Friday, March 18, 2011

Ships. Fools. Discuss.

From Wikipedia: 
"Ship of Fools (painted c. 1490–1500) is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch which shows prodigal humans wasting their lives instead of spending it in useful ways."

As a songwriter, I've fallen prey to the allure of certain ideas and images that have become artistic cliches.
When the music critic in me kicks in, while writing songs, I've spotted the majority of these cliches before they went from brain to paper, and either rejected them outright, or messed with them so that they're unrecognizable.

Here's an example from an old song I've never released:
"I wouldn't want to belong to someone whose name I won't remember"

That stemmed from the popular quote (which I'm probably misquoting), "I wouldn't belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member."
-- Groucho Marx

I wasn't about to trot out Groucho's quote in a song. So I messed about for 30 seconds and came up with my own variation, which is really not very clever at all. It's a dumb throwaway, in fact. And part of why I've never released it.

Anyway, with April Fools Day approaching, we gather today to ponder why the image of the Ship of Fools has so captured the imagination of a disparate population of songwriters. I'm willing to bet there aren't a lot of record collections that contain records by ALL of these artists who have songs entitled "Ship of Fools"

The Doors--1970
John Cale--1974
The Grateful Dead --1974
Bob Seger--1976
Soul Asylum--1986
World Party --1986
Robert Plant--1988
The Scorpions--1993
Ron Sexmith--2006

Let's quickly examine the background of the phrase.

According to another Wikipedia Page:

"The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Bosch's famous painting, Ship of Fools: a ship--an entire fleet at first--sets off from Basel to the paradise of fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the 'ark of salvation' (as the Catholic Church was styled)...

"A 1962 novel by American writer, Katherine Anne Porter of the same name, set in the autumn of the year 1931, also uses the device of the allegory, and can be seen as an attack on a world that allowed the Second World War to happen..."

So now, let's see how the phrase inspired/was interpreted by/captured the imagination of each of the below artists/songwriters. Why did they employ this phrase/image to depict what their song was about? 

The Doors-- From Morrison Hotel (1970)
This does not appear to be one of Jim Morrison's strongest, or most well thought-out lyrical efforts.

The human race was dyin' out
No one left to scream and shout
People walking on the moon
Smog will get you pretty soon

Morrison is imagining a not-too-distant future, with not-terribly imaginative images and scenarios. 

Everyone was hanging out
Hanging up and hanging down
Hanging in and holding fast
Hope our little world will last

Not much time went into that verse, I'm guessing. 

Yeah, along came Mr. Goodtrips
Looking for a new a ship
Come on, people better climb on board
Come on, baby, now we're going home
Ship of fools, ship of fools

That people (in the first verse) are living on the moon may mean that this is a spaceship.  
Mr. Goodtrips? Really? 

 The Doors win in the "first to title a song 'Ship of Fools'" category, but for a "poet" and for someone as well-read as Morrison, this is "scribble on a bar napkin five minutes before the recording session" material. Who the narrator is and who the "fools" are and where the ship is going is all left vague. The main thing this song has going for it is the interesting jazz-pop arrangement. And this video is kind of cool footage from a not-often-seen era of The Doors.

John Cale--from Fear (1974)

This, at first glance, seems to be a song rich in imagery and vague references. Cale has always been a sophisticated cat, but also spent the entire 70's in a haze of hard drugs and drastically shifting fortunes. So, not sure where this will go.... 

The ship of fools is coming in
Take me off I’ve got to eat
Same old stories same old thing
Letting out and pulling in    

Cale may be referring to a posse of old friends coming to town,  unhealthy party favors in tow. His tone lets us know that he's really not in the mood, or just tired and wary of this low-down, dirty life.

Mister, there’s a caravan parked out back

Restless hoping for a christian rider
The black book, a grappling hook
A hangman’s noose on a burnt out tree
Guess we must be getting close to tombstone

I would guess there's some literary reference here. But suffice to say, Cale's mood is dark. He's been to this self-destructive place before.

The last time we had eaten
Was when the flies were going for free
You could count the hardships by the open doors
But sandwiched in between
Were the fishermen who still
Wished they could sail from Tenessee to Arizona    

If we're still employing the same metaphor, Cale is referring, possibly, to a Chelsea Hotel type setting, populated by starving, self-abusing artists, spending what little they have on dope (the "fishermen") and dreaming impossible, broken dreams. That he uses "we" shows that he counts himself as one of them,

So hold on, won’t be long

The call is on the line
Hold on, sister’s gone
South to give the sign  

Umm...not sure. A good chorus? Or, "the call"= the drug score. "Sister's gone south"= downtown? Although we're much more south than that.

We picked up dracula in Memphis

It was just about the break of day
And then hastily prayed for our souls to be saved
There was something in the air that made us kind of weary

 More dark imagery. Dreary characters, desperate behavior, again, an overall tiredness of their situation.

By the time we got to Swansea it was getting dark
Tumble, jungles, bugles and the prize
The tides turned west at Amerforth
As if they didn’t know what to do
But Garnant stood its ground and asked for more

Right, so suddenly we've gone from the American south (Memphis) to various cities in Cale's native Wales. A change of scenery that seems to give Cale some comfort. Is Garnant both the name of a city and a person? Like "Hadley"or something?...I dunno. 

In the next verse, these people/cities greet him warmly. He responds by telling them that the party of derelicts has arrived and make sure they leave in time for the holidays. 

All the people seemed quite glad to see us
Shaking hands and smiling like the clock
Well we gave them all the message then
That the ship of fools was in
Make sure they get home for christmas

He's lost me for good. Am I just getting lazy? Or is he? The ship of fools image returns. Why do they need to be home for Christmas? Is this Cale returning to "Christmas in Wales" from his Paris 1919 album? I'm a bit lost. I guess it's time to sing the final chorus and end the tune. 

So hold on, won’t be long

The call is on the line
So hold on, sister’s gone
South to give the sign

The Grateful Dead from The Mars Hotel. (1974)

An Elton John-meets-The Band ballad, with a fairly straight forward structure and resentful lyrics. The young Jerry Garcia vocal delivery doesn't deliver the bitterness, however, Elvis Costello's cover version (1991) does. One of the best songs in the Dead cannon and classic example of the music of Jerry Garcia and words of Robert Hunter. 

(I won't get into it here--follow the link if intrigued-- but the skinny, indie-nerd guy in the white t-shirt playing keyboard behind Garcia below is the mysterious Ned Lagin. He was an MIT/Berklee Music student who attended a Dead show in 1970, befriended the band, sporadically recorded and toured with the band in 1973-75, made an electronic noise album with Phil Lesh, occasionally led the band in electronic noise fests during their shows...and then asked to be erased from their history as much as possible. Thus, not many people know of his existence. Many old school fans have horrific memories of "Phil and Ned" making their scary electronic noises. The album they released was called Seastones.)

Went to see the captain
strangest I could find
Laid my proposition down
Laid it on the line;
I won't slave for beggar's pay
likewise gold and jewels
but I would slave to learn the way
to sink your ship of fools

The only part of this verse I don't understand is the word "strangest". There's usually just one captain on a ship.  Otherwise, the message is quite clear: the narrator cares not for any material reward, no matter how great or small. He only wants one thing: to destroy the ship and its crew, and end the voyage. 

Ship of fools
on a cruel sea
Ship of fools
sail away from me 

It was later than I thought
when I first believed you
now I cannot share your laughter
Ship of Fools

Catchy chorus, and straight forward. Like in John Cale's song, the narrator would like to distance himself from the ship of fools. He's not one of them, or at least no longer wishes to be.

Saw your first ship sink and drown
from rocking of the boat
and all that could not sink or swim
was just left there to float
I won't leave you drifting down
but oh, it makes me wild
with thirty years upon my head
to have you call me child

He's recalling having seen the wreckage from the reckless first voyage--a tragic sight. He assures this crew of childlike adults that he himself won't be responsible for any future destruction, but that being counted among them is just driving him batty. Could this be Robert Hunter's message to the crazier members of the Dead scene? "We're all getting older. Let's act like it"

The bottles stand as empty
as they were filled before
Time there was and plenty
but from that cup no more
Though I could not caution all I yet may warn a few:
Don't lend your hand to raise no flag
atop no ship of fools

The narrator says: At one time, we were all young and indestructible.  Now, the booze is gone and all we've gotten is old.  And I'll pass along my lesson learned to the few people smart enough to listen. Have a good look at the crew before joining in. 
That this was written in 1973-74, when the Dead were contemplating a break or even a break-up, shows that Hunter was giving voice to the mood of a tired and spent band/crew. Let's break now before we turn against each other.

This clip is from 1981, so Garcia's voice has a bit less youthful ambiguity to it. He himself is a couple years into his foolish voyage into smack  addiction (in addition to existing addictions) which hastened his demise. He looks a lot older than his years here. 

Bob Seger from Night Moves (1976)

I don't know this song, nor would I call myself a Bob Seger fan. So let's just see what happens here.  

"Tell me quick" said Old McFee
"What's this all have to do with me?"
"I've spent all my time at sea a loner."

I don't know who Old McFee is. But apparently he's a pretty self-centered guy who doesn't want to hear what's being said. A grouchy old man. 

"Is there something else I should know?"
"Something hidden down below the level of your conversation?"
He turned away before the answer
Though I yelled aloud he refused to hear
It became too clear
So it went as we put out
I was left in constant doubt
Everything I asked about seemed private

A ha. Seger was shouting some kind of warning to McPhee. McPhee fleetingly shows interest, but walks away. Kind of like an annoying friend who says "what? oh really? then what happened?" and walks away. OR, more like a parent, to Seger being the child who's asking too many questions. 
Let's now recall the Dead line about a 30 year old being treated like a child. Hmm...

The captain strolled the bridge one night
I stopped him in the evening light
To ask him would it be all right to join him

But he stood there like some idol
And he listened like some temple
And then he turned away

Seger really just wants to be treated as a peer, or at least with respect in the eyes of the captain. You never know, he may just be able to see clearer than this stubborn, self-important captain. This time, at least the captain gives Seger some time, but then walks away silently. Not one for conversation. So, guess what happens? 

All along the fateful coast
We moved silent like a ghost
The timeless sea of tireless host possessed us
The wind came building from the cold northwest
And soon the waves began to crest
Crashing cross the forward deck
All hands lost

I alone survived the sinking
I alone possessed the tools
On that ship of fools

How he alone survives, he doesn't say. Raft? Passing helicopter? Mermaid? Who cares?

World Party from Private Revolution (1986)

We jump ahead to the mid-80's. Former Waterboy Karl Wallenger scores a big alternative hit with his new project, World Party, and their single...well, you know the title.  
Though big on the retro vibe, let's see if and how the concept of the Ship of Fools has changed with the generations. 

We''re setting sail to the place on the map
From which no one has ever returned
Torn by the promise of the joker and the fool
By the light of crosses that burn
Torn by the promise of the women and the lace
And the gold and the cotton and pearls
It's the place where they keep all the darkness you meet
You sail away from the light of the world on this trip, baby

Karl is saying "We're following in the footsteps of those before us who have desired the not-so-pure things in life. It's a voyage where temptation leads into darkness and our ultimate demise". 
Is Karl saying "YEAH! You only live once! Let's party!" Or is he high-horse preaching like many of the brainwashed products of Thatcher/Reagan? Just say no! Sex is dangerous!

You will pay tomorrow
You're gonna pay tomorrow
You will pay tomorrow

Oh, save me
Save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools
Oh, save me
Save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools
No, no, I want to run and hide
Right now

Well, there's your answer. Karl is saying, "go ahead, fools. I aren't one o' ye"

Avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
Drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world, you're in search of the good,
But I'm sure you'll like I knew you would
Using all the good people for your gallant slaves
As your little boat struggles through the warning waves
You will pay
You're gonna pay tomorrow
You're gonna pay tomorrow
Yeah, you're gonna pay tomorrow

Ok, I should stop assuming that he's not talking to the conservative leadership that was ruling the world at this time. But the bit in the first verse about "women and, cotton (cotton?) and pearls". This sounds like some Catholic sermon. Preaching against greed is always good, but Catholics do that a lot. Right? And who uses "avarice" and the phrase "light of this world" AND "save me" except those preaching from the Bible? 
Hmm, really, I've heard this song many times--never loved it, compared to the many great singles from Goodbye Jumbo (1990)--just not much of a melody in the verse. And I just never paid attention to these preachy, doomsaying lyrics. Weird. Anyway, finish up, Karl. 

Oh, save me
Save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools
Oh, save me
Save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools
Where is that coming from?
Where is it going to?
It's just a ship of fools

Soul Asylum--from Made to Be Broken (1986) 

Ok, another I never heard before. And the only video I could find was a poor-quality, homemade 90's acoustic version. Not worth it. Anyway, let's see what the Minnesotans were singing about in the years before megastardom.

Shipwreck sailors searching for some fools gold
They're the local drunken boys
Been out drinking all night feeling alright
We watch them kill each other in a fight

The narrator again is among, but does not feel part of, this particular ship of fools, which is immediately identified as local yahoos. The narrator is a passive observer to their drunken, violent ways.

Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart

Pirner is kind of bar stool preaching. I mean, Soul Asylum never appeared to be a healthy, well-rested clan. 

I can't change the world by complaining
You can't change it with a kiss
(Be no?) concentrating contemplating
No time to find out what we miss

First line: right. 
Second line: who can't? the listener? your girlfriend? your mom? 
Third and Fourth lines: "sounds good, let's let the little bastards make sense of it." 

Erasure--single from 1988

I've enjoyed a few Erasure singles. I don't know that I know this one. 

I can´t believe what is happening to me
My head is spinning
The flowers and the trees are encapsulating me
And I go spinning

The narrator has ingested some sort of psychedelic drug for the first time. That's my guess. He's outside. Or staring at some wallpaper. 

He was the baby of the class you know
He really didn´t know that one and one was two
And two and two were were four
He was the baby of the class you know
He really didn´t know that, really didn´t know that
Oh what a poor soul

Anyone? Who's "he"? How old was he? And what was wrong with him? 

Oooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools
Oooh, why is life so precious and so cruel?

What I have so far: it's really sad that they put an actual baby in a 1st grade class and kept asking it what 1+1 and 2+2 are. 
Yeah, that IS sad.  

I close my eyes and I try to imagine
What you´re dreaming
Why can´t you see what you´re doing to me
My world is spinning

Oh, right. He's tripping. And he's with someone who may have administered the drug the singer is on.  But he wishes his friend was awake so he could tell him about this hallucination he's having about an infant sitting at a desk being ridiculed for not knowing basic math.  

You were the baby of the class you know
You really didn´t know that one and one was two
And two and two were four
You were the baby of the class
You were so young and so uncertain
Suffer little children
Oh what a poor soul

Fuck! His sleeping friend was the infant! What an unfortunate past--and to think, this poor person lay right next to him as he sings.

Oooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools
Oooh, why is life so precious and so cruel?

Put like that, yes. Life is cruel when your friend has an odd past, and is sleeping while you're totally obsessing, aided by chemicals, about it. 

Robert Plant from Now and Zen (1988)

Oh, Planty! Push! Push!  I didn't buy this album nor did I like this song (I enjoyed "Tall Cool One", ONLY because of the Zep samples.)
I did see Robert Plant on this tour. I was in 9th grade and boy, I'm sure we were a geek-ass posse.  I was a Zep freak and kept wishing Jimmy Page would step onstage during the show. The only good bits were Zeppelin songs and I think he held an orange traffic cone up to his face and said something about his nose. Like someone thew a traffic cone onstage. I don't know. 

Ok, Robert. Do it. Do it. Give us Now and give us Zen. Now.

On waves of love my heart is breaking
And stranger still my self control I can't rely on anymore
New tides surprise - my world it's changing
Within this frame an ocean swells - behind this smile I know it well

Oh yikes. Robert's sad, and I'm truly feeling his pain. This is no joke. 

Beneath a lover's moon I'm waiting
I am the pilot of the storm - adrift in pleasure I may drown
I built this ship - it is my making
And furthermore my self control I can't rely on anymore
I know why - I know why
Crazy on a ship of fools
Crazy on a ship of fools
Turn this boat around - back to my loving ground

He's let a good love go bad, and while he's numbing the pain and putting on a brave, happy face, he knows it's not the same as the true happiness that he abandoned. He's joined the ship of fools, but wants it to turn back and drop him at his (I assume) beach front property where his equally heartbroken love is (hopefully) missing him just as much (and hopefully isn't doing the young bartender she was always flirting with).

Who claims that no man is an island
While I land up in jeopardy - more distant from you by degrees
I walk this shore in isolation
And at my feet eternity draws ever sweeter plans for me
I know why - I know why
Crazy on a ship of fools
Crazy on a ship of fools
Turn this boat around - back to my loving ground
Oh no, oh no - ship of fools --

More of the same. Regret. Heartbreak. It's sad, especially when you're no longer the Golden God and you really just want that solid foundation that so many your age have. It's 1988, not 1972!

Horrible 80's production, but the lyrics are clear and tug a bit at the heartstrings. 

The Scorpions--from the album Face the Heat (1993)

Right. Like I've ever heard more than two Scorpions songs in my life. 
Picture's awesome. 
Let's see what it's about! The 80's metal bands sure hated 90's grunge, and this is from 1993! But in Europe, things were probably different? Once a Scorps fan, always one?

Another bloody Monday
Thirty-nine Just died
All hell breaks loose in the crowd
A hopeless helter skelter
Another mindless crime
Some corner of the world is burning down

Been watching BBC news. Could be a lot of places, any time. 

Heading for a nervous breakdown
Can't take it anymore
I see the fear explode just like
A thousand nights before

He cares. It's fucking him up, really. Metal singers have feelings too. 

The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide
The ship of fools
Keeps on following the siren's call
Damned to be sacrificed

Collide with what? With who? The ship is being led into temptation via sex, like in the World Party song. But again, who, what etc...?

Corrupt politicians
Promise paradise
The thieves are reaching out for the crown
Violence is a killer
Threatens all our lives
Judgment day has come here and now

Yes...he's been watching the news--possibly a new activity--and he's got his notebook out and he's writing down a lot of obvious things. ("Holy crap, the world isn't backstage massages and flying first class!") And then turning a bit religious: "the end is nigh!"
Sadly, this is the mindset of half of America. Shame on a German for being so alarmist.  

Ron Sexmith--from the album Time Being (2006)

I met Ron Sexmith around this time. Maybe it was more like 2000. Mutual friend. He's always great. I dig his voice and how offhand and effortless his whole vibe is. But not in a sloppy/slacker-y way. Just smooth. So we may be in for something nice to end on. No video, I'm afraid. 

Famous disappearing act
Kills ‘em every time
The willing subject sneaks out back
And leaves her space behind

Lady left him. 

But life is not a parlour trick
There’s no slight of hand
Just tryin’ to save the sinking ship
And there’s no sight of land

A bit of anger/resentment is creeping in. "What the hell kind of move was that? Sneaking out? Grow the fuck up!..Oh, Christ does this suck! I am in no shape at all to be having to deal with this kind of crap."

And we are all in the same boat, darlin’
On the same rough sea
We are all in the same boat, darlin’
The ship of fools it seems

Well, he's trying to win her back by saying, "Look. We're both fuck ups. That was a lame stunt you pulled, maybe I deserved it...maybe we deserve each other. How's that?"

There’s no good news in the news
Only bad newspapers
As black humour stands amused
At the plight of human nature

Turning his view outward, Ron is lamenting the state of the world. Hip irony and cynicism aren't going to make this world a better place. We all could use a bit of heart-- the world at large, and specifically, you and me, babe. 

There’s still a lot of good in the world
No matter what they say
And when the darkness comes unfurled
There’s a light that was built to stay

This is maybe the third SOF to use the light/dark analogy. Redemption. "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with... us, sweetiepie! You like the Smiths, right? I'm gonna reference that song in the fourth line. You'll dig that."

And we are all in the same boat, darlin’
On the same rough sea
We are all in the same boat, darlin’
The ship of fools it seems

Optimists and realists, and,
cynics all agree
That we are all in this
Together whatever will be

So, to reiterate: World: broken. Us: broken. Both situations suck, but there's only one that we have any control over. So let's make things work. We are too good for this ship of fools. 
Good tune, Ron. Great one to end on. 

So that's that. Though it's never appealed to me as a songwriter, the image of the "ship of fools" has attracted a relatively large and positively diverse bunch of songwriters as a way to describe a group of people doing dumb things against their own best interests--be it local boys getting in bar fights, a straying lover, or the world at large. 

But let's now put a cap on it. No more songs called Ship of Fools. Tea Partiers may be the latest deserving targets, but I'm not writing that song.  It just doesn't resonate with me. But maybe I'M the fool. Quite possibly, yeah.  

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