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.

10 October 2009

Literary Skiers 4

Andy and I never skied together. But I did see Andy ski once. I'd tagged along with a pack of Wolf Creek ski instructors out to Montezuma Bowl, the plunging undercup of twelve thousand foot Alberta Peak. Chutes streaked down the mountain wall like white war paint. The ski conditions were typical: post-storm crud that had been skied to an al dente wicker, still soft enough that knee-deep blocks splashed open like loose hay bales. One at a time, we all scribbled our little ant farm paths to the bottom, stacking short turns tight as puka shells. Andy came last. His turns swaled the entire width of a chute. I could see why he'd waited. He needed the rest of us out of the way. At the end of the first turn, he half-hopped, changed direction, hooked his skis back into the checkered snow and eyelinered across the entire concave of the slope--like a skateboarder accelerating in the deep end of an empty swimming pool. Another hop brought him to rest in the avalanche tailings where the group had bunched up to bitch about the chunky conditions.

I was impressed. Once on the boards, Andy--land-ethicist, eco-wonk, solo-trekker, Outward Bound-geek--had an inner Errol Flynn. Those long, pendulous garlands weren't bail-outs. There were high speed, chin-out, suspension bridge, Dick Durrance, lace 'em up, cable binding, Tuckerman's Ravine classics. The way Andy skied it, the inconsistent snow looked like good surf. I couldn't help thinking, Why didn't I do that?

"Nice turns, Andy," I said. "All three."

"Actually, four," Andy said, "if you include stopping."

--Wayne K. Sheldrake, from Instant Karma: The Heart And Soul of a Ski Bum, 2007

(Lea's pics. Thanks Lea.)

07 October 2009

Sadie Girl

Rest in peace, Sadie girl. You earned it. Go on home now, Sadie. Go on home.


Sadie, white coat,
carry me home.
Bury this bone,
take this pine cone.

Bury this bone
to gnaw on it later; gnaw on the telephone.
'Till then, we pray and suspend
the notion that these lives do never end.

And all day long we talk about mercy:
lead me to water lord, I sure am thirsty.
Down in the ditch where I nearly served you,
up in the clouds where he almost heard you.

And all that we built,
and all that we breathed,
and all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds
is piled up in back;
it burns irrevocably.
(We spoke up in turns,
'till the silence crept over me.)

Bless you
and I deeply do.
No longer resolute
and I call to you.

But the water got so cold,
and you do lose
what you don't hold.

This is an old song,
these are old blues.
This is not my tune,
but it's mine to use.
And the seabirds
where the fear once grew
will flock with a fury,
and they will bury what'd come for you

Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender
you and I, and a love so tender,
is stretched--on the hoop where I stitch--this adage:
"Bless this house and its heart so savage."

And all that I want, and all that I need,
and all that I've got is scattered like seed.
And all that I knew is moving away from me.
(And all that I know is blowing
like tumbleweed.)

And the mealy worms
in the brine will burn
in a salty pyre,
among the fauns and ferns.

And the love we hold,
and the love we spurn,
will never grow cold
only taciturn.

And I'll tell you tomorrow.
Sadie, go on home now.
Bless those who've sickened below;
bless us who've chosen so.

And all that I've got
and all that I need
I tie in a knot
that I lay at your feet.
I have not forgot,
but a silence crept over me.
(So dig up your bone,
exhume your pine cone, my Sadie.)

But Grandmother Spider told me that death is as much about happiness as it is sadness, that it's a time to celebrate as much as it is to mourn. And I believe her. And music is the great catalyst that takes us to places near and far, young and old, happy and sad. So here is a small collection of toe-tapping, flat-picking songs about another Sadie, more famous but not nearly as fortunate as the furry one that made her home in Missoula, Seattle, and Olympia.

Don't be sad, Bub. Or at least be as happy as you are sad. Within you was her best companion as it was with her for you. And in the end all we have are companions and the love we give each other. Death, like birth, are links on a chain, support beams for an unknowable web. Sadie has fulfilled her promise to you and now it's your turn to let her rest.

Photo credit: Grandmother Spider