Thursday, September 01, 2016

Sylvia Plath - Crackle and Drag

I just realized that the day Sylvia Path killed herself, February 11, is also my birthday. I had no idea. But Wikipedia does not lie, as we all know. That's a pretty morbid coincidence. Strangely or not, I've been thinking of her quite a bit recently. Like most young people, I also read The Bell Jar, I think during college. And I'm pretty sure I re-read it when I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts in the early nineties, given that Smith College features prominently in her life and the book. I remember liking it quite a bit although I'm not sure how I'd feel now.

Part of the reason I've been thinking about her is that I recently (re)saw the movie Sylvia (2003) directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Basically a straight-ahead biographical drama about Plath's life (with an obvious focus on her relationship with Ted Hughes), the movie was not judged kindly by audiences at the time (although Roger Ebert did give it a fairly good review). I was not one of the many who were bored by it. I actually liked it, especially Paltrow's very nuanced performance, one of the best in her (now stalled?) career as a top-flight actor. I kind of actually believed Paltrow was Plath. And there are moments of amazing vulnerability conveyed in her performance that were, well, surprising. I didn't expect that.

The soundtrack to Sylvia was composed by Gabriel Yared (who also scored and got an Oscar for The English Patient) and I also kind of liked it. It wasn't maudlin or too laden with sentimentality. As one reviewer noted, there are echoes of the violins from "Eleanor Rigby" but the basic motifs and themes are rather understated. The actual suicide is depicted with a spare piano motif that suddenly cuts off the orchestral score:

More to my typical music tastes, I have a feeling that the producers of Sylvia had wanted a pop/rock song or two to soundtrack the movie. And word probably got around. Someone told Paul Westerberg about it who came up with one of the great tracks of his late period solo career, "Crackle and Drag." Unfortunately, the song was never used in the actual movie, which is a pity as it's a beautiful reflection on her life and suicide. The words "crackle and drag" refer to Plath's famous poem "Edge" where she writes (about a doomed woman):

The moon has nothing to be sad about / Staring from her hood of bone
She is used to this sort of thing / Her blacks crackle and drag

Here the "blacks" are the long funereal curtains that drape the theater stage. The "crackle and drag" is an allusion to the static caused by the curtains as they brush up and drag against the floor... as they move across the theater stage.

In Westerberg's capable hands (and voice), the song has two studio versions, both featured on his album Come Feel Me Tremble (2003), a kind of "soundtrack" to a video documentary of the same name. One version of the song is acoustic and the other a kind of raging but beautifully heavy power pop version, kind of like early Cheap Trick filtered through Big Star. Fantastic actually. But the version that I really love is one that he never actually released (a totally Paul move if there was ever one) but performed quite a few times on his 2002 tour before the album came out. Here is that version performed in Minneapolis on July 1, 2002. The song begins very tentatively, with Westerberg flubbing lines, basically screwing up the whole thing, but gains momentum slowly until by the end it's a tour de force. Really amazing. Would have been perfect for the movie:

And finally, there is the totally rockin' version by Westerberg, released on Come Feel Me Tremble:

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