Sunday 16 October 2022

Out of the Darkness (Part Four)


In these new dark times we chase our pleasures here and dig for treasures there, but sometimes they find us. That’s what happened with Rachel Elliott’s Flamingo which is very much my favourite book of recent times. It is a quiet, revelatory novel, which is like a warm hug. Reading it will leave you with a glorious inner glow, though the tears will surely flow.

Flamingo is pretty fantastic, a rather special book which found me at just the right time. She is now one of my favourite writers, but I didn’t know of Rachel’s work before.  I have since found out that all three of her novels are great, and the first, Whispers Through a Megaphone, mentions in passing Violent Femmes’ ‘Good Feeling’. I don’t want to read too much into it, but that reference made me very happy, as I love that song so much, and indeed that whole Violent Femmes LP from 1983.  Mind you, it did make me feel rather guilty as I’d not listened to that record much since the mid-1980s, by which time I’d played it to death. But I have a lingering fondness for it. It was, after all, probably the first LP I ever wrote about.

The Violent Femmes’ debut seemed to come out of nowhere, didn’t seem to be part of anything, and was like a blast of fresh air on a stultifying muggy day. Over here it was released on Rough Trade, who were at their peak in 1983, and the LP seemed like nothing else at the time. Brattish as hell, sure, but great fun. There were lots of little things to love, like the “third verse same as the first” Herman’s Hermits via the Ramones reference. And I can remember making a lot out of perceived connections to Jonathan Richman, the Velvets, Voidoids and rickety-rackety rockabilly, those yellow Sun records from Nashville, which was very much going against the grain.

The 1980s eh? From Gordon Gano to Gordon Gekko in the space of a few years.  I genuinely don’t know anything much about Violent Femmes or what they did next. I don’t recall hearing any other records by them. I have no idea what happened to them, and refuse to look it up. I do recall a story about Chrissie Hynde finding them busking outside a Milwaukee drugstore. I might have made that up though. I seem to remember them doing a busking tour of London which I missed. Beyond that, I don’t know. I really don’t. Probably it’s better not knowing. I like it that way. I now aspire to know less about other bands and labels I loved back then.

To be honest, I don’t know much about Rachel Elliott either. I know her Flamingo came out this year. I am aware it made the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I know I found it on display in the ‘new releases’ section of our local library. The flamingos on the cover seemed to be waving at me, trying to attract my attention. Who am I to resist a pretty flamingo? When I read the book (Read? Devoured more like!) I realised that chancing upon it in a library on a bad day was incredibly appropriate and, actually, it couldn’t be more fitting.

It's a lovely book, truly “medicine for the soul”, which starts in a library with a man called Daniel who is broken. That’s Rachel’s word, not just mine. Oddly this book found me just when I was constantly playing Michael Head’s ‘Broken Beauty’. Rachel is fantastic at writing about broken people, how they came to be broken, how they can be mended, how to help us understand why they came undone. She is great at writing about the wounded, the lost, those awkward misfits, and all the mistakes, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misapprehensions, and the inevitable consequences.

Flamingo is very me, with its charity shops and libraries, and think what you like but I am reclaiming the word ‘lovely’ for it. There are some lovely people in Rachel’s books, and some unusually lovely men. My favourite is Leslie in Flamingo who is quiet, gentle, kind, considerate, placatory, diffident, but a survivor and a man of mystery, if only to himself and his family. I also like Lesley’s daughter Rae with her Leonard Cohen songs and her wet wipes and Tunnock’s teacakes. I like her internal monologues, and I like it where the story replies to her and says: “Yes to your slow boats, your middle of nowhere, your refusal to keep up with the times.”

At one point Rachel writes that Daniel is a boy in water being thrown a rope. I might add that not everyone is as lucky.  In the book Daniel leaves the library and returns to Norfolk, to his sanctuary, his safe place, to some good people from the fearless years. I am trying not to give the story away. Rachel is a great storyteller. To steal her words, this story is “easy and fun and poignant and sad.” It’s inventive too. As Rachel says: “All sentences are a kind of music. They can be sung and heard in boundless ways.” So, at times, we head into the abstract, where we can be playful, with words, syntax, structure.

One of my favourite parts is where Leslie puts on an Ella LP “which he always does when he is in a good mood.” And, it’s “as though Ella Fitzgerald has nothing to do with old times, as if she’s modern and alive and relevant as ever, which in so many ways she is.” I like that. I’m pleased it’s there as not everyone has been kind about Ella of late. I also like this passage, about Daniel as a boy: “Someone in the distance is playing a trumpet. To Daniel it sounds old-fashioned, like a moment of great importance, a time to stand up straight, something to do with honour and nostalgia, surely to do with respect. All this from a solitary trumpet.”

I guess, inevitably, that makes me think of Miles. Sketches of Spain or something. And while we’re on the corner of Miles and Gil, I have to mention ‘Where Flamingos Fly’. The ones in Rachel’s book are ornamental, symbolic, so probably won’t fly anywhere, but there is a tenuous link to Gil’s flamboyance of flamingos (I learnt that collective noun from Rachel). Gil seems to have had a thing about that composition, ‘Where Flamingos Fly’, and would keep returning to it.

Back in 1961 Gil leads his orchestra through the fantastic version of ‘Where Flamingos Fly’ that’s at the heart of his early Impulse! classic Out of the Cool, and he returned to it again a decade later when it became the title track of a set that wasn’t mixed and released until 1981, when it was completed in Blank Tapes Recording Studio, which would have been at the peak of the ZE ‘mutant disco’ activity with Bob Blank in there. Talk about joining the dots.

It is only recently I have got a CD of Gil’s Where Flamingos Fly set, and I have become totally wrapped up in it. Everything about it is great. There are some wonderfully enlightening liner notes taken from an interview with Gil. I love where he talks about the adaptation of Moacir Santos’ ‘Naña’ and says he first heard it on “an album by a Brazilian girl named Nara” and liked the tune. I know what he means. It’s one of the great Brazilian wordless vocal classics. I am guessing it is Nara Leão’s 1964 Elenco LP Nara he is referring to. I have it on a CD. Oh for the days in the early 2000s when you could get Elenco CDs like this for next-to-nothing from Brazil and not have to take out a bank loan to cover the postage costs. Anyway, I love the idea of Gil listening to this record. To steal one of Rachel Elliott’s lines: it’s nothing big or remarkable. But it touches my weary heart, deeply.

And the version of ‘Where Flamingos Fly’ on here is gorgeous. It is such a beautiful song. Gil first recorded it, elegantly, back in 1956 with Helen Merrill for their impeccable Dream of You set. They would return to it in 1987 for their Collaboration. It’s taken me a long time to realise, but I think this later version is even more exquisite, being slower, sadder, deeper, wiser. I think you need to be older to understand. And it is a strange song, really. It’s very much a torch song, but there is a twist. A lover is leaving, but not in the usual way. This one is being deported, as an illegal immigrant, and sent back to the islands where flamingos fly.

I am thinking he’s bound for Haiti, being sent back to where he desperately wanted to escape from. I don’t know why. The song, ‘Where Flamingos Fly’, was composed by the jazz musician John Benson Brooks with (I think his wife) Elthea Peale and with Harold Courlander. Courlander was quite a guy. A writer, anthropologist, folklorist, and many more things, who had a particular passion for Haiti and made many field recordings there. In the early 1950s Folkways released a series of LPs featuring these, including Haitian Piano with Fabre Duroseau and, as Gil acknowledged, it is on there that the roots of ‘Where Flamingos Fly’ lie. That’s probably why I think of Haiti when I hear the song.

I was just thinking it was through Weekend and their Live at Ronnie Scott’s set that I first became aware of ‘Where Flamingos Fly’. It’s a song that’s perfect for Alison Statton to sing, and there are some beautiful guitar figures, sort of like icy raindrops on your neck, from Simon Booth, and special guest Keith Tippett excels on piano, finding all sorts of wonderful tributaries to go off and explore. Another Rough Trade recording from 1983, no less, though I confess I was blithely unaware of it at the time. I was probably too busy dancing to my Violent Femmes LP.  And, as the great Barbara Lewis sang, I still remember the feeling. It was a good one.   

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