When I started working part-time at McDonald’s in early 1976, I earned CAD 2.35 an hour which, while the youth minimum wage, seemed like a lot of money at the time. Until payday, that is, when I’d take the long bus ride from St. Norbert — past the then-mostly-empty fields of Fort Richmond — through to Downtown and would spend almost all of my paycheque in the record stores (Autumn Stone, Mother’s Records, Records on Wheels, and others I can’t quite recall — please comment if you can remember or have heard of any others from the 70s, before Portage Place changed the landscape completely); these were stores and a particular music vibe that have long since disappeared from the Portage Avenue strip between what was once Eaton’s, and The Bay.
I think it was Mother Records where I stopped in on the day they received Boston’s debut album; I must have been one of the first people in Winnipeg to buy it and my friends were mesmerized by it and its as we listened to it together, taking in all the notes about the band’s formation including leader Tom Sholz’s mechanical engineering work in the media machinery field. (And that was 1976… imagine the difference between that discipline then and now, with the massive advancements in technology! But, I am completely off-subject now.)
Anyway, I discovered many great artists on those shopping trips, sometimes just by the cover art appealing to me (which also meant I sometimes bought some horrid music), and many times, by a recommendation from the store staff. I don’t remember which store it was where I came to know the London, UK glam-rock/androgynous art-rock/new romantic act, Japan, but I remember scooping up their second album, Obscure Alternatives after hearing it in the store. Its rich, dark sounds entranced me and I couldn’t leave without it. I followed Japan for several years and can always recognize the voice of their lead vocalist David Sylvian, who went solo in 1982 after the band broke up. Japan developed from their art-rock sound into an electronic dance kind of style with what I think was their only hit in North America, or at least the only song I ever heard on radio, Quiet Life (1979). It’s a mover, for sure.
After the break-up, Sylvian collaborated with other artists like Robert Fripp (of King Crimson, a guitar wizard who also worked with Brian Eno) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (on the soundtrack to the film, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which starred David Bowie). I also bought a record by Japan’s former bassist, Mick Karn, though I didn’t track his solo career.
Thought by some to be one of Sylvian’s best songs, “Orpheus” (1987) escaped my hearing until just last month when I heard it spun by Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey on the solstice “Winter Warmer” episode of his program, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour on BBC 6 Music. (The program starts at 8:00 am CST on Sundays, and I either listen to it then, or catch it on BBC Sounds, where many programs are available to subscribe and stream for up to a month after broadcast. Check him out sometime… it’s a brilliant program, most capably hosted and compiled and Garvey’s quite a character. When Elbow’s on tour, he recruits very suitable replacements; one of my favourites has been American broadcaster and columnist, Katie Puckrik.)
Hearing Sylvian’s baritone crooning during the program took me back to those early days of carrying home a half-dozen or more new long-play records at a time, and listening to him singing with Japan, though his singing had a slightly higher and more raw tone back at the start. Like the legendary namesake of the song, David Sylvian charms the listener with his music; I hope you’ll like the song as much as I enjoyed reuniting with him and Japan.
I think it’s a song about perseverance in the face of “harbour(ing) all the same worries as most.” And while “dead to the world” at the beginning of the song, Orpheus later sings about the promise of the future:
“Sleepers sleep as we row the boat
Just you the weather and I gave up hope
But all of the hurdles that fell in our laps
Were fuel for the fire and straw for our backs
Still the voices have stories to tell
Of the power struggles in heaven and hell
But we feel secure against such mighty dreams
As Orpheus sings of the promise tomorrow may bring”
(from “Orpheus” by David Sylvian)
Now you know a little about why this is my song of the day for today. Please enjoy.
Here’s the song via David Sylvian’s YouTube channel… listen right to the end; there’s a fade in the middle that sounds like a bit of a false ending. It’s kind of like thinking you’ve finished your packet of french fries, only to find a stash at the bottom of the bag. (Enjoy that, too.)