This playlist was inspired by the AGO’s exhibition Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s–1980s, opening March 12, and compiled by Outsiders co-curator Jim Shedden. Featuring more than 300 works by Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand and Kenneth Anger, Outsiders presents unforgettable portraits of American life from some of the most politically turbulent and greatest musical decades in the country’s history. The songs below capture the spirit of each of the artists featured. Plug into the playlist during your visit, or enjoy at home. Repeat plays encouraged.
These are songs that were suggested to me by the artworks in Outsiders. They aren’t meant to comprise a literal soundtrack to the exhibition. They aren’t always historically in synch with the work, nor are they songs that I think the artists knew or approved of. They’re just songs that came to me when I thought about the works in the show.
ANNOTATED TRACK LIST
“Dream Lover” (Paris Sisters, 1964)
Anger’s Scorpio Rising is already a riveting soundtrack featuring 13 pop classics from 1962. That got me thinking about all the other times that Anger made an alchemical mix of his unique images with the pop songs of the day. Anger made The Paris Sisters’ “Dream Lover” homoerotic through its gentle but audacious juxtaposition with this simple series of panning shots of a male buffing a hot rod, all set against a saturated pink backdrop.
“Can’t Get it Out of My Head” (Electric Light Orchestra, 1974)
Anger made several soundtracks for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: one by Harry Partch, one by Leoš Janáček, and one that set the film to ELO’s El Dorado. “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” is from the last version and, though Anger has turned back to Partch, the ELO version is legendary.
“Million Dollar Bash” (Bob Dylan & The Band, 1967/1975)
“Million Dollar Bash” is one of the great songs by Dylan and The Band recorded during the Basement Tapes sessions. I don’t know if Dylan and Winogrand ever met, or either of them cared about the other’s work. They both strike me as free spirits: unaligned, totally committed to their practice, allergic to hype and bull. Dylan’s “Million Dollar Bash” is a song about joy, even as he’s poking fun at some of the attendees, like the “big dump blond/with her wheel in the gorge” and “Turtle, that friend of theirs/With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk.” Winogrand, similarly, seems to be simultaneously celebrating and admonishing.
“Tom’s Diner” (Suzanne Vega, 1987)
“Tom’s Diner” is upbeat, energetic, and bursting with personalities, the way Winogrand’s photographs are. The permanent chaos of New York is captured by both Winogrand and Vega, who paints a picture of herself in a diner, a man pouring coffee distracted by a woman shaking her umbrella, both of them kissing their hellos, while Vega reads a story about an actor who died while was drinking, but turning to the horoscope and the funnies she feels someone watching her, and notices it’s a woman on the outside looking inside, looking at her reflection, and hitching up her skirt and straightening her stockings, but Vega is remembering your voice and the midnight picnic, and needs to catch the train.
ROBERT FRANK & ALFRED LESLIE
“Mr. P.C.” (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, 1961)
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s vocalese version of Coltrane’s great “Mr. P.C.” sounds so Cool and so hipster. It was, in fact, a very successful attempt to bring a bit of the Beat sensibility to the mainstream, aspirations similar to Frank, Leslie and Kerouac’s Pull My Daisy.
“Little Boxes” (Malvina Reynolds, 1962)
Pete Seeger’s cover of “Little Boxes” is so famous that people think it’s the first, missing the boat on Malvina Reynolds’s superb original. The song encapsulates Pull My Daisy’s sentiment exactly: down with mindless bourgeois conformity!
“Teach Your Children Well” (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970)
Graham Nash, of The Hollies and CSNY fame, is also a photographer and a photography collector. He wrote “Teach Your Children Well” after seeing Diane Arbus’s “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park” (1962).
“Everyday People” (Sly and the Family Stone, 1969)
I can’t really see Arbus listening to Sly and the Family Stone, but “Everyday People”’s “different strokes for different folks” message is perfectly in synch with Arbus’s project: “the butcher, the banker, the drummer, the blue one, the yellow one that won’t accept the black one that won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one, a long hair that doesn’t like the short hair for being such a rich one that will not help the poor one, a fat one trying to be a skinny one, and so on and so on, and scooby dooby dooby.” We got to live together.
“Another Hundred People” (Stephen Sondheim/Pamela Myers, 1970)
Menken’s Go! Go! Go! doesn’t need a soundtrack, but its images suggest so many companion compositions. Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People”, like Menken’s film, is a love letter to New York, that seemingly chaotic ecosystem, that “city of strangers/Some come to work, some to play/A city of strangers/Some come to stare, some to stay…the crowded streets and the guarded parks/By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered parks.”
“Opening, Glassworks” (Philip Glass, 1981)
Go! Go! Go! will remind some people of Koyaanisqatsi. That makes sense. So why not flirt with a Philip Glass soundtrack as with Godrey Reggio’s films? Rather than one of the super kinetic scores, I suggest a more contemplative piece to pair with Go! Go! Go!, Glass’s miniature masterpiece “Opening” from Glassworks.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke, 1964)
“A Change Is Gonna Come” is an obvious song to pair with Parks, but sometimes you have to embrace the obvious. Both Cooke and Parks produce something exquisite and hopeful out of the hell of the 1960s “race riots”, from Birmingham to Harlem, Rochester, Philadelphia, Watts, Tampa, Houston, Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, Washington, Cleveland, Jackson…
“Shhh/Peaceful” (Miles Davis, 1969)
“Shhh/Peaceful” from In a Silent Way isn’t exactly obvious, except that it’s a product of its time and place, and represents the decade of change (but not enough change) for the African-American community in the U.S. It’s meditative, and that might be what you need for Parks’s deeply disturbing photographs, but it’s also been called “space music,” characterized by “deep emotion and unaffected originality” (Lester Bangs). Chip O’Brien wrote, “There is a beautiful resignation in the sounds of this album, as if Davis is willingly letting go of what has come before…of his early ‘60s work, and is embracing the future, not only of jazz, but of music itself”.
“Friday on My Mind” (The Easybeats, 1966)
When you’re not allowed to be the person you are, but there’s salvation in the weekend: was it that simple for anyone going to Casa Susanna? Probably not. But we all know the feeling of waiting for the weekend, and I think if I had something to hide like being a drag queen in the early 1960s then I’d also find that Monday I had Friday on my mind.
“More Than a Woman” (Bee Gees, 1977)
There’s no rational connection between this song and drag queens in upstate New York in the 1960s, but the connection is there nonetheless. Once “More Than a Woman” was queered on the gay dance floors of the 1970s, it became impossible for it to be anything but that for me. So, I imagine the visitors to Casa Susanna travelling ahead in time and having a ’70s/80s disco dance party with this song, “I’m Coming Out,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “Dancing Queen,” and “I Will Survive.”
“The Music That Makes Me Dance” (Barbara Streisand, 1964)
“When Jason Holiday sings “The Music That Makes Me Dance” from Funny Girl in the middle of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (Film-Makers Cooperative, 1967), he does it with such show-stopping brio that you can practically hear the orchestral accompaniment going on in his head. Standing, sometimes swaying to this silent music in a room that quite aptly resembles the office of a semi-retired New England psychiatrist, he sings straight into the camera and, like any other seasoned performer, gives it everything he’s got, belting the song as if it represented the chance of a lifetime.” (Tom Sutpen)
“I’m your man”(Leonard Cohen, 1988)
“If you want a lover,
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love,
I’ll wear a mask for you…
“If you want a boxer,
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor,
I’ll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver, climb inside
Or if you want to take me for a ride,
You know you can
I’m your man” (Leonard Cohen)
“Ramblin’ Man” (Hank Williams, 1951)
“I can settle down and be doin’ just fine
Til’ I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my
Williams’ protagonist (Williams himself?) could very much be riding down the freeway on a hog, even though here he’s hopping on a train.
“Ramblin’ Man” (The Allman Brothers Band, 1973)
Inspired by the Williams song, The Allman Brothers Band’s song reminds me of Lyon characters, albeit on a Greyhound in this case: “Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best” they can, “And when it’s time for leavin’/I hope you’ll understand/That I was a born a ramblin’ man.” It’s not just the lyrics, though: the song’s near perfect rhythm section and godly guitar solo by Duane Allman bring me to the same sublime place that Lyon’s photographs do: the spiritual frontier represented by America, and as seen in Kerouac, and in popular culture and literature since Huck Finn, if one replaces the open road with the Mississippi River.
“Chelsea Girls” (Nico, 1967)
Nico’s haunting “Chelsea Girls”, made a year after Warhol’s film of the same name, is a ballad of a New York scene similar to Nan Goldin’s a decade later: “deviant” sexuality, drugs, and a colourful ensemble of characters. The film and the song, written by Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, are very much The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’s pre-history.
“Love in Vain” (Rolling Stones, 1969)
The Stones covering Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” Johnson’s version of the song is simply sad. In transforming it into a country-rock song, the Stones refashion it as ambivalent: love in vain, possibly, but also love as redemption. This is very much my experience of Goldin’s Ballad.