Out of the Loop 02: Esther Lee

March 11, 2009
Esther Lee

Esther Lee

The cover of this album warrants explaining. Let me begin…*ahem*:

As the story goes (allegedly, the details are unknown publicly), Esther Lee recorded Where Glory Began from her hospital bed while suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness. In her time of grieving, she recorded a collection of songs – a sort of final lament for a life lived and a therapeutic acceptance of the unknowable passage into death (When this happened we do not know – the closest I can find to an “official” release date is 1974.)

The subject matter, and mystery surrounding this record, means that we can fall into the back story regardless of its validity. All we know of Ms. Lee is this half hour of music, featuring, exclusively, her wonderfully delicate voice. It feels like finding the private recordings of a family member you were, by sheer will of time, unable to meet – a small artifact that contains the most intimate account of a life passed.

The first 10 minutes are intensely immersive. I am especially taken, even still, by “Dust on My Picture Frame” – her delivery sounds painfully restrained.  The lyrics, tethered with regret and loss, convincingly sound like the meditations of a woman staring her own mortality in the face. You believe Esther, and if you listen closely between the gaps in her singing, you may even hear your heart breaking (if hearts actually broke, that is).

As the album progresses, though, things start turning kind of funny. It begins with the first name drop of the big man in the sky (you know the one), which seems to trigger what was apparently a suppressed urge Ms. Lee had for singing unrelenting, dehumanizing, and tone-shatteringly upbeat worship music. From track 5 onward, our initial impressions are betrayed in favor of elbow pushing suggestions that, especially in times of mortal certainty, we owe our lives to said big man. In the process, the hurt, torment, regret, and fear that we so irrevocably associate with dying are undermined completely.

This shift is not to say that the songs are illegitimate, or that Esther had not handpicked the tunes herself, but it does not settle well with me on many levels. The sequencing of tracks, firstly, is incredibly jarring. That it started sounding very remorseful and then shifted dramatically into more “optimistic” worship songs suggests that there may have been an agenda here, if not from Esther, than the people producing the material. There also appears to be moments in which the production value shifts (ie, the recording sounds less scratchy or there seems to be a pronounced echo effect on Esther’s voice.) This could possibly be post-recording techniques later added, but the discrepancy is undeniably suspicious.

It is possible the story is sound (I write about this record in hopes that it is), but with some of my past experiences with “underground” religious music (see Forrest McCullough ‘s Flight F-I-N-A-L and the New Creation’s Troubled), I would not put it past a select group of religious fanatics to pull a stunt like this, or worse, to exploit a woman who is in fact dying. Regardless, Where Glory Began is a mysterious little oddity that is worth the initial discovery, if only to carry on the mystery.

More information about this record – perhaps the most you can find on the net – is available on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog website, as well as the entire album in mp3 format.  Its guaranteed to kill the mood of any party (I know this from experience) so be sure to show your friends!


Out of the Loop 01: Peter Grudzien

May 24, 2008

THe Unicorn

In 1974, while working as a graphic designer, Peter Grudzien quietly and independently wrote, performed, and recorded “The Unicorn”, a 14 song LP featuring an odd marriage of country and psychedelic music. Grudzien attempted to sell copies – of which there were a mere 500 pressings and no label involvement – in local bookstores and out of his briefcase after shows with little success.

To be fair, the record – a surrealist hillbilly psychedelic garage masterpiece exploring themes of religion, death, and sex – provided an uneasy space for most listeners to inhabit. The narratives contain often apocalyptic imagery. Distant tape manipulations echoing throughout songs like the epic “Kentucky Candy” sound like a choir of ghosts. Furthermore, the frequent allusions to homosexuality surely tested the average country listeners’ tolerance of gay culture at the time. The record went virtually unheard.

Grudzien was born and raised in Astoria, Queens, New York. In the 1950s, he developed a love for Christian and Hillbilly music, and soon found musical kinship in artists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. In the late ’50s, he started a band with which he wrote and recorded music.

As an art student in the early 1960’s, he developed a passion for Bob Dylan and hallucinogenic drugs, later documenting a peyote trip in his 1964 song “I Don’t Complain”. In 1969, he was involved in the Stonewall Riots, an event widely considered a precursor to the Gay Rights movement. He later recorded a song about the events, which began as a harsh criticism of the circumstances leading to the riots- claiming individuals were paid to incite violence – and eventually digressed into a paranoid claim that a government created clone was being used to erase his true identity (Grudzien apparently believed this clone theory to be true – he allegedly refused to give Johnny Cash one of his tapes because he believed he was a copy.)

A little over a decade after the apparent failure of “The Unicorn” LP, it was rediscovered by Paul Major, a collector/archivist and small label entrepeneur. A few years later, he met Grudzien in person.

Peter Grudzien

“[I met him] in a downtown drag bar. He was like something out of the Addams family: really tall and skinny, in an obviously slept in tuxedo, 55 years old. He wanted me to go out to his car and listen to this song he’d recorded the morning before, and when we walked down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village, every head turned on both sides of the street! I got into the car, it was covered with cigarette stains and grease and smelled strongly of gas – I was afraid that when he turned the key in the ignition to play the tape deck, the car would explode. He turned out to be a walking encyclopedia of early country music, he had met a lot of big country stars.”

Grudzien remains unaware of his music’s strangeness by societal standards, a mark of a “true” musical outsider. “[He] doesn’t realize exactly how his music is perceived as being so strange. He’s still trying to break into the Nashville Country scene in a normal sort of way,” explains Major.

Though only two LPs (“The Unicorn” and “Garden of Love”) are commercially available through the Subliminal Sounds record label, Grudzien claims to have written over 900 songs throughout his career. He apparently still records and independently distributes music at his incredibly rare live gigs.

For the musically adventurous, “The Unicorn” provides a thrilling, unexpected experience. Download it here. The lesser known “Garden of Love” LP is also available for download here.

Louis Theroux Goes to Prison

April 3, 2008

In January the BBC debuted Louis Theroux‘s latest documentary, Behind Bars, in which he investigates “a strange world within a world” – the infamous San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.

The hour long program observes the relationships between prisoners and guards, the self imposed racial segregation between inmates, and the social implications of romantic relationships within the penitentiary.

One inmate, Deborah, explains her position and social value as a transgendered woman within this self-contained place: “[the men] get to have a relationship and have a little house and go to work everyday and come home everyday.” It seems, then, that the transgendered woman becomes a part of the illusion that makes life behind bars livable. She makes it possible to simulate the familiar companionship and heteronormativity outside of San Quentin.

Relationships between the CO’s and inmates are portrayed as surprisingly warm.   The prisoners also seem more than willing to talk to Theroux, an obvious outsider.   Some prisoners, such as David Silva – who is serving 520 years and 11 life sentences – is in lockup 23 hours a day, virtually cutting him off from all human interaction. 

The special originally aired January 18, 2008 on BBC2.  A segment of the program can be viewed here

Photograph: Rex Features, http://www.bmivoyager.com/2007/10/27/weird-wonderful/

Willard becomes a Real Boy

April 1, 2008

As promised, I have finally completed a paper cutout stop motion animation for my Willard character.  It was a collaborative project between myself and good friend/filmmaker Ryan Murphy, without whom this idea may have never even come into fruition.  It also features my own original music, some of which can be found on my myspace music page

Basic plot summary: a mysterious hand cuts open Willard’s head, chaos ensues as dragons, strange blue balls, devil heads, and obscure shapes spill out uncontrollably, while the clouds behind flicker into different colours against the pink sky.  suddenly Jason pops out, but not a moment passes before himself, Willard, and all inhabitants of this strange world are flooded by massive blue waves, transporting Jason into a dark and lonely undersea abyss. 

Jason successfully avoids a number of odd creatures (including a strange lampfish, long-faced goldfish, and a curiously androgynous ocean floor dweller known simply as Edgar), but meets a bitter end when.. well, you’ll have to find out.

 I want to quickly include that while this was originally inspired by the Hey! Arnold short animation mentioned in a previous post, the youtube community has compared it stylistically to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film and Terry Gilliam‘s animated Monty Python stuff.  Both of which are incredibly awesome.

So go watch it!

Women in the Media

March 7, 2008

This week Emmanuel College hosted a documentary viewing and short discussion about women in the media.  The event, featuring guest speaker and Emmanuel psychology professor Dr. Kimberly Smirles, was held on Tuesday, March 4, in the Modular Unit outside of the campus library. 

The documentary, entitled “Dreamworlds 3:  Desire, Sex, and Power in Music Video”, explores how cultural ideas of masculinity and feminity are influenced by the normalizing images we see in popular music videos.  It further observes the social implications these images may have in terms of male homosexuality and racism.

The film was written and narrated by Sut Jhally, a Communication professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  He is also the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation (MEF), through which the film is produced.

The DVD is available for viewing in the Emmanuel Media Office, located in the library.  For a preview, click here.

The Third Gender

January 13, 2008

A few days ago, my friend and I had happened upon a television series on National Geographic called Taboo. This particular episode explored a few culturally based perceptions of death, including beliefs of the afterlife and appropriate funeral practices to honor the life and death of the deceased. It was interesting, so I decided to explore some other topics the series has covered. The one that immediately caught my eye was Sexual Identity (go figure). Unfortunately, not having the National Geographic channel myself, I settled with a 3 minute clip online (posted, fittingly, through the NationalGeographic youtube channel) that talked about a group of Samoans called fa’afafine.

Fa’afafine are generally involved in sexual relationships with other males who are socially identified as heterosexual. Without the possibility of a child, however, these relationships are considered much more casual than those between one male and one female. Rarely do two fa’afafine become romantically involved, and relationships between a fa’afafine and a female are virtually unheard of.

While the National Geographic program, or rather a small piece of that program, had originally sparked my interest in what is often recognized as the “third gender” of Samoan culture, I found a minimal amount of information regarding the topic elsewhere. After some digging I happened upon an essay written a few years ago about the fa’afafine and how Western influence has come to redefine what exactly that word means.

Western notions of gay and transgendered are not interchangeable with the social role of the fa’afafine (there is, apparently, no specific Samoan term for “homosexual”). Gender in Samoa is defined by certain roles. Domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning, for example, are generally assigned to women. Your labour is what defines you, both at home and in your community.

Interestingly, the overt sexuality and physical emphasis we see in modern fa’afafine, the essay argues, is largely the result of Western influence. Images of femininity through film provided a gender-specific physical ideal that many fa’afafine, and biological females, could use to advertise their sexuality. But also injected into the culture were Western concepts of homosexuality. Distinction between gay and straight were not an issue until recent years for Samoans, and in a nation with a resoundingly conservative Christian populace, ‘deviance’ in sexuality can be particularly frightening. So while the identity of the fa’afafine was once multifaceted, under the outsider lens it became almost exclusively sexually-based.

Does this strike anybody else as a little bit sad? These new terms threaten to marginalize the fa’afafine, who consider themselves firmly rooted in their community. Furthermore, filing fa’afafine under the same category as transvestites or transgendered persons because it is the closest our culture can get to “understanding” what they are is an unfortunate and misleading oversimplification.

It is strange, but necessary, to think about the ways in which language falls short. After all, our understanding of the world goes only as far as words can take us.

The Curious Life…

January 7, 2008

So earlier last year I began work on this character called Willard Nobody. At that time, I was thinking a lot about the antihero. I didn’t really like this romanticized image of the protagonist we see all too often in movies and books and things. Its much more interesting to look at a character and not know what he’s all about.  Why can’t the good guy be ugly, have bad breath or, you know, be a little evil?  I tried to think of physical features that we Americans love to debase and tear apart – a double chin, unsightly cysts, missing teeth, a patchy mustache and sideburns, bad haircut, thick glasses. He would be the subject of ridicule, and bottle up every last bit of abuse with a tightly sealed smile. When it came to his personality, he was everything we value as “good” and “admirable”, but nobody cared or even noticed simply because he didn’t look the part. I also decided I wanted the story to have an element of fantasy, so I gave Willard a sassy pet fairy named Lloyd.


Many sketches later, trying to conceive of new characters while also getting a better grasp of what my two central characters would look like, I created Jason. Jason was one of those characters based on some stereotype of a kid that everyone knows – kind of lanky, exaggerated bird-like nose, an overbite, and seemingly unable to breath without his mouth open. He was supposed to be in his 20’s, but he was one of those people that just sort of got frozen in time between adolescence and adulthood. He seems nervous and awkward all the time, panicked even when there is no reason to be. Immediately I took a liking to his character, and suddenly all these ideas came to be in terms of his relationship with Willard.


The ideas in terms of story are still developing, but the following seems to be staying pretty consistent:

1. Willard will lose someone he loves

2. Most of the story will center on the “relationship” between Jason and Willard

My first idea was to make Willard Nobody into a comic book. This continues to be my number one priority in terms of fully realizing my “vision” or whatever the hell you want to call it. I also thought it would be interesting to create some claymated “teasers” as well, something kind of reminiscent of the early claymated Hey! Arnold shorts. The more I consider these ideas the more excited I get about putting them into motion. This is going to be a good year.

So thats my brief explanation of that particular project, for anyone who was curious. I’ll continue to keep you guys posted.