Flaherty’s Honeymoon Blues

When Fingers Flaherty got married, his (few) friends sadly shook their heads and whispered that the marriage would never last. As his battered car smoked away into the dusky distance, carrying the slightly happy couple to their new life together, his (few) friends wiped away the tears and prepared themselves for the inevitable catastrophe.

Flaherty wiped the cobwebs off his camera, determined to prove his (few) friends wrong.

He would create a photo album of the honeymoon, capturing the ecstatic promise of his first few days with his new (slightly damaged) wife.

The photo album was recently discovered in an abandoned attic.

 

Flaherty didn’t invite his (few) friends to his second wedding. Or his third wedding.

Out now: Talkin’ Squirrel Blues

Crazy Blues

Fingers Flaherty wasn’t the first disgruntled lover to sing the blues!

People have been battling with the blues – or the “blue devils” as they once were known – ever since they started falling in love with each other back in those dark caves. They discovered that fire could keep away the prehistoric chill. And love could warm the prehistoric heart.

Time and time again, Saturday night’s raucous parties have given way to Sunday morning’s aching regrets. An intoxicating haze burns away in the harsh clarity of bloodshot eyes. And a heart that tingled with the promise of forbidden moonlit love is left battered and alone on the dusty floor as the unforgiving sun rises.

In the corner, a melancholy guitar waits.

Blues songs began to emerge from the dark night during the early years of the twentieth century. The form had been evolving orally for many years, but now damaged souls were being laid bare on sheet music. In 1908, “I Got the Blues” introduced this new genre to a wider audience. And in 1920, one of the first blues songs was recorded when Mamie Smith sang “Crazy Blues”.

Born in 1883, Smith was a dancer and vaudeville actress. In 1920, she recorded her first songs with her Jazz Hounds, going on to record many songs during the 1920s. “Crazy Blues” was the first commercially released blues record, and would sell 75,000 copies within a month. The song clearly struck a dark chord with people at the dawning of the Jazz Age.

 

The song opens with a familiar late-night blues scenario: insomnia and a lovelorn heart. The physical unrest mirrors the mental disturbance:

I can’t sleep at night,
I can’t eat a bite,
‘Cause the man I love
He don’t treat me right.

A common theme in blues music is that sense of overwhelming sadness as the lover tries (and usually fails) to come to terms with heartache. Left alone, the singer feels almost paralysed by despair:

He makes me feel so blue,
I don’t know what to do.
Sometime I sit and sigh
And then begin to cry.

Lost in her sadness, the singer feels the world outside merrily pass her by, indifferent to her plight. Everything else moves on, leaving her behind with her memories.

There’s a change in the ocean,
Change in the deep blue sea, my baby.
I’ll tell you, folks, there ain’t no change in me.
My love for that man will always be.

Although not the most uplifting of genres, the blues often does have a hint of gallows humour and comic surrealism. In this song, the singer’s sad plight arouses concern in others, but she dismisses their help. She believes she beyond all healing.

Now the doctor’s gonna do all that he can
But what you’re gonna need is an undertaker man.

Although “Crazy Blues” doesn’t follow the familiar AAB structure of most blues songs, its themes of lovesick despair and loneliness would be picked up and elaborated on (sometimes to gleeful extremes) by countless blues singers over the following decades. Like Mamie Smith, these singers would report “nothin’ but bad news”.

Out now: Talkin’ Squirrel Blues

Wintry watery blues

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Life is an ocean, so the philosophers think.
Life’s an ocean, them dusty philosophers think.
Well, the storm’s a-brewin’, my boat’s startin’ to sink.
Fingers Flaherty

There’s a light, a certain kind of light, that pours over the landscape on a winter afternoon, enveloping the mountains in a languid melancholy, making the sea contemplate the ebbs and flows of its transient life. The birds have long since flown away, leaving behind their silent sad song. Summer seems but a distant memory. Spring is some vague promise from a casual friend. A promise you certainly wouldn’t bet your farm on. Anyway your farm has already been repossessed. By her new husband.

It’s Fingers Flaherty’s favourite time of the day…

Blue skies, blue eyes

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There ain’t nothing new to see under God’s blue skies.
I tell ya, nothing new to see under them blue and shiverin’ skies,
‘Specially when ya look at them through bloodshot alcoholic eyes.
Fingers Flaherty

This photo was taken earlier this month in Omeath, County Louth, overlooking the sublime serenity of Carlingford Lough towards the stern majesty of the Mourne mountains. On a crisp autumn day here, you can feel the eternal spirit of nature vibrate in the depths of your soul. You feel insignificant and blessed in the same timeless instant.

What would Fingers Flaherty think if he were standing here? What would he see when he looked at this view?

Fingers would probably say the rain isn’t far off. He’d complain about the grey chill. And he’d start wondering where the next drink is going to come from…

#talkinsquirrelblues

Christmas lights

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Christmas is comin’, the goose is gettin’ fat,
Christmas is a-comin’, baby, that goose is gettin’ fat!
But Santa won’t come near me, kitten. I’ve been a dirty rat.
Fingers Flaherty

Flaherty lookin’ for salvation

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(c) Padraig Hanratty 2015

 

Jesus, lift me up, I feel like I’ve been cursed!
Help me up, Jesus. I feel low down and cursed!
Jesus said, “Ya gotta stop hangin’ out with the devil first.”
Fingers Flaherty

Talkin’ Squirrel Blues now available in paperback!

Talkin’ Squirrel Blues is now available in paperback from Amazon!

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The story behind a squirrel

My article about the genesis of Talkin’ Squirrel Blues was recently published in Writing & Me. You can find out where the idea for the Floyd the squirrel originated by reading the article here.

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Talkin’ Squirrel Blues ebook is currently available on Amazon.

Paperback available in November 2015!

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Seeing the Future

I remember it was cold. Very cold. And as the sun slipped defeated behind the horizon, it got even colder. So cold that when he returned to the stage after the intermission, he was wearing a scarf. And we were all concerned for him.

I also remember how frail he looked. This was the fifth time I’d seen him in concert, but he looked so much older than the last time I’d seen him (in 2009). He seemed to shiver as the evening chill whipped across the stage.

He smiled and bowed at us and was greeted with euphoria. And he hadn’t even sung a word yet.

But when he started to sing, all the frailty was replaced by authority. Every word was crystal clear. Every line was a poem, every song a soulful expression. He was charisma personified.

Soon we were so wrapped up in his songs that we forgot about the cold. (Actually, we didn’t. It was absolutely baltic in Dublin that evening. Outdoor seated concerts in Dublin in September are not a good idea. But the magic on the stage made the cold almost bearable.)

Leonard Cohen was 77 when he performed in Dublin last September. Since he resumed touring back in 2008, he has become the elder statesman on the concert circuit. However, his concerts aren’t museum exhibitions. Cohen is a creative artist who is still creating. This time round, he was touring his wonderful new album, Old Ideas.

There were many memorable performances that night. Sharon Robinson’s singing of “Alexandra Leaving” was breathtaking. “Take This Waltz” led, inevitably, to communal waltzing in the aisles. “Hallelujah” was a prayerful performance that reclaimed the song from the Pop Idol brigade. And the beautiful “Light as the Breeze” was finally making it on to the set list.

For me, one of Cohen’s most interesting songs is “The Future”, from the 1992 album of the same name. I had avoided Cohen’s music for a long time. I’d heard all those jokes about his graveyard lyrics and his monotonous singing, that he should include razor blades with his albums. It all just seemed a bit too intense; I had enough heavy lyrics with my Dylan, Reed, Costello and Culture Club albums, after all.

Then around 1991, I picked up Cohen’s I’m Your Man album in a discount bin in the local record store. I took it home and gave it a listen. (I forgot to buy the razor blades!)

It was a revelation. Not only was the music catchy and infectious, the lyrics were hilarious. The deadpan delivery perfectly suited the album’s mood. Could this be the same dreary moaner with his funeral dirges whom I’d been avoiding for so long? This guy singing about his gift of a golden voice, promising to wear a mask for you, listening to Hank Williams coughing all night long?

Of course, the inevitable journey of musical discovery then began. First, a greatest hits collection was unearthed. Then began the systematic trawl through the back catalogue. As I discovered more songs, I began to see why he had the reputation for being a tad, shall we say, ser-i-ous. Don’t bring Songs of Love and Hate to your Christmas party, folks! But there were also songs of pristine beauty, from 1967’s “Suzanne” to 1988’s “Take This Waltz”. There were plenty of diamonds in this particularly dark mine.

Cohen keeps his vision of the future vague (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

Cohen keeps his vision of the future vague (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

In 1992, Cohen released The Future. A somewhat more disjointed and inconsistent album than I’m Your Man, it nevertheless includes some of Cohen’s most famous latter-day anthems, including “Waiting for the Miracle”, “Democracy”, “Closing Time” and, appropriately enough, “Anthem”. Three of the songs were included on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

The album kicked off with its title track, an alarming portrait of a misanthrope in torment:

Give me back my broken night,
My mirrored room, my secret life.
It’s lonely here,
There’s no one left to torture.

This is not some clichéd Cohenesque hermit in a smoky bedsit, however. In his previous album, Cohen sang of trying to take Manhattan and then Berlin. In this song, the singer has everybody in his crosshair sights, including the woman lying beside him:

Give me absolute control
Over every living soul.
And lie beside me, baby.
That’s an order.

The early 1990s were a reasonably optimistic time. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist Bloc. In the West, Thatcher and Reagan had left office. Change and clichés were in the air. The fin-de-siècle spirit of the times looked ahead to the future and the new millennium.

Cohen also looked to the future, with rather less optimism:

I’ve seen the future, brother. It is murder.

Of course, 1992 was the year of the L.A. riots. Seeing that turmoil on his doorstep causes Cohen to imagine the “breaking of the ancient Western code”. The song juxtaposes the riots on the streets with the domestic riots taking place in every home, a day when “the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold”. (In another song on the album, he refers to the “homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”. Not exactly dinner party tunes, then.)

The song’s most memorable lines offer a vivid portrayal of anarchy:

There’ll be phantoms,
There’ll be fires on the road,
And the white man dancing.
You’ll see a woman hanging upside down,
Her features covered by a fallen gown.

No wonder the song popped up on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack!

(The phrase “white man dancing” always jumped out at me and later became an inspiration for one of my short stories, included in A Blanket of Blues. He’s changed the lyric in concert now to “the white girls dancing”, to give the sublime Webb Sisters a cue to do cartwheels on the stage. And they say the old curmudgeon has no sense of humour!)

Despite the severe lyrics, the song bounces along with an irrepressible beat and an almost-singalong chorus. As Cohen remarked, the song is “quite a dark, demented lyric set to a rather jaunty tune, moving briskly forward, which mitigates the darkness”. (Independent on Sunday, 12 October, 1997)

Bob Dylan, that other chronicler of anarchy and apocalypse, was apparently a bit concerned about this song. Cohen later recalled: “Dylan said to someone, who reported it to me, that it was an evil song. That kind of alarmed me. I don’t want to add to the evil in the world.” (ibid.)

In the midst of all the chaos, the song does offer hope. Cohen is one of the great explorers of the heart’s longing, and he has no doubt about what will remain when all else has fallen:

Love’s the only engine of survival.

Listening to song in chilly Dublin last September, I was thinking that we could have done with some “fires on the road” that evening. I was also thinking how interesting it was to listen in 2012 to a song that in 1992 predicted a future that has not yet come to pass. Sure, there have been plenty of theatres of murder, bloodshed and carnage in different parts of the word in the last twenty years, but the extensive collapse of society that this song portrays has not yet happened.

Of course, Cohen the songwriter knows well that he’s not a reporter; he portrays the future using evocative brushstrokes and impressionistic hues, not a timetable of specific events. Last-day prophets of doom always have a lot of explaining to do on the morning after the last day. (Remember how the Rapture rabble tried to untangle their theological knots after 21 May, 2011.) By keeping his vision of the future vague and menacing, where “things are going to slide, slide in all directions”, Cohen ensures it retains its power all these years later.

And its lyrics will still resonate many years into the future.

The Titanic Sails at Dawn

According to Pablo Picasso, art is “a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand”.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan discussed his new song about the sinking of the Titanic, “Tempest”. He implied that his song wasn’t too concerned about the historical facts of the disaster. Instead, he wanted to use the tale to reveal deeper truths. Pre-empting possible objections to his version of events, he said:

People are going to say, ‘Well, it’s not very truthful.’ But a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.

When Dylan last referenced the Titanic (in “Desolation Row”), he focused on what could have happened, rather than what actually happened: “The Titanic sails at dawn.” The Titanic never set sail at dawn from any of its ports.

Dylan has at times been accused of being less than truthful in his songs. Songs about Hattie Carroll, George Jackson, Joey Gallo, and Rubin Carter have all come in for criticism in this regard. In the case of Hattie Carroll, Dylan read about her murder in a newspaper. “Nothing has changed,” he famously explained, “except the words.”

Danger can lurk in the calmest water (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

The fate of the Titanic has been commemorated many times in song since her sinking 100 years ago. In these songs, truth and myth become hopelessly entangled in the tragic narrative.

Some early songs focused on anecdotal tales of heroism among the passengers as the ship sank. Many praised the men for staying on board so that the women and children could get on the lifeboats. Captain Smith was often singled out. Hi Henry Brown’s “Titanic Blues” tells us:

Children cryin’ “Mama, mama what shall we do?”
Children cryin’ “Mama, mama what shall we do?”
Captain Smith says, “Children, I’ll take care of you”.

Millionaire John Jacob Astor was also celebrated for his apparent self-sacrifice. For example, in “The Titanic Is Doomed and Sinking”, we’re told:

There was John Jacob Astor,
What a brave man was he
When he tried to save all female sex,
The young and all, great and small,
Then got drowned in the sea.

The poignant image of the string quintet playing until the ship’s final minutes recurs in many songs. Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” is a broadside that creates the impression of being factual by including many specific details about the tragedy:

It was on the 10th of April on a sunny afternoon,
The Titanic left Southampton, each one as happy as a bride and groom.
No one thought of danger or what their fate may be
Until a gruesome iceberg caused 1500 to perish in the sea.

His song also includes the string quintet:

The music played as they went down on that dark blue sea,
And you could hear the sound of that familiar hymn, singing “Nearer My God to Thee”.

Brown then seamlessly segues into a rendition of the hymn, altering the lyrics to the occasion:

Though like a wanderer
As the sun goes down,
Darkness be over me.
Just then the Titanic went down

(Did the quintet really play “Nearer My God to Thee”? Some survivors said it was the last song played, and others said it wasn’t. A surviving wireless operator, Harold Bride, said the last song was “Autumn”. None of the quintet survived the sinking, but “Nearer My God to Thee” was believed to be the quintet leader’s favourite hymn. We’ll never know for sure. If anyone wanted to query the factual accuracy of Brown’s version, he would possibly refer them to his “James Alley Blues”: “You know I’ll tell you all the truth, won’t you take my word from me.”)

For some singers, however, the Titanic was a symbol of failure, a promise of opulent luxury that ended up rusting on the floor of the Atlantic. Ma Rainey’s 1925 “Titanic Man Blues” is the first blues song to refer to the ship. Rainey compares her useless lover to the Titanic:

Rig you up like a ship at sea,
But you sunk an’ made a fool of me,
It’s the last time, Titanic, fare thee well.

Many years later, Fingers Flaherty would use the Titanic to allude to his own doomed relationship:

I had my cheap thrill, but now I’m paying the price,
Those cheap thrills were hot, but I’ve gotta pay that price,
She took the ship of love and buried it underneath the ice.

The “unsinkable” Titanic also came to be seen as a symbol of people’s avarice and hubris, in particular white man’s avarice and hubris. It was the most luxurious liner ever built, but class distinctions were strictly enforced on board, with the different classes of accommodation. And there were believed to be no African Americans among the passengers or the crew. (There was one black passenger, a Haitian-born engineer called Joseph Laroche, who travelled second class.)

It was rumoured that Jack Johnson, African American heavyweight boxing champion, tried to buy a ticket for the Titanic, but was refused. Leadbelly’s “Fare Thee Well, Titanic” recounts Johnson’s attempts to board the ship:

Jack Johnson wanted to get on board,
Captain Smith hollered, “I ain’t haulin’ no coal.”

Although the Leadbelly song praises the bravery of the men for “savin’ the women”, Jack Johnson is shown to feel no sadness when he sees the ship founder. Indeed, he dances with joy:

Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock,
Mighta seen the black rascal doin’ the Eagle Rock.

Because African Americans were excluded from the ship, none died in the tragedy. This becomes cause for celebration in this song:

Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.

String Beans, an African American vaudeville star, claimed to have been on the Titanic. When performing his “Titanic Blues”, his dance moves mimicked the sinking of the ship:

I was on that great Titanic
The night that she went down.
Ev’ybody wondered
Why I didn’t drown –
I had them Elgin movements in my hips.

Another myth that grew up around the Titanic centres of the character of Shine, an African American boiler room worker on the ship. Shine tries to warn Captain Smith that the ship is about to sink, but Smith orders him back to the boilers to shovel on more coal. (It’s interesting how in the African American narrative Captain Smith, the figure of white authority, is often cast as the villain.)

Shine disobeys the orders and jumps overboard before the ship hits the iceberg. In toasts (narrative poems) celebrating Shine’s prowess, he swims past sharks to safety while trapped passengers on the stricken ship beg him to take them with him:

So Shine jumped overboard and begin to swim,
And all the people were standin’ on deck watchin’ him.
Captain’s daughter jumped on the deck with her dress above her head
and her teddies below her knees.
and said, “Shine, Shine”, say, “won’t you save poor me?”

The narrative in the Titanic songs often depends on the themes that the singer wants to convey: bravery, self-sacrifice, faith, pride, greed, racism, justice, and so on. Dylan has said that his Titanic song was inspired in part by the Carter Family’s “The Titanic” and by James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. How historically accurate the song will be remains to be seen. He once declared, in “Outlaw Blues”: “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth.” Or at least a form of the truth…

How important is it that song lyrics are historically accurate? Is it acceptable to be cavalier about specific details when trying to illustrate a more universal truth? Can a small lie reveal a bigger truth?