08/10/2010

And If Venice Is Sinking


The column on Paris showed how easy it was for songs to pick up on the common stereotypes of such a city. Perhaps the only other city that rivals Paris for that, at least in Europe, is Venice, a place with a resident population of around 60,000 but visited by some 20 million every year. Most will bring with them a collection of expectations of what to see gleaned from postcards, TV, films, songs: the canals and gondolas, the churches and cathedrals, the Bridge of Sighs. Some even get what they want from a distance. At The Venetian in Las Vegas, visitors can experience the wonders of Venice without the hassle of actually going there. As its publicity blurb puts it, ‘ Escape the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip with a relaxing gondola ride at the Venetian. From the soothing sound of water lapping the sides of the gondola to the eloquent singing of the gondoliers, passengers will feel as if they have truly been transported to Italy...Surrounded by a ceiling emulating blue sky as well as architecture inspired by Venice landmarks, a gondola trip down the Grand Canal delivers a unique Vegas experience’

Equally, pop songs about Venice have often tended to the O Sole Mio to It’s Now Or Never to Just One Cornetto end of music, redolent of operatic gondoliers proffering an ice-cream to the sound of rippling strings .Like Connie Francis’s Summertime in Venice (‘I dream all the winter long of mandolins that play our song’) or Perry Como’s Mandolins in the Moonlight (‘in tune with the strings of my heart’). Or the string-laden pathos of Charles Aznavour’ s How Sad Venice Can Be (‘When the mandolins play a song she sung for me, One unforgotten day’).They certainly like their mandolins there. A bit of an exception lyric-wise was Steve Harley’s Rain in Venice, though his assertion that ‘Love has flooded my heart, there’s rain in Venice for the first time’ is not really true. It rains in Venice quite a lot. When I was there one July there was such a sudden torrential downpour it caused the waiters to come racing out of the cafes and restaurants to grab tables, chairs and canopies before they were swept away into the canals.

The song here, And If Venice Is Sinking, recorded by the Canadian group Spirit of the West in 1993, is very much a tourist view of Venice and was written by the group’s singer, John Mann, after his honeymoon there. (The laugh that can be heard during the lines about Marini’s Little Man is apparently from his wife, the actress Jill Baum, joining in the backing singing). Musically it is a joyous celebration of the city from someone – like many of the annual visitors - who has fallen in love with it and is willing to go down with it like a ship if it eventually sinks into its own lagoons.: a possible reality that has troubled the city for years. There is the sound of the accordion and mandolin as might be expected but also a tuba and a rollicking sing- along chorus that veers between a Celtic folk dance and a German polka.

Lyrically, it takes a rather different slant from the usual one of serenading gondoliers. Instead, it captures another side of Venice that many visitors take away memories of. As you go about by foot or boat, there is a constant sense of religion and ornate and crumbling history, not just from the grand architecture of buildings such as the Basilica di Santa Maria but from the icons, candles, statuettes, window boxes of flowers seen down every alleyway or canal side. In a different musical context, some of the imagery in the words –‘they come in bent backed,, creeping across the floor all dressed in black... come to kiss their dead’ – could seem darker, drawing the listener into the shadowy and eerie Venice of the film Dont Look Now. Here, they seem the recollections of a visitor to Venice awestruck, christened with wonder, by what he sees. Equally, the Marino Marini priapic Little Rider sculpture that caused the merriment on Mann’s honeymoon is at one of the museums and art galleries - the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal- that is firmly on the tourist trail.

Venice is a strange place that seems to exist in its own world, with its own special light and sky. It can, at times, seem as though you have wandered into a Canaletto painting. You can look from the top of the Campanile at the people and pigeons in the mosaic square below and know that millions of others have shared the same view - yet that and all the sights down the alleys and canals seem somehow a unique experience. Thomas Mann once described Venice as ‘half fairy tale and half tourist trap’. Somehow the fairy tale part becomes the reality and the one you take away with you.

Link to song

45 comments:

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  2. If I am ever in Sydney with a cat, I'll bear this in mind

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  3. Geoff! Firstly, you're so kind, but I think you should feel ok about just deleting these advertising spam people like the Sydney cat lady! Your wonderful column is not a free advertising space!

    Second, I am definitely getting travel envy now: is there anywhere you haven't been? I am determined to make it to Venice one day, it's been a dream of mine forever. I'm so glad that you came down on the side of fairytale rather than tourist trap. Thanks for this column!

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  4. I've been on the Vegas gondolas:) The city also has a Paris hotel complete with a mini Eiffel Tower, and a British themed resort that is supposed to look like King Arthur's castle. If someone else was writing about songs about places and wanted to cheat, they could wander around Las Vegas and then pretend they had been to various European cities..... !

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  5. You definitely must see Venice, J.J-before it sinks!

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  6. I am ashamed to say I didn't know about the Canaletto reference so went in search of what you meant, Geoff. Here are the images I found - and now I very much understand what you mean about wandering into a particular light of a painting:

    http://ardor.net/artlia/content/c/canaletto/canaletto_campo.jpg
    http://www.music.indiana.edu/som/courses/m502/Canaletto-Rio.jpg
    http://www.wga.hu/detail/c/canalett/8/canal804.jpg
    http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/eZMYl-5AMcwTWw0T36d_4Q
    http://www.music.indiana.edu/som/courses/m502/Canaletto-Rio.jpg

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  7. I went to Venice a few years ago and it was the only city I've ever been to where I really truly felt that songs couldn't do it justice - that it was like a work of art in of itself and almost SHOULDN'T have music written about it; it's magic and has to be seen to be believed. So while I fully support and relish songs about any other city in the world, Paris included, I just don't think any song can truly capture what Venice really is. So there!

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  8. As a Canadian, I'm happy you wrote about a Canadian band this week - lots of people forget about the indie music explosion in Canada (from about 1986 to 1996), so thanks!

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  9. Here is the sculpture that Geoff references (I think): http://www.sitestory.dk/rejser/venedig2004/fotodoc/25e.htm - very strange!

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  10. I remember when this was on the Canadian pop charts - it reached about 30 on the top 100 I think, sometime in late 1993. I haven't heard it in years though; thank you Geoff!

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  11. Hey there Geoff
    Thank you for the column
    Just wanted to make you aware of our version of this song from 09
    It is on the album Sea Miner
    You can listen to it here (track 9): http://www.thenavigators.com/music/seaminer/index.htm
    Cheers!

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  12. Here are the lyrics that I could find online, in case anyone wants them - they are pretty amazing!

    Jesus hangs behind the glass, above venetian doors,
    His window box boasts crimson flowers, fresh cut the day before;
    And you couldn't find a smile if you nailed it to his face,
    But Jesus Christ hangs his head with grace.

    And if Venice is sinking, I'm going under;
    Beauty's religion and its christened me with wonder.

    They came in, bent-backed, creeping 'cross the floor, all dressed in black,
    And candles thick as pillars, you can buy one off the floor;
    And the ceiling's painted gold, and Mary's hair is red,
    The old come here to kiss their dead.

    And if Venice is sinking, I'm going under;
    Beauty's religion and its christened me with wonder.

    We made love on a bed that sagged down to the floor,
    In a room that had a postcard on the door of Marini's little man,
    With erection up on a horse - it always leaves me laughing,
    Leaves me feeling that of course if....

    Venice is sinking, I'm going under;
    Beauty's religion and its christened me with wonder.

    Venice is sinking, I'm going under;
    Beauty's religion and its christened me with wonder.

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  13. I became pretty curious about the sculptor that the song mentions, and it seems like he spent most of the 1940s and 1950s doing version of people on horses in quite surreal ways. Here are a few examples! -
    http://www.nortonsimon.org/collections/art.php?id=M.1968.08.2.S&type=fpx&title=Horseman
    http://zerogahou.cocolog-nifty.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/04/27/marino_m.jpg
    http://tuscantraveler.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/marino-marini-41.jpg

    Thank you for the column Geoff - I have never made it to Venice but I did spend a few days in Rome, which was fascinating - everyone seemed to drink strong coffee like it was water!:)

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  14. Geoff, this is such a weird song! As you point out, it has a manodlin and an accordian plus a Celtic feel plus German folkdance. Very very strange!

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  15. I love your point about Venice being one of those cities (like Paris) that everyone feels like they know already. And watch for more Venice familiarity once this film opens in a few weeks - Jolie and Depp on a Venice caper, shot there apparently earlier in the year: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1223428377/

    Cue lots of shots of canals, bridges, gondolas, red brick roofs!

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  16. I saw these guys live at the University of Windsor about 14 years ago and they’re still the best band I’ve ever seen live. I think they used every instrument ever made and rocked the place.

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  17. I'm pretty sure this band toured England in 1990 or 1991 - I saw them play in a pub I think! They were amazing - one of them could really play the flute!

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  18. I don't know many Americans who have heard of this band and their music. But we know it in Detroit - it's a Detroit thing that I've heard this song. It played -endlessly - for a few weeks on our local radio station. It must be that we get some Canadian stuff across the river!

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  19. I saw them play in Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) a couple of months ago. It was an outdoor concert, and they did the Venice is Sinking story song which made me very happy.

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  20. Venice - city of dreams. Charming, intriguing, disorienting and attracting visitors so much that numbers have to be restricted in the summer. Venice really does feel like you are walking through a daydream. Seeing the familiar sights of the canals from stories and movies is so surreal. I tried to imagine all of the wooden planks supporting the city, which was an incredible thought. There are people who live in Venice year round. It is wonderful, a place everyone should see before they die.

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  21. My husband was humming this song during most of our trip to Venice. After he explained what the lyrics actually were, it made me see Venice in a new wat. The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wood piles (under water, in the absence of oxygen, wood does not decay) which penetrate alternating layers of clay and sand. Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations rest on the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The buildings are often threatened by flood tides pushing in from the Adriatic between autumn and early spring. In many old houses the former staircases used by people to unload goods are now flooded, rendering the former ground floor uninhabitable. Thus, many Venetians resorted to moving up to the upper floors and continuing with their lives.

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  22. I love their Celtic instrumentation, it's incredibly catchy.

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  23. I love this column! think the rest of Thomas Mann's paragraph on Venice is very strange though - "This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism".

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  24. I sort of love Truman Capote's famous quote about Venice too: "Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go". But you make it sound a lot nicer than this Geoff!

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  25. This is a lovely, lovely description of Venice - I love reading your prose, Geoff! "Venice is a strange place that seems to exist in its own world, with its own special light and sky. It can, at times, seem as though you have wandered into a Canaletto painting. You can look from the top of the Campanile at the people and pigeons in the mosaic square below and know that millions of others have shared the same view - yet that and all the sights down the alleys and canals seem somehow a unique experience".

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  26. I am not sure what Truman Capote meant by that quote-I would imagine you would feel pretty sick.

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  27. I think he meant exactly that, Geoff. That the gondolas and singing and prettiness was all too much - was like the experience of gorging yourself on something to the point of it being overwhelming. That's why I prefer your take on it, which makes it sound a lot better than just sickly-sweet. :)

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  28. Geoff, it's now about Venice but I thought you might like Mary Chapin Carpenter's What If We Went To Italy - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_OjqP-Brn8. I love this song. And I do think there is a whole genre of songs about Italy, rather than particular Italian songs - with lots of imagery and mythologising of the country that is interesting.

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  29. Also, I just wanted to thank you for not writing about Frank Sinatra - this time his "We Open in Venice" might have occurred to you, but thanks for ignoring it!

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  30. I meant "its NOT about Venice" - rather then "NOW" - sorry about that!

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  31. Thanks Tiffanye-I suppose he also meant there's an element of being for show in his comment.I won't write about Frank Sinatra quite a lot!
    Thanks for the What If We Went to Italy link- it's a nice song

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  32. Geoff, thought you'd enjoy my song "Venice Burning" - about the night that La Fenice Opera House burned to the ground: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMtje4QipMI.

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  33. I wasn't sure what Geoff by the film "Don't Look Now" so I went to investigate - I think it's this very creepy seeming film! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-hr0SoGcKQ

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  34. There is Van Morrison's song "Venice" too although I've never been sure if maybe it's about Venice Beach, California!

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  35. Yes, I think it's set in Venice, USA

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  36. If you're thinking of doing a German column, then Spirit of the West has a lovely song called "Frankfurt, I'm Sorry" which is an apology from the band to the residents of Frankfurt, who they labeled “losers” at one time because of a bad experience there!

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  37. This band seems pretty interesting and unusual in their sound - it's a kind of Celtic folk-punk!

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  38. I don't know, but does no one else find it sort of incongruous that this feel-good party band (Spirit of the West has earned a reputation as Canada’s favourite party band) made a song about ancient, elegant Venice? It's weird to me. Genius of Geoff to pick this song when he chose Venice as the city to write about, but it's just a very strange marriage of band/reputation and city/image, I think!

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  39. I have been following this band since I first heard them in 1983 in Vancouver, when they were just folk trio called Eavesdropper. I loved how they evolved to blend together Britpop and Celtic folk and hard rock - it's a fascinating evolution.

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  40. I heard them last October at the Algonquin Theatre - what a great evening of music.

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  41. If anyone doesn't have any Spirit of the West music, I'd recommend their retrospective album. It's called Spirituality 1983-2008 and is a 2-CD set marking 25 years of music. It has "Political", "The Old Sod", "Save This House", and "And If Venice Is Sinking".

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  42. I feel like it's worth mentioning that this band has a strong protest/political/social conscience element in their music as well. "Political," their first real hit, is an amazing song about the imbalance in a relationship caused by an insecure or controlling partner. ("Putting Up With) The Joneses" is a tongue in cheek look at the sort of damage socioeconomic elitism can lead to; even touching on the social taboo of eugenics. "Take It From The Source" takes on bigotry and hatred. That's why I'd challenge the idea that they are just a feel-good party band.

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