As a new pipe smoker, I am, of course, seeing pipes everywhere. Stephen Colbert featured one on his show a few weeks ago. And I just went to the movies this weekend, and it seemed like nearly everyone was puffing on a pipe for most of the first act (Okay, so the movie was Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey so that might not be quite as surprising as could be).
However, obvious pipe sightings aside, what I am surprised to notice is how pipes are interwoven with the Christmas season. They pop up everywhere, from classic cartoon characters to more modern movies and music to decorations and iconic imagery.
Of course, our modern image of Santa starts with the jolly ole saint downing a bottle of Coca Cola, but the fabled illustrator and chronicler of Americana Norman Rockwell also pictured him with a pipe nestled in his hand or clenched between his droll little mouth drawn up like the a bow.
That could be attributed to the 18th Century poem, T'was the Night Before Christmas: A Visit from St. Nicholas. Clement Clarke Moore (and/or Major Henry Livingston Jr.) had Father Christmas smoking a fine blend of tobacco (Surely, Kris Kringle would only smoke the best) as he filled those stockings hung by the chimney.
"The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath."
Images of the ancient, decidedly trimmer Father Christmas often show him with a graceful Churchwarden or Oom Paul styled pipes, but most are modern renderings which may not reflect what the early followers of Christmas envisioned for the gift bearer. However, they are there.
Santa isn't the only bearer of Christmas magic shown with a pipe. Frosty the Snowman, of song and animation has a Corncob pipe clenched under his button nose and two-eyes made of coal.
And its not only legends and cartoons that we see pipes interlaced with the holidays. The classic Crooner Bing Crosby was a well-known pipe enthusiast, and he and his pipes are forever intertwined with Christmas thanks to his movies White Christmas and Holiday Inn, as well as his many Christmas Albums with the singer posing with a briar pipe on the cover.
Other Christmas movies we watch every year with our family and friends also have pipes show up in one way or another. Jimmy Stewart has one in a wonderful life, and good guy lawyer in charge of proving Santa's identity, Fred Gailey (John Payne) breaks out the pipe and tobacco during a visit to his girlfriend's apartment. There are probably several more I could reference. I seem to recall the Ghost of Christmas Present smoking on a Churchwarden, but who knows which version of A Christmas Carol that was.
Anyway, the point is that I never really noticed how much pipe smoking has been woven into the holiday season. It is subtle, and really doesn't have a message of its own, like the Christmas tree, the manger, menorah an aluminum pole or Yule log, but it is part of the universal ideal of celebration, feasting and enjoying the better things in life...indeed to celebrate life itself that the Holiday Season has come to represent.
Happy Holidays from everyone here at Smokingpipes.com.
"I have been smoking since I was a small boy," Greta Garbo was known to quip. It was a rather unusual statement coming from a Hollywood starlet, yet it was also a sentiment very true to her nature. She was indeed a prolific smoker; cigarettes, cigars, and, yes, even pipes too. And she was as well what could only be described as "enigmatically contrary". The silver screen beauty often dressed in clothes which, in her day, were considered "mannish", and making such pronouncements as, "I am a lonely man circling the earth." was one of the intensely private vixen's preferred ways of breaking silent moments in conversation. As one of her biographers, Bary Paris put it, "Garbo liked to confuse people..." Even late in her life, this playful turn of secretiveness would keep her amused. In the 1980s a visiting friend of Garbo's, while she was out of the room fixing them drinks, dropped one of the peanuts he had been snacking on, and in bending down to pick it up discovered what he described as a "whole little community" of miniature "troll dolls" arranged beneath her couch - which is to say, right beneath the noses (and posteriors) of her every visitor. Thereafter he would take to peeking at them whenever he was over and she happened to leave the room, always finding them rearranged.
Greta was notable not only for her heady and intriguing combination of coy eccentricity and breathtaking, haunting beauty, but also for being one of the few big names who proved themselves able to transcend from the Silent Era into Hollywood's Golden Age of "talkies" - a transition which ended many of even the most prominent acting careers. The talent and character which enabled her to survive this great upheaval of the medium, and likewise the roots of her complex, curious quirks of personality, likely traced themselves back to her formative days, growing up in the Sodermalm slum district of Stockholm as the daughter of an unskilled laborer. It was a place she described in no fond terms: "It was eternally gray — those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We are filled with anxiety, as if there is danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us."
Such environs are as liable to break as to make a human being's spirit, but for young Greta her dull and oppressive surroundings gave birth to an escapist imagination. (And what was that penchant for unusual statements which she would later become known for, but a manner of escaping the status quo of the mundane norms of commonly accepted social interaction?) The young Greta was known as a shy, quiet girl, who hated school and who played little: "I did most of my playing by thinking. I played a little with my brother and sister, pretending we were in shows. Like other children. But usually I did my own pretending." Her "own pretending" found its outlet in a love for theater, a love she developed at an early age; a love that would see a girl born into nothing emerge as one of the most famous women in the world, and which was itself born of the same elusive imagination which kept her amused long after she retired to a life of privacy and discrete playfulness. It was a love of imagination, one the girl known as the Swedish Sphinx kept carefully guarded.
The Devil's Ballroom, Amundsen's team called it. The last great obstacle in their path to the South Pole, a deceptive terrain - a glacial plateau littered with hidden crevasses of deadly depth disguised beneath thin crusts of ice. '"Oh, as usual," they shouted back; "no bottom." I mention this little incident just to show how one can grow accustomed to anything in this world.” Amundsen wrote in his memoirs. It had taken months to reach this point - a long and perilous time for men at the end of the earth, who had no civilization to fall back on but that which they carried with them. Amundsen's careful, not to mention covert planning had not only well and thoroughly gotten the drop on the English, but had given his team the direction and decisiveness in spirit, training, and equipment to advance more rapidly.
Amundsen's and Scott's teams could hardly have been more different: The first was small, agile, and composed and equipped with a single focused purpose. The other was large (65 men, though only 5 were meant to try for the Pole), burdened by competing goals (not expecting to be in a race, Scott had set achieving the South Pole as only one of several objectives), and equipped lavishly but with questionable focus; though his plan called for men to haul their own supplies for most of the trek to the Pole, he still had not only dogs, but ponies and even three mechanical sleds, an unproven technology (one would fall through the ice upon being unloaded, the other two would suffer mechanical failure and be abandoned). Amundsen's team were all experienced skiers who had not only trained rigorously for the journey to the South Pole, but who also counted amongst their number Olav Bjaaland, a champion skier specifically taken on to set their pace in the Antarctic. In contrast, Scott's men had not even been required to train beforehand, and by and large didn't begin learning how to ski until they were actually attempting to do so in the Antarctic. Finally, there was the choice of location: For the sake of his scientific goals, Scott's expedition made base camp at McMurdo Sound, whereas Amundsen's own team wintered in the Bay of Whales, specifically because it allowed them to sail a full 60 miles closer to the Pole, while also providing a plentiful source of fresh meat.
Another key element for Amundsen's team would be his focus on dogs. Amundsen had correctly assessed that dogs would be capable of traversing any terrain required of them, and his planning was so purposeful as to even include using the weakest of the pack as food both for the surviving dogs and for his men, saving precious weight in supplies that would otherwise need to be hauled along. (Not to mention that the dogs, unlike ponies or machines, could be sustained by meat and fat from the local penguins and seals.) The fate which would ultimately befall Scott and the four other men from his team who marched to the Pole would be all the more tragic, given the explicit advice he had received from none other than Fridtjof Nansen, the famous explorer who had initially conceived and first commanded the Fram herself. His advice had been simple: “...dogs, dogs, and more dogs”.
The Antarctic winter had been a time of preparation, the laying out of supply caches along planned routes, and the practiced discipline necessary to keep men so isolated from the world functioning as a team, yet it had also been a time of inventiveness and improvised entertainments. The team from the Fram had barely set foot on solid ground (or at least, ice) before they set about doing what great explorers often do best, what truly tends to separate them from the, shall we say, not-so-great ones: they innovated and adapted like mad. Bjaaland, the team's carpenter as well as lead skier, redesigned the sledges and sledge cases on the spot, drastically reducing their weights, while Oscar Wisting designed and assembled new tents from windcloth, each weighing nine pounds less than those originally purchased for the expedition. The team had even built a one-man sauna consisting of a shell which left only the occupant's head exposed, and which was heated by paraffin lamps. Once a man had enjoyed his turn inside, the shell was lifted off over him by ropes and pulleys, and he would be left to sprint naked through the Antarctic cold to reach the nearest tent - this became a regular Saturday night ceremony.
Trials, tribulations, comical larks, internal squabbles, endless waiting followed by endless traversing of the barren Antarctic landscape, and most of all preparation, preparation, preparation; Amundsen's key guiding principle to a successful life of exploration... all leading to this - this Devil's Ballroom, a terrain utterly unpredictable in its deadliness. But it was precisely because of Amundsen's focus on preparation and purpose that he and his men were now still fit, determined (despite the effects of a drastically increased altitude), and sound enough to meticulously pick their way across the Ballroom, probing the treacherous ice.
Amundsen's team conquered the Devil's Ballroom, or at least navigated it in one piece, that is, and at 3:00 PM, on Friday, December 14, 1911, Amundsen called out for them to a halt. They had reached the South Pole. In a sign of solidarity, each put their hands to the Norwegian flag as together they planted it at one of the farthest ends of the earth - the geographical Southern Pole. Thereafter, following several days of observation, they were able to return safely and without casualty. On the 17th of January, Scott's own five-man team would also reach the Pole, anguish at seeing they had been beaten, and ultimately be lost to a man in their attempt to return. While Amundsen and his men had diligently built a trail of cairn's and caches spaced regularly, each containing a note with its location and the direction to the next marker, Scott's own were placed irregularly and with little consideration for navigation during obscuring weather. Like their markers, Scott and his five-man improvised polar team disappeared into the endless Arctic white. Eight months later, the bodies of three of those men, including Scott, would be found frozen inside a tent only 11 miles short of one of their team's supply caches.
"Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.” Amundsen wrote in The South Pole. Yet despite all their differences, and though he and his men conquered where Scott and his own perished, Amundsen too would one day vanish as well, far to the north.
On the 25th of May, 1928, the purpose-built Polar exploration airship Italia smashed into the Arctic ice, shattering her control cabin, and then, relieved of its weight, drifted upwards once more. Several members of her crew were left stranded upon the ice, while the rest slowly rose towards the firmament in an aircraft now beyond any means of control. In a final and desperate act of heroism, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino, still aboard the rising airship, tossed everything he could lay his hands on to the men upon the ice below. When word of the Italia's sudden radio silence and disappearance reached Amundsen, he immediately volunteered to lead a rescue operation. Alas, when the Norwegian government approached that of Italy, then under the control of Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party, they were rebuffed. As the Italian government dithered and interfered, Amundsen and others raced to the rescue regardless. On June 18th, Amundsen, along with pilots Leif Dietrichson and Rene Guilbaud, and three other men, were on board a Latham 47 "flying boat" en route to the rescue operations when it went down in the Barents Sea. Though most of those whom the Italia left stranded upon the ice would survive long enough to eventually drift to land (in large part thanks to Ettore Arduino's quick thinking), Amundsen, his fellows, and their Latham, like Arduino, the Italia, and the rest of the airship's crew, would never be seen again.
In Wes Anderson's film The Royal Tenenbaums, the title character, estranged patriarch Royal Tenenbaum is visiting his mother's grave with his two sons when he spots an epitaph reading: "Veteran of two wars; Father of nine children; Drowned in the Caspian Sea". Royal, as played by Gene Hackman, remarks, "Hell of a damn grave. Wish it were mine." One might only wonder what Hackman's character might have said to, "Sailor and Adventurer; First man to conquer South Pole; First to cross over the Arctic and North Pole by air; First to navigate the Northwest Passage; Vanished racing to rescue stranded survivors of airship Italia disaster upon the Arctic ice."
"I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped — the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it," famed Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen is often quoted from his memoirs. He also summed it up rather more directly, if quite ironically, as, "Adventure is just bad planning." One of Norway's most widely-celebrated sons, Amundsen was born in the parish of Borge in July of the year 1872, to a family of shipowners and captains... yet life at sea was not to be for him. Or, at least, that was his mother's intention, as she pressed her youngest boy to pursue an education in medicine rather than seamanship and navigation. Roald did what any good son would, and followed his mother's wishes right up until the day she died... and then, at the age of 21, promptly abandoned his medical studies to pursue a life of exploring the farthest and most uninhabitable reaches of the earth.
By 1910 Amundsen had served as first mate to Adrien de Gerlache on the Belgica as part of the first expedition to winter in Antarctica, and furthermore gone on to lead the first ship, following centuries of repeated attempts, to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage - a small, aging, shallow-draft seal-hunting sloop, the Gjoa, which Amundsen had outfitted with a small 13hp paraffin engine. Crewed by a mere seven men, himself included, the little vessel set sail from Oslofjord on June 16, 1903 and arrived to a hero's welcome at earthquake-ravaged San Francisco on October 19, 1906 - succeeding where larger ships, and larger crews had failed. Amundsen had in fact planned for this, calculating that only so small a group could survive off the land at such northern climes. 1910 was to be the year Amundsen would lead an expedition intended to be the first to reach the North Pole. There was only one problem. Namely, that as Amundsen had engaged in long preparation, word arrived that first Frederick Cook, then Robert Peary had both made their own claims to having achieved the North Pole.
Amundsen, in response, did what any proper explorer would, and turned his attention to the South Pole instead. Of course, Amundsen's decision is rather more notable in that he decided not to let the world know what he was really up to - including his expedition's backers. He was going to conquer the South Pole, and he wasn't going to let out a peep about it until it suited him. In a bit of almost boyish mischief, he sold the idea of shifting the planned expedition south to his financial backers on the high-minded merit of scientific inquiry unblemished by any record-seeking heroics... while he was in truth pursuing a more glorious game: that of seeking out the very heart of the Antarctic's desolation. Only his brother Leon, who had assisted him greatly and his ship's captain were let in on the truth.
On August 9, 1910, with two years’ worth of provisions, tents, sledges, a portable hut, and 97 sled dogs, the Fram (a purpose-built, exceptional polar exploration vessel, with eighteen years’ of fame already to her name) sailed out of Christiania with Amundsen at command. On September 9, only a few hours before they were to leave Madeira and continue directly to Antarctica, Amundsen's crew was interrupted as they took advantage of this final bit of leisure-time, many writing their last letters home. They were gathered before the mainmast, where Amundsen stood beside a map of the Antarctic. Only then did he reveal his plans to the crew at large, asking each man personally if he would join in the historic expedition to achieve the South Pole. The last man to leave the Fram before she set out was to be Leon, who carried with him the men's letters, and a message his younger brother had asked him to send by telegraph - but not until early October, when the ship and her crew would be beyond the point of recall by any authority.
It was this same message which the English Royal Naval officer and explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott would find waiting for him when his own much-publicized, under-way (and ultimately ill-fated) Terra Nova Antarctic expedition reached Melbourne on October 12, 1910. It read, quite simply: "Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen.”
Blue and yellow lights penetrate drifting whorls of pipe smoke suspended in silence. I can feel the audience’s anticipation. A tall man takes the microphone and announces, "Memphis - the moment you have waited for - Clarence Gatemouth Brown." The band kicks off a swing tune and Gatemouth saunters onto the stage, smoking a pipe and wearing western garb. He's in his seventies, with his custom Gibson Firebird guitar hanging over his shoulder. He begins to play swing lines as a horn player would, but on his guitar. As the set continues, Gatemouth moves from Texas swing, to a bluegrass fiddle tune on the viola. I really enjoy an eclectic set list and Brown always delivers. A voice like gravel mixed with molasses comes from the lean old music veteran. It's more powerful live than any recording can capture.
Throughout his career, Clarence Brown cleared hurdles and broke the rules of the music business as a matter of course. Brown loved the blues and played them well. However, he did not like the classification of "blues musician", or even "bluesman". He preferred no label at all, stating that he plays, “American and world music, Texas style.” He was born in Louisiana and his family moved to Texas when he was young. Although T-Bone Walker influenced Gatemouth, his music was not limited to blues. It was eclectic mix of Cajun, blues, country, rhythm & blues, and jazz genres. He approached classical style as well as roots and contemporary music. Perhaps he would be better known if he had chosen a less diverse repertoire. However, his influence on music is evident, and his criticism on musicians is harsh. He spoke his mind. For instance, when critiquing blues musicians Gatemouth said, "They were just coppin’ off of [T-bone Walker]. Now, when I first started I played a couple of T-Bone’s licks…I got away from that and I developed my own style…I can play stuff now that there’s no way in the world that B.B. King or any of those other guys can play…they’re all friends of mine, and they’ll admit they can’t play it.” He commented on the music scene of New Orleans in the1970's stating, "Everybody’s trying to sound like each other and they’re doing a damn good job of it. But I don’t want to be associated with it.”
The Gatemouth brown Philosophy:
Gatemouth played numerous instruments, including the guitar, viola, mandolin, drums, and harmonica. He began playing drums in his teens, and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin by age ten. The swing music he played in his youth influenced the way he approached other instruments. This is around the time he received the moniker "Gatemouth". I have heard a few accounts that differ on who gave him the nickname. However, the reason for his nickname is the same in all accounts. Here is the story in Gatemouth's own words: When asked who gave him the nickname he said, "The kids, actually… we used to have to go in Chapel and sing these spiritual songs before we would go to class. The PA system went out and when it did, I kept singing over the chorus. I was the lead singer. And when we finished the teacher said, "Brown, you don't need no microphone, you've got a voice like a gate." And the kids started saying "Gatemouth" and, man, I got mad a while, but the hotter I got the more they would call me that. So I got stuck with it and just worked with it to my advantage."
In addition to his nickname and signature western clothing, Gatemouth was known to be a pipe smoker. Several of his album covers have pictures of him smoking a pipe. When I lived in Dallas, I had many talks with Sam Myers (blues singer and harmonica player). In one conversation, we discussed Brown's versatile style and the fact that he enjoyed to smoke a pipe. Sam recalled a story from the 1940’s wherein Gatemouth stole a T-bone Walker show. Walter was feeling ill and dropped his guitar by accident. Gatemouth took the opportunity to grab the guitar and play. Sam said, “The crowd loved it. They started throwing money at Gatemouth. T-bone was not happy about it at all!” Gatemouth would, as a rule, sit at shows smoking his pipe with his custom blended pipe tobacco. Sam also told me that if he could not smoke - he would not do the performance. Adam recalled one particular interview he had seen with Gatemouth. When asked about smoke-free venues, Gatemouth told them sternly if he could not enjoy his pipe, he would play elsewhere - no smoke, no show.
Throughout his career, Gatemouth continued to redefine himself. For instance, while in Nashville in the early 1960's he made several appearances on the TV program Hee Haw, and recorded a series of country singles. He also hosted an R&B television show in Nashville called The Beat. In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded "Makin' Music," an album of blues and country songs that includes a cover of the Duke Ellington classic "Take the A-Train." In the late 1960's Mr. Brown was a Sheriff in New Mexico. Talk about breaking barriers!
His discography is too large to list in this forum, but here are a few of my favorite Gatemouth albums:
Alright Again, 1982. Grammy Award/ Best Traditional Blues Album
Pressure Cooker, 1986. Grammy nomination for Best Blues Recording (my favorite blues label- Alligator Records)
Gate Swings, 1997, Produced by Jim Bateman and John Snyder.
He played fiddle and guitar on Professor Longhair’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo album. (1974)
In addition to countless recordings, other credits include eight W.C. Handy Awards, and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999. Gatemouth influenced numerous guitar players such as Albert Collins, J.J Cale, Guitar Slim, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Copeland, and countless others. Frank Zappa named him his all-time favorite guitarist and it has been suggested that "Okie Dokie Stomp" should be the new Texas National Anthem.
Here is a video of Gatemouth Brown and Roy Clark on the TV show Austin City Limits. They are doing a cover of a Louis Jordan - Fleecie Moore song called "Caldonia":
Have a listen, and a bowl in honor of Clarence Gatemouth Brown… and pack a custom blend.
Jacques Brel's lyrics teamed with life and the lust for women, wine, and laughter, yet simultaneously they were ominously spiced with a violent awareness of death, estrangement, corruption, obscurity, and oblivion. The very same obscurity and oblivion he himself might have lived in, had he not dared to take to the stage. Despite the richly evocative and utterly singular talent which would eventually make him famous, this French-speaking Flemish prodigy very nearly wound up in obscurity himself; he could have lived out his life running a cardboard factory, following in his father's footsteps. Though he first began to show his talents through forming a small theatre troupe at the age of 16, his notably poor academic performance (failing most of his exams) led his father to insist that he should, at the age of 18, cease his education and instead learn the family business.
Despite his small, and less than promising beginnings, Jacques chose to gamble on the riskier path of a performing artist. Yet, he at the same time had few qualms about taking on responsibility; rather than wait to be drafted, he enlisted in the military in 1948, by 1950 he was married to Thérèse Michielsen, and by 1951 he was a father. Though as he climbed to success he and his wife would come to live separate and distanced lives, and though there were other women, they were never divorced, and in death Jacques would claim "Miche", as his wife was known, to be his sole heir. Though no saint, he had his principles, and Brel stuck to them throughout.
Accounts differ regarding Brel's early career. Some state that an early Catholic-humanist troubadour style held him back. Others, that from the beginning his friends and family, shocked at the unflinching passion and earnestness his lyrics would later be known for, disapproved of his efforts. The one common thread seems to be that meeting Georges "Jojo" Pasquier (who came to be his manager, chauffeur, and closest friend) in 1955 was an important turning point. While his early years were an absolute struggle, in 1954 placing 27th in the Grand Prix de la Chanson competition, out of a field of 28 performers total, Brel persisted, gradually building on those successes that did come his way, refining his work, and collaborating with two talented pianists, François Rauber (who gave Brel the formal training he had until then lacked) and Gérard Jouannest (whose influence and contributions would be seen in many of Brel's most famous songs). By 1957, Jacques Brel had his first hit single, Quand on a Que l'Amour, which would win him the prestigious Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros. Where in 1954 his performance at Paris's famed Olympia music hall had been met with indifference, a return performance in 1958 left the audience stunned. His fame soon spread, and in time his records sold millions in France alone, in at least one case even without any marketing campaign.
Through his deeply developed perception of the human condition, the unmitigated honesty of his songwriting, and his amazing skill, both physically and lyrically, of expression, Brel rose to become one of the biggest names not only in France, but of Europe, his fame eventually spreading to America, where in the 1960s the feature-length musical film Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris would be produced. Its arrangement and cinematography would influence the concept of the music video to this day.
Jacques Brel was, in short, a rare breed of un-romanticizing romantic; a man whose lyrics practically bled a deep love for and perception of life, while simultaneously honoring that love by refusing to cheapen it with saccharine pretense or wishful white-washing; refusing, that is, to portray the object of his love as anything but what it was in truth. It was beautiful, it was rapturous, it was terrifying, it was heartbreaking - and it could only truly be any of those things, because it in truth was all of those things.
Only a man with such an unflinching perspective, and the will to pour it out upon stage, with thousands watching, could sing of port-side prostitutes selling their virtues for a coin, not with derision, or condemnation, but with anger and heartbreak at witnessing the tragedy of the Faustian bargains such women strike, night after night - and likewise those of the sailors who have given their lives to drunkenness and dissipation, and as such find themselves with no women but those they must pay for. And this is just what Brel did in the final part of one of his most famous pieces, Amsterdam, though it was strangely enough a song he only performed on stage, never recording it in studio:
There's a sailor who drinks
And he drinks and he drinks
And he drinks once again
He drinks to the health
Of the whores of Amsterdam
Who have promised their love
To a thousand other men
They've bargained their bodies
And their virtue long gone
For a few dirty coins
And when he can't go on
He plants his nose in the sky
And he wipes it up above
And he pisses like I cry
For an unfaithful love
In the port of Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Though perhaps best known by francophones for his intensely concentrated lyricism, which could express great complexity in but a few perfectly chosen words (unmatched in English translations), those of us farther removed from our eighth grade French lessons (sorry, Madame Nicholson) often better know him for his performances on stage - performances at once seemingly on the very verge of a Dionysian abandon, yet perfect in the expressiveness of their execution:
It is claimed that the morning Brel finished the lyrics to Amsterdam, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, he read them to a friend and restaurateur by the name of Fernand - and that Fernand was so overcome with emotion that he broke out in tears and took to chopping up sea urchins in an effort to regain his shattered self-composure.
Though his songs have been covered in English by everyone from British pop icon David Bowie, to the American neo-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, none have matched the fire with which Jacques Brel himself burned so brightly. Yet for all the standing ovations he received, Brel never performed a single encore. When the performance ended, it was ended - perhaps a discrete statement on the nature of finality, from a man whose music was in no small part driven by an awareness that everything in human life, be it love or misery, had its own final curtain-call.
Many are the men who proudly hang their diplomas upon the walls of their offices, or line their dens with trophies of sport or the hunt. Jean Bart likely did not have many formal awards in recognition of athletic prowess lining his den, and it seems equally unlikely that he had much in the way of framed certifications, either – but that is to be expected when you spend the majority of your life at sea, engaging in running battles. So he’s had to settle with having some twenty-seven plus ships of the French Navy named in his honor over the past two centuries, and having fathered some fourteen children (that we know of – he was a sailor, after all).
Tall, swaggering, Jean Bart was unapologetically a man of action, rather than class. Literally; being of common birth (the son of a fisherman), he was initially socially excluded from receiving a command in the French Navy, even though he had experience serving in the Dutch Navy under the notable Admiral De Ruyter from the age of 12, learning seamanship and tactics fighting the English. (The English assault upon and capture of Dunkirk being what first inspired Jean to take up arms.) Fortunately, the 17th century's military culture provided an unenfranchised man of action, itching for a fight, the perfect outlet: To become a corsair. (Likewise, one did not have to be a gentleman by birth to enjoy the long-stemmed clay pipes that were popular in his day, and from simple contemporary drawings intended for mass-printing, to the intricate 19th century portrait by Jean-Léon Gérôme, seen above, Jean Bart has typically been portrayed with a pipe at hand.) This was even better than becoming a pirate, as you could be assured there was, at any given time, at least one government that wasn't trying to kill you. When France and the United Provinces went to war upon each other in 1672, Jean Bart signed on with Louis XIV's Marine Guard, by then based out of his old hometown, a much refurbished and refitted Dunkirk. The city of Jean's boyhood was now not only much-improved as a port; it was also the drop-off point for the captures and war-booty of the Fleet du Nord.
And so it was that Jean Bart made his name and rose through the ranks, all the way to admiral, the old fashioned way: By seeking out the enemy, destroying his will to continue battle, and making off into the sunset with everything he possessed - his ships in particular. Three-hundred and eighty-six of them, to be precise, with many more simply sent to the deep. To put that into perspective, if the French were to continue naming military vessels after Jean Bart until there has been one Jean Bart for each of his captures, naming them at the same rate as they have over the past two-hundred years they would finish up sometime around the year 4669 A.D.
A Herculean task, no doubt, and you might well expect even so famed a man of action and celebrated national icon might be forgotten by then. Or perhaps not. Jean Bart's legacy has, it must be said, thus far shown a rather peculiar resiliency. When the unbridled - and unprecedented - industrialized war machines of WWII ran roughshod over Europe, they in the course of affairs managed to completely flatten more than two-thirds of old Dunkirk. Nonetheless, when the smoke cleared and the flames had all danced their last, and the sound and fury was quit, Jean Bart's memorial remained standing tall, and defiant, with sword raised in hand.
Even as a boy I had a very clear image in my mind as to what constituted the ideal lunatic. The physiological: A pale complexion, long, slender limbs, and a prominent proboscis. The behavioral: A seemingly alert and active body language, contrasted sharply by the subject's complete obliviousness to his own behavior, a manner of speaking which might remain calm and collected even amongst the most complete and thorough insanity, yet which might very well in turn leap up onto a desk and begin squawking like a bird when surrounded by normalcy. The beady-eyed stare and stiff upper lip which could, at any moment, turn into maniacal laughter.
The model for this image, the eidolon of the complete loon, was formed so early in my life thanks to the re-runs of Monty Python's Flying Circus which would air shortly after I returned home from school. The man who inspired them was, of course, none other than Graham Chapman; a man considered even by his fellow Pythons to be explicitly, wondrously insane. He was also a man who in his private life, seemed to almost perpetually have a pipe clenched between his teeth, trailing smoke and chaos in equal measure.
As co-Python Eric Idle noted,"There was the quiet pipe-smoking tweed jacketed doctor, who could elucidate complicated medical facts to the layman while calmly diagnosing and dispensing medicines; there was the quiet pipe-smoking writer, who could sit all day painting his nails with gestetner fluid occasionally interjecting the oddest comments... and there was the quiet pipe-smoking alcoholic, who could reduce any drinks party to a shambles by consuming half a distillery and then crawling round the floor kissing all the men and groping all the women."
Chapman was, like so many of life's most memorable characters, an unabashed jumble of contradictions which somehow seemed to fit together perfectly. He was a human jigsaw puzzle, yet one which rather than being presented in a neat little box, tended more often to appear in the form of a landslide. He was almost painfully shy, and often drank heavily in order to perform, yet was considered by his fellows to be by far the most broadly talented actor of their troupe, playing the leads in both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. He was openly homosexual at a time when this was still considered scandalous, yet conspicuously defied stereotyping; he was a mountaineer, he played rugby, he castigated David Bowie for the androgynous and sexually ambiguous persona he used as a stage prop. Even when it came to pipes he favored staid, traditional, classic English straight-stemmed numbers. His ability to play the stern, stiff-upper-lipped Englishman to perfection (allegedly modeled after his own father, a policeman) saw him frequently acting as figures of (misguided) authority. Most famously "The Colonel", a.k.a. Muriel Volestrangler, who would interrupt skits that had gotten "too silly":
And yet despite his reputation as Monty Python's foremost madman, he was underneath it all a person of science and intellect; though often known to spend cocktail parties discretely crawling around on the floor, very literally biting at the ankles of unsuspecting ladies, Graham was also a licensed medical doctor who, to the surprise of even his long-time co-stars, packed a suitcase full of medical supplies and volunteered his services as the cast and crew's physician during the filming of The Life of Brian. (Which took place where else, but in a scorpion-infested desert in Tunisia.) He was, in his own unorthodox manner, a Renaissance man, albeit one who was, during traveling performances, fully expected to nonchalantly return to the hotel at the most ungodly hours, sporting a black eye (or two).
Graham and John Cleese constituted much of the genius behind Monty Python's writing, in a partnership which the latter described as himself doing 90% of the work, while the former would, after long periods of silence, inject out of nowhere a suggestion which completely transformed a scene, elevating it from the merely comedic to the sublimely preposterous. Were I to ask you, by example, if you recalled the famous "Broken Toaster" sketch, you would no doubt say to me, "What?" Rightfully so of course, for many years ago, as Cleese sat working away, Graham turned to him and said: Make it a dead parrot, a Norwegian Blue. Suffice to say that for all his long silences, Graham was a man who had an unusual way with words:
'He taught us not to respect doctors - they are after all only ex-medical students - and to be honest with our emotions. "Well, it's better than bottling it up!" would be Graham's credo. "After all, who of us in our lives hasn't set fire to some great public building or other..."', Eric Idle noted in Graham's own Autobiography of a Liar. He also wrote, "Graham Chapman was a loony. You can tell that from this book."
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