Thursday, February 25, 2010

"This Cruel Thing" (Live)- Amazing Little Parlor Games... A Collection of Live and Unreleased Songs- Volume Four, 2005

I made the trip a week last, to the Vic Shows at the 40 Watt, in Athens. It was a fascinating, albeit emotionally exhausting tribute to the man whom was loved by so many. The performers where an array of national acts, Athens' locals, fellow songwriters, musical friends and former collaborators...each of whom had a special connection with Vic and his art.

One of the many highlights, on Saturday, was a special performance by Silver Mtn. Zion and Guy Picciotto...Vic's partners in crime on At The Cut. Sitting in on vocals was Vic's niece and an amazing vocalist in her own right, Liz Durrett. This ensemble performed, what I consider, the best song of the evening, and a song that Vic never committed to a studio album... This Cruel Thing.
This Cruel Thing is a rather old song. The earliest performances dating back to the early 1990s, and even though a studio version has yet to surface, the song isn't completely unknown. Vic licensed it for the soundtrack to the movie A Slipping Down Life where it was performed by actor Guy Pearce. I like that version and it's included below.

Lyrically the song draws heavily from a sentimental Civil War ballad entitled Weeping Sad and Lonely (When This Cruel War is Over.) The ballad, penned by Charles Carrol Sawyer, is considered to be one of the most widely adored songs from the period, despite critical opinion to the opposite. Most critics panned the song as being "commonplace" and having a musical structure that was 'flimsy' and unmelodious. Not everyone agreed, however. It was heralded as "the greatest musical success ever known in this country" by the Cleveland Leader when the song was still contemporary. They went on to add that the "melody catches the popular ear and the words touch the popular heart." Despite that digression, the song sparked numerous musical replies, parodies and became popular on both sides of the battlefield.

Vic's deference is lyrically comparable, and melodically it has its similarities as well. The first line, for example, is almost identical to the title of the former composition. The original focused on the thought of the time in which it was written, and the hope of no more conflict or battles. Vic took that idea and ran with it, crafting a beautiful lyric around a touching melody and a song which becomes bittersweet with the foreknowledge of the events that occurred last Christmas.

Vic always felt in battle with life...whether it be physically or otherwise. He always seemed to make the best of his situation, but the conflict always seemed to be prevalent, and I can see why he would be drawn to the emotion of the original.

This song has always been a personal favorite of mine, and the version at the 40 Watt tribute validated that opinion. Vic's live versions are a fantastic listen, but Liz singing her version, backed by Vic's final band, caught my ear and touched my heart.

Whether a studio version, by Vic, will ever surface or not is unknown (Edit: it does exist and it is fantastic.) It's also just been recorded and is intended for inclusion on the upcoming album by Vic's former collaborators Widespread Panic. I'm glad that it wont be forgotten. (Second edit: That version is included here as well.)

Here's a live version by Vic:

Here's Guy Pearce's version:

And here's the version by Silver Mtn. Zion featuring Guy Picciotto and Liz Durrett:

And here's Widespread Panic's version:


Weeping sad and lonely
When this cruel thing is over
Hopes and fears... How vain?
When this cruel thing is over

And often dreams I see you
On the battle plain
Sadly breathing...falling
When this cruel thing is over

If a mid din of battle
Nobly you should fall
I'll whisper words in honor
When this cruel thing is over.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Independent Bookstore" (Live)- Josiah Meigs and Me- A Song Cycle for Puppets, November 2001 (Unreleased)

In November 2001, Vic performed a handful of shows, in New York, that were entitled "Josiah Meigs and Me: A Song Cycle for Puppets." The shows featured words and music by Vic, and a stage production by filmmaker Jane Geiser, one of the country's most foremost puppeteers. The stage show, which was called “a grand little live-action silent movie,” was elaborate and artistic, and was well received by both press and fans alike.

The cycle revolved around the man Josiah Meigs; an academic, writer, lawyer and former President of the University of Georgia. His influence was great, and even though he was unlamented as President, his name is still prominent at the University, and in Athens.

Vic recognized similarities between Josiah and his late father. The biggest being that both were ousted from their jobs due to corporate and political idealism. Josiah resigned his duty as President in 1810 after several disputes with the Board of Trustees. In Vic's father's case, he was let go from his job at Eastern Airlines, and died within a year as a result. His death is something that Vic never let go of, and rightfully so.

When asked about his fascination with Meigs, Vic was quoted as saying:

"He was a smart man with deep convictions, and he was surrounded by political opponents. I had a dream in which he was talking to me. I don't remember what he said, but it was my late father's head he was talking with. That's what really hooked me- he'd climbed deep into m psyche and hooked up with my father. This song cycle is about finding Meigs and what that led me to discover about myself and my country."
The concerts consisted of Vic on stage left, with an array of different sized puppets,
each of which representing a character from the cycle, rotating through the storyline center stage.There's was a three-quarter sized Vic marionette animated to relay his memories and thoughts (including both a rowboat and dreaming sequences), a life-sized, large headed Josiah Meigs cranking a wheel of a printing press, a miniature reenactment of the founding of UGA, and other assorted puppets.

The song cycle included all new compositions (save one- Flying, which was an old track about Vic's father.) The story starts with the discovery of a book, by Vic, at a used bookstore about the history of UGA. There he discovered the history of Meigs and understood the correlation between Josiah and his father. The storyline develops into the telling of his heritage and about how that knowledge changed his perspective on life.

The song that is included here is first song of the storyline. It tells of the discovery of the above mentioned book, and is a fun listen.

I know that Vic held this production as one of the high points in his performance career, and I'm glad that a document of the evenings exist. Vic's music has always been theatrical and imaginative. This production is proof of that.

Further reading:


Once I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi
One sunny summer afternoon
I was hungry, hungry downtown on the square
But all the restaurants were closed

Well just when I felt on the verge of blasphemy
I realized it was a Sunday
And that is the one day
When around there all the restaurants would be closed
(Spoken: Baptists don't eat on Sunday, ya know?)
I was starting to swoon, yeah.
The sun was doing more than loom
When out the corner of my eye
Something sparkled.
It looked like and then proved to be a great little independent bookstore sign

Well, I guess for a heathen like me, that's a steeple beckoning
So I started in over towards it, but as soon as my hand hit the door
Every single author I had ever come across or, especially the four or five that I'd been dying to read...

They flew right out of mind
They flew right out of mind
Yes, They flew right out of mind
They flew right out of mind
They flew right out of mind

So, where oh where would I start to look,
in all those stacks of dusty books
For the one of many that I know was there
that even I could appreciate

I used my eagle eye
to spy the table 'Marked to Move.'Then I sorta sidled over
I stuck in my thumb and pulled out like a plum
a text with a title that took me aback.

It was entitled, "College Life in The Old South- as Seen at the University of Georgia."
Well, that's kind of like my Alma mater
Seeing as I've lived in that historic college town ever since I dropped or flunked out

And the book is only three dang dollars
The book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars...
and I'm a cheap fucker...
It's only three dang dollars

Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
The book is only three dang dollars
Yeah, the book is only three dang dollars
The book is only three dang dollars

Yes, the book was only three dang dollars so I didn't have to shoplift it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"It is What It Is"- At The Cut, 2009 Constellation

Throughout Vic's career, he often composed songs that where relative to his situation, or revolved around circumstances that where part of his life. These songs often felt inspired and deeply personal, even if they were non-specific or unclear. No song, however, felt as honest and as autobiographical to me as "It is What It Is."

Lyrically, it's so detailed and poetic, while at the same time, vague and ominous. There are references to his physical disability, his adoption, his career, his disposition, his beliefs, his heritage and his death. In his poetic verses, Vic created a beautiful 'self portrait.'

The song was first performed in Newcastle Upon Tyne, in England in May of 2005, and then dropped from set lists by the end of that year. It could have been forgotten... another lost Vic masterpiece. Thankfully, it was resurrected and formulated for release on At The Cut.

In an introduction to this song at the Tribeca in New York in 2005 (featured below), Vic said the following. "You know how in hip hop, these days,'s, um, a very popular form of music. I don’t know if you've ever heard it....but they, um, often like to brag about themselves. This song is not like that."

There are numerous references to “hideous” characters like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the ‘speckled monster’ Caliban (from Shakespeare's The Tempest), and the Phantom of The Opera. As unfortunate as it is, it appears that Vic did see himself as some sort of deformity, or creature.
His reference to Henry Darger suggests that Vic considered himself in the same light. Both were adopted, both were sarcastic and sharp witted, both were outsider artists, and both suffered from mental disorders (Darger from paranoid schitzophrenia and Vic, of course, from clinical depression.) He also highlights (lyrically) W.H. Auden, one of his favorite poets, and someone whom I believe he tried to emulate on several occasions.

All in all, this song feels like a reflection back on a life that was not as the writer had once envisioned. It’s sad and aware, while at the same time being nostalgic and confused. I do enjoy this song, but it’s also a very hard listen, knowing what happened in the ‘looming blackness.’
The fact that he uses the word obsolescence saddens me most. For Vic to think that he was was no longer viable hurts my spirit. There are so many people who would have disagreed with him, and I hope it was just a lyrical turn of phrase, and not a dogmatic principle in his life.

Vic was what he was…and what he was was great.
Further info:
Here's the album cut:

And a live version:


I am a monster

Like Quasimodo

Or Caliban the natural man

Giving wild ripostes to my reflection

One ugly morning

In a rage

Father threw an apple

Into my carapace

And like the invisible man

Directing traffic

I’d be ineffective

No matter how enthusiastic

Amid the masses’ frenzy


In this massive


Appearance is everything

Nothing is how it seems

And civilized society

Is calm civility

I’m the phantom of the opera

Singing beauty and at ease

Or Henry Darger’s


And that is curt clues to my essence

Planned obsolescence

Appearance is everything

Nothing is how it seems

In a market economy

It’s called marketing

And not exactly clawing my way to glory

Nor whimpering in the wind

But once positively

I’m teetering on the brink

Of an all-out breakthrough

But sometimes clear headed

Sometimes a doofus

Sometimes very cordial

And sometimes aloof

I am syrupy optimistic one moment

Then gravely pessimistic the next

Irritable as a hornet sometimes

Then agreeable as it gets

I’m not a pagan

I don’t worship anything

Not gods that don’t exist

Nor the sun which is oblivious

I love my ancestors

But not ritually

I don’t blame them or praise them

For anything that they passed along to me

I don't need stone altars to help me hedge my bet

Against the looming blackness

It is what it is

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Object With Two Heads" '(Live)- Amazing Little Parlor Games... A Collection of Live and Unreleased Songs- Volume Two, 2005

In 1994, Vic started playing a song entitled "Object With Two Heads." The song was a peculiar little ditty that featured strange lyrics about a two headed dragon, and was performed with his 'Skiffle Group' for a couple of years. The song, it turned out, featured lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, with music arranged and written by Vic.

Ernest Noyes Brookings was a resident of the Duplex nursing home, in Boston. He rose to fame, when the facilities' activities director, David Greenberger, approached him to be involved in a homemade magazine entitled Duplex Planet, which revolved around day to day specifics of the residents of the complex. The zine became a cult classic and Ernest, specifically, became popular among the artistic, poetic types and soon became the subject of several compilation discs that featured his words put to music.

Vic once mentioned, in an interview, that he would like to record this song for one of those comps. I'm not certain if he ever did, but several live recordings exist. I like the song. It's fun, whimsical and, honestly, in stark contrast to Vic's other work from that period. Hopefully, if there is a studio cut, it will be let out of the vault.

Below: David Greenberger and Ernest Noyes Brookings

Further information can be found here:
Here's a live version from Ulm, Germany, 8/17/95

Lyrics below reproduced from Duplex Planet No.73