Sunday, September 12, 2010

Anjani -- "Blue Alert" (2006)

There's perfume burning in the air
Bits of beauty everywhere
Shrapnel flying
Soldier, hit the dirt

This is the 58th song I've written about in the blog.  I'm capable of investing a great deal of symbolic significance in something small -- like the fact that I'm 58 years old and this is my 58th blog post.  As far as its content goes, it doesn't particularly matter that this is my 58th post.  But I like having a hook to hang each post on, no matter how trivial or arbitrary that hook may be.

Just so you're prepared, this is going to be different from most of my other little essays.  Don't expect a lot of pretty pictures or videos -- it's mostly just words and music.  We'll head back to Cape Cod in a couple of days, but (with apologies to the Talking Heads), this post ain't no vacation . . . it ain't no bike ride . . . it ain't no foolin' around. 

Anjani Thomas in blue
I think I first heard "Blue Alert" a few days before last Christmas.  (There's a chance I heard it a year or two before that, but if I did, I wasn't really listening.  There would have been no reason to pay attention to it.)

There's a story there, of course -- isn't there always a story? -- usually a long story, and a story that meanders from side to side and doubles back on itself a few times before it gets to the point.  So I will spare you the story for the time being.  Whether that story will have a happy ending isn't clear.  The odds are certainly against it, but you never know.

This is a song with the power to paralyze me -- not physically, of course, just emotionally.  I don't really enjoy listening to this song -- it's not exactly fun -- but when it pops up on my iPod, I'm compelled to do so.  

It works as a poem, but it works much better as a song.  And this performance is really perfect.

There's an interesting story behind this song.  You're probably familiar with the Leonard Cohen song, "Suzanne" -- "Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river," etc. -- which was first recorded by Judy Collins and has since been covered by a long list of well-known performers.  (When I was in high school, every girl I knew who owned an acoustic guitar knew how to play "Suzanne," along with "Parsely, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.")  

Cohen is a very creative and complicated fellow.  He published his first book of poetry in 1956 (he was 22) and his first novel in 1963.  He's an observant Jew, but was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk after spending several years in a Buddhist monastery.  He hung out with Andy Warhol in the 1960's, and he once appeared in a "Miami Vice" episode.  His songs have been featured in movies ranging from McCabe and Mrs. Miller to Natural Born Killers to Shrek.

Here's the opening of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, featuring Cohen's song, "The Stranger."  (I haven't seen that movie in years, and I had forgotten this lovely little song was part of it.)

Anjani and Leonard Cohen
Anjani Thomas, who usually goes by her first name, is a singer and keyboard player who began to work with Cohen in 1984.  At some point, they moved in together and have remained a couple.  One day, she began looking through his notebooks and files, and found many unpublished lines and verses that intrigued her.  Together, she and Cohen turned some of those scraps into songs -- including "Blue Alert," which is the first track on her solo 2006 album of the same name, and which features 10 songs the couple jointly created.

Click here to read a New York Times article about this.

It's not my usual approach, but rather than limiting myself to two or three lines, I'm going to give you all the lyrics to "Blue Alert," with my comments dropped in here and there in parentheses.  (Copyright law be damned.)  I'm not going to attempt to explain or analyze every line, and I'm not going to do any research into what others have said about the lyrics.  I don't plan to say very much, but I will probably end up saying a quite a bit -- that's my usual modus operandi.  I don't mind if you ignore my comments and just read the lyrics and listen to the music.  The song speaks for itself much more eloquently than I can speak for it.

There's perfume burning in the air
Bits of beauty everywhere
Shrapnel flying
Soldier hit the dirt

I have no idea which lines or words came from Cohen, and which came from Anjani.  Cohen is responsible for the basic skeleton of the song, we know, which may explain why its voice is male -- despite the fact that a female is singing it in this recording.  Assuming I'm correct, it's a man who initially notices the smell of perfume and sees the "bits of beauty everywhere" -- but suddenly realizes there are bombs exploding and shrapnel flying.  He doesn't know exactly what the hell has gone haywire, but he does know that things are FUBAR and he'd better take cover.  Of course, there's no guarantee that hitting the dirt will save his ass, but it seems like the wiser course. 

She comes so close
You feel her then
She tells you "No," and "No" again
Your lip is cut on the edge of her pleated skirt
Blue alert

He's in trouble now -- serious trouble.  It isn't going to be pretty.  Forget about yellow alerts, or even red alerts -- the blue alert is the one you should really fear.

Visions of her drawing near
Arise, abide, and disappear
You try to slow it down
It doesn't work

Things are happening a little too fast for our narrator, it seems.  Fasten your seatbelts, pal -- it's going to be a bumpy ride.  ("Arise, abide, and disappear" is a masterful line, I think.)

It's just another night I guess
All tangled up in nakedness
You even touch yourself
You're such a flirt
Blue alert

"This is more like it," our narrator is probably thinking to himself.  "Tangled up in nakedness" sounds pretty good, right?  Except she's touching herself, not him -- and flirting isn't really much fun if that's all there is.

You know how nights like this begin
The kind of knot your heart gets in
Any way you turn
Is going to hurt

That's right, it's going to be one of those nights.  Not fun -- not fun at all.  Your heart's not the only thing that's in a knot -- your brain and your tongue are in knots as well, and most of all, your stomach is in a knot.

She breaks the rules so you can see
She's wilder than you'll ever be
You talk religion 
But she won't convert

You've lost control of the situation, buddy -- assuming you ever had any control in the first place, which is doubtful.  She's not going to play by your rules or anyone else's, for that matter.  You'll play by her rules, and you'll have to convert to her religion.  To put it crudely, you'll suck on it and you'll like it.  Take it or leave it -- it don't make no nevermind to her.  

Her body's twenty stories high
You try to look away, you try
But all you want to do 
Is get there first
Blue alert

If he cut his lip on her pleated skirt, he must have been on his knees at the time.  She's looming larger and larger in his eyes and in his mind and in his soul, and he knows the only smart thing to do is to look away.  But he's not that smart, and he's not that strong.

You know how nights like this begin
The kind of knot your heart gets in
Any way you turn
Is going to hurt

Yes, yes, YES -- he's very aware of all that.  You said it once already.  Why do you have to keep repeating it?

There's perfume burning in the air
Bits of beauty everywhere
Shrapnel flying
Soldier hit the dirt
Blue alert

We end up back at the beginning.  What began with perfume and beauty has suddenly turned into flying shrapnel.  If he hits the dirt, perhaps he can crawl to safety.  But it will be safety sans the perfume and the beauty -- such a life is hardly worth living, is it?  So maybe he will attempt to advance despite the shrapnel . . . try to beat the odds.  More likely, of course, he'll end up crawling away in defeat.  The only difference will be that he won't crawl away in one piece -- he'll be bleeding from a thousand wounds.

Here's Anjani Thomas performing "Blue Alert."

Here's Madeleine Peyroux's performance of the song.  She is a very talented and very intelligent performer, but her version suffers by comparison to Anjani's -- there's really no contest.

Here's a link to iTunes you can use to order "Blue Alert":

Here's a link to use if you prefer Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. love Anjani Thomas and like this song a lot! Leonard Cohen is one of my new old favs.
    patricia barber