Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Cris Williamson - Meg Christian

Just as baseball historians can only speculate about how black players would have fared in the absence of segregation in the major leagues prior to the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947, so music historians may ponder what status Cris Williamson might have assumed if she had emerged at a time when admitted LGBTI people were not subject to exclusion from major record labels. By the 1990s, openly gay women artists Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, and k.d. lang were able to maintain major-label contracts and sell records in the millions (although none of them had
publicly come out when they were signed in the 1980s).

But when Williamson acknowledged being a lesbian in the 1970s, it relegated her to independent-label status and minimal coverage in the mass media, even though her lyrics made only minor reference to lesbian issues and her music conformed to conventional styles of pop/rock. She made a virtue of her exclusion, however. As part of the feminist movement, she became the leading light of the style known as "women's music," inspiring the formation of a label, Olivia Records, devoted to the style, and recording an album, The Changer and the Changed, that became one of the best-selling independent releases of its time. Thereafter, she continued to record and tour regularly, later maintaining her own label, Wolf Moon Records.

Cris Williamson
Williamson was born in 1947 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Her father was a forest ranger, and she grew up without electricity in Colorado and Wyoming, listening to music on a wind-up phonograph. Her musical idol at the time was Judy Collins, and Williamson developed a musical style and sound that was similar to that of Collins. She released her first album, The Artistry of Cris Williamson in 1964, when she was sixteen. She became a local musical sensation in Sheridan, Wyoming, releasing two following LPs afterward. Unfortunately, none of the songs from these early albums exist on youtube.

Williamson graduated from the University of Denver. She supported herself initially as a schoolteacher, however, during the same time, collaborated with other women who were also singer-songwriters and performing artists, and began to network with Holly Near, Meg Christian, and Margie Adam; all musicians who became women artists of stature, forming an entirely new genre of music, primarily about and for women.

This is how she describes her entrance into music: "I started when I was 16 and I didn't fall in with the feminist world until my mid-20s. Before that I was in rock 'n' roll, folk music, and standards. I took voice lessons. Nobody taught me to write a song. Politics taught me about politics. Living in a world where all our leaders were assassinated one by one. It entrenched me in the left. When I became a feminist, I further honed a humanist consciousness, which is now a feminist leaning. The overriding element that led me into music is the human condition, that we are all alike. That's why different styles of music appeal—it's either good music or not. I listen to everything. I'm widely read in music as well as literature. And, so my approach to music is to speak as though we were all creatures who come to a water hole, in a clearing, in the wilderness. And everybody deserves the water, and the water to me is music. And that's what brings us all human beings together. And I think music should bring people together and not drag them apart."

Her first mature effort, recorded for a national record label, was Cris Williamson, released by Ampex Records in 1971. It reportedly sold 11,000 copies. From that album, here's Shine On Straight Arrow:

Also, here's the opening track, Waiting:

Then, in an interview conducted by another young lesbian folksinger, Meg Christian (born 1946 in Lynchburg, Virginia), Williamson mused that it would be a good idea if someone launched a record label specifically targeted at gay women. Her notion quickly led to the formation of Olivia Records, which began in 1973 by releasing a single with Christian's version of the Gerry Goffin/Carole King song Lady on one side and Williamson's original If It Weren't for the Music on the other. Olivia's first LP release was Christian's debut album, I Know You Know (which Williamson produced), in 1974, and its second was Williamson's The Changer and the Changed (1975).

Here's Lady, by Meg Christian:

From Meg's album, I Know You Know, here's Joanna:

... And here's Valentine Song:

The Changer and the Changed was to women's music what Michael Jackson's Thriller was to the music industry in general in the mid-'80s, an album that sold far beyond the perceived size of the market, more than 100,000 copies in its first year of release. Eventually, it reportedly sold more than 500,000 copies, which would make it a gold album, although it has not been certified as such by the RIAA. (That does not disprove the sales estimate, however. Albums are not certified automatically; a record company must request certification and pay for an audit.)

The opening track of The Changer and the Changed is Waterfall:

There wasn't really an artistic reason that these albums shouldn't share the success with the albums by Carly Simon, Phoebe Snow, Carole King, etc, which were at the forefront of the mainstream in the same era. So, I guess the reasons were mostly political. Pity...

Also from The Changer and the Changed, here's Hurts Like The Devil:

... Here's Wild Things:

... Here's Sweet Woman:

... And here's Song of the Soul:

Meg Christian released Face The Music in 1977. From this album, here's Sweet Darlin' Woman:

... And here's the fun number Leaping Lesbians:

Williamson's next album, Live Dream, which also featured June Millington (formerly of Fanny) and Jackie Robbins, was released by the label The Dream Machine in 1978. Included in this album was Soaring:

Williamson's formal follow-up to The Changer and the Changed was Strange Paradise, issued by Olivia Records in 1980. The closing track is Native Dancer:

In 1981, Meg Christian released Turning It Over. Here's the title track:

In 1982, Cris Williamson released Blue Rider. Here's the title track:

... And here's Like An Island Rising:

Also in 1982, Cris Williamson released a children's album called Lumiere ...A Science-Fantasy Fable, which won an award from Parents' Choice. This was the first record on which Williamson worked with singer/songwriter Tret Fure, who engineered the disc; the two then became domestic partners.

In the fall of 1982, Williamson and Christian marked the ten-year anniversary of the founding of Olivia with a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall that was recorded for the two-LP set Meg/Cris at Carnegie Hall (1983). Here's the whole album for you:

Meg Christian released her last album for Olivia Records, From The Heart, in 1984. Cheap Thrills was one of the tracks that stood out:

... Happy Birthday was another:

Finally, from this album, here's Here From There:

She ceased giving live performances in 1984, and began studying Eastern mysticism; the result of these explorations were the albums The Fire of My Love and Songs of Ecstasy. She changed her first name to Shambhavi during this time and lived in an ashram in New York. In 2002, Christian restarted her association with Olivia Records, and began performing again for label events; her first appearance since 1984 was on a cruise ship arranged by Olivia.

Meanwhile, Williamson kept herself active; her next studio album, Prairie Fire, was released in 1985. Snow Angel, a holiday collection, appeared for the 1985 Christmas season. Wolf Moon (1987) contained songs with "wolf" references (including novelist Virginia Woolf and recently deceased folksinger Kate Wolf). From this album, here's Goodnight, Marjorie Morningstar:

Then came a country-oriented duo album with Teresa Trull, Country Blessed (1989). Live in Concert: Circle of Friends (1991) was Williamson's first solo live album, recorded at a concert in Berkeley, CA, marking the 15th anniversary of The Changer and the Changed. In addition to new performances of songs from that album, it contained both new originals and covers such as James Taylor's Millworker and Leonard Cohen's Sisters Of Mercy. Here's the latter, performed live for the Denver Women's March, a few months ago:

In April 1994, Williamson and Fure released the first of three consecutive duo albums, Postcards from Paradise. It was followed by Between the Covers (February 1997) and Radio Quiet (March 1999), both released on Williamson's own Wolf Moon imprint because Olivia Records had switched businesses from music to travel, becoming Olivia Cruises and Resorts.

Williamson and Fure broke up as a couple in 2000, and Williamson reflected on the split on Ashes (September 2001), her first regular solo studio album in 14 years. She then teamed up with women's music veteran Holly Near for the duo album Cris and Holly (H&C Records, September 2003). Her next solo album, Real Deal, appeared in February 2005. It was followed by Fringe in November 2007. Here's the title track:

... And here's Tumbleweed:

Williamson keeps making music to this very day, her last three albums being Winter Hearts (2008), Gifthorse (2010), and finally Pray Tell (2013). From the latter, here's Sleeping Tigers:

We close with Cris Williamson's thoughts on music:

"Music is a prism of the heart. If you pass the pain through that prism, it's refracted through fractals of emotion. One of those can be anger. One of those can be incredible pain, all embodied in music. It doesn't have to stay pent up. Once it's out, it's out."

"Some people are more inclined towards down. I'm more inclined towards up. So, when I listen to reggae, that's revolutionary, spiritual, and danceable. It's anchored in the offbeat—the bass on two and four. All music is just patterns: musical patterns, word patterns. It's how you arrange the patterns that leads to your style. My friend Bonnie Raitt is a great blues player, but I always feel exalted when I hear her play—she passes it through that prism, and it's positive."

"Music can help heal the sadness of the world—it's clinically proven. People write me, and say 'you've saved my life.' Never forget for one minute, somebody may listen to your music, so be careful. What's the effect you want here? Do you want to unite people, or split them? I like people to think and I like people to come to their own conclusions. It's very philosophical. I don't start out without savior behavior. Save yourself, before you save the world, as if you saved the world. It's existential. The Buddhists say 'You can't clean up the world but don't stop trying. Don't suffer over your own suffering.'"

"The harder song to write is the happy song. It's easy to write the sad song. When you're happy you don't need to write one. You're just being in the world. It's when we feel alienated that we have to write. So we can belong somewhere. We're caught between the devils and angels. It's cellular; it's visceral. Give people a place to perch. Do I want them to understand it? Yes. It doesn't mean I don't have personal, eclectic mythology, but I try to put the jewels in the right setting, so people can grasp your meaning. They don't have to understand your whole thing. The songs that last forever are simply made, they're simple stories—people sneer at that. But that's the music that lasts. That's Dvorak who used the folk melodies. Obama is like a folk song. He's the best of us right now." (The interview was given while Obama was in power.)

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Oscar-winning Songs Countdown: 1935

In film-award terms, 1935 was a year of firsts; one was part of an experiment that was short-lived; another was the beginning of a respected institution that is still going strong today; yet another was considered solid until this year, when a certain incident caused ripples. But mostly, it was the year Hollywood declared war on the Oscars and the Academy had to pull out a secret weapon to get anyone to come to the Awards ceremony.

MGM was always in the market for a playboy type to play the other man in romantic vehicles. In 1932, the studio had latched onto a twenty-seven-year-old stage actor named Franchot Tone. In no time he was making screen love to Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford and obviously enjoying himself - he proposed marriage to Joan Crawford in real life. But Crawford was worried about their competing careers; she was still unsettled from her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1933. That marriage had ended the moment Joan made it onto the list of top box-office stars, and Crawford didn't want the same thing to happen again. "Franchot and I are very deep friends," she said. "Until things are adjusted, we will remain as we are."

Tone's career was taking off in 1935 when MGM loaned him out to Paramount for the Gary Cooper adventure Lives Of A Bengal Lancer, directed by Henry Hathaway. Tone was able to shed his man-about-town image by playing a robust British soldier in 19th century India in what became a runaway hit. Then Tone returned to MGM for another romantic vehicle - his third Joan Crawford movie. On the set one day, Robert Montgomery, who was playing Crawford's main love interest, let Tone know that Irving Thalberg was coming by to offer him the role Montgomery had turned down in Thalberg's upcoming Mutiny On The Bounty. Sure enough, Thalberg appeared at lunchtime and told Tone, "You're going to get your big chance."

Big was, indeed, the word for Mutiny On The Bounty. Thanks to location shooting in Tahiti and numerous production setbacks - a technician drowned, a prop boat had floated out to sea - Thalberg's adventure cost $2 million, becoming the most expensive movie since MGM's Ben-Hur in 1926. Mayer was sceptical of the whole project, arguing that it didn't have any roles for female stars. (It did however have the two previous Best Actor Oscar winners, Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, as leads.) Thalberg insisted, "People are fascinated by cruelty, that's why Mutiny will have appeal." There were two remakes, one in 1962 with Marlon Brando / Trevor Howard / Richard Harris and one in 1984 with Mel Gibson / Anthony Hopkins / Edward Fox. These two also had their share of production difficulties.

Although Gable as Fletcher Christian and Laughton as Captain Bligh had the leading roles, Tone had a showy monologue in the film's climactic court trial and garnered terrific personal notices when the picture opened to rave reviews. Mutiny On The Bounty went on to make almost as much money as Ben-Hur. Joan Crawford married Franchot Tone on October 11, 1935.

Tone's star rose so quickly that Warners asked MGM for him to play opposite its dawning light, Bette Davis. The studio was planning to cash in on Davis' Of Human Bondage reputation with a drama called Dangerous, about a self-destructive actress who cripples her husband in a car wreck on her opening night. "I read the script carefully and sighed," Davis wrote in her autobiography. "It was maudlin and mawkish with a pretense at quality which in scripts, as in home furnishings, is often worse than junk. But it had just enough material in it to build into something if I approached it properly. It was lovely to play with Franchot Tone and I worked like ten men on that film..."

The work was rewarded with critical praise and hefty box office. Jack Warner was delighted that Davis' brand of powerhouse performing was profitable and he demanded the full publicity treatment for his new dramatic star. Davis was the frequent subject of fan magazine stories and the studio regularly shipped out pictures of Davis at nightclubs - many of which were shot on studio sets.

Davis' rival on the tragedienne department was MGM's Greta Garbo, who decided that she wanted to play Anna Karenina again, having starred in a silent version, entitled Love, in 1927. For the first time in years, Thalberg did not produce a Garbo picture - David O. Selznick did. Unlike the previous one, this version did not have a happy ending.The million-dollar production boasted Fredric March as Count Vronsky and gowns by Adrian. Anna Karenina, earning Garbo her best reviews and her highest grosses in years, was another triumph for Selznick.

The producer had struck gold earlier in the year with another million-dollar adaptation of a literary classic, David Copperfield, directed by George Cukor. Selznick came up with an offbeat casting for the role of Micawber, with comedian W.C. Fields. The film was very successful - Selznick was especially pleased when it was well received in London, where a critic called the movie "the most gracious work of film art that America has yet sent us." Inspired by his luck at MGM, Selznick informed the studio he was leaving to set up his own movie company.

At Selznick's former haunt, RKO, Katharine Hepburn was doing well for herself in Alice Adams, Booth Tarkington's comedy of manners about a status-seeker in a small town. Fred MacMurray was the leading man and Hedda Hopper had a small part as a local snob, but Hepburn walked off with the picture and the reviews. Bette Davis herself said that Hepburn gave the best performance by an actress that year.

With Hepburn, as well as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (who in 1935 starred in their most commercial and critically acclaimed collaboration, Top Hat), on its team, RKO could afford to take a gamble on scenarist Dudley Nichols and director's John Ford's adaptation of The Informer, Liam O'Flaherty's novel about a stool pigeon during the Irish rebellion of 1922. But since the property didn't sound very commercial, the studio alotted Ford only $218,000 and 18 days to make the picture. The brooding title character was played by 49-year-old Victor McLaglen (father of film director Andrew McLaglen), better known for happy-go-lucky leading parts in adventure movies. The film won sensational reviews - the Baltimore Sun placed it "among the five best pictures produced since the coming of sound" - but audiences, perceiving it as either arty or depressing or both, stayed away, and The Informer managed to lose money.

Awards-giving fever was contagious and the New York Film Critics, perhaps feeling they could be more objective than Hollywood, inaugurated their own annual awards on January 2, 1936. Their first winner was The Informer for Best Picture and John Ford for Best Director. The Best Actress award went to Greta Garbo for Anna Karenina, while the Best Actor award was given to Charles Laughton for Mutiny On The Bounty and Leo McCarey's Ruggles Of Red Gap, a comedy in which he played an English valet making it in the Wild West.

For the first time in Oscar history, a studio campaigned in the trade journals for Academy consideration. The guilty party was MGM, promoting its adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness with Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore. The ad was a cartoon depicting a statuette with the label "Ah, Wilderness"  around its neck while MGM's trademark, Leo the Lion, stood by with arms outstretched. The copy read: "Leo, you've given so much... get ready to receive!"

The Nominations

Leo got ready to put his tail between his legs - Ah, Wilderness failed to receive a single nomination. Otherwise, because of evolving rules and tie votes, the number of nominees varied wildly from category to category: there were 12 Best Picture nominees, 3 directors, 4 actors, 6 actresses, 9 nominees for sound, 6 for editing, 10 for dance direction (that was a thing for 3 years), while all the other categories had three nominees each. The major nominees were:

Mutiny on the Bounty with 8 nominations: (Best Picture, Best Actor for all three of its leads (Gable, Laughton, Tone), Director, Screenplay, Editing and Music, Score for Herbert Stothart).

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer with 8 nominations: (Best Picture, Director, two Assistant Director nominations, Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction and Sound).

A few words on the most interesting nominee of the Screenplay category, on of the writers for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer called Achmed Abdullah: born Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff, he was the son of Grand Duke Nicholas Romanoff, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and of Princess Nourmahal Durani, the daughter of the Amir of Afghanistan.

Alexander, along with his brother Yar and sister Gothia, were born at the Romanoff Palace in Yalta, the future site of the historic Second World War conference among Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. After pressure from the Afghan and Russian royal houses forced their parents to divorce, Alexander - along with his sister - went to live with their uncle in Afghanistan; Yar, the oldest, stayed with his father in Russia. Alexander was adopted by his uncle, who changed his name to Achmed Abdullah Nadir Khan el-Durani el Iddrissyeh and raised him in the Muslim faith. Yar became an officer in the Russian army and was killed in 1914 at the Battle of Tannenberg. Gothia was said to have married an Indian rajah. In 1936, after years of being torn between the Russian Orthodox Church he was baptized in and the Muslim faith he was raised in, Abdullah became a Roman Catholic.

He went to schools in Afghanistan, India, France and finally England, where he attended Eton and Oxford. Upon graduation he became a British citizen and joined the British army, where he served with merit in China, Tibet, Russia, Eastern Europe, France, India and Africa. Because of his ability to blend in with different cultures, he was often called upon by British Intelligence to work as a spy. Not long after Abdullah retired from the British army with the rank of captain, he joined the Turkish army and fought with distinction in the First Balkan War (1912-1913). By the time Abdullah decided to pursue a writing career his life experiences had gained him a plethora of material to draw upon for decades to come.

The Informer had 6 nominations: (Best Picture, Best Actor (McLaglen), Director, Screenplay, Editing and Music, Score for Max Steiner).

The third nominee for Best Music, Score was Ernst Toch for Peter Ibbetson:

Top Hat had 4 nominations: (Best Picture, Art Direction, Dance Direction and Song, for Cheek to Cheek  Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin • sung by Fred Astaire).

Les Misérables, Zanuck's independently made adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel with Fredric March and Charles Laughton, also had 4 nominations: (Best Picture, Assistant Director, Cinematography and Editing).

A Midsummer Night's Dream, the million dollar prestige adaptation of the Shakespeare classic, directer by the great theatre director Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle and featuring James Cagney, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland and Mickey Rooney as Puck, only received 3 nominations: (Best Picture, Assistant Director and Editing).

Also with 3 nominations was another musical; the sequel of sorts to the second ever Best Picture winner, Broadway Melody, unimaginatively titled Broadway Melody of 1936: (Best Picture, Story and Dance Direction).

David Copperfield also received 3 nominations: (Best Picture, Assistant Director and Editing).

Alice Adams was nominated for Best Picture and Actress for Hepburn, while the first Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical, Naughty Marietta, was nominated for Best Picture and Sound. Captain Blood, Warners classic pirate movie which made stars out of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, was also nominated for Best Picture and Sound. Finally, Ruggles Of Red Gap had a single nomination, that of Best Picture.

The 4 Best Actor nominees were the three from Mutiny on the Bounty and McLaglen from The Informer. There was a surprise in the Best Actress race, however. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were in, as expected, but Garbo was out. "Although nearly everyone in Hollywood secretly or openly admires Garbo, she has never won an award," wrote the Hollywood Citizen News. "Perhaps she did not get the votes because everyone knows that she would not appear at a public banquet to accept it and that would pique them." The four actresses considered less likely to pique were Merle Oberon for The Dark Angel, Miriam Hopkins for Becky Sharp, Elisabeth Bergner for Escape Me Never, and Claudette Colbert for Private Worlds; they were the other four nominees.

What about the Best Song nominations? We've already heard Cheek To Cheek, my favorite of the three by far. The other two were:

Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 • Music: Harry Warren • Lyrics: Al Dubin • sung by Wini Shaw and ensemble.

Lovely to Look At from Roberta • Music: Jerome Kern • Lyrics: Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh • sung by Irene Dunne.

From the same film, the classic Smoke Gets In Your Eyes wasn't eligible, because it wasn't especially written for the movie. I Won't Dance, however, was eligible, but unfortunately wasn't nominated.

Also not nominated, Lulu's Back In Town from Broadway Gondolier.

Also not nominated, Broadway Rhythm from Broadway Melody of 1936.

To assure the honesty of the tabulations, Frank Capra, the Academy president, hired the accounting firm of Price, Waterhouse to count the votes. They've been doing it since, until the Moonlight / La La Land debacle a few months ago tainted their good reputation.

The Academy also bent over backwards and once again allowed write-in votes, permitting the 640 Academy voters to ignore the nominations, if they so chose. Jack Warner saw his big chance to win Oscars for his little-nominated Captain Blood and A Midsummer Night's Dream; he sent out a memo to all the Academy members at his studio "suggesting" they write in votes for Warners' movies all the way down the ballot.

But the voting wasn't Capra's greatest problem; the guilds were not happy with the Academy, considering that it was representing the interest of the big studios and threatened to boycott the Oscar banquet. The studio bosses, on the other hand, felt that since the Academy couldn't help them in their labor disputes it was of no use to them and withdrew their financial support. So Capra faced the nightmarish prospect of not having enough money to organize the ceremony - and, even if he did, there was the possibility that nobody would show up.

The funding issue was solved by the Academy board of directors paying for the banquet and statuettes out of their own pockets. The guild boycott was another matter; Capra needed a further lure to convince the nominees to attend. And then it hit him - why not give a Special Award to the father of American cinema himself, D.W. Griffith, and turn the party into a testimonial dinner? Capra called the director in Kentucky and Griffith said he'd be honored to attend. Capra broadcast the news of the Griffith tribute and kept his fingers crossed.

The Winners

The boycott did have an effect on the banquet, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been; a few stars did attend. Bette Davis, who shocked everybody when she appeared in a simple checked dress, won the Best Actress award. But the actress was not altogether pleased. "It's a consolation prize. This nagged at me. It was true that even if the honor had been earned, it had been earned last year," she later recalled.

The two movies that led the nominations were not too happy as the evening progressed. Before the Best Picture announcement, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer had only won for its assistant directors, while Mutiny on the Bounty was still empty-handed. Meanwhile, The Informer had four wins out of five nominations (the absent John Ford for Best Director, the jubilant Victor McLaglen for Best Actor, the boycotting Dudley Nichols for Screenplay and the absolutely worthy Max Steiner for Best Music, Score.) It only missed the Editing Award, which went to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The same film won the Cinematography award, even though it wasn't nominated. It was the first and only write-in nominee to actually win.

The Best Story award went to one of the wittiest movies ever, The Scoundrel, Art Direction went to The Dark Angel, Sound went to Naughty Marietta, while Dance Direction was shared by Broadway Melody of 1936 and Folies Bergère de Paris. Irving Thalberg sighed a sigh of relief when Mutiny on the Bounty was announced as the Best Picture. It was it's only win, but it was a big one.

The Best Song award went to Lullaby of Broadway. It is a perfectly fine song, but really, not a match for Cheek To Cheek.

After the awards were given, Capra revealed the results of the voting. Mutiny on the Bounty had won by a wide margin, followed by The Informer and Captain Blood. Katharine Hepburn was behind Bette Davis, with Elisabeth Bergner in third place. Victor McLaglen's closest competition for Best Actor wasn't one of the Bounty nominees, but write-in candidate Paul Muny for Black Fury. Finally, Captain Blood's Michael Curtiz placed third in the Directors' race, behind Henry Hathaway for Lives Of A Bengal Lancer.

Boosted by the attention from the Academy, The Informer was re-released by RKO and finally made a profit. Frank Capra savored the irony; it proved what he had maintained all along, that the Oscar is "the most valuable, but least expensive, item of world-wide public relations ever invented by any industry."