When I first lived in London, I spent a lot of time at the Falcon in Camden, attending more gigs there than anywhere else. A long-since closed two room pub at one end of Royal College Street in Camden, it was initially developed as a venue by promoter Jeff Barrett, later founder of Heavenly Recordings, who ran first the Back Door to Babylon club (taking his inspiration from Richard Brautigan’s novel Dreaming of Babylon) at the nearby Black Horse, and then Phil Kaufman club (Kaufman being an associate of Gram Parsons) at the Falcon.
Between 1987 and 1991, I took the short bus ride along the Camden Road to see (among others) the Jasmine Minks, the McTells, Talulah Gosh, the Siddeleys, the 14 Iced Bears, the Clouds, the House Of Love, the Wolfhounds, Catapult, the Claim, Episode 4, the Wishing Stones, the Sun Carriages, Westlake, Razorcuts, Emily, Laugh, East Village, the Sea Urchins, Biff Bang Pow!, Hellfire Sermons, the Dentists, St. Christopher, the Field Mice, the Orchids, the Great Leap Forward, Billy Childish, Heavenly, the Wake, Another Sunny Day, and Moonshake; a number of those multiple times and in varying combinations on the same bill. But sadly not Pulp (whom the Claim supported) in the infancy of their second incarnation, nor the Happy Mondays (also on a bill with the Claim as well as the Jasmine Minks) fresh out of their egg; I contrived to miss both while talking with friends in the bar, though I made good on each of them in subsequent years. More than occasionally you’d see Shane MacGowan in the Falcon, playing pool and holding gap-toothed court. It was in many ways a typical dive of a London venue, but I met and made a number of friends there and experienced plenty of sublime and exciting musical moments, in among some that were rote and monotonous.
Ten years after ‘Death and the maiden’ was released, circa the time of their Way out where album, I saw the Verlaines play a one-off show in what was to be my last visit to the black sweat box at the back of the Falcon. I’ve often wondered whether singer and song writer Graeme Downes knew that for two months in 1873, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived together at the other end of Royal College Street. The group were in their grungy phase (relatively speaking) at that time; Graeme had on a long coat and a black hat under which there was a lot of hair. I confess I don’t recall clearly what kind of a show they put on, but I do remember that they played ‘Death and the maiden’.
I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times, prior to and since that show. I never tire of it. It’s just about perfect, from opening bar to last. ‘You’re just too, too obscure for me…’ begins Graeme Downes, before going on to combine his own doomed romanticism with references to Verlaine and Rimbaud, and in the process creating what became as much his group’s signature tune and theme song as a homage, the chorus being the elder poet’s name repeatedly intoned.
Between songs at the launch show for the Clientele’s Strange Geometry album, the group’s Alasdair MacLean quoted a verse from ‘Death and the maiden’, modestly suggesting he’d never write words as good as ‘Do you like Paul Verlaine? / Is it gonna rain today? / Shall we have our photo taken? / We’ll look like ‘Death and the maiden’’. Downes had the confidence to use a long-standing artistic motif and to make it his own, in a song which could stand alongside earlier encounters between Death and the maiden – Schubert’s song and string quartet, Egon Schiele’s painting and Edvard Munch’s sketch, the latter having already appeared on the label of the Verlaines’ side of the Dunedin double EP). I’m no musicologist, but I think even my cloth ears can detect the theme from Schubert’s song, and therefore the second movement of the string quartet, echoed in Graeme Downes’ chords and vocal melody.
I discovered my copy of the single secreted inside a second-hand Hallelujah all the way home LP, bought from one of the Notting Hill Record & Tape Exchanges. Purchasing it was the one and only time when a member of its staff paused to admire my taste, and tell me what a bargain I was getting, not realising that it was all the more of a bargain with the copy of ‘Death and the maiden’ tucked inside, unseen by either of us.
The Verlaines’ second release, it was the sound of a group with true musical vision hitting its stride. As with many subsequent songs, it manages to generate orchestral weight from a bare minimum of instrumentation; the influence of Graeme’s studies was already working hard on and in his musical mind. He could stop his song in mid-flow and give it a kind of big top breakdown, the kind that accompanies a circus performer doing something tricky, or a clown goofing – although in essence I imagine it is meant to be a danse macabre – and then build the music back up for its finale. It still makes me want to sing along, and, in spite of it being a danse macabre, shout for joy.