Here’s a surreal, enigmatic, and yet compelling story by Dave Moore that I adopted and combined with some orchestral music I composed for it several years ago. Dave wrote this during a period when he had returned to Iowa to help is aged father who was dying, and while nothing in the piece refers directly to that situation, this reader feels something of that experience is present in its absence in this.
Dave’s father was a Protestant minister, and so church buildings of various sizes would have been part of his upbringing. And the mysterious boxes within boxes that the story’s protagonist must pack may be a visual image for the tasks of dealing with the stuff of wrapping up a life. But neither of those things can completely anchor the way this tale unwraps itself.
Easily the strongest, most enigmatic, and potentially objectionable image in the tale is the encounter with a young woman. A listener may meet this image in the story and react to it quickly (or thoughtfully) as an intrusion of some kind of male gaze trope, that thing that can be a tiring and reductionist frame on the real lives of half of humanity. But to my reading of this, it is the core image of this piece and it’s remarkably faceted with a cubist/surrealist multiplicity of reflections: an anima, a reminder of the exiled female in the masculine church, a strange mixture of sexuality, ambivalent reactions to sexuality, and yet also with a bit of the nature of parental caretaking roles reversing themselves. Many a time when I revisit this image by listening to this piece, I see something new in it.
Long time readers here will know that I admire Dave’s work, and once more I thank him for his contributions to this project with his voice and keyboard playing—but for you that is of little matter. Perhaps my specific and not necessarily popularly aligned taste, or knowing Dave and the circumstances around this pieces creation including that it’s my own music and performance that presents it here, distorts my evaluation of this image; but listen to this piece and see if you agree that the strange encounter at the center of this dusty and enigmatic tale is a remarkable image worth contemplating.
I have one more audio piece for our Halloween celebration, this one using a mysterious poem by Walter de la Mare. The way it goes about being scary is unusual—weird even.
After you read or hear it today, how would you describe what’s frightening about it to someone else who doesn’t know this poem, “The Listeners?” Would you find that a hard task? Our previous two Halloween pieces have easy anchors to something describably frightening. Even though those two are short poems, you could point out their fright potential just as one could blurb a Stephen King novel or a horror genre film. Bronte’s “Spellbound” has its character held unable to move as cold night approaches. While it’s not “spelled out” (and there’s a jump scare for you: boo! language play!) it is implied that this immobile state has the character suspended in the air. And Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” has poisons and weapons drawn and multiple deaths assured.
OK, now watch a movie in your mind of de la Mare’s “The Listeners” with the sound off. A man rides up to a somewhat elaborate house in a woods at night. Close up: you see his hand knocks on the door. And he knocks again. And one more time—oh the heavy suspense—he knocks a third time. No one comes to the door. Back to wide shot: he rides off. Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat! Goosebumps!
Now of course suspense, fright, that sense of out-of-joint weirdness are all subjective feelings inside an audience. Nothing is assured to be delivered by any artist or writer’s work, no more than all readers will find something sexy, delicious, or beautiful. But almost nothing happens here, and that little is not unusual, at least in the days when the horse was unremarkable transportation, back before we Zoomed or IM’ed our associates instead of riding over to them.
But if you listen to “The Listeners” (hey, is that title a clue?) you may get that ghost story jolt that de la Mare intended. After enjoying this as a poem (full text here) or in my song version, let’s look at some details of how de la Mare casts his spell.
First off, the poem is full of assertions of silence. For something that’s not a there, there—it won’t shut up about it. Helping us endure the author pointing and asking us to notice that, some of the descriptions of silence are quite nice I think, particularly the last one: “The silence surged softly backward.” And oddly, to enforce our sense of the silence, sound effects are used in a couple of places to richen the silence. We can hear the mouth of the horse grazing early in the poem as his rider goes to the door. And as the rider mounts up to leave, we can hear the sound of the leather stirrup strap stretching as his sole meets the stirrup and then the differing sound of the horse’s shoed hooves when they strike a rock in the forest trail away from the house. What we hear enforces the feeling of silence.
Dialog (strictly speaking, monologue) is used sparingly, but it finally tells with the rider’s final utterance. This is no chance encounter, though the rider is called “The Traveller” he’s not a curious passerby or a man looking for a cup of oats for his empty-tank horse. That this is an unexplained appointment is a wonderful choice! Like the silence it can let us fill it with detail.
I just got done exchanging new work this month with a small group of poets that have been doing this for decades. I’m sure many of my responses were suggestions to clear something up or to expand something the poem seems to start but doesn’t finish. And the same was likely said about my work. I thought my advice was valid when I gave it, if only from an example reader, but “The Listeners” points out there’s no law that a poem needs to answer every expectation—maybe instead there’s a statute that says that at least in a small yet significant way it needs to surprise or even confound expectation.
And yes, that title: “The Listeners” really helps here. The rider knows they’re there somehow, just not in the state or mood to answer. Like the silence, their nonappearance is silhouetted with outlines of absence.
I went with one of my favorite rock music sounds today, the 12-string electric guitar, an instrument made indispensable for a short time in my youth by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. The 12-string electric is an unusual instrument today, as rare to see in a guitar store as a horseman is on the road now. I bought mine a couple of decades ago because I love the sound McGuinn and his engineers developed for it, which I exploit today. The player to hear my presentation of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” is below. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.
Yesterday, the songs I made from Dave Moore’s cycle of poems about Vampira had taken us up to her short run as the first “horror host” in the early days of television. As recounted in that post, by the time her little more than a year of broadcasting fame had wrapped up, the idea of a sardonic costumed character hosting late night showings of horror and SciFi films went nationwide, with dozens of local reflections of that concept. None of them were exactly like Vampira though, and oddly, all of them were male.
Vampira’s creator, Finish-American Maila Nurmi kept at a show business career following her TV host stint, including some Los Vegas work with Liberace, but as the 1950s started to conclude, she was getting farther and farther from the brass ring. Should there be any wonder that this would have been so? No, there were few models of self-defined female performers in the Fifties, and it was her character, Vampira, not herself, that held what fame remained. And that character, combining as it did fears of death with fears of female sexuality, both attracted and repelled where it was remembered.
It was in this context that Nurmi took a role in a micro-budgeted movie with an incoherent script and famously eccentric director: “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” When the movie was completed, if such a disaster could say to have completion, it hung around in obscurity even lower than Nurmi’s for more than a decade.
Like 80s video game packages, Plan 9’s poster has higher production values than the movie.
Vampira gestures, Tor Johnson arises from the grave, and Ed Wood’s chiropractor fakes it as Bela Lugosi
Nurmi pressed on with living, less and less known. There were a couple more bit parts, and her day gig sometimes was “handyman” work in the homes of the more affluent. Poet Kevin Fitzpatrick remarked after reading Dave Moore’s pieces on Nurmi’s resilience that she was showing “Sisu,” that untranslatable Finnish characteristic that says that determination will get you through any challenge.
And then something odd happened. The same generation of film scholars and fans that helped recognize the value in genre fare like pre-war horror movies, low-budget serials, or the foreign oddness of Japanese monster movies began to look around all the blind corners of obscure film. What made a film that met few of the criteria of good cinema still interesting? Could it be that watching a film fail to fulfill it’s duties had a fascination in itself? What would the worst possible movie be like?
In 1978 a couple of movie critics put together a book called “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.” Like many lists of superlatives, it generated plenty of response, but one response was to claim that they’d overlooked this now 20 year old film that was seen mostly on TV, late at night, when viewers just couldn’t believe the bad dream they were seeing. The authors, Michael and Harry Medved, figured there was another, better book about worser movies, and in 1980 they redid their lowerarchy with a follow up book that named “Plan 9 from Outer Space” the worst movie of all time, and it’s director, Ed Wood, the worst director of all time. And since then, nothing has challenged that assessment, it’s become the “Citizen Kane” of bad cinema, a movie seen by millions who are astounded by its, ah, quality.
Thus Vampira’s few minutes of (gratefully, given the script) silent footage in “Plan 9” communicated Nurmi’s visual concept to a new generation looking to stand back from their times. The Misfits recorded a tribute song around this time, and now this year, The Haxans illuminate that song with an excellent cover. But of course, you want to hear how Dave Moore and I conveyed this part of Maila Nurmi’s story in the song-cycle. In case you’re in a hurry to get to your Halloween party, here are the three preceding songs from the Vampira song-cycle, along with the LYL Band telling the story of how Vampira would have been forgotten “If Not For Ed.”
Maila Nurmi arrives in L.A., and as she considers what persona to take on she considers celebrity evangelist Amiee Semple.
Why might someone like Nurmi choose a gothic character
in the midst of the supposedly peaceful and satisfied Fifties?
Maila Nurmi performs on TV as the first “Horror Host.”
The last part of the tale, how “Plan 9” allowed Vampira to be seen by a new generation.
Once more we visit a song from the Dave Moore-written song-cycle looking at the innovative goth/horror persona created by Maila Nurmi in 1953-54. Today’s piece “Hollywood TV” continues Nurmi’s story as commerce finds a place for her Vampira character as it seeks to fill out the expanding television time slots.
In the 50s, the moving picture industry faced an existential crisis of its own: television was going to deliver its kind of entertainment right to people’s homes, no need to go to the theater, no need to pay admission, make your own popcorn, Philco Playhouse and chill.
One way the old entertainment empire sought to use the new TV medium was to sell rights to rebroadcast movies that had completed—sometimes, long-ago completed–their theatrical runs. One studio, Universal Pictures, wanted to monetize their classic horror pictures it had released back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s and so put together a package of these films for TV stations to buy and rebroadcast in 1956.
It’s hard to believe now, in an era when SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy are the dominant commercial film genres, that in the mid-50s these films were considered shoddy goods. They reflected back to 19th Century characters and tropes, even when they were made before WWII, and so they were not thought to be the stuff that a forward-looking post-war world was looking for.
But wait, we’re in 1953-54. Even this is still in the future.
Nurmi had created the Vampira costume for a Hollywood Halloween costume party in 1953, and the story goes this novel combination of sex and death was noticed there by an entertainment figure, through which she was eventually connected with a TV station looking to broadcast old movies. The TV execs thought such old-fashioned low-value fare needed something else to make it viable, a host to contextualize the old movies to be shown at night when such niche material could fill otherwise uncommercial air time.
So, in 1954, two years before the Universal “Shock Theater” package was offered, Vampira began hosting a show made up of old movies whose rights could be obtained on the cheap, with her character leavening the proceedings with quips and intentional perversity. This is an old show-business tactic, as even in vaudeville theater, a master of ceremonies might be called on to hype or explain the acts, or to fill time when a performer had dragged down the audience’s interest. And intentional perversity was decades old too, what with the Dada cabaret of the WWI years.
Even if this is recent history, in the lifetime of people still living, it’s hard to know how big the Vampira character’s impact was in her time. Her late-night show lasted about a year ending in 1955. A follow-up show with the character on another local station didn’t stick. During the years 1954-56, there was a substantial publicity push, a local Emmy nomination, a Life magazine profile, guest appearances in the Vampira persona on other TV shows; but there was the short run of the show, and a general tailing off of Nurmi’s celebrity and performance career afterward. How big were the waves in that ripple?
If we can’t see how big the first ripples are, we can see the waves that built off it, as they are substantial, and still rolling.
In 1956 came that Universal Pictures “Shock Theater” package, eventually followed by “Creature Features” and others. Over the next decade, most major local TV markets gained a horror/SciFi host. The pattern was unmistakable. Costume. Macabre humor. Campy name. Maybe a little dry-ice fog, screeches and screams, and a haunted house décor. All parts of the Vampira scheme. What wasn’t copied? The Thanatos remained, however distanced by humor, but the Eros was toned way, way down, and the follow-on horror hosts were invariably male.
It’s a boys club. Some of the horror hosts for “Shock Theater” around the USA
In pop music, the erotic and self-possessed element of Vampira saw a revival by the late ‘70s with Poison Ivy and the Cramps, and in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually a goth subculture and “look” developed often borrowing from first or second level influences of the Vampira character with various continental European influences.
Poison Ivy of the Cramps substituted midriff & pychobilly riffs for Vampira’s décolletage and goth ennui
It took a generation from the ‘50s before the female TV horror host was revived in 1981, back again in Los Angeles, with a character, Elvira, largely based on an updated Vampira. Nurmi had helped with the creation of the show, but had a falling out with the producers.
By the end of the 20th Century, the Vampira character was still being kept alive by a wordless cameo in a widely viewed “Worst Movie of All Time” “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Irony wasn’t just a pose for the character, it was the way the character survived.
More irony: the mostly male ‘50s children who watched Vampira, Shock Theater, Creature Feature, and the other black and white movies rerun on TV at night past their bedtimes, had grown up and became the new Hollywood elite, making tens, and then hundreds of millions for a revived Hollywood, revising the tropes of the shoddy goods whose TV rights had been sold on the cheap.
If you take pre-Comics Code EC Comics attitude, the TV horror hosts, their old movies and modern descendants, add some bite-sized marketing from the candy merchants, and there you have modern American Halloween. If you walk by the rack of tacky vinyl and polyester costumes at the store, past the Star Wars characters in kid’s sizes, over to the adult-sized costumes, and there you see a “Sexy Vampire” hanging, black and low-cut, long, dark-haired wig included. A colored sheet suggests it worn by a thin young woman with red lipstick, white makeup and weaponized eyebrows. Think, then, of Maila Nurmi for Dave and me, won’t you.
Oh, there’s a song. Dave Moore wrote the words, I wrote the music and performed it. You can hear “Hollywood TV” using the player below. Click it. If You Dare!
Continuing our change of pace, temporarily stepping away from our usual spoken word and music combination, I’m going to dress-up once more for Halloween as a singer, which I fear is not a totally convincing costume. Today’s piece “Prevailing Winds” is the second cut from the song-cycle about ‘50s goth/horror innovator Vampira. Dave Moore, whose voice and words you may have heard here before, wrote the words for this piece, and I wrote the music and performed it. The first part, “Helen Heaven” was posted here Monday.
As I mentioned yesterday, the 1950s has, somewhat in retrospect, gained a reputation as a peaceful, relaxed, and satisfied time in the United States. When a political figure such as our current Presidential performer refers to “make America great again” it’s generally assumed that his clientele understands this as “like the 1950s” in hat-band shorthand.
But, as experienced, America in the 1950s was not so peaceful. The decade began with the Korean war, now commonly forgotten, but deadlier proportionately than the Vietnam war. Somewhat more so than the Vietnam war, and more like our current war on terror, the Korean War was viewed as only a small part of an open-ended global struggle against an evil multi-national enemy. And as the decade went on, there existed a widespread and increasing fear that the atomic weapons first unleashed just prior to the decade, and held in a rough but uncertain balance by the central powers of the enemies, would return again, but in multi-fold form threatening worldwide destruction, threatening human survival.
On either side of Los Angeles, where Maila Nurmi was formulating her Vampira persona, these human-survival threatening weapons were being tested in deserts and on Pacific islands, right in the open air. Radioactive isotopes were measured in milk as Nurmi fashioned the dropping white décolletage of her costume.
“I give epitaphs, not autographs” Maila Nurmi created the Vampira persona in 1953/54
As someone old enough to remember those times, I’m often puzzled at the ebb and flow of nuclear worry in American minds. There have been times when it almost disappears, and times when it is so omnipresent that the topic is nearly as unavoidable in social and party conversation as the weather or sports teams. As this is being written, Korea and nuclear worries are on an upswing, and I have no way of knowing if this level is proportionate to the threat or not—but I do believe it’s still less amplified now than it was in 1953-1954 when the Vampira persona was being created.
The human condition is mortality, this does not change. Poets have spoken of this since before the time they could write their songs down. But the human condition in that time, the 1950s, was the first to consider humanity itself as mortal.
To hear the Dave Moore/Frank Hudson song “Prevailing Winds” from the song-cycle “Vampira”, use the player below.
Let’s leave off those modernists of the era around WWI for a while, and move to a few songs about some midcentury mods. This is the time when popular culture mutated into something recognizable as ours, as it still is into this 21st Century.
Somewhere in this second decade of the 21st Century a new modernism is likely being born, but I do not know it yet. Back in the early 1950s people expected something new, perhaps as much or more than we expect change today in 2017. As it turns out, we may have not gotten all the change we thought we were due.
Today’s piece is the opening song in a song-cycle about one woman who had a moment in this moment of change in the early 1950s in Los Angeles/Hollywood. The woman was a second-generation Finnish-American, Malia Nurmi, who created a character that for a short time, just about a year, captivated TV audiences in Southern California with a strange take on sexuality and various horror tropes, blending in a beatnik/Dada critique of “normal” as a reaction to the unthinkable. The character was named “Vampira.”
Somewhere in the later 1960s it became a commonplace to view the 1950s as an era of calm, peace, satisfaction and complacency, and this characterization has only increased over time. But this was also the era just after a cataclysmic war ended with atom bombs, a horror that eventually moved from reality, to nightmares, to repressed acceptance, to forgetfulness and finally now again to present fears. This was the decade of a forgotten, brutal, war in Korea. This was an era when society tried to put back into the bottle the broadening social roles for women and Afro-Americans that WWII had allowed. This was the time that revealed the horrible efficiency of the extermination and slave labor camps, and the decade in which the utopian dream of Communism exposed its shames and shams. This was a deeply uneasy time when some feared everything “normal” was a dream and others saw clearly the waking hours outside the dream.
All of which makes this campy TV quipster host who created the makeup, costume and persona of Vampira seem inadequate to address this. Well, what is? As we move to celebrate Halloween, that strangest of holidays, where we make fun of our inability to escape fear, death, and too much candy, let’s reconsider her.
Media in black and white: Aimee Semple used religion, Maila Nurmi used Vampira
“Helen Heaven” has words written by Dave Moore, the alternate voice and writer/musician here at the Parlando Project, along with music written and performed by myself. This piece is the first song in the Vampira song-cycle, contrasting the LA-based white-dressed pop-religious phenomenon Aimee Semple McPherson with Nurmi/Vampira’s dark negative.
To hear “Helen Heaven” use the player you should see just below this.
Here is a little Halloween sidetrack. Last year, before the Parlando project, when people asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was writing a rock opera.
Daft looks on their faces, particularly if they’d heard me sing. It was pretty much a conversation stopper.
“It’s about Vampira.” I’d follow up with.
Blank looks now.
But it wasn’t my idea. The idea was Dave Moore’s. Well, not the rock opera part—that was mine—but the idea of a series of pieces on Vampira was Dave’s. As I read those pieces they had voices, various emotional states, and a loose tread of events. It just seemed they needed music and I got working on that along with Dave. In the end, we had around 10 complete songs worked up as demos. This is one of them.
Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, who in that character originated the concept of the drolly comic host presenting old horror movies on television in 1954 in Los Angeles; but by the time of this song in the sequence, she has left show business and is recounting one of her last roles, an appearance in 1958’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often judged the worst film of all time. Oddly enough, that conspicuous badness gave the film a robust second life. Plan 9’s auteur, Ed Wood, the Ed sung about in this song, even got his own biopic.
So here is the story of a true original who, alas, is largely remembered for being part of the worst project in her career. To hear the song selection from the Vampira project, click on the gadget below.