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May 22, 2015

Soundtracked - Rachel Mason "The Lives of Hamilton Fish"

Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and share insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.

Rachel Mason's The Lives of Hamilton Fish is an ambitious and impressive 21-song rock opera performed live in front of a feature film of the same name.

Stream the album at VICE.

In her own words, here is Rachel Mason's Soundtracked contribution for her soundtrack to the film, The Lives of Hamilton Fish:

1. "Two Strangers"

"Two Strangers" is the overture. It introduces the main characters, "two strangers met on the same front page" and also introduces the point of view of the narrator, the editor of "The Evening Star" who discovers the coincidence that a statesman named Hamilton Fish has just died (on January 15, 1936) and a different Hamilton Fish, a killer is about to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing (on January 16, 1936).

I first called this song, "The Duel" because the name Hamilton Fish originated with the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. When Hamilton died, his friend Nicholas Fish named his son after him. The name continued on in the family and each subsequent Hamilton Fish went on to play a significant role in politics in New York State, including one Hamilton Fish serving as Governor.

Hardly anything is known about the killer's ancestry. He was likely named after the more famous Fish clan because it would have been a significant name of the day. There are a few obscure facts which creep in to the song, such as "X-Ray pins reveal my sins" -- that is a reference to the pins that the killer Hamilton Albert Fish inserted into his pelvic region and which were only discovered just prior to his execution at Sing Sing.

2. "A Distinguished Line"

This song is the introduction to Hamilton Fish II, a reluctant inheritor of the name Hamilton Fish. He may not have had the aspirations to go into politics like his forefathers, but he carried out the duty that his name required, "mine is a distinguished line." At the end of the song however, the killer takes up the first person voice of the song's narrator singing, "mine is an invisible line" - as his own lineage attests, he never knew where exactly he came from as he grew up in an orphanage.

3. "Wild Fish"

"Wild Fish" tells the story of the killer's upbringing in an orphanage and later his incarceration at Sing Sing. Both things are true about Hamilton Albert Fish. His childhood was filled with torture and pain- which supposedly is what contributed to his discarding the name Hamilton and changing of it to Albert. He also describes his penchant for masochism, "the way it touched my skin set my heart on fire."

4. "Emily Mann, I'll Take What Remains"

Hamilton is mourning the death of his wife, Emily Mann. She died suddenly while he was away, working in Washington D.C. She was in New York. I imagined the horror that he would have felt being totally blinded by this loss.

This song was cut from the film, but its one of the first that I wrote, when I began the whole journey into this story and song cycle.

5. "When I Was A Child"

Emily sings this song from the afterworld. It is her spirit voice. She contemplates her mother's warning not to "love a man who goes" and never to "love a broken soul."

6. "Werewolf of Wisteria"

This term actually came directly from the newspaper articles that I read during my research into the killer. The song is sung from the point of view of city folk who have been reading the stories about the killer called, The Werewolf of Wisteria!

7. "Grace, The Lord Asked Me To Save Her"

Hamilton Albert Fish at his most depraved, conflates his need to kill and eat Grace Budd with religious salvation. The lyrics are based on the stories that I read about him in the book, "Depraved: America's Most Fiendish Killer" by Harold Schechter. Fish thought intensely about scenes of the torture in the bible, and Jesus on the cross and felt the sense of his own need to be purified through pain. His sadism was truly inspired by his religious conviction.

8. "Nightmare"

Hamilton Fish II is sequestered in his house, feeling the weight of depression and also madness coming upon him. He has been hearing the voice of his beloved Emily but he doesn't understand if he is going crazy or if she is genuinely trying to reach him- and if she is trying to reach him, he doesn't understand why. He is having visions of something evil being set free.

9. "Angels Don't Tempt Him To Die"

Emily sees the suffering of her husband but she is invoking angels in order to let him know that something terrible is happening in the world. She has met a girl in the afterlife- a girl who was killed by a man who shares her husband's name. She needs to reach her husband so that he can help to get the maniac on the loose.

10. "Wild Fish (Reprise)"

Hamilton Albert Fish is roaming around the city and wanders into the actual room where Grace Budd was stolen. He is brazenly going about his daily business.

This also reflects the real history of the killer- as he was not apprehended for many years after the killing of Grace Budd.

11. "My Darkest Night "

The killer Hamilton Albert Fish feels a deep sense of remorse about killing Grace Budd and he begins to visit her grave.

I tried very hard to step into his mind and to think about what it could possibly be like to justify the kind of horrors that he committed. I could imagine Albert Fish if I imagined him being empathetic to the suffering he caused. Of course this may not true, however I did for a time write to a killer name Levi Aron who murdered a child, and it was clear in his letters that his crime was a horror to himself and that his own inability to control his impulses and to behave was also its own kind of nightmare which was unimaginable also to himself.

12. "The White Crow"

Leonora Piper, aka "The White Crow" was a real psychic medium during the first part of the 20th Century, and one of the first people to ever be given that exact distinction. She visits Hamilton Fish in order to give him a message from his wife. In historical documents at the American Society for Psychical Research in Manhattan, one can see many examples of Leonora Piper's automatic writing and readings in which she made contact on behalf of the living. Her uncanny abilities were studied extensively by New York's most prominent intellectuals, people including William James.

I imagined that were Hamilton Fish II to actually consult a psychic medium, Ms. Piper would have been a likely candidate for the task.

13. "Broken Soul of A Human Being"

A letter has been mysteriously delivered to Hamilton Fish II. After reading it he realizes that there is someone lurking in the shadows of the world who is either using the name Hamilton Fish and committing crimes under the name, or worse, this person actually shares his name.

In researching the killer, I discovered that Hamilton Albert Fish sent a letter to Grace Budd's mother and it described in horrific detail exactly how Grace was killed. I was able to visit this letter in person. It is in a private collection of crime artifacts, called the Odditorium and its custodian is the artist, Joe Coleman. In his words it is "the magna carta of crime documents."

14. "In The Tombs"

Emily Mann whispers a message to her husband, Hamilton Fish II, telling him to go to the Tombs because, "the wrong man is in the tombs." By the end of the song, the refrain Hamilton Fish II has gotten the message. This song also features a stanza which refers to the killer's song, "My Darkest Night." This is the one moment where the plight of both "lost men" are matched for a moment.

"The Tombs" was a term commonly used for the New York City Jail in downtown Manhattan. I discovered that while Hamilton Albert Fish was on the loose numerous different people were accused an detained.

15. "Sharkey's Stutter"

Hamilton Fish II goes to the tombs and interrogates a man named Sharkey. Who is being held on suspicion of the killing. Hamilton Fish II tries to get answers from Sharkey, but the prisoner's stutter makes it difficult. At one point Sharkey recalls a man who he met during an earlier sentence up at Sing Sing who told him he was a cannibal and he says, that "they called him the Werewolf. The Werewolf of Wisteria." This is the first clue that Hamilton Fish II has that he must look for the killer in Wisteria.

16. "My Darkest Night (Reprise)"

Hamilton Albert Fish is unravelling. His life is a perversion of lust, regret, religious conviction and a desire for pain, but he now aware that he is going to be caught, one way or another and that ultimately he must be put to death for his crimes.

There is one line in this song which is taken directly from a passover Haggadah. It is a line that has mostly been omitted from use because it is now considered antiquated and offensive. It is: "Lord, with thine anger, pour out thy wrath upon those who have tried to destroy us." I used this line because it perfectly encapsulates this religious sense of "us versus them" which I imagined to be Hamilton Albert Fish's greatest conflict. I imagined him to think that Grace was a martyr for the sins of the world and that anyone who could not see that, should face the Lord's wrath.

17. "Rebel Angels"

Emily summons her most powerful spirit army to descend and envelope her husband with their power. The Rebel Angels are a metaphor for her own sense of conviction in the face of a killer's conviction to do harm, hers is a conviction to stop more harm from being committed. It is her destiny to help this child and to help her husband find his true path. Finding the killer will give him his purpose in life and allow him to be something greater than his name.

18. "Listen Forest"

Hamilton Fish II runs into the dark forest where he knows by all accounts that Grace Budd was murdered. This is the last place she was ever seen alive and he runs into the forest with a sense of rage, knowing that this forest allowed the cruelest of acts to occur in the world. "I'm looking through you!" he screams.

19. "Werewolf of Wisteria (Reprise)"

Hamilton Albert Fish has been caught now. His letter made him easy to catch and now he is being taken to his death.

20. "The Chair"

Hamilton Albert Fish told a reporter before he was taken to the death house that the electric chair was to be "the supreme thrill of my life." I took that line directly out of the news story and made this song his fantasy-- dreaming of the chair as his ultimate ecstasy and salvation.

21. "Emily's Daffodil"

Emily now is at peace knowing that Grace's killer will not be able to murder any more children. The daffodil is the symbol of the innocence of a child who appears only for a short time. She returns in the springtime and hides through the winter. Both Emily and Grace are in the spirit of each and every daffodil.

When I first visited the grave of Hamilton Fish II it was in the spring and daffodils were blooming all over St. Philips Church in the Highlands. I thought about how so many indigenous cultures imagine spirits of ancestors inhabiting the soul of the natural world. It felt to me that the voices of the dead were coming up from the natural world and fighting their way through the headstones.

The daffodils wrote The Lives of Hamilton Fish.

The Lives of Hamilton Fish links:

the film's website
the film's trailer

DCist review
Metroland review
ReelTalk review

Rachel Mason links:

Movie Addict Headquarters interview with Rachel Mason
New York Observer profile of the author
New York Times profile of Rachel Mason

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
weekly music release lists
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
musician/author interviews

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