Monthly Archives: July 2017

Lost memories of Death Valley ’99

Death Valley, August 1999.

Death Valley, August 1999.

The older I get, the more I forget.

What was the 21-year-old guy standing near a small copse of joshua trees in Death Valley thinking about, as the shutter clicked on an August afternoon in 1999?

For a kid from drizzly Athlone, Ireland, visiting the area, aware of some other Irishmen who claimed the joshua tree for themselves, must have been a big deal.

It was, but all that remains now is an ageing print, the negative lost, which is itself decaying. Is that a moon over my right shoulder, or just a mark on the print?

My shadow indicates that it was shot in the late afternoon. I can’t remember who took the picture – it was one of a group of friends I was travelling across the States with at the time. More to the point, I can’t recall where it was taken – though, given the heat, I’m sure it was just a few meters from the blacktop of highway 190.

Hindsight might tell me that is a photograph of a young man staking a claim of some sort – to an interest in the outdoors, or to a love of travel, or to the country where I would relocate to 17 years after this shot was taken.

It’s nice to think of such explanations, but, in truth, I’ve no idea. It’s more likely I wanted to get out of the 110 F heat and back into our air-conditioned van. (The only clear memory I have of this day is from hours later, when we approached Las Vegas as a lightning storm broke over the city.)

Looking back today, on finding the picture in an old folder, I see a kid starting out – on a journey across both a country and something vaster. I still feel like I’ve just started.

Which puts me in mind of a song we listened to in the van that summer:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

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Chasing Trane, 50 years on

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

I clearly remember the first time I played a John Coltrane recording.

It was in early 2000s, on a searingly-bright weekday morning in a house I shared with a group of others in Killester, Dublin. The previous night had been a late one, and I was feeling tender in body and mind as I gripped a coffee cup and pressed ‘play’ on my newly-purchased ‘Blue Train’ CD.

My initial response was faint recognition – I was sure I’d heard the title track at some point before, probably from a TV show or movie. But in my tired state, I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed – Coltrane’s first solo, a blistering example of his famous ‘sheets of sounds‘ technique, underscored with stabs of trombone and trumpet from Curtis Fuller and Lee Morgan.

I’ve probably listened to the track 100 or more times since that morning, to the extent that I can anticipate every note and shift, every soloist’s exit and entrance. Coltrane’s performance stands up to repeat listening, as do the performances of all six musicians on the session. (It took just one listen to Paul Chamber’s short bass solo to dispel my years of rock music-based, dismissive ignorance around rhythm section solos.)

I’ve also listened to plenty of other Coltrane recordings since that morning – from his groundbreaking take on ‘My Favorite Things‘, to his spiritual suite ‘A Love Supreme‘, to his genre-twisting take on ‘Greensleeves‘.

But I always return to ‘Blue Train’, the pulsing, pushing hard bop number that kicked off what became one of Coltrane’s top-selling albums. And it was the song I turned to this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the saxophonist’s 1967 death, an event which remains a painful loss for jazz fans and for any lovers of unfettered, creative expression.

And ‘unfettered’ is the word. Although Trane would record freer, more adventurous music in the 10 years after ‘Blue Train’, none of it quite combines the Atomic Age feeling of motion, speed, progress, and freedom that this recording does. Just try keeping your foot still.

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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.

Update – July 13, 2017: It appears that the ‘newly-discovered’ photograph may have been taken two years before Earhart disappeared, which debunks the claim that the woman in the image is the aviator. The Joni Mitchell song, however, remains as true as ever.

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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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