Saturday, May 04, 2024

Frank Stella, 1936-2024

Frank Stella, an American artist whose works included painting, sculpture, printmaking, and architecture, died today at his home in Greenwich Village at the age of 87. The video above, by Christie's, shows him giving a tour through his studio in 2019 in which he shows some of his works and talks about his creative process and his views about art.

According to his New York Times obituary:
Mr. Stella, a formalist of Calvinist severity, rejected all attempts to interpret his work. The sense of mystery, he argued, was a matter of “technical, spatial and painterly ambiguities.” In an oft-quoted admonition to critics, he insisted that “what you see is what you see” — a formulation that became the unofficial motto of the minimalist movement.

Despite his early committment to a minimalist aesthetic, his later works, some of which can be seen in the video, are exuberant in color and design. This might be expected of an artist who has cited Caravaggio as an influence.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Of Tom Rush, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young

Tom Rush has been a favorite singer of mine since I first heard him in the spring of 1968 on Boston's WBCN, which had recently adopted what came to be known as an "underground rock" format. I was in Cambridge then, finishing my first year of law school, and missed the chance to see him live at Club 47, now Passim. The clip above shows him singing "The Circle Game" at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, Massachusetts on January 31, 2020. At 82 he's still doing shows, although he's limited his early 2024 travel to the New England and Middle Atlantic coasts.

In January I got on my Facebook home page this link to a post by Canadian music historian John Einarson that tells the story behind the song "The Circle Game." I had forgotten that it was written by Joni Mitchell, whom Rush got to know when they were both on the Boston/Cambridge folk circuit in the late sixties. Einarson quotes Mitchell from a talk she gave during a concert at London's Albert Hall in 1970:
"In 1965 I was up in Canada, and there was a friend of mine up there who had just left a rock 'n' roll band (...) he had just newly turned 21, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favourite haunt, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you're over 21 you couldn't get back in there anymore; so he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends and everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know, but it's one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn't play in this club anymore. 'Cause he was over the hill. (...) So he wrote this song that was called "Oh to live on sugar mountain" which was a lament for his lost youth. (...) And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, that's a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope. It's called The Circle Game."

The friend who inspired Mitchell to write "The Circle Game" was Neil Young. It would be some time before the "better dreams and plenty" promised near the song's close came his way. As Einarson tells it, he went through a time of frustration trying to succeed as a folk singer in Toronto, where "Young's career stalled amid stinging criticism of his material." In December of 1965 he traveled to New York and the offices of  Elektra Records. He "remains unsure who secured this" but hoped for a full scale studio recording session. Instead, he was sent into the tape library and greeted by Peter K. Siegel, whom I heard discussing his experiences as a producer at Folkways and later at Elektra last November at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Siegel gave Young what he, quoted by Einarson, described as "this funky old tape recorder" and told him to sing into it. 

One of the songs he sang into that tape recorder was "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." According to Einarson,  

"Young identified 'Clancy' as his former Winnipeg high school classmate Ross 'Clancy' Smith. Young described Smith as a 'strange cat'—an aberrant figure tormented by others for singing blithely."

Young did not sing "blithely" for Elektra's tape recorder; consequently, Elektra had no interest in signing him. The clip above is audio of Young singing "Clancy," accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and by piano, at Carnegie Hall in December of 1970. In the five years since his failed Elektra session, he'd had plenty of "practice" to get there. This included his time with Buffalo Springfield (1966-68), which recorded "Clancy," with vocal by Richie Furay instead of Young, and issued it as their first single. It became a local hit in Los Angeles. It was also included in their self-titled first album.

Now, back to Tom Rush. The song that made me a fan of his in the spring of 1968 was his cover of another Joni Mitchell song, "Urge For Going."

The clip above, audio only, is the version I heard on WBCN many times as I sat at my desk, often into the early morning hours, trying to focus on what I needed to know for my forthcoming first year finals. It was springtime in Massachusetts. Why did this song about autumn falling into winter resonate so with me? 

For thirteen years, from 1954, when my parents and I returned from our three year sojourn in England, to 1967, I had lived in Florida. We had "seasons" there, but nothing so dramatic as going from a New England winter with the ground covered in snow for months on end to a riotous spring with almost  every tree on Cambridge Common in bloom. Perhaps it was this sense of what I had missed that made the melancholy of "Urge For Going" meaningful for me.