Monday, January 26, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Winter

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Winter

'Cocoon' - Bjork (Ian)

I don't want to suggest that winter makes Canadians think about fucking. But I do live in a part of Southern Ontario that suffers from winters just cold enough to be socially retarding, and summers hot and humid enough to ensure that nobody wants to do much of anything. I probably feel it more than most, living as I do in a nice apartment that happens to be cheap – primarily because the building is old enough that the apartment is mildly uncomfortable one way or another for about half the year. Summers are interesting, because with everyone running around half-naked, at loose ends and possibly drunk, romance (or a reasonable facsimile) tends to be in the air – but on the other hand, everyone feels gross and overheated in the first place, and that can put a damper on amorous pursuits. In winter, on the other hand, any activity that's going to warm you up is good for that reason alone, and since nothing tends to send core temperatures soaring quicker than sex... there are a lot of late summer/early fall babies in Canada, is all I'm saying.

Which makes 'Cocoon' doubly appropriate. Vespertine, the album it comes from, has been dubbed by a colleague "the Bjork album for people who like winter" and that's apt enough – from the album art, to the sound (all those crystalline harps and music boxes and beats made of walking on snow and cracking ice!), to the sensibility, Vespertine is one of the only albums I own that just doesn't make sense during the warmer months. But while the majestic 'Pagan Poetry' might be more stirring, 'It's Not Up To You' more powerful and the brief instrumental 'Frosti' a more direct example of the album's wintry bent, it's 'Cocoon' that puts me most in mind of the conditions outside. "Vespertine", after all, is a term in biology referring to things relating to or happening in the evening.

'Cocoon's lyrics are joyously blunt, not to say prurient or explicit (although both Bjork's delivery and the context leave no doubt what "Gorgeousness! / He's still inside me" is all about), and those lyrics coupled with a beat that sounds wintry even if it is just cards being shuffled and warm synthesizer tones makes the song sound like nothing more than the kind of day where it's too cold to do anything but stay under the blankets. 'Cocoon' doesn't mention winter at all, which makes perfect sense to me – in the depths of it, we try to ignore the weather too.

'Bruxellisation' - The Electric Soft Parade (Pete)

An easy, if oddly-titled (what is "Bruxellisation"?), choice from an underrated album, bought from the wonderfully named Mr Dead And Mrs Free, without a doubt the best independent record shop in Berlin.

Towards the end of the hot summer of 2003, I escaped the numerous joys of Portsmouth and Southsea, and returned to live in Berlin for the third time, with the intention of staying there for longer than the one year it turned out to be. There are plenty of songs that remind me of the city and of those 12 months in particular, but it's this lovely yet melancholic song that reminds me of waiting for the bus outside work in the snow during the cold November of November 2003.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was eagerly anticipating the second ESP album, probably because a shambolic performance at the Astoria in 2002 remains to this day the only gig I've ever walked out of. Nevertheless, it's fair to say that at least mildly interested in getting my hands on The American Adventure. I can't quite remember, but I'm guessing that although I bought the album on the way to work, it didn't find its way into my CD player until the late afternoon, perhaps while wasting a few minutes before heading out of the office.

Either way, I was at the bus stop when 'Bruxellisation' came on. More likely than not I was heading to post-work football with my colleagues before meeting with friends to have a few beers, watch VfB Stuttgart briefly come alive in the Champions League and play some cards. Perhaps later I would've headed across town late at night to stay over at my then girlfriend's place in Prenzl'berg.

At the time, stamping my feet to keep them warm, I think I just really enjoyed the song for what it was, the second track on a new record, and was thinking more about what the next few hours held in store. But now, five years on, I'm instantly reminded of waiting in the bitter cold for the X83, on a mid-week November evening four months into a glorious year-long stay in Berlin, on the way to happy nights with close friends and it makes me feel more than a little homesick.

'Romeo And Juliet' - Dire Straits (Swiss Toni)

There are some bands that will just never be cool. A lucky few are hardy perennials, weathering the fluctuating tides of fashion, always seeming to remain relevant and popular. Other bands are washed in with the current and spend a few, brief moments blinking in the sunlight of a revival before disappearing back out with the tide and into the history books. For some though, their total lack of cool has an air of permanence and seems completely bulletproof. Dire Straits are very much in the latter category: their headbands, gruff Geordie charm and rolled-up jacket sleeves seem, in spite of their massive popularity back in the day, to be like a dimly remembered dream. Surely Dire Straits are utterly revival-proof?

Or so I thought until I walked into the Rescue Rooms bar early one evening after a very disappointing Seasick Steve gig. There was a student night on at Rock City that night after the gig, so the bar was packed with kids waiting for us oldies to vacate the venue so they could strut their stuff. As I sat down with my pint, I couldn't help but observe that students now are far younger and fresher-faced than they were in my day. Perhaps I should have known that revival was in the air when I spotted a guy who couldn't have been much older than 19 wearing a "Truffle Shuffle" t-shirt from 'The Goonies'. I was idly wondering if he'd even seen the film when the achingly trendy looking DJ started to play 'Romeo And Juliet' by Dire Straits. As well as being slightly bemused at the warm reception it was receiving from a crowd who weren't born when 'Money For Nothing' was troubling the top end of the charts, I was suddenly hit with a vivid memory of the last time that I had heard the song...

I was on a skiing holiday in La Rosiere a few years back when we decided to ski across the mountain and down into Italy. It was quite a hack, but for the first time in the week, the sun was shining and we thought that the prospect of a proper pizza for lunch would make all the effort and the discomfort of the long drag lifts worthwhile. The final run down to the bottom on the Italian side was a quite challenging black run, made even more difficult by the fact that it was pretty icy in places. I would never consider myself to be a particularly expert skiier, but I managed to negotiate the treacherous slopes with some ease and, as the incline began to ease off, I began to relax and to enjoy the feeling of the chill wind whistling around my face. As I neared the bottom, I began to make out the muffled notes of a huge PA system that was blasting music up the mountain, and as I got closer, it began to play 'Romeo And Juliet'. I hadn't heard the song in years, but this was Italy, I reasoned to myself - musical fashions work differently here. Besides, as Mark Knopfler really began to get going, I was reminded that, actually, this was a really good song.

"Juliet when we made love you used to cry / You said I love you like the stars above I'll love you till I die / There's a place for us you know the movie song / When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong Juliet?"

Our little convoy gathered at the bottom of the mountain around the speaker and as we contemplated our lunch and our long ski back over the mountain to France, we all shared a little moment with Dire Straits.

For a few minutes in the Rescue Rooms bar that night several years later, I could almost smell the snow and taste the grappa.

"You and me babe: how about it?"

'Come Live With Me' - Stacey Kent & The Vile Bodies (Dr Migs)

I thought of winter, and didn't want to think about Christmas, because although Christmas is in winter, winter isn't Christmas. Not that I was going to wax lyrical about 'Mistletoe And Wine', you understand. But in my not thinking about Christmas, it was all I could think of. Everything from 'In The Bleak Midwinter' to 'Mr Blobby' seemed like potential material to use, yet simultaneously material that I didn't want to use. So I closed my eyes and pictured the perfect winter scene: admiring the snow falling through the light of a sodium vapour street lamp, whilst drinking brandy around the naked carcass of a roast duck. Damn it, it was the 3KJ christmas meal. And then I suddenly knew the song that reminded me of winter.

After the moment described above, we shut the curtains, added the washing-up to the decaying matter in the kitchen sink, and put on the video of the splendid 'Richard III'. This is the Ian McKellen 'Richard III', and it blew my socks off. The titles set the scene; we see that the plot is transported to an image of the late 1930s in which Britain is a Nazi state. And as those of you who are familiar with the play will know, somehow the film has to get to the "Now is the winter of our discontent" soliloquy. Which I feel bound to add is not just spoken by Ian McKellen - his eyes, lips, neck and even his todger get in on the soliloquy.

The link between titles and soliloquy is made by a swing band, plus vocalist, called Stacey Kent & The Vile Bodies (a band name for the literati if ever there was one). And what they play is an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's poem 'Passionate Shepherd To His Love'. It's magical. When I first heard it, I somehow thought I'd heard it before, but clearly I hadn't. However, after I listened to it once, the words stuck with me, and became hard to dislodge. Only to became even more tender and dear when my grandmother read the poem at my wedding. The words/lyrics are warm, and perfect to get you through a winter. Be it Richard III's winter of discontent, or a cold winter evening in front of the fire with a loved one.

I really can't write anymore - partly because I'm a bit intimidated writing about it, All I can do is urge you to crank up Uncle Bryn's "The You Tube", and look and listen for yourself. Happy winter.

'We're All Going To Die' - Malcolm Middleton (Ben)

What do you think of when you think of winter and, yes, Christmas?

Picture postcard snowy scenes and comforting log fires? Joy, merriment and mirth-making unconfined? "Mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme"?

Or bitter coldness? Oppressive darkness that descends by 4pm every afternoon? The ever-present threat of being laid low by flu? "So this is Xmas, and what have you done?" Feeling forced to spend time in the company with colleagues and relatives you loathe? Excruciatingly bad knitwear?

In 2007 the roll call of classic Christmas singles grew by one with the release of 'We're All Going To Die' by Malcolm Middleton, formerly of Arab Strap. It was accompanied by a video following the exploits of a drunken, anti-social Santa, and it was utterly brilliant.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm no wholehearted subscriber to that second perspective on the season, far from it. There's much about winter and Christmas that I positively love. But all the same there was something refreshing about a song that seemed to go so dramatically against the grain of the prevailing mood - and against the grain of all the sugar-frosted shite released at the same time.

'We're All Going To Die' sounded like a misanthrope's anthem, fired up with anger and laden with despair. It might have been stating the obvious, but it wasn't an obvious that people like to contemplate - and so there was a value in ramming it home, like the adult equivalent of telling a self-deceiving ten-year-old that Santa doesn't exist.

But even then, as Middleton himself suggested, this wasn't necessarily a pessimistic outlook, or a cause for feelings of hopelessness, despite how it might at first appear. On the contrary, the song could be taken positively, as a timely reminder to enjoy life as a consequence, to squeeze every last drop out of it. In these terms, wasn't it just a Glaswegian (i.e. blunter and more direct) rewrite of The Flaming Lips' majestic 'Do You Realize??'?

'We're All Going To Die' was pipped to the Christmas #1 slot by 'X Factor' winner Leon Jackson's cover of Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston's 'When You Believe' and is never likely to be piped out in between Slade and Wizzard pre-Christmas in shops, but if 'Fairytale In New York' can become a popular festive standard, then you never know...

* * * * *

Thanks to Ian, Pete, Swiss Toni and Dr Migs for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is school.


Blogger swisslet said...

Hey! There's on missing!

2:45 pm  

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