Tag Archives: 1970s

Sibylle Baier – Colour Green (1973; 2006)

Driving home one evening, I recalled it had been about a month and a half since I’d stumbled across Sibylle Baier’s lost 1970s gem Colour Green. I listened with earphones that first time. But now, in the velvet darkness of the car, with barely another vehicle on the road, it was time to explore how Colour Green could transform space.

The effect proved both evocative and surprising: Baier’s songs seemed to fill the space as much as they revealed a gaping void as bottomless as her melancholy. As the tracks played, the quietness of my tiny Toyota seemed to swell beyond its tangible proportions. Baier’s soft, melancholic voice and guitar, reminiscent of Nick Drake, entranced me. Her songs transported me to the sepia-toned backdrops of her life: wintry domestic evenings, road trips to the shore, distant hillsides. I had spent some time away from the album, but now I was rediscovering each delicate note in a quiet, malleable environment, in which the songs could fully unfurl like crisp leaves slowly flattening between the pages of a book.

Baier’s compositions are cyclical. Refrains melt into verses. Songs bleed sadly into each other like watercolors running down paper. The fourteen pieces unravel as a singular composition, a long, winding exploration of the young woman’s life. Baier’s angelic vocals and acoustic technique navigate ghostly arpeggios and seamless key changes in a seesaw rhythm. The songs are intimate. Her lyrical style mimics the cyclical pattern of her sound; she releases each syllable in a rolling motion, some clauses spilling over their lines and reinforcing the song’s circular movement. This effect becomes particularly noticeable in “The End,” when she leaves the word end hanging, tacking on an extraneous vowel to round out the word and produce a lingering effect. Baier clings to the word’s finish with the same heartbroken hesitation that she conveys throughout the song, as she struggles to grasp the painful reality of a failed relationship. Even as she admits in the refrain: “It’s the end, friend of mine,” she holds fast to the notion that “life is short but love is old.” Within the circular rhythms of the notes, Baier swings, distraught, between grief and disbelief.

Many of Baier’s lyrics employ internal rhymes and repetition to maintain this pendular rhythm. In “I Lost Something in the Hills,” Baier reflects: “Oh what images return oh I yearn/ for the roots of the woods/ that origin of all my strong and strange moods.” For the first seven syllables, her voice carries the weight of deep-set nostalgia in a monotonous tone reminiscent of a medieval church choir hymn. Her rhythmic utterance of the words, coupled with the internal rhyming scheme, conveys a circular motion that transports the listener through the gloomy, atmospheric space to which she seeks return throughout the lines of the song. In “Softly,” markedly more buoyant but still reflective, Baier’s experiments with repetition and pendular rhythms become fully realized within the song’s reiterated refrain, sung in syncopation. She playfully swings between keys throughout the song in a jazz-esque dance.

This particular track, as well as the whimsical numbers “William” and “Wim,” evoke Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Drake and Baier recorded remarkably similar albums in the early 1970s; Drake’s a skeletal, stripped-down sound that diverged from his earlier work, Baier’s a series of reel-to-reel tapes recorded from home over the course of three years. While their contemporaries produced music with full, often horn-heavy instrumentation, Drake and Baier composed acoustic songs that transcended their own cultural-historical context, achieving a sense of timelessness. In Baier’s case, the belated release of Colour Green in 2006 emphasizes the album’s enduring quality.

Baier delicately bends syllables and plucks threadbare melodies that paint the vivid motifs of Colour Green. The songs are a collection of melancholic snapshots, quotidian events colored by a sweeping existential sadness. Many of Baier’s lyrics are rooted in domestic scenes. A working woman slices bread for her children; glimpses of a wintry atmosphere, a “painful February mood,” emerge above the watery surface of the lyrics. A lover sitting in his “lazy chair” asks Baier “what sorrow you bear” as she sheds tears after a harrowing workday. Interspersed between the lines of domestic imagery are small anecdotes of Baier’s travels and revelations as a young woman. In “Remember the Day,” she speaks of a moment in her life when she hovered on the brink of suicide, “considering if one shouldn’t die or if one should,” contrasting this dark contemplation with a stark image of a midday sun. Suddenly, as she recalls mustering the will to “just buy some food,” the song’s rhythm shifts and gathers tempo. She recounts finding herself heading in an unexpected direction toward Genoa, Italy. “Did you ever drive in a moonstruck constitution/ and find to reach a seaport and down there is a solution/ you should if you could,” she tells the listener. By the shore, where “there simply was the water’s smell and remoteness,” she retrieves herself, reflected in the waves of the “old cold ocean.” The visual motifs of a wintry, domestic life and thematic iterations of loss, self-discovery and nostalgic reflection unravel in a cyclical fashion reinforced by her ghostly vocals and acoustic technique.

The most evocative imagery of the album appears in “Elliott.” Long, round phrases with oddly placed emphasis unfurl monotonously from her lips. The only pause in the refrain occurs after the first three words, creating the impression that Baier’s sentences possess little to no punctuation. “I grow old/ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled says Elliott.” Her use of the present tense thrusts the listener into the midst of the subject’s sad contemplation. The song revels in the melancholy persistent throughout the entire album: “Gayly clad sadness is a radical quantity says Elliott/ sadness is a long brown ribbon says he/ sadness is beautiful.” The singular image of the ribbon, haunting and mesmerizing, mimics the greater aura of the album in a micro moment of self-reflexivity.

Baier’s poetic command of language and skillful rendering of atmosphere transports the listener through the strange and dark spaces of her life. Within haunting lines depicting the grayness of existence, she provides glimmers of revelation that enlighten and cast meaning. Colour Green unravels as a manifestation of nostalgia, timeless and heartbreaking, a testament to the spiritual fortitude of a woman perpetually “seeking for return.”

Guest post by Elizabeth Hopkins.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a writer, artist, and part-time anthropologist. In her free time she likes to take photographs, eat delicious food, and jam out to good tunes, among many other things. A graduate of Skidmore College, Elizabeth is a Program Coordinator at the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, where she works collaboratively to advance environmental conservation and stewardship.

In Praise of The Gong Show

As the time spent with the screen approaches or surpasses the time spent outside it, so the parables, overt or otherwise, of men trapped in their own creations or those of others, of individuals trapped in the television pile up in increasing quantities. They pile up without our noticing and the more obvious examples of this phenomena like The Truman Show become less interesting. The Truman Show bores me because its coming at the realization that TV has impacted social relations from the tired and, at the present moment, irrelevant parable of the person seeing their life was a lie and coming to the truth. Ho hum. Very reassuring because it dodges the real issue at hand-there is no escape.

The art that best explores the horror and glee of being trapped in the reflection of the screen is not that which consciously approaches the question as such; as the question at hand is one of immersion, they evade the issue by confronting it. The greatest lens developed to explore life within what Adorno and Horkheimer called “the culture industry” is the TV game show. The greatest practitioner of the form is Chuck Barris. Its crowning masterwork is The Gong Show.

The Gong Show was a joyous, raucous, all inclusive vision of hell. Contestants would be chosen for whatever strangeness they might offer the program; Barris always seemed drunk and/or on quaaludes, stumbling around the stage, sometimes barely audible, in a marching band outfit carrying a hockey stick. The judges were no less grotesque and ridiculous, a menagerie of over the hill lounge singers and random D-list celebrities who were also usually drunk. A stagehand was brought in as recurring character Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and eventually acted as a judge on several episodes. “The Unknown Comic”, Murray Langston with a paper bag over his head, would burst in telling horrible one liners and harassing Barris until Barris would chase him off the stage. The “good” performers were less than an afterthought-you watch the show to see things go wrong.

The self-seriousness of an American Idol, claiming to be for the benefit of the performers, is in fact just the arbitrary savagery of the capitalist selection process of what constitutes “success” asserting that its real and we should all participate in its mawkish carrot dangling that any of what goes on on it is “good”. These shows seem stupid and cruel because they are, in the same way as screenwriting workshops. A perfect example of this tendency was the one season Fox game show On the Lot. In this show, a group of aspiring commercial filmmakers jockeyed for the favor of Carrie Fisher, who wrote a bunch of middle brow literature about herself during the 80s, and Garry Marshall, director of both The Princess Diaries and the sequel to The Princess Diaries. Clearly people fit to judge these things. But they’re celebrities, they’ve got a lot of money, and a $1 million development deal was dangled at the end. So people played along. They all took it seriously. Like any game show, it was a long job interview done in public. That the audience could vote on favorites was the actual vicarious thrill; they weren’t fantasizing about the possibility of “making it” but to dream the more insidious fantasy of being the power broker pulling the strings to hire or fire applicants. Apparently the cost of taking these things very seriously is the possibility of $1 million.

The Gong Show was more honest. The prize money for the winner was the SAG minimum fee for a day’s work, there was never any pretense the judges or Barris knew anything about anything. “Constructive advice” was pulled out of no one’s ass. The Gong Show was anti-aspirational. The audience at home didn’t watch in order to vicariously imagine themselves as these peoples’ potential employers. They watched to revel in the glorious multiplicity of failure. They wanted to see the various ways people could get gonged. The gong itself, the symbol of ultimate power over expression, was put in the hands of nobodies. The tyranny of the gatekeeper was reduced to its ultimate ridiculousness. The amateurishness of the performers, a grotesquery that likely mirrored the inner desires of the viewers at home if they’d had the exhibitionist instinct to go on The Gong Show was handled with neither the condescending “polite” pity of an American Idol audition episode, nor the savagery of a Simon Cowell verbal undressing. It was just a thing that was there and all the weird dreaminess of regional oddities was allowed to express itself. A carnival of the things and people that were never supposed to make it on the TV. No one was fooled that Chuck Barris or the judges were above the contestants, least of all Chuck Barris.

After the end of the Chuck Barris run of The Gong Show, the only one I’m willing to acknowledge as existing, the thematic and narrative threads of the show were explored and resolved in The Gong Show Movie. In this film, Barris comes to terms with a much more troubling question than The Truman Show was willing to consider-what if you knew you were on a TV show, your existence revolved around this TV show, bled into the reality and left a thing that was ostensibly real but looked more like an endless marathon of The Gong Show. Barris and his girlfriend go through their daily routine and are constantly bombarded by people breaking into Gong Show auditions, up to and including Barris’s therapist. Barris is a terrible actor, which, in a film dealing with the borders of what constitutes what’s “good” in performance, is an asset. His “real life” as a California based celebrity grows to seem more grotesque and off-putting than the parade of characters seemingly escaped from a Fellini film that surround him. He keeps trying to escape into “reality” but the specter of The Gong Show repeatedly ruptures any pretense to such.

At the film’s climax, Barris takes a plane to a nondescript desert half a world away, ostensibly Morrocco, sure that this is the final desperate measure he needs to take to escape and be the no one he thinks he desires to be. As Baudrillard then Zizek put it, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” Wandering this empty expanse, a helicopter comes out of nowhere filled with Gong Show regulars. They sing a song telling Barris they need him to come back and run The Gong Show. The genius in this ending being the irony that they charmingly offer him the chance to reconcile in terms of coming back; he was never able to leave in the first place. The Gong Show is a part of himself, not an externality. The only escape is to not be Chuck Barris.

The actual specter haunting Chuck Barris in The Gong Show Movie is the fake possibility of being respectable.