Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter-themed excerpts from "The Grave & The Gay"

My novel, The Grave & The Gay, takes place during Easter time in 17th-century Lancashire, England. Here are two Easter-themed excerpts. You can learn more about the book at

It had been a brutally hard winter – dozens in the county had died of exposure or illness – and this much-anticipated sign of change was as welcome to the weary Lancastrians as the sight of a branch in the beak of Noah’s dove must have been to the survivors of the Great Deluge. Together with the increased chatter of returning birds and the reappearance of tight green buds on vines and shrubs, these heralds of the new season inspired a restless euphoria in all.
Never mind that one’s breath was still clearly visible at dawn and in the evenings, or that fires as much for warmth as for cooking still burned in people’s hearths. No, impatience prevailed and folks were already out and about, preparing for the Eastertime celebrations to come.
Mind you, in spring impatience is indeed a virtue. It is the impatience of the crocus pushing through the damp, softening soil that calls nature again to life. It is the impatience of the sun, no longer intent to give way to darkness so soon after supper, that gives light and thus encouragement to all human and natural pursuits. And it is the impatience of time itself that stands not a day longer in a single season than it must, because tomorrow is never inevitable and each day, each season, is a gift to the earth and all who live upon it.
That the advent of spring and the festival of Easter coincided was Divine inspiration, so it seemed to Lady Barnard. For the very stakes that her father used to support his nascent tomatoes and peas in spring reminded her of the cross in her church upon which the wooden sculpture of Jesus was nailed, awaiting his own ripening in heaven. Even the Lord’s nickname, the Lamb of God, reminded her of the fresh lamb that her father killed and her mother cooked and that graced their festival table on Easter afternoon.
In this season rich with tradition, small bands of enterprising young men gathered in taverns, on porches, in fields, and even in the rear pews on Sunday mornings, enlisting like-minded merry-makers to join their pace-egging troupes. “Pace”, of course, is from the Latin pacha, or spring. And eggs are the season’s most common symbol of rebirth. In this part of the country, the pace-eggers journey from town to town each Easter Sunday in wild costumes and with a song of entreaty, requesting favors – usually eggs boiled in onionskin or coins of any value – which they repay with a farcical play.
The dramatis personae of this play includes such rich characters as the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave, and the notorious Old Tosspot, whose coal-blackened face gapes and guffaws above the basket he waves to hold the aforementioned favors. In his other hand, the stronger one in fact, he holds a straw tail stuffed with pins, which he swings madly towards those who either are slow in paying into the basket or who have the temerity to try and steal its precious contents.
Following the play – not the Passion narrative as such, although a comical death and a magical rebirth of sorts usually transpires – Old Tosspot again bullies the crowd for favors. When the audience disperses for their own feasts, the eggs are eaten (and shells crushed, lest witches use them as boats to spread their spells and unholy mischief to other locales, so the legend goes) and the coins shared and pocketed, or else tendered in exchange for mugs of ale. The pace-eggers then make their way to another village and the entire act plays out again. By the end of the holiday, the pace-eggers would have consumed enough eggs and ale to keep them in their beds well into the following day.
Yet even as the men were organizing their bands; even as the women were cleaning their houses and making room in their kitchens for the game they would pluck and cook, and the pies and cakes they would bake; even as children dreaded the clean, newly knit clothes they had to wear to church, and the switch they knew would be taken to them if they misbehaved during the service, even with all this activity, this anticipation, at high pitch – still Easter was half a fortnight away.
Perhaps a milder winter would not have inspired such relentless desire of spring and all its vernal wonders. Yet rarely is spring met with indifference, especially here in Lancashire, still a Catholic stronghold, where the faithful greet this time of year with hope, for all have the capacity to change, to grow. And if the sun finds us and we strengthen in the warmth of its light, we, too, may be reborn in an eternal spring, a perfected flower in God’s vast, loving garden.


As soon as they reached the front porch, Lady Barnard could see the citizenry gathering in the street. She was eager to join them and all but pulled Darnell down the front steps with her. As they walked into town, Lady Barnard was entranced by the sight of so many people arrayed in their finery – or what passed for it, as few had the means to bedeck themselves in the elegant fabrics and jewels she had donned – and talking and laughing gaily in the morning sun.
They seemed to her like a bouquet of butterflies flitting and fluttering about. And when she passed through a throng, they scattered aside, not only in respect to her ladyship, but also in awe of her clothing and overall appearance. It reminded her of how she would run through a flock of birds as a child and delight in how they would flee from her waving arms and stomping feet, then she would beckon them back to her by spreading handfuls of her father’s grain on the ground.
This was what she had yearned for and needed. She was among the people, she had their attention, and they were both pleasantly surprised and soundly impressed by her beauty. Of course, this satisfied Darnell’s wishes as well, and in spite of the pain and nausea that wracked his insides he held his chin high with rare feelings of pride and self-satisfaction.
For Lady Barnard, however, this was just the beginning of satisfaction. Her true desire was not to be above the crowd – separate from it, as she had been before – but truly to be part of it. And so she tried, a bit awkwardly at first, to converse with them, to wish them a good holiday, to compliment the better of the bonnets and dresses that she saw.
The result was more than she could have anticipated. The townspeople, sufficiently delighted at merely the rare sighting of her, were positively entranced to learn that she was open, kind, and curious. More of them crowded around her, slowing her progress to the church. Not a few noted that her demeanor, so different from past years, was all the more engaging now without the presence of her husband, a man many respected but for whom few felt affection – or even really knew. Their indifference to him had never quite been directed with the same fervor at Lady Barnard, partly out of pity for her, partly because not enough was known of her to form an opinion.
In truth, no one in the town had much direct contact with her, if any at all. The man on her arm this day, Darnell the house servant, was for all intents and purposes her agent in the village. He ran almost all of her errands, and communicated her requests to various vendors. The people did not think much of the fact that Darnell was her escort to church – most knew Lord Barnard was out of town (though none knew he had prohibited his wife from leaving the house) and, after all, a servant does what a servant is commanded to do – though Darnell imagined that his stock among the people with whom he dealt daily rose significantly by virtue of his being seen with her in public.
Though she was impatient to actually get to the church for Easter Mass, she was only too happy to indulge her newfound admirers and she radiated pure pleasure at their close company. Darnell, however, took it as his responsibility to ensure that the presumed objective was achieved, and begged the crowd to move along so that all may begin the holiday commemoration. Thus, their pace accelerated, and soon the church, from steeple to steps, rose into view.
The church was set up on an elevation flanked by a dense grove of pine trees. The ornate mahogany doors and stained glass windows were imported from Italy (through connections of Lord Barnard’s father, who also contributed a significant share of their cost), but the parishioners were proud to have done most of the construction themselves. The elder Barnard, in fact, had fashioned a number of the pews himself using the adjacent supply of pine.
The front lawn of the church was of a sufficiently low grade that it was easy to walk up to the entrance from the street. Lush green and clear of the towering trees that brought shade to the other sides of the structure, the grounds were a popular site for picnics and games. And if Reverend Collins noticed that there were more than a few who came often for recreation and rarely or never for spiritual reflection, he was heartened that they at least had come to pass their time on sacred ground.
When Darnell and Lady Barnard entered the church, they continued to attract the stares of the congregation. Swiftly, they walked towards the front pew. As they approached it, a man sitting on the end arose and offered the lady and her escort his seat. It was Matty, and he smiled and bowed at Lady Barnard with his most affecting expression. Her heart fell out of its rhythm momentarily and she nearly gasped at finally seeing from less than an arm’s length away the man about whom she had fantasized. Recovering her composure, she nodded to Matty and proceeded forward into the pew. Darnell, at her side, came after, greeting Matty with a thinly veiled sneer.
When was the last time Matty came to church on time, he wondered, and when had he ever sat so close to the Virgin (or any virgin)?
Indeed, having sacrificed his seat, Matty moved to the rear of the church. Lady Barnard turned to watch him walk away. Without removing her eyes from his departing backside, she leaned towards Darnell and inquired, “What is that man’s name?”
“That is Matthew Musgrave, who minds Lord Barnard’s horses,” he replied, not without a trace of derision in his voice. “He is called Matty. I hope he has not tracked in straw that may soil your clothing.”
Lady Barnard nodded with a wisp of a smile upon her lips. She might have turned back to steal another look at the object of her longing, but the choir launched into a hymn she only faintly heard as her attention turned inward to the theatre of her imagination, where the curtains were slowly opening.

Friday, March 22, 2013

After 40 Years, King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic Is Still a Delicacy

One of my favorite albums of all time is one that I bought in error. One summer, I had served an apprenticeship of sorts. It was 1978, I was 15 years old, and I was working at a summer camp where I became friends with a guy named David Kaplan. He was a few years older than me and a very good guitarist, shy but also very funny. And he had exceptional taste in music: jazz, fusion, progressive rock. I expressed interest and he was happy to school me. It is thanks to him that I am a fanatic about Gentle Giant. It was through him that I first heard the music of Chick Corea. And it was because of him that I became introduced to King Crimson.

If memory serves, he only had one King Crimson album, but it was one that I liked very much. The album was called Starless and Bible Black and it had been released in 1974, back when I was listening to the Monkees, the Osmond Brothers, and the Jackson Five. What struck me most was the first song, a barnstormer called “The Great Deceiver,” which began with the startling couplet, “Health food faggot with a bartered bride/Likes to comb his hair with a dipper ride.” I found it funny but the music itself was relentlessly exciting, aggressive, and surprising. I didn’t know it at the time, but much of it was improvised and recorded live in concert, though the applause had been edited out so it appeared to be a studio-recorded album.

The musicians were Robert Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, David Cross on violin, and Bill Bruford on drums. David told me that if I liked this album, then I might like the debut album by a new group called U.K., which featured both Wetton and Bruford. This would prove a pattern for me. As I became more sophisticated about music, I would be drawn to bands already defunct or decaying and ignore the music scene that existed around me currently. In 1978, I was ignorant of the emerging New Wave, except for local heroes The Cars. But I couldn’t be bothered because I had nearly a decade of prog history to catch up on.

When camp was over, I went on a shopping spree. I bought Gentle Giant’s Free Hand and U.K.’s eponymous album. Next, I went searching for the King Crimson album with the funny lyric and ferocious music. Trouble was, I couldn’t remember the name of the album or even the cover image. I could, however, for whatever reason, recall the typography (it would be a full decade before I found myself actually working for a digital font company). In one store’s rack, I scoured the King Crimson section and found what I thought was what I was looking for. I bought it, took it home, unsealed it, and put it on my turntable.

Immediately, I knew I had purchased the wrong album. Where Starless and Bible Black had opened with a bang, this one opened with a kalimba, an African thumb piano. Soft percussion builds over the first minute until a violin enters and then fades, reappearing at the three-minute mark, where soon it is joined by Fripp’s guitar. Violin dominates until about 4:30, when all hell breaks loose, and for the first time I am assured that even if I had the album wrong, at least I got the group right.

The album I purchased was Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, released 40 years ago today, on March 23, 1973. It was the first edition of the group to feature the lineup I detailed earlier, and in fact included an additional musician, percussionist Jamie Muir, who left shortly after the album was recorded to join a monastery. The lineup was responsible for the two albums already mentioned, as well as 1974’s Red (the follow-up studio release to Starless and Bible Black, which featured the much-reduced presence of violinist Cross), and a live album, USA, released in 1975 but recorded prior to Red.

For the next 46-and-a-half minutes, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic beat me into submission. It was an overwhelming experience. It began, I suppose, with the cover, a striking sun/moon image that had no words on it at all. The 13:36 opener, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 1,” went through various sections, alternately fast and slow, incorporating at one point dialogue from a television drama. In later years, when I first heard Arvo Pärt’s “Miserere,” I likened it to this track as it repeatedly goes from hushed tones to full-throttle chaos in an instant.

The opening track is followed by a short but lovely ballad. “Book of Saturday” clocks in at just under three minutes and features guitar, bass, and violin, along with a nice vocal. It is as calming as the previous track was unnerving. Side 1 ends with “Exiles,” another vocal number; that and the three songs on Side 2 all range between just over seven and just under eight minutes long. “Exiles” is a mostly gentle song featuring the full band, a minor mellow epic that seems to suggest that the opening track was an aberration; that the tunes, short or long, are ambitious but soothing. The opening to Side 2 quickly dispels this notion.

“Easy Money,” the Side 2 opener, brings back the dark dissonance in another multi-part piece that has no trouble balancing a near-a capella opening verse with full-band, full-throttle musical mania. Bruford is a master at repelling any attempt on the listener’s part to tap their foot along with the beat. Just when it seems you have it, it changes and as much as it may initially seem that he’s hitting his snare at random intervals, you realize there’s a logic to it and that he’s in complete control at all times, sometimes making his statement with a crack of the snare and sometimes making it with utter silence. The song ends with the rather frightening sound of a laugh box.

This is followed by a mesmerizing instrumental called “The Talking Drum,” which very slowly and gradually builds from a barely audible groove to a revving turbo charge of energy that must soon be ready to release – yet it doesn’t. It stops on a dime with the metallic opening riff of the album’s closer, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2.” Very unlike “Part 1,” this one is a straight hard blast of immense electric power, a roiling instrumental that takes no prisoners and shows no mercy.

Thus it was that I ended up instantly loving this album that I bought in error, which only served to propel me back to a different store to find Starless and Bible Black and explore the King Crimson catalogue thoroughly, just as I began to do with the prog and fusion artists mentioned earlier and others that I and my friends were yet to discover. Forty years after Larks’ Tongues in Aspic was released, 35 after I first heard it, it remains a remarkable work that is always in power rotation on my home stereo.