By The Landlord
"When I see a dolphin, I know it's just as smart as I am." – Captain Beefheart
Several years ago, I made my first, and fairly rare attempt at scuba diving, gasping my way to an PADI Open Water certificate. But the very first time I floundered into the Red Sea, flapping around like like a finned, masked idiot, I gulped and gawped in awe at what I encountered – the craggy luminescent coral, the underwater fauna waving tubular and spiny arms, the strange clicking sound of a million tiny mouths feeding – and the sight of all those multi-coloured fish. Everything from the two-stripe cardinal to starry triggerfish, striped ponyfish to slender sunfish, freckled tilefish to Red Sea houndfish, blennies, skippers, glassies, flying rays, rainbow sardines and halfbreaks and lingering lionfish to the scary scorpionfish.
Like swimming jewels parting in my path, they seemed to glance back at me with a mixture of frightened pity and swivel-eyed indifference. That first time I sort of mouthed behind my breathing apparatus, well, more with my eyes and hands, an attempted apology to them all for my flappy incompetence disturbing their home, for being such a clumsy clown among the clownfish, yet my most abiding memory is how so many, with their pursed lips, arching expressions and quiff-like head shapes, looked so much like Elvis Presley in a shimmering school of teddy boy cool. What this makes me think is how much of a connection we might have with sea life.
You can see that sort of resemblance in many people today, not merely in the world of music. See below ...
Beyond facial characteristics, it seems to me all oceans and all waters are connected, whether that be through sonic signals by whales or dolphins, or a shark smelling blood from miles away. I imagine it as a form of natural sonic and olfactory internet, where mass communication is instantly possible from afar. A new scuba diving idiot is in the water, everyone! Come and gawp at him. News travels fast in water, almost as fast as our imagination.
But this connection to water, and its wildlife, also runs deep in time and evolution. It is not hard, nor unusual, to feel some sort of affinity with the mammals who live there – dolphins, whales, otters, and seals, and you can see how at some point in the past they must have shared some evolutionary connection with horses, dogs, cats and other land mammals. And of course, our distant ancestors crawled out too.
In Italo Calvino's miraculous novel of infinite ideas, Cosmicomics, one chapter titled My Aquatic Uncle tells the story from the point of view of a non-human character, of an early land species, the first vertebrates from the Carboniferous period, who abandoned aquatic life for the terrestrial. And yet one day his uncle decides to return to the oceans.
At first the narrator isn't surprised: "We had a great-uncle who was a fish, on my paternal grandmother's side, to be precise, of the Coelacanthus family of the Devonian period (the fresh-water branch)." He mocks his Uncle N'ba N'ga for his slimy, watery decision, until, to his horror the narrator's girlfriend also decides to ignore the conventional direction of evolution and take a dip, back in time, and then even becomes his uncle's lover instead of him. "My paws work beautifully as fins!" she declares, and the waters reclaim her and off she swims.
Now, as we reach a new point in our evolution, the human driven epoch of the Anthropocene, and with climate change inevitably causing waters rise in the modern world, perhaps going back to the oceans is the way forward after all. Anyone evolved webbed feet yet?
All this talk of water is making me thirsty. So let's open the bar and mix it with music. Joining Captain Beefheart is Iggy Pop. Iggy loves to talk, but we find him in more meditative mood. "Something I like to do a lot is just sit by water when there's a current and just stare into the water. I don't fish, I don't hunt, I don't scuba, I don't spear, don't boat. I excel at staring into space. I'm really good at that." Fish can be very relaxing, even for the hyperactive soul.
Fishing of course has also become one of the human race's primary connections, and your song suggestions might catch many an example, from the contemplative Sunday afternoon setting to the deep and dark story of boats, referencing the likes of the obsessive Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. But humans have not only inflicted centuries of cruelty on that score, they've also overdone it to the point of destruction. Fish is very tasty and nutritious, and you only have to admire the work of Nobu Matsuhisa, Yotam Ottolenghi or indeed enjoy a trip to your local chippy for that. But vast swathes of our oceans are now barren. Huge catches are dumped back, dead. And in song, or any other context, fishing is as much about man's destruction of himself, from greed to much mass trawling environmental disaster. The philosopher Henry David Thoreau drops in the bar now to tell us: "Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."
Two fantastic books diving superbly into this subject are Mark Kurlansky's Cod: The Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, and more obliquely, but no less brilliantly, the novel by Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish, a 19th-century tale set in Tasmanian, set around the theme of a fish book illustrator drowning in a mad world of colonialism.
Now let's bring in an expert into the bar – conservationist and activist Paul Watson: "Bluefin tuna is sort of like the cheetah of the ocean. It's the fastest fish. It's a warm-blooded fish. But it's got a $100,000 price tag on its head … A fish is more valuable swimming in the sea maintaining the integrity of oceanic eco-systems than it is on anyone's plate."
So, how to approach the fish, or other water wildlife song? First, there's the whimsical admiration approach, with a sample, if silly, bit of music:
But can fish also be used as metaphor? Of course they can. Here's one of the great songwriters showing what it's like to be short of a catch:
Or take the more traditional take with a tragic element:
Whether moving tales about giant whales, shimmering shoals, intelligent octopi or ruthless orcas, what many songs about underwater wildlife signify is a whole net of emotions – propelled by a fight for survival and reflected in the waters of our own minds.
Sharks have captured the imagination perhaps more any other creature in the sea, but of course these extraordinary hunters are more scared of humans than vice versa. We just invade their eating territory, that is all. Even the author of the book Jaws, on which Spielberg's film is based, Peter Benchley (he even made a cameo appearance), made the following observation: "I don't think there's such a thing as an unprovoked shark attack."
Underwater life in song, or any other artform, perhaps also reflects what we are about ourselves – from hungry hunters, to frightened herds, lone nibblers, nomads, and of course the unknown parts of the dark psyche. What is more exciting than what lurks beneath, in the form of a giant squid, or indeed the incredible angler fish?
But even in an urban environment aquatic life plays its role. Bernard Sumner is an obsessive sailor when he's not banging out tunes with New Order, and strolling in the bar for a swift one, tells us this surprising anecdote from his childhood: "In Salford, we had fish in our tap water. I remember, one hot summer day, running to the toilet at playtime and dunking our heads in a sink full of water. I remember putting my head in and seeing all these little fish in it."
So then, there's definitely something in the water this week. So dive deep into your musical collections and fish out some beauties. This week's marine musicologist is the superb Severin, who no doubt will make sure things go swimmingly. Deadline? The boat comes in at 11pm (UK time) for last orders Monday. Will you take the bait? I'm sure the songs in next week's playlists will be more than catchy.
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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.