By The Landlord
"Poetry is what we do to break bread with the dead." – Seamus Heaney
"Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords." – Robert Louis Stevenson
A bread roll lives in a tube train air vent,
It's been there for quite a while,
It's green and blue and hairy too,
By now it's beginning to smile.
I stuffed that bread between a gap,
I do confess – there were no bins.
All puffed-up like a peacock's breast,
It grows and speaks, and laughs and grins … (PK, 1993)
Welcome to the Bar, everyone. Let's break bread. Let us all eat cake. Please take the biscuit. Baked spongy, doughy or crispy, sour or sweet, the food stuff created from wheat flour, rye yeast or similar variants and water have been the staple of generations for more than 12,000 years, from the dawn of the Holocene, the Neolithic or Agricultural Age, from the Sumerian sickle to Iranian shirmal, old English hlaf to German brot, eggy bread, tomato bread, sweetbreads, fruitloaf, mutli-grain and seeds, from Indian tandoor to British Empire tiffin and teacake. With ever rising practical, political, religious and cultural associations, from crackers to crumpets, unleavened to lefse, pizza to pretzel, pain to pancake, tortilla to yufta, Garibaldi and Bourbons to bagels to bolo do caco to Bea's of Bloomsbury's big cream buns. Has that got you hungry to hear more? I hope so.
So this week we're voraciously on the hunt, in cupboards, cafes, bakeries and in the Song Bar shelves and larder for songs about this type of foodstuff, whether it is daily fayre or for special occasions. Primarily our focus is on lyrics that mention such food in titles or lyrics, but on a secondary level, when used in metaphor, but more of that later. There are many songs out there on this, perhaps because musicians are big-time snackers, grabbing a bite between gigs, on the road, or during the recording process. They don't have time to bake elaborate cakes. I recently went to see The Magnetic Fields perform the biographical 50 Song Memoir album, during which Stephin Merritt mentioned a nine-month period of his early songwriting life in New York, living on the breadline, literally, when all he ate were dry bagels.
Much is made of cake baking and breadmaking in popular culture, with the sugar-luring ingredients of innuendo, buns and soggy bottoms on British TV's The Great British Bake-Off, but while such reality fodder filmed in a big white tent in the summer is sometimes fun and addictive, making a cake is not nearly as hard as making a record, even though you also have multiple ingredients, and styles, various personnel and timing is essential. "Making a cake is easy," says destroy-your-hopes-and-dreams-with-a-spoon expert Paul Hollywood, and perhaps that's why it's so popular. And in an interesting perspective switcharound, Delia Smth says: "A cake is a very good test of an oven."
Mind you, I reckon I can write a song more easily than make a good cake, but that's because I'm more interested in chord progressions and lyrics than whisking and staring at an oven. Peter Hook is now in the house and describes this not necessarily harmonious process: "The thing with Joy Division's music is that each member was playing like a separate line. We hardly ever played together; we all played separately. But when you put it together, it was like the ingredients in a cake."
I have a breadmaker at home, which comes out at Christmas, and my wholemeal loaf generally turns out flopping on one side, resembling the famously lopsided side-parting of John F Kennedy.
But as another famous man apparently said, 2000 years ago, we cannot live by bread alone. So there's also cake, pastry and biscuits, and we've all got our personal tastes and experiences of them. The famously eccentric film director David Lynch, has among his hobbies, collecting mouldy sandwiches. Perhaps he'd like the poem up above.. I have a weakness for a pastry with coffee, particularly an almond croissant. In fact I've got one in front of me while I write this. I cannot write by bread alone. Or in the Song Bar's case, no bread at all.
But aside from Marie Antoinette's famous remark, cake and bread have widespread associations with society. Growing up in Manchester, there was a piece of graffiti I first saw aged five on the way to school. To be precise, was on the corner of Edge Land and King's Road in Stretford, and read: "Bread Not Circuses". I thought it was a curious phrase, didn't understand it at first, and just wanted to know where the circus was.
But I gradually imagined it was daubed there by a possibly miserable, but politically astute person protesting a local entertainment event, and that the council had funded this to distract from shortfalls in services instead of offering basic provision for less fortunate people. On reflection they probably had a point, and it resonated with me. The gradually fading message endured there, unnoticed by council cleanup services for another 35 years (perhaps they were distracted by other circuses). It timelessly of course pertains to Ancient Roman times of the classic superficial means of appeasement to the masses, distracting repression by such entertainment as throwing Christians to lions or extremely violent bun fights between gladiators.
"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." said Mahatma Gandhi. As I mentioned recently the recent topic of unexplained phenomena, Jesus has literally seemed to appear on toast (and also inside oranges) and since then sliced bread has become a holy commodity, like supermarket sliced spread, with specially designed toasters able to reproduce it, just like this:
In the 1970s like many of us, I grew up on famous TV ads, such as the much-parodied Ridley Scott Hovis commercial, that was as much selling through the feeling of nostalgia and tradition in the form of a small boy pushing an old bike up a cobbled hill. This brand always bragged about being filled with wheatgerm and that "it's as good for you today as it's always been". Listen to that clever phrase carefully. It doesn't actually mean it's good for you though, does it?
And then there's the bizarre Nimble or Slmcea, which wasn't bread at all, just a piece of floaty nothingness feeding nothing but body issues and eating disorders. In the end it was just another sugary circus:
On that processed note, Alison Moyet is always honest, entertaining company, and explains bread in her musical and personal development: "One of the reasons I got really fat when I left home was because I thought rich people ate white bread and Spam. I also thought they could get processed meals, because we never did, so that was exciting."
"It is not accidental that all phenomena of human life are dominated by the search for daily bread - the oldest link connecting all living things, man included, with the surrounding nature," said Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist. Perhaps this remark might feed you some song ideas about poverty too.
Mick Jagger meanwhile has dropped in for a slice of the cake, and explains his early career days: "I came into music just because I wanted the bread. It's true. I looked around and this seemed like the only way I was going to get the kind of bread I wanted."
Bread then is a term that is used metaphorically, and Mick's case, that's not just money. "Fame is like icing on the cake," says Benjamin Clementine. Sweet.
Fiona Apple's now here too with this frank admission: "Men are my bread and butter. It's what I live for! I have no shame about that." Sticky.
So we've all got our particular tastes, our indulgences, and our intolerances, but some see bread in the bigger picture. "The sky is the daily bread of the eyes," says Ralph Waldo Emerson, dreamily.
"Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead," says WH Auden, rather beautifully and profoundly.
And Columbia University professor of physics Brian Greene, to hark back to last week's topic briefly, uses this endlessly fascinating analogy: "String theory envisions a multiverse in which our universe is one slice of bread in a big cosmic loaf. The other slices would be displaced from ours in some extra dimension of space." That's certainly no half-baked idea.
So then, from breadline to full creamy fat indulgence, from ship's biscuits to loaves and fishes, to carefully crafted crackers, please put forward your suggestions in the bread bin and biscuit tin in comments below. This week's chief baker, I'm happy to announce is the magnificent Andrew Morrissey, aka Maki, who will be inspecting your creations with his own very refined taste, and putting them into delicious playlists next week, revealed on Wednesday. Deadline? 11pm UK time (NB clock change announcements will be made over the weekend). Ready steady, and bake your thang …
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