Monday, July 11, 2005

Casimir Pulaski Day

Sufjan Stevens has just released an album about Illinois that contains a song that is almost identical in name to a song released by Chicago's Big Black in their 1987 Songs about Fucking album...namely "Kasimir S. Pulaski Day," a Illinois state holiday named after a Polish-born Revolutionary War hero. Both songs are about a death that apparently occurs on this day. One wonders whether Stevens knowingly is referencing Big Black, a band that one would think is not only totally opposite in sound but also, seemingly, in world outlook. It's just hard to imagine Sufjan listening to an album with songs about Colombian neckties and vision-inducing bread fungus.

Big Black's song is very typical of their portfolio - the lyrics are in the 1st person of a shocked man who has witnessed a gory act and its aftermath - in it, a car blows on the highway (the victim of a Mafia hit apparently) and there are body parts strewn all around. But it's not like it is in the movies - it's more horrible and gruesome than the narrator expected. The short grinding song hammers that point home with the repeated chorus, "never really thought it would happen that way" by a narrator seemingly in shock. The song ends with a warning to "Benny" not to get involved and to stay out of the conflagration. Albini often talked in interviews about how he wanted Big Black, a band named to reflect primal fears, to shove the horror of every day life into the listeners eyes and ears - to take them as "close to the precipice as possible" and presumably shock them out of complacency. Although many of their songs use a measure of humor, none of that is present in this song (except maybe the last line). Still, the narrator remains detached from the scene and doesn't seem to even think of having any sympathy for the victim. While Big Black is often described as extolling nihilism and misantrophy, they were probably one of the most political bands of the '80s. Their politics was usually masked by a tough guy stance and seemingly hate-filled writings but at the core of their narrative was a disgust with the human condition and even something approaching hope towards changing it. I mean, why would they have even bothered in the first place? The chorus of this song suggests the singer is ashamed of his reaction even as he wallows in his self-centeredness. In the end, the band is criticizing America and its detachment and yet fascination with violence and suggests that if one is put up close one's perspectives changes. This is after all the band that imagined the destruction of the world as just a frame in a cartoon -- see the cover of Atomizer. In this context, the singer isn't warning Benny to not get involved with the accident -- he's trying to tell him to change: "What are you trying to prove now?"

Sufjan also writes a song about death but one in which he is much more emotionally involved. Unlike the Big Black song, it is instrumented very differently - there's no grinding two-guitar attack and relentless drum machine -- instead there's a quiet feel with guitar, banjo and trumpet and even, near the end, a string orchestra. Like the Big Black song, this song is sung in the first person and every detail of the death is etched into the narrator's mind. The person who dies on Pulaski day here isn't an anonymous accident victim but a girlfriend of the singer who has died of bone cancer. The singer remembers the details of their relationship and how he was in conflict with her father over their rather chaste kissing and touching. Sufjan is famously a Christian and he sings of bible study and saying prayers over the girl's body. But the prayers are to no avail. In the end, he realizes that his conflict is no longer with girl's father but the Father whom he rails against for taking her life ("He takes and He takes and He takes"). Like the narrator in the Big Black song, Stevens is caught in his own paradox but one of a quite different nature. Rather than trying to reconcile his shallow world view, he has to reconcile something which seems much greater -- his love for God conflicts with the reality of life and death. Unlike the Big Black song, this death is slow long one and perhaps more unfair as the narrators is deeply involved with the subject. The song ends with an unclear resolution - the singer hasn't resolved his conflict with God. His conflict is internal and can't be shocked into resolution. It is hence much harder to resolve.

At any rate, it's either a very interesting coincidence or yet another oddity of Steven's wonderfully complex record.

Here's Big Black's lyrics:

Kasimir S. Pulaski Day (words by Big Black)
Saw something go wrong today when along, when a car went by
Grey car blew up today when along, when a car went by
Never thought it really happened that way
Never thought it really happened that way
Never thought it really happened that way
Drew a rod and they blew him away
Down on the south side, out on Pulaski
There were pieces of a man all over the skyway
Well I suffered real bad today, just like in the movies
Why did mm get an mm mm like that?
I even felt a little sick
I never thought it really happened that way
I never thought it really happened that way
I wouldn't want to check out in that way
Drew a rod and they blew him away
There were pieces of a man all over the skyway
There were pieces of a man
mm mm in the ashtray
What are you trying to prove now, Benny?
What are you trying to call me, Benny?
Better stay out of it, Benny
Stay out of my wayski

And here's a free and legal MP3 of Stevens' song (h.t. to LHB) and the lyrics:

Casimir Pulaski Day (words by Sufjan Stevens)
Goldenrod and the 4H stone,
the things I brought you,
when I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone,
and he drove his car into the navy yard,
just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning, through the window shade,
when the light pressed up against your shoulderblade,
I could see what you were reading.

All the glory that the Lord has made,
and the complications you could do without,
when I kissed you on the mouth.

Tuesday night at the Bible study,
we lift our hands and pray over your body,
but nothing ever happens.

I remember at Michael's house,
in the living room when you kissed my mouth,
and I almost touched your blouse.

In the morning at the top of the stairs,
when your father found out what we did that night,
and you told me you were scared.

All the glory when you ran outside,
with your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied,
and you told me not to follow you.

Sunday night when I cleaned the house,
I find the card where you wrote it out,
with the pictures of you mother.

On the floor at the great divide,
with my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied,
I am crying in the bathroom.

In the morning when you finally go,
and the nurse runs in with her head hung low,
and the cardinal hits the window.

In the morning in the winter shade,
on the 1st of March on the holiday,
I thought I saw you breathing.

All the glory that the Lord has made,
and the complications when I see His face,
in the morning in the window.

All the glory when He took our place,
but He took my shoulders and He shook my face,
and He takes and He takes and He takes.


At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Rusty Hillside said...

This calls for a mashup...

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its wierd that both songs are about witnessing death. It makes you wonder if Sufjan listens to Big Black or conciously chose the name to make a reference to this song. Big Black is about the farthest music from Sufjan Stevens...

At 10:19 AM, Anonymous l-tree said...

I doubt S.S.'s CD rack at home is filled with music that sounds exactly like his own--I would'nt really be surprised to learn that he listens/listened to Big Black.

At 9:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent commentary. thanks!

At 11:26 AM, Blogger ard said...

i suspect sufjan is aquainted with steve albini.

he also does a shout out to steve albini in his "chicago cheer" in concert.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger ard said...

oops. lost part of my post. there is a clip with steve albini and daniel smith at the creative arson website. it is the trailer for the danielson family movie and sufjan is all over this clip as well.

At 8:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well ill have to check out that other song but "Casimir Pulaski Day" is amazing. Im addicted.


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