The world is full of doors, short passages from one place to another. It's a simple enough concept, you pass through an aperture and you now occupy a different space from the one you previously occupied. Well, there are different spaces and then there are different spaces.
I remember when I was young, very young maybe seven or so. I was very proud of the fact I could read a little and I went around reading aloud any sign or caption I saw. I sure didn't know the meaning of every word I read. Anyway I was with my mother and one of my brothers in a museum that had historical displays and things like that. I don't remember what museum it was. For one of those reasons known only to kids I wandered off and walked through an open door and there was a display on the life of Lincoln. It had all the usual Civil War stuff, lots of Brady photos, mementos, a plaster cast of Lincoln's hands and it had a bunch of photos of him throughout his life. Here he was as a young congressman without a beard, numerous pictures of him as president and one of him as an old man with gray hair and bushy eyebrows. I thought the exhibit was pretty cool and I went and found my brother who was looking at some Indian artifacts. I told him to come look at the picture of old Lincoln.
"Ya little dope!" he said, "Lincoln never got to be an old man. He was assassinated."
I didn't know what "assassinated" meant. I would learn the next year when it happened to Kennedy, but at that moment it was just another big word that I didn't know the meaning of. I insisted and he finally followed me through the door, but it wasn't the same room. Now it was filled with a display of lady's dresses from the colonial era. My brother snorted and went back to the Indian display while I searched for the right door. It wasn't a real big museum and it only took me a little while to go through every door as I got more and more frustrated. My mom finally insisted that I stop running around. Thanks to a short attention span, I soon moved on to other things.
That was the first time for me, but I know it happens to other people too. Sometimes we walk through doors into a different space, a space where things are different. Some of us don't come back as in the famous case of Benjamin Bathurst.
I come back. I always come back. I have come to be unusually aware of exactly what door I enter a room through and take pains to exit via the same door. Not all doors lead to different spaces, but I never know when one will. This isn't a special power, I just happen to be aware that it happens. Believe me, it happens to all of you and plenty of you know it but most of you don't. You probably don't have anything happen to remind you that things are different or things aren't different enough for you to even notice if you are beyond the door only a short time. People do get stuck though and don't notice. I was talking to a guy who I was shooting a game of pool with in a bar in 1980 or so. He just casually remarked that making a certain shot would be "as impossible as putting a man on the moon." A few people snickered a bit. I just raised my eyebrow and nodded at the guy. He had stepped through a wrong door and hadn't realized it yet. I wasn't about to ruin his day by telling him. I even missed the shot on purpose out of sympathy.
The Cambridge Public Library is a place I frequent. I have really been trying to discipline myself to stop buying books and get paper out of my life. I got an e-reader and started scanning my entire library so I could reduce clutter. If there is a book or a cd that I want and I can't find files of it online, I try (but don't always succeed) to walk past the bookstore or record store and go to the library.
There was the day that I decided that I had to hear Bruckner's eighth symphony, not because I'm a big Bruckner fan but a friend (wrongly) thought I would find it interesting. Anyway... I went looking for it in the library and as I was flipping through the CDs saw that there was a bunch of march and ragtime stuff I hadn't seen before. Let me say that if there is anything I like better than pre World War II popular music, it's pre World War I music! I found a pile of CDs by a group called "The Arcane Brotherhood". Based on the track lists on them the use of the term "arcane" seemed appropriate indeed. The tracks mostly seemed to be originals but the credited old tunes ranged from coon songs to Sousa marches to ragtime, but they also did versions of instrumental numbers by Raymond Scott and Frank Zappa. What the hell kind of band was this?
I looked up for a moment and noticed it was cloudy outside with a light drizzle falling> I idly hoped my bicycle seat wouldn't end up too wet and I turned to look out the door I came through and saw out the front door that it was bright and sunny outside. Right. I scooped up all five CDs and went back out the door I came in through and checked them out.
"march to the beat of a different saxophone" (1999)
"march to the beat of a different saxophone" disk
There were no individual credits, but some of the tracks had at least a dozen musicians on them. Piano, banjo, horns, guitars, mandolins, what sounded like a giant hammered dulcimer, a variety of reed instruments not all of which my ear could identify although one of them I suspect must have been a contra-bass saxophone. It was like a strange combination of a marching band and a mandolin orchestra with a soupcon of country fiddle ensemble thrown in. The group had the flavor of a surreal amplification of ragtime era sensibility. It somehow came off as seeming actually more authentic than the original material. They had original tunes that sounded like they could have come from E.T. Paull or Wilbur Sweatman and others that could have come from minstrel shows or any of a hundred early twentieth century novelty records. They did Ragtime, lots of ragtime and primitive jazz. While there was an obvious sense of humor behind the music, it was presented with what seemed like an eerie formality. There were no Bonzo Dog Band hijinks here.
"Gabriel's Ophicleide" (2010) cover and tracklist
The most recent album "Gabriel's Ophicleide" is particularly perplexing for having swing and blues selections played on archaic brass and reed instruments. The chorus of krumhorns and ophicleides on "Big Leg Woman" and the album's title track, which is a circus march with elements of big band swing, verges on terrifying. The track entitled "Molasses for the Masses" is dense string ragtime. I honestly do not believe that I have ever heard that many banjos and mandolins playing at the same time or ever shall again. "Pickled Pixie Parade" is an exercise in tuned percussion novelty. Xylophones and marimbas take the listener through an accelerating and slightly disturbing raggy march that also includes bagpipes and bongo drums. Listening to it is an exhausting experience.
It seemed peculiar to me that a band like this could exist and be successful enough to make this many recordings in the twenty-first century. Just how different was the space that provided fertile soil for The Arcane Brotherhood?
I returned to the library and entered the record room. I wasn't sure if it would be the same record room, I never was. I saw the same weather out the front door as I did out the window, but that was no sure indicator.
I started flipping through the stacks of CDs seeing only very familiar stuff. Well, there was still the catalog. Cambridge finally dumped the traditional card catalog in favor of computers about fifteen years ago and then never upgraded them. They are big, clunky and slow. They run the version of DOS that Fred Flintstone used. I tapped in Arcane Brotherhood under music and got nothing. I tried broadening the search criteria and got everything from Mose Allison to Abba, but no sign of Arcane Brotherhood. Wrong door.
"A Signal from Mars" (2005) front cover "A Signal from Mars" back cover
Of course if the CDs didn't appear in the catalog, the library wouldn't have a record of them. I figured that I was going to keep the CDs. I checked them out and they would have a record, but I could claim they made a mistake and prove it by searching the catalog. Let them try and figure it out.
For months I played the disks again and again. I ripped them to my iPod and studied the tracks for a sign of insight about the reality from which they had sprung all to no avail. It was great music that I loved, but its existence in this form seemed so unlikely.
"Polar Opposite Expedition" (2007) front cover "Polar Opposite Expedition" back cover
"Polar Opposite Expedition" tracklist
The artwork on the CDs was weird. For the kid of music this was you would just expect a lot of straw boater hats and band uniforms to figure heavily in the packaging design. While the imagery was definitely retro, it owed more to the surrealist style of high concept psychedelic bands. The whole thing didn't compute culturally. I wondered if those psychedelic bands ever existed in the place these came from, the place beyond the door. I didn't recall too much else of what I saw in the bin. I didn't even look at the popular music bin or even notice if there was one. Frank Zappa had composed at least some of his oeuvre as had Raymond Scott and the CDs contained Dixieland and swing tunes as well as stride and boogie-woogie numbers. Jazz had happened, but where it had gone I could not say from the evidence. There was blues, but nothing that sounded like there was any sort of rock & roll influence. Was this from a world without Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis? No Beatles, no Rolling Stones? Again, I could not say.
"Men of Mystery" (2001) front cover "Men of Mystery" tracklist
"Men of Mystery" (2001) back cover
The records were basically only a single artifact. I had no angle on its place of origin. Imagine if you lived in a world where the whole second half of the twentieth century had gone differently. Let's say it's a world in which Hitler was prevented from attaining power. World War II would never have happened or at least have been very different and consequently culture would have been very different. Maybe Rock & Roll as we know it would never have developed, maybe relations between the United States and the Soviet Union would have gone quite differently. Maybe nuclear weapons would never have been developed. Maybe. Maybe not. Imagine someone from that world walks through the wrong door just long enough to grab a handful of CDs from our frame of reference. Not CDs of the stuff on the cutting edge of hipness either. Could they envision our world from them? No, of course not.
"I Gave my Heart to a Man of the Sea" (2002) "I Gave my Heart to a Man of the Sea" back cover
The title cut of the Arcane Brotherhood's 2002 album "I Gave My Heart to a Man of the Sea" keeps going through my head. It is a lugubrious brass band number that features a haunting trombone solo. It is steeped in the sadness of loss. To me it is emblematic of a world just a hairsbreadth away and yet so distant that I shall never again touch it. It is the strange feeling of having lost something I never knew in the first place.