Friday, November 26, 2010

for st catherine's day

I am a votary of St Catherine, because this is the day when, perceptibly, my winter blues start to fade away. I guess a scientist would have a stab at explaining that - perhaps it's when, though the days are still growing shorter, this shortening has slowed down so much that it no longer upsets me. Whatever, today is Christmas and spring rolled into one, for me.

So let's write sentimentally about some Christmas songs. Because this year, instead of the usual feeling of misanthropic loathing, I'm really enjoying hearing them as we walk around the lit cities and sparkling shops. Big inspiration, by the way, from this post on Chris Goode's wonderful blog.

Judy Garland: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944). This is such a sad song! It's been getting gradually less sad over the years: even by Judy Garland's time some of the words had been brightened up, and with Sinatra this process went further. Gradually the meaning of the song changed from consolation (take your mind off things and enjoy Christmas, I know next year looks pretty bleak but God willing we'll make it) to celebration (The future's looking good and Christmas is so special). Garland's version catches the song in mid-transformation, hence at its most emotionally complex and open-ended, and her performance is emotionally intelligent in a fragile way, she already knows too much for her own good, but it's a priceless gift for the rest of us. There's a bit where she switches from one melody to another, in the blink of an eye, that still deceives you after a hundred listens, though you've never noticed it.

Three Degrees: "Mary's Boy Child" (1998).

Jester Hairston's great song of 1956, one of the few Christmas carols of modern times to be known everywhere. Hairston, whose grandparents were slaves, studied music at the Juilliard school, was a long-time composer, choirmaster, arranger, services to the TV industry, etc. Also an occasional bit-part actor in a surprising number of Hollywood movies (he's on Hollywood Blvd). In his song as it originally stands (e.g. Harry Belafonte), the message is a warm comfort to all humanity.

The Three Degrees, long-running MOR soul girl trio from Philly, with variable personnel, chiefly remembered for Gamble/Huff hits in the 1970s when they were said to be Prince Charles' favourite artistes. Their album "Christmas with the Three Degrees" is not so well known perhaps, and it's been repackaged so many times that it's difficult to pin down the orginal release date, but I'll go for 1998 because that's what the group's own site says, though when I heard this song I was quite satisfied that it came from their golden era. With its sleek, discreetly funky backing - the kind you could sway to without toppling off high heels, and the marvellous way that the lead (Valerie?) pronounces "Bethleham", this is totally infectious, and so concise as to be nearly disdainful - they don't bother with half the lyrics e.g. so the climactic key change is made, not to celebrate Jesus being born, but to herald Joseph and Mary's rooflessness in a strange town. In this reorientation the song now becomes inescapably about motherhood seen from a grandmotherly distance.

The Fall, "Rowche Rumble" (1979). None of Mark E Smith's ramblings make any sense, we all know that, so this can't possibly be about towns on prescription drugs and global capitalist profiteering in the business of non-cure addictive medicine dished out with legal and governmental backing to vulnerable people. The drums sound like cardboard on the studio version, the song kind of drags and whizzes at the same time, but this is somehow great. If I had to choose between this and the more fuelled-up version on Totale's Turns, ...well I don't. I'm in complete agreement with Robin Purves about the exact moment when the Fall Experiment, until then on a planet-expanding trajectory, suddenly hits its ceiling (in 1981, 3/4 of the way through Hex Enduction Hour). Despite all of the good stuff since, (mainly, it was in the next few years) ambition perceptibly shrank, vision became restricted, the music turned in on itself. It started mining a vein. Purves says it's when the band really did stop being democratic, when Riley could no longer stand up to Smith, when Smith was no longer humbled by Megas Jonsson. You judge the later work in terms of pop music, though sometimes frightening pop music. But the Fall up to Hex was a different thing. Its influence on alt-poetry is massive. [The flip was "In My Area", and is now further immortalized by being mentioned in Richard Makin's Dwelling.]

Marina and the Diamonds, The Family Jewels (2010). Don't lose sight of these prodigious three-minute wedges of disaffection.

I'm a stray cat on the roam
choking on a chicken bone

Happy Xmas!


And anyway, I've loved St Catherine since I read her very legendary legend in the South English Legendary, and also read (truly or not) that the tale of Catherine the martyr, inasmuch as it has any historical credibility whatever, is dimly based on a heathen princess who was martyred by Christians. So I think she should be a saint for all of us, and a comfort against persecution by all authorities. [Though I must admit, in her heyday it was her royalty, intellect, and independence that commended her to noble women throughout Christendom.]


By the way, Purves' piece also includes a spirited attack on Derek Bailey's improvisational music - exemplifying yet again the surprisingly familiar pattern that when people in the alt-poetry community really want to think honestly about their poetic, they'll more likely talk about music than poetry. This may be partly because we don't want to accentuate differences between each other, we need each other's support too badly; maybe, too, because most of our fundamental ideas about art in fact originated when we were thinking about pop music in our teens. If I can extrapolate from my own experience. (This is definitely a good way to look at Chris Goode's piece, for example.)

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