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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November 24, 2007 at 12:26 am


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