WTM #1063: Trains & Their Remorseful Refrains

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wReck thiS meSS ~ Radio Patapoe 88.3

Amsterdam ~ Ethno-Illogical Psycho-Radiographies

22 June 2009 // 17.00-19.00

“The rhythms of the train / the trainlike medulla of American psychiatrists / the noise of doors voices wheels grinding over the frozen tracks / the golden thread of the future…”

Blaise Cendrars

The light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train.”

• Robert Lowell

[* Official Amtrak model displaying fold-out toilet and other couchette amenities]

Im Garten (To Rococo Rot Mix) Klangwart

Urban Soundscape > Mathew Adkins [[60] Project / Empreintes Digitales]

Overweg + Trein > Franz Peters [Stereo Geluiden / Fontana]

Aankomst Elektrische Trein > Franz Peters [Stereo Geluiden / Fontana]

Echotrain> Abstrackt Keal Agram

Departing Landscapes > Nathan Hubbard [Composition 1998-2005 / Circumvention]

Train Stn. Alexanderplatz > Ned Bouhalassa

+ She Was a Visitor > Robert Ashley

I Dreamt I Yodeled I Remixed > Alvin Curran

I Can’t Compete [Zurich Bahnhof] > Erika Stucky [Suicidal Yodels / Traumton]

goof in gc station 2001 > B/art

+ Berlin > Jonas Braasch [Global Reflections / Deep Listening]

Newark I’m late 07 edit > B/art

+ Tokyo > Jonas Braasch [Global Reflections / Deep Listening]

UrbanCuts > Ned Bouhalassa, Delphine Measroch & Christian Olsen

+ Prose de Transsiberien et de la Petite Jeanne de France [exc.] > Blaise Cendrars [Folkways, 1967]

Telemann > Klangwart

nyc goof train 2001 > B/art

+ Hamanamah > Klangwart

Trains dans la Banlieu ouest [Raymond Queneau] > Les Poemiens

Railroad Gamelan > Ellen Band [90% Post Consumer Sound / XI]

Train Whistle blues > Jimmie Rodgers [The Very Best Of / BMG]

Amtrak Train 710 > James Welling [Bring Your Own Walkman / Staalplaat]

Espresso > Jacques Tremblay [Chroniques d’une Seduction / Empreintes Digitales]

Night Train To Paris > Deadbeat

Night Train > John Mayall [Down the Line / London]

DC metro 08 04 02-1 > B/art

Lolita Corps et Ame Jacques Tremblay [Chroniques d’une Seduction / Empreintes Digitales]

Nwk Values Yr Safety [edit] > B/art

Waiting for a Train The Proclaimers

Lonesome Whistle > Hank Williams [25 Original Recordings / Rolled Gold]

Wreck of the Old 97 > Smilin’ Blinky Blinkhorn [Bushland Yodel / Cattle]

Been To Georgia on a Fast Train > Johnny Cash

Train To Skaville > The Ethiopians

Train Whistle Blues > Kenny Roberts

Telemann > Klangwart

“I saw trains with 60 engines fleeing at top speed pursued by / flaming horizons and by flocks of crows flying desperately / after them / Disappearing / In the direction of Port Arthur.”

Blaise Cendrars

The train has been the symbol for modernism for a long time. It remains a potent symbol, even in America where the government and various [auto] business interests have gone a long way toward killing off the train and public transport in general. The train has a linear appeal of land crossed, of new territory tracked and traversed. It also represents a symbol of power, of man over nature, of the inevitability of progress. Its sound is more given to hypnotic rather than macho consideration in that the sound in its rumble and tick-tack repetition has the ability to mesmerize us beyond ourselves and it. I don’t quite understand the fascination for myself although I have taken many trains. My first remembered experiences have to do with walking my father to the train station and in waiting for the train we would sometimes put a penny on the track and my father would put the result in the palm of my hand. The penny flat and still warm from the track and train. This was magic for a seven year old.

The train as audio cue has loomed so large that it has become a kind of sonic metonymy where the sound of the train has come to be closely associated with an entire range of feelings, misgivings, loneliness, wanderlust, adventure, mystery, longing, aimlessness. As Robert Farris Thompson notes “By the 1940s… You could hear a lonesome train whistle in the night and immediately think of black people…” in fact, the words lonesome [train] whistle blues are so commonly linked that the association is almost unavoidable. This diaspora occured in the 1940s when Blacks began migrating out of the hot fields to the hot factories of Detroit and the Midwest and the train and its distinctive whistle became, as Thompson points out, “an artifact that generates multiple intertextual references…”

I remember going to meet my Italian girl friend on a train that took me to Venice. I remember that the trip created the excitement, the length of it, the longing, the impatience, the thoughts and reveries churning in my mind. Almost as good as our encounter. Almost. I remember the long ride back into the middle of Europe wondering whether I should be with her. You know, like BE with her… I remember just hours staring out the dark window. I remember being so stupid as to think where the hell is Parigi…

The train is glorious but built at great human suffering and expense throughout the world. The train was the modus operandi of the holocaust – Jews, homosexuals, Marxists, Roma/gypsies were transported via trains to the concentration camps.

From Paris Scratch [1993]:

2. Nez De La Gare

The kid faced the men at the bar, wearing a mask with a big nose. Suddenly everyone was still as a photo in a frame. Even the cigarette smoke hung there like a scratch etched into a carafe of thick air. The boy thought it was his mask. While each bar patron thought s/he was the only one who’d ever felt that odd rumble in the gut when  trains pull out of the Gare de Lyon. & then the fat-fingered man reached out past his drink into an area where he had not been for some time & grabbed the big nose. Just like that. Just for the hell of it.

14. Voie De La Tristesse

The tracks, la vieille femme told me, that our train was running on, were the same ones that brought Hitler to Paris. & in the other direction, had carried away Jews East. She didn’t want to—couldn’t—utter those names of where. Those horrible names. She remembered picking up letters Jews pushed out through the slats of the cattle cars & begged her & bewildered others to mail. She remembered the stark white hands detached from faces. & how strange it felt mailing them to relatives & wanting so bad to open & read them. & it was suddenly very difficult to look at the beautiful countryside in the same way.

I remember many memorable trips on Amtrak. In 1995, partner and I thought – what WERE we thinking!? – let us take a train down to Florida were we would visit her father and I would do a book reading in Miami Beach and we would take a train, get books and good food and wine and just enjoy. Well, somewhere along the Mason Dixon line the train started to slow down – frost on the tracks the conductor eventually admitted – and by the time we were in North Carolina we were some 8 hours behind schedule. What is it that makes you tired when you are in a train and you are expecting it to go but it just doesn’t reach a speed of anything above 10 mph. Because the dining car had been eliminated and all of the food in the snack car had been consumed and we had been so inconvenienced they would serve us box lunches somewhere  along the way in Georgia I think. We dreamed and imagined amazing box lunches filled with all sorts of goodies: bottles of wine, hot Belgian frites, fishburgers, sushi, steamed vegetables… When we finally got our boxes and we opened them on our laps the disillusionment quickly  returned to our gleeful faces: a coldcut sandwich on white bread [being vegetarian this did not do us much good], a mushy, bruised apple, a candy bar and a soda. Why does this and standing still in unannounced places make one more tired than a smooth trip at high speeds? Does expectation vs frustration have something to do with our mental capacity to experience exasperation as exhaustion? We arrived some 8 hours late. There was something acceptable, expected and unapologetic about all this as you saw the Amtrak employees struggling with a system beyond their control…

The trip from Jacksonville to Miami was just as memorable. This should not be a long trip in any case but instead of 6 hours it took 12 because somewhere along the way some workers had cut through cables that disabled all of the track signals… Anyway, there is nothing like arriving in a place like Miami 6 hours late on a train that serves things like bags of potato chips and instant coffee and Coors lite…

We had “smartly” booked a couchette for the return trip and were even better supplied in our private “room” with books to read, and Jack Daniels to consume and … Well, it was all painless: the delays, the annoying announcements, the lack of a dining car. We felt no pain. And, in fact, there may have been orgasmic occurrences in this tight little space no bigger than a bread box. I mean the toilet folds out. The beds fold out overhead. It’s quite ingenious really.

I remember sitting across from Italian man, a dapper guy, someone me and backpacking gal friend P. Were going to have to get along with for so many hours we might as well be civil and get along. Well, his charm oozed into something more like lechery as he caressed my gal’s legs – I mean the guy was 68 or so – as he continued with his animated stories of his life in Italy, all the while groping my gal and we were both too young [20] to dare to do anything about it…

I remember many more trips by train and that I guess is testament to its power or magic; it has the ability to frame events in a way that you will never forget them… I know the train makes a kind of music that only my brain hears like a repeated mantra.

Now I need to take a piece of wood and make it sound like the railroad track, but I also had to make it beautiful and lovable so that a person playing it would think of it in terms of his mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good psychiatrist – whatever.

• Les Paul

“Jimmie Rodgers’s blue yodel essentially traces the route of a lonesome soul train whistling and chugging along from our befuddled heads to our heavy hearts and back again.”

• From my article “Jimmie Rodgers: Origin of the Blue-Black-White Yodels,” which is scheduled to appear in a Rock & Roll Museum anthology dedicated to JR as one of the essential roots of R&R.


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