Friday, 23 March 2012

Our Business is Fun

Specs76 has done the world a huge favour by uploading this magical 1975 Arts Council documentary on Fred Fowle, the master fairground painter. Fred comes across as charming and self-effacing, and his old mentor Edwin Hall - another towering figure in fairground art - turns out to be an absolute scream.

We get to see some of Fred's psychedelic work, which is equal to anything from the West Coast, despite having being done by an old chap in a tram shed in greyest Balham. But his most original style, also shown here, involved bringing together abstract modernist geometry and illusionistic space influenced by Fred's obsession with Sir James Thornhill's Painted Hall at Greenwich. It's a treat to see him at work on these creations, which oddly sometimes predict the Turner Prize-winning work of Tomma Abts (below).

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

O Captain! My Captain!


In a recent Guardian article, John Hooper summarizes the Italian press's conceptual salvaging of the wreck of the Costa Concordia: the ship becomes a metaphor for Italy itself; its Captain a double for Berlusconi, the cruise ship crooner-turned Prime Minister. And in her book on Vladimir Putin, Masha Gessen writes that the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster 'makes an easy metaphor for the post-Soviet condition'.

This brings to mind an earlier act of rhetorical commandeering, in Phil Ochs's 1969 song, "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns". Here the sinking of the USS Scorpion submarine the year before is the starting point for a poetic statement of Ochs's personal disillusion, and his pessimistic vision of America at the end of the Sixties. Ochs doesn't make straightforward comparisons like those above, instead leaving several layers of significance to shift in and out of focus.

Like much of the album Rehearsals for Retirement, "The Scorpion..." deals with Ochs's loss of faith in politics and protest following his experiences at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago: "The crew has turned to voting, and the officers to drink..."

"Captain, my dear Captain..." paraphrases Whitman's poem in praise of Lincoln, also echoed in the metre of Ochs's verses. Throughout the song there are several cinematic shifts in perspective and scale that encourage a symbolic reading, at the same time as destabilising its coherence: from the sea to the personal effects of the crew; from the ship itself to a toy in the kitchen sink. The descending chords in the verse have an obvious significance.

When Ochs repeats the refrain, 'I'm not screaming', he's both renouncing his old techniques and touching on the reason for the song's lasting potency. This is observation rather than protest, the tone is melancholy, the 'message' ambivalent and opaque. Ironically as this introverted response to injustice replaced the outrage of old, his writing dried up. In the seven painful years that remained to him, he only recorded one more album of original material.