By The Landlord
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero
“Room service? Send up a larger room.” – Groucho Marx
“I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see.” – Jimi Hendrix
You rang the doorbell? Then welcome, and please feel free to step inside. Excuse me if there are any bits of wood and hammers lying around. There have been a few temporary changes to the Bar this week. That’s because right now you’ve entered the first room in special labyrinth of Song Bar musical chambers, all specially made for this week’s theme. But what am I building in here, you might ask, and just how many rooms are there? Well, that’s partly up to you. Think of it as a walk-through musical experience that you can explore, but also help create.
Around 20 years ago I experienced a different adventure with a Colombian theatre company who converted the old King’s Cross bus station into a series of rooms, rooms visitors were only allowed to enter in silence and in bare feet. Most of them were completely dark, so you had to rely on other senses of touch and more, feeling your way across sand, stone, grass, or on occasion, through rubbery hands and all kinds of mystery surfaces. And among other experiences, from a place of complete blackness I was carried in a giant wheelbarrow towards the light, I was chased by a laughing woman in white dress in a garden, and was locked in a tiny bar with a leather-clad temptress with whom I was forced to arm-wrestle …
I’ve gone, on purpose, to a few other experiences like this over the years, variously profound, strange, disturbing, moving and amusing. And a couple of years ago I even acted for a well-known company, seeing from the other side of the experience. I encountered a different audience visitor, every three minutes entering the room of my role, a role that included conversation and physical contact with people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds, and among them, several celebrities. I’m not going into too many details, but for example I spoke to Madonna about how she spent her money, asked Stephen Fry about the meaning of life, and wrestled Noel Gallagher to the floor. But the key thing was always that the moment they enter the room, it was a new and surprising experience. They had no idea what was going to happen next. And often neither did I.
I’m sure we’re also in for a few surprises this week, and perhaps a few celebrities might appear. But it's always about the room and what's in it, and how a song describes such a place. A room must have walls, but what role does that room play in the song? Is it a source of frustration or inspiration? Is it a place of passion or depression, solitude or partying, conflict or harmony, eating or sleeping? Will we find Kraftwerk in the kitchen, blues in the bedroom, hardcore punk in the hall, baroque in the bathroom, lounge music in the lounge, and chamber music in the, er, chamber? Rooms, often bedrooms, are the inspiration of many songs, and often are where they are written or first conceived. Look at the room you’re in now. What secrets does it hold? How many people have lived in it over the years. How many emotions and thoughts have passed through it?
In London’s Soho you can visit Jimi Hendrix’s room where he in the spend many happy days on the top floor flat. It’s in the same building, at 23 Brook Street, as where George Friederic Handel was also inspired to write his great works, 200 years earlier, though his chambers, in lower floors to Jimi’s top-floor bedsit, were much grander. But the museum staff there have preserved it just as Jimi liked it, and filled it with original items just the same as the objects he enjoyed:
So as well as songs that cover different kinds of room, you might notice songs that describe what colour it is. Is it a white dressing room with mirrors? John Lydon’s now popped into the bar to tell us about that: “I always find the mirror in the dressing room is where the best artists are.” Or is it the green room where the artists hang out? Let’s enter an older room, but of the bluer kind. This one sounds like a perfectly happy, cosy place, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and sung The Revelers in 1926, though you might want to explore other ones decorated by other artists such as Chet Baker or Ella Fitzgerald. “We'll have a blue room, a new room for two room, where every day's a holiday, because you're married to me.”
Some rooms are indeed havens, and just as with the extraordinary purple siting room above where Frank Zappa’s parents expressed their taste, and no doubt inspired Frank, let’s look at another haven of influence, the family home of Richie Havens, and his proud, grinning parents:
Or how about the family home of the Jacksons, where Michael must have felt both pride and frustration. His dad probably made this room a frightening place too.
Johnny Cash thought of his room as a haven from the trappings of fame. Here he is talking about it: “I'm very shy really. I spend a lot of time in my room alone reading or writing or watching television.” And here he is relaxing in his home lounge with wife June Carter:
And here with his brothers, Brian Wilson describes a room he can go and tell his secrets to, with a dreamlike, melancholy song that has come up previously for another topic:
Now le'ts visit Keith Richards with friends. He no doubt knew how to work a room, but also do everything he enjoyed in the space. This one is his bedroom at Villa Nellcôte during the recording of Exile on Main Street. Spread out, Keith.
Big rooms? “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement," said former German premier Helmut Schmidt. But by contrast, here’s a tiny little room, and an appropriately short song sung by Jack and Meg White, who tell us: “Well you're in your little room, and you're working on something good, but if it's really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room.”
Some artists' rooms have obviously been too small, but still inspirational: Check out Nick Cave’s chaotic early man cave:
The genius painter Francis Bacon was never too bothered about tidying up either:
The imagination can certainly be stimulated by a room. Some like it messy, some a room with a view, or if you’re Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman, who both have liked a hut or a gazebo to write in.
So what else is there to say about rooms. They clearly affect our upbringing, and our development. Some grew up in crowded rooms, others desperately needed one to hide in. “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” said Blaise Pascal. The great character comedian Andy Kaufman describes what he did his room as a child: “While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine that there was a camera in the wall. And I used to really believe that I was putting on a television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world.”
A room, is also literally or metaphorically filled with electricity, the presence of the person who occupies it. “What is a soul?” said Ray Charles. “It’s like electricity – we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room.”
If anyone ever could light up a room like no other it was Muhammad Ali, and he of course joked: “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
Rooms remain illuminated by their history, but do they also have memories? One of the most eccentric, and charming explorations of this subject came out this year when Canadian pianist and composer Chilly Gonzales and Jarvis Cocker evoked the lives previous occupants of Hollywood´s Chateau Hotel Marmont across a whole album. And there were all kinds of goings on, seedy, sexy and tragic, with guests including actress Jean Harlow and Mark Twain´s daughter Clara, both of whom inhabited the hotel´s famous Room 29 with its piano. “Is there anything sadder than a hotel room that hasn’t been fucked in?”Jarvis ponders, here, in one example of the album's mischievous roomy wonderings.
Time to check out. And so then, in turn, it’s time to get out your keys and unlock many a room for us all to wander into, but what other rooms of interest, opulent or otherwise, can you summon up for this week’s playlister? Closets or cloisters, vast halls or libraries, echoey or soundproofed? Sitting in the control room, I’m delighted to announce that our returning engineer of excellence is EnglishOutlaw. Put forward your songs about rooms before last orders called on Monday at 11pm UK time, and his playlist will be let out for all to enjoy next Wednesday. There's plenty of room for everyone.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.