by Carl Wilson
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: email@example.com, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.