Trip Hop

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Trip Hop

Tropical BrainstormDeath by Chocolate











In These Shoes?, by Kirsty MacColl (2001), encountered 2005

Buy it here | Hear it here | Available on Spotify | See it here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

Jim the Jinn, by De-Phazz (2001), encountered 2005

Buy it here | Available on Spotify | See it here | Lyrics here

If you’re lucky, you’ll spend your earliest years in a fine flush of rapture in which everything seems new and memorable. Later on, unless you make up your mind not to grow up like Peter Pan or Jim Morrison and you’re more successful at it than most of us, you won’t go on perceiving things that way. Having made the sensible choice to grow up, you’ll find that most of the time, most of the things around you will appear “bleared, smeared with toil,” to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase. Yet even then, life affords the occasional wormhole moment, when gaps open up in your mental cosmos and allow you momentary trips back into that earlier state of mind.

In late February 2005, I stumbled on a wormhole.

It was time. After various struggles (some recounted in these pages) that had predictably done their share to blear and smear, I had reached a non-ecstatic, if comfortable, adult moment. I was eleven years into being my own boss. I was writing a newspaper column, and receiving some respect in my profession. My mother and my wife’s mother were in a stable environment where we could keep an eye on them. Our son was in the last throes of childhood. Mary’s writing was going well still; the great destruction the Internet wrought on freelance journalism was a year or two in the future. Everything was sufficiently under control. But there wasn’t much contact with what Hopkins called the “dearest freshness deep down things.”

And it was time for some fun, the perfect moment for me to encounter Trip Hop. Let me acknowledge immediately that there’s a complete lack of unanimity in what that label means.[1] But for me it was captured in two CDs I ordered from Amazon the preceding month, and fell in love with immediately.

I was playing them on the day our son Matt and I drove the 110 snow-covered miles from Baltimore to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. We were making the drive to join Mary, who’d traveled there the day before, to be a judge in a water contest.

A What Contest?

101_0149That’s right, a water contest, a showdown among various brands of bottled spring water. This simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, among the commonest and most homogeneous stuff in the universe, was competing and being judged, fundamentally, on minute differences amongst the impurities its bottlers were compelled to purvey, a bug treated as a feature. And Mary, by virtue of her travel writing, had been made a judge. The whole enterprise evinced a happy frivolity.

How appropriate, then, were the two CDs in the car’s player! One was Death by Chocolate, a collection of collage-like songs full of sampling and turntablism by De-Phazz,[2] a German collective with at least a couple of Americans sprinkled in, all performed in English. My favorite was Jim the Jinn, which I’d first encountered as the music (speeded up) for the opening titles in the movie The Truth About Charlie,[3] and been so enthusiastic about that first I’d bought the soundtrack album, and then, in January, the source album, Death by Chocolate. The song was all about shape-shifting:

You might just be a poor tailor’s lazy son

I don’t mind, rub the lamp

and the show goes on

I can make you travel in time and space

I can change your sex,

I can change your race

If that weren’t enough, the song begins and ends with the throwaway phrase “Daddy was just a girl in disguise.” The movie was about shape-shifting, too, being a remake of Charade, both movies full of sinister people who keep turning up in different contexts, and an apparently wholesome guy whose claimed name and job keep changing. De-Phazz’s music is irresistible, from the first upsweep of a harp to the bouncy, trombone chorus-propelled fuselage of the song. You cannot possibly take any of it seriously.

Shoe Fetishism and Cuban Trumpet Breaks

The other album was Kirsty MacColl’s Tropical Brainstorm, an extended exercise in sublime frivolity with a strong Cuban accent. Come to think of it, its mambo flavor was itself a form of shape-shifting for a quintessentially British pop songwriter and performer. The standout song, In These Shoes?, is a upbeat tale of the singer being propositioned by three different men. She cheerfully accepts each overture in principle, but she has to evaluate the specifics of the proposed tryst relative to her shoes. Two of the guys are told that “in these shoes,” the idea of making her tramp or ride a horse somewhere else to get it on is … not on. The shoes aren’t described, but it seems likely from the description of the third encounter that shoe fetish styles may be involved. All to the sound of Cuban trumpet breaks and a somewhat inconsequential chorus sung in Spanish by a female chorus.

101_0146It was perfect background music for that day, the whole of which was just for fun. We picked up Mary at the bed-and-breakfast where she’d stayed the preceding night. We walked DSCN2129around the park in the heart of town, taking in an apothecary and a print shop. We drove Mary up to the Coolfont,[4] where the judging was to be, stopping to admire the nearby valley. Then Matt and I drove back and took a Roman bath in the heart of town, fed of course by the eponymous Springs. Matt and I had never had a Roman bath before, and found it a wonderful change from the cold weather outside. We also drove off westward, exploring, and ended up in Cumberland. I wanted to show Matt the locomotive shops where I had spent so much time two decades before, as I’ve written in these pages. DSCN2136We came back and took pictures of Mary in judging mode, before going to dinner with her and driving back to Baltimore.

Somewhere along the line, maybe while I was uncharacteristically unwinding in the baths with my son, it came to me not merely that I was happy, but that everything around me seemed wondrous. As we drove through the woods in the chilly afternoon in the direction of Cumberland, that feeling persisted. The way the winter sunlight cut through the denuded trees and blinked upon our car seemed a revelation – of what I cannot say, but maybe that’s merely because words are lacking, not because nothing was revealed.

Unnameable Connection

DSCN2132Even when we got to the Cumberland shops, which Matt, it must be said, found massively unimpressive, and which seemed to me to have lost some of their grandeur (perhaps along with some grime), the feeling did not go away, perhaps owing to a perception that the diminution of the mundane, workaday shops only highlighted the lasting grandeur of the surrounding hills, the works of God almost always overshadowing those of mankind.

So what then was the connection that day between the frivolous fun of the music and of the water-judging competition on the one hand and the more serious sense of Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things”? Again, impossible to articulate in any way I find convincing. All I can say with confidence is that there was a connection, that light-hearted fun is sometimes a gateway, likely sometimes the only gateway, to something much more profound. There are those who scorn fun as a distraction from the proper objects of our attention. Days like that February day assure me they are wrong.


[1]. The term has been used to characterize everything from extreme electronica to torch, in other words denoting everything from a stylized absence of human emotionality to a stylized overindulgence in that emotionality, from a deliberate deprivation of the satisfactions of melody to a saturation in melody, from a dadaistic rejection of intelligibility to the height of ironic distance from uncomplicated emotion – a distance which requires a good deal of intelligibility to convey.

[2]. I’ve also seen it rendered as DePhazz and De|Phazz.

[3]. I’m not sure when I saw the movie. It came out in 2002, but, as I recall, I and Mary had planned to see it twice and were foiled, in one instance by a sold-out theater. I believe my first encounter with the film would have been as a rental, and I’m guessing it was sometime in 2004.

[4]. Alas, as of this writing it appears that this historic resort hotel is closed, and the lands surrounding it will likely be repurposed for vacation homes.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album cover art

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