Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Madame George and Shalimar Perfume

The following edited post comes from Christopher Laws' culturedallroundman blog.  Click on the link for the full post. 

Madame George and Guerlain’s Shalimar
 A Portal to Perfumery

If asked, and obliged to be concise, I would name Astral Weeks by Van Morrison as my favourite album and Madame George from that album as my favourite song. This is a brief history of how the album and the song came about and how it encouraged, in turn, an interest in a particular perfume.

Van Morrison’s band, Them, disbanded in 1966. Morrison signed a contract in haste with Bang Records – a label just then founded by Bert Berns.  Van recorded over two days a group of songs which Bang Records released as the album Blowin’ Your Mind!. Morrison, apparently neither consulted or made aware of the release, was thoroughly displeased, believing the songs he had recorded would only be released as singles and that they did not, together, comprise a coherent stream of music.

One of the songs was Brown Eyed Girl which reached the top ten of the American charts in the middle of 1967. Increasingly in dispute with Berns – who made it difficult for Morrison to get gigs in New York; and who failed to provide anything approaching assistance when Morrison faced visa problems, eventually solved when he married his American girlfriend – Morrison relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He began performing some songs around Cambridge and Boston which he’d written and kept to himself over the past several years. Motivated by Brown Eyed Girl, some producers from Warner Bros. attended one of these performances; the group included Lewis Merenstein, part of Inherit Productions with whom Warner Bros. had a working relationship; and Merenstein, moved in particular by a performance of Astral Weeks, determined to sign Morrison and set to work on an album.

Astral Weeks was recorded over three sessions, with its eight songs ultimately drawn from two of the three: the first, taking place on the evening of September 25 and the last, on the evening of October 15. The middle session, on October 1, apparently took place in the morning which didn’t provide the right sort of feel for the music they were engaging with. There is a palpable sense of the evening through Astral Weeks. The musicians that the recordings brought together were talented and experienced.  The two most prominent were double-bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner.
Madame George was one of four songs recorded during the first session, alongside Cyprus Avenue, ‘Beside You’, and the title composition. Despite the pedigree of the musicians, it remains one of the miracles of art that a collection of people who had not worked with each other before, and who played without lead sheets – which provided the musicians significant freedom of expression – came together and made these four pieces in one sitting. John Cale was working in an adjacent studio, and years later reported that, ‘Morrison couldn’t work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes’. This account doesn’t appear quite true: Morrison recorded concurrently with the rest of the musicians, but apparently somewhat isolated, in a separate vocal booth. Yet the resultant music transcends music, inseparable from the heart and the soul of Van Morrison developed and revealed in his singing.

Madame George was originally called Madame Joy, and first recorded while Van Morrison was still with Bang Records. A version of the song, titled Madame George but with Morrison singing Madame Joy throughout, was released on the 1973 album put out by Bang against Morrison’s wishes, T.B. Sheets (Columbia later compiled the same recordings on a 1991 release, Bang Masters). Whereas the titular song indicates – in its surging rhythmic claustrophobia, its emotion, its closeness to suffering – what was to come on Astral Weeks, the version of Madame George on T.B. Sheets is much looser, drawing more from R&B and funk than jazz, coming in at half the length, and with an atmosphere of the pub or the club, emphasised by the audible background chatter and drinking. 

As it appears on Astral Weeks, the song is a ten-minute recollection, a monologue in which the speaker recalls tenderly a scene from his youth, a character, and their physical passing but emotional and metaphysical remains. The speaker pulls the scene apart and places it together piece by piece, talking himself explicitly through his recollection, recounting to himself ‘That’s when you fall’, and the moment ‘You know you gotta go / On a train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, / Throwing pennies at the bridges down below, / In the rain, hail, sleet and snow’. The music critic Lester Bangs, in a beautiful piece of writing published in 1979, refers to the title character of the song as a ‘lovelorn drag queen’, and this seems indisputable from the song’s lyrics and gestures, though some have read ‘George’ as a reference to heroin. What follows are the song’s opening lines:
Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision slipping into view
The click and clacking of the high-heeled shoe
Ford and Fitzroy Madame George
Marching with the soldier boy behind
He’s much older now with hat on drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
The cool night air like Shalimar

The House of Guerlain was founded in 1828 in Paris by Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain, a chemist who moved into cosmetics, began to focus on perfumery, and had increasing success in a fledgling market. Pierre-François was able to open a store on the prestigious rue de la Paix in 1840. When Pierre-François died in 1864, with Guerlain well established in Paris and receiving commissions from royalty across Europe, the perfumery passed to his sons, Aimé and Gabriel. They took respectively the responsibilities of master perfumer and commercial manager: the one worked on the fragrances whilst the other took care of finances, production and marketing.
Shalimar was created in 1921. The apocryphal tale of its development goes that Jacques, by way of experiment, simply poured whole a sample of vanillin into a bottle of Jicky perfume – and Shalimar was the result. Shalimar was re-released in 1925 in a bottle designed by Raymond Guerlain, and made by the crystal house Baccarat, and has been in continual production since. It was important in establishing Guerlain outside of France. It stands considered the classic oriental fragrance, the flagship perfume of the House of Guerlain.

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