Tag Archives: sailing

Indian Queens – Nick Lowe

I’ve come up dry this week. I’ve been busy doing mixes for James McKean’s next record, as well as stuff by Yo Zushi, Mel and myself, and I’ve hardly listened to music other than the stuff I’m working on. I’ve pulled this one out of my archives. It’s about a record I’ve written about before, but you’ll forgive me, I hope. Stay safe and well.

The study of place names is a means of studying history and topography. The place-name element “ford”, as you would imagine, means a shallow a river crossing. Catford is the place where cattle crossed the river; Oxford, the place where oxen did likewise. “Ham” means a village or dwelling. Lewisham (the “Lewis” bit deriving from “læsew”, meaning meadow) means a village, or house, in the meadow. Birmingham is the dwelling place of the Beormingas, the followers of a leader called Beorma. A “hurst” is a wooded hill; Chislehurst means literally “gravel hill”. The ubiquitous place-name elements “chester”, “caster” and “cester” all derive from “castrum”, the Roman word for a fort.

Know a bit about place names, and already you know whether the place is built by a river or on a hill, whether it’s inland or coastal, wooded or farmed, and even how long it’s been there.

What are we to make, then, of Indian Queens in Cornwall?

By all accounts, the village was named for its inn, called at various points The Indian Queen and The Indian Queens. The pub had a small porch and displayed as a sign the portrait of an “Indian” queen. An inscription on the porch told the story of a Portuguese princess who landed at Falmouth and slept one night at the inn on her way to London. Her Mediterranean appearance gave the locals, who had little context for any skin tone other than the three basic British types (milky white, ruddy red for those who work outside, and midday beetroot for heavy drinkers) the impression that she was Indian. Whether they meant by that a West Indian, a Native American or South Asian is, again, debated. Some fanciful types even like to imagine the woman in question was not Portuguese but was, in fact, Pocahontas on her way to be shown off to London society.

Indian Queens is the title of a song by Nick Lowe, from his 2001 album, The Convincer. At the time, Lowe was only 52, but in the cover image, as he sat cigarette in hand, resplendent in silver quiff, blue blazer, cufflinks, pinstriped shirt and pale tie, he looked closer to the age he is now (70). Thanks to his tobacco-thickened voice, he sounded older, too, which is appropriate for Indian Queens, as a younger singer would have trouble selling this story of an itinerant sailor who’s been all around the world, making mistakes everywhere, and now longing for the village of his youth.

Indian Queens, evocative and intriguing though the name is, plays little part in the song itself. Lowe could have chosen anything that fit the metre. But character sketches like this song live or die on the little details, and the fact that our narrator comes from a small village in Cornwall with a somewhat improbable name is a exactly the kind of thing that brings both character and song to life.

I love Lowe’s work on The Convincer. It’s a low-stakes record, but in paring his sound and lyrical approach down to their barest essentials (the economy of language in Indian Queens is massively impressive – he sketches situations and characters in just a line or two of simple, mainly one-syllable words), Lowe made what might be the best album of his career sound like something he just dashed off in a couple of evenings with his mates. The man’s a damn genius.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

The Lee Shore – David Crosby and Graham Nash

One sure way to make me happy is to put something by David Crosby on the stereo. I love Croz – his voice, his tunes, his chords, his scat singing. His work, in sound, mood and atmosphere, is singular: no one else can do with a guitar and voice what he does (and, to declare a bias, many of my favourite artists are similar voice-and-guitar one-offs: Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Paul Simon). Get Graham Nash to sing a harmony on top and I’ll listen for hours.

It’s not just Crosby’s music that fascinates me; it’s his career, his place in the history of rock’n’roll, too. As one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young he was a part of America’s instant Beatles, the four conquering heroes of the counterculture. Yet to win their crown, all they had to do was turn up. They did not need to conquer the world one gig at a time as for example Led Zeppelin did, with their four tours in 1970 alone. They were all already famous from their time in their previous bands and their record had already been released, so they simply picked Woodstock as their coming-out party and made sure they played well enough to justify the hype. That performance alone secured their reputation, as well as introducing the world to CSNY. And in retrospect it is a pivotal moment in the West Coast scene’s move from the socially progressive idealism of the folk-rock mid-sixties to the cocaine-fuelled megalomania of the arena-rock mid-seventies.

By 1977, when CSN made their third album (simply called CSN), the first wave of singer-songwriters (of whom Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as individual artists, can all be properly judged to belong) had either ascended to a level of idiosyncrasy that made their music sui generis (like Young, whose ragged electric rock distinguished him firmly from his mellow peers, and Joni Mitchell, who was getting progressively jazzier) or were sliding into a mushy, inoffensive soft rock. Such was the fate of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The tracks on CSN were all meditative relationship songs, Fleetwood Mac with a softer beat and the extremes of emotion removed. The cover picture was of the three of them sharing a joke on Crosby’s yacht and this kind of music, as we have discussed in relation to Bobby Caldwell, has come to be known as yacht rock, which is shorthand for a smooth and airy soft rock which spoke loudly of its authors’ success and privilege, symbolised by the yachts on which so many were pictured for album covers. The record’s all very pleasant and the craftsmanship is obvious, but something crucial has been lost here. While the music of the singer-songwriters was usually interior-looking – and by extension could be criticised as self-absorbed and narcissistic – it was still implicitly counter-cultural when so much of it was about quality of consciousness. To examine one’s own existence and in so doing admit that Western capitalism is not in itself enough to bring about peace of mind – let alone enlightenment – is in itself a political act. What infected the music of CSN (and they were far from alone in this) after around 1974 is complacency. The authors of these songs are no longer asking any questions, even of themselves. They seem unaware that there might be a need to.

The Lee Shore had been written as early as 1970, before this rot sets in. As he relates taking his ‘floating home […] from here to Venezuela’, Crosby – a keen real-life sailor – is once again caught on the horns of that old dilemma: to engage with the world and its inequalities and inequities on one hand, or just drop out and create an alternate society, away from everyone else’s rules, on the other. As a successful rock star, the option to do the latter was available to him. But it was a question he seems never to have resolved within himself. In the end, caught up in the inertial forces of his own addictions and his grief over his girlfriend Christine Hinton’s death in a car accident, he chose instead to bury the issue under cocaine and heroin and it cost him fifteen years of his life.

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David Crosby almost cut his hair once. He’s still wondering why he didn’t.

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?