Last May my son studied the beginnings of the Holocaust in one of his high school classes. They were covering the ghettos when we talked about it. He said a few very interesting things.
First he said he was concerned that he wasn't more affected by it. He could understand it intellectually but he found it difficult to have an emotional response. As we talked about it it became clear that the reason his emotional response wasn't apparent was because the subject is so intense that there is no possible response that is large enough to be appropriate.
Second he said that he understood "deniers" because your mind cannot take it all in. The temptation is to dismiss the possibility.
Third he said that the only reason he felt like he could tolerate the discussion of the ghettos was because things were as good as they were ever going to be. What follows is unimaginable.
Fourth (and this is a film tangent) he referenced the Kubrick exhibit that we saw a while ago which chronicles a project Kubrick worked on and eventually abandoned that focused on the Holocaust. He said he was glad that Kubrick hadn't made the film because an artist as powerful as Kubrick doing a Holocaust film would be terrifying to behold.
I consider Scott Walker to be the Stanley Kubrick of song. He has written again and again about the brutality of various regimes. In fact, as he has increasingly distanced himself from the usual concerns of romantic pop, his work has turned ever darker and looked unsparingly at the depths that human beings will go to in order to maintain control over one another.
And just as that unfinished Kubrick project would have been almost unbearable to ingest, so do Walker's genocidal compositions defy any comfortable access to the listener.
On 1969's Scott 4, Walker had taken back his birth name to credit his songs. Noel Scott Engel wrote his first full length original album. It contained a song called "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" which was about what had occurred in Prague the year before and the Russian backed government that had taken charge.
Somehow Walker turned this into some kind of cool funk rock lounge dance track with a killer bassline...take a listen.
36 years later, he would write and record "Clara" for 2006's "The Drift". This song makes "The Old Man's Back Again" look like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in comparison.
The title refers to Clara Petacci, Mussolini's lover who was executed along with the Italian dictator. Their corpses were strung up and desecrated by angry Italians. Walker recalls seeing a snapshot of this in a newsreel before a movie as a kid. It haunted him so completely that he made an almost unbearable work of art out of it.
Listen to "Clara". You won't be singing along too much. It is almost thirteen minutes long.
Just as disturbing is the track from Bish Bosch called "The Day The Conducator Died (An Xmas Song)". "The Conducator" is the Romanian word for "leader" and is what Ceaucescu called himself.
This tune is almost eight minutes long and is no walk in the park either. The lilting little Christmas coda is about as creepy as music gets and I am not even sure why. Check out "The Day The Conducator Died (An Xmas Song)".
Back to my son and his response to studying the Holocaust in school. And this is appropriate right now seeing as the new leader of Iran stood before the UN and said, "Yeah, we admit it HAPPENED in spite of what the last loser leader of our country hinted at over and over again."
See, we don't want to acknowledge our faults. Think about how truly difficult that is to do on a personal level. To say, "I did THAT. THAT wrong thing. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway."
For the human race to do that on a global scale??? It is almost unthinkable. It seems impossible. But that is where ART comes in. Art doesn't have to be elected. It doesn't have to please constituents. It doesn't have to deliver food to the hungry or protect the weak from those who would oppress them.
But it can take the human race by the scruff of the neck and force it's stupid head in front of a mirror and hold it there until it cries and says, "I am sorry I have done such things."