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Ellen Foley, No Stupid Girl

In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:

I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
         Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman.  I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
         There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.

She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
         She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic  doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears 

Look at that stupid girl 

I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair 

Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose 

Her vanity shows and it shows 

She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world 
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lp Aftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
         Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.

A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls.  And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.

VISI Art Song Lab 2, Practice

Betsy Warland conducted an excellent afternoon workshop on June 3 at the Canadian Music Centre focused on approaching art song from the vantage of a poet. She suggested moving beyond the poem as the genetic artifact for a song – as a source text that a composer then takes up and sets – and instead thinking more about the dynamic and nascent interrelationships between words and music, their interplay. Since the material coming out of the Art Song Lab is currently in development, participants are given a pretty much unprecedented opportunity to allow text and sound to intersect with and to reshape each other – a mutuality. Extending what Ray Hsu had said at our initial meeting the day before, Betsy Warland suggested that poet, composer, performer and even listener were engaged (both within and as a kind of network, I think) not merely in acts of interpretation but also in processes of mutual translation, a claim that for me gestures more fully toward the interplay of differences in the work, instead of encouraging a composer  to ferret out various hermeneutic cohesions between his or her composition and the poem and aspiring to make the musical and verbal likenesses. The emphasis on the creative potential of difference, tension and experimentation – trying out other things – really enlivened the collaborative aspects of compositional practice. Practice might be a resonant word here, in its temporally contrary senses both of praxis and of rehearsal.
         Betsy Warland also strongly suggested that we develop our art songs by focusing on emotional integrity, continuity and fidelity to experience – all of which will produce works that function as dramatic, communicative acts, as good songs. But I also hear a bit suspiciously in such very practical and excellent advice the ghosts of the kind of hermeneutic organicism I am  a little inclined to try to push through and to push aside in my own writing and thinking. She said she thought of art song as potentially negotiating a set of tensions (formal, conceptual, performative) in each song, on its own terms. Yes, exactly. So, the point might be not to discard the hermeneutic, but to tension it, to work at and through it.
         In the rehearsal sessions for the songs composed around my own poem, with soprano Phoebe MacRae and pianist Rachel Iwaasa, I found myself thoroughly impressed by the rhythmic sophistication both of the composers and of the performers. The poems on the page have very tight, specific syllabic rhythms (although the first section has been shifted out of an Emily Dickinson-ish small set of fourteeners and made into a brief prose-poem – though the folk-hymnal rhythms ought to still be ghostly there). Both  composers took up the words from different rhythmic angles; Alex Mah’s score seems fairly particulate, pulling at, and apart, individual words into their phonemic and syllabic components, working at the fragmentation of pulse at the level of the word, while David Betz has lifted phrases and segments from the poem, crossing over linear and spatial divisions (as I had arranged them, lineated them) to create what are still fragments, but which have more extension by enjambing – which has the effect of drawing out slightly longer cross rhythms from the language. I find I’m not especially attached to the poem as a verbal artefact, as something of mine anymore, or at all. I like the ways in which in these settings it takes itself apart, and reassembles as something else, someone else’s, but still linked to what I started with. Rachel also mentioned how she negotiated triplets and rhythmic clusters of fives and sevens, but overlaying them in her mind’s ear with words – a cluster of seven against four, for instance, can be felt by imagining saying the word “individuality.” Cool, I think. The abstraction of musical sound returns obliquely to the sematic loadings and rhythms of the colloquially verbal.

What This Thing Is Called Love: Helen Merrill, Part Two

I have heard Helen Merrillperform live twice, on two nights bookending a week-long gig at the Bermuda Onion in Toronto in August, 1990. If I’m remembering right, I was there for the first night of her run, which I think was Monday, August 20. The Bermuda Onion was a pricy dinner club, located upstairs above a few high-end shops, its floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto Bloor (somewhere, I think, near Bay); I believe it had a garish purple neon sign in the shape of an onion flaring out over the street. It had maintained a jazz booking policy, but with only moderate success. On opening night for Helen Merrill, the place was practically deserted. I went with my friend Peter Demas, who lived in the city, and we sat at a table close to the bandstand. There might have been five or six others in the restaurant. I don’t think we ordered much food – the price-point, as they say, was prohibitive – though we might have got a plate of fries, and maybe a drink. But we weren’t there to eat, anyhow.
The Sunday Star had run a picture of her in headscarf and sunglasses, leaning on the restaurant’s piano beside her husband and accompanist, Torrie Zito, “American jazz great Helen Merrill, “ the caption read, “is weaving her wonders at Bermuda Onion until Saturday.” (I clipped it out.) That Monday night I remember her wearing basic black with pearls. Not that it matters too much how she was dressed, but my sense is that she had downplayed appearance, the show-biz aspects of a performance, because music came first, always. To drive this point home, her closer for each of her two sets that night was “Music Makers,” a tribute she had composed with Torrie Zito for her 1986 collaborative album of the same title (on Owl) with Gordon Beck, Steve Lacy and Stéphane Grappelli that speaks directly and with unadorned, faux-naif candour to the affective value of jazz, its weave: “Music makers / thanks so much / for the joy you bring.” 
The other few faces in the restaurant that evening, who I would have assumed were dedicated fans like I was, must actually have been jazz reviewers; brief pieces on Helen Merrill appeared in the Star and The Globe and Mail in the next day or two. Geoff Chapman linked Merrill’s selective audience to the accomplished subtleties of her singing – even after so many years, not everyone had heard her or heard of her:
Helen Who? The one whose 1954 album with Clifford Brown was rated by one magazine the best jazz album ever made? Or is she the one whose recording 35 years later with Stan Getz was voted jazz album of the year?
Right on both counts. And thus it’s a matter of serious wonder that Helen Merrill is so lightly regarded in North America, save by jazz musicians, while European and Japanese fans can’t get enough of her.
[. . .]
Last night, overcoming a late arrival, a bothersome air conditioner and minuscule rehearsal time with the local bass-drums combo of Gary Binstead and John Sumner, la Merrill weaved wonders with a moody “Round Midnight” and a big, rangy version of an enjoyable tune that you realized, later, was good old “Autumn Leaves” in new guise.
[. . .]
The small, enthusiastic gathering, more aware than most perhaps of the thinning ranks of the great jazz singers [. . .] will treasure what they heard. (“Helen Merrill Weaves Wonders” Toronto Star21 August 1990: E2)
Mark Miller was a little less enthusiastic, but still drew attention to Merrill’s astounding handling of ballad form:
Some jazz singers have made their names by the number of notes they can squeeze into the four beats of a bar. Some have made a style out of the number of bars they can squeeze into a note. . . .  The long notes are the ones to wait for, the ones that draw the whistles, in a Merrill song – there was a note in You and the Night and the Music that simply turned transparent as it drew out in mid-air. They give her interpretations a quietly dramatic, sultry quality and lend a variety of softened textures and subtle shadings to the most familiar standards. The good effect in Monday’s second set, however, was often undermined by the bruised quality of her voice, a voice apparently “sabotaged” – that was Merrill’s word – by the club’s air conditioning. (“Revival Act” The Globe and Mail 23 August 1990: C3 )
I was there, so I can confirm that she did complain about a problematic air conditioner; her voice remains a sensitive instrument, and the ways in which she re-shapes a melodic line, slowly unfolding notes like delicate origami blooms, means that her breath and her pitch are closely responsive to their immediate environment. In some ways, her style is more suited to the rarefied immediacy of a recording studio than exposed to the unpredictable elements of background and stage noise. Her performance that night was, indeed, much less subtle and nuanced than those I’ve heard on record, although there were moments – like those mentioned in the reviews, but also in her version of “Lilac Wine” – when you could feel your heart stop beating, when the room seemed briefly suspended in time.
         Given that Peter and I were almost her whole audience, and the only ones sitting up close, when she left the stage after her first set, she came over to our table. Her manner was a bit wry and ironic; I think she asked us if we had a cigarette lighter, but neither of us smoked. I think I bungled saying something complementary, about how much I enjoyed her albums. She cocked her head a little,  as if unsure as to whether or not I was putting her on, looked me in the eye, and asked: “Do you have the one with Thad Jones?” I didn’t. I think she told me I should try to get hold of a copy, though it was probably out of print (which it was).  He was great, she said. “A Child Is Born” is a beautiful song. And then she left us for the back of the club.
         Years later, Emarcy France would reissue not one but both of her albums with Thad Jones – The Feeling Is Mutual (1965) and A Shade of Difference(1968), although they soon dropped out of print again, until Mosaic Records put them together on one limited-edition CD as The Helen Merrill–Dick Katz Sessions. It’s not just the presence of Thad Jones, but the gathering of two groups of musicians’ musicians – Jim Hall, Ron Carter (with whom Merrill would later record an incredible duo album), Pete LaRoca, Richard Davis, Elvin Jones, Gary Bartz, Hubert Laws – makes these sessions astoundingly special. Alongside her albums with Gil Evans, Bill Evans and John Lewis, I think it isn’t a stretch to call The Feeling Is Mutual her masterpiece. In the liner notes to the second record, pianist and broadcaster Marian McPartland suggests that what makes these recordings so brilliantly alluring is a lyrical tension, both within Helen Merrill’s voice and in her subtle interactions (I’d suggest) with the other musicians:
I remember vividly the first time I heard Helen Merrill sing. It was some years ago, and I was listening to the radio, late at night, while driving to New York. Suddenly I heard a voice with an unusual timbre and such poignancy that I pulled over to the side of the road to listen more closely. [. . .] The contrasts in her voice are most intriguing: on the one hand, like eggshell china, and on the other a heartfelt cry, a depth-of-the-soul moan of deep feeling.
She was right, of course, about “the one with Thad Jones”; while her performance that Monday night might have been a bit marred, a bit “bruised,” there is something even in that heartfelt late effort that partakes of the idea of the cry, of crying: a grainy emollient pathos. A few years later, I tried to write about it, in a small lyric tribute of my own to Helen Merrill, which appeared in Descant in 1997; strangely, I used the same metaphor as Mark Miller, the bruise, although for him it was a fault, while for me, it is the essence of what Helen Merrill does. Late recordings, such as her duet on “My Funny Valentine” with Masabumi Kikuchi, only heighten the subtly attenuated grain of her voice, its lovely expiring.
         The second gig I attended was the closing night of her Bermuda Onion run, the Saturday. My parents had come to town, to visit the CNE, and my dad offered to take us all out to dinner, so I suggested we go see Helen Merrill. He paid, which was pretty nice. The club was packed that night. She was great, a bit more showy, a bit higher energy, a bit less nuanced. Afterwards, I asked my mother what she thought. “Great legs for sixty,” she said.
         Last year, I bought an autographed copy of a Japanese album, a session Helen Merrill did with Teddy Wilson – another significant pianist in the music’s history. (Helen Merrill produced a handful of solo piano albums in the seventies, including significant recordings by Tommy Flanagan and, my favourite, Roland Hanna – playing Alec Wilder.) 

The signature, presumably for a couple she likely doesn’t know, reads “with much love always, Helen Merrill.” The thing is, I think she means it. What she does, what she gives, on these records and in those performances, despite whatever conditions there might be, is a genuine moment of feeling, a pathos that makes you pull your car over and listen. A kind of love.

Short Take on Petra Haden

I can’t seem to stop listening to Petra Haden‘s newest album, Petra Goes To The Movies (Anti-), which I bought two days ago. Brilliantly moving versions of various film musics, from John Williams to Bernard Herrmann, made by overdubbing her voice using a similar approach to her cover of The Who Sell Out. The layered, shifting densities of her voice, her voices, her voicings — alternately playful and ardent — are really and truly moving. She has a way of finding the heart of a song, of making it breathe. Her simple duo with Bill Frisell, “I Might Be You” (the Dave Grusin song from Tootsie) is a standout. She feels her way along the melody, bouyed up by the spare chords and fragile twangling of Frisell’s guitar. A fantastic record.