14 December 2009

A Christmas Case Study

As far as I know, this is the first song to deal with the combined themes of Christmas, backcountry skiing, and the often uncomfortable subject of grotesque deformities in elven children. All that in one heartwarming tune by everybody's favorite sausage salesman, Jimmy Dean.

"Little Sandy Sleighfoot" was released on a Columbia records 7" single in 1957 backed with "Whey They Ring the Golden Bells." The song was written by Philip Crane (who served as the State Senator of Illinois from 1969-2005) and composed by Joseph Savarino. Also published in 1957 was the book Little Sandy Sleighfoot written by June Unwin and illustrated by James Unwin. The book contains the Crane-Savarino sheet music. You can buy first edition copies for $850 at The Bookshop in Chapel Hill. Or, you can listen to Jimmy Dean's version to your heart's content without spending a dime. A true country music oddity.

Little Sandy Sleighfoot

His name is Sandy Sleighfoot,
And oh so sad was he,
For though he stood just 4 feet tall
His feet were 3 feet 3.
He tried to help make Santa's toys
But with his feet so long,
He'd trip and fall and break them all
Just every thing went wrong.

Now little Sandy Sleighfoot
Don't you feel so blue:
Even with your feet so long
God has a place for you.
The other kids made fun of him,
They laughed at him with glee,

But Sandy Sleighfoot learned one day
Without skis he could ski;
So when the night 'fore Christmas Eve
The reindeer stable burned,
He skied down hill and saved the deer
By remembering what he'd learned.

Now everybody loves him,
And Santa Loves him, too,
And ever since on Christmas eve
He's helped bring gifts to you.

Happy Holidays, you all!

02 December 2009

The Real Bird

On behalf of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. and to help celebrate Native American Heritage Month I was asked to speak at the International School of Geneva, Campus des Nations, on an aspect of Native Americana. My audience was a room full of eleven and twelve year-olds and my subjects for them were the words and wisdom of Henry Real Bird from the Crow Nation in southeastern Montana.

Henry is a bit difficult to pin down. He is an ex-Bronc rider in the rodeo circuit, a professor, a cowboy, the newly appointed Poet Laureate of Montana, a rancher, and, above all, a member of the Crow Nation. Because of this I thought Henry would be the perfect person to introduce to a bunch of preteens who might be in search of their own sense of self.

The Crow are peaceful people who, under the leadership of Chief Plenty Coups, aligned themselves with the whites in order to protect and preserve their native land. On 26 June 1876, one-hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, the native land of the Crow was forever mythologized when General George Custer and the 7th Calvary regiment were decimated by a Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne war party. Other than a few scouts hired by the 7th Calvary the Crow played no part in the battle. Yet today the Crow live within eyesight of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. A heavy burden to bear and, in my opinion, a reason Henry's poetry is laced with themes of drifting, restlessness, dreaming, and searching.

The image of the driftwood is a significant metaphor for the Crow. A single piece of driftwood is likely to be crushed or drowned in a river's torrent while a bundle of driftwood protects itself with its buoyancy and combined strength. More than the strength in numbers idea, the driftwood metaphor also includes themes of interconnectedness between nature, humanity, and the spirit world. The Crow word for clan is ashammaleaxia, which translates as "driftwood lodges" and implies that the members of the eight Crow clans must stick together to withstand dangers and hazards from straying too far out alone. Integrity, then, is maintained through a tightly bound driftwood bundle, a commitment to the community rather than the self.

The life of Henry Real Bird also demonstrates strength through diversity. In every sense, Henry is a giant of a man and his wide-ranging interests and experiences - separate and unique pieces of a unified driftwood bundle - only contribute to his competence. Henry has been down several of life's roads and he has returned each time with a reawakened sense of purpose and belonging. Each trip has reconnected him in someway with something else: memories, myths, rhythms and songs, words, silence, the darkness, and the light. Interconnectedness with family, community, history, and memory, along with the ability to express oneself is the path to what Henry calls "unlimitlessness." This was the message I wanted to convey to these young people and Henry's image, words, and life-story made the task easier. To quote Henry, "a spark of thought knows no end."

Thanks to Meg and Hal from the Western Folklife Center for allowing me to use their materials. The CDs Stories From Native America and Henry's Rivers of Horse provided audio segments while Why the Cowboy Sings introduced the students to Henry's home. All the photos were taken by Peter de Lory. Thanks, most importantly, to Henry, who after having met and worked with only one time five years ago continues to welcome me into his words.

23 November 2009

The Town and the City: A Humble Food Tale

Grilly, France

Geneva is a great place. Who could argue? It’s pretty, clean, safe, etc, etc. It’s “international!” When it comes to food, though, I’m afraid the international status doesn’t do it any favors.

An international city means a city where no one lives, where people from all over the globe fly in and out to do business with others flying in an out. These people need to eat so they take each other out, usually at the expense of someone’s international corporate credit card.

Restaurants in these international cities have it made because the flying people can’t or don’t cook for themselves, they can’t or won’t pay for themselves, and, really, only need a place to continue business and put something in their mouths. As long as a restaurant looks impressive enough to attract these people, what it serves and how much it charges is secondary. Someone else will pay the bill; no one is there for the food anyway. But what is good for a restaurant is not always good for cuisine.

When I think of Geneva I am reminded of Washington, DC, another city of dubious international acclaim. There, too, you will find an overabundance of high-end restaurants that are always full of beautiful people who speak several languages. When you wade through the crowds, sit down, and attend to the matter at hand, what you are often presented with —though as pretty as the clientele— is overly decorative and lacks of a certain soul.

I fear that many of Geneva’s finer restaurants suffer from the same sort of rest-on-your-laurels, charge-it-and-they-will-pay laziness as those in Washington. As I see it, part of the problem is that Geneva (and Washington’s northwest corner) has never had to feed itself. Those who work in Geneva don’t stay in Geneva but either drive back to the more affordable (or expensive) suburbs or fly in, reap the rewards, and fly out again. Other than a few pockets of ethnic minorities there is almost no such thing in Geneva as an established working class population that authentic local cuisine is built upon.

Think of all the great food cities of the world: New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Rome, among them. Why are they so great? Because within these cities people immigrate to and away from them; they live and work and raise families in them; they attend schools and wedding and funeral ceremonies all inside of them. Big, busy cities, yes, but also homes, neighborhoods, schools, community centers, and churches to generations of families who become part of the city’s living architecture. Over time very specific customs and practices are formed, food traditions among them, and the traditions become as established within a particular place as streets and buildings. When supplied with a gastronomic foundation built from time-honored customs, an artist can often take a historical cuisine and propel it into a contemporary masterpiece.

In Geneva there are certainly a few vestiges of hope, but to find these might take some serious pavement pounding. Money and foreign occupation have dictated the climate of the city for some time and that forecast isn’t likely to dissipate. Like Washington, DC, a city with as many historic sites combined with an almost overwhelming global representation means that your clients are generally one of two types: tourists or businesspeople. Presumably, both have money to burn and both must eat out. By and large, then, what you find in the way of restaurants in Geneva are the hip and swank versions where food is secondary to looks and attitude; the stodgy, blue blood (and haired) variety where the menu is as old and stale as the maître d’; and the budget ethnic establishments, as in the Pâquis district, where quality is irregular and unpredictable.

So where is one to go for regional cooking without pomp, circumstance, or Geneva’s notoriously high prices? An auberge near you. Fortunately, there are at least two countrysides worth of them to choose from, all within easy and short driving distances. The Auberge de Grilly in the village of the same name, is a great place to start.

The concept of the auberge most closely resembles that of an Inn or a Bed and Breakfast, a place for wayfaring strangers to hang their hat for a night and fill their belly with a good meal. In the United States, where the Interstate system has made wastelands out of rural byways, the country Inn either has disappeared completely or been relegated to boutique status for honeymooners and other special occasions. Not so in Europe, where backcountry traveling is still a lifestyle. The auberge, typically the only place to eat and sleep in a small village, plays a third gastronomic role of highlighting a micro-region’s particular culinary traditions. In this case, Geneva and its surrounding villages have the luxury of representing two distinct local mountain cultures, that of the Jura in the east and the Haute-Savoie to the west and south.

The Auberge de Grilly is located close to the base of Mont Mussy in the Jura foothills, about ten minutes from Divonne and Gex, France. The menu is classic French, elevated a notch or two, and composed mostly of regional, seasonal ingredients. The menu is divided into four dégustation selections, each differ in price and theme and each are offered with a choice or two of entrée (appetizer), plat principal (main course), a cheese plate, and desert. The main courses run the gamut from beef and chicken to more interesting game and fowl from the region like deer, boar, pigeon, squab, and rabbit. There is always at least one fish selection and several of the appetizers are made with seafood.

Like most good French cooking, the real treats are the sauces. Simple yet elegant, the sauces highlight the featured ingredient and enhance its natural flavors without covering them in thick gravy. All French restaurants make good use of sauces but not all French restaurants make good sauce. The Auberge de Grilly does a fine job and seems to forage the countryside for ingredients to pair with the protein. Chestnuts, mountain berries, figs, local mushrooms, and wild fennel all made their way onto our plates in the form of sauces as accompaniment to our entrées and plat principals. The cheese was local — as in the Jura — or from the larger Franche-Comté region; the deserts from the mind and talent of the chef. The presentations were beautiful but not overly ornamented. In all of the courses there wasn’t a single instance of foam, sous-vide cooking, spherified liquids, or any other trendy culinary science experiment.

The wine list was good. All French, naturellement. The only problem was that as it’s a rural auberge their expertise lies not in the finer distinctions between two Burgundy producers (of which I asked). The wait staff was busy and the only opinion I could gather was: “Je ne sais pas. C'est bon!” But the wine bars are all back in Geneva and unless there is a dedicated sommelier your advice in the city will usually come from a college kid who has memorized some descriptors from the Wine Spectator or Le Guide Hachette des Vins.

The service, too, was warm, friendly, and amiable but nothing spectacular. More like your sister and aunt teaming up to serve dinner to family members. Again, if you’re looking for exemplary service and stuffy sommeliers you’d best go someplace more urban. The setting is casual but the Auberge de Grilly, or any auberge, is not quite a pub, either. The dining room holds thirty-five and there is one setting. The restaurant opens at 19:00 and closes at 21:30 and, like us, most of the diners made full use of those hours.

Is the Auberge de Grilly inexpensive? In a word, no. Is there a high quality to cost ratio? In another word: absolument! For four adults with two bottles of wine, four aperitifs, one digestif, two coffees, two bottles of water, and tip, we paid somewhere in the neighborhood of € 250. Is it haute cuisine? No. The Auberge de Grilly does not claim a Michelin star. Is it Kountry Kookin’? Not hardly. As far as I could tell, nothing was deep fried; all the meats were easily identifiable.

To spend a night dining at an auberge is neither high nor low-brow but to experience regional cooking at its most honest level. The auberge concept, and in particular the Auberge de Grilly, exemplifies the “farm to table” idea of locally, seasonally produced foods that is finally awakening in the United States and elsewhere. But in the United States this movement is largely a reaction against corporate, industrial agriculture. In France and other parts of Western Europe the movement is more of a redefinition, a rediscovery of practices and values that have been in place for a millennium. To dine at an auberge, then, is not a celebration of the past, of something antiquated or quaint, but a unique living and breathing combination of current local attitudes, customs, and practices informed by years of dedication to a specific place.

The Franco-Swiss Border
Grilly, France

Photo credits:
Grilly City Hall

18 November 2009

Literary Skiers 5

We felt our first tremor when the Chileans came barreling down our driveway in a borrowed Jeep, gears screaming, doing 50 in low gear. When they alighted we found them Latin to the core. They also possessed the very peculiar Latin death wish: they drove cars with feckless abandon and no regard for vehicular law, skied with an unconstraint that sent hackers scrambling for the trees, kissed every woman in sight (even if she looked like a hamster and was pushing seventy), woke guests singing loudly of heartbreak nights and joy-filled days.

Their battle cry, I'll tell you right off, was later banned from the Olympic site. Imagine, if you will, a sound composed of equal parts Yma Sumac, Comanche war cry, and the screech of tearing metal, and you have it. The cry originated with the boy Indio, who was not your routine Portillo or Santiago Chilean. He sprang from somewhere high in the Andes, was pure, unadulterated Incan, and didn't even speak Spanish.

Actually, Indio never spoke at all. He just looked alert, his button-black eyes moving from face to face and marking every exit. When Indio had needs the other boys divined them, probably through osmosis, and if he wished to vent a feeling or two, he simply broke into the high, mournful wail of the battle cry. Indio in full voice could single-throatedly set off an avalanche.

My mother arrived for her first visit from the East in time to hear The Cry issuing from forty throats in the upstairs lounge - the guests had picked it up in sheer self-defense - and immediately took to her bed with a three-day sinking spell and without, as I sniffled to Iglook, "...even one glance at our view!"

The Chileans plummeted up and down our driveway and all the ski runs, spilled hot wax the length and breadth of our dorms, used my steam iron to press their skis, leered shamefully at our prepubescent daughters, and triumphantly presented me with a housegift bouquet of live, unplucked chickens they'd wheedled out of a local rancher. The children, meanwhile, picked up a lot of Spanish, most of it unacceptable in polite homes, and followed the team everywhere. It was influences such as this which led to Dan, at the age of three, traveling the chairlift to 11,000 feet while his father and I rested secure in the thought that he was safely enrolled in kiddies' ski school down below.

The Chilean National Team may not have won any medals at Squaw Valley, but they sure left a lasting impression in Aspen.

--Martie Sterling, from "Life with Stein, Leon, and the Chilean Crazies," Ski Magazine, 1977

(Gracias, Andi, por permiso. Besos y abrazos también.)

09 November 2009

Get Your Feet Up Off the Ground

Oh, the shameful convenience! I mapped my run. And it comes in several versions.




I guess it's a little more accurate than my tattered, old, hand-drawn map from yesteryear. Still, is nothing sacred?!


•15.92 km/9.89 miles
•Bottom elevation: 724 m/2375 ft
•Top elevation: 1527 m/5010 ft
•Time: 1:57
•Heart Rate: High
•Pace: Slow
•Calories Burned: Lots

This is not my everyday run but rather a goal of mine. While figuring out the trails in the Jura this Spring I said to myself, "I'd like to run to the top of these one day." So I did. This was my third time.

A while ago a neighbor asked me where I go for my runs. I told him a little higher up in the Jura. "Oh," he said. Then, after a brief pause, "That's sporty." I'm not quite sure what that meant. I chuckled. He didn't. Maybe to him that seems sporty. To me it always seems like hard work.

Our limited conversation is significant because on this last run to the top of the Jura I saw sporty, if only for a moment, and once again proved to myself that though I might run around in the mountains several times a week, I'm no runner.

The sporty one passed me rather quickly. This was also significant because besides the dogs I haven't seen anyone, man or beast, running those same trails and roads I run. Sure, there are plenty of mountain bikers in the Jura but they don't count. What they ride these days looks more like motorcycles than mountain bikes and what they wear makes them look more sci-fi robot than human. Plus, even I have run past mountain bikes while climbing to the top.

The sporty one was human and by all accounts he was a runner. Though not much taller than I, his hips were about as high as my rib cage. His legs didn't have much muscle definition, more like the long rabbit legs I threw on the grill for dinner last night. I must have outweighed him by forty pounds. But that knickered, wind breakered, skinny Schweizer floated past me like he was on an escalator, his feet skimmed across the top of the dirt while my plodding legs pounded stones to sand with every step. Now that's sporty.

But I made it and I'll keep it up and I'll try to get up to the top of La Barillette at least one more time before the snow is too deep. At that point I'll strap on some skis and get there by sliding. Until then the running has been a real pleasure (and a bit painful).



Climbing above the clouds:


From the top. Mont Blanc and the rest of the world:


Self portrait:


Back down. Les Dents du Midi:



And to simulate the experience of running up a big hill and then back down I have devised a short learning film. I'm not technologically advanced enough to add my own music to my own films so I have included the same song that was being fed into my head during the making of this film. The song is a few seconds longer than the film so if you start the song first and wait for the cowbell (at about the thirty-two second mark) then the effect will be something like listening to The Wall while watching The Wizard of Oz. And if as not entertaining as Pink Floyd and Judy Garland then it will most certainly make you as head-dizzyingly sick. I suggest turning both volumes up. There is some riveting dialogue on what was an especially busy Saturday that you won't want to miss.

Good run. Thirsty dogs.


02 November 2009

Before the Mortal Coil 3

Part three in the Heavenly Trinity is 1991's Blood. A full five years after the release of Filigree & Shadow, Blood was a bit of a surprise. Other than a few stragglers--the final Cocteau Twins album, the final Pixies album, a couple more Dead Can Dance albums, a album or two from The Wolfgang Press--the classic 4AD sound was quickly disappearing and the roster turning decidedly more poppier. Belly, Lush, Spirea X, The Pale Saints, the Red House Painters, among others introduced styles of music less directly associated with the vision of a particular record label than with the prevailing sound of college radio. Let's not forget, 1991 was also the year of Nirvana's Nevermind, and depending on who you ask, either the quick birth or slow death of independent rock.

I find Blood the least engaging of the three albums mostly for the same reasons as above. To me it sounds like a great compilation rather than a singular inspiration. It works as a whole but by the end, especially after the gorgeous "'Til I Gain Control Again," the album splits into about six unresolved pieces. That said, the covers are fantastic and a few of them ("Help Me Lift You Up," "You and Your Sister," "'Til I Gain Control Again") rank with some of the best interpretations in the series. I knew, too, that by the time Blood came around I had already attained college rock coolness and no longer needed This Mortal Coil to introduce me to obscure cult bands. I owned the Rain Parade's Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, from which "Carolyn's Song" is taken, for several years before it appeared on Blood. So there.

Note: As a bonus offering to Ullr, I have graciously included two versions each of "I Come and Stand At Every Door," and "'Til I Gain Control Again." Both The Byrds and Emmylou Harris versions are featured on the box set's fourth disc of originals. However, as a true music fool I wasn't satisfied with that. Rodney Crowell wrote "'Til I Gain Control Again" and though everyone from Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson to Crystal Gayle to Jerry Jeff Walker to Blue Rodeo has recorded it I thought I would put his definitive version--recorded after many of the artists covered it. Emmylou Harris recorded the first version of the song for her 1975 album Elite Hotel.

Even more complicated is "I Come and Stand At Every Door." The Byrds recorded it for their 1966 album Fifth Dimension. I would bet dollars to donuts that the Byrds lifted it from some of Pete Seeger's Folkways Records recordings of the early '60s, so both versions are included here. More interestingly is that the song is really a poem written by the Turkish Marxist poet Nâzım Hikmet Ran. The poem was translated into English and a first version set to music showed up as a broadside in New York City in the early 1950s, just about the time when Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Odetta, Joan Baez, and all the other NYC folkies were rallying the troops.

1. The Lacemaker

2. The Apartments: Mr. Somewhere
from: The Evening Visits...And Stays For Years, 1985

3. Andialu

4. Gene Clark: With Tomorrow
from: White Light, 1971

5. Loose Joints

6. Chris Bell: You And Your Sister
from: B-side of "I Am the Cosmos" single, 1978
released posthumously as I Am the Cosmos, 1992

7. Spirit: Nature's Way
from: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, 1970

8. Pete Seeger: I Come and Stand at Every Door
from: Headlines & Footnotes: A Collection of Topical Songs, 1999

The Byrds: I Come and Stand at Every Door
from: Fifth Dimension, 1966

9. Bitter

10. Baby Ray Baby

11. Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook: Several Times
from: Sleeps With the Fishes, 1987

12. The Lacemaker II

13. Syd Barrett: Late Night
from: The Madcap Laughs, 1970

14. Ruddy and Wretched

15. Mary Margaret O'Hara: Help Me Lift You Up
from: Miss America, 1988

16. The Rain Parade: Carolyn's Song
from: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, 1983

17. D.D. and E.

18. Rodney Crowell: 'Til I Gain Control Again
from: Rodney Crowell, 1981

Emmylou Harris: 'Til I Gain Control Again
from: Elite Hotel, 1975

19. Dreams are Like Water

20. Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos
from: A-side of "I Am the Cosmos" single, 1978
released posthumously as I Am the Cosmos, 1992

21. (Nothing but) Blood

The snow line is dropping to 1000 meters tonight.

31 October 2009

In the Spirit

I interrupt this regularly scheduled triptych to celebrate the day. If there is anything else you need on Halloween (besides a bottle of red wine to watch it with) you're, well, living dead.

So good. In so many ways.

Night of the Living Dead

27 October 2009

Before the Mortal Coil 2

I must be doing something right. At some point over the weekend the clouds broke and revealed new snow down to somewhere around 1500 meters. The entire Mont Blanc massif was shiny and white. More importantly, the Portes du Soleil and Dents du Midi areas received their first significant snow of the season. Not enough to ski but it's a start. Usually the ritual involves bonfires and sacrificial skis but if Ullr is persuaded by music instead then who am I to argue?

This Mortal Coil's second album, Filigree & Shadow, moves the same concept that started with It'll End in Tears a notch or two forward. If It'll End in Tears represented the core sound of 4AD artists--Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, Modern English, etc--then Filigree & Shadow marked the record label's effort to expand the dynamic range of both sound and performers. The album is longer and more sprawling in its scope, with covers still comprising roughly half the total number of tracks. As dreamy as It'll End in Tears but also a bit darker if not more edgy and dissonant.

The covers are all good; four of the originals (Tracks 6, 7, 8, and 16) aren't available on the This Mortal Coil box set CD of originals. Of particular interest is the Colourbox version of "Tarantula," a 12" single B-side from 1983 that shows just how forward thinking those blokes were.

For me, the real treasure is the Gary Ogan and Bill Lamb song, "I Wanna Live." Who these two guys are is anybody's guess. Local Oregon staples is about all I can gather. "I Wanna Live" (written as "I Want to Live" on the Filigree & Shadow album) is stunning and much more powerful than the cover. The song could easily share space with tracks from Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers (see "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" from the previous post). Harrowing and bleak yet sunny, pretty, and full of youth. The whole album doesn't quite have the emotional impact as Third/Sister Lovers but the one song, the last one on the album, is nothing short of a masterpiece.

1. Velvet Belly

2. Pearls Before Swine: The Jeweler
from: The Use of Ashes, 1970

3. Ivy and Neet

4. Meniscus

5. Tears

6. Colourbox: Tarantula
from: Breakdown #2 EP, 1983

7. Judy Collins: My Father
from: Who Knows Where the Time Goes, 1968

8. Van Morrison: Come Here My Love
from: Veendon Fleece, 1974

9. At First, and Then

10. Gene Clark: Strength Of Strings
from: No Other, 1974

11. Tim Buckley: Morning Glory
from: Goodbye and Hello, 1967

12. Inch-blue

13. Gary Ogan & Bill Lamb: I Wanna Live
from: Portland, 1974

14. Mama K I

15. Filigree & Shadow

16. Quicksilver Messenger Service: Fire Brothers
from: Quicksilver, 1971

17. Thaïs I

18. Tim Buckley: I Must Have Been Blind
from: Blue Afternoon, 1969

19. A Heart of Glass

20. Colin Newman: Alone
from: A-Z, 1980

21. Mama K II

22. The Horizon Bleeds and Sucks Its Thumb

23. Talking Heads: Drugs
from: Fear of Music, 1979

24. Red Rain

25. Thaïs II

23 October 2009

Before the Mortal Coil

October can be the cruelest month. So pretty yet so useless. Cold and dry. Apparently, it snew somewhere in the Alps. Not here. The storm missed all of France and just grazed Chamonix. So I'll wait. I have bindings to mount on new skis(!) and liners to bake in the oven. There is a garden to break down. Plenty of trail running. I suppose I should wash the car. And some clothes. I guess I could shave. Change t-shirts.

So while we're in a holding pattern I thought I'd post some music. Recently I heard the "legendary solo version" of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" as it was recorded on an episode of The Monkees TV show sometime in the late '60s. I won't post the version but you can watch the clip, afro and all, on YouTube. Hearing the song again took me back to the This Mortal Coil version found on their first 1984 album It'll End in Tears. My, my, that was a long time ago. Twenty-five years ago, in fact.

In honor of the momentous occasions--the fact that the first This Mortal Coil album is twenty-five years old this year, plus the fact that winter will soon be here, which is a great time to listen to the This Mortal Coil albums--I will hereby offer the original versions of songs covered on all three albums. We'll start with 1984's It'll End in Tears, then feature the covers from the 1986 album Filigree & Shadow, followed by the third and final album from 1991, Blood. A single disc of the original versions accompanied the four disc This Mortal Coil box set that came out in 1993. By 1993, however, my fascination with the 4AD sound was gone, never to return, and many of the albums that the cover versions were pulled from were already in my collection. I don't own the box set and I'm pretty sure it's now out of print. It's also an incomplete collection.

After all these years the full albums still hold up pretty well, though I think they always suffered from the "goth" label misappropriated onto them. This Mortal Coil is no more gothic than the groups they covered. Call it high-brow or artsy-fartsy but it's still pop. There ain't a single pasty, hair-dyed, sad-sacked, gothic goofball that has ever listened to Big Star.
Ivo Watts-Russell, producer and founder of 4AD records, sure did and he put This Mortal Coil together in part to show off some of his favorite artists and songs. Granted, twenty-five years ago I had no idea what a Big Star was either. Back then my hair was dyed blond and though I wore a little eyeliner here and there I never felt compelled to do the whole Edward Gorey/Tim Burton movie character thing. These days, too, I much prefer Alex Chilton to the warble of Elizabeth Fraser. And though I haven't worn eyeliner in years there is no doubt that these three albums helped form my musical sensibilities and encouraged my ceaseless curiosity.

Below is the track listing for the entire album with the original versions substituted for the covers.

1. Big Star: Kangaroo
from: Third/Sister Lovers, 1975

2. Tim Buckley: Song To The Siren
from: Starsailor, 1970

3. Big Star: Holocaust
from: Third/Sister Lovers, 1975

4. Fyt

5. Rema Rema: Fond Affections
from : Wheel In the Roses EP, 1980

6. The Last Ray

7. Roy Harper: Another Day
from: Flat Baroque and Berserk, 1970

8. Waves Become Wings

9. Barramundi

10. Dreams Made Flesh

11. Colin Newman: Not Me
from: A-Z, 1980

12. A Single Wish

16 October 2009

Done Romed

What, exactly, do the Romans do? Throw lesser humans to hungry lions? Drive their motorized chariots in mad circles until the wheels fall off and they die in their lover's arms? Pine the days away leaning back on steps while eating grapes straight from the bunches? I don't really know. Maybe a little bit of it all. One thing is certain, they sure know how to eat.

Apparently, Rome is a very old city. Older even than, say, Bethesda. So old, in fact, that some of the structures have fallen down in ruins. This, however, doesn't detract from the zillions of people (not Romans) who still flock to these structures with the hopes and anticipation of getting into one of these places and doing some shopping or watching some sort of inhumane "sporting" event. And, boy, you should see the looks on their faces when they realize that the mall has crumbled.

Apparently, too, there is even a smaller city within the larger city. This small city has so much power that it's able to create its own permanent rain cloud that periodically spits down on the zillions of people (not Romans) who wait in line every day to enter.

And speaking of the dark and stormy Mansion On the Hill, it has its own army of past and present soldiers it sends into the city at large for the purpose of protection and the promotion of certain causes and events. Spotting them is kind of fun. They're not as big as a monument and they are often tucked into corners or hidden places within the city. Kind of like spies. For example, here is the Patron Saint of Two Stroke Engines hiding in a back alley with a few of her disciples:

And lo the dynamic duo of the Patron Saint of Uneven Engineering tag-teamed with the Patron Saint of Free Advertising Space:

As mentioned, the city is also famous for its monuments. Turn just about any corner and you're face to face with a beautiful and functional piece of art that commemorates something or other. Witness the Monument to Ever-present Large-Scale European City Construction Projects:

And to ensure that other European cities can't claim an edge over Rome's sometimes decaying infrastructure, the city has launched a new innovative campaign of monuments that are equally awe-inspiring, portable, and conveniently disposable. These collapsible monuments also have the advantage of doubling as advertising space for a lucky sponsor that both attracts gawking tourists and makes a little residual cash for the city in the meantime.

But I like my history a little more alive. More precisely, I'm an advocate of living traditions, everyday expressions by everyday people and how that represents the particular time and place that surrounds their performance. For example, rather than learning about when and where and why the Spanish Steps (first photo) were created, I'm interested in the Filipino and North African immigrants who peddle roses to tourists on the Spanish Steps--their language or jargon, codes of behavior, rituals, and tactics employed to sell their wares.

In my mind, the best representation of a people's or city's living tradition is what and how they assemble a small bunch of ingredients with the intent and purpose of eating or drinking them. In this sense, Rome must have few rivals.

I ate quite a bit over the last few days but, really, that was one of the reasons for going. The eating was good. Very. Here is a list of some of the greater pleasures consumed:

• Scrambled eggs with black truffles. (This kicked off a black truffle frenzy and I spent the next three days combing menus to find anything with tartufo nero di Norcia. Their use here is not like the hint of truffles that are more common in the US--little black flakes that taste of truffle essence. These are serious, quarter dollar-sized shavings that you taste and feel and chew, an ingredient rather than a flavoring.)
• Bruschetta with cured lard, a quail egg, and, yes, black truffles.
• Tagliolini with zucchini and prawns.
Saltimbocca alla Romana.
• Spiced and sautéed chicory with roasted garlic.
• Sautéed spinach with Parmesan.
• Clams in olive oil with pepper flakes.
• The finest and lightest osso bucco on the planet Earth.
• Fried artichoke.
Spaghetti alla carbonara.
• Pappardelle(?) pasta with artichokes and squid.
• More black truffles, this time with stuffed ravioli.

Simple dishes all of them. Mid-range restaurants all of them. Some of them (saltimbocca and spaghetti alla carbonara) are certifiable Roman classics; others are staples of the Roman Jewish Ghetto; still others are variations of traditional dishes found in any number of the city's trendy and lively enotecas.

Romans have been grappling with the task of feeding its citizens for over 2,500 years. That's about 500 years avanti Christo: before Gesù, everybody's favorite hippie, walked the Earth, ate organic produce, sipped wine, and expounded on the virtues of humankind. This immemorial gastronomic history, still living and breathing and cooking, is what I believe informs the greater cultural dynamic of Rome's people and place in time.

At the end of the day--and probably in the beginning and at some point in the middle--Rome will need to feed itself. What and how it chooses to feed itself represents a combination of components (cultural values, rituals, resources, techniques) so characteristic of how a specific people think and interact with their food as to be reproducible nowhere else. The monuments that fill the physical space of the city will continue to disappear into the Roman underbelly while the food and the day to day expressions that surround cucina romana--political arguments over lunch, family and holiday celebrations, and the like--will continue to define why Romans are Romans and what it is they do when they do it.

So, among the many metaphors at work in the famous Trevi fountain scene in La Dolce Vita we find at least two that deal with food. The scene itself revolves around the wealthy
(and loopy) American, Sylvia, and her quest to find milk for an abandoned kitten. The frustrated, soul-searching Italian journalist, Marcello, runs off into the pre-dawn streets of Rome to please the beautiful movie star. He returns to find (the loopy) Sylvia frolicking in the Trevi fountain. She calls to him and he joins her and as dawn lifts the darkness from the Eternal City the brief image of a figure who I interpret as an early morning bread carrier watches over them.

Darkness and dawn. Milk and bread. The essentials. As the rest of the confused world plays in its fountains and oohs and aahs its history Rome keeps on keeping on, looking for food to eat and making the most from its most fundamental ingredients.