"At the top of the stairs there's darkness," the Formations tell us in a nice song that deserves honourable mention. As a child I was less unnerved by that darkness than by vivid imaginings of what might lie within it, a propensity I blame on addiction to The London Mystery Magazine, a compendium of ghost, horror and mystery stories not entirely emotionally healthy fare for a pre-pubescent.
The next staging post in my distrust of stairs and steps was occasioned by a colleague. She had sold very quickly the first house that she bought (an ordinary postwar semi-detached on an urban street) having encountered on her stairs a spectral old man she was adamant represented: "pure evil". This was a well-grounded lady, a physics teacher, an empiricist, without, as far as I was ever able to tell from several years acquaintanceship, a fanciful bone in her body.
And then there are the Doom paintings sometimes found in the medieval churches I'll always explore given opportunity. These are day of judgement representations, often including ladders of salvation, from which 'sinners' fall in profusion into the fires of you-know-what.
And finally, when I reflect upon my inclination to see stairs as sites of chaos, mayhem, and murder, there are the movies. In my mind's eye now are: the Odessa Steps scene from 'Battleship Potemkin'; the slaying of Arbogast in 'Psycho'; Nosferatu's ascent of the staircase as malevolent shadow; Perry Smith's climb to the gallows in 'In Cold Blood'; the three staircases leading to Dr Caligari in is his asylum; even the dramatic irony in 'Rebecca' of the second Mrs de Winter happily descending the stairs in Manderley for the fancy dress ball unaware of her betrayal by the deranged Mrs Danvers. Stairs offer so much artistic flexibility doubling as: stages; cat-walks; conduits; no-go areas (though often not recognised as such); and inflection points, where opportunity for fresh thought and revision of direction of travel is to be found.
So the music I have chosen for the A-list may, if only in some small measure: disquiet; disturb; unnerve; disgust; or generates unwelcome imaginings and images. Though that is not the whole story, as I didn't want to leave us mired in gloom and foreboding, and so there is a (I hope) generous helping of optimism and transcendence also readily associated in culture with steps and stairways to round things off.
In Crystal Stilts' Precarious Stair, there are hints of nightmare and a pessimistic view of personal destiny: "But our song is stifled by the viscous air, we cling to precarious stairs, descend deep into nefarious lairs".
Glenn Miller's Little Man Who Wasn't There, would charm with its initial jaunty scepticism were it not for the fact that none of us would welcome particularly any kind of unexpected visitor of ethereal provenance.
The Lady Rachel of Kevin Ayers' song only has a candle and the bed clothes to protect her, but the devil is in the detail: "Now she's safe from the darkness, she's safe from its clutch, now nothing can harm her, at least not very much.". aving built his eerie atmosphere Kevin delivers the coup de grace: "What/Who will you dream of tonight"?. Questions best not reflected upon too much.
In The Rolling Stones' Stray Cat Blues we hear the self serving rationalisation of a narcissistic sexual predator. But the libertine is far from certain of his prey: "There'll be a feast if you just come upstairs". So here, there is a hope for an eleventh hour conversion of the naive, if not innocent; a hope that I'm happy to cleave to.
Billie Holiday's Love For Sale crushes the spirit with its tragic ingenuousness: " Love that's fresh and still unspoiled. Love that's only slightly soiled. Love for sale." Dual entry to the stairs marks the point of carnal contract about which there is, of course, inevitability.
I have said little about elevators, but they too transmute readily into: prison cells; execution chambers; or coffins. The movie 'Devil' has yer man (though it was yer woman) claiming the morally fallen prematurely; an orgy of murder within a stopped lift. Radiohead's music often comes with a undercurrent of unease, and in Lift there is a palpable sense of the terror of entrapment. Reassurance that the worst is behind is given, but knowing what we do of post traumatic stress the reassurance seems hollow given the scale of the ordeal suggested: "You’ve been stuck in a lift, in the belly of a whale, At the bottom of the ocean."
Miles Davis's Générique (from Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud / Elevator To The Gallows) demanded inclusion for the juxtaposition of nouns and its sheer mournfulness. From a movie of the same name, too convoluted to precis, it's probably enough to say that the undisclosed outcome for the protagonists was very probably a judicial scaffold.
The insouciance of a beautiful woman suggested by: "well she's coming down the stairs, combing back her yellow hair", appears to be the tipping point for a much maligned husband from then intent on murder in The Grateful Dead's, 'Cold Rain And Snow'.
In Dirt In The Ground, Tom Waits conjures the theatre of the street in the way a condemned man mounts the stairs to the gallows with courageous indifference. I guess some knowledge of the tyranny of The Bloody Codes might have featured in my preamble too. One can envisage many types of walk up the gallows' steps during that epoch particularly given the draconian harshness of those laws, and the youth of many of the condemned.
Protomartyr's Up The Tower has a revolution with its attendant chaos and destruction launched from a stairway, the music carrying the requisite amount of energy and nihilistic threat.
OK – time to change tack, casting off the dark shadows and doing greater cultural justice to stairs and steps. One might have little truck with the idea of human perfection while still admiring the beliefs and tenacity of those that aspire to it actively through personal application. Shankar Mahadevan's Padipattu (Breathless) involves pilgrimage, temples and steps climbed to shed failings and augment moral qualities.
While Bruce Springstein's Jacob's Ladder is, I guess, some kind of apotheosis, the elect confirming their salvation by clambering up celestial rungs. A nice rousing sing song and, let us choose to believe, an inclusive kind of doctrine and I'm certainly happy to end with a moment of exultation.
The Ayers and Scary Stairs A-List Playlist:
Crystal Stilts - Precarious Stair
Glenn Miller - The Little Man Who Wasn't There
Kevin Ayers - Lady Rachel
The Rolling Stones - Stray Cat Blues
Billie Holiday - Love For Sale
Radiohead - Lift
Miles Davis - Générique (from Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud / Elevator To The Gallows)
The Grateful Dead - Cold Rain And Snow
Tom Waits - Dirt In The Ground
Protomartyr - Up The Tower
Shankar Mahadevan - Padipattu (Breathless)
Bruce Springsteen - Jacob's Ladder
The Double Bill Elevating B-List Playlist:
A couple just missing the A-list, and others in the right parish that I liked.
Incognito - Jacob's Ladder (New Yorican Dub Mix)
Bill Fay - Strange Stairway
The Flamingos - Ladder Of Love
WC Fields Memorial Electric String Band - Hippy Elevator Operator
The Fratellis - Creepin' Up The Backstair
Bill Johnson - Elevator Boogie
Van Morrison - Vanlose Stairway
The Crystalairs - Elevator Of Love
The Intruders - Up And Down The Ladder
Lee Diamond And The Cherokees - I'll Step Down
Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Shopper's Paradise
Wolfgang Press - Executioner
David Shire - To The Office/Elevator
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Going up? Songs about stairs, ladders, steps, elevators or escalators. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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