Music

The Slow Samba Escapism of Michael Franks' "Tiger in the Rain"

There’s something to be said for escapism, for the armchair-travelling Michael Franks’ music offers.


Michael Franks

Tiger in the Rain

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 1979
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I don’t know if it’s the current cold weather we’re experiencing where I live, but I’ve found myself listening to Michael Franks’ 1979 album Tiger in the Rain lately. The lush rainforest jazz and lyrics about "the land of Sanpaku", the "slow sambas" in botanical gardens, and lazing "down underneath the apple tree" provide a necessary escapism. I might be compromising my street cred by professing a liking for the music of Michael Franks. If you’re not familiar with Franks, he’s a light jazz singer/songwriter (you might even say "smooth jazz", though that term has a lot of negative connotation these days).

The subject matter of his song lyrics is often tropical -- beaches, Brazil and summer figure prominently. And his voice, well, it’s often referred to as "unique". "Unique" as a word doesn’t really convey much, though. Lots of singers have unique voices -- Bob Dylan and early Kate Bush come to mind. "Unique" can be a polite way of saying challenging or hard to listen to. Yet, Franks’ voice is none of those things. It’s very easy-on-the-ears, inoffensive and non-threatening. In fact, it’s so light and airy, it can be off-putting to some.

Issuing his own music since the mid-'70s, Franks had a hit early on with "Popsicle Toes" (since covered by Diana Krall, among others), and has built a strong and loyal fan base. You tend not to hear a lot of "serious" music fans mention him, however, despite the caliber of musicians that appear on his albums. This could be because there’s not a lot of angst or drama in his music. Relaxing music is often not taken seriously.

But, let’s take a look at some (perhaps) surprising facts about Michael Franks:

  • A menagerie of jazz heavyweights have appeared on his recordings, including Ron Carter, Flora Purim, Carla Bley, Michael Brecker, Dean Parks, Steve Gadd, Kenny Barron, Larry Carlton, Ernie Watts, Bucky Pizzarelli, and many more.
  • He collaborated with blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, contributing songs and playing on their 1973 album Sonny & Brownie, as well as touring with them.
  • He was a friend and collaborator of legendary Brazilian composer and songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim.
  • His first album (reissued in 1983 under the title Previously Unavailable) is a guitar-dominated folk & country offering peppered with song titles like "King of Oklahoma" and "Dobro Ladies". It also features one of those great lost should-have-been-a-hit songs in "When Blackbirds Fly".
  • He has a PhD in American Literature.

Back to Tiger in the Rain. Maybe the reason I return to this album so often in winter is because of the circumstances surrounding my purchase of it. I had moved from Florida to a semi-rural town in the mountains of Utah to attend school. I was on my own and hadn’t met many people yet. From my small second floor house apartment, I’d make trips to the local CD/video store (I think it was a Blockbuster) and buy music and rent movies. I was working my way through Woody Allen’s filmography and listening to a lot of Thin Lizzy, Sonic Youth, and Bruce Cockburn. A strange mix, to be sure. Somewhere in there, Michael Franks found a place.

With the Rocky Mountain winter coming on with a vengeance, I must have been feeling a little homesick. I needed a tropical jolt as the snows got deep and the winds blew hard across the empty fields between my window and the distant snow-capped mountains. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my view and the natural surroundings, but loneliness makes you think of home and home had been Florida for most of my life till then. I wanted those warm sea breezes, if only vicariously.

Browsing the racks at the CD store brought me eventually to the Michael Franks section. Tiger in the Rain was one of only two of his CDs that they had. Burchfield Nines was the other, but when choosing between the album covers for Tiger or Burchfield, which would you pick? (And what the hell was a Burchfield Nine?). The cover image is, of course, a famous painting by Rousseau called "Tropical Storm With a Tiger". The hues of lush green foliage presented an attractive alternative to the gray slush and bare, brown tree limbs of my Utah world.

In the first song, "Sanpaku", the narrator is seemingly in that very jungle, seeking some kind of spiritual transcendence or knowledge by smoking "the twine", chopping "the line", chewing "the root" until his "brain was fried" and waking up "red-eye from the wine". Eventually a "brown-eyed woman" takes him by the hand, saying "’Mercy me, you’ve got to understand / This poison life will be the death of you’ / Then she lead me from the jungles of Sanpaku."

What seems to be on one level a simple tale of a guy living in the jungle in some exotic land and getting wasted a lot till some girl saves him from killing himself, also works on a more symbolic level as a tale of futility in finding inner peace through chemical means. Yet, there’s even more going on here (Franks wasn’t a literature major for nothing) when one realizes that "sanpaku" is a term from the ancient Chinese, translated as "three whites". It refers to how much of the whites of the eye show if the eye is delineated into four sections. According to lore, if the bottom white part of the eye is visible below the pupil it represents an imbalance and this "sanpaku eye" can often be found in alcoholics and drug addicts. "Sinking in the quicksand of Sanpaku", indeed.

A few more songs are set in southern climes, but they’re much more self-evident in their meaning. "Jardin Botanico" is about escaping New York City for a Rio de Janeiro Christmas ("Jardin Botanico" translates as "botanical garden" and refers to the neighborhood and public garden of the same name in that city). The tropics represent an enticing, but always peaceful hedonism to Franks: "Just wearin’ suntan lotion / This is how we spend each day / May, June, and July… / Sunnin’ in our birthday suits / Eatin’ that forbidden fruit". ("Underneath the Apple Tree")

Franks is known for his clever turn of phrase (from the earlier "Popsicle Toes": "You’ve got the nicest North America / This sailor ever saw / I’d like to feel your warm Brazil / And touch your Panama") and he doesn’t disappoint on Tiger in the Rain. From "When It’s Over": "Your speciality is not eroticism / I guess your boyfriend’s into masochism" and from the title song, "Tiger in the Rain": "Most of the time / He’s the lord of the jungle / Everyone grins while he gripes / Usually he’s found just lazing around in his stripes."

He doesn’t always hit the mark as cutesy lines like "Let’s play Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Bunny / Let’s play Grizzly Bear-Finding-Honey" all too clearly illustrate. As well, the final song, "Lifeline", runs a bit too long and teeters (but doesn’t quite fall) on the edge of schmaltz with a string section and lines like "Now I’m sailing toward the island of your love."

These are minor quibbles with what is essentially one of Franks’ strongest albums in a career numbering close to 20 albums now. The year after Tiger he would release One Bad Habit, which according to most accounts was his first album to sell substantial numbers and get lots of radio play. I’m not sure if that’s totally true, as I never heard anything from it on the radio, though the track "Baseball" pops up on most of his greatest hits albums. Apart from that album’s "Lotus Blossom", he seemed to have temporarily abandoned his fixation with tropical life. With the Paul Gauguin-inspired Objects of Desire in 1982, though, he settled into a style reminiscent of an even more laid back Jimmy Buffett with a jazzy focus on the romance of sun, sand, sea, and distant ports of call.

Oddly, Franks doesn’t live in Rio, Tahiti, Hawaii, or even Florida but the countryside of New York state. I find this perplexing for one whose work has been so informed by place, and warm locales specifically. Perhaps this distance keeps the romance of such places more alive, more vibrant in his mind. In living in "paradise", he might start to take it for granted and that muse of location would be gone. I know, for instance, that when I lived in Florida I took the beach, the palms, and the temperate winters for granted.

There’s something to be said for escapism, for the armchair-travelling Michael Franks’ music offers. The romance and lure of the exotic keeps that spark of potential discovery alive and burning and keeps us interested in the world beyond our front door. Even on a cold winter day. Especially on a cold winter day.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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