Thunder and Light-ening
A film about Ferron by Bitch (DVD/CD)
Soundtrack by Ferron
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
But I don’t forget the factory
I don’t expect this ride to always be
Can I give them what they want to see?
Let me do it twice —
The second time for me
– from Shadows On A Dime
A song lasts as long as it takes to sing, it hovers in the air for a second and then it’s gone. That’s the physical reduction – a dance and interchange of air, breath and heat, the transference of auditory information by vibration. But the metaphysics of the interchange are another thing entirely. If sound arose from biological necessity, a need to call out, announce ‘I’m here’ or warn of danger, the transference of soul, the transmission of self, the intimations of oneness are also another thing entirely.
We can’t hold songs, but they can hold us. Like so many of life’s experiences that pass in the wink of an eye, a good song resonate within us long after it’s finished and may take years to appreciate. Ferron’s music has always stayed with me in that way. Hers is a small body of work, but then again so was Lao Tze’s. And, if I think about it, there haven’t been many days that have passed in the last 30 years when I haven’t found myself humming, singing, recalling or turning over a lyric from one of her songs.
How do you put a value on that? How can you assess the influence that these kinds of transmissions make to the people that we are and continue to become? When I was twenty-one and first heard ‘Testimony’ in a friend’s basement apartment, I held the lyrics in my imagination like rough diamonds whose value I didn’t understand (but I liked the way they sparkled) I’ve spent thirty years ruminating, turning the lyrics over, passing them from hand to hand until they’ve become polished stones. Some of them can still catch me unawares and bring a lump to my throat.
It’s been said that we imprint things at critical times, and that these things we admit when we are porous and receptive have an influence that we’ll never get over or shuck off. In another life, or if things had been a little different, it may have been David Bowie or The Red Hot Chili Peppers that did it for me, but I heard Ferron at a critical time, so ‘Testimony’ and ‘Shadows On A Dime’ are albums that I’ve never been able to get free of.
I think it was Joni Mitchell, who in response to reporters who asked her why she never record another ‘Blue’, confessed that people can never be as vulnerable and open to all the pain of the world as they are in their early twenties, so that those types of creative, open heart feats can never be repeated.
Like many of the relationships that we choose, my love for Ferron’s music is complicated and it’s been questioned by more than one of my friends who wonder how a middle aged straight guy bringing up a family in the city could be so in the thrall of the music of an elder lesbian singer and songwriter who ‘lives with a bunch of animals’ in a community in rural Michigan.
What could she possibly have to say to me?
I wouldn’t know where to start answering that. Twenty years ago I would have said that the way she expressed longing in ‘Ain’t Life A Brook’ was the way I wish I could shape words. The poignancy of the regret and the struggle to rise above pain she shares in ‘Cactus’ describe feelings we all have if we look deeply enough and the words of the conductor in ‘Shadows Of A Dime’ have always reminded me of my own grandfather.
Artists like Ferron who put everything on the line take a lot of shit. Hers is not party music, nor is it soothing on the surface, though if one chooses to go further, there is a deep and lasting solace to be found in every one of her songs. When she first burst into the Canadian public’s consciousness in 1980 with the release of ‘Testimony’, she perfectly captured the mood of the times. It was an album of reflection, healing and looking carefully back before venturing forward, and was a natural fit for people who came of age during the sixties and were in recovery from the hurly burly of the youth culture and its promises, fulfilled and broken. It’s a morning after album that holds love and relationship as the keys for survival. It’s a record that should have been heard all over the world. It’s hard to understand why this didn’t happen. Maybe she didn’t have the right look to go along with what was certainly the ‘right sound’ for the day. Maybe her words were too understated, or maybe she wasn’t free and easy enough for the soft rock stations that dominated the airwaves.
It’s not that sad songs don’t sell, but the sadness Ferron expressed was too mature and lacking in the epic dimensions that pop culture requires. It’s funny because even when it comes to suffering, our culture has deeply embedded prejudices that Ferron never quite jumped over. The poverty she came from wasn’t as glorious or revolutionary as say ‘Bob Marley’s poverty was. Everyday suffering just doesn’t have the appeal of third world ghettos, I guess. Ferron’s sexuality – no matter how bravely or frankly she discussed it – was never as star-studded or ‘blondely aching’ as young Joni Mitchell’s was. Her attempts to fit in to the wider sphere of the music scene with albums like ‘Phantom Centre’ and ‘Still Riot’ never quite gelled. Signing to a big label in the early nineties was the only misstep in her long career, but who could have blamed her for wanting the exposure and treatment that artists of her stature from Dylan to Tracy Chapman have been given? But, fame isn’t necessarily a game for the sensitive or true of heart and it didn’t take Ferron long to figure out that lyrics like hers can’t be trimmed and designed with an ‘eye on the prize.’ In the end, she decided that it wasn’t worth it, no matter how nice the increased attention must have been for her.
A period of woodshedding followed, and after a few years out of the limelight and away from recording, Ferron got back on track with ‘Driver’ in 1994, an album that features many of her best known songs including ‘Girl On A Road’ and ‘Cactus.’ ‘Driver’ was a stunning achievement that represented the fruition of so many of the artistic and personal concepts she had been working with in her music since she was a teenager. Each song is so meticulously crafted, poetically dense and charged that it comes off as a magnum opus, a summation of all that Ferron had learned and strived to communicate. Listening to ‘Driver’ again today, it sounds very much like the kind of catharsis that comes after dropping a heavy load, and in many ways it is the last significant album that Ferron has recorded to date. Her next and most recent album of original material, ‘Turning Into Beautiful’ came out in 2005 and features a lovely collection of songs that illuminate the peace and acceptance that Ferron has reached in recent years. Of these, ‘Never Your Own’ and ‘In The Meantime’ easily rest alongside the best songs she’s ever written. Has anyone ever written a more touching song of forgiveness than ‘In The Meantime’ in which Ferron acknowledges how much she missed her father, having never known him past the sorrows of their shared abuse? If you can keep your composure as she sings to him, you’re a heckuva lot stronger than I am:
‘When I cross over/ will you meet me and walk me to the bright?/ Will you lead me on the dancefloor of that everlasting light? / In the meantime, here on earth time, I am something of a song/ I once drank of your whole abandon wanting only to belong.’
In recent years, Ferron has been living in rural Michigan after stints in Washington State and at her cabin on British Columbia’s Saturna Island. Living so far outside of the music business mainstream, she’s had to resort to other means of support including baking bread, making blankets and selling yoghourt. Like her old song says, she didn’t expect that the ride would always be easy and Ferron’s never been one to compromise or dilute herself for money. Still, it must be difficult at times after all of the years of touring and recording to have to work so hard simply to get by. It was a situation Bitch (Karen Mould), the American singer and performance artist, noticed. So, when she conceived of ‘Boulder’, a tribute album that would feature Ferron revisiting some of her best-known songs, Bitch had no trouble attracting some of the most interesting recording artists in the business to the project. Listening to Ani Difranco, The Indigo Girls and Sam Parton of the Be Good Tanyas sing along with Ferron it’s impossible not to hear the important contributions she’s made to popular music.
Sadly, until the release of ‘Thunder and Light-ening’, ‘Boulder’ was the last we had heard from Ferron. Her health has been poor at times which has made touring impossible, and given America’s disastrous healthcare situation, no one gets better without money, so she’s been in a double bind. Those lucky enough to live in rural Michigan might have the chance to visit her for a writing workshop or a concert on her property, but for the rest of us, we’re left with the memories of her voice and influence before its gradual softening from the demands of life and the inevitabilities of aging.
Thankfully, in the absence of new music, Bitch has come back with a challenging film about Ferron’s recent life called ‘Thunder.’ Available on DVD as ‘Thunder and Light-ening’, it is a follow-up to ‘Boulder’ in many ways, for it also features reworked and stripped down versions of some of her best-loved songs in the film’s soundtrack and on the accompanying CD(Light-ening). ‘Thunder’ is not the first film about Ferron that’s come out. ‘Ferron: a girl on a road’ was directed by Gerry Rogers and was released in 2010. It is a fairly straight documentary that was shot during rehearsals for her first full band tour in a decade at her cabin on Saturna Island. ‘Ferron: a girl on a road’ is an enjoyable documentary that gives people a very rounded introduction to Ferron and her music. It did well on the festival and Queer film circuit, but it really wasn’t structurally very much different than dozens of other music documentaries. Bitch’s film goes a lot further. It’s a soul journey as much as it is a film, and it’s understandably messy to watch. The camera work is shaky, often purposefully jerky, and the camera plays with our conceptions of composition and framing as some shots focus on a hand, an eyebrow, or an object outside of ‘the action.’ As difficult as it can be to follow in some sequences, the aesthetics somehow accentuate and counterbalance Ferron’s dialogue and reveal her character in ways that a straight documentary never could. Film is a visual media, but ’Thunder’ is as much about the sound of Ferron’s voice and the places it takes us as it is about what we see. Freed of traditional accompanying visuals, Ferron’s voice and the things she discusses are harrowing. Like the Sin Eaters of old mythology, she takes us through her past, sparing no pain as she describes how she has masticated her past and channeled darkness into beauty. ‘Thunder’ is not so much a film as it is a rite of passage, a Sun Dance, a Kalachakra.
Be well rested and watch it.
You can order Thunder and Light-ening from: www.ferrononline.com
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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