UCLA Seminar: The Music of Rufus Wainwright #7

March 1, 2006

“Peach Trees” and “Memphis Skyline” were on the agenda for today.

Peach tree: Van Gogh

“Peach Tree in Bloom” by Vincent Van Gogh

We started with “Peach Trees” and I confessed I didn’t understand it. Fortunately, one of the class is from Manhattan and his explanation helped with putting the song into context. Bryant Park is a place where people go in Manhattan to watch old movies, which explains the James Dean reference. There may be peach trees there (could someone please confirm this for me?). “Being held in the month of May” near peach trees refers to being in blossom, but not bearing fruit.

“Is true love a trip to Chinatown?”

I asked the class how many have gone out of their way, or to extremes in order to see, or be seen by the object of their affection: the response was unanimous. I posited that perhaps Chinatown is far from Rufus’s home, but the schlep is worth it in case “true love” is found.

“Or being held in one’s opium gaze”

This line could refer to the look on one’s face as we watch a movie, or perhaps the stare-down in cruising.

Another student pointed out the omnipresence of images of “waiting.”

  • a trip to Chinatown
  • opium gaze
  • I’ll sit and wait
  • held in the month of May
  • until you come and get me
  • tired of waiting in restaurants

The song relects this and the music actually drags in time. Chord progressions are very slow. Each phrase of the text is separated by several measures, giving the impression of things processing at a very slow pace. Some students didn’t like the song exactly for this reason: it drags.

Another student pointed out that this is a song about looking for love, and not finding it.

Tie all these observations together, and we find three stories involving three different places our author hopes to find “true love” perhaps by chance, perhaps by date: at a restaurant (verse 3), a trip to Chinatown (verse 1), and watching an old James Dean movie at Bryant Park (verses 2, 4).

Several musical elements of note in this song were pointed out by the class:

  • how the notes slide around in Rufus’s voice, giving the music a slightly dopey or lethargic feel
  • the pedal steel guitar slide gives the song a definite Hawaiian feel
  • the song has a “crooner” quality to it

“Memphis Skyline” is a song about Jeff Buckley, but also incorporates other elements.

One student pointed out the resonance with the “Orpheus” legend [“Hades,” “my harp,” and “Turn back” referring to the moment when Orpheus turns back to see Eurydice and she must return to Hades]. The Mississippi thread pertains to the city that Jeff Buckley, or more precisely, the river that Jeff drowned in. The reference to Ophelia resonates with her drowning, as well as Buckley’s [mad] performance in the cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

We discussed the Buckley-specific text. The phrase “…always hated him for the way he looked in the gaslight of the morning” was duly noted as an image from his, CD “Grace” … or was it? Um, how ’bout this?

Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley: photo by Plateselskapet

There is a predominance of major 7th chords in the song, and it was interesting to hear the class try to describe the song’s primary harmonic component. “Eerie,” “melancholy,” “sad,” ….

For an extensive analysis of “Memphis Skyline” read this.

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Rufus Wainwright @ Vienna | No Photo of Ganymedes , svp at in|ad|ae|qu|at
November 24, 2007 at 12:26 am

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Rhapsody March 2, 2006 at 4:25 pm

“Under the Peach Trees” is an unsettling song for me. Sometimes I just love it and can mellow out to it—and other times I just skip over it. I figured I must be daft, but, having thought about it, I am ready to exonerate myself a bit.

Rufus says this song is about a mystical place somewhat like “Barcelona” was a mystical place for him. Both the lyrics and the melody line work together to re-create the feeling of drifting from consciousness to a daydream place. The lines of reality blur, as if he (and you, as the listener) sort of zone out into this daydream place he is creating. Reality fades into the periphery of sight as the world of peach trees, Chinatown and a restaurant become the sharpen view. The images your class emphasized by the “waiting” references, the dragging time, the slow chord progression, even his dreamy, slurred voice heighten the sense of the daydream, the yearning and the drift away from consciousness that I think is what he wants to create with this song.

I don’t believe there are peach trees in Bryant Park…but because this is a daydream, they are there. James Dean seems to be the romanticized rebel who died before he had a chance to know love, perhaps. What would it have been like to have had a chance to meet him and know him? The way the lyrics mix Rufus’ reality—the loneliness and sadness of reading the comics and critics alone in the restaurant (I could almost hear the clinks of spoons against coffee cups.), his attraction to a handsome waiter, the peach blossoms in bloom and warm May days—with this idealized place he has created where he can rest his mind and where he can pull the listener to him and with him into the fantasy.

I find that if I’m tired, or in need of a little daydreaming, this song pulls me right in. If I’m not, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Either way, I appreciate the way the lyrics dance and flirt with the melody line to create a special place, under the peach trees.

Meg March 3, 2006 at 10:19 pm

If there are peach trees in Bryant Park I’ve been very unobservant. It’s a very busy park though. The main branch of the public library is on the park and there’s a cafe/restaurant and lots of tables and chairs there. In addition to the free movies in the summer there’s a free concert series of some sort. And of course it’s where fashion week is centered although that has nothing to do with the song I wouldn’t think.

I never thought of Chinatown as representing someplace far away. Unless you live way uptown in Manhattan Chinatown is really just a bit of a subway ride at most away. At first I was thinking of it as being something exotic, but NY’s Chinatown isn’t particularly exotic feeling in the sense I was thinking of either . . . I don’t really know what that reference means.

Rosa March 4, 2006 at 7:53 am

I was about to leave a querilous comment, but after reading the two above, I think I have to agree. As an ex-New Yorker, I can say that no where in Bryant Park are there peach trees to be found.

As for Chinatown – I think I once read somewhere that Sir Galahad lives in Gramercy, a half hour’s walk to Chinatown, which in NYC, is not as memorable as SF – perhaps even LA’s Little Tokyo, which I remember as having Character. Manhattan’s Chinatown is just a dump. Canal Street being the most prominent feature – maybe Rufus was thinking of Wo-Hop.

Rhapsody March 4, 2006 at 8:50 am

I agree with the above observations about Chinatown. The locational reference plays off the previous lyrics, “opium gaze.” Opium was prevalent in the Orient, and was frequently alluded to in literature that Rufus has probably read. If there is a reference to love and finding it in Chinatown…it would have to be a rather negative one (that one needs to be drugged and in an exotic place to find true love–how true would it be under those circumstance? That might be his point.)

I think perhaps he is just setting the scene and atmosphere. He talked about wanting to write a short story with this song…completely abandonning the original idea for this one.

Roger Bourland March 4, 2006 at 9:05 am

One of the students suggested that Chinatown may be far away from Rufus’s home, thereby implying “I’ll go out of my way to some [relatively] far away place if there is a chance I’ll find “true love.”

One of the themes that comes up over and over again is the effectiveness of ambiguity in lyrics: they can mean different things to different people, and maybe that’s ok!

Meg March 4, 2006 at 12:15 pm

Mmm . . . yes . . . but if he lives in Gramercy as Rosa said, Chinatown isn’t far at all. Relatively or otherwise. Barely over half an hour walking or only a few subway stops away. Unless it’s referrring to a Chinatown that’s not in NYC, but that doesn’t make sense given the rest of the lyrics. You could argue that it’s culturally far away, I think, but not geographically.

Also, Wo-Hop . . . yum. I used to live a few blocks away from there.

cath March 5, 2006 at 9:47 am

I have always thought that the ideas at the beginning of Peach Trees were in opposition to each other, i.e. is true love the bustle and gaudiness of Chinatown and getting high together, or is it quiet walks through Bryant Park and just making eye contact and being together? I hear the voice of the singer as someone who is tired of waiting for someone to turn up to “do” things together, he just wants someone to “be” with, and he’ll be waiting under the peach trees when the other person finally wakes up and realises what he’s throwing away…. Sorry, should have had these thoughts BEFORE your class… oops!

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