which had the intent of creating paintings that would last as long as sculptures; but actually the colors did not pass the test of time on polished slates, and this technique proved to be far from eternal. Sebastiano del Piombo, who was interested in a refined and formally strict research, abandoned the practice, but the method had an unexpected success within the field of painted oddities — thanks to a “taste for rarities, for bizarre artifices, for the ambiguous, playful interchange of art and nature that was highly appreciated both during XVI Century Mannerism and the baroque period” (A. Pinelli on Repubblica, January 22, 2001).

Therefore many renowned painters (Jacques Stella, Stefano della Bella, Alessandro Turchi also known as l’Orbetto, Cornelis van Poelemburgh), began to use the veinings of the stone to produce painted curios, in tension between naturalia e artificialia.

Following the inspiration offered by the marble scenery, they added human figures, ships, trees and other details to the picture. Sometimes little was needed: it was enough to paint a small balcony, the outline of a door or a window, and the shape of a city immediately gained an outstanding realism.

Johann König, Matieu Dubus, Antonio Carracci and others used in this way the ribbon-like ornaments and profound brightness of the agate, the coils and curves of alabaster. In pious subjects, the painter drew the mystery of a milky supernatural flare from the deep, translucent hues; or, if he wanted to depict a Red Sea scene, he just had to crowd the vortex of waves, already suggested by the veinings of the stone, with frightened victims.

Especially well-versed in this eccentric genre, which between the XVI and XVIII Century was the object of extended trade, was Filippo Napoletano.
In 1619 the painter offered to Cosimo II de’ Medici seven stories of Saints painted on “polished stoned called alberese“, and some of his works still retain a powerful quality, on the account of their innovative composition and a vivid expressive intensity.
His extraordinary depiction of the Temptations of Saint Anthony, for instance, is a “little masterpiece [where] the artist’s intervention is minimal, and the Saint’s entire spiritual drama finds its echo in the melancholy of a landscape of Dantesque tone” (P. Gaglianò on ExibArt, December 11, 2000).

The charm of a stone that “mimicks” reality, giving the illusion of a secret theater, is unaltered still today, as Cailliois elegantly explains:

Such simulacra, hidden on the inside for a long time, appear when the stones are broken and polished. To an eager imagination, they evoke immortal miniature models of beings and things. Surely, chance alone is at the origin of the prodigy. All similarities are after all vague, uncertain, sometimes far from truth, decidedly gratuitous. But as soon as they are perceived, they become tyrannical and they offer more than they promised. Anyone who knows how to observe them, relentlessly discovers new details completing the alleged analogy. These kinds of images can miniaturize for the benefit of the person involved every object in the world, they always provide him with a copy which he can hold in his hand, position as he wishes, or stash inside a cabinet. […] He who possesses such a wonder, produced, extracted and fallen into his hands by an extraordinary series of coincidences, happily imagines that it could not have come to him without a special intervention of Fate.

Still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings: it is perhaps appropriate that when stones dream, they give birth to these abstract, metaphysical landscapes, endowed with a beauty as alien as the beauty of rock itself.

Several artworks from the Medici collections are visible in a wonderful and little-known museum in Florence, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
The best photographic book on the subject is the catalogue
Bizzarrie di pietre dipinte (2000), curate by M. Chiarini and C. Acidini Luchinat.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

He had seen the future. He knew the darkness and the light. He always observed the world with no pulling back, in almost cruel honesty, he did not refrain from sharing his own failures. He understood that those very wounds we all carry inside of us, allowed for beauty.
Lately, he looked like a man preparing for death by getting rid of all his masks, one by one.
It’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” This he wrote just few months ago to Marianne Ihlen, the muse who had inspired him, and who was in those days approaching her own death.

Leonard Cohen’s itinerary was tormented, in a constant precarious balance between the two ends of the spectrum of experience: vice and exstasy, depression and  mysticism, excesses and frugality, cynism and romanticism.
Yet it would be useless to search for any trace of self-indulgence or presumption in his words. Just take a look at any interview, and you will see an almost embarassed modesty (back in the day, his legendary shyness brought him much trouble with live performances), and the courtesy of someone who is well aware of the pain of being alive.

This was the focus of his poems, and his musica. The liturgic quality of many of his lyrics was perhaps to him the most natural register to confront the problem of suffering, but he didn’t hesitate to contaminate it with profane elements. In fact his research was always synthetic, an attempt to conciliate the opposites he had lived through: and it also resulted in a patient work of condensing words (five years to write Hallelujah, ten for Anthem). The goal was achieving, as much as possible, a perfection of simplicity.
It led to verses like this one, capable of summarizing in a brief touch the most authentic idea of  love: “You go your way / I’ll go your way too“.

This hunger for transcendence brought the “little Jew” enamoured of the Kabbalah upon different spiritual paths, even locking him up in a Zen monastery — not as a “tourist”, but for six years. Until he realized, as he confessed in his last published single, that his demons had always been shamefully middle-class and boring.

Indeed, that last black jewel, You Want It Darker; a sort of testament or a preparation for the end.
A somber dialogue between the man-Cohen, the Man of every time and latitude, and a God with which no compromise is possible (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame”); a God who refuses to stretch out his hand towards man, leaving him lost in his arranged hell (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”).
A cold, enigmatic God, a mystery from which even the Evil seems to stem, so much so that all horror is likely a result of His inscrutable order: if God wants this Earth a little darker, we stand ready to “kill the flame“.
And it is in this desolate landscape that, as a final breath, as an extreme prayer, comes that heartwrenching hineni. “Here I am“, the word Abraham spoke before setting to sacrifice his own son on behalf of the Lord.
I’m ready“, Leonard whispers.

And maybe he really, finally was.

La morte in musica – V

london-zoo-1967-close-up-master

La canzone proposta in questa puntata della nostra rubrica non è incentrata direttamente sulla morte, quanto piuttosto su una personale visione del passare del tempo. Si tratta della splendida Who Knows Where The Time Goes? di Sandy Denny.

La cantante ed autrice inglese la incise una prima volta con gli Strawbs nel 1967; preferiamo questa versione, più intimista e dall’arrangiamento minimale, rispetto a quella più conosciuta che verrà registrata due anni più tardi con i Fairport Convention per il loro classico album Unhalfbricking. Questo gruppo, com’è risaputo, diede l’avvio alla corrente folk rock inglese, realizzando (in contemporanea con i meno noti Pentangle) un’originale fusione di musica tradizionale e sonorità rock. L’inconfondibile voce di Sandy Denny, dolce ma a tratti ombrosa ed evocativa, giocò un ruolo fondamentale nel successo della band; e non è un caso che sia stata anche l’unica interprete femminile a collaborare con i Led Zeppelin, nella celebre The Battle od Evermore. Scomparsa prematuramente nel 1978 a causa di un banale incidente domestico, la fama postuma di Sandy crescerà negli anni, tanto che oggi le è riconosciuto un posto di rilievo nella storia della musica inglese.

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Who knows where the time goes

La meditazione sull’inevitabile scorrere del tempo trova avvio dalla contemplazione di una spiaggia deserta e degli stormi di uccelli che stanno prendendo il largo, iniziando l’annuale migrazione. Sostenuta dalla delicata progressione di accordi della chitarra, l’autrice si stupisce dell’enigmatica ed innata conoscenza che gli animali sembrano possedere delle stagioni; eppure tutto, nel quadro dipinto dalle parole della canzone, è immerso nello stesso senso di meraviglia e di sospeso incanto. Perfino la costa solitaria pare a suo modo vivere e respirare, tanto che l’autrice si rivolge direttamente ad essa, per confortarla; e su tutto domina il tempo, che scandisce i mutamenti della natura in modo inconoscibile.

Eppure il tempo, questa strana entità invisibile, non è foriero di angosce, come in altri casi, bensì di una peculiare pace interiore. In questo senso, il testo ricorda da vicino questa poesia di Jacques Prévert:

Quel jour sommes-nous?
Nous sommes tous les jours
Mon amie
Nous sommes toute la vie
Mon amour
Nous nous aimons et nous vivons
Nous vivons et nous nous aimons
Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que la vie
Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que le jour
Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que l’amour.

Che giorno siamo?
Siamo tutti i giorni
Amica mia
Siamo tutta la vita
Amore mio
Noi ci amiamo e viviamo
Viviamo e ci amiamo
E non sappiamo cosa sia la vita
E non sappiamo cosa sia il giorno
E non sappiamo cosa sia l’amore.

Anche per Sandy Denny siamo circondati da misteri più grandi di noi che ci governano, ma sono misteri colmi di bellezza e, suggerisce il testo, di amore: perché ostinarsi a volerli controllare?

Il segreto è sotto gli occhi di tutti, sembra dire l’autrice. È nella resa e nell’abbandono all’incessante fluire delle cose. Si tratta di accordarsi in modo semplice e istintivo al ritmo universale, che dissolve ogni dubbio, qualsiasi timore e tutte le nostre sterili domande sul futuro e sull’inevitabile fine: la morte è simile alla partenza degli stormi di uccelli, un movimento naturale che avviene quando deve avvenire (until it’s time to go); non vi è più angoscia, soltanto un commosso e sognante abbandono.

La morte in musica – I

Dance Macabre_0005

Inauguriamo una nuova rubrica che, in linea con l’esplorazione delle varie concezioni della morte più volte presentata su queste pagine, si propone di esaminare un contesto culturale spesso poco considerato: la musica popolare.

Che rapporto ha la canzone con la morte, come la affronta, come la descrive? Analizzando di volta in volta un rilevante brano musicale, cercheremo di capire quale immagine esso ci restituisca dell’inevitabile fine della vita, attraverso gli occhi dell’autore ed eventualmente della tradizione nella quale si inserisce.

Cominciamo con un cantautore particolarmente raffinato: il canadese Leonard Cohen, e la sua Who By Fire del 1974.

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Who by fire
Ispirata al secondo paragrafo del poema liturgico ebraico Unetanneh Tokef, la canzone di Cohen è una meditazione sulla morte e sull’esistenza di Dio; ma, come vedremo, è più sottile di quanto sembri a prima vista.

Ogni strofa è divisa in due parti: la prima è dedicata all’enumerazione/lamentazione di diversi tipi di morte possibili.
Le varianti differiscono non soltanto per modalità (“chi col fuoco, chi con l’acqua”, “chi per incidente”) ma anche per motivazione (“chi per la sua avidità, chi per fame”). Da notare, in questa commovente lista, almeno alcune variazioni che sembrano sottolineare la soggettività dell’esperienza della morte, a seconda di come vediamo il mondo: alcuni se ne andranno “in questi regni d’amore”, altri “scivolando via in solitudine”. Questa realtà può essere un Eden per alcuni, un inferno per altri.

In questo senso, nel verso “chi nel felice, felice mese di Maggio” trapela tutta l’amara ironia che l’autore attribuisce al morire. L’espressione era usata in alcune ninne-nanne, e in diversi poemi e canzoni inglesi dal 1600 in poi: nel contesto di questa canzone, però, viene ovviamente inserita con la distanza del sarcasmo e della disperazione – la morte non si ferma nemmeno di fronte al mese più gioioso dell’anno.

La seconda parte di ogni strofa è costituita dal verso “e chi dirò che sta chiamando?”. Quest’ultimo “chi” opera un notevole scarto rispetto a quelli che aprono ogni verso precedente, sottolineato anche dal cambio melodico. Non si tratta più di un elenco affermativo, ma di una domanda: tutti questi morti, chi li sta chiamando ad uno ad uno?

Il verso si gioca tutto sull’ironico doppio senso di calling, poiché il tono è lo stesso che userebbe un maggiordomo al telefono: “chi devo dire che sta chiamando?”, “chi devo riferire?”. La formulazione shall I nella sua accezione arcaica rende la frase rispettosa ed educata, quando allo stesso tempo sta proponendo una domanda scottante: chi c’è all’altro capo della metaforica cornetta?

Il poeta qui si chiede chi sia a decidere del nostro ultimo destino. Sia che moriamo per il fuoco o per i barbiturici, c’è qualcuno o qualcosa che dia un senso alla nostra sofferenza e finitezza?
La bellezza della domanda è che non è posta in termini filosofici o metafisici: Cohen non chiede direttamente “esiste un Dio che può motivare la nostra morte?”. Il suo è un approccio estremamente umano, nato dalla contemplazione del dolore e della paura di tutti coloro che debbono morire, incluso se stesso (“chi in questo specchio”).
Rifiutando una visione ateistica o fideistica, Cohen pone al centro della questione un interrogativo elegante: “chi devo dire che sta chiamando?” Come potrò giustificare tutto questo triste e violento morire? Espressa con una sinteticità poetica ammirevole, ecco la domanda che assilla l’uomo fin dall’antichità.

Very Heavy Metal

Compressorhead

Ecco a voi la band di heavy metal più pesante del mondo: i Compressorhead, che tutti assieme vengono stimati attorno alle 6 tonnellate.

Stickboy, il batterista, ha calcato le scene per la prima volta nel 2007. Come recita il sito ufficiale, “ha 4 braccia, 2 gambe, 1 testa e nessun cervello”. Nel 2009 ha conosciuto Fingers, il chitarrista, che con le sue 78 dita meccaniche è in grado di suonare qualsiasi nota sul manico della sua chitarra elettrica. Ma la band l’anno scorso si è arricchita di un altro elemento fondamentale, Bones – il bassista più preciso del pianeta. Eccoli nella loro sala prove, durante la preparazione di un nuovo pezzo.

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I Compressorhead sono essenzialmente una cover band, e ripropongono brani celebri dell’hard rock e dell’heavy metal, riarrangiati secondo le loro strabilianti doti di esecuzione e, soprattutto, di spettacolarità sul palco. Ecco Stickboy e Fingers (Bones non era ancora nato!) durante una loro esibizione televisiva.

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I Compressorhead, che nel 2013 saranno in tour in Australia, sono stati realizzati dalla casa tedesca Robocross. Ecco il sito ufficiale della band.

Mini-Kiss

I Mini-Kiss sono una tribute band dei Kiss. Come tutte le tribute band, si vestono come i loro beniamini, suonano esclusivamente il loro repertorio e li imitano in tutto e per tutto. Ma i Mini-Kiss hanno qualcosa di unico: i membri della band sono tutti affetti da nanismo. Questo non impedisce loro di riproporre l’hard-rock spettacolare e colorato di Gene Simmons e compagni… in versione “ridotta”.

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Anche dopo la morte nel 2011 di Joey Fatale, loro leader e fondatore, i Mini-Kiss continuano ad esibirsi con ottimo successo. Ecco il sito sito ufficiale.

(Scoperto via Ipnosarcoma, uno dei nostri tumblelog preferiti!)

Rock elettrico

Gli ArcAttack, una band di Austin, Texas, decidono di provare la loro nuova chitarra MIDI suonando Iron Man dei Black Sabbath.

Ehi, aspettate un attimo, non è una chitarra normale, è una chitarra studiata per resistere ai fulmini.

Ehi, aspettate un attimo, il solista indossa una tuta di Faraday.

Ehi, aspettate un attimo, gli amplificatori sono due bobine di Tesla.

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Nota: Gli ArcAttack sono celebri per le loro sperimentazioni con l’elettricità. Ecco il loro sito ufficiale.

R.I.P. Etta James

Giovedì scorso si era spento Johnny Otis, geniale padrino del rhythm’n’blues negli anni ’50. Ieri, all’età di 73 anni, lo ha seguito una delle più grandi artiste che lui avesse mai scoperto, la spettacolare Etta James.

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