Monday, April 19, 2010


If you had a flight planned to or from Europe in the past few days, chances are you've heard about the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Mt. Eyjafjallajokull, a/k/a #@$%&*!@, which hadn't erupted since 1823 suddenly woke up. Potentially a bigger problem in the near future is Mt. Katla, 15 miles away, which, historically, has erupted shortly after every time Eyjafjallajokull has erupted because they both draw from the same pool of magma. The 1823 eruption wasn't a big issue for air travel except for the occasional balloon or two. Delayed or cancelled flights because of natural events like hurricanes, snowstorms, and the like are not unusual. But those normally go away in a day or so.

Volcanic eruptions are different--they can last for months or even years. The airborne ash clogs up the aircraft's jet engines, shutting them off. What's worse is that the ash is invisible to the pilots until it's too late. Recent years have seen several instances of airplanes flying through volcanic ash and diving thousands of feet until the pilots could get the engines re-started. Fortunately none have crashed. Interestingly, propeller planes can fly through the ash without harm. Currently in Europe there is a huge rush by corporate executives to rent small prop planes to get back to work.

The fallout from the eruption, other than the obvious (corrosive ash falling from the sky causing acid rain) is the economic impact. Airlines are losing $200 million per day while this is going on. Import and export goods are sitting on the tarmac, unable to get to market. President Obama couldn't physically get to Poland to attend the state funeral of the Polish president and other government officials. In his place, he sent the U.S. ambassador, but he didn't have to fly; he was already there.

Ironically, the eruption hasn't had that much effect in Iceland itself which is fortunate because the country is nearly bankrupt. The volcano is situated at the south end of the country, and the prevailing winds blow the ash away from Iceland. In the immediate vicinity, farmers are taking steps to protect their animal herds from ingesting the ash. The ash contains fluorides which bind to calcium in the animals' bloodstreams which causes bones to become brittle and teeth to fall out. North of the volcano, flash floods have occurred because glacial ice has melted.

Aside from air travel and commerce, the sticky part is the climatic effects of a major eruption. The eruption releases sulfates into the atmosphere which reflect sunlight back into space. You may recall Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, which caused the world temperature to drop more than 1/2 degree Celsius in 1992and 1993. That may not sound like much, but it caused an extremely cool summer in much of the U.S., not to mention a severe winter. Incidentally, during the last Ice Age, the world temperature was 5 degrees Celsius colder than it is now. At least in 1991, the Northern tier of the U.S. didn't have snow like it did in 1816 (courtesy of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia). See KENSUSKINREPORT, 8/26/07. With a short growing season, we'd be looking at crop failures throughout the world.

In my 2007 article entitled 1816--THE YEAR WITHOUT A SUMMER:

In Europe, the weather was just as bad. The authors Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, along with John William Polidori went on vacation to Lord Byron's house on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was cold and rainy, and the trio could not enjoy their holiday. So they decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Although she didn't live long enough to cash in on the movie rights, Mary Shelley won the contest with her work, now called Frankenstein. Polidori wrote the novel, The Vampire, which was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's later novel Dracula.

Although my spell check is going crazy, Eyjafjallajokull is fast becoming a household word, even if we don't know how to pronounce it. Under the new rules for Scrabble which now allow proper names, you can impress your partner with the name of the volcano, until you run out of J's. But we'd better hope it stops before we get to that point.



Saturday, April 3, 2010


Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see
I'm just a poor boy (poor boy)
I need no sympathy
Because I'm easy come, easy go
Little high, little low
Any way the wind blows
Doesn't really matter to me, to me

Mama just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead
Mama, life has just begun
But now I've gone and thrown it all away
Mama, ooh
Didn't mean to make you cry
If I'm not back again this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters

Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body's aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody
I've got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, oooooh (Anyway the wind blows)
I don't want to die
Sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all

[guitar solo]

I see a little silhouette of a man
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening me
(Galileo) Galileo (Galileo) Galileo, Galileo Figaro

I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me
He's just a poor boy from a poor family
Spare him his life from this monstrosity

Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
Bismillah! No we will not let you go.
Let him go
Bismillah! We will not let you go.
Let him go.
Bismillah! We will not let you go.
Let me go (will not let you go)
Let me go (will not let you go) (Never, never, never, never)
Let me go, o-o-o-o
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
(Oh mama mia, mama mia) Mama Mia let me go
Beelzebub has the devil put aside for me, for me, for me!

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die
Oh baby, can't do this to me baby
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here

[guitar solo]
(Oooh yeah, Oooh yeah)

Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me

Any way the wind blows

I've been listening to this enigmatic song for the last 30 years or so, and it never made any sense to me. But then, I enjoy music all the time without paying attention to the words. Thanks to Wikipedia, I've acquired some new insight into this song although I don't know much more than I did to begin with. In any event, the beautiful melody and harmonies have made this song into one of the most popular in musical history.

Bohemian Rhapsody was written in 1975 by Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, probably after he had too much to smoke or drink. He chose the name Queen despite the reservations of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (because of the gay connotations). Mercury, whose real name was Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania to a Zoroastrian Indian family and spent much of his early life in Mumbai, India. He obviously had considerable musical talent from an early age, and much of his influence came from Bollywood, the Indian movie industry. He was the first major performer (in the West) of Asian ancestry. He was gay, and that influence is said to manifest itself in the lyrics of the song. "Too late, my time has come/Sends shivers down my spine/Body's aching all the time" is said to signify sexual guilt and desire.

Bohemian Rhapsody was a hard sell to music executives who panned it. "At 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it is too long and will never sell." they declared. Mercury's band believed in the song and bypassed the corporate suits by playing the song for British disc jockey Kenny Everett. In a classic marketing scheme, they gave him a copy if he would promise to not play it in its entirety on the air. He proceeded to play parts of the song, but the audience response was so great that he ultimately played the full song 14 times over a weekend.

The next Monday, fans stormed the record stores (they still had records in those days!) only to find that the record had not been released yet. Meanwhile Paul Drew, who ran the RKO stations in the U.S. heard the song on Everett's show in London and finagled a copy of the tape to play it in the States. The response in the U.S. was similar. So we basically had the hottest song on both sides of the Atlantic, and the record had not been released.

The embarrassed music executives finally released the single with something called "I'm in Love with My Car" on the flip side. It sold like hotcakes and reached number one in both Britain and the U.S.

Of course everyone liked the melody, but music scholars with differing opinions speculated on the meaning of the song. According to Sheila Whiteley, "the title draws strongly on contemporary rock ideology, the individualism of the bohemian artists' world, with rhapsody affirming the romantic ideals of art rock." Judith Peraino said that "Mercury intended...[this song] to be a 'mock opera', something outside the norm of rock songs, and it does follow a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing." Plot confusing? You can say that again!

The critics' opinions remind me of the scene in the film Back to School, starring Rodney Dangerfield. Dangerfield's character is a retired entrepreneur, accustomed to delegating duties, who decides to attend college with his son. His English professor, played by Sally Kellerman, assigns an essay about the meaning of Kurt Vonnegut's works. Dangerfield's character hires Vonnegut himself to write the essay. The professor gives him a failing grade on the essay, essentially saying that he did not grasp the meaning of Vonnegut's work. Dangerfield angrily summons the author and refuses to pay him for the essay. In the ensuing argument they exchange f-bombs as Vonnegut stalks off.

Whatever the historians and critics say about it, we don't have Mr. Mercury around to resolve all the arguments. During his lifetime, Mercury refused to explain the meaning, other than it was about relationships. Mercury died of AIDS in 1991, and to this day, the band will not disclose the song's secret. In Mercury's own words, "It's one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them. Bohemian Rhapsody didn't just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?"

An analysis of the song shows 6 clearly identifiable sections. The first 48 seconds is the Intro which features an a capella introduction in B flat. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Fifteen seconds into it, the grand piano solo is introduced and Mercury's voice alternates with the other vocals. He introduces himself as "just a poor boy", but "needs no sympathy" because he is "easy come, easy go", which, according to Ms. Whiteley, highlights the dream-like atmosphere.

The following section (0:48-2:35) is the ballad in which Mercury confesses to his mother that he "just killed a man", with "a gun against his head", and basically, life isn't worth living. Judith Peraino's work delves into the phallic nature of guns and suggests that the song is a "melodrama of homoeroticism". Now I'm not a psychiatrist, but I suppose that, depending on your point of view, you can project that on any song.

We move on to the guitar solo (2:36-3:03) which, as the intensity builds up, leads into the opera section. The crescendo stops abruptly at 3:03, as Mercury segues into the "queer world of Italian opera", as described by Peraino.

The opera section (3:03-4:07) is unique in popular music, and the widely accepted interpretation of this nonsense is the depiction of the narrator's descent into hell. Mercury references Scaramouche, the Fandango, Galileo, Figaro and Bismillah, the Arabic word for God. Maybe the best explanation for the song was written in Farsi. When the band released a Greatest Hits album in Iran, they wrote a leaflet to explain the song, "about a young man who has accidentally killed someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution, he calls for God in Arabic, "bismillah", and with the help of angels, regains his soul from Satan" Let me go! (feminine voices), We will not let you go! (masculine voices)....Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me! As you can see, this is getting complicated.

For most of us who have no clue, Scaramouche is a roguish clown character which was invented by 17th Century Italian actor Tiberio Fiorelli. It is an iconic character in Punch & Judy puppet shows. The word means "skirmish" in Italian. It was also the name of a 1952 movie starring Stewart Granger. Bismillah is an Arabic acronym for an Islamic phrase which essentially means, "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful". It is the first phrase in the preambles of the constitutions of many Islamic countries.

Now that is settled, we move on to the hard rock portion (4:07-4:55) in which Mercury blames his predicament on an unidentified "you". So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye/So you think you can love me and leave me to die... Whiteley believes this stems from Mercury's leaving the security of his erstwhile girl friend Mary Austin for the insecurity of living a gay lifestyle. Mercury and Austin remained friends, however.

The final portion, the Outro (4:55-5:55) returns to the tempo and form of the Introduction. As Whiteley describes it, "Mercury's line, 'Nothing really matters...' appears again, "cradled by light piano arpeggios suggesting both resignation (minor tonalities) and a new sense of freedom in the wide vocal span."
Peraino's take about the final section is that it adds "a level of complex resistance to the song's already charming subversion of macho rock and roll." This is achieved through the "bohemian stance toward identity, which involves a necessarily changeable self-definition" (Any way the wind blows). That final line is followed by the quiet sound of a large tam-tam that finally expels the tension built up throughout the song.

I must commend Ms. Whiteley and Ms. Peraino for devoting much time to analyzing the song, but the criticism lacks Mr. Mercury's input as to what was happening in his own mind. This falls within the realm of forensic psychiatry which is more commonly utilized in detective work to probe the criminal mind. To paraphrase the line in the song "Nothing really matters"--in the broad scheme of things, the analysis of the song won't solve anything anyway. the lesson here is: don't try to analyze it, just enjoy the music.