Tag Archives: Verlaines

45 45s #42 The Verlaines – Death and the maiden (Flying Nun, 1983)

VerlainesWhen 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.

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Monster Eyes

‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’

I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet.  Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account.  (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.)  Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.

But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet.  As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.

Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun.  The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together.  It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed.  It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.

You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed.  My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name.  And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial?  It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.

The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them.  Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now?  Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project.  Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.

What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions.  Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?

Sunday in Sevastopol

Reconvening with the same trio of Verlaines as for the last album Over the moon a decade ago, Pot boiler is a hybrid mix of my favourite Graeme Downes record (Some disenchanted evening) and least favourite (Hammers and anvils), though these are relatively slim and ever-narrowing margins in what is a consistently impressive body of work (as described in a recent B/w here).  Back on Flying Nun for the first time since 1990, Graeme appears to have been afforded a budget for brass and strings more or less throughout, rarely the case in days of old, allowing these songs orchestral flesh.  Not that he is one to deploy this fortification in any way but judiciously.

Graeme has returned about as disenchanted as he was in 1990, probably more so, for there’s less solace in making art out of misery in middle age.  The sleeve dedication, along with songs like ‘All messed up’, ’16 years’ and ‘Midlife crisis’, suggest that this is to some greater or lesser extent a break-up record.  Not surprising if you look back over the Verlaines song book, which is riddled with failing romances, or at least relationships viewed in the coldest light of day – but little before has been this sustained or quite this bitter.

Perversely the highlights are the songs least a part of this blood on the tracks.  With lyrics not by Graeme but David Kominsky, ‘Sunday in Sevastopol’ portrays that ruined and rebuilt city, and the challenge of writing music for someone else’s words has broken free one of Graeme’s loveliest melodies as well as orchestration with a suitably Crimean feel.  Far be it from me to suggest that the singer is identifying here with Sevastopol’s ravaged and bloody history.  On ‘If you can’t beat them’ Graeme knocks out a great little pop song about relenting and writing great little pop songs, even if, as he confesses in the lyric, those are ones with a musical phrase or two borrowed from 20th century French composer Darius Milhaud.  ‘It’s easier to harden a broken heart (than mend it)’ objectifies the loss that seems to have driven Graeme Downes back in the studio, while ‘Real good life’ closes the album with a trombone-fuelled but typically double-edged high.  The final lines ‘You’re a winner, you’re a shiner / But you’re out of time you’re too damned tired so / Say goodnight’ sound pretty final.

But that would be to read too much into the words of a performer who has always relished the drama he puts into his song writing, for work has apparently already begun on the next Verlaines album.