A tribute to photographer Cindy Sherman, considered one of the most important artists of her generation, according to what I just found on Google, and a major figure I would never have known the first thing about if I hadn’t tried to figure out this song. I guess this demonstrates what I’m sure Billy would tell me, that popular songs don’t have to be mere entertainment. They can tell stories about things you never knew, and make you curious enough to go find out.
Billy Bragg first came to my attention in the mid-1980s, in a video of one of his most affecting songs, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, which managed to make it into the rotation on Much Music. This was back when there were whole channels devoted to nothing but music videos, and the form was slowly evolving from the trashy, glossy, empty flash of “artists” like Duran Duran – virtual fast food commercials in which the music, such as it was, was almost entirely beside the point – into something more self-consciously arty and serious. This was the era when U2, the Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and the like were trying to say something beyond “please buy my record, so that I might be stinking wealthy and buried up to my neck in drugs and hot babes”. Video Art Rock, if you like.
Levi Stubbs’ Tears belonged to none of the prevailing trends – it wasn’t slick, it didn’t include scenes in exotic locales, or animation, or wild photo angles, or the use of colours and lighting to make it look like a fashion shoot on tape, or anything arty at all – it was just Billy, standing there with his sleeves rolled up, guitar in hand, in a dark empty studio. It wasn’t a video of Billy playing over the recorded version of the song, either, or doing cinematic things while the song played underneath. He just stood there, live and utterly unpretentious, played the song for the camera, and according to legend was in and out in a single take. Thus like the song, the video never ages.
Just your typical romantic ditty assembled according to the familiar formula: worthless lout meets girl/worthless lout marries girl/worthless lout leaves girl to wallow in terrible loneliness/worthless lout comes home and shoots girl full of holes. You know, pretty standard stuff.
I loved the song from the get go, and it has an extra-special place in my heart because it turns out that my wife-to-be did too, from before I met her, and I think it surprised her that a goof like me could appreciate such a thing. My standing increased further when I was able to explain to her who Levi Stubbs was, and Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, and Holland and Holland and Dozier too. I was able to pull the Motown CDs off my shelf and show her, coming on all sage and well-versed. From then on I pretty much had the inside track.
This type of jangly solo guitar ballad was typical of his output back then. Billy positioned himself as a sort of angry young leftist folk singer on a mission, Woody Guthrie with an electric guitar, but so quintessentially British in his accent, slang, and verbal imagery that to those of us on this side of the pond he seemed almost from another world, almost exotic. His output oscillated between portrayals of everyday life, which on the surface at least embraced no particular agenda, and outright agit-prop that railed against The Man and social injustice. One track would be something like There is Power in a Union, or Between the Wars, the latter a moving tribute to blue collar workers struggling for a living wage during the Great depression, and hoping for help from the 1930s political system. Then the next might drop the dialectic in favour of a poignant coming-of-age tale about young longing and lost romance, like the beautiful St. Swithen’s Day, with its wistful remembrance of days past:
The Polaroids that held us together
will surely fade away
like the love that we spoke of forever
on St. Swithen’s Day
…or the wonderfully honest and self-aware A New England:
I don’t want change the world, I’m not looking for a new England – I’m just looking for another girl. Look, you can’t always be on the front lines throwing Molotov Cocktails at the capitalist oppressors, right mate? A young man has his needs.
Billy’s politics might have put some people off back then, as they did me sometimes, before I clued in a little more and went all lefty myself, but you couldn’t help but be drawn in by the compassion, the vast reservoir of human sympathy that he brought to the music. After a while, you realized that Billy wasn’t so much angry as profoundly saddened and deeply frustrated by the sheer, unnecessary cruelty of the ordinary person’s lot, feelings that are perhaps easier to understand as we look around at what’s become of us here in our new 21st Century Gilded Age.
Don’t Try This at Home, released in 1991, marked a bit of a departure, containing songs set against broad, complex, multi-layered studio soundscapes reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Walls of Sound. Cindy of a Thousand Lives, my favourite, has the vocal riding above the sombre strumming of a small orchestra of acoustic guitars, numerous, insistent, and in perfect synchrony, sounding just as Phil would have liked. For years I took it to be mournful dirge for the lost innocence of a mythical long-gone America, shattered forever in the wake of Viet Nam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the plutocratic predations of the Reagan years:
Blue velvet America
half glimpsed in the headlights between the trees
Who punctured your beauty
and invited monsters such as these?
The pig-faced boy
The corrupted clown
The grotesque figure who never comes in to town
Looked at that way, it seems more relevant today than ever, doesn’t it? Yet it isn’t about the political landscape at all, save to the extent that it’s written in praise of the reputedly subversive politics embodied in the photographic work of Cindy Sherman. She’s the pig-faced boy, the corrupted clown, and hundreds upon hundreds of other archetypes and oddballs depicted in her curious, challenging, and sometimes upsetting images, which appear to comment on the way women are portrayed, and thus shaped in real life, by modern media.
This was written in connection with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art:
Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954) is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential artists in contemporary art. Throughout her career, she has presented a sustained, eloquent, and provocative exploration of the construction of contemporary identity and the nature of representation, drawn from the unlimited supply of images from movies, TV, magazines, the Internet, and art history. Working as her own model for more than 30 years, Sherman has captured herself in a range of guises and personas which are at turns amusing and disturbing, distasteful and affecting. To create her photographs, she assumes multiple roles of photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist, and wardrobe mistress. With an arsenal of wigs, costumes, makeup, prosthetics, and props, Sherman has deftly altered her physique and surroundings to create a myriad of intriguing tableaus and characters, from screen siren to clown to aging socialite.
The most fascinating aspect of her work, about which, let’s be clear, I know nothing – I only started to look into it when doing the homework to write this post – is how hard it is to tell that every single picture is really the same person, as she serves as her own photographic subject across thousands of images that show women in all sorts of settings, postures, costumes, and emotional states – even, in some of them, apparently deceased – each so distinct that it’s hard to believe that every one of them is her. Hence, Cindy of a thousand lives, and Billy singing “Cindy, which one of them is you”? This video, not an “official” release, but put together by an admirer and posted on YouTube, will show you what I mean. Those are all her:
Something broken, something stained, something waiting for the worms to claim.
Here’s further reading, if you’re keen.
I’m almost sorry I finally understand what Billy was on about. I liked the mystery – before you learn the real story, those lyrics are as perplexing as they are evocative, and somehow just as powerful in a different way, allowing you to attribute your own meanings as if they’re a sort of aural Rorschach Test.
Ever get the feeling that you’re just not perceptive enough to understand, and that all genuine art, with all its many nuanced strata of meanings, is utterly wasted on you? My guess is that Billy, an everyman, yes, but also an intellectual artist if ever there was one, never gets that sense.