Tag Archives: Tranzac

Bob Wiseman, “mothface@yahoo.ca” and other titles on Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying (2013)

by Carl Wilson

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Bob Wiseman, Tracy Wright & Sky Gilbert.



Bob Wiseman’s new album, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, sets a series of challenges like crossword-puzzle clues. Each title is syntactically structured “[Subject] at [Location/Activity],” almost as if in an index. Together they ask: What difference does it make whether we get exactly what a song is about?

The subjects can be anything from cultural or political figures to personal friends: Neil Young at the Junos, The Reform Party at Burning Man, Aristide at the Press Conference, or Portrait of Phil at Various Times in a Closet. The one cover song both fits and breaks the mold, Sam Larkin’s Children at Play. (Here’s the original on Rdio.)

And one title plays on the fact that this is also the syntax of email: mothface@yahoo.ca, the address of the Toronto actor Tracy Wright (previously discussed here), who broke many of our hearts when she died at age 50 in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

The song tells the story of a time in the 1980s* when Wiseman agreed to act in a play Wright wrote “that made no sense” because he figured no one “in their right mind” would put it on, but then theatre artist Sky Gilbert signed on to produce it in his Rhubarb experimental-theatre festival. As a result, Wiseman sings, “I always knew that I had nothing in common with Sky Gilbert.” The line is repeated over and over, anthemically, in harmony.

Hearing it first at last week’s launch concert at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, it started annoying me: Who outside a small Toronto arts circle gives a shit how Bob Wiseman feels about Sky Gilbert? Why write a song picking on Gilbert anyway?

Then the lyrics cross-cut to Wright’s memorial, when Gilbert got up and said just what Wiseman was feeling and thinking about her, and moved him to tears. It turned out the two had something in common after all: “the love of you.” And I came close to tears myself.

I wondered whether other people, who hadn’t known Wright or who Gilbert is, would be so touched. Would they even keep listening up to the final twist? It made me ask, too, if the electricity of the launch, where many members of the local music community were renewing frayed connections, would come across to an outsider, and whether that mattered.

These are questions Wiseman’s album prods: the effects of reference, and specificity versus so-called universality.

The particularity of Wiseman’s subjects is part of his modus operandi as an artist engagé, a creative activist: the naming of names, the preservation of place, the marking of dates and times. Early in his solo career, he wrote songs that gave a blow-by-blow account of the Union Carbide disaster (live, starts about 0:55) or implicated the president of Pepsi Cola by name in the assassination of Salvador Allende. (A move that infamously got the first thousand copies of his first major-label album destroyed.) You could describe it as a Brechtian gesture of counter-propaganda, or as keeping shit real.

But it’s never solely political. It’s in Wiseman’s voice, a harmonica-like needling without a hint of false gravitas. It’s in the way he’ll often interrupt a catchy melody with a dissonant solo or silly backup vocal, recklessly undermining what might have been some kind of “hit.” It’s in the cranky energy and nearly painful innocence of his writing, which attest that these aren’t positions struck but art made by following the tracks of his preoccupations.

He sounds like a regular person who’s ruefully aware that his complaints can’t reroute the flows of power, but can at least take satisfaction in sharing and laughing or weeping over them. If some personal situations won’t be transparent, perhaps listeners will connect anyway with having relationships and experiences that are exactly that, obscure and opaque in the supposed big picture of news and celebrity. Just like our own. And no less crucial to us for being so.

I do have affection for certain email addresses. Maybe your loved ones’ familiar @’s also set off a warm and quiet hum.

Purposefully or not, the variations Giulietta Masina plays on the “X at Y” formula work through a range of possibilities about how we’ll relate to the subject of a song. Neil Young at the Junos, for instance, treats a figure Wiseman can rely on his audience feeling like it knows well, then tries to say something unexpected – neither hagiographic nor cheaply skeptical – about him.

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The title track unfolds most like a riddle: When Wiseman started playing it at the launch, my friend and I said to each other, “Do you have any idea who that is?” Then partway through I said, “For some reason I’m thinking about Fellini.” And just as I was looking her up on my phone, Wiseman sang the final words, “8½.” Giulietta Masina was Fellini’s actress spouse.

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I only later discovered that Ruby Bates at Grad School, one of my favourites, is about a woman who’d been an accuser in the racist 1930s Scottsboro Boys rape case, but later recanted her story and was vilified for it. I haven’t identified the second woman, more contemporary, described as dying in an ambulance in the last verse, and am glad I haven’t.

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I knew right off who the protagonist of Robert Dziekanski at the Airport was – the Polish immigrant the RCMP mistakenly tased & killed at the Vancouver airport in 2007, and then whitewashed. A straight protest song, a bit obvious. Then I read a college student’s review of the album who was startled to find out or be reminded of this event six long-to-him years ago.

Finally there’s this guy Phil in the closet, along with someone named Rob Noyes who apparently dies, and “the campers of B.B. you’ve heard so much about.” No clue. But I’m stirred by its final plaintive lines about wanting to repay Phil, “it’s awful,” for “being there at the airport or hospital.” Would listening to the song about Tracy feel like this to others, like an emotional mystery?

My misgiving about Wiseman’s songwriting is that he often is too literal for my tastes, even if I see why. This album, more than any since his now-storied debut In Her Dream, when he pretended to be singing songs by someone named “Wrench Tuttle,” unsettles that directness fruitfully.

In his new book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, the psychoanalyst and critic Adam Phillips has a chapter called “On Not Getting It.” He investigates how our drive to get the point, to nail down the meaning of a joke or a poem, to understand ourselves, to truly “know” other people (especially our lovers, our families), may become an evasion of other ways of existing and of allowing others to exist with and apart from us.

In Bob Wiseman’s more literal songs he gets at things worth knowing for certain and stating clearly, most often how an injustice has been perpetrated or excused. But there are things worth being clueless about, worth never knowing – such as not knowing what we do and don’t have in common, so we can be surprised when perhaps we need to be. Such as not knowing how to repay certain debts when all that really can be done is to acknowledge them.

Music has an unusual capacity to say a lot without knowing everything or even much at all. We can “get” a song’s texture and its atmosphere without wanting to “get” all its content. We can hear it many times and only “get” something like “blah blah blah Gilbert, blah blah blah Gilbert … the love of you,” and yet treasure the song.

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Phillips quotes the notoriously elusive poet John Ashbery as saying that he writes as he does because if all you do is tell people things, they stop listening. But if they only overhear, they will be curious. On this album Bob Wiseman has things he wants to tell, but also lets us eavesdrop on him talking to himself or to others, about things we might not know or even need to know. The sites from which he sings can be nearby or at a distance, his phrases sharp or indistinct.

By ranging this way, by not always demanding we understand him, he implies that it is okay if we, his listeners, aren’t utterly knowable too. By extension the people he sings about, at his best, cannot be captured and summed up, not reduced only to political subjects but allowed to be humans like the one who is singing about them.

At the least, a cop and an immigrant, Neil Young and Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Oscars and the airport, the halls of parliament and an ambulance all are, and acknowledging that may be to admit they share something unnameably more than everything that isn’t** – including so-called universals such as patriotism, duty, righteousness.

In this sense, being specific, if you are specific about a great many things, might be a different program than we at first thought: less like itemizing a legal brief, and more like giving up on coercion.

—————

This section originally said Wiseman and Wright were dating at the time; Wiseman writes to tell me I misread his use of the word “girlfriend” – they were just friends.

** The basic idea about things that exist having existence in common is someone else’s that I heard, read or was told about recently. I don’t remember the source. My elaboration on it is my own (mis)interpretation.

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Filed under carl wilson, music, poetry

Tea With Chris: Funny, But Not Hilarious

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: I’m still making my way through Matthias Wivel’s long Comics Journal piece about the chaos afflicting storied French independent publisher L’Association, and this is only the first of two parts.

Founded in 1990 by many of the country’s best young cartoonists as a home for work that existing houses refused to consider, L’Association was initially a non-profit collective, but the mainstream success of several members obliged Jean-Christophe Menu to become a paid editorial director. His growing influence over the entire line generated inescapable tension, culminating in a strike and a coup. The sort of thorough journalism that Wivel does here – as distinct from criticism or interviews – is all too unusual in comics, because no publication has the money for it.

Just look at what the cartoonist Lewis Trondheim told him: “Menu was the driving force in the creation of L’Association, along with us, but he also ended up a threat to its existence because of his lack of social intelligence and ineptness as a boss and as a manager, and because his alcoholism and paranoia got out of hand.” Also, it’s France, so people say “discourse” a lot.

Possibly the greatest tweet ever tweeted.

Speaking of brilliant inanities, here is a mesmerizing a capella version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2‘s vaguely orientalist Oil Ocean Zone theme:

Margaux: Onto personal tragedy. I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking this week. I was a little distracted by how often she and her husband went out for dinner. I kept wanting to go out for dinner. It’s not as painful a book as I had been led to believe, mainly because her interest isn’t in having you to feel what she’s feeling. She is focused on trying to piece back together some kind of meaning after devastating loss – using a lifetime of literary and philosophical knowledge; that is not magical thinking but still real magic. She gets there. It made me want to read her new book Blue Nights.

Brain tumors are funny, but they’re not hilarious – says Samantha Kittle over at her brain tumor blog A Lie of the Mind.

Who needs stand-up mics, television and sanity when you’ve got the all-powerful internet? Welcome to The Maria Bamford Show. (thanks to Naomi Skwarna)

And a real-life tragedy of children losing their Halloween candy – from Jimmy Kimmel. It is awesome.

Carl: This is older but hardly anyone’s seen it: David Dacks outlines the contours of the special hybrid of folk, indie, improvised and electronic musics that emanate from Toronto’s Australia New Zealand Club, better known as the Tranzac – which he makes a convincing case is almost its own genre. The pinnacle of it might be Sandro Perri’s new Impossible Spaces album:

Margaux, other people have noticed Joan Didion going out to dinner and apparently she’s gotten a little defensive about it. Comes with bonus impassioned and not dumb debate in the comments.

And just to be a little snobby my own self, the candybox of culture I’m most excited about this week is that all three of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s most popular/significant film essays are coming out together on a disc by Criterion.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson