They Might Be Giants

They might be giants. Yes they might. This is a relatively obscure way to start a post – and am I quoting the US band They Might Be Giants who began life in 1982 and are still extant and still, beyond rock-music aficionados, obscure. Though in the Top Trumps of obscure bands with giants in their title the Young Marble Giants, a Welsh band formed in 1978, must be the winner. And I bet that for the very small percentage of you reading this who are familiar with them that an even smaller percentage of you are aware that this group are still going too?!

They Might Be Giants

For some of you reading this They Might Be Giants might have resonated differently conjuring up the 1971 film directed by Anthony Harvey and starring George C Scott and Joanne Woodward. Actually those of you in this camp might likewise Top Trump this having first thought of the play of the same name that this film was based on, both written by James Goldman. If you are not familiar with it I can do no better than quote one line from Wikipedia describing its premise as:

a millionaire who retreats into fantasy after the death of his wife,
imagining himself to be Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective.

If that doesn’t make you want to track it down well I don’t know what to say!

All this being what it is, it is the US group They Might Be Giants that I was alluding too.

Obscure though I describe them a larger number of you may be familiar with their song ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ as a title not easily forgotten and though its chart success was modest, both in the US and UK, it did enjoy its fair-share of radio play. For it was catchy in a novelty song kind of way. You may or may not care for it but once heard you might not be able to forget it even f you wanted to.

Its word were pretty obtuse too, see sample:

Filibuster vigilantly
My name is blue canary one note spelled l-i-t-e
My story’s infinite
Like the Longines Symphonette it doesn’t rest

But it is still not their best known song. For even those of you who steer a wide-birth of rock-music may have been subject to another of their songs and on a very regular basis.

That is if you or your children or your partner or all of the aforementioned are/were a fan of the US comedy Malcolm In The Middle which ran for seven seasons between 2000 and 2006 and subject to endless re-runs ever since.

Malcolm in the MiddleFor the song that heralded and farewelled each and everyone of its 151 episodes with its refrain ‘You’re not the boss of me’ was from the catalogue of They Might Be Giants and titled perhaps inevitably ‘Boss of Me’. As a way to get a high profile to one of your songs this has to be hard to beat.

This song was not a single or album-track that someone involved in the show’s production heard and thought would be apt for its theme-tune rather it was written especially for it.

The song begins with the lines

Yes, No, maybe,
I don’t know
Can you repeat the question

Before launching into the refrain at great speed and frequency.

You’re not the boss of me now

And quite a subversive sentiment given that the show was ostensibly a family based comedy and not in the way that The Family Guy is a family-based comedy!

It was tea-time viewing but Malcolm Wilkerson and his family was no more a fantasy cartoon than Bart Simpson and his family – both dysfunctional and all the more real for it.

I watched an episode of Malcolm in the Middle recently but can no longer watch Malcolm’s father Hal and see him as a cuddly good-natured father figure. I can only think of Walter White.

Walter White being the actor Bryan Cranston’s latest incarnation. If you don’t yet know what I am going on about then you clearly have not been watching the US TV series Breaking Bad.

Breaking BadThe Walter White character is a father in Breaking Bad too.  He is diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer. Initially and naturally we sympathize with his plight. They also have one teenage son, Walter White Jr, who has cerebral palsy, and now in their late-forties they are about to welcome their second child in to the world.

Walt White Sr is just another everyday saint. Later we will discover that he is an unreconstructed sociopath, perhaps he always was or perhaps his life-threatening condition tipped him into this dark domain.

And the writer’s have played a trick with us because just as with serial-killing Dexter Morgan from the US show Dexter we find ourselves on the side of the anti-hero, or just plain villain, even as the death-count in both cases ever increases at their own hands and for ever more tenuous reasons. The killing has become a habit and the viewer has become an idle non-judgemental witness to it all. There but for the grace of….we are being encouraged to think.

Breaking Bad production photoWalter White you see will need to pay for all this expensive cancer treatment and on his modest salary being as he is a teacher of Chemistry to high-school students this is never going to happen. Instead he decides to put his chemistry knowledge to use in a more lucrative way – as a producer or cook of Methamphetamine!

He having taken a libertarian stance – it is not for him to protect people from themselves and though it might be against the law is it really against any moral laws? The law-of-our-lands allowing us to take other killing substances like alcohol and tobacco, so for this crystal meth we have just a modern day prohibition fuelled by fear more than anything else?

Meanwhile the carnage piles up about him and pity his poor wife Skyler wanting to divorce him but now embroiled in the laundering of more money than any of them could ever spend in a hundred lifetimes, and the threat of death hanging over her and their two children. And yet we find ourselves wanting Walter White to prevail. Well I do anyway. Perhaps I should speak just for myself!

At an earlier point in the proceedings a former boss, Gustavo Fring (known as ‘Gus’), assigns him a new cook in preference to his own choice Jesse Pinkman because Jesse unlike Walter is also a sometime meth-user and consequently a tad unpredictable. He has no formal chemistry training either, rather an acolyte of Walter’s. Gus would prefer Jesse to disappear, literally, and hence the arrival of a new cook, chemistry degree-educated Gale Boetticher.

Gale reads to Walt White a poem by Walt Whitman, ‘When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer’

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This was Gale’s way of explaining to Walt his love for chemistry.  And it resonated for Walt. But not enough to save his life from him!

And what about the similarity of the names Walter White and Walt Whitman; the show’s creator Vince Gilligan is drawing what parallel between them we are left to wonder?

Walt WhitmanThe collection from which it comes from ‘Leaves of Grass’ was first published in 1855 but was a life-long work for Whitman being revised by him right up to his death in 1892.

It is now available for free on Project Gutenberg which likely means you can download it on Tablets and Mobile phones. That is unless you prefer your poetry on paper.

This life-work may suggest to you it is a huge tome and indeed it is. Divided in to 35 books – some poems are brief but most are long.

How should we approach such a work? Chronologically, earnestly determinedly working our way through? Or a lucky dip approach – random choose a poem and if it resonates with us we explore further, but if not and as long as it did not turn us off completely we return again at a later date and random dip again…

There is also a 2009 US film titled Leaves of Grass which I have not seen but it is not Walt Whitman based or inspired (that I can establish anyway) directed and written by Tim Blake Nelson. This is one of these films about identical twins yet not identical – in this case  an Ivy League professor is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother, a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord.  Clear Breaking Bad parallels there!

Leaves of GrassNot inspired by Walt Whitman perhaps but Tim Blake Nelson is a bit of a polymath as there is a film due for 2014 release about another American poet called Bukowski about – who do you think?! What do you mean you don’t know Charles Bukowski?!

Not directed or written by Tim Blake Nelson here rather his involvement is as an actor (he also sings!) where he is playing Henry Bukowski. Now details on this film are sketchy so I do not know whether this is Henry his father or Charles himself as he was born Henry Charles Bukowski (well Heinrich Karl actually because he was German-born American naturalised).

This film is not about his poetry in particular though or his life biography rather a period described by IMDB thus:

The story of writer Charles Bukowski’s formative years from childhood to high school

and his struggles with an abusive father, disfiguring acne, alcohol abuse, and his initial attempts at writing.

But Charles Bukowski has been on film and behind film before. He wrote the 1987 film Barfly with the great tag-line:

 Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.

BarflyThe barfly in Barfly was played by Mickey Rourke going by the name of Henry Chinaski but this is clearly autobiographical. And indeed upon Bukowski’s death in 1994 the New York Post used a photo of Mickey Rourke in this Barfly role!

I have only seen this film once and this was with my father. And perhaps this is not the sort of film to see with your father.

Reading this synopsis of the film I now want to see it again. And alone!

Henry Chinaski never cared for the American dream, the thought of needing to become ‘something’ and fit into the system disgusts him. He believes that life is free and yours to live like you see fit, and if that in some cases involves copious amounts of whiskey then so be it. Henry spends his days drinking and listening to the radio, and he spends his nights drinking and fighting against Eddy who he thinks personifies shallowness and shameless self promoting…

Perhaps better than reading poetry is hearing it recited. Perhaps better still performed by the poets themselves.

With Bukowski we can hear such performances and one such was his poem ‘Bluebird’.

Below I share it written then after spoken.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do

Whitman’s poems make you want to read more of his poems, Bukowski’s make you want to write your own poems?

They might be giants.