New York Punk & New Wave. Part 1-Velvet Dolls

Black & White-New York City, 1967

When viewed through the prism of vintage TV shows of an earlier time, one might be forgiven for thinking life itself at that time actually being in black and white. Color movies had been around for quite some time of course, but color television only truly started taking off in the 1960’s. It wasn’t until 1972 that sales of color TV sets finally exceeded their  black and white counterparts in the U.S. Which means that although much of how people viewed news, sports and entertainment at that time may have actually been filmed in color, it was still viewed in black and white by the majority of the public. The moon landing, the Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston fight and The Beatles for example. When we see the footage for any of these things today, we perceive of them actually happening in black and white because that is the only way we know them all these years later in our mind by way of the existing film clips.

Of course the world is very much in color and in the 1960’s with fashion, music and art at the forefront of culture it seemed to be a much more vibrant decade somehow. Often these elements combined to make bold statements about consumerism and the accessibility of art. A move away from the elitist art world and perceptions of how art should be presented to something that was inspired more by commercial art, advertising, and even comic books instead.  Often it was presented with an element of dark humor and irony. In the art world of course this movement became known as Pop Art.   Reacquainting  myself with the history behind it recently, I realized that its attitude was very much a punk one, long before that became a phrase used to describe anything that defied the comfortable norms of the time. A key figure in the movement of course was Andy Warhol who was in the vanguard of producing art across various mediums and did not shy away from experimenting. Love it or hate it, Pop Art definitely pushed buttons.

When the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols in 1977 it was arguably as much of an artistic outlet or statement from their creative force and manager Malcolm McLaren as the other art and fashion he was involved in at the time. But in many ways, the precursor for McLaren’s work with the Sex Pistols was Andy Warhol and the pivotal group he was involved in at the time in New York-The Velvet Underground. Originally formed in 1964, after a few lineup shuffles the band coalesced around Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker with Warhol taking on not the business and logistical side of matters, but the artistic side instead. The Velvet Underground became involved with Warhol’s studio ‘The Factory’, most famously as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a mixed media show. German singer Nico joined The Velvet Underground at Warhol’s insistence and appeared on a few tracks on the Velvet’s first album-The Velvet Underground & Nico, famed for its Andy Warhol created album sleeve.

The music The Velvet Underground produced was about as far removed from The Beatles or Rolling Stones as you could get in the mid-1960’s. Their music was mostly hard edged and experimental in nature. There were industrial soundscapes, cacophonous feedback and drone, dark songs about drugs, and perhaps in an effort not to be so completely bleak, some breezier songs mixed in for good measure. But it was in the experimental and darker places that the Velvets clearly roamed. As Geoffrey Stokes put it in ‘Rock Of Ages-The Rolling Stone History Of Rock & Roll-

“Lou Reed never sentimentalized and almost never prettified, and even as Time and Life were discovering how cute and colorful the hippies were, Reed was walking around counting the scabs and scores, listening to the grinding teeth and empty promises of a thousand junkies.”

That quote is rather telling when put in context. In 1967 on the other side of the ocean, the Beatles had released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It had drug inspired songs too, but the references were subtle and the music was certainly not bleak. The Velvet Underground’s song Heroin however stands in sharp contrast. Some liken the song to an actual heroin trip- a calming feeling before moving into darker and noisier realms of the psyche the further into the heroin laced trip the song moves into. It isn’t pretty, but it seems so real.

New York is the intersection of so many divergent paths of culture, language, food, art, film and music. The music on the album reflected the era it was recorded in certainly, but it also had a healthy dose of  New York as only New Yorkers can understand- Fuck everyone else, fuck the other trends, this is New York we do what we fucking want in other words.  Suffice it to say, with songs like Heroin, The Velvet Underground and in particular Lou Reed arguably became the earliest ingredient in the mixing bowl that later became punk. It was dark and gritty like the city streets. This was not the tourist New York of shimmering lights, nor the wealthy Wall Street New York. This was the back alley view of New York City, strewn with trash, drugs and the uglier side of life.

There is a famous joke about how despite the poor record sales of that first Velvet Underground album, everyone who did buy a copy started their own band.  And one of those bands that were clearly listening were right across town and about to bring some color into the picture…

Color-New York City, 1973

Around the time those color TV sets were finally taking over from their b&w counterparts another band on the New York scene was about to make a mark on influencing the music scene as well. Like The Velvet Underground that mark was not driven by sales but rather by the influence the tracks would have for years to come on the music scene. But most especially for the punk movement, New York Dolls were a pivotal step. By the time of their self-titled debut in 1973, Rock & Roll had witnessed the relatively new jolt of androgyny and glam rock with T Rex, David Bowie and others. The New York Dolls borrowed that look and took the music off into a completely different  (and harder) direction.

Hard Rock did exist during that time already of course. But what top hard rock bands of that era like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath offered was music that was loud and hard, but still bound by the blues scale typically. So on the one side you had bands like Led Zeppelin rocking hard with lengthy guitar and drum solos and songs that clocked in on average at 5 or 6 minutes long tailor made for FM radio stations. On the other side you had New York Dolls who rocked as hard, but eschewed lengthy solos in favor of a tight crunchy guitar attack and the sneering lead vocals of David Johansen. Speaking of David Johansen, I did see him perform as his alter ego Buster Poindexter once…do I get punk rock points for that?

Because New York Dolls were not on my musical radar for much of my life I never made these sorts of connections between the hard rock bands in the Black Sabbath vein and what the Dolls were doing. In 1973 though the Dolls album definitely received attention, though early on it was not always positive. Some critics derided them as untalented and not serious about the music. Others sensed something special going on and praised the new direction their music pointed towards. Though the Dolls themselves were certainly not aiming to be a punk band, what comes through on the speakers is what made it such a clear punk influence. My favorite example (and favorite track on the album) is Personality Crisis. Absolutely filthy sounding guitars, thumping piano, and screaming…what’s not to like about it!

What the darker sounds such as Heroin on the Velvet Underground’s album and the entire New York Dolls album show is the first steps in that lineage of NY Punk. With the Velvet’s a music born partly out of the broader art movements of the day combined with an experimentation of sound led to crucial songs such as ‘Heroin’. Just six years later, the New York Dolls burst forth bringing a more basic sound more rooted in the origins of rock and roll but minus the pretension. It was loud. It was sneering. And it was so New York. The photos I used here represent the motion, movement and life at the time in a city that was gritty and edgy. An emergence from black and white to color. From art house to drug house. From conformist to hedonist.   Just a short time later a couple of guys in Queens were able to take the next leap forward.

Coming soon-Part 2-The Heart Of The Movement.

Heroin-Written By Lou Reed

Personality Crisis-Written By David Johansen & Johnny Thunders

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New York Punk & New Wave-An Introduction

An Introduction-

Punk Rock was born in 1975 and died in 1978. Or was it born in 1973 and died in 1979? No no, it was definitely born in 1976 and died in 1977. The answer, like many things in life, depends on who you ask. It is either still very much alive and kicking in 2019, or has been diluted from its origins and heights past the point of recognition. My own experience with punk has been very limited for much of my life in all honesty. The Sex Pistols emergence went unnoticed. I was only 9 when Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols came out after all!

The first punk band I properly knew was The Clash, though the first couple of songs I heard-Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now and Rock The Casbah came from what die hard punks thought was an attempt by the band to sellout. After all those two songs became acceptable to play on ‘classic rock’ radio stations slotted right next to the types of bloated, over sized pretentious rock that fueled the punk movement in the first place. Great though those two songs are (and they are of course) they are stylistically and musically different compared to what The Clash had done on earlier pure punk tracks such as London’s Burning or White Riot.

Around that time, say 1983 or thereabouts, I was probably more familiar with some of the second (or ‘new’) wave bands that were hitting the air waves and that more recent invention-MTV. There were a whole flock of new bands making very different sounding music compared to the more straightforward rock and roll I was accustomed to.  Though I did not understand the roots of the music, new wave was the most popular and direct movement to come out of punk. Musically quite different, but as I started doing research for this post I realized where there were definite similarities.

Some hard core punks might disagree that bands like The Slits or The Ramones had anything whatsoever to do with Human League or Talking Heads, but as author Simon Reynolds points out in his book ‘Rip It Up and Start Again (Postpunk 1978-1984), what made the two forms related was a shared disdain or any sort of reverence for much of the music that came before. They also shared some aesthetic similarities that as I have dug into researching this project I feel are still in place today in all sorts of music as a result. Punk may have started out as pure attitude, but it is appropriate to say that it gradually became a movement, and one that has had a lasting effect not just on music, but on art, fashion, sexuality and culture as well.

It is so much of a movement in fact that I realized that short of writing a book of my own on the subject matter that I needed to narrow the focus for this series. In the history of punk arguably the two most critical cities the music flourished and grew in were London and New York. Of course there was punk and new wave all over from San Francisco to Leeds, Dayton to Paris.  The pivotal innovations may have come from elsewhere but were fed through the filter of the larger music scenes in cities like New York and London.  And since I live in New York I decided that was an obvious area to focus on.

So what this series will look into is both the history and places, the art and the fashion of both punk and new wave in New York. I wanted to explore the lineage of the music which began with the art school sensibilities of The Velvet Underground in the late 1960’s straight through to the harder sounds of The New York Dolls, the pivotal contributions of Patti Smith and Blondie, to the 1234 count in of the Ramones, and the sophisticated yet funky sounds of Talking Heads and so much more in between. I wanted to find what remains. Not just the physical memories like the site of CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City, but also what remains of the spirit of the music, and everything else we deem to be ‘punk’. So join me over the next few weeks as I dive into New York Punk.

Photograph By Robert P Doyle

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One At A Time

For those of you who follow me on social media, you might recall that I have been talking about working on a Punk Rock series. That is still very much in the works. It is quite a different undertaking than my Lord Franklin series (yes, I’m promoting that again, because I’m proud of it!) Truth be told for the punk series there is so much music, art, books, and fashion to go through that I have gotten bogged down with making a cohesive series out of it. Rest assured it is still on the way.

Additionally, those of you who follow me might remember that awhile back I purchased a vintage camera bag at a thrift store. Inside it was an assortment of old camera lenses, assorted gear, and most incredibly, a good condition Olympus OM 10 film camera. Beyond inserting fresh batteries I have not experimented with it to see if it still takes photographs, but in examining the solid workings of the camera I am pretty sure that it probably does just like it did when first introduced to the market 40 years ago.

As I admired the look and tactile feel of the camera construction since the day I purchased the literal ‘bag of goodies’ I had some thoughts about how that solid  feel to the camera reminded me of some of the changes to how music is made these days. In terms of the camera the most telling example is the fact that it has a manual winding lever, which 40 years since its release seems about as archaic as the very first daguerreotype cameras first introduced in 1839. Imagine…there you are on vacation with the family assembled in front of..oh lets say the Grand Canyon. Everyone get together now, smile! The photographer would have to focus, frame, adjust, then snap the photo from a long thin shutter release button (nothing like the low profile buttons of today). Ok fine, but what if you wanted to take another photo of the family? The just to be sure photo as most call it. Well you would have to slide the manual advance lever approximately 180 degrees until an audible click was heard before you could take that next photo.

And as I sat gripping the Olympus camera, I thought how different that simple film advance action was to people 40 years ago.  How antiquated it seems now and how wonderful it is to have digital cameras and smartphones by comparison.  As so often happens to me, my mind shifts gears rapidly towards music. In some ways I think there is almost a little too much music now. Or maybe I should say too much mediocre music made designed to solely move bodies around and shift sales units. But when the radio stops playing the songs there is often little lasting memory of the song once it has been deemed to be ‘overplayed’. We move on and don’t look back until we hear it on the radio or streaming after a year or two away and proclaim it to be a ‘classic’.

All of which is fair enough. But believe it or not, there is still music being recorded, released and promoted in the more old school way. Like the film advance on that OM 10 camera, the albums are recorded ‘one at a time’. One song first. One well crafted song stripped down of anything extraneous, focused instead on the lyrics and natural emotion of the song. Well worked in the studio-edited, with different instrumentation experiments, different tempos, different vocal approaches. When that song is completed, work begins on the next song. One at a time until maybe 20 songs are recorded for an album. Of those 20, maybe 10-12 will be chosen for the album itself.

With photography now, the ‘trash’ button is used readily. Someone not smiling? Delete, take it over. Not so easy back in the days of the Olympus OM 10 or other similar cameras. That photo was on the film roll, whether you wanted it to be developed or not. So what the serious photographers had to learn was patience and skill at not wasting chances. Load up the film. Compose, focus, structure, frame, set aperture, set shutter speed. Then and only then is when the shutter gets released and composition takes place.

So to with music now when someone comes along that reminds you of the way music was produced in the studio-one song at a time. Awhile back I began hearing a lot of buzz around a new artist called J.S. Ondara. Originally from Kenya, he became interested in the sounds of singer songwriters such as Bob Dylan. Eventually he moved to Minnesota to hone his craft, much like those photographers skilled in the capabilities of their cameras. To J.S. Ondara, the words are his camera. The skills and lyricism translated to  his own original songs that are powerful in their words, and the words by turn powerful in their singing. The album-Tales Of America abounds with poetical lyrics all written by Ondara himself.

There is a mystery to some of the words that begs repeated listening. A realization that songs and delivery such as he gives are destined not for karaoke machines of the future, but for something more real, more telling, and more revealing. They will become part of the rich tapestry of language that lies at the heart of the best popular music. And it happens when the songs are approached the same way a good photo is taken-one at a time. Never too much at once. Never too flashy or driven by outside forces. Just a singular moment. A photographer out in the wild, utilizing skills of composition honed by years of dedication. Or a songwriter in the studio, utilizing different yet similar skills of composition and performance honed by years of dedication. One at a time.

Saying Goodbye-Written By J.S. Ondara

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Go To The Woods

Wood-noun. plural noun: woods

an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.

Scene 6- The mist creeps in over the woods as the camera zooms in on a group of tents. Nearby figures are gathered around a campfire. A sound not too far off in the distance startles the assembled group. “What was that?” asks one of the group.  “Ah probably just an animal” says another. The camera zooms out rapidly to a lone figure seen from behind observing the campers nearby in silence. The music becomes ominous as the figure starts walking towards the campfire…Cut scene.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Having spent much of February locked away working on the Lord Franklin series I decided I wanted to go in a vastly different direction for a new post. For starters, writing about the frozen Arctic in the actual winter here in the Northeast was maybe an odd move on my part.  Nevertheless, I was so happy with the results of this collection that you will see it now immortalized at the top of this page as a menu choice in case you missed it the first time around.

I decided on a theme of the woods and forest as a change of pace for a few reasons. First, I have long wanted to feature the handful of photographs I have taken in the woods over the years. It isn’t a normal subject matter for me to be honest. Typically I feel more connected to the water. Second there is something by equal turns fascinating, mysterious and ominous about the woods. I’m sure everyone has seen a horror movie with a scene in the woods such as the fictional one I created above. Third, it is of course spring now, and the trees and flowers are bursting out in full force with each passing day conjuring up the poetical language employed by writers such as Thoreau.

One thing I find fascinating is the ability of the woods and forest to regenerate. From earthworms churning the ground underneath to birds flitting about or the tiniest sapling sprouting from the ground that may one day turn into a mighty tree, the forest is all about regeneration and renewal year after year. Amazingly after fires and natural catastrophes, recovery often starts at a microscopic level yet gradually takes hold and flourishes. Renewal is a big word for me right now as a result of the broader themes I wrote about in the Lord Franklin series and its short followup piece. But lets leave my own story there and consider some of the other thoughts and images of the woods brought up through the lyrics of the wonderful Dar Williams song ‘Go To The Woods’ instead.

‘It’s the woods! What do you see?
In all the spooky shadows, in the forest of green
Is there a windy path, angry ass woman who will eat you?
Sad-eyed lumberjack, savior who will greet you?
It’s a different story for you and for me
Go to the woods and see’

I have been familiar with the songs of Dar Williams for some time now, but just after Christmas I went with some friends to see her perform in Brooklyn. As a result I have been exploring her work more directly. When I came across this one, I knew I had my song for this post. Like other great songwriters, Dar conveys the broad themes of the woods within just a couple of lines. She skillfully weaves the narrative of spookiness, fear, mystery and desire of the woods within just a handful of lines. Even more effectively she goes backwards and forwards in time, reminding us of the very real fragility of our increasingly disappearing woods.

‘If I was your memory, what would you do?

‘Cause you know if you go back in time there’s something waiting for you.’

Listening to the song I started thinking back to some of my own memories of the woods. Call it the ‘storybook’ version of the woods Dar Williams describes.  In my suburban childhood, there was a small patch of woods we used to go to. There was a rope swing someone had put on a sturdy branch which made you feel as if you were hurtling off a cliff. There was not much else there to be honest, but in my child’s eye the area was a vast wilderness even though in reality it was just an overgrown area yet to be developed.  Also in the larger surrounding area were a variety of trails we often hiked on. The sounds of the highway may have punctuated the feeling of stillness, but to walk on those trails always felt like an epic journey even if it only lasted a few hours. Eventually I finally witnessed what truly large woods looked like when in the summer of 1979 my family drove across the U.S. and I saw places that really did have woods like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, and the Redwoods.

As I got older my interactions with the woods were resigned mostly to hiking and camping in various places in the northeast. At first photography was not part of the equation, but gradually it took hold and allowed me to experience the woods in different ways. The deeper my interest in photography, the more understanding I  feel and think towards a subject matter. Cliche though it may sound, you really have to become one with the scene in front of you and being in tune with your surroundings. Photography is visual, but by listening to the sounds around you or feeling the breeze on your skin it can benefit the end result.

What being in the woods specifically taught me as a photographer is that there is an interplay of light and shadows throughout the day. There are the sounds of unseen birds in the trees or acorns suddenly plummeting to the ground.  There is both motion and stillness.  Each season of the year accelerates or slows down the process and adds to the sensory experience. As I sit here writing this piece I suddenly realized there is something magical or fairy tale like about setting off into the woods. There seems to be an imaginary line of demarcation between life inside and outside of the woods. We use phrases such as ‘out of the woods’ to imply foreboding. But if you dare cross that line a world of  wonder, mystery and discovery await. If you avoid it altogether you are missing out on potential treasures contained within, be you adventurer, botanist, photographer or even songwriter.

Writing this piece has reminded me that perhaps I do have a deeper connection to the woods than when I started. Though I may consider being near the water to be where my  heart lies, the woods have provided me with a lot of good memories over the years too. Perhaps I need to ‘go to the woods’ to witness the renewal and mystery of the woods for myself again.

Go To The Woods-Written By Dar Williams

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When I Write…

In the middle of writing the Lord Franklin series I could tell it was really consuming me. It had adventure, mystery, intrigue, survival, defeat, loss and death. Not that I was dwelling on all of those elements personally. Instead I was trying to navigate between the historical narrative, the songs I wanted to include in the piece as well as the photographs I wanted to use that best related to the frozen north. For the first time in a long time, I was really obsessed with something. Though everyday life and work intervened, it was a story I needed to complete.

When that type of obsession happens I find seemingly minor details can pop into your head at any time. It happens when you are passionate about the subject matter I suppose. Insert this paragraph here, quote a passage from this book there, that sort of thing. Not being under professional deadlines it can be exhilarating and exciting when you see a vision for a piece coming together. Sometimes you even dream about that vision as it turns out.

About halfway through the writing of the series I woke up at 2 A.M. on a weeknight with a thought. Just a sudden realization that came to me in that fuzzy world between deep sleep and awareness. For the past few months I have been leaving my  notebook (a marvelous little one I picked up with the softest paper imaginable, eco-friendly and fair trade made from leaves of  the Lokta plant in Nepal for the record!) on my little bookshelf/nightstand. When I came to that awareness of an idea,  turned on the light and grabbed my pen these are the words I wrote which are only slightly edited for clarity. It was 2 A.M. after all!  I am sharing them because in perusing the notebook the other day I realized that it really says a lot about me and ‘where I am’.

‘When I read I want to ‘see’ what I am reading about. When I ‘see’ I want to ‘hear’ the sounds of what I am seeing. When I am ‘hearing’ what I am ‘seeing’ I want to understand why that is so important to me. I yearn to express myself in this way. To make these connections between a long ago sunken ship together with a contemporary song and a photograph of my own that ties the two elements together. It is my way of combining the things I am passionate about. The things I have always been passionate about if I really think about it.’ 

When I re-read it the next morning it actually did not come across as profound and brilliant to my mind as it was when I wrote it. But on further reflection, it is inherently and uniquely me, especially the last two sentences. That is a very important realization in my life right now. As I related in the series, I have been seeing a therapist and my head is a bit of a jumble at present. Backwards and forwards in time reliving memories. But these recollections also jog my memory further and make me think how this-all of this idea I have laid my claim to and set my flag on have always been there for me.

I realized it is absolutely the way I engage subjects I am passionate about. It has always been important for me to visualize a story, be it a song or a book. So I need to see the Arctic, an English country lane, a pagoda in China, a baobab tree in Africa, a ship on the high seas or a steam train chugging its way through the Canadian Rockies in my mind. I think the photography came about because I needed to catalog my favorite elements to the stories for myself.

It also explains why music is so deeply embedded in me. Why I feel music so much. Sometimes it can go beyond actual music and be sounds such as birdsong, wind rustling through the grass, or waves crashing on shore. Digging deeper through my life and what that 2 in the morning thought was about I realized it was the idea that sound itself is an even deeper connection for me than I ever realized.

Combined together, the ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ explains a great deal. It is my visualization, my way of understanding, my prism. A way of interpreting my passions easily. If I expand the idea it is precisely why from the start I tended to take photos of favorite things-bridges, ships, trees, etc. They were always my fascination from an early age. So it is years later that when I am reading a book I need to make the same sort of connection. To tie all the elements together if only just for my personal benefit.

In therapy I am connecting the dots of my life up to now. Seemingly innocuous and never forgotten memories from childhood have significance because they correspond to my life right now somehow.   When I started writing this blog I can see now that like with the connections I am making in therapy, the dots between the present and past definitely become connected eventually. These ideas I bring out have always been there. I just needed to find the clarity and space to locate and elucidate it all.

That is where I feel I am right now at this exact moment. I initially thought what I wrote early that morning would work its way into the series, but I realized it was instead a realization of something that has been laying dormant for most of my life. Now it has been firmly unleashed and I can say that like the connections made in therapy that rocked my very core, I can truly say that I have a deeper understanding of why I need to have this space and present my photography in a deep and personal way. And to quote from this song by the great songsmith Chris Trapper- ‘I’m happy where I am.’

Happy Where I Am-Written By Chris Trapper

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 3

For Part 1 of this series, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Legacy

By 1854, nine years after having set out the Admiralty let it be known that unless any tangible proof of survival among any of Franklin’s men was found, they would be declared dead. Whaling ships were known to go on very long voyages in those years, but this was an officially sanctioned mission. There was not one, but two ships. To have no word and little to go off of in the way of evidence, one can scarcely blame them for making that call. One person who refused to accept that decision was Lady Jane Franklin. She refused to go into mourning and made continued efforts to find out what had happened as late as 30 years after the ships had left England.

But there were precious few clues to go off,  and those that were found pointed into an ominous direction.  How well she accepted these clues is another story.  In 1850 clothing and fragments of supplies were found. On Beechey Island a stone cairn was discovered as were three graves-two men from Erebus, one from Terror. All three had perished in 1846. Suggestions were that by 1846, a mere year after setting off both ships had become trapped completely in the ice and the ships were abandoned. With McClure and the Investigator trapped in the ice themselves on the Western side of the passage, little new information was discovered until 1854.

The story of what happened after this time could result in this being a 20 part series. The shorter version is that various people searching over the years eventually found evidence of parts of the story. John Rae, a truly intrepid explorer from the Orkney Islands who had learned hunting and Arctic survival from the Inuit covered vast overland routes found artifacts and evidence of cannibalism among Franklin’s men. This was met with denials back home and stern rebukes from the likes of Charles Dickens and Lady Franklin.

Frank McClintock, another key figure at the time made perhaps the most pivotal discovery of all in 1859. First he found three bodies and clear evidence that they came from Franklin’s men. More importantly he found a note inside a cairn. The original note was dated May 28, 1847 and described meeting trouble. Scrawled around the note was a second message which revealed that John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. It went on to say that at the time of writing 24 men had perished.

Much has been speculated as to what ended the lives of the rest of the crews. The main theories are that many of the men died slow deaths as a result of lead poisoning either as a result of poor sealing on their tins of preserved food or via the lead pipes from the water tanks on board. Another strong plausibility is of the scourge of sailors at that time-scurvy. Though its cause was understood by that time and preventative measures well in place, it is possible it contributed to the poor health of the men. As Palin concludes though, perhaps it was a combination of many factors-lack of food, disease, poor planning, failure to learn tips from the Inuit. And it may have come down to poor leadership, starting with Franklin himself. Well noted for his fiery church services which he conducted on board ship, a major reason he took on the expedition was to salvage his wounded pride he had suffered as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land some years before. That combined with being not exactly in shape for winters on the ice possibly led to some poor decisions.

But I think all of these theories contribute to the why. As in why we are still talking about Franklin all these years later. Why books are written. Why movies and documentaries are filmed. Why scientists have studied the preserved remains of corpses from the expedition all these years later. For me especially, it is also why songs such as Lord Franklin are still sung today, and why newer songs like The Erebus & The Terror, and Mercy Bay are still written. People like a mystery, they like the stories, the history and the drama. They imagine themselves on those ships, if even for a brief moment. Sailing the Arctic Sea along with Franklin and his ‘gallant crew’. After reading Palin’s book, Franklin’s story became even more poignant and personal for me. Not because of any sort of connection to the story, but because of a song that Palin mentions himself towards the end of the book-Northwest Passage, by the late and very great Stan Rogers.

In the song Stan Rogers tells a bit about the story of Franklin. He mentions the ‘long forgotten lonely cairn of stones’…a sight that must have been such a stark contrast to the untouched Arctic landscape in that time. He mentions the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait. But when you contemplate the lyrics further, you realize that Rogers is talking about another journey. As the songwriter he was taking his own journey across Canada, through cites and the vast prairies. But in ‘finding the hand of Franklin’ he was going somewhere more personal. And that is when I realized that the song was telling me so much about not just the historical Franklin’s journey, but my own journey. It might sound trite to say this, but it is about finding your own elusive Northwest Passage. A journey unlike any taken before. A mystery. A struggle fraught with peril. Victory snatched before you as quickly as an Arctic ice flow closes a channel of water. It says so much while making you think and feel so much.

“How then am I so different from the first men through this way?

Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away

To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men

To find there but the road back home again”

Those of you who follow me on social media know that the past year has been a struggle. I have been going to see a therapist weekly for over a year now. Just over a month ago at a session I was recounting a memory from childhood. We have been gradually going backwards in time to some specific memories I have of my childhood, tracing the passage back from what I feel are inadequacies and failures of my past. Seeing connections to feelings and actions I still have today and how they relate to those memories. Though the memories are not traumatic or disturbing they still affect me. And so it was at this particular session at 9 AM on a Monday morning I had a particular jarring memory and connection made. It came out of nowhere. One moment I was reliving moments in my past and the next a connection was made to now and I became a weeping mess for several moments and unable to speak. I felt anger, hurt, rage, betrayal, guilt and sadness all at once. In the days and weeks after I have worked on these moments some more. It is still a work in progress, but it is a good thing to relive these thoughts.

It was in between then and as I began this series that I picked up Michael Palin’s Erebus. The boyhood fascination with the allure and admiration for the old sailing ships, for tales of adventure across the seas and being frozen in the Arctic with only the polar bears and the Inuit was still there. The love of history and science in discovering what happened to Franklin, of ship building and politics of the era was still there. But in reading the book I realized what was not there. As I raced through the book thoroughly enjoying myself I found myself thinking of my therapy appointments and the recent turn they had taken. What I realized was that the hurt I felt as a result came from a deeper pain inside me. That of failing to capitalize on my own value and worth. Weaving my own unique narrative.

All the things I ever dreamed about doing I have yet to do. The usual excuses come up-budget, time, fear of the unknown. The connections from therapy have proven to me that the desire and wanting has been there, but other reasons have caused me to put a hold on what I want or to give fuel to my system. But if that therapy session was a start in the right direction, then so too does this post. Because I see it guiding me towards the unknown. It might be only a personal unknown. A way of viewing my life differently, but it is a path I need to be on now.

My journey, perhaps all of our journeys are like Franklin. We go forward only to become trapped. We go in another direction only to have that close up as well. We search for those openings because we yearn to find the new. To live for the new. My life up to now has had all sorts of paths that have closed up. Yet the hope is that like Franklin and McClure and all the rest that those paths open up again. A crack in the ice that becomes wider and opens up to a new destination.

Writing this series became an obsession of sorts. It consumed me in a way I have not felt in quite a long time. It merged virtually all of my passions into one place. I came home from work at night and pored myself in as many stories and tales of the Arctic as I could find. I watched documentaries and searched for songs and all sorts of relevant data to the story to mention perhaps only in passing. But I needed to do this. To find the connections to my past in therapy. To find that passage through the  barrier of ice in my mind and live the words of the Stan Rogers song-

“Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage.

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. 

Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”

Postscript 

Unlike most mysteries, 174 years after setting out, Franklin’s expedition is still revealing itself. In 2010 using sophisticated underwater equipment, the wreck of HMS Investigator was found near Mercy Bay. In 2014 a rusted metal U-shaped object was found. Using a bit of on the spot internet research it turned out to be part of a davit, the mechanism used to lower the smaller boats off the sides of ships such as Erebus. The very next day using the location of this artifact as a guide, the underwater equipment spotted the remains of another wreck. A few days later divers went down to the wreck. Among the wreckage found was the ships bell. Erebus had at long last been found,

Such has been my passion for writing this series, I could not quite let it end. For starters, I have created a YouTube playlist for not just the songs from this post, but any relevant interviews, documentaries and supplementary material about Franklin and his expedition. Additionally, I feel compelled to give my own bibliography of some of the key sources used for this series-

Erebus-By Michael Palin

Off The Map-By Fergus Fleming

Sea Of Glory-By Nathaniel Philbrick

Let The Sea Make A Noise-By Walter A. MacDougall

To Rule The Waves-By Arthur Herman

Discovery Of The North Pole-By Dr. Frederick A. Cook & Commander Robert E. Peary

British Polar Explorers-By Admiral Sir Edward Evans

A Sea Of Words-A Lexicon & Companion For Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales-By Dean King, With John Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes

Other sources were the Encyclopedia Of Native American Tribes By Carl Waldman, the World Almanac 2019 for facts and maps, and various other online sources.

I also highly recommend a documentary series streaming on Netflix now called Arctic Ghost Ship, focused on the discovery of the Erebus wreckage. It also contains lots of great information about Franklin’s voyage as well.

Northwest Passage-Written By Stan Rogers

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 2

For Part 1-Click here

Part 2-The Search

“It was homeward bound one night on the deep

Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep

I dreamed a dream and I thought it true

Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew”

These words were written as a broadside ballad around the year 1850. Broadsides  were often single sheets of paper that contained the news of the day, woodcut illustrations, or sometimes ballad songs. Sometimes these songs were reprints of known traditional songs, but other times they were ‘ripped from the headlines’ of the day. This meant they were often about true crime, murder or other salacious tales. Other times they were about the buzz of the moment. And in 1850, five years after setting out to find the Northwest Passage, the buzz was still about what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition.

Yesterday in Part 1 I gave you as much that IS known about Lord Franklin’s expedition on the Erebus and Terror. But there is so much we still do not know for certain after all these years. By 1848 after not a single trace or word from the expedition the first relief parties were organized. As I mentioned in Part 1, it was understood that the ships would have to hunker down and live trapped in the ice during the brutal Arctic winter. But the fact that three years had gone by with not a single sighting or word along with the dogged persistence of Lord Franklin’s wife Jane persuaded the British Admiralty to become involved. In the short Arctic summer several official parties went searching via overland routes to where they believed evidence of the expedition would be, as well as by sea from both the eastern and western approaches to the Northwest Passage. Nothing was found.

In Fergus Fleming’s book Off The Map he takes up what happened next-a prize was to be given-£ 20,000 for definitive proof or sighting of  Franklin, and £10, 000 if in the course of searching for what happened the Northwest Passage was also found. In 1850 when the broadside of Lord Franklin is thought to have first appeared, no less than 13 vessels were in the Arctic searching for the expedition. This included Royal Navy ships, two U.S. ships, a small ship commanded by fellow polar explorer and hero Sir John Ross, and another financed by Lady Jane Franklin’s personal efforts.

All of which undoubtedly gave the broadside writers plenty of material to work with. And in the ballad Lord Franklin, or its other variant Lady Franklin’s Lament they came up with something noteworthy. In setting the song within the context of a dream the song becomes something ethereal and mysterious conjuring up what may have actually happened to the men on board Erebus and Terror. Years ago as I was becoming interested in traditional music I came across the song first from a giant of traditional music-Martin Carthy. This version comes from his second album released in 1966. Since then I have heard many versions by other artists, but Carthy’s version was my first. Typical for a broadside, a ‘device’ was used to set the story in context. And in using a dream as that device the appropriate mood is set for presenting the likely outcome of the disappearance of the expedition.

The song continues-

“In Baffin Bay where the whale fish blow

The fate of Franklin no man may know

The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell”

After five years gone most logical people would be forgiven for agreeing with the words of the song. A realization that the ships and crew were surely lost and all hope abandoned of actually finding them was not so far fetched. Yet some were not so convinced, especially Lady Jane Franklin who held a lot of sway in society circles. Which leads straight into the next part of the Franklin story.

One of the ships that set out in 1850 was HMS Investigator. Since those first relief parties started setting out the focus was searching the probable routes Franklin had taken. But what if Franklin had gone further west and was trapped in the ice beyond where the relief ships had gone?  Investigator was tasked along with HMS Enterprise to search locations from West to East where some possible trace may have been found. The ships made the long journey around Cape Horn, past Hawaii, and all the way around Alaska. Separated from Enterprise, the Investigator under Captain Robert McClure made an effort to search for signs of Franklin but also reveled in the chance of finding the Northwest Passage.

As it turns out they wound up getting caught in the ice themselves for two years, scarcely able to make any progress and faced with their own adversity. The extremely short window for getting ships as large as Investigator out of the ice or sending smaller land parties out searching for evidence of Erebus and Terror was surely frustrating. But it was understood to be the way things happened in the Arctic. That did not make life any easier for the crew of Investigator. Which is precisely what the next song is about. It makes for an interesting companion to the ordeal of Franklin and his men.

Fairport Convention have written and performed three songs about Franklin in recent years. I’m Already There is about his first doomed Arctic voyage, Eleanor’s Dream covers similar ground to ‘Lord Franklin’. But with Mercy Bay the band tells the lesser known story of Investigator and Robert McClure and their own agonizing journey. The mid-tempo pace of the song at the start becomes more insistent the further the story goes along. The song tells the story yet also conveys the hardship every man on board was living through. Once again it is an interesting exercise to imagine yourself in the situation. Numbing and unforgiving cold seeping into every part of the body. Sharing tight quarters with others. Little variety to diet and rations cut short. Being literally trapped in the ice. growing  more desperate with each passing day, the loss of three members of the crew. One can hear the voice of the unnamed narrator begging and pleading to be free of the ordeal-

“Turn this ship around, from these frozen grounds

Lets be homeward bound

Find a way”

As the song alludes to at the end, McClure and the surviving crew of the Investigator were fortunate to eventually make it back to England having spent a total of four years in the Arctic. They had their own harrowing tales of disaster, hardship and rescue.  As Fleming points out ‘in taking his ship to Banks Island, and then crossing the ice to Melville Island, McClure had become the first man to actually traverse the Northwest Passage. He was given a gold medal and was awarded the £10, 000 prize’. But what of Franklin?

Studying the entire history of relief parties searching for what happened is as much of a mystery as what direction the frozen inlets and narrow bays of the Arctic led to for the men on board those ships. Due to lack of communication it was not easy piecing together all the disparate sightings and tangible evidence that was being slowly pieced together both for the public and the ever hopeful Lady Franklin. Some evidence was actually even discounted And that is where we will pick up in the third and final part of this series.

Lord Franklin-Traditonal, Arranged By Martin Carthy

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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