Friday, March 25, 2011

Clara Engel -- "Madagascar" (2009) (part 1 of 2)

An angel from Madagascar 
Picked me up in a motorcar 
We filled our bodies up with stars
Now we're iridescent in the dark 
Now our mothers don't know who we are 
But I love my angel from Madagascar 
I'm going to give you a chance to be a patron of the arts today -- a chance to help a very talented young singer/songwriter named Clara Engel create music.  

This is a priceless opportunity, although you are probably too clueless to realize it.  So I am going to educate you.  In fact, I'm going to educate you at such great length that I had to break this post into two parts.

Archduke Rudolf
Let me tell you a little about Archduke Rudolf -- short for Rudolf Johannes Joseph Rainier von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduke and Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia (1788-1831).  He was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, an Archduke, a Prince, an Archbishop, and a Cardinal, but he is remembered today for one thing and one thing only: he was Beethoven's greatest supporter and patron.  

The compositions that Beethoven dedicated to Archduke Rudolf to thank him for his financial assistance include some of the most legendary musical works ever composed.  We're talking about the Piano Sonata No. 29 (the Hammerklavier), the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, and -- of course -- the Archduke Trio.

I played the Fourth Piano Concerto many years ago.  I didn't play it very well, but well enough to appreciate that it is simply the greatest piano concerto ever written.  Here's a brief excerpt:

And if it hadn't been for Archduke Rudolf's patronage of Beethoven, it might never have been written.

I'm going to fast-forward 200 years now, and transport you from 19th-century Vienna to 21st-century Montreal.  It's too late to do anything for Beethoven -- he died in 1827.  But you can do something for another talented and deserving musician, a young woman named Clara Engel.  I'll explain how you can help Clara a bit later.

Clara Engel
Clara Engel -- who is 28 -- was born in Toronto but now lives in Montreal.  Here's a link to a recent interview with her that discusses her early experiences with musical instruments, what books she read in the last year, what songs are currently on her iPod, etc.  (I can't say I'm familiar with any of the contemporary recording artists she mentions.)

Here's a quote from that interview:  
I’m drawn to songs that go for the jugular.  I am simple and brutal when it comes to the music I love.  I hardly even like to talk about it.  I get inarticulate.  Explaining, understanding, pinning them down is like butterfly collecting – highly stylized murder.  Now I think about it, music and butterflies are kind of alike . . . fleeting and unattainable, not to be held. 

 It makes me think of William Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy."  The more I try to explain why I love something, the farther I feel from its living, changing being. 
Here's the entire Blake poem she quotes from above:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise. 

Blake was a painter and printmaker as well as a poet, and Clara is also an artist:

Clara Engel's "Arc"
Clara has recorded six studio albums (plus one live album) -- the first one was released in 2005, the most recent in 2010.  Here's a link to her web store, where you can buy downloads of her albums and her individual songs.  

Clara talks about herself, her music, and her art in this brief documentary: 

One of the differences between Clara Engel and me is that I would never think to use the word "Madagascar" in a song or a poem or a story unless I was writing something that was literally about Madagascar.  

I would be even less likely to write about an angel from Madagascar picking me up in a motorcar -- not to mention an angel from Tangiers whispering a rancid lovesong in my ears.  I guess that's why I write a blog about other people's songs instead of writing songs.  

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Clara Engel until now -- I didn't know anything about her either until a few weeks ago, when she sent me an e-mail.

I write this blog for two different groups of people: friends and strangers.  (I guess that pretty much covers the universe, doesn't it.) 

I have a small cadre of friends who follow 2 or 3 lines closely and offer their comments on occasion.  (I wish there were more of you, and that you commented more often.  But I'm not complaining -- I'm grateful for each and every one of you, and each and every one of your comments.)

Then there are the strangers who read 2 or 3 lines.  Most of them say nothing after visiting my website.  I'm usually able to identify what country they live in and which of my posts they've looked at, but that's all I know about them.

Occasionally one of the strangers does say something.  I've even heard from a few of the musicians I've written about -- most notably, Patricia Barber.  (I wrote about her "The New Year Eve's Song," and she flattered me by posting my little essay on her website.  I got a lot of traffic back in the early days of 2 or 3 lines as a result of her doing that, and we continue to correspond today.  I'm going to see her perform live in Chicago next month.)  

Here's the e-mail I received from Clara Engel a few weeks ago:  
I am an independent Canadian musician and artist, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in featuring my work on your blog.
Here's a free song for you to sample, called "Lick My Fins."
Clara Engel
Clara had me even before she told me she had a song called "Lick My Fins."  But that song title really sealed the deal.  So I promptly responded, asking her about 100 annoying questions.

My most urgent question -- of course -- was why had she contacted little ol' me?  

I was hoping that the answer would be that she had stumbled across 2 or 3 lines somehow and was so taken by my unerring taste in music, my insightful analysis of the songs featured in my posts, my charming and colorful personal anecdotes, or my desperate attempts to get attention that she was compelled to sit down at her computer and write to me immediately.

But I am a realist, so I was expecting the answer to be that she had done a Google search to identify every music-related blog out there and sent them all a form e-mail with a bunch of links in hopes that they would help her publicize her music and enable her to sell a few more downloads.  

(By the way, there would have been nothing wrong with her doing exactly that.  After all, as Eric Burdon of the Animals once sang, "It's a hard world to get a break in."  Clara's serious about her music, and she wants the world to know about it.  But there are about a zillion other musicians out there competing for our attention.  I don't envy her the task she has set for herself.  It's kind of like going online to find the woman of your dreams -- the odds are succeeding aren't very good.) 

Happily for my ego, the truth was a bit closer to the former scenario than the latter.  Clara had been looking for blogs about Lhasa de Sela, an American singer-songwriter who had  settled in Montreal, which is where Clara now lives.  I wrote about one of Lhasa's songs last New Year's Day, which was the first anniversary of her death from breast cancer at age 37, and Clara read it and decided to contact me to see if I might post about one of her songs.  

I will admit that I was so pleased that Clara had noticed 2 or 3 lines that I probably would have agreed to write about her music even if it had been only average stuff.  

It turns out that Clara's music is about as far from being average as it is possible for music to be.  I have just begun to acquaint myself with her oeuvre, but the songs I've heard so far are strikingly original.  

The one I've chosen to feature here -- it's my favorite of her songs at this point, although that could change -- is intense and edgy and has some real all-hell-is-breaking-loose moments.

But before I discuss "Madagascar," I want to share a very different kind of Clara Engel song.  Many people may find "Accompanied by Dreams" the more appealing of the two -- it's certainly more conventional than "Madagascar" (which is NOT to say that it is conventional), and might be preferred by more people, at least initially.  It's a gorgeous song, and she performs it beautifully -- she walks the line between emotion and self-control very nicely.
You said that I would be 
Accompanied by dreams 
That would make this place 
Less sinister to me 
But you lied 
I'm terrified 

Here's Clara's music video for "Accompanied by Dreams":

"Accompanied by Dreams" is from Clara's newest album, The Bethlehem Tapes (which was recorded when she was visiting Bethlehem, Pennsylvania).  Click here if you'd like to download the song and read the lyrics. 

On to "Madagascar." 

I've done line-by-line analyses of a couple of songs on 2 or 3 lines -- most notably "The New Year's Eve Song" (by Patricia Barber) and "Blue Alert" (by Anjali).  The lyrics of both those songs are subtle, but I felt fairly confident that I was on the right track when I explained what their lyrics meant.  "Madagascar" is much less literal and much more dreamlike in content.  It's a song that you simply open yourself up to and experience -- not a song that you can analyze intellectually.

I'd compare the Patricia Barber and Anjali songs to Italian Renaissance paintings.  Such paintings often tell rather complicated stories (usually from the Bible, or classical mythology), and you need to be quite learned to appreciate all their subtleties.  But "Madagascar" is more like a Max Ernst or Salvador Dali painting -- surreal, even psychedelic.   

"The Angel of the Hearth" (1937) by Max Ernst
I usually have little patience with prose or poetry that is too opaque -- I want the writer to tell me what exactly is happening, and that's the way I usually write.  

The lyrics to "Madagascar" are not indecipherable, so they don't frustrate the listener.  But they certainly aren't what you'd call linear, and the song doesn't tell a story that makes a lot of sense if your frame of reference is everyday life.  But it does tell a story -- the kind of story that takes place only in a crazy dream, or in a fantasy. 

Before I discuss the lyrics, I want to share something Clara said in an e-mail:

[M]y songs aren't autobiographical -- as Rimbaud said: "I is another" . . . so in "Madagascar" the "I" is not me.

The Rimbaud line in French is Je est an autre -- it has also been translated as "I am someone else."  (This line seems to have influenced Bob Dylan greatly.) 

I take Clara at her word.  It is a mistake to assume that a writer's writing is always autobiographical.  My attempts at fiction have all been about 99% autobiographical -- but that may not be true of writers with more imagination.

On the other hand, isn't everything that a novelist or songwriter or poet writes autobiographical to some degree?  Not in a literal sense, but reflective of the writer's desires, or fantasies, or fears?  I suppose a writer could consciously choose -- perhaps as an intellectual exercise -- to make up something that has nothing to do with himself or herself, but I don't think many writers do that. 

Let's walk through the lyrics before we listen to the song.  Here are the first 12 lines:

An angel from Madagascar 
Picked me up in a motorcar 
We filled our bodies up with stars
Now we're iridescent in the dark 
Now our mothers don't know who we are 
But I love my angel from Madagascar 
An angel from the slums of Tangiers 
Whispered a rancid lovesong in my ears 
And filled my memory up with her tears 
An angel from a Dead Sea dawn 
Lashed my skin with a branch of palm 
And told me to love isn't just to disarm 

[Note:  Clara doesn't break the lines quite the same way in the lyrics printed on her website.]

There are three "angels" in the song -- one is expressly referred to as female, and I'm assuming all three are females -- as is the narrator, the "I" character.  The three certainly aren't angels in a literal sense.

The angel from Madagascar "picked me up" -- literally (in a car) and figuratively -- and now their mothers "don't know who [they] are."  

If you were a young woman rolling around in bed or in the back seat of a car with a hot African babe, your mother might not recognize you either -- "Honey?  Is that you?  What are you and that girl doing with that . . . OH MY GOD!"  

(Clara is young, and as far as I know she doesn't have any children.  If she was 40 and had a couple of kids, I wonder if the line would have been "Now our children don't know who we are."  Which would be a more disturbing event for a woman?  To have her mother walk in on her while she was having sex with another woman, or to have her children walk in on her?)

Tangier street scene
Next the narrator is with an angel from the slums of Tangiers -- or Tangier, if you prefer.  (My son visited Tangier when he was studying abroad in Scotland a few years ago, and he tells me the slums of Tangier are some very serious slums.)  It sounds like it would be very nice to have an angel whispering a love song into your ear.  But a "rancid" love song?  

Absolutely.  If you're in the right mood, a rancid love song could be just the thing.

Dead Sea bather
Finally, there's a third angel from a "Dead Sea dawn" -- Jordan is east of the Dead Sea, so this may be a Jordanian angel.  This third angel whips her with a branch from a palm tree -- what my parents would have called a "switch" where they were trying to scare me into behaving.  Juxtaposing references to the Dead Sea and a palm branch has Biblical overtones.

And then we get to the chorus.  

You could take me down 
With one touch of your scorn 
Your kiss like a whip 
Your caress full of thorns 
Desire desirous 
Pleasure that tears itself apart

("Pleasure that tears itself apart" is very good, I think.)

The narrator seems to welcome her lover's scorn, the "kiss like a whip," and the "caress full of thorns."  Her "angels" seem to enjoy hurting the one they love, and the narrator doesn't mind -- it hurts, but it hurts so good!

After the chorus, the narrator continues the story of her encounter with the angel from Madagascar:

An angel from Madagascar 
Picked me up in a motorcar 
We got drunk in the moonlight, threw knives, and bloodied the stars 
(It was fun, I'd do it again!)

But that night it rained, I caught a fever and died 
Night swallowed me up, and when I opened my eyes 
It was all a dream, but there's a star in the palm of my eye 

The line I put into parentheses -- "It was fun, I'd do it again!" -- is a very tasty little aside.  Clara doesn't really sing these words but speaks them in a tone of voice that's partly defiant but mostly seductive.  

The line and her delivery of it bring to mind the Carmen Sternwood character in The Big Sleep.  I would guess that this character was actually about 18 years old, but she acted much younger despite being well-acquainted with all the vices of a much more mature woman.  (One website describes her as "a dizzy nymphette who sucks her thumb in the presence of men she finds exciting" -- including Humphrey Bogart.)

The singer and her angel got drunk and threw knives and it was fun -- so damn the torpedos, she'd do it again!  

And if you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that all of that does kind of sound like fun, and that you'd probably do it right along with the narrator and her angel from Madagascar if you had any balls. 

We'll turn from the words to the music in part 2.

Here's Clara Engel performing "Madagascar":

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