National Poetry Month, April 2014

ALPHABET-letterpress-wood-printing-blocks-wooden-letters-font-type-letterformsFlyingBookPages

Rapid technological development has led to a constant flood of visual and acoustic bits and bites – emails, text messages and Facebook updates. For most of us it has become a habit to react, one that often leaves us frazzled and detached. Single-tasking has become a luxury in the 21st century. To sit down and simply read a poem, so to only focus on one individual piece of work, can feel as if we’re not doing enough, or even wasting time. Besides, especially poetry can seem very inaccessible. It is not easily consumed; it does not offer clear-cut outlines, neat bullet points or answers to your most urgent questions in life. Poetry demands from both the writer and reader attentiveness and reflection, moreover, intellectual and emotional engagement.

I am writing this on April the 2nd, two days into National Poetry Month 2014. First launched in 1996 with the support of the Academy of American Poets, the month of April was declared National Poetry Month.[1] Some literati like to argue that the celebration of poetry should be a daily and not an annual event confined to a month. But this is not the discussion I want to engage in at this point. I am taking this event as an opportunity to reflect upon the role poetry can play in our lives.

Anyone who engages in poetry – or in any kind of art form – is most likely both curious and highly sensitive. Our attention is usually not drawn towards the general or the spectacular but towards the singular, with its nuances and notions, shadows and shades. Those of us who write poetry must often follow the invisible; we hunt after illusions, traces, and wisps of things. With the patience of field archaeologists we excavate vague impressions we are sometimes barely able to grasp, often agonizing over every word and phrase. Our reward is when this „tantalizing vagueness“, like Robert Frost called it, takes on forms and meanings that lie beyond our expectations, like hidden little gems waiting to be uncovered.[2] Aristotle wrote of poetry as, „a kind of thing that might be“, in contrast to history as something that was.[3]

Both reading and writing poetry demands of us opposing virtues; we have to be both intuitive and logical, heart and head strong, playful and disciplined. Poetry teaches us an awareness of the wonders of the world, of mankind and of language. Through poetry we take in others, their universe, their views, anxieties, beliefs and emotions – snapshots which can even mirror our own.

Poetry „cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint“[4]. Poetry facilitates reflection and compassion. It connects us not only with others but also to ourselves. My maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It was painful so see how every day she seemed to be vanishing a little bit more into this inescapable thick fog, like a ship with once billowing sails, now deflated and torn, lost at sea. But even when she couldn’t recognize most family members anymore, she could still recite poems from her youth. The poetry she loved and had mostly learned by heart still enabled contact with her own identity, with herself.

National-Poetry-Month-April-2014-poster-design-chip-kidd

Twitter-page-Poets-Academy-of-American-Poets.org

National-Poetry-Month-2014-official-poster-poetry-quote

 


[1] The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who with the help of W. H. Auden was living in American exile, had declaimed that poetry should be available everywhere. In 1993 together with the student Andrew Carroll he founded the non-profit organization American Poetry and Literacy (APL). Three years later the movement was flourishing and over 125,000 books of poetry had been distributed for free.

[2] See my blog post “The Pomegranate – On Finding Poetry“.

[3] “The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  ~ Aristotle, On Poetics.

[4] Czeslaw Milosz, A Book Of Luminous Things. An International Anthology of Poetry, San Diego, New York, London 1996, p. XVI.

Livings in Los Angeles. Closet Stories – The Hollywood Uniform

Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 – © Condé Nast
Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 – © Condé Nast

 

It’s true. Most transplants here in Los Angeles are quite obsessed with detecting and pointing out how different things are. I belong to them. One of the things that struck me immediately on my first visit to L.A. in 2006 was fashion – rather, the lack thereof. Despite fashion apparel being L.A.’s third biggest industry, quantity seems to dominate over quality. There are small pockets in this vast place where individuals may purchase and flaunt unique styles and internationally televised events like the Academy Awards showcase an array of always quite spectacular designer evening gowns, but unlike any other metropolis I know of, this is generally speaking a fashion desert.

In most parts of the world clothes were originally and primarily needed as a form of protection against shame, danger, cold or heat. But humans have also always had the desire to decorate themselves and to dress in a variety of ways according to their sex, age, socioeconomic status, culture, geographic area and historical era. Clothes are frequently an expression of a person’s personality. But in Los Angeles it seems as though most people do not have that desire and default to one outfit.

 

Valley “Girls” & Valley Moms

Especially the people who live in the so-called Valley – a topographical basin in which the desert heat is captured like in a casserole – wear, what I would like to call the “Hollywood uniform” almost all year round. This area, once the home of vast orange groves, has been since the 1950’s mostly populated by so called WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestant) in cheap housing made of wood and stucco.

The “young” women, whose biological age can sometimes be difficult to determine, casually dress in flip flops or flat sandals, designer sunglasses, colourful maxi sundresses or skirts and frequently streaked, bleached and ironed hair. About two or three years ago super short shorts had a revival – cut off jeans with the frayed, white, cotton insides of the front pockets hanging out like two handkerchiefs. Another L.A. fashion phenomenon is wearing hippy-ish scarves with tassels and boots all year round.

Another thing that soon struck me was that the monotony of this “style” is even mirrored in a speech pattern called “Valleyspeak” [1]. One common characteristic of Valleyspeak is the frequent and very annoying use of high rising intonation, causing statements and normal declarative language to sound interrogative. The actual term was coined after the release of Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit single entitled “Valley Girl”, on which his then fourteen-year-old daughter Moon Unit (yes, that’s her real name) delivered intermittent random monologues behind the music, littered with the quotative word “like”. “Like” is applied to preface statements or used as a word substitute as in “Last night we went like, like – you know?” Eavesdropping, you automatically say in your head, “No, I don’t know. But whateverrrrr…” The word “whatever” with a long drawled R at the end being another favoured term of the American Generation Y.

There is another typical outfit for the so-called Mom, especially when “running errands” – which means driving half a mile from their cardboard home to the drive-through post office, to the drive-through dry cleaners and then to the gym to then pick up a triple soy latte at drive-through Starbucks only to be stuck in traffic for most of the time. Moms will have wriggled into a pair of vanity sized skinny NYDJ’s (these are not your daughter’s jeans), pulled on an overpriced Banana Republic or J Crew T-shirt, perhaps some flats and a pair of designer shades. On that note, skinny is a very popular word here, the skinny latte, the skinny jeans. Unlike in Europe, if someone in L.A. says to you, “Wow, you’re looking skinny”, that’s a compliment.

Sadly, the males’ fashion statements are hardly worth mentioning – which is probably why frequently tall French men occupy the Valley-Mom’s dreams of desire. The “dudes” mostly slop around in stained, over-sized t-shirts, sporting some banal bumper sticker slogan or the name of a college, crumpled Bermuda shorts, trainers and faded baseball caps. Alas, after seven years of residency in L.A., I still dearly miss the imagination and inventiveness in clothing and dress-style New Yorkers or Parisians, Londoners or Romans of both genders have to offer and are readily to flaunt. I miss sitting in a café and admiring the passers by.

So, if everyone defaults to sundresses and shorts, it must be down to the lack of seasons. Because there are basically only two seasons that range in temperature from mild to hot, instead of four ranging from below zero to hot. Interesting fashion accessories like leather gloves, fur collars, hats and cashmere coats are therefore superfluous. So partly, the weather is to blame. However, generally occasional and seasonal clothing does not seem to ring a bell with most people here. I don’t even think that people rotate their wardrobe. It is firstly not really necessary and secondly, most houses and apartments have large walk in closets – perhaps not like Carrie’s in Sex and the City but larger than a normal European wardrobe.

I personally have the need to mark things, not only in my calendar but visually and tactically by wearing certain pieces of clothing at specific events (take the grand British example of the Ascot hat). Especially here, the sense of ritual and rotation gives me a sense of security in an otherwise seemingly same place in which even the vegetation barely changes all year round. Besides, putting on a flowery, strapless sundress in January – even if the weather permits it – makes me feel as if I’m on permanent holiday with no hope of escape and getting anything productive done. I’m stranded on an island, ahead of me lie lazy Technicolor skies and an ever glaring sun.

This French short film on Los Angeles from 1969 is very mesmerizing and picks up some of these subjects, Los Angeles’ weirdness quite poetically and poignantly with a touch of Jacques Brel…

I do miss the feeling of urgency, a bustling city life you only partially find in Downtown L.A. Is really everyone on Xanax, like a friend of mine suggested? But why am I surprised, in a country in which even children are simply medicated if their behaviour isn’t within the norm. Most doctors seem shocked at my answer to the routine question, “What medications do you take?” which is “None.”  I have already been to two doctors who have wordlessly handed me prescriptions for Xanax. And yes, I did toy with them. Also wondering if perhaps I could “make a buck” (as one says here) only to discard them in the end. I’m sticking to red wine. Try rushing up an escalator in Los Angeles where left and right the face-down generation stands like statues, pre-, re- and post-confirming appointments on their mobile phones to their stylist/agent/manager/mother/shrink/real-estate agent/yogi.

Especially the Beverly Center, a five story shopping centre is spiked with zoned out space cadets, oblivious of what is going on around them. I miss the click-clack-click of a business woman’s Prada heels while she purposefully strides to her next meeting. I miss people who actually look as if they have got a goal. This is not a theatrical city like Rome or Paris but one that seems to perfectly mirror and accommodate exactly what it was created for – for the film industry. For dreams and illusions that are pieced together from different segments. It’s the big wait – for the make-up artists to be done, for the actress to get her lines right, the lighting to be fixed. So everyone just slops and slips and slurs around in the meantime in whatever-land; spray tanned and hairless-lasered stick legs in pink Ugg boots treating even fancy restaurants like craft’s services on set.

That said, there are, especially along Melrose, arrays of shops which carry quite a spectacular choice of clothing items – but these cater mainly to Chinese tourists and to the pop music industry. It is surprising to me that fashion is so neglected because Los Angeles is such a materialistic city. It finds its expression however, in other objects of desire and prestige: the facelift de luxe, the million dollar hair transplant, and – the Los Angelino’s most prized possession – the automobile.

And that’s exactly where the problem lies: Most metropolises’ have a boulevard, an agora – some kind of an urban catwalk for pedestrians. Here in Los Angeles, the public eye can only bear witness to fashion if it’s a visually publicized image via mass media. Even if you’re clad in Channel from head to toe, no one will see you sitting in your car. People don’t walk and mostly can’t walk in Los Angeles unless they are walking to or from their car, walking their dog or, clad in sportswear, walking for exercise. Two friends of mine were exploring in Beverly Hills by strolling around in a residential area and a police car started following them, then stopped and questioned them. Forget the term public transportation.

This is why a mobile prestige object like a car, helicopter or private jet (if they’re bullet proof, even better) is the perfect showcase. They cover more territory than a pedestrian in a much shorter amount of time. There are just barely spaces to flaunt your latest designer piece in public. Downtown L.A. is now being resurrected from the dead – like hopefully soon the L.A. River that lies there mostly water-less in a concrete corset – so I will be curious to see whether a more urban environment will encourage more conscious and expressive street and high fashion.

That said, Los Angeles has recently received a new agora – a place where you see people strolling, talking, drinking wine, enjoying art and talking and flaunting fashionable attire! LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum) is situated between 6th street and Wilshire Boulevard, flanked to the east/west by the open spaces of the La Brea Tar Pits. Because LAMCA consists of five(?) individual buildings it has many open spaces, some paved, other areas are covered with gravel or grass. There are plenty of seating areas and -possibilities like low walls and steps; which always seem like an open invitation to the public to utilize the space, even for small picnics. Special events at the weekends have become hugely popular so it has also attracted a larger diversity of people in terms of age, gender and race.

Unlike the Grove, a shopping and entertainment centre which lies only half a mile away but whose sole purpose it is to lure consumers into purchasing more items they don’t really need with elevator jazz and animated water fountains. This open roofed shopping plaza, with a multiplex movie theatre, over-priced cooperate restaurants and chain stores is completely enclosed by Disneyfied pseudo-historical façade architecture and an artistically completely irrelevant bronze centre statue. “The Spirit of Los Angeles” depicts a male and a female angel soaring skyward, “an enduring symbol of the limitless opportunities Los Angeles offers”, like the tourist information at the Grove states on their homepage.[2] Like a corny reminder of bygone transportation, a trolley drives a six minute route of not even a mile to and fro.

During the Christmas shopping season, fake snow is produced periodically during the night. In mid-November, the Grove Christmas Tree goes up. At a competitive 110 feet, it is the tallest Christmas tree in the city of Los Angeles. I got a “parking ticket” once because I had chained my bicycle to a lamp post. It was obvious that bicycles don’t fit into the Grove’s very controlled “aesthetical” concept which merely imitates a public space. I have to park my bike at the neighbouring Farmer’s Market which allows for a more bohemian atmosphere. The Grove is an extremely controlled and cooperate environment that does not attract customers who possess unique tastes or any sense of style but mainly sun-burned and dehydrated tourists (whose uniform is a whole other story) and WASPs in their Hollywood uniforms.

This uniform in its nothingness does therefore somewhat possess a deeper meaning. It signalizes membership to an extremely entertainment hungry, materialistically motivated group. Because let’s face it, Los Angeles is a very cooperate town. It is not highly creative or avant-garde. It has small hidden pockets of artists’ communities but mainly it is ruled, moreover controlled by the movie and pop music industry, like Disney. Some call it Mouseschwitz. Fashion here looks laissez-faire but it isn’t a true expression of a person’s unique sense of fun or casualness. It copies what is portrayed as fun and casual in the American media, especially TV – or like the narrator says in the film clip, they’re “people who try out their existence and then pass on to another one, like actors that pass from one role to the next”.

 


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valspeak

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

~ John F. Kennedy

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey-mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of a night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experience it though his interpretation of it. I would like to add however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflexion, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

Golden-Pomegranate-by-Illumne-gleaming-Isla-candle-square
Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our work space we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent much needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. Which is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but at the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of writing that served exhibitions or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable or practical thing to do. Which is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslav Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – it was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

Or, if you liked this post, why not 

Coffe cup laptop tablecloth with leaf pattern darkness
@ Frances Livings
Franz Marc In the Rain 1012 Painting Lenbachhaus Waters of March

Waters of March and the Circle of Life

Zur deutschen Version hier klicken:

Franz Marc John Constable Rain Storm Score Tom Jobim

 

Waters of March is a magical, world-famous Brazilian jazz song, written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The very first time I performed it live was at a Sunday show in Los Angeles. I was nervous. It’s one of these songs you know you have to connect with as a musician. Otherwise the audience won’t stay with you. Besides, it’s such a famous song, you almost have the obligation to take listeners on a musical and emotional journey. So whether live or in the studio – and this is valid for all songs – the challenge lies in finding and interpreting the essence of that specific song. And yes, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. Interestingly, at my debut of Waters of March not only I, but the whole band connected with it.

Moreover, it took me on a journey, on a quite unexpected journey – into the deep waters of March!

I’ll go back a bit: Waters of March (in Portuguese, Águas de Março) had been a song request from a friend and jazz lover after attending a prior show of mine. Like other songs in my repertoire, it was written by the Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim. My friend handed me a CD, so on my next early morning dog walk, I listened to the enticing version he had given me a copy of. I indulged into delightful notes by no one less than Art Garfunkel – a recording on his 1975 album Breakaway. During the course of the next few days, I dug up and listened to many others, like the original by Jobim and by contemporary female jazz artists like Cassandra Wilson. I immediately loved the flow of the song in combination with such interesting lyrics. He was right. It was a perfect fit for Ipanema Lounge, a musical band project I had founded and later the title of my 2016 album. After all, I had been originally inspired by Jobim – which is why the word Ipanema – from his biggest hit song, The Girl From Ipanema – is in the title. I decided to yet again look deeper into Jobim’s catalogue and to play with some of the songs.

Waters of March in Five Languages

Águas de Março was first released in 1972. Jobim wrote the original lyrics in Brazilian Portuguese and a second version a year later in English. Then, in 1973, another favourite songwriter of mine, the Egyptian-French troubador Georges Moustaki, released a recording. It was titled Les Eaux de Mars with French lyrics that he had penned. An Italian version, La Pioggia di Marzo followed in the same year written by Giorgio Calabrese, an Italian songwriter and frequent collaborator with French pop star Charles Aznavour. Many years later, in 2007, a further adaptation called Solen i maj was written in Swedish by Anders Lundin. The Spanish-French singer-songwriter Sole Giménez penned a version in Spanish in 2009, titled Aguas de marzo.

Waters of March – All Time Best Brazilian Song

Almost 30 years after Jobim had written Waters of March, Brazil’s leading daily newspaper, Folha de São Paulo conducted a poll including more than 200 Brazilian journalists, musicians and other artists. In 2001 Waters of March was named the all-time best Brazilian song. The lasting effects of Águas de Março is also discussed in The Atlantic, including suggestions, comments and videos from many readersListening to many of these versions I once again understood that it was a very magical and philosophical song. But the more I listened, the more impossible it seemed to memorize the lyrics for a live performance…

For Jobim Songwriting was like Psychotherapy

The words of none of the versions – whether in English, Portuguese or French – are constructed to create a logical narrative. There are no recognizable stanza patterns or traceable rhymes either. The lyrics consist of strings of free associations, of singular objects broken out of their original context and then assembled to a collage – moreover, since they are in motion, literally, figuratively and musically, it’s really a montage. It was not unusual for Jobim to write in this kind of stream of consciousness. The composer-guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves recalled that Jobim had told him, that was his version of therapy, which had saved him thousands in psychoanalysis bills. It had indeed been the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who, at the end of the 19th century, had developed the technique of “free association” as a clinical method for his patients undergoing psychoanalysis.

Waters of March et l’objects trouvés

In the song nearly every line starts in Portuguese with “É…” (“[It] is…”) and in English with “a”. “It” is a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, a scratch, a cliff, a knot in the wood, a fish, a pin, the end of the road, and many other things. This technique of listing trivial objects reminds me very much of the art movement “l’objects trouvés”, originally founded by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. As early as 1912, Picasso began to incorporate actual pieces of newspapers and other domestic items like matchboxes into his cubist collages. The word collage is derived from the French tern coller (to glue or stick together), resulting in an assemblage. Other artists like Kurt Schwitters, Georges Braque and Hannah Höch also utilized this technique, depicting wine glasses, bottles, cups and calling cards.

Pablo Picasso 1942 Bull's head bicycle seat handle bars metal wielded art
Pablo Picasso Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head) 1942, Musée Picasso, Paris

Aside from painting these objects – or even using photographs – another tendency was to make cubist constructions from various scavenged materials. Most famously introduced by Duchamp’s “Ready Mades“. These are individual objects, sometimes slightly modified and presented as art. His most well-known piece is Fountain (1917), a standard urinal purchased from a hardware store and displayed on a pedestal. Thus, by “simply choosing the object (or objects) and repositioning or joining, titling and signing it, the found object became art.” This was a technique Picasso  also used in 1942: Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head), consits of only two parts, a bicycle seat and handlebars, which were wielded together.

Found Sounds

In music, “Found Sounds” follows the same principle, whereby domestic sounds from the world around us are used. It can be anything, like a ball hitting the floor, a machine motor running or a lift door opening and closing. It was created in the 1940s, by a group of avant-garde French composers, who named it musique concrète (concrete music). In 1948 the French composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer, musicologist and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer composed the piece Etudes aux chemins de fer, which is constructed entirely from sounds found at a train station. The piece is like a musical collage, featuring train whistles and the sound of steam engines clattering along a track. With digital methods available nowadays, this technique is now called sampling as in the musician taking a sample of something else and using it in their work. 

In Waters of March it is the environment, which is dissembled by the storm and the gushing waters, delivering these fragments and debris in the form of words.

The Influence of Poetry in Jobim’s Songwriting

The song lyrics also made me think of one of the 20th century’s most prominent poems, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot from 1922. Not only is the poem’s form similarly obscure and untraditional – The Waste Land has many shifts in speaker, location and time – but especially the famous first line, “April is the cruelest month” easily conjures up Jobim’s seemingly unusual depiction of March as a destructive and cruel time. The influence of a renowned writer is not surprising, since Jobim was an avid reader of poetry by authors like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Bandeira and Eliot, many of whose poems he could recite by heart.

The Influence of Weather on Songwriting

It is not unusual for songwriters to use weather conditions in songs. Rain is an especially popular topic, whether in the song Singing in the Rain, which was also a romantic comedy, or the smash hit It’s Raining Men. In the Southern hemisphere, March is the rainiest month of the year, which was Jobim’s initial inspiration for Águas de Março. He is said to have been travelling to his family rancho in Rio de Janeiro state, when a heavy rainstorm turned the roads and landscape to mud, which is also one of the lines in the song, “It’s the mud, it’s the mud…”. In Brazil, March represents the end of summer and the beginning of the colder season. In an article titled “Brazil: Waters of March“, the author, a foreign correspondent for the Al Jazeera media network, describes the rain like in the following:

“It hasn’t been raining more than 10 minutes when streets begin to flood. Thick and murky, it falls in corrugated sheets. Water. So coarse it’s opaque. Nothing but grey. And brown. And more grey. It’s March in Rio.”

Especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the weather is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds, which cause flashfloods, violent flooding and landslides in many places around the city, sometimes killing people. The lyrics of the Portuguese version therefore also reflect this loss and destruction.

The Rite of Spring

This destructive interpretation of spring, reminds me of another groundbreaking piece: Igor Stravinski’s famous ballet and orchestral concert work from 1913, The Rite of Spring, which was so challenging at its time that it famously caused a riot at its première. It was in a similar way a piece of work with no specific plot or narrative, consisting of a succession of choreographed episodes. Stravinsky himself described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia […] unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring”.

The English Lyrics

For the English version, Jobim – whose music was already being played around the world by the early 60’s – changed a few elements. His goal was to provide a more life-affirming and universal perspective : He intentionally omitted specific references to Brazilian culture (festa da cumeeira, garrafa de cana), to its flora (peroba do campo) and folklore (Matita Pereira). So consciously holding a listener from the Northern hemisphere in mind, he depicted March as the month which marks the beginning of spring, an awakening. The waters are now instead from melting snow, from thawing, and not from the torrential rains as referred to in the Portuguese original.

Although both versions speak of “the promise of life”, the English one allows for these other, more positive interpretations with additional phrases like “the joy in your heart” and the “promise of spring”, a seasonal reference that would per se, be more relevant to most of the English-speaking world.

Both the lyrics and the music have a constant downward progression much like the water torrent from those rains flowing in the gutters, which would typically carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything. The orchestration creates the illusion of the constant descending of notes much like Shepard tones – an illusion that does in sound, what the old-fashioned barbershop pole does visually, just the other way around, that means, it seems to be rising forever.

Original, handwritten score of Waters of March by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Looking at an original score by Jobim, it becomes apparent that he was meticulous about the voicing, whereas many composers notate the chord symbols and melody, leaving the interpretation and therefore the voicing to the musician.

My Interpretation of the Song

Shortly before my first performance of the song, I was actually quite nervous. I wanted to do the song justice by being able to convey these sliding kaleidoscope images both lyrically and musically. I also wanted to be able to transport the ambivalence between tension and flow without over dramatization. Waters of March I think is a challenge for every vocalist. Who wants to sound too monotonous when listing these seemingly endless and disconnected objects? Because what matters is not so much the meaning of the individual words. According to the psychoanalyst Freud, their meaning varies in all of us anyway. It was rather, more about the sounds they create when put together in context with the music.

My musical director and guitarist, Greg Porée and I, had worked on our own arrangement of the song. So if you listen to the recording you will hear that the guitar starts with a very unique lick. Then the piano sets in. Riding on the groove of bass and percussion, I then start singing these strings of words. And that’s exactly how it was live. Very soon, I felt the emotion building up inside me. I felt in anticipation of something wonderous. I felt excited and suddenly realized, I had understood the universal meaning of the song!

Whether in Portuguese or English, streaming through me were all of these “things”, a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass. I was channeling metaphors and symbols of life flowing by in never ending new constellations, each one laden with its own history. Like in the line, “and the river bank talks of the waters of March”, that serves as a metaphor for events in the past and promises of things to come. Suddenly, to me even the English version didn’t feel like a calm stream just flowing along – but like a torrent.

In a similar way to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, even the English version wasn’t pastoral; a Beethoven or Schubert idea of spring, but an explosive one. Hence, without pain there is no joy. Without destruction there is no beginning. Whether it is the end of a cycle or the beginning of one, a cycle means life: No matter which way around, a beginning implies an end and an end implies a beginning of something new that will inevitably come. These were metaphors for events and situations that are chaotic, surprising, sometimes devastating. It made me feel very alive and that for me in that very moment was “the joy in my heart”.

Listen to my recording of Waters of March here…

*

UPDATE a few years later, on Saturday, September 10, 2016:

Since I first wrote this blog post, in 2013, I have performed Waters of March at many different venues, with different musicians and in different moods. What strikes me is that more and more, it has become this magical song that acts like a dream catcher, moreover, a poetic facilitator of a news bulletin. Like shortly after the Boston Marathon attacks happened in 2013 I almost, while singing, choked on the lines: “The foot, the ground, the flesh and the bone, the beat of the road, a sling-shot stone…” There have been and probably still will be many stories whose journeys I will be taken on and sceneries I will be enticed to visit because of this song’s associative contents and its permanent poetic state of flux, which is lastly what makes this song such a timeless classic.

For those of you who love these Brazilian jazz and Bossa Nova classics, here’s a whole playlist, including lots of different variations of Águas De Março / Waters of March:

Oil painting by John Constable, Rain storm over the sea (Seascape Study with Rain Cloud) circa 1827
John Constable Rainstorm over the Sea, circa 1824-1828
Franz Marc In the Rain 1912 Fauvism Blauer Reiter Lenbachhaus
Franz Marc, In the Rain, 1912

 

BUY or DOWNLOAD Frances’ CD Ipanema Lounge

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word recordings, in which I hope you will find joy and inspiration. If you would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing. It will be deeply appreciated.

Or simply, let’s sit down and you 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

"black and white photo" "gloves"

I Just Lost It

 

I couldn’t find it anywhere. “What? Is it this size?” my husband asks, holding his hands about two inches apart. “Nooooo – much bigger! It’s more like six, seven inches…, leather, it’s thick and heavy and worn, you’ve seen it – or not!!??”

I start searching, yes speed-searching through knicker-drawers, magazine-piles, food-stocks, bed-clothes; I look in the laundry pile, in the dryer, under the dog food, behind the fridge, in the freezer. In total frustration I ring up my girl-friend, who is very sympathetic about the whole situation and recommends staying calm. I cannot stay calm. Yes, I admit, I have hidden things before; things in quite unusual places; keys, money, jewellery, letters, gloves, anger, thoughts and feelings, even memories – mostly from others, sometimes from myself. But this is serious. Where is my diary?

I have lost my diary.

Mentally too overwhelmed to think clearly, I let myself sink into our thick velvety sofa, grabbing a cushion to hug, for comfort. I try to think back: Diary! Where are you? I almost feel guilty, like a bad parent whose child has been kidnapped: Have I neglected you that badly?  Is it all my fault? Oh, forgive me! Pleeeease! Where are you!

I slump back, my neck is killing me. I close my eyes and try to focus: I suppose, I have been overspending lately – to be honest, almost daily. Perhaps I just haven’t had enough verbal supplies left for you. Am I some kind of verbal traitor, spending my daily female allowance of forty thousand words whining away in the isolated scope of a therapist’s womb? What a fool I am! Who am I to think it would matter – just a slot in someone’s appointment book? I’ve spent far too much time blah-blahing, swirling thoughts through mid-air. Truthful, thoughtful and agitated words that have nevertheless been aimlessly drifting, only to be sucked up by the greedy grey vents of a rattling air-conditioner!

I should have known better! I should have known that only with you my thoughts can thrive! That with you, whiney and superfluous midget thoughts just shrivel away to make space for grand and thriving musings laid out in proper order, ready to become valuable memories. That one by one, in proper sentences, on clean and crisp white pages, row by row…. bound in soft leather, embossed with my name… my thoughts are something – just because of you! I am so sorry. I should have trusted you. Although, I do have to admit to myself, that lately, there haven’t been many neat rows of carefully composed words and symmetrically stacked paragraphs. I know, I should have confided in you.

There haven’t been that many neatly composed words lately because of my anger. Dear diary, I know… I have bruised your pages with this anger. My pen has been in rages, chicken feet scraping and scaring your delicate white skin, leaving blue tattoos with bleeding and blustering edges. Like those of criminals, rudimentary and raw, crude jail-house tattoos. I am sorry. I have hurt you; I have hurled you up and slammed you down. I have grabbed you, opening you up like the legs of a whore, bending your spine with a vicious crack.

Perhaps you have just had enough. Have you walked out on me? Diary, have you left me?

I cast the cushion aside and get up from my velvet enclave and start pacing again: What if it is just gone, I debate with myself – as in lost and someone finds it…?! A whole tsunami-worth of panic suddenly grips me, rides me and holds me hostage, stuffing my knickers into my gaping mouth. Then a deep feeling of shame rises from my crotch through my stomach, flushing my cheeks on the way. Shame ferociously spreads over my skull that has turned into a blowfish, only to perch like a goblin behind my ears, making them ring like bakelite telephones. The thought is so unbearable; similar to the memory of unexpectedly bumping into that guy you had really bad sex with. But now he is the one who doesn’t remember you; at all.

Where are you, diary?

My husband joins the action again. He is tired and has already shifted into twilight mode. He lifts a somewhat guided hand, half in limbo like a dangly puppet – or rather like a circus seal: “Perhaps in the dining room…”, right hand flap-flap signals. “Perhaps in the bookshelf…”, left hand flap-flap signals. Of course not! Books sit in bookshelves, ready to be read! Books have a cover, an index… As if, as if – it’s literature. “It’s my diary” I mumble, exhausted.

I realize; he really doesn’t have a clue – neither of what my diary looks like nor of the painstaking logistical manoeuvres I get involved in to hide these very private thoughts from anyone. And yet, I have been careless at times, have left you, diary vulnerable and exposed to the eyes of any intruder. But was I really worried that he had sneaked a peak or was I secretly disappointed that he hadn’t?

It hits me like a dump truck, that perhaps, my diary isn’t just gone as in absent or misplaced, but that it has actually left, as in never-coming-back-again. Suddenly, I feel as if I am walking with naked feet and wobbly knees through deep snow, so icy cold that my toes have turned from a deep beetroot red to corpse-blue and are going to drop off like plump raisins left for the ravens. In my mind the scene is playing in slow motion: I turn my head and look back and realize – after a brief moment of dizzying shock – that there are no imprints. I haven’t left a single footprint, no marks. Nothing. I am a nonentity. But like in a bad floaty-type drugged-out dream, I then stare down at my open hands, at the swirls of my fingertips which are blank and flat like molten wax.

© Frances Livings 2012. All Rights Reserved.

(c) The Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

Candy’s Caravan. A Song about a Prostitute

 

I released my single Candy’s Caravan in December 2010 in my jazz label Moontraxx Records. Stylistically the song is a blend of Nu-Jazz, electronica and pop – reminiscent perhaps of artists like Portishead and Annie Lennox. It features two characters with different perspectives: myself as the narrator and the prostitute Candy who is the main character – like the title implies. Atmospherically it sounds slightly theatrical, like a short and dark Burlesque piece.

I had completed the lyrics for Candy’s Caravan long before I had even started on the music, which fell into place when I was experimenting on the piano along with a simple pre-recorded trip-hop loop. The structure and arrangement for the piece I then further developed on live gigs.

It marks one of my first pieces that evolves around another woman’s very specific fate. I focussed thereby on a very narrow window of her everyday life and struggle. I have since then explored an array of typical female topics from different socio-economic statues and cultural backgrounds. Some are in song form, other are spoken word or musical poetry pieces. The paths of women, their stories and their dreams, have always intrigued me. In a patriarchal society, we face completely different challenges than men. As a writer and a woman myself, I have experienced many traumatic events, unexpected changes and terrible losses. So even if I haven’t made that exact experience personally, I try to deeply empathise. Often through images I then research and reimagine what those struggles may be.

 

Listen to a full-length recording of the song here:

Although I have never worked as a prostitute, the lyrics of Candy’s Caravan actually mirror a combination of different experiences, made during my student years in Hamburg, Germany. Another influence is my theatre background, most obvious in the usage of dialogue. I worked for two small theatres on the famous Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, Hamburg and these experiences definitely coined the piece.

Slightly Unusual Student Jobs

Like most students getting themselves through college, I took on a vast variety of jobs and gigs. These jobs not only varied in certain skills I had to quickly learn and apply but also in their social environment.During the summer holidays before I started junior college, I worked in a tile factory. I was intrigued and sometimes intimidated by the gritty working class women. Many even had children to care for and households to run. But they stood there every morning at 6 am on the dot from Mondays to Fridays for a physically strenuous 8-hour shift. The parallel universe was later working in an office, a proper office with buzzing computers, a synthetic carpet, bad coffee, fashion magazines and lots of gossip, where I helped translating technical terms.

Another interesting experience was being an extra on TV productions. During those years, in the nineties, Hamburg was a huge media metropolis before a lot of production companies moved to Boomtown Berlin after the wall came down. So there were lots of well paid TV jobs. I did have a hard time sometimes, being the impatient and curious person I am. I found all of the waiting, the “hurry up and wait!” hard to endure, which is why I so loved the theatre and love performing live because it’s all about being in the moment. Anyway, for two episodes of a German evening TV series I played (or rather posed as) a prostitute which turned out to be a very interesting experience.

Livings as a Prostitute?

One of the gigs was quite well paid because it was not only in the middle of the night and absolutely freezing cold but we were also, naturally dressed in the most skimpy clothes you can imagine. In retrospect, it would be fun to have a few photos but that was before the selfie-era. My friend and I were hardly able to stand in the patent leather boots we were strapped into, the fishnet stocking were cutting into the flesh of my toes and the layers of thick make-up seemed to be the only form of insulation we had against the freezing cold. Although we flirted with the role, it did in a way feel uncomfortable that the mostly male technical crew changed the way they looked at us the moment we were clad in over-sexualized, skimpy mini skirts and revealing lace-up tops.

It seems as if we stood under this dark and eerie railway bridge in a barren industrial area near the train station in Hamburg-Altona for hours, pretending to chat up the drivers cruising by, until finally, I suppose, the lead actors got their lines right. Daylight was already lingering on the horizon as we fled home with numb toes, chattering teeth and blue lips. I realized what a terrible and humiliating profession this must be: exposed to the cold, to investigative stares, like being live stock on a meat market. Despite working on the Reeperbahn, I had never really seriously thought about these women before. But I needed to pay my rent too.

Fishnet Stockings and Lonely Tissues Boxes

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman reflection dim light window blinds
© Jane Burton, The Other Side, 2002

It was a pure coincidence but the next gig I took on was playing a prostitute in a bar. But at least it was indoors and warm.  The most interesting part was the location: The scene was actually shot in a real bordello in Sankt Georg, a very seedy area of Hamburg, like often districts in close proximity to central train stations tend to be.

After a wardrobe person handed us each a hanger with our skimpy costumes, the production assistant showed us our dressing rooms: They were the actual bordello “bedrooms” (for lack of a better term) and we were supplied with one each. Mine was a fair sized room with red padded walls, sporting gigantic gold-framed, mirrors. It was dominated by a gigantic king sized bed that was stripped bare of bedclothes, revealing a smooth red plastic sheet that covered the mattress. Even the tall standard lamp with a pleated silk shade was protected – against body fluids – by a fitted plastic cover. The humungous bed was flanked by two night stands, each crowned with a singular, lonely tissue box.

It was extremely weird to get undressed and changed in that room. There was a bed – but nobody ever slept there. Was anyone watching? What was behind the mirrors? I panicked for a second thinking, any moment some John would be arriving. There was even a small extra room we had first entered before proceeding to the “bedroom”. It had a window and was sparsely furnished with two chairs and another tissue box – I think anyone’s imagination would have been triggered by this situation and it definitely delivered some interesting inspiration for my writing.

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely Window with lace curtains beaded red lamp female legs shoes dark
Image on the left © Jane Burton

The Famous Reeperbahn.

It was around this time I got a job at the St. Pauli Theatre, which is located on the famous Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn (also known as the “sinful mile”) is absolutely unique. To someone who has never visited, it could be described as a hybrid of the old strip in Las Vegas, London’s Soho on Fridays, the red light district in Amsterdam and the sex-tourist’s strip in Bangkok. It’s atmosphere alone has certainly influenced some of my writing (and many others before me) and coined reflections on topics like prostitution.

The German crooner and actor Hans Albers is strongly associated with St. Pauli, and wrote the neighbourhood’s unofficial anthem, Auf der Reeperbahn Nachts um Halb Eins in the 1940s. In the 1960’s The Beatles had stints on the Reeperbahn early in their careers. And in the first lines of his song Down The Reeperbahn the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits captures an a-typical scene:

Around the curve of The Parrot Bar
a broken-down old movie star
Hustling and Easterner
Bringing out the beast in her

I love Tom Waits as a writer and enjoy reading most of his lyrics. A lot of people recognize him by his distinctive voice that the critic Daniel Durchholz described most accurately as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.[1] Exactly like a sound track of the Reeperbahn…

Short Memories and Long Tales…

I have always been drawn to the Reeperbahn. It’s simply an extremely interesting and seductive place. Because indeed, like Waits writes, “the memories are short but the tales are long, down there in the reeperbahn”. As a visitor, it is a fantasy-world full of false promises and illusions – like a theatre. I’ve also been to some of the best parties at great clubs there (like the legendary Mojo Club) when the European Electronica movement first started. I sang regularly at a dive bar called very suitably, Die Rote Laterne, where my co-writer and I practically founded and musically developed our band  4UrbanArtists. I often partied and sometimes sang atAngie’s Nightclub, where my singing coach Roger Cicero, performed regularly, playing piano and singing jazz, soul and pop songs before he had his big breakthrough as a German jazz singer and sadly died prematurely in 2016.Quote Tom Waits at piano smoking prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque

Often, after the curtain had fallen and we had wrapped up the show, I would step out onto the Reeperbahn, the air filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol and it would take me a while to adjust. Especially when you actually work there the contrasts can sometimes feel very strange. For the longest part of the evening I had been enveloped in the safe and abstract world of a theatre. Then after the show, I would walk out onto the street and be confronted with crowds of testosterone driven guys seeking sleazy sex and drugged twenty-somethings on their way the next hip club, crazed to dance, to drink and flirt.

So afterwards, my co-workers and I would often have drinks at the house bar. But on one of these slightly insane evenings even the bar was so crowded that some of the crew members and I decided to go somewhere else.

My Encounter with “Candy”

We went around the corner into a dark alleyway to a small, unknown (well, unknown to the tourists) bar. I had my bike with me that I pushed along side while we all chatted and then absent-mindedly decided to chain to a lamp post (yes, literally, Unter der Laterne…). Suddenly this raging fury shot out of the dark. Hobbling towards me on her neck-breaking high heels, violently swinging her handbag she yelled: “Du Schlampe…! Du…” (You bitch, you) I understood immediately. I fiddled with the lock as fast as I could, muttering, “‘Schuldigung! ‘Schuldigung!” (sorry, sorry) under my breath and then humbly entered the bar with my bike. The image of that woman was forever burned into my brain and lastly coined Candy’s wig and the high heels. The owners of the bar, a lesbian couple were gracious and let me park my bike in their dingy back yard. It was a tight and dingy space, where once a week, boxes of liquor and the large barrels of beer were delivered to. I have always been quite a street wise person and am also respectful of people’s space but this one time I did almost get beaten up by a hooker, whose territory I – in her eyes – hadn’t respected.

The Rhythm of the Reeperbahn

Especially at the weekends the energy on the Reeperbahn can almost be explosive. Depending on how much the crowds drink, which football team has lost or won, on how warm and humid it is (the colder, the calmer) and, I suppose, how business in general is going for the street girls. There’s a strong feeling of hierarchy. As a “normal” working woman you stay out of their way, mind your own business. In the ecosystem of the Reeperbahn the street girls are at the bottom of the ladder: Not seldomly are they heartbreakingly young, runaways and drop-outs, barely the age of eighteen. In neon-coloured hot pants, snow boots and fur-trimmed jackets and thick make-up they line the street, hustling the men and boys in front of Burger King. Street prostitution is only legal during certain times of the day on the Davidstraße. It’s the most curios sight at 8pm to see them suddenly all pop out of their rabbit holes to then later suddenly vanish again. But it is also very absurd for most tourists to see them lined up exactly opposite the historical Davidwache, the district’s main police-station located on the South side of the Reeperbahn, on the Spielbudenplatz.

It was always downright fascinating to watch the gaudy but also desolate nocturnal activities of the crowds. But working almost daily at the theatre at night and sometimes in the daytime, is very different. Despite the chaos, there is a certain rhythm on the Reeperbahn. I sometimes had to go to the theatre during the day to hang up washing, repair costumes or attend rehearsals. Often I could almost hear a big and long sigh, a feeling of general relief when the tourists and party animals had left during the daytime. This void is used to nurse hangovers and guilty consciences, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol for the night. The rhythm of the street then elapses into slow motion. What lingers in the air is the stale odor of beer, bad breath, sweat, fried onions, cigarettes and vodka – like the trail of cheap perfume or cologne women or men, void of any style or taste, leave behind. The buffed and mean looking door men suddenly deflate, look tired and tame. The sleazy, crooked eyed drug dealers slouchy, and coffee-thirsty and run-down, catty prostitutes look cold and worn.

Yet the closer it gets to dawn the more the pace speeds up again: Having barely recovered, the cobbled streets and the musty bars are hastily swept. Synthetic wigs are brushed and plucked and laddered nylon tights are the subjects of emergency cosmetic surgery. Once the revealing daylight has vanished the illusions are born again – luring and seducing, like Candy…

© Frances Livings. All Rights Reserved.

 

Did you enjoy reading this post? If so, why not…

 

 

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely half naked woman topless dress smoking black and white photography art Bordello
© Vee Speers, Bordello series, 2001
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque bed satin heart shaped pillow
© Weegee, Bed with Heart
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman sandals dim light window curtains half light
© Jane Burton, The Other Side #8 2002
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque 1920's 1930's art photography bordello naked woman black mask
© Vee Speers, Mask (from the Bordello series)
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque women mannequins bubble wrap art photography
© Richard Kalvar, Women in Bubble Wrap
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely woman dim light blonde
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely naked woman satin bedspread white face make-up
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan naked woman blonde curtain blue top
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008