Friday, April 20, 2012

He shall lead Levon

"You cannot imagine the impact of this song when it came out. (Fanny is a woman's name in the US.) The people he "woke up." God speed, brother. Thank you forever."

-Ken's Wife Lisi on Levon Helm and The Weight:

Oh I so love the Weight and this song and the lyrics.

Rag Mama Rag -- by Robbie Robertson

"Rag Mama Rag" is a man's comic story about a woman whose coyness in the face of blatant attempts at seduction takes the form of a habitual tendency to "rag" (one meaning is to tease; another is to play this type of music) rather than cooperate. It is replete with verbal allusions to the country setting and working class milieu of the story. For example, the hyperbole involved in the joke about "letting the railroad scratch his back" is typical of the tall-tale tradition in American folk narratives. The hail stones beating on the roof (which we can easily imagine to be corrugated metal) and the 100 proof bourbon suggest the hills of Appalachia. There is also a sense of woodsy isolation, with no proximate neighbors -- "It's you and me and the telephone." The humor relies in part on good-natured deprecation, as when the singer tells her to bring her "skinny little body back home"; there is a clever use of nonsense to enhance the general feeling of confusion: "I ask about your turtle/and you ask about the weather/Well I can't jump a hurdle/and we can't get together."

Verse 1
Rag mama rag
I can't believe it's true
Rag mama rag
A-what did you do?
I crawled up to the railroad track
Let the four-nineteen scratch my back

I ask about your turtle
and you ask about the weather
Well I can't jump a hurdle
and we can't get together

We could be relaxin'
in my sleepin' bag
But all you wanna do for me mama
is a rag mama rag
There's nowhere to go
Rag mama rag
Come on resin up the bow

Rag mama rag
Where do ya roam?
Rag mama rag
bring your skinny little body back home
It's dog eat dog and cat eat mouse
You can rag mama rag all over my house

Hailstones beatin' on the roof
The bourbon is one hundred proof
It's you and me and the telephone
Our destiny is quite well known.
We don't need to sit and brag
All we gotta do is
Rag mama rag, mama rag

(V2 and V7 omitted)

The music provides a good illustration of The Band's instrumental versatility. Country style fiddle accompanies the vocalist on the melody; a modified form of ragtime piano appears which serves to create an analogue to Mama's ramblings around the shack. The latter is particularly evident at the very end of the song, when the piano plays alone. Here the ragtime rhythmic pattern emerges clearly; a 44 figure in the left hand is set against a syncopated, partially improvised figure in the right. This form is the basis for the entire song, with its "stop-and-go" feeling. The guitar and tuba or trombone assist the accompaniment figure of the left hand. Classic ragtime often uses a tight rondo-like form, but this does not appear here. Some verses flow easily into one another, while others feel somewhat disjointed. This interplay between feelings of arrival and non-arrival, anticipation and resolution appears in many of The Band's songs. By displacing accents they create a jerky, awkward feeling, in this song enhancing the confusion of the relationship described in the lyric. Other Band songs similar to "Rag..." are "Across the Great Divide" and their biggest commercial hit, "Up On Cripple Creek."

Down Home with The Band:
Country-Western Music and Rock
by David Emblidge
From Ethnomusicology, Vol. 20, No. 3. (Sep., 1976), pp. 541-552.
Fair Use. I do not own this essay nor profit from this blog. Simply celebrating a great man and a great song.

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Anthony Simmons' Four in The Morning -Film Essay Part One

Ken is being remembered joyously with the first ever Region 2 release of "The Devils" so I thought it would be nice to honour another director whom he admired and whom also deserves much more of a mention than he ever gets; Anthony Simmons. Anthony (or Tony Simmons as we'll call him) like Ken Russell started out in documentaries and while he does not have nearly a dozen books dedicated to his oeuvre as Ken does, the former has called the latter "a first rate director". Also a writer and a lawyer, Tony's precision and literacy is evident in how excellent each of his films are scripted and how realistic they are. Ken was correct; there are few films about London and Londoners themselves that come close to rivalling his work. What the "Love Actually" director so sorely over looks in his attempts at chronicling modern London is that most in the city DON'T have loads of dough and most don't try to hide their flaws within fluffy narcissism. London should never be merely a backdrop. Roy Baird, Ken Russell's long time editor and beloved friend is the editor on Four In The Morning, the film of Simmons we are looking at today as well.

So yes, Ken Russell was a big fan of Tony Simmons. Making even fewer films than fellow Russell contemporary and friend, the great Lindsay Anderson, Tony has nevertheless created the the most important films about London currently available. Last year I wrote a post "The Optimists of Nine Elms" and how Ken rightfully called it one of the best films ever made about London and Londoners. When you factor in "Black Joy (reputedly Britain's "only Blaxpolition film" but also very sweet comedy) and "Four in The Morning" you have an impressive volume of work that can't be diminished by modest out put. "Four in The Morning" has been on my mind since I googled the title to find out more and then found very little. The body of a woman floating in the Thames and how it connects to the two couples in the film is also relevant to the tragic and shocking news of Gemma Mccluskie's murder this past March. I would urge anyone who wants to see justice for female victims of violence to see this film. Despite taking place in the pre-Pill early 1960's, paradoxically (but I believe not accidentally) it is an unsung gem of early feminist film making. No semblance of an essay about the film exists on the net so here is one which contains the entire plot including a detailed analysis of the ending which has an effect not unlike the closing scene of The Wicker Man.

As Four in The Morning opens we are reminded of the eerie "now or never" quality that the wee hours of the morning have. One is not given a date or even a time and no clumsy attempts at a "day for night" are made on the part of the film-makers. It should be noted that the sun rises much earlier in the EU than other parts of the world (especially in the summer) so the lighting is completely realistic but one still feels this is the point of the day when few are about. We see the Thames as it once was; a bustling thoroughfare of working docks, commuter boats and small crafts parked without security. There is no Docklands light railway or Canary Wharf as we know it today. John Barry, one of filmdom's greatest composers gives us a simple but lovely score. Oboes, woodwinds, martial drums, flutes and a few lone strings that set this time of day sound spooky and sad but never maudlin. Day break is the 'reverse twilight' if you will, a time of transitions; unreal for those not used to it and a spiritual time for those that are awake for it.

Gradually as boats and barges give way to water and docks a floating, almost swimming figure emerges, from under billboard and near jettys, the body of a deceased woman washes ashore. Fully dressed in a once camel trench coat (keep your eyes on camel trench coats in this film folks!) the body is now still and face down. Pre-ANY semblance of CSI sophistication, the Thames Police without a glove or cotton bud insight haul her stiff figure away like a sack of flour onto a police boat.

We then cut to a very beautiful salon with bar attached in a nice looking residential area. A lovely young single woman (Anna Lynn) lights up a cigarette as her shift ends. We are never told if she is a barmaid, as escort, a cocktail waitress or all the above. (Comments from her co-workers, a man exiting the gaff quite pleased with himself and a later quip that she "takes taxis everywhere" leads us to guess that she's well paid and most likely a prostitute). Back to the deceased who is being transported down the Thames and then back to the salon. A young man (Boy) has phoned and despite her protests he intends to see her after work. Back to the Thames as various workers and law enforcement (all male) look on as the deceased  As the doctor arrives the bargemen laughs, "Doctor? It's an undertaker she be wanting".

 We at once cut to a young mother (Jude) home alone. Slatternly, short haired yet cute in a dressing gown she attends to a screaming infant girl. Running down the stairs of the duplex to buy aspirin from a vending machine which she forces it into her infants mouth with a spoonful of honey. This of course does nothing but make her infant scream louder and Dench grabs a squeeze toy and proceeds to pulverize it in her daughter's face like a frustrated caged animal. "Stop it! stop it! stop it!" she cries, later shutting herself in a room to muffle the crying. and with that gives the only realistic performance of a new mother I've ever seen on film. Cut to her young husband and his best mate out on the piss after the bars have closed, talking about the Swedish birds they wanted to pull and on the way back home without a care in the world.

Back to Anna and Boy who are walking along the Thames hand in hand. He is very aware and polite to her as he recounts a blatantly embellished dream about a horrendous figure is his room which he eventually attacks only to find it is himself, he talks of time in Canada, his disappointments, his goals-this man is sensitive. He carefully  maintains this veneer until he starts slagging his previous profession as a salesman with sexual suggestiveness.

 "Look I'm buying you a cup of coffee not some gent buying you a glass champagne trying to make you."

But he is. Boy wants sex and wants it bad. He steals a speed boat and in one of the most keenly shot and edited sequences of it's era they have an erotically dangerous make out session speeding all the way down the Thames past houseboats, barges and under tower bridge. As the boat comes to sensually rest near the shore,  the makeout session gets very hot and heavy for it's time until she puts the breaks on. The Boy is very angry and gets up and walks away in a black funk running back towards her vicinity only to make sure the stolen boat is not adrift. The character being called "Boy" is often criticized because Brian Phelan seems much older yet I did not find him unbelievable as a lad in his early 20s. Long hours and  a lot itinerant work ages you faster than time. (To be continued)

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