More soul than Salford – Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Take’

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl was – by most accounts – a difficult man.

A titan of British folk music, who contributed a number of songs to its canon, he was also a man of some strongly-held prejudices – mostly against anything that didn’t fit with his conception of ‘folk music’.

So when it came to cover versions of one of his most famous songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, he didn’t just dislike one or two, he detested the lot.

As his daughter-in-law recalled: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’.”

While certain attempts at the song should be buried in a chamber of concrete, sealed, and never opened again – not least The Kingston Trio’s insipid early version – not all justified MacColl’s curmudgeonly wrath.

Roberta Flack’s 1969 take, for one, achieved a depth of soulful longing that few others reached, and which MacColl’s own version only hints at.

Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

But even Flack’s cover – from her debut album ‘First Take’ – wasn’t enough for MacColl, just as other admirable attempts at the song (by Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, or Erykah Badu), also fell foul of his standards. Or surely would have, had he lived to hear them.

What would MacColl have made of the most recent cover of his love song, then? Singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists last week released another take on the song, under the moniker Offa Rex.

Though the world hardly needs another cover version of the song, the striking thing about this one – to me – is MacColl might actually like it. After all, Chaney’s vocal channels just enough of Sandy Denny for the song to pass as a late ’60s Fairport demo.

Not that MacColl was a fan of those electric guitar-friendly folk rockers (I’ve no idea, but I’m guessing not), but Offa Rex’s drone-heavy version is closer to a finger-on-the-ear folk cover of the song that just about anything else over the past half century.

It’s certainly more Salford than soul, and perhaps that’s why it can’t compare with what is – despite the songwriter’s objections – the definitive reading of one of the 20th century’s great love songs: the one produced by a 30-year-old North Carolina singer on her first album. MacColl may have known songwriting, but singing? Take two, sir.

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‘Amelia, it was just a false alarm’

Detail from the 'new' photo of Earhart

Detail from the ‘new’ photo of Earhart

Amelia Earhart’s back in the news this week. Or rather, her disappearance is – an event that has sparked 80 years of speculation, books, films, and expeditions.

On the outer fringes of the Earhart story is a song written by Joni Mitchell, which came to mind this week as I squinted at a blurry picture, supposedly that of the American aviator on a wharf on an island in the South Pacific.

Is the shadowy image of a woman on the dock Earhart, last seen alive on July 2, 1937, some days before the picture was taken? Possibly, and possibly not. And so the mystery deepens.

In the absence of fact the fate of Earhart, if not the woman herself, has become a common property, open to scrutiny, interpretation, and debate.

As W.H. Auden would write, three years later, on the death of W.B. Yeats:

He became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections

Among the interpreters, some 40 years after Earhart’s disappearance, was Mitchell. The Amelia of her composition is not only the missing pilot (a “ghost of aviation”), but also the songwriter herself. Earhart’s attempt to be fly around the world becomes Mitchell’s own bid for meaning, in life and in love:

Amelia Earhart, 1928 (Pic: Library of Congress)

Amelia Earhart, 1928 (Pic: Library of Congress)

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know…

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes

Each verse of the song ends with refrain, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” – a phrase whose ambiguity mirrors both the pursuit for the truth about Earhart’s disappearance, and Mitchell’s own disappointment, in the face of her life coming up short.

Fittingly, given the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate, this ambiguity extends into the final lines of Mitchell’s song:

I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams Amelia – dreams and false alarms

Forty years later, the Earhart story still turns on those words: dreams, and false alarms.

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‘I can hear the fireworks’

I can see the boats in the harbor, way across the harbor
Lights shining out, lights shining out
And a cool, cool night
And a cool, cool night
And a cool and a cool
And a cool and a cool, cool night and across the harbor

I can hear the fireworks
I can hear the people, people, people shouting out
I can hear the people shouting out
Up and down the line, up and down the line
And it’s almost
And it’s almost Independence Day

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Quiet is the real loud – Nick Cave in Portland

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portland

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portland

Death, anger, violence, retribution – no one said a Nick Cave concert was going to be easy.

Lyrically (and musically too, on a few of the numbers) his performance at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this week was raw id – as the 59-year-old prowled the stage like an enraged preacher.

Words were declaimed, rather than sung:

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals
And a child is born on his brother’s heels
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red…
Tupelo!

So Cave described the coming on a devastating flood on the Mississippi town, while his band, the Bad Seeds, created an apocalyptic din behind him.

Later in the evening, early lines in “Stagger Lee” gave us an indication of the direction the murder ballad was set to take:

So he walked through the rain and he walked through the mud
Till he came to a place called The Bucket Of Blood…

But the real sturm und drung wasn’t to be found in such surging, nihilistic narratives. Towards the end of their two-and-a-half hour performance, Cave and his cohorts dimmed the lights, fired the projector, and slipped into the stately “Distant Sky”, a recent composition widely speculated to be about the tragic death of the singer’s son.

"Distant Sky" at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

“Distant Sky” at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The song is a narrative of escape, as one lover tells another that it’s time to leave a painful place. It opened with Cave himself speaking his lines, to the sound of a church-like organ: “Call the gasman, cut the power out, we can set out, set out for the distant skies”.

Then the lights dimmed, and a ghostly image appeared behind the band – that of soprano Else Torp, who echoed Cave’s call to leave:

Let us go now, my darling companion
Set out for the distant skies
See the sun, see it rising
See it rising, rising in your eyes

The specter and the singer made for a ghostly, poignant performance, undercut by the grief of Cave’s lyrics: “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us…but they lied”.

The performance also made for something far more desperate and affecting than the earlier, louder songs – not least for Torp’s painful prayer at the song’s end.

Soon the children will be rising, will be rising
This is not for our eyes

It was a moment of grief mixed with resurrection mixed with pain, that left the audience of 2,800 people standing and sitting in respectful silence.

Not for long. Within minutes “The Weeping Song” brought us back to the preacher Cave, pacing and proclaiming.

But the effect remained – for some emotions, quiet is the real loud.

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

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A wet morning at the Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden, June 2017

Portland Japanese Garden, June 2017

Gulping June

Rains, swollen

Mogami river

– Basho

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More Perry Como than Kurt Cobain

Headed to Bainbridge Island

Headed to Bainbridge Island

Rain. Grunge music. Starbucks. The G8 Protests. Sleepless In Seattle.

In a few words, this is what Seattle meant to me. Until last weekend, when I visited the city for the first time.

Of these signifiers, there’s no doubt which was the strongest. Growing up in 1990s Ireland, where rain was the standard weather and Starbucks unheard of, grunge was our default listening.

Rainless in Seattle

Rainless in Seattle

From the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit, to the death of Kurt Cobain less than three years later, Seattle was the center of the world for a music-obsessed kid like me.

Little did I think I’d ever get there. But when I did, 25 years later, I encountered a place a million miles from the rain-lashed slacker-town of my teenage mind.

Over the course of a 48-hour stay, my wife and I took a ferry to Bainbridge Island in blistering sunshine, drank horchata amidst the madness of the tourist-jammed Pike Place Market, saw the first Starbucks store (turns out it wasn’t, actually), and ate some of the best pizza and potatoes in the Pacific Northwest (at Delancey and Heartwood Provisions respectively). And there wasn’t a plaid shirt in sight.

What would Kurt Cobain make of all that? He might complain that it hardly reflected the mournful, disconsolate side of the city. To which I’d respond: well, I also went for a morning run, wound up in a big graveyard, and found myself standing at the last resting place of Bruce and Brandon Lee.

Away from the cemeteries, and the gloomy final morning, when the clouds rolled in over Puget Sound and city was delicately drenched in mist, Seattle lived up to expectations but being…nothing like them.

Put it another way, I went in humming Nirvana, I came out singing Perry Como.

 

 

 

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Ridges and rodents – hiking to Angel’s Rest

Angel's Rest and the Columbia River, May 2017

Angel’s Rest and the Columbia River, May 2017

I would have felt a bit better about climbing Angel’s Rest if a chipmunk hadn’t beat me to the top.

Yet there he was, the focus of all attention. I watched as a group of hikers ignored the spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge below, and instead perched themselves on the cliff edge trying to get a snap of the striped rodent.

Alvin wasn’t alone – dozens of chipmunks live on the rocky outcrop at the end of the Angel’s Rest trail, one of the most popular hikes in the Gorge. Their presence adds a cuteness factor to an easy, but rewarding, 442m ramble up from the trailhead below.

My wife and I undertook the hike last weekend, partly to take advantage of the improving Pacific Northwest weather, and also to get back into the hiking groove after a dreary winter of record rainfall in the Portland area.

It’s not hard to grasp why the trail is so popular, and a useful starter hike for the summer season. The trailhead is a minute off I-84, the path itself is well maintained, and the route is unmistakable – mostly because dozens of other hikers are making their way up ahead of you. And many dogs are accompanying them.

Tail on the trail

Tail on the trail

After winding through forest, the route opens up to a series of switchbacks, as you climb above the Columbia River below, passing Coopey Falls, a 46m-high horsetail waterfall. Ascending in the direction of Angel’s Rest itself, you hike for 1.5 miles across terrain that still carries the marks of a series of forest fires.

The congestion on the trail means that a clean rhythm is difficult to achieve – the routine of stopping and starting put me in mind of one of my regular city hikes when I lived in Dublin, the circuit of Howth Head, whose narrow trail is also heavily populated on summer weekends. (And whose paths are scarred by brush fires.)

Eventually though, after 2.4 miles and 90 minutes of hiking, a final left turn led us to the payoff, a rocky ridge leading to a bluff 481m up. The spot commands impressive views of the Columbia River, Beacon Rock and Silver Star Mountain across the gorge, and even Portland itself, far off to the west.

Our day was overcast but clear – the cloud kept the temperature down but afforded us the full array of views. It was a gentle reintroduction to hiking after the winter’s hibernation.

We weren’t the only ones who’d hibernated, of course. The chipmunks glanced with bewilderment at the panting climbers, scurrying around our feet on the lookout for scraps of food.

Having encountered goats, sheep, and ibex in the mountains in Europe, I’d assumed that the high places were always home to bigger, hardier, creatures. Add chipmunks to that list.

After a series of snaps and stretches, we started our descent, one made easier on the knees by the forgiving switchbacks. Little more than an hour later, we were back at the trailhead.

And so begins an outdoors summer in Oregon. Here’s to more hikes, more summits, and – naturally – more chipmunks.

Angel’s Rest

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Four million people at our feet

Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Downtown LA from Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Los Angeles is not a great hiking city. A mesh of sprawling, strangling freeways that cross a vast, concrete-laden, urban area, it’s hardly known as a spot for a hearty outdoors ramble.

This was my attitude before I first travelled to the city. On that initial visit I scratched off the idea that I’d get outdoors at all, given the daytime temps in the 90s.

This was despite the imposing presence of the San Gabriel Mountains, which overlooked my wife’s hometown of Temple City. From a distance though, they appeared smog-choked and dusty.

But luckily my wife’s family know LA, and know where to hike. Slowly but surely, subsequent visits introduced me to hill and mountain paths, most of which were within 30 minutes of Downtown (presuming traffic’s light, which is always a risky presumption in the City of Angels).

Hiking Topanga Canyon

Hiking Topanga Canyon

And so I’ve hiked up through Eaton Canyon to the falls at its head, spent an early morning walking the Los Liones trail in Topanga State Park, and filled the best part of a day traversing the trails above Millard Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Last weekend saw me add another route. Waking early, we travelled to Ernest E Debs Regional Park, a set of small hills and paths overlooking central northeast Los Angeles.

Unlike previous hiking spots I’d been to in the city, Debs Park is surrounded – or so it seems – by urban LA. The 110 freeway skirts the park’s northern edge; LA’s Eastside sprawls in one direction, with a view towards Downtown in the other. There’s graffiti on the tree trunks, and desolate, burned brush on parts of the hills.

But 20 minutes, and a steep tarmac roadway, later saw us perched on a dusty trail above the city. A slight breeze kept LA’s yellow smog haze at bay, and – despite the fact that it was a weekend morning – there was no-one else around.

For a few moments we had our scrubby, green-brown, hilly oasis. A city of four million people lay at our feet, but the only movement was the sparrows flying over our heads.

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PJ Harvey at the Crystal Ballroom

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Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.

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