In 1973, during the Chilean coup, the folk artist Victor Jara was taken prisoner, and along with thousands of others, brought to the Chilean stadium where the military tortured and killed a large number of people. The guards shattered the bones in Victor’s hands with blunt instruments, then asked him to play them some songs. One year later, in 1974, the Top of the Pops refused to allow Robert Wyatt to perform his cover of the Monkees hit “I’m A Believer,” while seated in his wheelchair. The producer felt the wheelchair was “not suitable for family viewing.” These two events happened within the span of a single year.
The term “crash blossoms” was discussed in last week’s On Language column, by Ben Zimmer. The term, coined by writer Dan Bloom, refers to headlines whose meaning changes when the words therein are read as nouns or verbs, or vice versa. This is a function of headlines brevity, and lack of prepositions. “Ambiguous words often lead to ludicrous and puzzling headline statements,” Grant Milnor Hyde wrote in his 1915 manual, “Newspaper Editing.” Read the article for funny examples. This notion of miscommunication in headlines is humorous and behind the curve.
Two girls recognized me coming out of the gym, in the adjacent parking garage. One I knew, the other was her roommate, and as I went to introduce myself with an outstretched hand, the girl who knows me screeched, “Don’t touch him, he’s been on the elliptical machine for hours!” A day or two later, I was walking to my car behind a gaggle of middle school girls, each hauling a pile of bricks in their backpacks. They would stop at each parked car and write a silly message in the dust on the window, and giggle. “Hi ” for example. They did this to three cars, taking turns with the message, and then came to mine. I sneaked around the back of the gaggle, out into the street, like I was going to cross, and as they started to write on my window I popped up beaming and boomed, “Hello ladies!” They screamed and fled.
The reason I say crash blossoms are behind the curve is because headlines have existed for hundreds of years. The quote from 1915 proves that crash blossoms have as well. What interests me are the crash blossoms that happen in everyday life in our current abbreviated culture. A text message, blog post, Facebook status update, tweet, or spoken word with alternate meanings. Faced with the web, human beings are becoming ever more analytical. The eyeballs constant tether to technology trades ponderance for expedition.
Artist Andy Goldsworthy studies how rivers and tides interact with his naturally sourced creations to gain a sense of time and place. A similar process occurs when the impermanent sea of information washes over a man made point, or a chain of thought navigates the heady currents of commentary. What is lost and what remains, sure, but moreover what happens to us in the happening. A transmutation from mere passenger to navigator, maybe even captain, on the intercoursing waves of ephemera.
“What I now see, I have never seen
What I feel and what I have felt
Will make the moment spring again.”
Victor Jara could not play his guitar with broken hands. He composed this poem (smuggled out of the stadium in the sole of a friend’s shoe) and defiantly sang the song, “Venceremos” (We Will Win), before the guards tortured, beat and electrocuted him, and then shot him in the head. Two months ago, December 3, 2009, thirty six years after his death, there was finally a proper funeral for Victor Jaras. Thousands of Chileans, including his widow, the President of Chile, artists, fans, and militants, gathered for an enormous procession. They carried his body and sang his songs.
Robert Wyatt won the right to appear on Top of the Pops playing “I’m A Believer”, in his wheelchair. Decades later, he recorded the song, “Lips Service,” as a kind of reply to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”: “‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ worried me, I thought, Oh you smug git – yes you fucking did! If you’re talking about ‘we’ I can talk about ‘you’. I don’t often listen to words, but he was saying, Listen to me, I’ve got something serious to say, and I thought – you’d better have!”