Thursday, April 8, 2021

PASSED OVER: PASSED ON

 Yup, can't resist, the elephant in the room, or rather the dead elephant in the room, as passed over always has me reaching for the reflex, however thoughtful or thoughtless, sorry for your loss. It isn't a phrase that sits neatly in my lexicon, smacking of euphemism and a coy avoidance of the reality. So and so has passed over, so and so has passed on, all of that. To where says the passive-aggressive agnostic inside me? The other side isn't exactly helpful and arguably is also somewhat unrealistic. Mind you, I'm not keen on rest rooms or comfort stations either, and you can blame my earthy medical anglo-saxon roots for that, where folk die and go to the toilet, or even, sometimes, even  the other way round. 

Death songs then, a surprisingly large and popular canon from time immemorial, the annals of trad. arr. littered with maidens killing and being killed. But that's too easy, here I want to explore those songs written from the viewpoint of the slain. I love 'em. Here are five of the best.

Long Black Veil has to be one of the best, the happy little tale of how the honour of the canoodling was preserved, the song's protagonist taking the rap for a murder, as his only alibi would have to have been his paramour, his neighbour's wife. So that's all right then, is it? She gets off scot free, if then still leaving the neighbour wondering quite why, or where, his wife gets the penchant for going out of a rainy night, dressed in black and howling at the moon. One of many versions, this one, by the Band is the best, the lead vocals, all of the exquisitely ragged vocals for that matter, sounding distinctly of the grave. Which, sadly, is indeed now the case.

To follow, a beautiful song, set within a glorious string setting, coming from John Wesley Harding, aka Wesley Stace, initially a skinny tie "noo wave" singer, with hints of Costello in his style and timbre, to, now, an increasingly folky solo troubadour, an artist I have much time for. The song weaves a story of come uppance with a real sting in the tale and stunned me to silence the first time heard it. A warning to any uxoricidal maniacs out there, it certainly gave me pause for thought.

The sort of song perhaps older readers will remember from their parent's collection, the old Marty Robbins chestnut, with The Old 97s giving it a good kicking, providing a bit more of the adrenaline that a real gunfight might provide, the momentum giving credence to that apparent sense of disbelief that seems to arise after a wound sustained in the heat of skirmish.At least, that's what happens in films. The Old 97s have an intrinsic knack for polishing up old tropes and giving them a modern sheen.

Neither a judiciary death nor a killing, is this one about a natural death? Of course, with the way Elvis writes his songs, the whole thing may be an allegory. But irrespective of such musing, I like the way it is the first to offer a view of the life beyond the threshold. Rather than a wraith stranded here on this earth, here the protagonist offers a description of a disappointed creator, rueing his creation. Am I alone if feeling some hope in that? It is certainly preferable to the burning pit of hell, but is it heaven? Costello has always struck me as a man who thinks deeply about the human condition, his songs often offering the sour aftertaste of catholic guilt.


Hell, you say, you mean like this? And you can always trust the Pet Shop Boys to offer an acerbic and wry view of proceedings. So maybe this song doesn't, as actually did neither the last, overtly explain how the observer came to be where they were, and in this one there is even no reference per se to anyone dying. But, surely, any accurate reportage would require the ability to be there and even Bill and Ted had to die to get there, yes? So I have to assume the witness is deceased, my column and all that. Ex-journalist Neil Tennant effortlessly lists the names of the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know as being the main occupancy, which I suspect is a little hopeful. My hell would be full of people I know.

As would my heaven.

I'm sorry for my loss. In taste.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Passed Over: Aretha Franklin/Amazing Grace

[purchase the Complete Recordings]
[purchase the DVD of the film

My wife and I just finished watching the eight part NatGeo (!) series, Genius: Aretha Franklin. Season 1 was about Einstein, and season 2 was about Picasso, which puts Franklin, deservedly, into pretty lofty company. The series tells the life story of Franklin, who was notoriously private during her lifetime, and how she was able to deal with the benefits and burdens of her prodigious musical talent. It isn’t always a pretty picture—her father, well-known minister C.L. Franklin, was a controlling, philandering probable alcoholic who took Aretha out on the gospel circuit as a young teenager and appeared to have let her run around unsupervised, leading to two pregnancies at 12 and 13, and who himself impregnated a 12 year old. Aretha herself could be both cruel and supportive of her two sisters, Carolyn and Erma, fine singers in their own right, whose solo careers paled in comparison, but who regularly worked as background singers (and songwriters) for their sister. And she also made career judgments that, in retrospect, seem suspect. On the other hand, her singing, piano playing and arranging (despite not being able to read or write music), were extraordinary, and her ultimate insistence on producing credits and control over her music, was groundbreaking. Definitely worth the watch, and Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Franklin, is great. 

In 1972, coming off of one of her most successful albums, the politically charged Young Gifted and Black, Franklin suggested a return-to-her-roots gospel album. Ultimately, it was decided that Aretha would perform in a church, featuring the Southern California Community Choir, led by James Cleveland, the great gospel musician and singer, who had, in Aretha’s youth, led the choir at C.L. Franklin’s church. The TV series shows C.L. firing Cleveland because Cleveland failed to tell him about Aretha’s second pregnancy, and thus made Franklin’s decision to perform with him, and not at C.L.’s church, a deliberate slap in her father’s face. I don’t know if that is true, but it did make for good television. 

They decided to film two performances, and hired Sidney Pollack, still relatively early in his career, but with an Academy Award nomination under his belt, to direct. The performances, mostly by Franklin, but also by the choir and Cleveland, were incredible, and the word spread so that the second night became an event, and was attended by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in Los Angeles working on Exile on Main Street (and the gospel touches on that album are often attributed to their attendance that night). C.L. Franklin showed up, too (uninvited, according to the show), and sermonized a bit. 

But when they went to get the film ready for release, a failure to use the traditional clapperboards made it impossible to synchronize the sound with the video under with the technology of the time. So, the film was put in the vault. An album including excerpts from the two nights, also named Amazing Grace, was released to both massive commercial and critical success. 

In the early 1990s, Jerry Wexler, the producer who essentially navigated Franklin to stardom after a lackluster start at Columbia Records, told a staff producer at Atlantic Records, Alan Elliott, about the footage, and they eventually discussed it over a period of years. Pollack, who was dying of cancer in 2007, encouraged Elliott to finish the movie, and he bought the rights from Warner Brothers and began the painstaking process of using digital technology to sync the music and film. It was scheduled for release in 2011, but Franklin sued to prevent its release without her permission. A few years later, the original contract that Franklin signed was found, and another release was scheduled, but Franklin sued again to prevent release. Whether her reluctance was based on a demand for money, or because her bad health prevented her from promoting the film, or out of her frustration over not ever having an acting career, or other reasons, it wasn’t until after Aretha’s death in 2018 from pancreatic cancer that Elliott was able to get her estate’s permission to release it. 

My wife and I had a chance to see the movie in 2019 at the great Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, back when people still went to movies, and it was mind blowing. It is, in many ways, very minimalist—there is no narration to speak of, no talking heads, just music (and a little preaching). Franklin is literally a force of nature, as she leaves nothing behind in singing songs that clearly have deep meaning to her, which you can see not only from her effort, but from the sweat pouring from her face

You can hear the 10 minute plus version of “Amazing Grace” in the video above. It is pretty much unbelievable. What you can’t see in the video, and you really should watch the movie--it is streaming on Hulu as this goes to press—is how the music affected everyone in the church—Franklin, the audience, the choir and the other performers. As described in an NPR piece about the movie: 

Near the end of the song "Amazing Grace," for which Cleveland has been accompanying Franklin on the piano, he slides off the piano bench, giving his space to [Alexander] Hamilton [the assistant choir director], and surrenders to shoulder-heaving sobs, rocking himself back and forth in a congregational seat. He's not the only one — by this point, audience and performers alike are wiping tears from their faces — and when Franklin herself sinks down into a seat at the song's conclusion, she well may be weeping, too. But her face is so sparkling with perspiration, it's impossible to tell for sure. 

And when they recreated a portion of it in the TV show, Erivo’s version was powerful enough to move us to tears, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

PASSED OVER: TERRY REID

No, don't panic, Superlungs hasn't passed, this is the tale around how he coulda/mighta/shoulda "been" Robert Plant, were it not for bad luck, being unwilling to let down an earlier booking and having impeccable taste in suggesting an alternative. Lesser mortals might have thrown in the towel as the years of critical fame and public indifference combined to leave him an also ran, a bit player on the sidelines and in smaller venues. Embittered? It seems not, presumably making some sufficient livelihood from the circuit of pubs and clubs.

So what was the story and how does it stack up. Reid, born in Huntingdon, UK, just four years after the second world war ended, a world where rationing was still part of the wartime legacy. From his first band, the Redbirds, he was spotted by Peter Jay, a local bandleader, and enlisted, age 15, upon leaving school, with Peter Jay's Jaywalkers. A name lost in the mists of time, but they actually snarfed a Rolling Stones support slot in that band's 1966 tour of the UK. The high spot of that tour was a prestigious gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Falling into conversation with Graham Nash, as you do, then of the Hollies, it was recommended the group should seek a recording contract. The Hand Don't Fit the Glove was not much of a hit, and was a fairly standard soul-inflected pop single, but shows some room for growth, especially as he begins to let rip in some of the verses.

The Hand Don't Fit the Glove/Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers

They disbanded and Reid then fell into the hands of pop impresario Mickie Most, famous for nurturing the Animals and Herman's Hermits, as well as, later, Suzi Quatro and Hot Chocolate. He was in partnership, at that time, with the later to be notorious Peter Grant. The first blast on his solo career was the oddly entitle solo album, Bang Bang, You're Terry Reid. (I could get that if either Reid or Most had hailed from Glasgow, but any rhyming argot is lost in the home counties english they both spoke.) A US tour as support with Cream and a slightly more successful single, Better By Far, and it looked as if he was on a roll.

Better By Far

Peter Grant, no longer in cahoots with Most, was by now the manager of the New Yardbirds, a band being set up by ex-Yardbird and session wunderkind Jimmy Page, along with equivalently feted bassist John Paul Jones. Page had wondered as to the suitability of Reid as their singer, using Grant to liase with him. Not many people were able to avoid the coercive "charm" of Grant, an ex-wrestler who had little charm and lots of coercion, but Reid somehow managed, citing his loyalty to the gigs he had already signed up for. OK, he offered that a financial settlement that could have been made to Cream and the Stones, but that never materialised and off he went on tour. Before leaving he also dropped the name of someone else that Page and Grant might consider, a young lad he had been impressed by, whose band, Band of Joy, had supported Reid at a Birmingham gig. That young man was Robert Plant, with he and the drummer, soon both ensconced in Page's band, now newly entitled Led Zeppelin. And you know the rest.

Reid, meanwhile, continued to plug away as a well respected support act, notching up tours with Fleetwood Mac mark one, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix. With Most trying to pull him into a more commercial and ballad led direction, he rebelled, with the inevitable legal implications of then falling out with a manager. Unable to cut much ice at home, he had to rely on the effervescent US market and touring arena to keep him afloat, as he flitted from label to label, manager to manager, turning up a perennial on numerous filmed happenings of the time, from the first Isle of Wight festival, the Atlanta II festival and the first Glastonbury "Fayre". Even his 1971 signing by Atlantic mogul, Ahmet Ertegun failed to hit pay dirt, and he seemed destined to remain a critics favourite rather than a superstar. Not that he wasn't producing perfectly good music, as the following few, in no contemporaneous or particular order, demonstrate, just the favourites that come to mind.

To Be Treated Rite

Seed of Memory

River

Rogue Wave

These are all his own songs, but bear in mind, his gift is as much in interpretation, and there being many a cover version across his output: so, take your pick, do you want Left Banke, the Everleys, or maybe some of this?

Stay With Me, Baby

Since the turn of the century, he has visited the UK more frequently, for a while taking up yearly residencies at Ronnie Scott's club in London, one of few non-jazz artistes getting that opportunity, as well as prestige gigs at festivals, where he became quite a draw, a heritage artist to tick off a list. Sometimes he has performed with bands, but, as often as not, he has appeared in smaller group settings, in a duo or trio. The re-release of his early recordings also helped keep him in ear. I was lucky enough to catch him, five or so years back, as part of a duo, the only accompaniment to his voice and his guitar being B.J. Cole on pedal steel. It was good that night to see how just how well he and his "sponsor" remain on good terms, local black country boy Robert Plant turning out to show lively support from the smallish audience. Plant says of him that he remains "the outstanding voice of his generation." It's true, I was mainly there for Cole, but left a far greater fan of Reid than I had been.

So, what's he up to now? Clearly no shows at the moment, but don't write him off. And, whatever you do don't ask him that 'what if' question...... 

As a closer, here he is on British TV in 2018.

To Be Treated Rite

And a TV interview from November, barely five months ago.


P.S. An afterthought has me minded of this song, which managed an extraordinary and gradual metamorphosis. A song he wrote, apparently at the age of 7, he first put it out as Without Expression, old chum Graham Nash then taking it to the Hollies, as Man of No Expression, and then again, to Crosby, Stills & Nash, as Horse Through a Rainstorm. (It's in the lyric!) Finally, REO Speedwagon gave it a further and fourth leash of life, entitled once more as Without Expression. Given the CSN version had been pencilled in as the opening track of CSN(&Y)s Deja Vu, ahead of being trumped by Carry On, is this another example of Reid's famed luck showing through?



Saturday, March 27, 2021

Pat: Baris Manco

 



purchase [ choose one  ]

In the bi-weekly notice to the SMM team for this theme, I jokingly threatened to include something Turkish. A remark from Seuras about the paucity of posts this time around prompts to me follow through with the challenge - even if it is my second post of the day and it doesn't really make up for my slacking off for two weeks. But hey ... the more the merrier, and this one is kind of merry - in a kind of out-of-the-box way, as someone suggested might be appropriate here.

Not too many Turkish musicians make a dent in the international music scene. Baris Manco did (and I use the anglicized spelling without Turkish characters that would confound your screen - it would be phoneticized as barish mancho). You can Wikipedia him yourself, but the essentials are that (a) he's sadly no longer with us ('43-'99), (b) was a prolific composer primarily of a genre known as Anatolian rock and (c) his songs have been translated into more languages than you can shake a stick at. Oh, yes, and since I have been here most of my life, I have been listening to his music since I started listening to rock (and there aren't many Turkish musicians that I relate to that well.)

There's a folky style to his "rock" that you may not fancy. I assure you that millions of Turks do - to this day. It helps if you have references that help you relate, and that, his songs do. This one in particular incorporates the sing-song (if not pitter-patter) of vendors who ply the streets of Turkey's cities even to this day. Singing the names of their wares as they cruise the neighborhoods slowly in their pickup trucks loaded with fruit and vegetables brought to the street in front of your house, in this case: "tomatoes, peppers, eggplants".The Turkish for eggplant/aubergine being PATlican (the Turkish letter c is pronounced like the J in John).

Pat: Metheny

 



purchase  [ New Chautauqua ]

The term “record label” has almost become irrelevant. As we consume more and more of our music in digital format, record labels as such have become more or less invisible or irrelevant to the consumer. Not so 50 years back. Musicians we both tied to and touted by the labels. If you were purchasing music in the 60s and 70s, you knew what to expect from a Tamla, an Atco, a Polydor. You knew what you were likely to get if the label was ECM.

I knew ECM was European, north European. I knew it was independent. I knew it meant progressive Jazz. I didn’t know it was short for Edition of Contemporary Music. I knew the label included among its artists Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Eberhard Weber, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie because I no small part of my LP collection included them. My collection also included a bit of Pat Metheny.

I tend to skew more toward the guitar than piano or sax, and a number of the above fit my prefs. Although Metheny started out solo (supported by some of the ECM crowd), he is mostly associated with the self-named Pat Metheny Group, which was releasing records up until about 10 years ago. He released an album titles From This Place about a year ago, and then Road to the Sun a couple of weeks ago (March 2021). And speaking of record labels, it caught my attention that most recently, his music has been appearing on the Nonesuch label, which I knew as a kid because a lot of my parents’ classical collection was on that label (a budget classical label in the 60s that has :developed into a label that records critically acclaimed music from a wide variety of genres” –Wikipedia)

 



Thursday, March 25, 2021

Pat: Patrick O’Hearn

Group 87: Future of the City
[purchase

When I suggested this theme, I was trying to think of a St. Patrick’s Day theme that didn’t fall back on some variation of Irish music, so it is kind of funny that I’m writing about a guy named Patrick O’Hearn (although it sounds Irish, it turns out that it may more likely be English). 

Frankly, what I knew about Mr. O’Hearn before starting this piece was that he was once in a band that I liked back in the 80’s called Group 87, but I didn’t even know what instrument he played. The band put out a self-titled album in 1980 that was given pretty heavy airplay at WPRB, but I’m guessing that most people reading this have never heard of it. 

Group 87 is an instrumental album that mixed rock, jazz, fusion, and what would eventually be called new age music, and it was really well done (it rocks more than it “new ages,” if that’s a phrase, and we all know it isn’t). Considering the style, and the time, it isn’t surprising that the album went nowhere, and the band was cut by Columbia Records, only to re-emerge in 1984 with a second album on EMI that I have never heard. All because the same A&R guy who signed them at Columbia had moved to EMI—Bobby Colomby, who had been the drummer for Blood, Sweat & Tears. 

But it turns out that O’Hearn, and the rest of Group 87 have had pretty interesting and fairly successful careers, pretty much off of the Jordan Becker radar. Group 87’s trumpeter was Mark Isham, who had played with, among others, Van Morrison, before becoming a new age and soundtrack star and in-demand session musician. The guitarist, Peter Maunu, is also a prolific session musician, with credits that range from Jean-Luc Ponty, and The Commodores. And while not an official member of the group, the drums on their debut were played by Terry Bozzio, who had played with Zappa and U.K. before forming Missing Persons with, among others, his wife Dale Bozzio and other former Zappa band members. 

But this is about O’Hearn, who started as a bass player, and began playing professionally at 15. Moving to San Francisco, he played mostly jazz, playing bass for well-established artists such as Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Joe Pass, Woody Shaw, Eddie Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as musicians who were his contemporaries, and eventually joined Frank Zappa’s band, where he began experimenting with synthesizers. 

In 1979, he joined friends Isham, Maunu (and Bozzio) to form Group 87. Bozzio then recruited O’Hearn to move into the new wave world, joining Missing Persons, where he played both synthesizer and bass, and hopefully cashed in on their popularity. When that band broke up in 1986, O’Hearn eventually started a solo career in the new age and ambient genres, where he has been quite successful, as well as working on soundtracks. To date, he has released 13 solo albums. And, in another genre-bending move, he played bass with John Hiatt on tour from 2007-2010 and in the studio through 2012 (so he wasn’t there when I saw Hiatt at the Tarrytown Music Hall in 2014). 

Although one of the things I like about writing these little blog posts is that I get to write about stuff
that I know, the best part is finding out things that I didn’t know.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

PAT: A-CAKE

Mindful there has not been too much a pitter-PATter of posts arriving under this banner, time to think out of the box. And what could be better than a cake box, something that may have me awarding me a pat, SWIDT, on the back for inspiration. Of course, Cake are no strangers here, usually courtesy their way with quirky covers, enough to endear themselves to me bigtime. But they are more than just novelty revisionings, having a wealth of their own penned material on hand as well. As I have discovered.

With a modus operandi of always avoiding the obvious, this was apparent from the start by the prominence of trumpet, lead trumpet even, an instrument more reviled than revered in rock and pop, delegated, where I thought it should be, to old man's music like jazz or, within reason, the unison brass parts of soul music. I had utmost suspicion of the instrument, feeling it as uncool as short hair and straight trousers. Until then, just to damn my eyes, short hair and straight trousers came back in. My version of punk coasted into post-punk and an enduring love of Chumbawamba, another band with trumpet, forcing me to swallow my prejudice, luckily also coinciding with the astonishing discovery that jazz was OK too. (And that I preferred jazz trumpet solos to saxophone solos, despite sax being just about allowed a seat at the table of my earlier rockist tastes. And since you ask, Chet more than Miles.)

Rock'n'Roll Lifestyle/Motorcade of Generosity (1994)

Cake I first heard through their astonishing de- and reconstruction of I Will Survive, reeking so of mariachi I had to go and gather that whole style into my body of required and allowable listening. It has been touched on here. I bought the parent record. The second single from their second album, it came out in 1997 and made the indie charts at home, managing a 29 in the UK, and higher in some other european countries. Given their first album was all originals, and largely damned either by faint praise, or just plain damned, this left the band with a dilemma, one that never quite lost them, continuing arguably to be better known for their covers, despite barely doing any others over the next few records. (Having a self-penned song called Jolene on their debut arguably didn't help, allowing the lazy to make assumptions: I certainly downloaded the track on that basis!!) 

The Distance/Fashion Nugget (1996)

Never There/Prolonging the Magic (1998)

In researching this piece I was, therefore a little surprised to see their last record, 2011's Showroom of Compassion actually hit the coveted Billboard #1 slot, if only for a week, albeit based on the then lowest sales to attain that slot. And not a cover in sight. (Well, one, actually.) Also that all the four ahead of that had entirely satisfactory sales, with only the very first failing to make any splash, so bang goes my assertion. But maybe the fact they refused a greatest hits, and released instead the only other record of theirs I own, b-sides and Rarities, which is nearly all cover versions, explains my fallacy. 

Comfort Eagle/Comfort Eagle (2001) 

Sick of You/Showroom of Compassion (2011)

Scattered through this prose are a few of their finest. If you are unfamiliar, listen. If you know them, re-aquaint. The trumpet of Vince DeFiori is certainly not the only cause to celebrate, the caustic and conversational singing of John McCrea, also the main songwriter, being a joyful characteristic of the sound. These two are the sole permanently present members of the band, as they seemed to get through a slew of rhythm sections along the way. Just two lead guitarists, though, with a special mention for Greg Brown, no, not that one, there from the start, who left in 1997, if still making later guest appearances, his spiky playing adding to the overall counter-intuiveness of the whole. But for the last ten years there has been little sight or sound. There was promise of new material as far back as 2018, with only a single video, below, sneaking out. A demo leaked in January this year, so maybe we haven't quite had all our Cake yet. 

Sinking Ship (2018)


Eat some!


Thursday, March 18, 2021

PAT: SHAMROCKS, SNAKES, STAFFS & SPEAKING WITH THE PAST



Did Green Day derive their name from the Green Day of March 17? And I know I am a day or two late in nailing it, but it is one of many questions I don't plan to investigate too deeply, because it wasn't, but it's as good a place to start as any. It seems strange to me how St Patricks Day has become such a big thing in the U.S., certainly compared to his supposed homeland of Ireland. Even if, in the same way life imitates artifice, it is now catching up. I'm not sure the Liffey has ever been dyed green like Chicago's Chicago River, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were for the future. Not this year mind, but in the same way that Irish bars have become such a big thing all over the world, what the US identifies with as a merchandising exercise today, catches on, well, everywhere, in due course. Hell, even Thanksgiving is becoming a thing over this side of the pond, which seems more than a little counter-intuitive.Too much like turkeys celebrating Christmas. (Which is when turkey is supposed to be eaten, I should add.)

But it is St. Pat of Paddy's Day we are here to blether about, and the abiding myths and legends seem as good a place to start.

Paul Brady is, for me, the consummate Irish performer, and I would place him above Van Morrison, Christy Moore, Phil Lynott, Bono, any of them. A soaring and piercing voice, a human equivalent of uillean pipes, and capable of bringing forth similar tearful emotions, allied to a masterful guitar technique and, if his majesty with the traditional canon isn't enough, a glorious songwriter to boot. This traditional lament has been covered by him at many stages of his career, but it is this version that is the best, from his first solo album, and also his last to fully feature only trad.arr. Shamrocks were said to have been an essential part of St. Patricks preaching, using the three leaves as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. It may also have been that pagan Ireland already held sacred this plant, and so used that regard as a link between old divinities and the new. It seems plausible, and probably why this plucky little plant is the national emblem of the land. But, tell me, does the shamrock ever have four heads, or is that a clover led question?

Let's stick with Irish artists to tackle the next topic, the tale of how St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes. It seems that, whilst meditating and fasting, he was disturbed by one, and was so outraged that he henceforth banished all snakes and drove them into the sea. This strikes me as an ultimately dodgy story, and seems hard to swallow. That was, however, ahead of my appreciating that neither are there snakes in Iceland, Greenland, Hawaii or New Zealand. And never were, at least once they became islands. So unless Saints Thorlak, Arnaldur, Damien or the Virgin Mary were responsible for a similar banishment in those countries, I suspect it pure supposition. There are snakes, of course, in Ireland, but only in zoos and as pets. (What if one, or two, I suppose, escaped?) Shane McGowan is a learned and erudite soul around all things Irish, his songwriting awash with imagery and legend. The snake here is a ring, but one feels a whole lot more too. This is from McGowan's post (and between) Pogues project, the Popes, after he had become too unreliable for his bandmates, but before his muse had succumbed entirely to the ravages of his lifestyle.

So this is the one where St. Patrick's staff takes root and grows into a tree. I think we have all been to church services where the sermon has gone on so long that that would seem an entirely expected phenomenon, but I am not sure that is the message the legend imparts. The staff was made of ash, I gather, and, rather than down to the length of the discourse, was about the length of time the locals took to latch on to this Christianity lark. There are lots of songs about trees, especially in the folk idiom, and the piece chosen is only part provided by an Irishman, the wonderful uillean pipes prodigy and singer, Jarlath Henderson. With a vocal tone not dissimilar from that of Paul Brady, he combines a career as a musician, often in cahoots with fellow gael, the Scottish piper and whistler player, Ross Ainslie, with qualifying and working as a medical doctor. (Here is the duo with another song, an instrumental of the same name, from when they were both teenagers.)

The final story is how St. Patrick apparently met with two ancient Irish warriors, Oisin and Cailte Mac Ronain, who had somehow managed to survive the centuries and be there for him to try and convert from their pagan ways. They didn't get on, it seems, and it all gets very complicated as to why they met, other than for him to contrast the sunny lit uplands of the calm and Christian life, as compared to their roustabout fighting and brawling. St. Patrick seems to have prevailed as, given their great age, they died and he lived. It all sounds like the later episodes of TV boxset Vikings, which became progressively less fun as Heaven overtook Valhalla as final destination of choice. And there couldn't be a better illustration of pagan irish ways than by Horslips. The track above comes from The Tain, their 1973 musical re-telling of the legend of Finn MacCool, from whose warrior clan came the two elderly relics who met up with St. Patrick.

Slainte!

Brady, McGowan, Henderson, Horslips.