Tag Archives: nat king cole

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.