Christmas in June: the December 1953 Virginia Spectator

 

Cover, 1953  Virginia Spectator

Cover, 1953 Virginia Spectator

In the 1940s and 1950s, the former Virginia University Magazine / University of Virginia Magazine, the literary magazine at the University founded by the Washington and Jefferson Literary Societies, had become a men’s magazine in the mold of Esquire. Jokes, dating advice, and parodies ruled. But I’m not sure they ever exceeded the conceptual brilliance of the December 1953 issue (volume 115, number 4), also known as “The Misplaced Mistletoe Issue.” Featuring woodcuts (which we’ll look at another time), a Christmas story, and a suggestive cocktail themed cover, the whole package provides a humorous, if sexist, dose of holiday mirth.

The best bit of all is the eight page carol book, “A Treasury of Yuletide Song,” stapled into the center. Featuring such titles as “Lament of a Reindeer at Christmas Time,” “Advice to All Those Who Think That Being a Civil Engineer is the Greatest Form of Life, or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Wahoo,” and “Sexual Misbehavior of a Female Reindeer, or I Saw Donner Kissing Santa Claus,” the apex (or nadir, depending) is “Wreck the Halls, Carouse, and Volley,” which ends with the admonition “Neck with molls and fraus of folly … Don’t forget to use protection / Oui-oui-oui, oui-oui-oui, oui-oui-oui! / Or you’ll get a bad infection, / V.D.D.D.D.D.D.D.D.” Besides making “Rugby Road” look tame, the songbook confirms that the early 1950s at Virginia were a different time.

Below is a relatively presentable excerpt from the songbook, showing that bourbon was not always the exclusive tipple of the Cavalier. Enjoy.

1953-spectator-verymerrygentleman

Remembering the fallen of UVA, summer of 1918

wheatley

Plaque given to the memory of Eugene Russell Wheatley, slain aviator and UVa student, as shown in the September 25, 1918 University of Virginia Alumni News

This Memorial Day, I found myself thinking about those who came before, and the ways in which they gave their lives to protect our country. As I went through my archives, one name that came out from the pages of a 1918 issue of the Alumni News was Eugene Russell Wheatley.

“Bus” Wheatley had the misfortune to be the first UVA engineering student to die in the First World War. Like his more well known predecessor James Rogers McConnell, he was an aviator. Unlike McConnell, who flew for the Lafayette Escadrille, Wheatley was a cadet in the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor to the RAF. Both died for the war effort before the United States officially entered, in April 1917. In fact, Wheatley perished nine days short of a year after McConnell, on March 10, 1918, in the most ironic of accidents: while flying a training mission, his plane caught fire. T.J. Michie Jr. relays what happened next: “Rus managed to sideslip the machine down safely, but landed on a railroad track and was run over by a train, which I think is the worst luck I have heard of in the war.”

But where McConnell is famously memorialized in the Gutzon Borglum statue The Aviator, little save the plaque above brings Wheatley to our remembrance. Perhaps it is a difference in their respective statures at the University; where McConnell was King of the Hot Feet (and, apparently, a Seven), Wheatley was an engineering student, a member of Theta Delta Chi, who otherwise apparently kept to himself. That we remember McConnell is inevitable; we should spare a thought for Wheatley and others like him, who though less sweeping in their heroic gestures still made the ultimate sacrifice.

Friday Random 5: poets edition

Not poets as in “writers of poetry,” but as in “p*ss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” Or, more precisely, the Memorial Day weekend. Here’s a quick 5 to take us into the weekend:

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, “As This Moment Slips Away”: I keep sleeping on this album, which is a mistake. The Bad Plus are astonishing on their own, but as a rhythm section they keep Joshua Redman on his toes and bring out some really strong playing. This tune is a little more controlled than some of the stuff on the album, but I dig the way Redman and Ethan Iverson make improvisation seem effortless, even over 9/4.

The Lonely Island, “Sax Man”: Just silly. Jack Black as a lead vocalist who’s intimidating the saxophonist is hysterical. “Okay, movin’ on!”

Amahl and the Night Visitors, “Oh No, Wait”: Yeah, it’s going to be one of those days where everything turns up on the random shuffle, isn’t it? Amahl was a holiday staple in my house. This moment where the mother acknowledges that she has allowed her despair to overcome her moral center and offers the gold back to the child, followed by Amahl offering to give the only possession he has, is the key turning point, and Menotti pulls it off in just over a minute and a half.

David Byrne, “What A Day That Was (Live from Austin, TX)”: From David Byrne’s superb Austin City Limits show, this key track from The Catherine Wheel gains a little meat on its bones from a string arrangement that owes a little to western Swing.

My Morning Jacket, “Cobra”: An early indication, from the Chocolate and Ice EP, that Jim James and MMJ owed more than a little to funk and R&B. Very different from their earliest stuff, but in retrospect pointed the way to some of the later surprises on Circuital. Heavy heavy bassline. And then after 7 minutes it gets really weird.

Throwback Thursday, thwarted

I was all set to post an embarrassing Throwback Thursday picture based on a copy of the 1994 Corks and Curls I found online at the UVa library. Except that it, along with the digitized versions of all the other Corks and Curls I had been using for research, has now disappeared again.

I’m a little frustrated. I know that Coy Barefoot had been working on an online museum, which went password only not long after I found and pointed it out back in 2015. Now the scanned versions of all 120 volumes, which were previously accessible via the UVA library catalog, are offline.

If someone is going to index them and re-add them, I’d be obliged, but I’d love to hear a timeline for when that will happen.

What’s old is new

IMG_2609

UVA Today: Renovated Rotunda returns as element of UVA graduation. As promised, the University’s yearslong renovation of the Rotunda is wrapping up in time for students to begin using the new spaces in the fall. I’m excited by the progress and eager to see an old friend renewed, but I’m also a little wistful.

The picture above is from the tour of the Rotunda that I took Reunions weekend 2014. The tour allowed alums an unusual amount of access to the building, even including normally off limits rooms like the north clock room. That was because the interior had already been emptied in preparation for the second phase of the Rotunda’s renovation, which included major overhauls of many interior spaces… including the dome room.

I’m not especially nostalgic for the acoustic tile shown on the Rotunda ceiling in the photograph above, but it makes me somewhat melancholic that it’s gone—along with some other familiar features of the interior, like the double-curved ground floor staircase (introduced in a post-Jefferson renovation, and a copy of the ones Jefferson did design on the second floor). The Rotunda will still be there—but it will be changed in a thousand small ways.

But… that’s the passage of time, and the story of the University of Virginia as a whole. We want to hold onto the familiar, not recognizing that doing so may hold back progress. I’m really looking forward to students using the space again, and only a little melancholic about the loss of aspects of the space that will now only exist in my memory.

“True Love Waits”

"True Love Waits" (found)

“True Love Waits” (via, originally via)

This is the eleventh and last in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

After the self-loathing breakthrough of “Tinker, Tailor,” the last place you’d expect A Moon Shaped Pool to end up is a twenty year old song famous for never being on an album. But that’s where we are with “True Love Waits.”

Easily the most achingly sad work in Radiohead’s repertoire, the song has been celebrated in its previous live incarnation, anchoring the live album I Might Be Wrong and appearing as the title track of Christopher O’Riley’s first album of Radiohead transcriptions. But it’s never been heard like this. Like the O’Riley version, this version of the song eschews the acoustic guitar that accompanied the original version of the song for piano; but unlike the O’Riley version, which tends like all his early Radiohead arrangements toward busy fills, this version strips everything back: a single echoing piano line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Brian Eno/Harold Budd ambient album, supplemented by a two-note bass pattern and some higher piano excursions high and distant, supporting the voice of Yorke’s narrator.

A narrator trapped. The piece lays bare the tragedy of the album as a whole, for Yorke’s narrator cannot embrace the epiphany and self-discovery he’s found. He is left with the realization that he’s “not living / I’m just killing time,” but he cannot bring himself to let go of his former love either. He pleads, “Don’t leave,” even as the relationship is destroying him. Like a frame of 8mm film stuck in front of a lens—pictured on the cover of the album?—he is caught, immobile, and being slowly destroyed. It’s gorgeous desolation, but it’s desolation nonetheless.

It would have been easy for Radiohead to close this album in a happy place. By depicting the awful finality of Yorke’s narrator’s dilemma, they’ve done something more honest and created a portrait of self destruction on the smallest, most intimate scale possible.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief”

Radiohead: "Something happened." (via)

Radiohead: “Something happened.” 

This is the tenth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

We are on the home stretch of our review of A Moon Shaped Pool as we consider “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief,” hereafter “Tinker Tailor.” The electric piano intro and drum machine playing a slow dirge tip us off from the opening: we are back in the land of low flying panic attacks, as Yorke’s narrator imagines creatures leaving their holes looking for prey. We are also back in the land of unhappy nature, which goes in this song from indifferent to actively hostile.

As the track builds, with strings, acoustic piano, guitar and live drums adding to the arrangement, so does the sense of foreboding doom. But why? The narrator is not concerned about traditional animals; they “stay up in the trees” and “swim down too deep and lonely” to  avoid what’s coming. Instead, he begs his lover, “come to me before it’s too late.” And he warns “the one you light your fires to keep away / is crawling out…”

At this point, the confrontation between the narrator and his fear is complete and he acknowledges it for what it is: it’s not hostile nature, it’s the narrator himself, or something inside him. But he has the power to end the confrontation: “all you have to do is say / yeah.” The track works, in the context of the rest of the album, as a powerful bit of Jung, a breakthrough of the walls the narrator has built to avoid confronting himself. But now he must if he is to be able to act on the insights he achieved in “Desert Island Disk,” “Present Tense,” and “The Numbers.” He has succeeded in opening himself; now he has to confront the behaviors that lurk inside and seek to destroy him.

“Present Tense”

This is the ninth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

Present Tense” keeps the dread and guilt of much of the rest of the album at a distance, with effort. Opening with a description of the narrator’s coping mechanism (“Distance / Distance / It’s like a weapon / Like a weapon / Of self defense / Self defense / Against the present / Against the present / Present tense”), the lyric gradually unfolds until we see what’s really at stake.

Yorke’s narrator seeks to keep the consequences of his past actions, the “world crashing down,” from stopping him from living and moving on. He recognizes that if he allows himself to be caught up and trapped in the negative emotions of his collapsing relationship he will not be able to move on. And so, he dances, “keeping it light.”

It’s a balancing act, one moved along by the bossa nova beat and percussion. This is the moment on the album that’s most honest, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges, Yes, I know I’ve destroyed my world, but I can’t continue to dwell on that or I’ll destroy myself and any chance of future happiness.

“Present Tense” has been played for years, debuting in 2009 (above) as a Thom Yorke solo song. In the context of the rest of A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s devastating.

“The Numbers”

This is the eighth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

The critical consensus seems to be that “The Numbers,” originally titled “Silent Spring,” is Thom Yorke’s protest song against climate change. It might be that, but it’s also a love song—just as A Moon Shaped Pool is an album about relationships gone bad and about natural collapse.

Bear with me on this for a second.

Yes, “We are of the earth / To her we do return / The future is inside us /It’s not somewhere else” and “We call upon the people / People have this power / The numbers don’t decide / Your system is a lie” are fairly bald statements of ecological protest. But compare the first verse to “Glass Eyes” and the narrator’s journey from the alienating train station only to find more alienation in nature. There’s been a transformation somewhere between then and now: “It holds us like a phantom / The touch is like a breeze / It shines its understanding / See the moon smiling.”

What is “it”? The earth? No, its touch is not like a breeze; if you’re being touched by the earth, you’re asleep on it or someone has thrown mud at you. Yorke’s narrator has found something else that reminds him of the embrace of nature, something that has broken through his isolation and despair and left him “open on all channels, ready to receive.” Why not love? What else could do this but the epiphany that “the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else.”

“The Numbers” is the sound of the narrator breaking out of his isolated alienation and opening himself to the world; ceasing to let himself be defined and victimized by what has happened to him; taking responsibility for his actions and his happiness, “tak(ing) back what is ours,” and recognizing that he can only make progress one day at a time.

The music supports the dual nature of the song. The piano opening strongly references McCoy Tyner’s “Message from the Nile,” with the intersection of piano and struck chords (there, Alice Coltrane’s harp, here heavily treated guitar (I think)); it’s even in the same key. Both situate the listener in nature, explicitly exploring something new to bring epiphanies. Yorke’s choice of English folk-influenced guitar for the main instrument returns us again to “Desert Island Disk” and his previous epiphany about being open and totally alive. The astonishing Colin Greenwood bassline that begins its descent with “Open on all channels” reinforces the revelation and outward turning of the narrator. The string orchestra that threatens to swamp “people have the power” underpins the power of the proletariat but also the revelation that we are not personally powerless in any sphere of life. But the most significant musical moment is the brief choral interlude that supports Yorke’s final “One day at a time.” That’s not a revolutionary statement, but a statement of personal determination.

Is it possible to read the whole album in this dual light, both as a meditation on love and on ecology? Well, “Burn the Witch” is usually read as a criticism of dangerous groupthink; “Daydreaming”‘s video finds the narrator retreating to a deserted cave to escape the anomie of modern life (and his failed relationship); “Decks Dark” imagines guilt and retribution for some awful crime, perhaps personal but perhaps ecological (“have you had enough of me, my darling?” could be apostrophe to the earth); “Desert Island Disk” is that explicit natural epiphany moment; “Ful Stop” contemplates the “foul tasting medicine” visited on those who “really messed me up” and could be viewed as Earth’s reply; “Glass Eyes” is the refusal of Earth to grant comfort to the panic stricken narrator; “Identikit” contemplates the “wreck of mankind” left as the “broken hearts make it rain,” perhaps raising the sea levels?

Okay, it’s a stretch, but I don’t think too much of one to point out that there’s a profound linkage here between the state of Yorke’s narrator’s relationship with people and with the Earth. It’ll be interesting to try to trace it through the rest of the album.

“Identikit”

This is the seventh in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

“Identikit,” as its name suggests, is a mosaic built of fragments. The lyrics are snatches of thought that cut each other off and overlap with each other. The musical underpinnings—drums, bass, backing vocals by Ed O’Brien sung from the bottom of an echo chamber—live in staccato until the bridge sweeps us from F# minor into B major, a trick we’ve heard before, on “Decks Dark,” when the bass line starts to sustain and build.

(Music theory aside: I find it interesting how Radiohead pivots from minor to major at the same time they make a key change, going not for the relative minor, here A major, but jumping up a whole tone before they drop back down. It’s a neat trick. I also find it interesting how the opening of the song has been taken up a half step since its 2012 introduction—here shown on their “Austin City Limits” appearance.)

And then Yorke’s voice sharpens on the chorus line, “Broken hearts make it rain,” and suddenly as the bass line descends he’s surrounded by the women’s voices of the chorus of the London Contemporary Orchestra (Ah, to have that gig!), who take us back into F# singing the refrain. But the sustained lyrical heights of “broken hearts…” don’t last and the main tune returns, and is slowly deconstructed until a spiky Jonny Greenwood guitar solo takes us out.

It’s a neat piece of work and I find myself simultaneously enthralled and put off by it. Enthralled because the heights it reaches in the chorus are so high. Put off, a little, because it’s just a little too in control. The song, to borrow Elvis Costello’s lyric, fits its identikit a little too completely. I’d love for that moment of transcendence in the chorus to last a while longer, or to lift us to a new place.

Gigapixel

Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O'Keefe

Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O’Keefe, Google Cultural Institute

Slashdot: Google unveils “gigapixel” camera to preserve and archive art. While certainly no replacement for museum visits, this project, which uses a robot to take hundreds of high resolution close-up images, then stitch them together into a single zoomable image, yields spectacular results.

This is what Google does best: bring the physical into the digital in new and innovative ways that make information accessible for everyone. I wish they’d stick to their knitting a little more. We could use more gigapixel art photos, digitized books and better search results, and less of some of the distractions we’ve seen from them over the past few years.

“Glass Eyes”

This is the sixth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

With “Glass Eyes” we are back in the sound world of “Daydreaming,” a ballad anchored by a piano heard through distortion and swimming in strings. At this point in their career, the band are too good to let it just be “strings,” though, and the performance of the string quartet isn’t just accompaniment. It underscores the dull ache at the core of the narrator, as it swells under “panic is coming on strong” and “I don’t know where it leads, I don’t really care”; climaxes before the bridge, and then turns somber for a moment as the narrator confesses “I feel this love turn cold.”

The narrator starts in an unusually direct voice, as though on a phone call, telling someone “I just got off the train” before almost immediately shifting perspective: “a frightening place / their faces are concrete grey.” In the four opening lines, Yorke’s narrator evokes both Adele and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” though immediately freezes the warmth out of Pound’s famous “petals on a wet, black bough.” These faces are cold and stone, and they reflect the narrator’s panic back at him.

The narrator shifts in space, now going on a path down a mountain, but finds no more surcease in the dry, dead vegetation than in the train station. Ultimately he has to confess the source of his pain: “I feel this love turn cold.” The strings get the last word, as the solo cello line is underpinned by double bass.

“Glass Eyes” is the shortest song on the album and the most emotionally fraught, as Yorke’s narrator allows himself to be confronted by the full weight of the dissolution of his love.

“Ful Stop”

This is the fifth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

With “Ful Stop,” the brief respite that was “Desert Island Disk” is gone, replaced with a menacing swarm of guilt, counter-charge and (self-)recrimination. “You really messed up everything,” sings Yorke. “Why should I be good if you’re not?”

It’s not clear from the lyric whether Yorke’s narrator is blaming himself or his erstwhile mate for the state of things, but the music makes the weight of the emotional charge clear. Opening with a muffled drum beat sounding like a heart with arrhythmia and a bassline like an incoming jet, the song carries along at high velocity in 6/8. “Ful Stop” is the nearest thing to the oddly danceable tracks on Radiohead’s nearest album, King of Limbs—that’s a performance from that 2012 tour above where the song debuted. But you’d have to be seriously damaged to dance to this, and maybe not in a good way.

The other thing that’s interesting to me is the arc of the arrangement. Opening with purely bass and (presumably synthesized, or at least heavily treated) drums, by the time Yorke declaims that he’s “to be trapped in your ful stop” the whole band is in, Selway again having seamlessly replaced the treated drums and twin guitar lines dueling behind the repeated “truth will mess you up.” Then the guitars drop out behind Yorke’s plea to “take me back again,” replaced by strings and chorus but still powered by the driving drums and bass, before the “polite” guitar line resurfaces.

The whole thing sounds like an anxiety attack. Despite its more conventional arrangement, this is one of the more difficult songs on the album—not quite “foul tasting medicine” but not pulling any punches either.

“Desert Island Disk”

This is the fourth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

“Desert Island Disk” snaps the mood of the first three songs on A Moon Shaped Pool, and brings us to an entirely different place. It is of the few songs on the album to make an appearance in substantially final form prior to the album’s release: Yorke premiered it live and solo, along with “The Numbers” and “Present Tense,” at Pathway to Paris last December, as shown in the clip above.

The full band arrangement is still primarily centered around Yorke’s English folk solo guitar and gentle vocal melody. There’s some bass reinforcement, synth and a very subtle guitar line, but they’re very much in the background—the drums don’t even arrive until the bridge, a full 2:18 into the song. The overall effect, oddly enough for a Radiohead song, is pastoral, centered on the narrator’s epiphany as he wakes from “a thousand years of sleep”: “the wind rushing round my open heart / an open ravine / in my spirit white / totally alive / in my spirit light… Standing on the edge of you / you know what I mean / Different types of love / are possible.”

It’s about the most un-Radiohead sentiment possible, seemingly free of the guilt and dread that saturate the first three tracks. But one has to ask: is the narrator really “totally alive/totally released”? With that heart as an open ravine? We’ll see. Still, standing on its own, “Desert Island Disk” stands as one of the most unguarded, hopeful moments in the band’s whole discography.

“Decks Dark”

This is the third in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

It’s the third track on the album, following two barnburners that raise the awesome spectre of guilt and culpability. You’d be forgiven for listening past “Decks Dark” as, likely, filler. It’s certainly more restrained: it opens with a synthesized drum beat and treated piano chords after the lush orchestration of “Daydreaming,” and the vocal melody covers a range of perhaps a minor third for much of the song. But there’s a lot going on here.

First, indulge me while I talk about the drums. Phil Selway has to be the most unsplashy drummer in the history of … well, whatever camp of music you put Radiohead into. In very few other bands would the drummer seek to fit his sonic palette strictly into that laid down by a drum machine at the beginning of the track so that you can hardly tell where he starts. But one should never mistake control for lack of virtuosity—just remember the jaw-dropping skill demonstrated on “Weird Fishes”—and it’s Selway’s restraint and subtlety that give the song a platform from which all else builds, including his treated (synth?) cymbal splashes (or are they guitar slashes?) in the ultimate chorus.

The arrival of the chorus over piano, drums, polite guitar and bass in the verse (I’ll adopt the chorus/verse/chorus designation proposed by the fine folks at Genius.com) signals a building of tension, as does the key change from D major to A minor, arriving almost imperceptibly thanks to Yorke’s deceptive vocal melody, which walks a tightrope around the fifth in the original key for almost the entire verse.

And then there’s the lyrics. In addition to the “elephant in the room,” we must add this song’s “spacecraft blocking out the sun”: so enormous that it blocks out the sun, so loud that you can’t block it out with your hands over your ears, so omnipresent that you can’t escape it no matter how far you run. “But it was just a laugh,” says the narrator, and we are anchored back in the lyrical context of the album. It might have just been a laugh for the narrator, but it certainly wasn’t for the person he’s addressing. And he ultimately has to acknowledge the spacecraft, as though realizing the lie in the “just a laugh”: “Have you had enough of me / sweet darling?” he sings, as electric guitar makes its first appearance and the song settles firmly in A minor, the cracks of the guitar slashes (or are they cymbals?) hammering home the point.

And now, improbably, we’ve arrived at an almost funky outro. A lesser band would have made the jam at the end an entire song, one I’d be very happy to hear. Instead, Radiohead takes us on a journey in which the narrator shows us the tightrope suddenly falling away, the moment at which self deception falters and he sees the impossibility of the situation. “And so we crumble,” indeed.