Sunday, November 5, 2017

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – "Chemistry Class" (1979)

You've got a chemistry class 
I want a piece of your mind

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway’s Greenbrier Division – a 77-mile-long rail line that ran from North Caldwell to Cass, West Virginia – opened for business in 1900.  

It served farms, orchards, quarries, tanneries and especially sawmills, and was profitable until the 1930s.  But traffic fell off after that.  

The C&O abandoned the line in 1978 and donated the right of way to the state of West Virginia, which removed the rails and ties and opened the Greenbrier River Trail to hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and cross-country skiers in 1980.

*     *     *     *     *

I planned to hop on my bike at Marlinton, ride north on the trail to Sharps Tunnel, and then return to where I began – a total distance of about 22 miles.

I spent the night before my ride in one of the two apartments above Appalachian Sport, which sells hunting, fishing, and camping gear and rents canoes, kayaks, and bicycles:

(My room was up the stairs)
I stopped for breakfast at the Dirtbean, a café, art gallery, and bike shop in downtown Marlinton, which is home to barely a thousand souls:

The Dirtbean café, art gallery, and bike shop
Marlinton is over 2000 feet above sea level.  When I hit the trail at about 10:30 am, the sun had yet to get over the mountains that rise on both the east and west side of the Greenbrier River valley, and the temperature was only 39 degrees:  

The high was expected to reach 65 or so, but that didn’t help me when I started my ride.  I put on two bike jerseys, a fleece pullover, and a windbreaker, and was still chilly for the first several miles of my ride.  (On the way back, I shed the fleece and the windbreaker.) 

The Greenbrier River Trail – let’s call it the “GRT” for short – stays pretty close to the Greenbrier River (which flows south into the New River, which flows into the Kanawha, which flows into the Ohio, which flows into the Mississippi).

The Greenbrier River
The Greenbrier is the longest river in the eastern U.S. that has never been dammed.  It’s a good place to go canoeing or kayaking, and is popular with trout fishermen.

I saw a couple of dog walkers before I got clear of Marlinton, but didn’t see another soul on the trail  until I returned to the town two hours later.  

*     *     *     *     *

I started my ride at the old Marlinton train station:

A short distance north of the train station is a large water tank that was used to refill the boilers of the C&O’s steam locomotives:

The next noteworthy sight on the GRT is Sharps Tunnel, which is 511 feet long.

This is what you see as you approach the tunnel from the south.  The bridge that leads to the tunnel is about half as long as the tunnel is:

Here's a view of the bridge from the trail:

Here's what you see as you enter the tunnel from the south:

Here's the view of the north end of the tunnel from inside:

Sharps Tunnel curves in the middle, so there’s a point where you can’t see the light at either end.

There was an elevation gain of roughly 100 feet riding from Marlinton to the tunnel, which meant that the return trip was a little easier to do.

Here’s my new bike at milepost 60, which was the midpoint of the ride:

After the ride, I hit the local Dairy Queen for a chili cheese dog.  I had originally planned to grab lunch at the Subway, but there were several people waiting in line and the woman making sandwiches reminded me of good ol’ Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction – she was movin’ kind of slow.  (Marlinton’s too small to have a McDonald’s, Arby’s, or Taco Bell, which are my go-to fast food franchises.)

I left town on WV 39, a winding two-lane highway that went up and down through the mountains.  The views were beautiful, but I would have enjoyed them more if I had been a passenger instead of the driver.

*     *     *     *     *

I spent a good part of my GRT ride listening to Armed Forces, Elvis Costello’s third album.

Writing in Rolling Stone, Janet Maslin thought the album’s lyrics were almost too clever for their own good:

There's an overload of cleverness on the LP – more smartly turned phrases than twelve songs ordinarily could bear. . . . Costello's songs are dense the way Bob Dylan's used to be, driven by the singer’s faith that if this line doesn't get you, the next one will, and compressed so tightly that they lend themselves to endless rediscovery.  He has something like the younger Dylan's rashness, too, being hotheaded enough to oversimplify anything for the sake of a good line, and being a good enough writer to get away with it.  His puns are so outrageous they're irresistible. 

Today’s featured song, “Chemistry Class,” is as full of wordplay as any song on the album.  In addition to the couplet quoted at the beginning of this post – which rhymes only in your mind – there’s this rather line:

People-pleasing people pleasing people like you

Which is to say, “people-pleasing people” (the subject) “pleasing” (the verb) “people” (the object) “like you.”

The U.S. album cover
Matt LeMay of Pitchfork questioned whether the album was well-served by its “extravagantly layered” production – which was characterized bydense instrumentation and rich, effusive textures,” and which “often serves to conceal, rather than reveal the nuances of Costello's songwriting”:

In the end, the greatest strength of Armed Forces may be the same thing that makes it less viscerally powerful than Costello's two prior records – its songs absolutely demand to be appreciated for their craftsmanship. 

I disagree.  Most pop records exhibit too little craftsmanship, not too much.  Some records benefit from bare-bones arrangements and heart-worn-on-the-sleeve vocals, but Armed Forces is the better for its smart (and smart-ass) lyrics and tour de force production.

You’ll need to fasten your seatbelt before listening to Armed Forces, but not because it’s going to be a bumpy night – the ride is a smooth one, but you’re traveling at high speed, and you never know when you’re going to unexpectedly change directions.

Here’s “Chemistry Class”:

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment