16/12/2011

Chelsea Morning/Chelsea Hotel



We have seen previously that at times one can visit a place which one only really knows about because of a song about it. This can perhaps be the only reason for the visit. Nobody is going to go to Paris or Rome just because of a song about those cities but I could feasibly imagine travelling to San Jose purely for the pleasure of asking someone the way en route (though probably not to Amarillo for the same purpose. The song just doesn’t warrant it).  In these cases, it can be hard not to see the place in question through the prism of the song. This can just mean the song endlessly going round your brain as you pull into wherever it is, as in (Taking a Trip Up To) Abergavenny. Or it can shape what you actually see:  the  rather dreary surroundings of Goodge Street can seem  brighter than they actually are if you have Donovan’s song going round your head.

In fact one of the common devices in song is to make the view in front of your face appear in a different light. Often this is to make the dull and dingy and noisy seem bright and light and even magical, rather like the Transformation scene in a pantomime.  Typically this means bathing an urban scene in a rosier glow. That was the focus of the last column, Waterloo Bridge. St Etienne turned Goswell Road and the housing estate of Turnpike House in Islington into the Milk Bottle Symphony:  “La la la la la la jumps on the Forty-Three, humming unconsciously, a Milk Bottle Symphony”.  In Emptily Through Holloway, the Clientele turn the streets of inner London into something rather gossamer and ethereal just out of mind’s reach. It can also do the opposite and turn a scene normally thought of as sunny and tranquil into something darker, as Nick Cave did with Battersea Bridge.

Chelsea in New York is one of those places I only knew from  song . There have been several about the area: Nico’s Chelsea Girls and Dylan’s Sara amongst them. Two in particular, however, Chelsea Morning and Chelsea Hotel, were in my mind when I walked round  it recently. They  give very different impressions,  of course. Chelsea Morning is one  of warmth and optimism and I think of it rather like those other songs of the same sort of era(1968-69) that brimmed with sunshine and hope: like Let The Sunshine In  or Up, Up and Away. Chelsea Hotel has dinginess, regret, sadness in there, the extent depending on who sings it. Both have become inextricably mixed up with reality. The Chelsea Hotel has a plaque to Leonard Cohen at its entrance with the opening  line from his song, ‘I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel’. Bill and Hillary Clinton reputedly named their daughter after Judy Collins’ version of Chelsea Morning (though also seemingly thinking it was about the London Chelsea).

It was the Judy Collins version of the Joni Mitchell song that was the bigger hit, though there have been others  down the years: Dave Van Ronk, Neil Diamond, Jennifer Warnes  amongst them. The version given below, however, comes from 1968 and a pre-Sandy Denny Fairport Convention, when the singers were Judy Dyble and Ian Matthews. It is a reminder of a time when Fairport Convention weren’t  regarded as a folk group at all but a kind of British Jefferson Airplane, covering songs like Tim Buckley’s Morning Glory and Paul Butterfield’s East West and with extended guitar work-outs by Richard Thompson.  (An example of their work then is in the clip below of the Richard and Mimi Farina song, Reno Nevada). It is also very much of its era, which in a way suits the song. A snapshot of a place captured in time like an old photo, as Donovan did in Sunny Goodge Street. Crimson crystal beads, incense, candle light – there was probably a copy of the I Ching  on the table and Rotary Connection playing on the record player


The Chelsea Hotel, song or place,  isn’t frozen in time in the same way. In fact, one of the reasons it  remains a tourist attraction in itself is  because of its history and notoriety across the years, home to Mark Twain and Dominic Behan, where Dylan Thomas and Nancy Spungen died and the site of Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song about a brief relationship with Janis Joplin. Cohen, of course, is good at gloom and gothic, which probably fits the hotel. The version here by Regina Spektor from 2006, however, brings it more into the light, in the same way that visitors and tourists have altered the original character of the real place.

You can sometimes look at the past as a photo album. For both Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention, Chelsea Morning is on an early and  half-forgotten page of a long  musical history. Joni Mitchell has said of the song “ It was a very young and lovely time.. I think it's a very sweet song, but I don't think of it as part of my best work. To me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingenue." For Fairport Convention, within a year or so of this release Judy Dyble had departed for Trader Horne, Ian Matthews had left for  a number one hit with another Joni Mitchell song (see column on Woodstock),drummer Martin Lamble was dead and the group had changed direction to explore the dark sides of England’s rural past with songs like Tam Lin and Matty Groves.

Those pages are there still though and I as walked round Chelsea , along the streets past the Chelsea Hotel to stand and look at the fa├žade as a tourist , through the Market and along the High Line,  a song came into my head and I thought that maybe round the next corner, the sun would pour in like butterscotch.

03/12/2011

Waterloo Bridge



Past columns and songs have shown how some physical features lend themselves more to literary or musical interpretations and inspiration than others.  Waterfalls are good in this respect. And cathedrals and stations. And cross-roads, too –how symbolic are they!. T junctions less so, though. Bridges, too, are rather like stations in this regard – an object  that is not just about physical geography but a symbol for all sorts of things. crossing over to something new, leaving something behind, joining and connecting, a turning point. Wordsworth’s famous poem Upon Westminster Bridge used the view from the bridge to describe a moment of a familiar world made new again. In a totally different media, the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the bridge being built became a metaphor for something much wider.

The bridge in song  has already cropped up in previous columns - Battersea Bridge in Grief Came Riding, London Bridge in Earlies  - and  London bridges, indeed, have been well served by song over the years. Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity described an evening walk along the Albert Embankment by the Thames in From Vauxhall to Lambeth Bridge in 1969. The Pogues painted an evocative dream in Misty Morning, Albert Bridge in 1989. Half Man Half Biscuit echoed Wordsworth in Upon Westminster Bridge. Further afield Brooklyn Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs, amongst others, have made it into song. It has also been claimed  that  the most famous musical offering featuring a bridge  - Bridge Over Troubled Waters – was  inspired by a real place, Bickleigh Bridge in Devon, a claim based on the fact that Paul Simon had stayed in the village in the early 60’s, presumably before heading north to Widnes Station and penning Homeward Bound. (It is  a pity that this claim seems erroneous. I think that on a summer family holiday once as a child, I may have sat sketching this very bridge, motivated by just having done Perspective in art lessons at school)

The song here, Waterloo Bridge by Louise Marshall, returns once again to that part of London that seems to have run through this blog like a meandering river for some reason. Louise Marshall, a jazz and soul singer originally from Oldham in Lancashire, is an artist capable of subtle interpretations whilst giving a hint of the vocal power beneath. She has recorded another song about a place, the Jools Holland-penned I Went By, a ballad inspired by a visit to Newport in South Wales. It could be overblown and mawkish in the wrong hands  – here it leaves a haunting poignancy.
Waterloo Bridge, also recorded with Jools Holland, is an example too of another sub-genre, an example where a poem has been turned into a song, in this case After The Lunch by Wendy Cope and first published as part of the Poems on the Underground. Musicians have often fancied themselves as Romantic poets: both Marc Bolan and Pete Doherty, for example, produced poetry alongside their songs. It is less common to be equally valid  as poet and musician, (just as there haven’t been that many examples of artists equally valid as musician and actor).  Leonard Cohen, whose Suzanne first appeared as a poem; Patti Smith; Roger McGough, whose poems ran alongside his musical work with The Scaffold for a while. His Summer with Monika remains an oddity of the first summer of love of 1967, in a parallel universe from Lily the Pink.
There have also been fewer examples of poems being turned into songs  or hit records than one might expect (by which I mean works first written as poems  and then put to music, as opposed to a genre such as rap which fits words to a particular metrical pattern). The meanderings and shifts of jazz probably suit the structure of poetry best, allowing Cleo Laine to sing Shakespeare. But Leonard Cohen (again) adapted Lorca for Take This Waltz, as already seen in an earlier column. Strange Fruit started as a poem.There were simple but effective musical translations of Alfred Noyes The Highwayman by Phil Ochs and of Yeats’ The Song of Wandering Aengus (Golden Apples of the Sun) by Judy Collins. Natalie Merchant  from 10000 Maniacs sang an Emily Dickinson poem, Because I Could Not Stop For Death.
Waterloo Bridge has appeared before – in the very first column, Terry and Julie presumably crossed over it in Waterloo Sunset. The melancholic observations of that song, or the nostalgia of Jane Birkin’s Waterloo Station, are not present here, however. Instead, the mood is one of optimism and looking forward and the bridge is not there as a grand metaphor but as a familiar backdrop for the meeting of two lovers. Pop music is sometimes tempted by the grandiose vision. War of the Worlds!  The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table! Nostradamus Part 1! Yet the most effective image  can be the small-scale and familiar – like a black woolly glove on Waterloo Bridge.
Another London bridge - Battersea Bridge -  in Grief Came Riding, was the setting for “the weight of a thousand people leaving  or returning home to their failures , to their boredoms” On Waterloo Bridge the narrator is tempted to skip with the wind in her hair. The view from the bridge, as with most places, depends on who is looking.