By The Landlord
Winter has a fierce embrace. With what? An icy bite, damp air, sodden ground, storms, snow, the retreat of nature, a sad, milky sun of lessening light sliding remorselessly into darkness, a hole dug for hibernation, and for some, death? All of those, yes, and songs about them too, but also the warm-blooded instinct to huddle into the warm glow of hot toddies, by a roaring fireside, and in caves of plenty with cake. Not to mention the Danish culture of hygge (a form of inner peace and tranquility) now, like the concept of Christmas, marketed to death with jumpers, candles, pastries and self-help books. Anyway, come on in to the bar, wipe your feet, put your umbrella in the stand, hang up your coats, and get cosy.
So as the wind blows outside, and the windows steam up, business is suddenly brisk. Setting the scene, in comes big George RR “winter is coming” Martin, who, pulling out a fat wallet swelled by the Game of Thrones franchise and the immense HBO TV series from his Fire and Ice novels, generously buys a round of whiskies, and warms everyone up with rip-roaring yarns. But he also warns us, with his walking dead and giant medieval wall, that, “a cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things … Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don't have the strength to fight it.”
“Brrrr. Yes.” says someone. And there’s a stony silence.
“But it’s not all bad,” perks up the same voice from further down the bar. It’s a rather dandy and dapper Lewis Carroll in a wool suit, wine in hand, channelling the surreal, inquisitive spirit of his Alice book characters. And with a little whimsy, he remarks: “I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ ”
The Game of Thrones author takes no prisoners, shrugs the snow from his shoulders, and brushes away Lewis’s fanciful remark. “Winter is coming …” he says again. But now someone else interjects. “That may be so,” they retort, already in the spirit up with a rather ruddy complexion. Goodness me. it’s that high-spirited feisty Mancunian and pioneer of pleasure, Thomas De Quincey, emerging from a smoky backroom, stimulated, most certainly, by reading a passage from his Confessions of an English Opium Eater at the Song Bar’s author event. “Let’s agree to disagree,” he says, embracing both men. “Let us enjoy our surroundings. Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside; candles at four o'clock, warm hearthrugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.”
It’s hard to disagree with the amiable De Quincy, that winter brings both terror and pleasure. Then cockles are tickled even more with the arrival of Billy Connolly, who as soon as he discovers what this weeks topic retorts: “Well, there are just two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” So as they continue drinks and discussion, let’s settle into what winter’s perspective can bring. First up, a harder wintry work by that great poet and father of rap. His words about America in 1974, using a classic wintry image, seem extraordinary prescient right now, and with today being Thanksgiving Day, well, what sort of celebrating will there be this year?
… And I see the robins
Perched in barren treetops
Watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor
But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams
Never had a chance to grow, never had a chance to grow
And now it's winter, it's winter in America
So winter isn’t just about the weather, as it is as much a metaphor for hard times ahead and past. Nor is it all turkey and pumpkin pie, nor the glowing optimism of a hearty Dickensian scene. But some see winter as challenge and an opportunity. The season is as much a time to hunker down and get things done. Just as Prince decided to remain in his home town, in the freezing cold climate of Minneapolis where he felt no one from outside would come, and he could write undisturbed, Henry Rollins also pointed out a bright side to the season: “In winter, I plot and plan. In spring, I move.” With a different tone, winter also put Joni Mitchell in state wondering about migration, in her supremely moving and tragic song in this setting:
Winter is as much state of mind, of wandering elsewhere in feelings, and, among many greats, including Paul Simon, who makes many references to this in his work, Sufjan Stevens could not have done this more beautifully:
But whatever is going on, winter's weather front will eventually come to the fore, and more often than not, that is with snow. There is a huge and deep covering of this across all across the musical landscape, so here’s just a sprinkling to start you off. You may consider, for example, a song by new band Whyte Horses. But what kind of snowfall is this? Or, very much in the news at the moment, there’s Kate Bush. Perhaps inspired by the wonderful Raymond Briggs book and animation, The Snowman, Kate, quite a fan of the fluttery frozen stuff, takes it much further and takes her encounter to a meltingly erotic one:
This is just a taster of a longer version, and as with all songs mentioned in this blog, feel free to grab and nominate them yourself. Digging around even deeper in ice and snow, you may also find material by many great artists, including Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Gravenhurst, Arcade Fire, among many more.
Winter is very much about survival. In the American context, of which there is a huge song landscape set in that season, this was very much brought to attention with last year’s big Oscar winner, The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s trapper, at the cost of lots of wildlife, just about makes it through certain death. I hope you can ‘bear’ to watch this.
The film was based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name about frontiersman Hugh Glass's survival experiences in 1823, but it’s worth making comparison to the 1971 film, Man in the Wilderness, that surely inspired it, with very similar grave-defying, bear-grappling plot, starring Richard ‘A Man Called Horse’ Harris.
Winter can bring stark beauty in song or image, and it’s all very well for these American frontiersmen surviving against all the odds and raping the landscape as they go, so perhaps the most authentic indigenous winter film settings, with a beautiful soundtrack to match, is Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a 2001 Inuktitut-language Canadian epic, based on an Inuit legend. Running for miles in sub-zero temperatures in bare feet, completely naked, anyone? No? Surely that’s what makes a man a true man:
So winter isn't always a wonderland of skating, Doris Day or cute penguins, or indeed the movie Frozen. It can also drive you a bit crazy, and if you don’t keep moving, you’re done for. Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance thought he’d get his novel written by looking after a hotel over the winter in The Shining, but hey, we all know what happened then. A'maze'ing scenes. Careful with that axe, Jack!
So, it’s time to wrap up this topic launch, and, as David Sylvian put it, let the happiness in. And how do you keep the cold out? Pull on a famous blue raincoat, courtesy of the late and great Leonard Cohen. Rest in peace. It may be cold, but try to like where you’re living, there’s music playing, all through the evening …
Please then also wrap up your winter song suggestions in the comfort blanket of the comments box below, and keep sending them through until Monday evening when the bell will be rung before playlists will be published next Wednesday. And I’m delighted to announce that this week, making those playlists, we have yet another and very distinguished guru making their Song Bar guru debut. Sidecar Shiv will be throwing logs on the fire, and no doubt warming your cockles with musical wisdom, banter and drinks. As Shakespeare didn’t put it, now is the winter of our content.
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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.