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I'll Turn to Stone - the Four Tops

I'm often struck by the serendipitous nature of the Uncle Stylus posts. Just a couple of days ago I and my partner had the great good fortune to see the classicist, writer and comedian Natalie Haynes make her presentation "Stone Blind", an exploration of the myth of Medusa, and how her story has changed over the years to into a personification of male fears and insecurities about women that promote misogynistic attitudes. She (Natalie) was very entertaining, enlightening and extremely funny too.

This is just at the time when we have been celebrating the music of Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) in the aftermath of the death of Lamont Dozier (see last three posts). Previous to that we were remembering the work of R Dean Taylor, also of Motown, who had been employed by Motown Records after an interview with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.

In 1966/7, the three chapters of the H-D-H composed Trilogy of Slough and Despond (see last three posts) beginning with "Reach Out I'll Be There" all reached the top ten in both the US and the UK. They couldn't keep this up, and their next release, "Seven Rooms of Gloom", fared less well, failing artistically and selling less (only top 20, not top 10). As Huck Finn once memorably remarked, "Overreaching don't pay" and there's no doubt that, of all their records "7 Rooms of Gloom" is one of their least popular. Even the Tops themselves didn't like it. They refused to play it, removing it from their repertoire as soon as it left the charts. They carried on singing the record's "B" side, the poppy "I'll Turn to Stone", written by, wait for it, Holland-Dozier-Holland and R Dean Taylor.

Medusa is generally well-known for four things - (1) she was a gorgon (2) the sight of her turned people to stone (interestingly the phrase usually used is "she turned men to stone") (3) she was beheaded by Perseus as depicted in the famous, and horrific 16th century sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini and (4) she was a monster with snakes for hair. Curiously, Cellini's sculpture was especially commissioned to stand in the Piazza della Signoria, in the centre of Florence.

Haynes showed us how Medusa started out, not as a monster, but as a beautiful woman, but was punished by the goddess Athene, for having the misfortune to have been raped by Poseidon in her (Athene's) temple, and transformed into the figure we all know. Her story has become, over time, an image of man's triumph over woman. Haynes, in her book "Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths" and in her novel "Stone Blind", restores Medusa's reputation and sees her as a victim rather than an aggressor.

She finished, though, with a more confrontational re-interpretation of the myth, Luciano Garbati's 2008 sculpture (see below) in which Cellini's image is reversed, and Medusa has beheaded Perseus.

Curiously the Cellini statue of 1554 stands alongside other statues in the Piazza della Signoria, amongst which is Donatello's "Judith and Holofernes", completed 90 years earlier, which depicts the aforementioned Judith beheading the Assyrian general, Holofernes. The second statue was, amongst other things, to do with Florentine politics, trumping the earlier work, ie woman killing man redressed by man having killed woman. Interestingly the Donatello was commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici and the Cellini by his great-great-great-grandson, also Cosimo de' Medici.

The story of Judith comes from the Book of Judith which is a book from the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Bible. As précised by Wikipedia, her tale is as follows:

"The story revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life."

If you haven't heard of this book of the bible, don't be surprised: the Book of Judith isn't usually included in the Church of England bible as the latter is based on the Luther Bible, where a number of books, including Judith, are listed separately from the Old Testament as "Apocrypha" and Luther's view that "women were to be pious, quiet and submissive" ("Luther on Women - a Sourcebook" by S.C. Karant-Nunn and M.E.Wiesner-Hanks, Cambridge University Press, 2003) had nothing to do with their exclusion.

I'm sure the Four Tops aren't singing about Medusa and Perseus, although I like the reversal of the Medusa idea - if the woman DOESN'T look at him, doesn't return his love, he's going to turn to stone.

"Darling without you....

....I would be like a statue in a park, cold and alone, a man without a heart.

If you take your love from me, I'll turn to stone, turn to stone......."

Tracks like this have the feeling of Holland Dozier Holland turning in just another day at the office, or in their case, the studio, that it's something they knocked off in their lunch break. But great for all that, a tight, melodic love song, good to dance to, fun to listen to and sing along with, a good professional "b" side. Classic heyday, definition Motown.

Appropriately, the cover of Lamont Dozier's second solo album, "Black Bach" (1974), shows a pastiche Baroque bust

of him. If there isn't a statue of Lamont somewhere in Detroit already, hopefully there will be one soon.


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