Sinking Low on the Seas, Rising Up with Gold
The cover of Rogue’s Gallery features a marooned pirate on an isolated beach. He’s lost at sea, left for dead. His head is bowed in despair. But what is he looking at? Could that be? No, it couldn’t. Is he really admiring his own manhood? Maybe the man is not so despairing after all. Or maybe he is clutched over in pain—not from hunger, but from the burning of venereal disease.
One cannot be sure what the pirate is really doing on the cover of this album of raunchy pirate ballads, sea songs, and chanteys. Though it was commissioned by director Gore Verbinski in connection with his Disney-ride-inspired film Pirates of the Caribbean, the album is anything but Disneyfied (unless you believe the old theory that the castle on the poster for The Little Mermaid was shaped like an erect penis). Instead, this album is filled with the bawdy depravity of life at sea in the golden age of piracy—or what we can discern of it through the censorial efforts of genteel Victorian-era collectors.
The two-CD collection, compiled by ace “special projects” producer Hal Wilner, takes us on a ride through the indulgences and sins of sailor fornication and all that it entails. The crew consists of Sting, Bono, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, John C. Reilly, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, the Akron/Family, Jolie Holland, Bryan Ferry, Jarvis Cocker, and many others. Looking out over the seas from his post in the crow’s nest among the riggings, Louden Wainwright III describes our vessel well in the song “Good Ship Venus”, bragging: “The figurehead was a whore in bed sucking a dead man’s penis.”
The captain of this ship is not one of the celebrity musicians, but rather one Baby Gramps, a Popeye-voiced, old-timey, bizarro balladeer whose National steel-guitar workouts and gutteral growls, hoots, and whispers steal the show. Baby Gramps opens the album by steering a full band out of harbor and onto the open sea while singing about how “Cape Cod girls don’t use no combs, they comb their hair with the codfish bones.” “Heave her up my bully, bully boys, heave her up, now don’t you make a noise,” Baby Gramps and crew sing, for we are “bound away for Australia”. Sounding like a Tuvan throat-singing monk on LSD, Baby Gramps chants with the intensity of a Captain Ahab. This ship might hit the rocks, his singing declares to his shipmates, but we are going to have a damn good time along the way. Sails out all the way and let’s sing of those Cape Cod girls!
If Baby Gramps is the mad captain, there is a lot more going on in the galleys, in the dark corners of the deck, and back in port among the stacks of boxes on the decks and in the red-light bordellos just down the street from the wharves. Some of it is noble, such as Richard Thompson’s stately “Mingulay Boat Song” or Richard Greene and Jack Shit’s “Shenandoah”. Some of it is filled with the fraternity of laboring work songs, such as Sting’s “Blood Red Roses”. Some of it is haunting, such as Bono’s “Dying Sailor to His Shipmates”. Much of it is less dignified, but equally ferocious and human, charged with wry observations of the seaman’s (and the semen’s) blues. A good example is Nick Cave’s “Fire Down Below”, which, as you might guess by now, is not about a well-tended hearth in the basement kitchen or the engine room of a more modern steamer, but rather about a certain disease that causes a none-too-pleasant sensation in the crotch.
Other singers are full of bitterness and revelry in equal turn (and in both cases, certainly full of drink). John C. Reilly’s ode to his son John’s legs, lost to a cannonball in the tune “My Son John” has an acerbic edge masked by a sweet melody. Reilly’s more festive, fraternal “Fathom the Bowl” revels in bragadoccio.
A number of songs are shocking, bespeaking the power relations of sex in the unregulated, rough quarters of port neighborhoods. Gavin Friday’s “Baltimore Whores”, for instance, uses bluesy guitar note blends and an insidious, driving rhythm to testify to the dissolute life of a prostitute, who sings of servicing one man after another as if they were ships passing through her harbor of a womb: “Roly poly, tickle my holey, smell of my slimey slew,” the prostitute sings, bragging about her sexual capacities, “then drag your nuts across my guts, I’m one of the whorey crew”.
Pirates, whores, sailors, widows, peg-legs, and the like—this is quite a lot of humanity on one album. Other highlights include Jarvis Cocker’s massive, oar-heaving “A Drop of Nelson’s Blood”, Van Dyke Parks’ happy “Greenland Whale Fisheries”, and Bryan Ferry’s ghost-story of a duet with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) on “Lowlands Low”. Onetime Bob Dylan pal Bob Neuwirth mans the deck with his mates on “Haul on the Bowline”. Lou Reed pulls a fellow sailor away from a beautiful damsel in “Leave Her Johnny”.
On the other side of the gender divide, Lucinda Williams sings what might be called an early environmentalist ballad of the destruction of the oak forests in Ireland to build ships in “Bonny Portmore”. Andrea Corr sings of “Coroline and Her Young Sailor Bold”. And Mary Margaret O’Hara sings about “The Cry of Man”. Teddy Thompson tells the story of the mysterious everywoman-figure, “Sally Brown”. And Baby Gramps returns with a reverie of mermaids on “The Old Man of the Sea”. Pere Ubu’s David Thomas rivals Baby Gramps for strangeness on the quick-and-dirty snippets “Dan Dan” and “What Do We Do with the Drunken Sailor”. The artist Ralph Steadman (of Hunter S. Thompson fame) closes out the album with the tale of an old shipmate who becomes admiral in “Little Boy Billie”.
There are many songs here, but as befits the vastness of the ocean, they are not all done in the same style. One of Wilner’s wisest choices in shaping the album was to forego authenticity for expressiveness. We get plenty of acoustic guitar, accordion, and choral chanting, but we also get linkages to contemporary music. The old experiences of the sea, from its inequalities and injustices to its strong, communitarian spirit are also alive in the emotions of more recent forms of song. The energies are there in the angry, electric guitar of punk, the misogyny of southern rock, the tenderness of a wistful, singer-songwriter ballad, even in the atmospheric explorations of avant-jazz. The pirates in this Rogue’s Gallery are not wax-museum figures, but are living, breathing, singing, shouting people. They are yearning for freedom, greedy for riches, full of libido, eager for communion with their fellow man, callow and ignorant, spiteful and loving, wise and regal, spontaneous and cautious, generous one moment and hoarding their treasures the next, full of joy, zest, charm, and abandon as well as fear, sadness, regret, and all other shades of emotion.
The range of music made by these pirates, sailors, and there assorted companions reminded me that even when harnessed for commodification, music can still evade its enslavement to the rationalized forces of empire building. There is more to piracy than meets the patched eye. In an age when piracy remains among us, certainly on the high seas still, but more prevalently in the digital shipping channels of the New Economy, music continues to speak to alternative ways of feeling and being even as it moves through the network of the machine. As we BitTorrent and blog our ways toward some kind of strange, odd resistance to the imperial powers of capital, these songs track our progress. They burst out from their marketed stockades, threatening to mutiny.
You might have to walk the plank for taking their messages and emotions seriously. Just don’t get the clap from them.