Pianist Plays Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Ravel & Debussy for Blind Elephants in Thailand

Rom­sai the ele­phant wore a red rope around his neck to warn approach­ing humans that he was a dan­ger to both them and ele­phants. A dark patch on his head from a tem­po­rin secre­tion indi­cat­ed that he was in the musth cycle, which only height­ened his aggres­sion. His mahouts at the Ele­phantsWorld sanc­tu­ary in Kan­chanaburi, Thai­land observed that the old, blind ele­phant was grow­ing more dan­ger­ous with age.

And yet, he is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of sweet­ness, as pianist Paul Bar­ton ser­e­nades him with a per­for­mance of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathé­tique, repeat­ing the melody sec­tion sev­er­al times “as he seems to like it.”

In lieu of applause, Rom­sai places his trunk over the top of Barton’s upright piano again and again, in no way aggres­sive, more the ges­ture of a grate­ful audi­ence mem­ber.

As Bar­ton, a York­shire­man who went to Thai­land over twen­ty years ago for what he thought would be a short piano teach­ing stint only to wind up mar­ry­ing a local artist and ani­mal rights activist, said in an inter­view with YourSto­ry:

All ani­mals like music. Dogs, cats, etc. But ele­phants are the clos­est to human beings in the sense that they have the same neu­rons in the brains as us. Also they have a very good mem­o­ry. If you are treat­ed bad­ly as a child, you are going to remem­ber that all your life. It’s the same with ele­phants. The ele­phant shares that part of the brain with us which has flash­backs. They can nev­er for­get the ter­ri­ble things they have seen and suf­fered… If you play clas­si­cal music to an ele­phant, some­thing soft and beau­ti­ful, some­thing that human beings have been lis­ten­ing to for hun­dreds for hun­dreds of years, some­thing that is timeless—and you play that to an ele­phant that is blind and they’ve nev­er heard music before—the reac­tion is price­less. There is a spe­cial bond between you and the ele­phant. You are com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. That lan­guage is nei­ther ours nor theirs. There is some­thing infin­i­tes­i­mal­ly won­der­ful in a piece of Beethoven that con­nects me to that ele­phant and that feel­ing is oth­er­world­ly.

The impulse to play live con­certs for Rom­sai and oth­er blind sanc­tu­ary dwellers was part­ly born from see­ing the pos­i­tive effect music had on some blind chil­dren with whom Bar­ton worked.

He also want­ed to make amends for the defor­esta­tion of the elephant’s home­land, and the way the teak indus­try exploit­ed their labor. It was while thus employed that many of them suf­fered scratched corneas and oth­er eye injuries that blind­ed them, ren­der­ing them dou­bly vul­ner­a­ble when the Thai gov­ern­ment enact­ed a ban on com­mer­cial tim­ber log­ging in 1989:

The ele­phant has worked for humans for too long. It was used in wars, it was used to defor­est its own home. What is the lit­tle thing I can do as a human to say sor­ry, for my species for what we have done to them? I’ll car­ry this heavy thing myself and play some music for the ele­phant while it is hav­ing some break­fast.

Removed from the plush seats of a con­cert hall, Rav­el feels right at home. A roost­er crows, a near­by child pipes up, and Rom­sai wan­ders in and out of the frame, at times appear­ing to keep time with his trunk.

Cicadas under­score Schubert’s Ser­e­nade.

Anoth­er Ele­phantsWorld res­i­dent, Lam Duan’s (aka “Tree with Yel­low Flow­ers”) still­ness as she lis­tens to Bach is rem­i­nis­cent of Barton’s first musi­cal out­ing with the ele­phants:

Ele­phants eat a lot of food. A lot. It is exhaust­ing try­ing to pro­cure that much food for so many ele­phants. When an ele­phant gets to eat, it’s a bit like a dog. A dog will eat its food so quick­ly because it’s not sure if it will ever eat again. And ele­phants are the same. Once they get their hands on some juicy leaves, they will eat and eat and noth­ing can tear them away from their food. That morn­ing I brought the piano in ear­ly to the sanc­tu­ary. Pla-Ra was tak­en to a field full of juicy bam­boo shoots and she began eat­ing with a sin­gle mind­ed ded­i­ca­tion. I start­ed to play Beethoven and she stopped eat­ing. There was this half eat­en bam­boo shoot stick­ing out of her trunk while she stared at me. That was a reac­tion nev­er seen before. An ele­phant stopped eat­ing because of music.

Barton’s lat­est record­ing fea­tures 80-year-old Ampan, blind in one eye and near blind in the oth­er, enjoy­ing Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Sup­port Paul Barton’s Patre­on here. Learn about vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties or make a dona­tion to Ele­phantsWorld here

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream 58 Hours of Free Clas­si­cal Music Select­ed to Help You Study, Work, or Sim­ply Relax

Watch Clas­si­cal Music Get Per­fect­ly Visu­al­ized as an Emo­tion­al Roller Coast­er Ride

Down­load 400,000 Free Clas­si­cal Musi­cal Scores & 46,000 Free Clas­si­cal Record­ings from the Inter­na­tion­al Music Score Library Project

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490)

da vinci todo list

Most people’s to-do lists are, almost by def­i­n­i­tion, pret­ty dull, filled with those quo­tid­i­an lit­tle tasks that tend to slip out of our minds. Pick up the laun­dry. Get that thing for the kid. Buy milk, canned yams and kumquats at the local mar­ket.

Leonar­do Da Vin­ci was, how­ev­er, no ordi­nary per­son. And his to-do lists were any­thing but dull.

Da Vin­ci would car­ry around a note­book, where he would write and draw any­thing that moved him. “It is use­ful,” Leonar­do once wrote, to “con­stant­ly observe, note, and con­sid­er.” Buried in one of these books, dat­ing back to around the 1490s, is a to-do list. And what a to-do list.

NPR’s Robert Krul­wich had it direct­ly trans­lat­ed. And while all of the list might not be imme­di­ate­ly clear, remem­ber that Da Vin­ci nev­er intend­ed for it to be read by web surfers 500  years in the future.

[Cal­cu­late] the mea­sure­ment of Milan and Sub­urbs

[Find] a book that treats of Milan and its church­es, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cor­du­sio

[Dis­cov­er] the mea­sure­ment of Corte Vec­chio (the court­yard in the duke’s palace).

[Dis­cov­er] the mea­sure­ment of the castel­lo (the duke’s palace itself)

Get the mas­ter of arith­metic to show you how to square a tri­an­gle.

Get Mess­er Fazio (a pro­fes­sor of med­i­cine and law in Pavia) to show you about pro­por­tion.

Get the Brera Fri­ar (at the Bene­dic­tine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Pon­deribus (a medieval text on mechan­ics)

[Talk to] Gian­ni­no, the Bom­bardier, re. the means by which the tow­er of Fer­rara is walled with­out loop­holes (no one real­ly knows what Da Vin­ci meant by this)

Ask Benedet­to Poti­nari (A Flo­ren­tine Mer­chant) by what means they go on ice in Flan­ders

Draw Milan

Ask Mae­stro Anto­nio how mor­tars are posi­tioned on bas­tions by day or night.

[Exam­ine] the Cross­bow of Mas­tro Gian­net­to

Find a mas­ter of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lom­bard man­ner

[Ask about] the mea­sure­ment of the sun promised me by Mae­stro Gio­van­ni Francese

Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the math­e­mat­ic.

You can just feel Da Vinci’s vora­cious curios­i­ty and intel­lec­tu­al rest­less­ness. Note how many of the entries are about get­ting an expert to teach him some­thing, be it math­e­mat­ics, physics or astron­o­my. Also who casu­al­ly lists “draw Milan” as an ambi­tion?

Lat­er to-do lists, dat­ing around 1510, seemed to focus on Da Vinci’s grow­ing fas­ci­na­tion with anato­my. In a note­book filled with beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered draw­ings of bones and vis­cera, he rat­tles off more tasks that need to get done. Things like get a skull, describe the jaw of a croc­o­dile and tongue of a wood­peck­er, assess a corpse using his fin­ger as a unit of mea­sure­ment.

On that same page, he lists what he con­sid­ers to be impor­tant qual­i­ties of an anatom­i­cal draughts­man. A firm com­mand of per­spec­tive and a knowl­edge of the inner work­ings of the body are key. So is hav­ing a strong stom­ach.

You can see a page of Da Vinci’s note­book above but be warned. Even if you are con­ver­sant in 16th cen­tu­ry Ital­ian, Da Vin­ci wrote every­thing in mir­ror script.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Decem­ber, 2014.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Thomas Edison’s Huge­ly Ambi­tious “To-Do” List from 1888

Watch Leonar­do da Vinci’s Musi­cal Inven­tion, the Vio­la Organ­ista, Being Played for the Very First Time

The Anatom­i­cal Draw­ings of Renais­sance Man, Leonar­do da Vin­ci

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry Of Avi­a­tion: From da Vinci’s Sketch­es to Apol­lo 11

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

The Genius of Tina Weymouth: Breaking Down the Style of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club’s Basslines

The best part about watch­ing videos of my favorite musi­cians talk­ing about their play­ing is the moment they reveal that cer­tain styl­is­tic quirks–the ones that made them who they are–came about more-or-less by acci­dent. Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mas­cis, for exam­ple, well-known for his huge, open chords as well as his long, expres­sive solos, recent­ly told Matt Sweeney that he only learned to palm-mute (damp­en the strings to muf­fle exces­sive ring­ing) a cou­ple years ago. Maybe he was jok­ing, but the idea that an essen­tial ele­ment of his mas­sive sound emerged because he didn’t know anoth­er way to play fills me with joy.

Anoth­er of my favorite play­ers is also a self-con­fessed “com­plete auto­di­dact,” Tina Wey­mouth of Talk­ing Heads and Tom Tom Club. As dis­tinc­tive a play­er as Mas­cis, it’s impos­si­ble to mis­take her style for any­one else’s. “I was only play­ing bass for five months when the band first played [live],” she told an audi­ence in 2014 at the Red Bull Music Acad­e­my in Tokyo. “I did not take a les­son. Nobody taught me.” But unlike many of her self-taught male coun­ter­parts with roots in punk and a decades-long asso­ci­a­tion with a band that defined an era, Wey­mouth, argues Car­rie Couro­gen at PAPER, has been trag­i­cal­ly under-rec­og­nized.

Yet “with­out her there would be no ‘Psy­cho Killer,’ no ‘Burn­ing Down the House,’ no ‘Once in a Lifetime,’—grooves which are imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able.” It takes noth­ing away from the smarts of David Byrne’s song­writ­ing to point out that Talk­ing Heads was just as much a prod­uct of its top-notch rhythm sec­tion. Weymouth’s “basslines became the pulse of the band,” writes Couro­gen, “infus­ing down­town punk with a new sound: a dance­able com­bi­na­tion of the soul­ful, funky jams of Par­lia­ment and James Brown with the rock steadi­ness of Car­ol Kaye.” In the video above from Reverb.com, our host Jere­my walks us through the ele­ments of Wey­mouth’s play­ing

As Jere­my points out, unlike many play­ers, Weymouth’s sound was not defined by one par­tic­u­lar instru­ment: through­out her long career, she played Fend­er Mus­tang and Jazz bass­es, a Hofn­er Club, and sev­er­al cus­tom bass­es. “She real­ly used what she need­ed,” he says, “to fit the sound to the tune.” Jere­my him­self demon­strates her basslines on a Fend­er Mus­tang. He gives her high praise indeed by com­par­ing her sim­ple yet melod­ic lines to those of greats Don­ald “Duck” Dunn and James Jamerson—long con­sid­ered two of the best play­ers in funk and soul. It’s a well-deserved com­par­i­son, and Wey­mouth has men­tioned both as influ­ences.

That she took their Motown and Mem­phis sounds and turned them into angu­lar art-rock makes her all the more inter­est­ing a play­er to study, and a rea­son for her major influ­ence on gen­er­a­tions of bassists who draw as much from clas­sic funk as from 80s New Wave. There may be no more per­fect fusion of the two than in Weymouth’s playing—and in her song­writ­ing too, as Tom Tom Club’s 1981 “Genius of Love” made abun­dant­ly clear. Jere­my cov­ers this one as well, and if you’re a bass play­er, you should too.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

7 Female Bass Play­ers Who Helped Shape Mod­ern Music: Kim Gor­don, Tina Wey­mouth, Kim Deal & More

What Makes Flea Such an Amaz­ing Bass Play­er? A Video Essay Breaks Down His Style

What Made John Entwistle One of the Great Rock Bassists? Hear Iso­lat­ed Tracks from “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley” & “Pin­ball Wiz­ard”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


96-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Fronts a Death Metal Band

As we get old­er, fam­i­ly and friends may pass away or leave us some­how, but for many of us cre­ativ­i­ty can be our solace. (Yes, it could also make us immor­tal, like Bach or Shake­speare, but we won’t be around to find out.) In the case of nona­ge­nar­i­an Inge Gins­berg that has been the case in the unlike­li­est of out­lets: death met­al.

This charm­ing New York Times doc­u­men­tary by Leah Galant details the unlike­ly team-up between Ginsberg–who spends her time between Switzer­land and New York City–and the young musi­cians who became her friends and got her into per­form­ing her poems live with full death met­al accom­pa­ni­ment.

Half earnest and half good-natured stunt, the cen­ter of it all is Ginsberg’s poems, which she has been writ­ing for years, and only a tiny glimpse of which we get to hear. The poems take on heavy sub­jects of mor­tal­i­ty, our destruc­tion of the earth, lone­li­ness. At one point Gins­berg was writ­ing these with no audi­ence, and, as she says in the doc, soci­ety is not inter­est­ed in hear­ing from the elder­ly (espe­cial­ly when it’s this dark.) It took her younger friends to make the con­nec­tion between her poems and the usu­al pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of death met­al and insist Gins­berg per­form them in that hec­tor­ing, doom laden-style of the genre. She was game.

Galant’s mini doc rewinds his­to­ry halfway through to explain Ginsberg’s upbring­ing: a “Jew­ish princess” who sur­vived the Holo­caust, fled to Amer­i­ca, and wound up writ­ing songs with her hus­band (Dean Martin’s “Try Me” was one of their hits). Tired of the war, they moved back to Zurich, and, well, fast for­ward three hus­bands and sev­er­al decades lat­er, Gins­berg was back in the spot­light, per­form­ing on the Swiss ver­sion of America’s Got Tal­ent.

We won’t spoil the end­ing of the doc, as the band try to get Gins­berg to try out for the actu­al America’s Got Tal­ent, because we’ve already said enough. But we’ll leave you with this quote from the singer her­self: “My con­cept of heav­en and hell is that in the moment of death you real­ize your life was full and good–that is heav­en. And if you think, ‘Oh, I should have done this or that,’ I think that’s hell.”

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Bat­tle-Scarred Heavy Met­al Musi­cians Play Rock ‘n’ Roll Clas­sics on Hel­lo Kit­ty Instru­ments

John Cage’s Silent, Avant-Garde Piece 4’33” Gets Cov­ered by a Death Met­al Band

The Physics of Play­ing a Gui­tar Visu­al­ized: Metallica’s “Noth­ing Else Mat­ters” Viewed from Inside the Gui­tar

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

The Encyclopedia Of Alternate Guitar Tunings

Joni Mitchell, Kei­th Richards, Robert John­son, Ani DiFran­co, and Bob Dylan. What do they have in com­mon? For one, they’ve exper­i­ment­ed with alter­nate gui­tar tun­ings, going beyond the stan­dard EADGBE tun­ing most com­mon­ly used by musi­cians. Kei­th Richards used the Open G tun­ing (GDGBD) to write some of the Stones’ clas­sic tracks–“Honky Tonk Woman,” “Brown Sug­ar,” “Beast of Bur­den,” “Gimme Shel­ter,” “Hap­py,” and “Start Me Up.” Try play­ing them in a stan­dard tun­ing and they’ll nev­er sound quite right.

If you’re a gui­tarist look­ing for a dif­fer­ent sound, spend some time with War­ren Allen’s Ency­clo­pe­dia of Alter­nate Gui­tar Tun­ings. It’s a handy resource. First cre­at­ed in 1997, this vin­tage web page presents a library of uncon­ven­tion­al tun­ings, com­plete with a list of songs where they were artis­ti­cal­ly put to use. Enter the Ency­clo­pe­dia here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

via @dark_shark

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ste­vie Ray Vaugh­an Plays the Acoustic Gui­tar in Rare Footage, Let­ting Us See His Gui­tar Vir­tu­os­i­ty in Its Purest Form

Jimi Hen­drix Plays the Delta Blues on a 12-String Acoustic Gui­tar in 1968, and Jams with His Blues Idols, Bud­dy Guy & B.B. King

B.B. King Changes Bro­ken Gui­tar String Mid-Song at Farm Aid, 1985 and Doesn’t Miss a Beat

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Merry Clayton Tells the Story of Her Amazing Backing Vocal on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”

Some of rock’s great­est singers have cat­a­logs that stretch for miles, with B‑sides and deep cuts as plen­ti­ful as the well-known favorites. We could rat­tle off hand­fuls of names that fit the descrip­tion. But there’s a small­er, more select group—a rar­i­fied com­pa­ny brought into being almost by acci­dent, whose list of hits con­sists of just one song.

But it’s one hell of a song.

Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”… try and imag­ine it with­out Claire Torry’s word­less gospel break­down. Or bet­ter yet hear it for your­self. It’s okay. I mean it’s real­ly good. I mean, it’s great, really—as a Richard Wright show­case, and David Gilmour’s slide gui­tar is heav­en­ly. But it’s no “Great Gig in the Sky,” if you know what I mean.

Dit­to the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shel­ter.” Kei­th real­ly shines, with that “freaky, tremo­lo-drenched riff like some­thing straight out of the future—or at least a very chill­ing alter­nate present,” as Gui­tar World so apt­ly puts it. It would take anoth­er fif­teen years before the effect was put to such mem­o­rable use. The cav­ernous reverb of the whole pro­duc­tion con­jures spir­its, though Jagger’s vocal is typ­i­cal­ly muf­fled.

But take out Mer­ry Clayton’s wail and what have you got? A pret­ty good Stones tune, grant­ed, but it’s no “Gimme Shel­ter.” Her con­tri­bu­tions make this an uncan­ni­ly haunt­ing song, a warn­ing from some ancient trag­ic cho­rus, a fren­zied Sibylline prophe­cy, and I think I’m under­selling it. How did she come to haunt this song? Hear her tell it in the video at the top, an excerpt from, 20 Feet from Star­dom, the doc­u­men­tary that gives unsung back­ing singers some long-over­due expo­sure.

We’ve heard Jag­ger tell the sto­ry before, in an inter­view we pre­vi­ous­ly high­light­ed here. “We ran­dom­ly phoned up this poor lady in the mid­dle of the night,” he says, “and she arrived in her curlers and pro­ceed­ed to do that in one or two takes, which is pret­ty amaz­ing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone—‘Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’—but she real­ly got into it, as you can hear on the record.”

Boy, did she. She was in curlers, as she remem­bers it, and also silk paja­mas, a mink coat, and a Chanel scarf. Preg­nant and get­ting ready for bed before she got the call from pro­duc­er Jack Nitzsche, Clay­ton, who had no idea who the Stones were, almost refused until her hus­band said “Hon­ey, you know, you real­ly should go and do this date.” It was fate. “Clay­ton sang with such emo­tion­al force that her voice cracked,” notes Mike Springer in our pre­vi­ous post. “In the iso­lat­ed track above, you can hear the oth­ers in the stu­dio shout­ing in amaze­ment.”

And in the rec­ol­lec­tion almost forty years lat­er, Clay­ton and Jag­ger still shake their heads in amaze­ment. Asked if she want­ed to do a sec­ond take, she remem­bers, “I said to myself, I’m gonna do anoth­er one… blow them out of this room.” Unspo­ken in her remem­brance is what the effort may have cost her. “Despite giv­ing what would become the most famous per­for­mance of her career,” writes Springer, “it turned out to be a trag­ic night for Clay­ton. Short­ly after leav­ing the stu­dio, she lost her baby in a mis­car­riage…. For many years Clay­ton found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing.”

In live per­for­mances, Lisa Fis­ch­er and oth­er singers have tak­en on Clayton’s vocal, with admirable results. But it would nev­er have exist­ed with­out her will­ing­ness to take a chance, in the mid­dle of the night, preg­nant and in paja­mas, on an unknown (to her) British band. She lent the track the full force of her per­son­al­i­ty, turn­ing a pret­ty good song into a 20th cen­tu­ry clas­sic.

Read more of Clayton’s sto­ry at Mike Springer’s post here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mick Jag­ger Tells the Sto­ry Behind ‘Gimme Shel­ter’ and Mer­ry Clayton’s Haunt­ing Back­ground Vocals

The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shel­ter” Played by Musi­cians Around the World

Hear How Clare Torry’s Vocals on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” Made the Song Go from Pret­ty Good to Down­right Great

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Who Was Joan Vollmer, the Wife William Burroughs Allegedly Shot While Playing William Tell?

Pop­u­lar cul­ture knows William S. Bur­roughs pri­mar­i­ly for three of the things he did in life: using drugs, writ­ing Naked Lunch, and killing his wife. If pop­u­lar cul­ture remem­bers that wife, Joan Vollmer, it most­ly remem­bers her for the man­ner of her death: shot, they say, as a result of Bur­roughs’ drunk­en imi­ta­tion of William Tell. But in life she played an impor­tant role in the intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment of not just Bur­roughs but oth­er major Beat writ­ers as well, includ­ing Allen Gins­berg and Jack Ker­ouac. As Bren­da Knight writes in Women of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion, Vollmer “was sem­i­nal in the cre­ation of the Beat rev­o­lu­tion; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were start­ed with Joan as patron and muse.”

When her first hus­band Paul Adams was draft­ed into World War II, Vollmer moved in with her fel­low future woman of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion, and future wife of Jack Ker­ouac, Edie Park­er. Into their series of Upper West Side apart­ments came a wide vari­ety of sub­stance-abus­ing artists, Bur­roughs, Ker­ouac, and Gins­berg includ­ed. Vollmer’s new coterie, as well as her own amphet­a­mine addic­tion, so appalled Adams that he left her upon his return from the mil­i­tary. She took up with Bur­roughs in 1946, lat­er becom­ing his com­mon-law wife and the moth­er of their child, William Bur­roughs, Jr.. In seem­ing­ly con­stant flight from the law, they moved from New York to Texas to New Orleans to Mex­i­co City, where the fate­ful game of William Tell would hap­pen in 1951.

But did that game of William Tell hap­pen? His­to­ry has record­ed that Vollmer did indeed die by gun­shot, but as to exact­ly how or why it hap­pened, nobody quite knows. Hence the inves­ti­ga­tions that aca­d­e­mics, Beat Gen­er­a­tion enthu­si­asts, and oth­ers have con­duct­ed since. The Bur­roughs-themed site Real­i­tyS­tu­dio has one page on Bur­roughs and the William Tell Leg­end and anoth­er gath­er­ing doc­u­ments on the death of Joan Vollmer. You can get fur­ther in depth by read­ing “The Death of Joan Vollmer Bur­roughs: What Real­ly Hap­pened?”, a 70-page research paper by James Grauer­holz, Bur­roughs’ biog­ra­ph­er and the execu­tor of his lit­er­ary estate.

Despite his con­sid­er­able inter­est in Bur­roughs, Grauer­holz does­n’t show an out­sized inter­est in absolv­ing the writer of his crime. But he does know more than enough to cast doubt on, or at least add nuance to, the sim­ple sto­ry every­one “knows.” Bur­roughs him­self, though he gave con­tra­dic­to­ry accounts of the event at dif­fer­ent times, nev­er denied shoot­ing Vollmer. He did, how­ev­er, blame a kind of demon­ic pos­ses­sion for it: “I am forced to the appalling con­clu­sion that I would have nev­er become a writer but for Joan’s death,”  he wrote in the intro­duc­tion to a 1985 edi­tion of his nov­el Queer. “I live with the con­stant threat of pos­ses­sion, and a con­stant need to escape from pos­ses­sion, from Con­trol.”

Vollmer’s death, in Bur­roughs’ view, “brought me in con­tact with the invad­er, the Ugly Spir­it, and maneu­vered me into a life long strug­gle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” Sound like self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion though that may, the fact remains that Bur­roughs’ life freight­ed him with plen­ty of con­di­tions to write his way out of. It also went on for 46 years after the end of Vollmer’s which, though short, saw her become, as Knight writes, “the whet­stone against which the main Beat writ­ers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharp­ened their intel­lect. Wide­ly con­sid­ered one of the most per­cep­tive peo­ple in the group, her strong mind and inde­pen­dent nature helped bull­doze the Beats toward a new sen­si­bil­i­ty.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Reads & Sings His Exper­i­men­tal Prose in a Big, Free 7‑Hour Playlist

How William S. Bur­roughs Embraced, Then Reject­ed Sci­en­tol­ogy, Forc­ing L. Ron Hub­bard to Come to Its Defense (1959–1970)

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

How to Jump­start Your Cre­ative Process with William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

Hear a Great Radio Doc­u­men­tary on William S. Bur­roughs Nar­rat­ed by Iggy Pop

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Doors’ Ray Manzarek Walks You Through the Writing of the Band’s Iconic Song, “Riders on the Storm”

“An old cow­poke went ridin’ out one dark and windy day….”

So begins Vaughn Monroe’s 1949 cow­boy song “Rid­ers in the Sky,” a tale about a “ghost herd in the sky.”

And so began, at first, The Doors’ “Rid­ers on the Storm,” one of the band’s most icon­ic tunes, which, as Ray Man­zarek explains above, start­ed out with him and gui­tarist Rob­by Krieger play­ing around on Krieger’s “twang gui­tar” in their rehearsal stu­dio. As Man­zarek tells it, Jim Mor­ri­son burst in on the jam ses­sion with lyrics. To turn the Mon­roe-inspired tune into a Doors’ song, Man­zarek decid­ed “we got to put some jazz to it, make it dark.”

Watch him reen­act the mag­ic: bassist Jer­ry Scheff (for­mer­ly of Elvis’ TCB Band) stretch­es him­self to learn the bass part, Man­zarek sim­u­lates rain with a descend­ing scale, engi­neer Bruce Bot­nick pulls out the pre-record­ed thun­der….

The haunt­ed Old West feel of Mon­roe’s “Rid­ers in the Sky” remains—in the qua­ver­ing tremo­lo of Krieger’s gui­tar lines—but croon­er Vaughn Mon­roe would nev­er sing a line about a killer’s brain “squirmin’ like a toad.” Instead of ghost cow­boys, the “insane part” of the sec­ond verse fea­tures a mur­der­ous drifter who might just kill your fam­i­ly.

This creepy image hear­kens back to the cen­ter­piece of The Doors’ self-titled debut album, “The End,” with its homi­ci­dal spo­ken word sec­tion that seemed to announce the band as the sound­track to the six­ties’ dark demise, capped off by their last 1971, album, L.A. Woman, and “Rid­ers on the Storm.” (Jazz & Pop mag­a­zine called L.A. Woman “a return to the tight fury of ear­ly Doors’ music.”)

In the video—an extra from the doc­u­men­tary The Doors: Mr. Mojo Risin’—the Sto­ry of L.A. Woman—Man­zarek sings the lyrics, but hard­ly does jus­tice to Morrison’s smooth deliv­ery. It’s fit­ting in a way that the band’s last album would fea­ture a blues derived from a Mon­roe song, whose mus­cu­lar bari­tone (he was called “the Bari­tone with Mus­cles”) was such a promi­nent sound in an ear­li­er, less anar­chic, time.

“Rid­ers on the Storm” con­tains with­in it the seeds of Morrison’s idea for a “movie about a hitch­hik­ing killer,” says Man­zarek, “but he couldn’t leave it at that. The song was just too haunt­ed and too beau­ti­ful. It was almost as if he had a pre­mo­ni­tion” of his own death. He also had a pre­mo­ni­tion of ‘70s cin­e­ma, with its dis­af­fect­ed lon­er killers and bleak neo-West­erns, reflec­tions of the decades’ own Viet­nam-era dark­ness.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Lost Paris Tapes” Pre­serves Jim Morrison’s Final Poet­ry Record­ings from 1971

The Doors Play Live in Den­mark & LA in 1968: See Jim Mor­ri­son Near His Charis­mat­ic Peak

William S. Bur­roughs “Sings” R.E.M. and The Doors, Backed by the Orig­i­nal Bands

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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