Monday, October 31, 2016

Song Talk #5: Big Rocks Are Falling

"Big Rocks Are Falling" is a “lullabye” from my second CD, Practical Man.  It was inspired by the simple observation that traditional lullabyes can be, well, a bit dark.  I was thinking specifically of

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all!


But there’s also

Bye, baby Bunting,
Daddy’s gone a-hunting,
To fetch a little rabbit skin
To wrap my baby Bunting in.


...which, while no doubt a perfectly acceptable sentiment in a hunting culture, is at least a bit jarring when juxtaposed with Tales of Peter Rabbit.

Traditional English lullabyes are mild, however, compared to how babies in some other cultures are lulled to sleep.  A mother of the Luo people in Kenya might croon

Rock, rock, rock,
The baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena...


And examples form other countries can be just as dark.

By comparison, “Big Rocks Are Falling From the Blue Sky” is a fairly cheery message for a lullabye.  Most children who are old enough to appreciate absurdity seem to get a kick out of it, rather than being scarred for life.  I must admit that I have yet to try this song out as a device for settling down a young child at bedtime; I’d be happy to hear from any parents who have made the experiment.

Why rocks from the sky?  At the time, the idea of an inexplicable rain of boulders struck me as a unique combination of “wildly implausible” with “over-the-top terrifying” –just the kind of thing one would not want to impress on a young child’s mind at bedtime. I was not consciously thinking of a particular incident. However, it’s possible that vague recollections of actual historical accounts were stirring in the back of my mind:

    “One of the most well-known cases of falling stones occurred in Harrisonville, Ohio, in Oct. 1901. The Buffalo Express, a small local newspaper, reported that on Oct. 13, "a small boulder came crashing through the window of Zach Dye's house." Nobody was seen in the vicinity. But this was just the beginning. Within a few days, the whole town was supposedly afflicted by stones and boulders falling from a clear sky. Perplexed as to where the stones were coming from, the townspeople rounded up all the men and boys of Harrisonville to rule out the phenomenon being caused by a gang of trouble-makers (it was assumed that females would not be capable of such as act). The stones continue to fall. Several days later, the rain of stones stopped just as suddenly as it had started.

    Since this event, there have been many other documented occasions of stones falling from the sky, including in Sumatra (1903), Belgium (1913), France (1921), Australia (repeatedly between 1946 and 1962), New Zealand (1963), New York (1973), and Arizona (1983).
” From https://www.sott.net/article/290586-The-strange-and-unexplained-phenomenon-of-raining-stones


Whatever its risks and limitations as an actual lullabye, “Big Rocks Are Falling” has been a popular request at concerts. I love to hear the crowd belting out the chorus:

Big rocks are falling from the blue sky
Falling thick and fast
Falling by the score
Big rocks are falling from the blue sky
So go to sleep, now,
Baby weep no more.


(You can purchase "Big Rocks Are Falling" or the entire CD Practical Man from CD Baby, here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/tomlips2 )

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Reflections on Gilgamesh

On Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, at the Arts Court Theatre in Ottawa, Jan Andrews and I told the epic story of Gilgamesh, with musical support by Armin Rahmanian on the tar and setar (see previous post).  Over 90 people turned out, which is not bad for a storytelling performance of an ancient Sumerian epic going head-to-head with the final Clinton-Trump debate on TV.  Now I can give my Facebook friends a break from continual reminders and explanations regarding this important but relatively little-known story (though I guess I will post this blog entry!).  My sincere thanks for all who came out: as I have learned again and again, the quality of the listening has an amazing impact on the quality of the telling.  Storytelling really is a joint effort between the teller and the listener.

Jan proposed this project to me well over a year ago. I felt very honoured to be invited to co-present with her (Jan being a leading light of epic storytelling in Canada), and for my own information I started tracking down background information and different versions of the epic. I was familiar with the story already, through various paraphrases and literary references (for example, did you know that the title of Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful novel, In the Skin of a Lion, is taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh?).   I was particularly drawn to the story and character of Enkidu, the hairy wild man who first opposes, then befriends Gilgamesh, the godlike King of Uruk.  Also, as my personal odometer clicks ever higher, Gilgamesh’s struggles with loss, aging and mortality resonate with me more and more.  (One of my former university professors and theatre mentors attended the show; he said of the story, “we are all living it.”)

Coming to grips with the epic proved harder than expected. First, we had to trim the text enough to fit into a single evening, and that meant sacrificing many beautiful or sonorous phrases, dispensing with a lot of the ritual repetitions, and refusing to linger over images or language that did not advance the plot. (Despite our best efforts, the show ran a little over two hours, including intermission.)

On the positive side, the need to consider run-time allowed us, with very little guilt, to cut out many passages that were confusing, contradictory, or incomprehensible.  The Epic of Gilgamesh probably began as a cluster of stories which were not entirely consistent with one another, and which merged in the way myths and tales often do, retaining seams and scars and fragments of their former selves. The text has been reconstructed from clay tablets and stitched together with the help of versions in different languages, written down several centuries apart.   While most of the story is clear, in a number of places the English translations seem speculative and do not agree with one another. Presumably the ancient Sumerian or Akkadian readers or listeners would have been so familiar with the various back stories and the overarching cosmology that many references which are obscure to us would have made sense to them.  What were the “holy things” in Urshanabi’s boat that Gilgamesh destroyed, and why did he do that? Did Enkidu have a wife at some point, or not? Was Humbaba really evil, or are we supposed to feel compassion for him?

The story of Gilgamesh’s quest to slay Humbaba is the most puzzling and obscure section of the epic, and the one that caused us the most hair-tearing. It is lengthy, but (to the modern ear) not very eventful: It cycles repeatedly through a pattern in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu take turns being afraid of Humbaba and reassuring each other. There is a series of prophetic dreams adumbrating the outcome of the battle, and the whole leadup to the encounter with Humbaba risks being tedious and puzzling. After all that, the battle itself is described quite briefly and ambiguously; one gathers that it is a spiritual conflict for which we no longer have the key. Various attempts to make the story tellable finally persuaded us that we needed to give ourselves the freedom to condense this middle part of the epic considerably and to adapt it in ways that would make it work better as an oral story.

In exchange for the sizable swaths of the Humbaba story that were removed or vigorously adapted, we allowed ourselves to put back in more of the story of Ishtar’s failed seduction of Gilgamesh and its consequences.  It was a good exchange: the catalogue of Ishtar’s love affairs, while somewhat of a digression, is much clearer and more satisfying to tell than the pieces we excised from the Humbaba story.

Another challenge was to ensure that the latter part of the epic, from the death of Enkidu to Gilgamesh’s return to Uruk, was more than just a series of dreamlike episodes or a long depressive rant. Our early attempts were, in Armin’s words, “very philosophical,” but somehow not satisfying as a story. We needed to emphasize Gilgamesh’s quest: he is not just wandering through the wilderness grieving, he is relentlessly searching for someone who can save him from death. His sadness over Enkidu is genuine and deep, but ultimately it is superseded by his own obsession with escaping “the common lot of man.” When we focused on this storyline, everything worked better.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Epic of Gilgamesh, October 19th, 2016 at Arts Court in Ottawa

Tackling the the earliest surviving great work of literature in a two-person storytelling performance is a memorable experience.  The Epic of Gilgamesh has its origins in the ancient Sumerian kingdom of Ur, around 2100 BCE. It survives in a variety of versions recorded on clay tablets between the 18th and the 10th century BCE. The epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, the godlike but flawed ruler of the city of Uruk, and his mighty friend Enkidu, who began life as a wild man ranging the hills and eating grass with the gazelles.
The story explores universal themes of hubris, friendship, mortality, and civilization versus wilderness. It also features gods, monsters, sex, dreams, violence, poetry, and a vivid evocation of the Underworld...  

Ottawa has a strong tradition of epic storytelling, and Jan Andrews has been at the heart of it. I'm proud to be collaborating with her on the development and performance of this show, presented by Ottawa StoryTellers.  We are both very pleased to have Armin Rahmanian providing music with a Mesopotamian flavour on the tar and the setar!


Tickets are $12 for students, $15 general, and $20 for arts supporters, and can be bought online from Arts Court without additional fees (hurray!). Follow this link.

 
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Performed by Jan Andrews & Tom Lips
with Armin Rahmanian, musician

WEDNESDAY, October 19, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Arts Court Theatre2 Daly Ave, Ottawa



Sunday, May 08, 2016

Leacock "Tales and Tunes," June 3-5, 2016

Coming up fast:  Ottawa Storyteller Gail Anglin and I will be reprising our successful collaboration with the fabulous North Winds Brass at three local venues on the first weekend of June.  Gail and I will tell stories by Canada's humour hall-of-famer, Stephen Leacock, and the North Winds Brass will please your ears with a variety of tunes from Joplin, Maurer, Lamb and others appropriate to the period (broadly speaking, between the Wars).  That brass ensemble sound is really amazing!

Here are the places and times:

St. James the Apostle Anglican Church, Carp (3774 Carp Road), June 3rd., 7:30 PM

Rideau Park United Church, Ottawa (2203 Alta Vista Dr.), June 4th., 7:30 PM

St. Marks Anglican Church, Ottawa (1606 Fisher Ave), June 5th., 2:30 PM

Tickets are available at the door:$20 for adults, $15 for Students/Seniors, $10 for children 12 and under (who have a good attention span...).  Hope to see you there!

"Fun, Fire, and Smallpox … in Canada’s timber capital" (Not to mention music!) OST Tent Show, May 27-28, June 10-11, 2016

I will be joining with singers Gail Anglin and Jill Shipley and musicians Al Ridgway and Anne Hurley to provide the musical dimension for the spring Tent Show of the Ottawa StoryTellers.  To complement the colourful tales from Ottawa's past, we will be performing some classic pop tunes of the early 20th century.  OST will be pitching the big tent in four locations across the city  on May 27 & 28 and June 10 & 11.  We hope to see you there!

"At the turn of the 20th century, Ottawa was coming of age. We had one of the grandest hotels on the continent, years before the Chateau Laurier was built. We had an opera house and several fine theatres, which featured international stars, and we rivalled New York for innovative technology. This was also the world of the lumber barons, H. F. Bronson, J. R. Booth, and E. B. Eddy, with their massive stockpiles of dry timber, and nearby, the rough wooden houses of the mill and yard workers. On a fine spring day in 1900, all of this would be destroyed in hours by a fire so huge you could see the smoke in Kingston.
Early Ottawa was ravaged by fire, by disease, by scandal, yet every time, she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and, often with a laugh, carried on."
OST's travelling Tent Show, Fun, Fire, and Smallpox recounts that time in stories and music in four delightful settings across the city.
All shows at 7 Pm.
-        May 27: Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, 2940 Old Montreal Road, 613-833-3059
-        May 28: Billings Estate National Historic Site, 2100 Cabot Street, 613-247-4830
-        June 10: Fairfield House, 3080 Richmond Road (nr. Bayshore shopping centre), 613-726-2652
-        June 11: Pinhey’s Point Historic Site 270 Pinhey Point Road, Dunrobin, 613-832-1249
Tickets are $15, available at the door or by calling the venues. All venues accept cash or debit/credit cards.
Ages 14+
Running time is approximately 90 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission (with free refreshments!)
For more information, info@ottawastorytellers.ca or call Pat Holloway at 613-731-1047






Sunday, May 01, 2016

Song talk #5: Trekkie’s Honeymoon

I’ve been assured that “Trekkies’ Honeymoon,” from my CD Practical Man, qualifies as a “filk song.”  In case you are not familiar with the phenomenon, here’s what Wikipedia says:  
Filk music is a musical culture, genre, and community tied to science fiction/fantasy fandom and a type of fan labour. The genre has been active since the early 1950s, and played primarily since the mid-1970s. The term (originally a typographical error) predates 1955.
I love that the name is unabashedly derived from a typo.  And yes, a song with multiple references to the Star Trek universe does seem to meet the criteria –though I have to say I never thought of the writing as “fan labour” (which sounds pretty onerous, and much too earnest for a satirical tune).  The roots of the song go deep into my childhood, when Captain Kirk and his crew first came whooshing inexplicably through the vacuum of space and onto our little black-and-white 1960s TV screen.  The original Star Trek has been in perennial reruns for so many decades, and its terms and images are so deeply embedded in popular culture now, that it is difficult to convey the excitement and wonder the series evoked for a child at the time, even when seen in shades of grey.


Years later,  the legions of fans who had kept the faith through the long, lean time after the show’s abrupt cancellation were rewarded with a chain of Star Trek movies and  Star Trek: The Next Generation, plus various spinoffs.  By that time my interest in Federation space, Klingons and warp drive had levelled off into something partly nostalgic and entirely recreational –and it had never been, dare I say, fanatical.  I would never have memorized (or argued about) the technical specs of the Starship Enterprise, or learned Klingon, or pursued a degree in Vulcan studies. For one thing, I lacked the stamina for such “fan labour.” For me, Star Trek was about fantasy, not work; still, I have to admire the energy and creativity (and labour!) that many true fans invest in fan fiction, artwork and cosplay.  (For those born before 1980, Wikipedia will tell you that “cosplay,” a contraction of the words costume and  play, is “a performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character.”)

The immediate inspiration for “Trekkies’ Honeymoon” was a newspaper story about the latest Star Trek cosplay wedding.  (I don’t think anyone was using the term “cosplay” at the time, but you get my drift: bridal party dressed in starship crew uniforms, with the bride and/or the groom in Klingon face prosthetics or Vulcan ears, and the ceremony performed by a Federation Admiral on a mockup of the bridge of the Enterprise.  About as far as you can get from a Quaker wedding ceremony...) 

Reflecting that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” I found my mind drawn irresistibly to what might transpire later that night, after the last shuttle had departed.  The various double entendres diverge rather sharply from the spirit and intent of the late Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, who, as far as I can tell, was a pretty decorous fellow.

Our wedding night's a Holodeck of passion
In a hotel suite rigged up like Deep Space Nine
We're in full Star Trek regalia
But the thing may be a failure
If you don't beam over here and say you're mine...


In recording the song, James Stephens, Alex Vlamis and I had a blast playing with the musical references of the Star Trek universe, and adding a Klingon chorus at critical points. The song is fun to do as a live solo number with just me and my guitar, but Alex’s brilliant piano takes it to the next galaxy.

Fortunately, most Trekkies (and recovered Trekkies) have a sense of humour.  If I could just write a dozen more filk songs, maybe I could even work up a tour of the filk circuit (comic book and sci-fi conventions, cosplay events...)  Unfortunately I think the only other one I can claim is “Aliens Are Landing In Our Yard,” and that is really more of a kid’s song.  So trying to pass myself off as a filk musician would be akin to masquerading as a polka meister, having written only “The Polka Of Death.”
                       
So now you've got my ring on
Won't you let me be your Klingon...



Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Invisible Award

A few weeks ago, I shared the stage with three very talented singer-songwriters who are also friends of mine.  In introducing us, the emcee was very generous with her praise.  Among other things, she highlighted the fact that my three friends had each received a prestigious award in recognition of their achievements. I was last to be introduced. Our host said some very nice things about me as well, but there was no missing the fact that I was distinctly lacking in the awards department.

Now, I am not a jealous man. I was not in the running for any of the awards my friends received, and I’m well aware of how fully they deserve them.  I generally view my lack of prizes with considerable equanimity. There’s no denying, however, that on this occasion I felt a certain momentary awkwardness as the only Non-Award-Winner in a lineup of Award-Winning Singer-Songwriters.  Accordingly, when it was my turn at the microphone, I thanked our host, acknowledged my fellow performers, and said, tongue-in-cheek, “I can see that I’ve gotta get me some awards!” It got a laugh, which was all I was after; then I forgot about it.

The evening went very well, with the four of us taking turns sharing songs for a smallish but attentive audience.  I played “The Dance That You Saved Me” and "Newborn Girl” from The Devil's Day Off, "Western Lodge" from Made of Sky, "This Love Is A Weed" from Practical Man, and maybe a couple of others.  At the end of the show, the host came up to thank everyone and wrap things up; first, however, she took the time to read aloud a note that had been handed to her by an audience member, addressed to me. 

I have been a bit shy about sharing that note here, because I feared it might look as if I was fishing for awards or, even worse, somehow resenting my friends’ success, which is really not the case. In the end I realized that the note was important to me; it made me feel good, and I’ve decided to share it.  Here’s what it said:

“To get an award you need to apply or be nominated.
I can only believe, after listening to you tonight, never having heard you before, that you didn’t apply and your friends may have been busy!
Your poetry is unbelievable! As [our host] would say, “Incredible!”
“Apricot light”?!!? As a photographer, I have never heard that dusk light described so absolutely perfectly. BTW, that’s just one example of the beauty that is your song.

I want you to have an award. I have no award here tonight to give you. I wish I did.
I don’t know if will make any difference to you, BUT you made a lovely, wonderful, emotional difference to me.

Thank you,

An audience member.”

In thanking the writer for this generous praise, I said “this is an award”; and I hope that doesn’t sound like mere hoohah.  The invisible award that happens when a single person listens to a song of mine and loves it will always be precious to me.

Tom

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Song Talk #4 "Underground Parking Lot Attendant" (from Made of Sky, Mylodon Music,1999)


 I must confess that I have never worked as an underground parking lot attendant. When I wrote this song (many years ago), underground parking lot attendants were a bit more common than they are today.  I have no idea whether these folks experienced the kinds of thoughts and emotions described in the song –but it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s always been to me an archetype of the low-status job: an opportunity for the underqualified to be underpaid, underground, understimulated, and underappreciated, for unending boredom flavoured with exhaust fumes.  Nowadays, if the function has not been taken over by a machine, it is most likely to be filled by a recent immigrant whose otherness and lack of fluency in English or French make better jobs hard to obtain.  When I was a student, it’s a job I might well have applied for, but the horror of doing it for a lifetime was the trigger for the song. 

On one level, “Underground Parking Lot Attendant” is straight social commentary about what working-class people endure just to make a living.  People heading out in their cars give little thought to the nameless stranger who collects their parking fee:

Thirty-two floors of concrete between me and the sky
Carbon monoxide makes the brain cells die


There is also a sustained thread of courtroom imagery in the song which provides a clue to its genesis.  The attendant is “riveted like a prisoner” in a little glass booth. (I was thinking of the bulletproof booths in which some extremely dangerous or controversial prisoners appear during their trials.)  He feels judged and condemned by the free and prosperous car owners, the “gentlemen of the jury” who pass him by on their way to the open air:

How can you reach a verdict when you can't see the scars
of the defendant?


More than anything, the song appears to me now as a young man’s cri de coeur about having to surrender most of his waking hours and energy –most of his life– to working for a living.  Since leaving Eden, humankind has never stopped resenting work; especially work that is not of our choosing. As the UPLA reflects bleakly,

I take the money and I give my youth.

“Factory Lad (Turning Steel),” written by Colin Dryden in 1969, explores this melancholy theme in perhaps a comparable manner:

But he made a speech and he said "good-bye" to a life time working here,
As I shook his hand, I thought of hell - a lathe for forty years.


(As Dryden quipped years later at a concert I attended, it struck him as ironic that as a young man the thing that had scared him most was secure employment...)

When we recorded “Underground Parking Lot Attendant” for the CD Made of Sky, producer James Stephens recruited Danny Artuso to do the haunting electric guitar work.  The deliberately adagio tempo reflects the way time drags underground, and was anchored by drummer Peter von Althen and by Martin Newman’s sombre upright bass.  For me the biggest revelation was what pianist Ian Clyne brought to the closing minutes of the song: a moody and yet playful, bluesy exploration that, along with Danny’s dreamlike guitar arpeggios, kept the song from becoming too gloomy.