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Pickle Me This

February 10, 2014

Be the Mavis.

Things are busy here. In lieu of a post proper, I bring you Mavis Staples, whom Stuart and I had the great pleasure of seeing in concert on Friday night.

December 11, 2013

Do They Know It’s Christmas: A Personal History

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1.

In 1984, we got the Band Aid album for Christmas, a gift from my mother’s younger sister, my aunt. I was five. From that same aunt, my sister and my cousin received leg-warmers for their Cabbage Patch Dolls. I don’t remember what I got, but it was not the Cabbage Patch leg-warmers, and this was profoundly upsetting. I remember that when the Band Aid album was unwrapped, my older cousin (who would have been ten or eleven) was excited, and put it on the record player straight away. Being ten or eleven, he was hip to the ways of the world and its zeitgeist, just like my young aunt was. I thought them both impossibly cool, and decided the album was worth knowing about for their interest in it. I knew about the famine in Ethiopia, about what the singers were singing about.  I’d seen it on TV. But I have no recollection of my immediate impressions of the song itself. I was far too upset about the leg-warmers.

2.

Every Christmas for the next few years, I would spend a huge amount of time studying the album art for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. The images were fascinating. On one side, ornate Victorian Christmas imagery, the kind that illustrates “The Night Before Christmas” or a Christmas card. This was juxtaposed with a photo of two African children with spindly limbs. I don’t know if the photos showed the children’s distended bellies or flies landing on their skin, but I’d seen enough television coverage to know all about it. The African children were in black and white, while the rest of the album was rich and red. This could perhaps be the beginning of my impression that Africa was a colourless place.

(Two decades later, I’d read What is the What by Dave Eggers, explore the website of the book’s subject, Valentino Achak Deng, and be so completely shocked by the greenery and colour in photos of his home village in Sudan. The Africa of my mind was an imaginary place. Where nothing ever grows, no rain or river flows. I suppose.)

2.1

And then I would turn the album over. On the back was a photo of all the musicians who’d come together to make the record, assembled in rows like a school class photograph. This was interesting. Even more so was a copy of the image with just squiggly lined silhouettes of all the people in it, each silhouette marked with a number. The numbers corresponded to a list of the musicians, so that I could find out who was who. This was a curious matching game, a sort of passive paint-by-numbers too.

It was also a useful game because I didn’t know any of these musicians, except for Phil Collins (who looked kind of out of place) and Boy George , who I knew from “Karma Chameleon” and remembered because he was a man who liked to dress up like a girl. But I knew he was really a man though because he said so: “I am a man without conviction. I am a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction.” Though looking back, he seems quite good at selling contradiction. It is possible that the lyrics to “Karma Chameleon” cannot be read wholly earnestly. This would not occur to me for many many years.

Here is another contradiction: In fact, Boy George didn’t even appear in the picture, which I only realize now when I double check. This is confusing. I swear he was there. I am remembering his image from the video I think. I guess he had somewhere else to be when the picture was taken..

And now I have gone off on a tangent, which is what usually happened when I stared at these images. I was obsessed with this album. I kept getting lost in it.

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Actually, Boy George would not have looked so out of place in this photo though. Many of the musicians in the photo were androgynous, men (I think?) with long hair and a few women with masculine faces. Perhaps this created the effect that there were more women than there actually were, though there are only a few. Curiously, the women are all lacking surnames. They are called Marilyn, Keren, Sarah and Siobhan. I have just Googled Marilyn, and he was actually a man called Peter, so there you go. Basically there were only women in the shot because they’d invited Bananarama, who introduced themselves on the b-side, the vowel in banana pronounced like “ah” which made the band name sound much less stupid than it was. I knew Bananarama because on my Mini Pops album was a recording of “Venus”.

There was one other woman in the photo and she was remarkable for a couple of reasons: she had two names (which were Jody Watley) and she was black. This latter point she had in common with the three men on the left-hand side of the group. Which made for 4 black people in total in the picture on the back of “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, but at least that was twice as many as were depicted on the front.

George Michael is in the picture, but I would not recognize him until “Faith” came out in 1989. There is someone called Midge in the picture too, which added to my speculation about Band Aid and gender, but he was definitely a bloke. The guy in the front with the sunglasses in his shirt–he was wearing dirty white socks. And Johnny Fingers–what kind of a name was Johnny Fingers? The world was a curious place.

3.

I love this song. Somehow it has become a classic, up there with “Feliz Navidad” by Boney M and any version of “Oh Holy Night”. I love the bells that ring a descending line right before the “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all,” lyric. I love the oomph of, “Here’s to you” and the oomphy echo of, “Raise a glass for everyone.” The rhyme of, “Underneath this burning sun” is so perfect. I love when Sting (because by now I know who Sting is) sings his name in the line he’s given. The drama behind a lyric like, “the clanging chimes of doom.” And Bono, oh, Bono. When you delivered your, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them…” line, the rest of your life story was written.

I love the juxtaposition of the song’s lyrics, as blatant as on the album’s cover. It is Christmas time and there’s no need to be afraid. We do indeed live in a world of plenty (or at least I do). I want to believe that it’s as simple as us and “the other ones.” That if we just pray for them and buy a rock and roll single, us and a ragtag bunch of scruffy pop-stars can right everything that’s wrong. It is Christmas time, and I totally want to throw my arms around the world.

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4.

If my bad taste is reflected in my terrible taste in pop music, you should probably know that I can’t get enough of charity singles. I watch the Band Aid video on Much Music, and I cry. Basically, put a pair of headphones on anyone and show me them singing passionately with their eyes shut, preferably when when shaking their fist emphatically. “There comes a time when we heed a certain call, when the world must stand together as one…” And there is nothing I love better than times like that. “Tears Are Not Enough,” “We Are the World,” even “That’s What Friends are For.” I can’t get enough of this stuff. If I think about this, it is probably because modern life is dulling and we’re desperate for feelings, even if the come from a can. I also like to kid myself that the world’s big problems have solutions (and that these might possibly begin with a bunch of guys with guitars putting on a show).

5.

There is a gradual awakening. This has a lot to do with geography. Africa is not a place where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow. I think about the Nile and the Congo, the latter of which is the deepest river in the world. I think about snow on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (which, as you know, rises like Olympus above the Serengeti) and that it’s possible that there will be snow in Africa this Christmas after all. That even if they were using “Africa” as a synonym for “Ethiopia” in this song, the lyrics would be wrong. It was not that nothing ever grew in Ethiopia, but that was did grow was diverted from hungry people due to errant government policies.

6.

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It’s not just me who has affection for this song. Its catchy tune and inane (and factually incorrect) lyrics ring out through shopping malls across the land every Christmas time. In 1989, Band Aid 2 was recorded, featuring not only Kylie and Jason, but many other bands including Technotronic and Wet Wet Wet. The single in the UK outsold Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”. 2004 saw another rerecording, Band Aid 20, which had actual woman’s voices, including Sugababes, Rachel from S Club, Natasha Bedingfield and Dido. They were joined by Fran from Travis, Busted, Justin from The Darkness, The Thrills, Robbie Williams and Will Young–a whole host of musicians who’d been topping the charts in the UK during a time in which I’d lived there and listened to the radio incessantly. In the middle of the song, Dizzee Rascal raps. Everybody was showered, and nobody androgynous at all.

When Band Aid 20 came out, we were living in Japan. My friend bought me the single from the Tower Records on top of the FORUS shopping centre. We listened to it on Christmas Day while we drank vodka mixed with alcoholic orange juice. We hadn’t gotten the day off. The lyric, “Do they know it’s Christmas?,” has special resonance that year.

7.

It’s more than just a guilty pleasure. If it wasn’t, I could just stop, and placate those who slag off Bob Geldof and Bono for their rockstar refusal to live in real world. It all comes down to economic explanations, but then I’m just humming along. Because I’ve been listening to this song for 29 Christmases now, and it is as much a part of the season as Jesus, the Shepherds and the Wisemen, and I don’t really believe in that story either. You get old enough and realize that Christmas is a string of fictions. One of them is that pop music can shape and save the world. And yet. It has shaped and saved just as much as anything, I suppose. Certainly, this terrible, embarrassing song has shaped me.

November 20, 2013

CD GIVEAWAY! The Sounding Joy by Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends

sounding-joy-bannerI fell in love with Elizabeth Mitchell’s music when Harriet was a baby, and suddenly the whole world was a richer, sunnier place. Her music is the soundtrack to our family life, and I love that with her folk songs she gives us roots, but also keeps us rocking out to covers by Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Van Morrison. I love how she brought us Remy Charlip. “Alphabet Dub” on her You Are My Sunshine album is hands-down the best version of the ABCs ever.

Her latest is an album of Christmas songs, The Sounding Joy. And you can listen to a preview here, the song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee  (Little Bitty Baby: A Cumulative Song)”.

More about the album for Smithsonian Folkways:

Grammy-nominated recording artist Elizabeth Mitchell releases The Sounding Joy, ann exploration of Christmas and solstice songs from the American folk tradition.  Drawn almost exclusively from the often overlooked but deeply influential songbook of revered composer and anthologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, these songs evoke an era before mass media and the commercialization of Christmas, when sacred song, dance, contemplation, and gathering were prized above all else during the holiday season. Mitchell’s fifth album for Smithsonian Folkways, The Sounding Joy features husband Daniel Littleton, daughter Storey, and special guests Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Aoife O’Donovan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Larry Campbell, Dan Zanes, and John Sebastian, among many other family, friends, and neighbors. This gorgeously reverent 24-song collection attempts to save these traditional American holiday songs from an “unmarked grave,” as Merchant puts it in her essay included in the liner notes.

 

Although the songs presented are specific to the Christian tradition, Mitchell’s husband Daniel Littleton cites the inclusive nature of the project, describing the assembly of musicians as an “ecumenical summit” of sorts, with participants of many religious and non-religious backgrounds coming together happily to bring the songs to life. Mitchell sums up the spirit of the album best in her notes: “However you and your loved ones celebrate the last month of the year, I hope it is filled with the sounds of joy.”

And even better than news of a brand new Elizabeth Mitchell album? Why, that Smithsonian Folkways has provided me with a CD copy to give away to one of you. If you leave a comment on this post by midnight November 30, I’ll include your name in a random draw to win the CD.

**Congrats to Suss. Thanks to all who entered. Hope you’ll get your own copies. It’s a really lovely album. 

January 16, 2013

On Elizabeth Mitchell, Blue Clouds, and storybook discovery…

blue_cloudsI discovered Elizabeth Mitchell a few months into Harriet’s life, and her music has been our family’s soundtrack ever since, the serenity of her voice making me a better mother and a happier person, her songs providing us all with a solid grounding in folk music, and their stories becoming the basis of so many of our own. And this year was a very good year to be an Elizabeth Mitchell fan–her album Little Seed came out in July and had the honour of not only being the soundtrack to our summer roadtrips (along with Carly Rae Jepsen), but was also nominated for a Grammy, and then Blue Clouds came out in October, and we managed to save it until Christmas, but we’ve been listening steadily ever since.

Blue Clouds is brilliant: a new version of “Froggie Went a Courtin’” that is Harriet’s favourite song on the album; my favourite track is her cover of Van Morrison’s “Everyone”; covers of David Bowie’s “Kooks”, Jimi Hendrix’ “May This Be Love”, Bill Withers’ “I Wish You Well”, “Blue Sky” by the Allman Brothers. We love new songs “Rollin’ Baby”, “Hop Up My Ladies”. And we love the song “Arm in Arm”, based on the verse by Remy Charlip: “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle, arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…”

arm-in-armI’d never heard of Remy Charlip before Blue Clouds, but his artwork graces the album and its liner notes, and a letter inside by Brian Selznick introduces him further: “If you don’t own any of Remy’s books, you owe it to yourself to find as many as you can.” Which is the kind of guidance I’m always happy to take, and so we’ve been borrowing Remy Charlip books from the library like gangbusters over the last couple of weeks. And we didn’t quite know what to do with them at first: they weren’t stories to be read as much as books to be used, to be engaged with. It turned out that only the first line of the “Arm in Arm” song was Charlip’s, the line all the text on a single page, and the whole Arm in Arm book is made up of similar wordplay, riddles, play and whimsy. Harriet is in love with Mother Mother I Feel Sick Call For the Doctor Quick Quick Quick, and also the cowboy story Little Old Big Beard and Big Young Little Beard. We brought home Thirteen from the library yesterday, and it blew our minds! So many stories in a single book, a book you’ll read over and over and never the same way twice.

I absolutely love art that takes you somewhere, and artists who collaborate. Getting to know Remy Charlip via Elizabeth Mitchell has been like getting to know a friend, and so when I discovered tonight via internet search that he’d died in August, both Stuart and I were oddly saddened. His work is so much the definition of life that it seems impossible that his own could be over, but then the books live on, and how they do, over and over and never the same way twice.

May 14, 2012

Oh come over here, kid we’ve got all these books to read

“Oh come over here, kid we’ve got all these books to read,
With the turtles and frogs, cats and dogs who civilize the centuries,
And in a world that’s angry, cruel and furious,
There’s this monkey who’s just curious,
Floating high above a park with bright balloons.”

From “I am the one who will remember everything” by Dar Williams, from her very wonderful new album In the Time of the Gods which I received for Mother’s Day, along with a new guitar tuner.

December 29, 2010

Comfort and Joy

One of the reasons I’ve had such a lovely holiday (which I’m still having, actually) is that I received India Knight’s new novel Comfort and Joy, freshly imported from the UK. A fortunate thing, because it’s a Christmas book, and it would have been strange to read it in April or October, but to spend Christmas and Boxing Days stuck between its covers was absolutely perfect. Not least of all because its covers are so lovely– designed by Leanne Shapton of Important Artifacts… fame. And oh golly, those endpapers with sprigs of holly. Of course the story too, and I love all of India Knight’s work, and how she channels Nancy Mitford, comic fiction at its finest, her self-conscious send-up of the English middle class, and that her novels read like her newspaper columns but all spliced together. Referencing Barbara Pym on one page, and Grant Mitchell on another, and I’m not sure the world gets more perfect than that. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

I received a few other books for Christmas (Started Early, Took My Dog, The Torontonians, Pleased to Meet You) but I’m saving these for the New Year. In the meantime, I am reading up the unread books on my shelf that are unpressing and therefore I might never get around to reading ever. And this has been a most rewarding experience– it’s why I read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, and then Andrew Pyper’s amazing Lost Girls, Almost Japanese by Sarah Sheard, and Touch the Dragon by Karen Connelly. I’m now reading The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, which I’ve been putting off and putting off, because although I enjoyed The House in Paris last Fall, I also remember that it was difficult and sometimes frustratingly abstruse. Once I’ve conquered it, however, I am going to attempt to read a little-known work called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But then again, maybe I won’t.

In picture book news, we gave Harriet We Are In a Book (An Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems), The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson, and The Owl and the Pussycat. My life is now officially complete, because a friend gave us The Jolly Postman. Other amazing books include The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, the terrifyingly wonderful Mixed Beasts by Kenyon Cox, and But No Elephants by Jerry Smath.

Our days have been a mix of a whole lot of nothing and a whole lot of everything, friends, togetherness, and copious amounts of chocolate. We are infinitely grateful that Stuart now works in an office that closes for the holidays, as everything is better when he is around, and he’s around all the time. We are also very much listening to the CDs received in our family for Christmas: Dar Williams’ Many Great Companions, The Essential Paul Simon, and Elizabeth Mitchell Sunny Day. Each one is very, very good.

January 16, 2010

Clearest, starkest brilliance #1: When Randy Bachman held my heart

Harriet is pictured here in her very early days, back when a moment of daytime peace was worth a photo for posterity. But lately, actually, I’ve been thinking of a certain moment of nighttime peace, when Harriet was about five days old.

For the first few weeks of her life (how long exactly doesn’t matter, suffice it to say, it was an eternity), we had to wake her every three hours for feeding, as she’d not yet returned to her birthweight. (This was when I was reading Tom’s Midnight Garden and “Only the clock was left, but the clock was always there, time in, time out.”) And once the alarm went off, we’d leave the radio playing while we fed her, and so we discovered that CBC at night subscribes to programs by other public broadcasters. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation at 1:00am, and 4:00am would be Swedish, and something uptight and BBC close to the morning.

This one night in particular was not so late, however, and I remember waking up to Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap. So there we were, up with our baby daughter in this weird, wide world that was the size of our bedroom’s four walls and we hadn’t thought outside of it in five whole days, which might have been a lifetime (and they were). So that, in effect, Randy Bachman was coming at us from the farthest reaches of outer space.

Fittingly, his show that night had a stars and planets theme, and Canada felt very small as Randy’s wife Denise introduced the next track, by Randy’s son Tal. Surprisingly, it was not “She’s So High”, and Denise reported that she’d always felt so envious of Tal’s talent. And then after that they played music that wasn’t by anyone related to Randy Bachman, which I think was “Blue Moon”(and according to the program log, I’m remembering this in the wrong order, but that doesn’t change the way it was). They played “Good Morning Starshine”, and we marvelled at the lyric “Gliddy glub gloopy, Nibby nabby noopy, La la la lo lo.” It was midnight, but it might as well have been the middle of the night, and the baby was sucking sustenance out of a tube stuck to my husband’s finger, but anyway, we were happy.

But no more so than when they played “Little Star” by the Elegants. Our own peculiar lullaby, to which we found ourselves relaxing for the first time in days. Twinkle, twinkle to a doo-wop beat, and the moment was so beautiful, it shone. We were a family. And I wouldn’t take back any of the awfulness of those early days, if I had to give that song back with it, and what it was like to be listening, and finally not anxious, and to be connected, in touch with a calm, blissful world.

September 19, 2009

Some things on Saturday

Oh, I wish I could tell you what I’m now reading, but you’ll have to wait for the December issue of Quill & Quire to find out. Alas, but I’m enjoying myself. Birds of America is on its way to me in the post. For the last few days, I’ve been composing a love letter to the Spadina Road branch of the Toronto Public Library (which I’ll put down on paper soon, and copy here). We’ve been listening to Elizabeth Mitchell at our house, and we’re totally obsessed– everyday I have a new favourite, but I like her version of “Three Little Birds” and also The Tremelos’ “Here Comes My Baby”. I’ve been playing guitar myself these days, and Harriet is entranced by the shiny tuning pegs. She also likes strumming the strings. We’re going to England in less than a month, which is exciting, but seemed like a much better idea when the baby was still hypothetical. Now, I am a bit terrified, but pleased that her brilliant sleep patterns are wrecked already so that I don’t have to worry about the time change doing so. (In terms of baby sleep, how about this: ask moxie hypothosizes that sleep is this generation of parents’ “thing” [whereas, it once was potty training] because babies sleep on their backs now, where they do not sleep as well as they did on their fronts. This is also why our parents have little sympathy for the sleeping plight). I continue to be exhausted, much the same way I was when Harriet was born, except I have a life now and do not spend my waking hours sitting in a chair sobbing, and therefore the tiredness feels worse (and yet, I would not, could not, go back there, no). I’ve also quit Facebook, sort of. You see, I was totally addicted, checking it whenever I was feeding the baby and often when I wasn’t, and there are better things I could do with my time. And yet, there are many things I love about Facebook– friends’ photos, event invitations, cool links, finding out about friends’ achievements, that many of my FB friends’ aren’t friends otherwise, and I’d miss them if I went. But there are only so many strangers’ photo albums you can peruse without feeling your life is slipping away, so, I had my husband change my Facebook password, and now I have to be logged in by him. And I really hope this doesn’t happen all that often. So this should free up some time for me to finally read through my stack of London Review of Books that has been accumulating since Harriet was born. And I mean that. I am also going to knit Harriet a sweater from the Debbie Bliss Baby and Toddler Knits book I got from the library today, but I’ll use the 12-24 month sizing, because I’m realistic about how long it takes to get anything done. Today, we had the most wonderful brunch at the Annex Live. And the baby is awake, so I must go lay out the newspaper on the floor so I can read it while I feed her.

August 21, 2009

Songs blasting by outside my window #2

I Want Your Soul by Armand Van Helden.

August 10, 2009

Not my bag

I hate jazz. I’ve never liked it, there was a time when I pretended I did and tried to learn to like it behind the scenes, but I never managed. I gave up pretences and decided to just hate it hands down the day a jazz-loving former co-worker walked into the staff lounge where someone else had put a bit of The Great Satan on the stereo, and co-worker waggled his head in a be-bop style, looked confused and said, “Hey, I thought this was my bag.” Which summed it all up for me, and that was the end. My beloved Tabatha Southey illustrates her jazz-hating experiences in this week’s column.

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