TRAVEL IN THE SHADOWS
O magic city of a dream!
From glory unto glory gleam
And I will gaze and pity those
Who on their pillows drowse and doze…
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
The first quoted stanzas are from Robert Service’s poem “Insomnia,” the second from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo.” These are the bookends of Noctambule’s haunting Travel In the Shadows, a meditative, reflective concept album centered on a traveler’s (or travelers’) journey through the not-unstill night to the moment when they greet dawn’s early light with resolve to engage anew with whatever the day, and life, offers.
The one poet Noctambule might also have quoted could have offered this appropriate maxim too: “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night…” but Bruce Springsteen didn’t make the cut.
Nevertheless, what Noctambule—Marla Fibish and Bruce Victor, both based in San Francisco—has wrought here is a special moment both soothing and, in its carefully crafted, tender stringed instrument arrangements and earthy vocals, enthralling as well. They are guided by the words not only of Service (mostly—five of the 12 tracks are musical interpretations of his verse) and Ms. St. Vincent Millay but also of Pablo Neruda (from whose poem this album takes its title), Theodore Roethke and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Ms. Fibish contributes a lively, bouncy mandolin-driven instrumental, “Captain Chalupa” (with solid rhythm guitar support from Mr. Victor) and the duo teams on a quiet, contemplative “Waltz for Danae,” with Ms. Fibish leading the way on mandolin and adding atmospheric accordion washes over Mr. Victor’s delicate six-string guitar picking, both instruments fitting right in with the after-hours ambience infusing the entire album.
Apart from the principals here, the main beneficiary of Noctambule’s concept is the yet underrated England-born so-called “Bard of the Yukon,” Robert Service. A true man of the world when that was not an easy thing to be, Service, born in 1874, spent part of his youth in Scotland; moved to Canada when he was 21, where he composed the works that made him famous in his time, starting with “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” the best selling poetry collection Songs of a Sourdough, the novel The Trail of ’98 and another book of verse, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone. Though born into a well-to-do family (his father was a banker), Service fancied himself a rough and rugged character and took to wandering the globe, “from California to British Columbia” and from job to job, “starving in Mexico, residing in a California bordello, farming on Vancouver Island and pursuing an unrequited love in Vancouver,” according to one of his biographers. Eventually he gravitated back to the good life by taking a job at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria, British Columbia, which afforded him a chance to hobnob with the upper crust as a polo player and to dress in the highest of fashion, including a raccoon coat. Relocating to Paris in 1913, Service remained in the City of Lights for 15 years, posing as a painter, marrying a local lass 13 years his junior and writing a vivid, often moving semiautobiographical book of poetry, Ballads of the Bohemians, in which the protagonist is an American poet in Paris who serves as an ambulance driver and an infrantyman in WWI (Service himself tried to enlist but was rejected owing to his varicose veins) and, in between the verses, pens diary entries spanning a four-year period. After World War I, when he “settled down to being a rich man in Paris,” according his biography at RobertWService.com, “during the day he would promenade in the best suits, with a monocle. At night he went out in old clothes with the company of his doorman, a retired policeman, to visit the lowest dives of the city.” He made trips to the Soviet Union, mocked Hitler in newspaper verse, and during WWII relocated to California and joined other celebrities in helping boost the morale of U.S. troops by reciting his poems at Army camps (he even had a role in a feature film, The Spoilers, starring Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott). Between 1949 and 1955 he published six books of verse and wrote another that was published posthumously following his death in 1958.
Noctambule (Marla Fibish and Bruce Victor) perform ‘nsomnia,’ Marla’s original musical setting of two Robert Service poems (‘Moon Song’ and ‘Insomnia’), in his collection, Ballads of a Bohemian,’ written while the poet was residing in Paris. It was performed as the first song of the CD release concert at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on October 1, 2013, for the duo’s new album, Travel in the Shadows.
Some wags have posited Service as the most commercially successful poet of the 20th Century; whether that is true, he was without question beloved by the masses in a way few poets were, which may have been his critical undoing. In his lifetime he heard his work denounced as not being “serious poetry” but rather “popular poetry,” a lesser form, and one Canadian professor dismissed his Yukon books as “frankly imitative of Kipling’s barrack-room balladry, and imitation is an admission of inferiority.” Service’s answer to these charges was in his writings while in Canada at the turn of the century. In one passage from his Yukon years, he states outright: “Verse, not poetry, is what I was after… something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please.”
Popular poetry anyone? Those of a certain age might be reminded of the obloquy the intelligentsia visited on Rod McKuen in the ‘60s.
We are not going to solve anything here related to Robert Service’s standing among the great poets of the past century; but we will point out how Ms. Fibish and Mr. Victor have found something transcendent in the spirit of Service’s verse and fashioned music around it that will make a listener sit up and take notice of beauty heretofore overlooked in the simple reading and recitation of that verse. That their songs and settings are nocturnally oriented may well have stemmed from Service’s explanation of the mise-en-scene of his celebrated poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” based on an actual incident of a Canadian miner who reduced to ashes his deceased friend’s body. About this chilling chronicle, Service said: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun.” And that’s where Travel In the Shadows begins.
Bruce Victor of Noctambule performs the traditional tune ‘Madam I’m a Darlin’,’ from the album Travel In the Shadows, at the CD release party at Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA, October 1, 2013
The songs perambulate worlds of dark and light but are most comfortable in the moonlit hours, when the quiet time inspires reflection, even amidst harsh and jarring images: “Mad old world good morning” goes the ironic refrain in “Noctambule,” a Service poem in which a possibly inebriated narrator’s day begins at night and he fairly delights in confronting garbage cans overflowing “in obscene array,” which does not repulse him but rather inspires the wish “that they smelled as sweet as clover.” Ms. Fibish sings this with matter of fact directness and accompanies herself with sturdy plucking from which emerges a brusque tonality in her instrument that suits her satisfied air when, at song’s end, she welcomes sunrise by climbing into bed and anticipates having a good snore while the natural world awakens outside. “The Bohemian Dreams,” set in a Parisian bistro and to music inspired by a Quebecois waltz clog slowed to a deliberate tempo in which the intertwining Greek bouzouki and six-string guitar created a medieval feel, finds the protagonist sitting and nursing a glass of wine and musing on what he might do if he were in any number of other exotic locations watching the world go about through its paces while he takes it all in—it’s all so fanciful and alluring, lyrically and melodically, as to hide, or at least underplay (thanks in part to Ms. Fibish playing her role so well, singing in her sweet voice but with nary a smidgen of regret), the stasis enveloping the narrator, who is doing nothing meaningful in his own life but looking on as others try to take their stand.
Songs such as these reflect one dimension of Service’s journeys. “Lost” offers a stark contrast to the boozy daydreams (or night dreams, as it were) of the Paris years, when the “Bard of the Yukon” chronicled the sad but not uncommon misfortune of a young man who got lost in the Alaskan wilderness and froze to death. The lovely, ambitious arrangement—with guitar, 12-string-16 fret guitar, cello, violas and strings—conjures the ambiance of a lullaby; and indeed, the twist in the story is that the boy begins to feel his parents’ anxiety over his fate and tries to reach out to console them over time and space, all the while fighting off the sleep that will spell his doom, as it eventually does.
Noctambule performs ‘A Suddeness of Trees,’ the duo’s musical setting of Theodore Roethke’s poem, ‘Night Journey,’ featured on the album Travel in the Shadows. With Jeri Jones (of Blame Sally) on electric slide guitar; Sylvia Herold (of Euphonia and Wake the Dead, among others) and Patrice Haan (of Leftover Dreams) on accompanying vocals. At Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA, October 1.
Not that the duo is consumed by tales of shiftless drunks and ill-fated Yukon neophytes. The abovementioned instrumentals–“Captain Chalupa” and “Waltz for Danae”—are welcome respites well played and bracing in their distinctive ways. Mr. Victor has a star turn vocally on “Madam I’m a Darlin,’” the oft-recorded traditional song most associated with the late, great Irish singer Frank Harte. Its narrative recounts an older man’s seduction of a “fair young maiden” he finds “washing her clothes in the pale moonlight.” As the story unfolds and the gent maneuvers her to the point where “all the game was above her knee,” Victor becomes bolder, resulting in a genuinely humorous moment when he has great sport with the verse, “Madam I will tie your garter/I will tie it above your knee/And if you like I’ll tie it up further/Madam I’m a darlin’ di ro day.” The spirit of conquest is unabashed and unapologetic.
Thus many but not all the joys of Travel In the Shadows. Some may find the precision singing—the careful enunciation, the hewing to the melody line—a bit too academic on first blush, as if Noctambule were a couple of old folkies striving to “preserve the art,” always cause for suspicion. But on repeat listens the album’s virtues are more apparent, and precision becomes a means by which Ms. Fibish, who does almost all the singing, unearths the beauty, nay the poetry, of Service’s verse. So listen again, and again, and in time, in short order, in fact, Travel In the Shadows will cast a certain spell you’ll be anxious to revisit, even as inspires, perhaps, another, closer evaluation of the underestimated Robert Service.