A Trial in Our Native Town.

An essay about The Savage Rose, written while still intoxicated by the Wrist and Pistols’ adventures in Denmark. Several months after our tour there, the Danish government and Volkswagen, Inc. flew a few of us out to DJ a party, and then all our pals from Copenhagen came to play an East Coast tour with us. Heady days.

Published in The Crier, Summer 2006 issue, just after Thomas Koppel’s death. That seems a long time ago.


If you’re drunk and hungry in Copenhagen past the hour of 10 pm, you have exactly two options: falafel; or my preferred choice, doner kebab—what Americans call schwarma, and which appears not merely in pita, but in pizza and other exotic forms. Good luck finding anything else; the food service industry in Denmark’s capital caters to its thriving and sizeable Arab and Turkish populations. My staggering steps and useless vocabulary of only the filthiest Danish curses have proven surprisingly small obstacles on the path to the Spinning Tower of Night-Meat, so on one bitter spring night last year, I anticipated only the usual terse, mumbling exchange with the local doner-man. This time, however, I was exposed immediately, much to the delight of my Danish friends, as an American. “I like most Americans,” the proprietor explained, in perfect English. “I’m Iraqi, which makes us brothers. We bleed each other over nothing, like stupid brothers. Danes and Arabs just ignore one another—that’s much worse.”
In the last five years Denmark has changed rapidly, from the freethinking, liberal beacon of Northern Europe into a country increasingly bowed under the ugly weight of a reactionary, isolationist agenda intended to quell immigration and dismantle revered social(ist) experiments like the pioneering squat-city Christiania. The recent furor over 12  doltish Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, commissioned by Jyllands-Posten, the high-circulation conservative newspaper of the northern city Århus, is but one consequence of a once-progressive country’s mincing shuffle from blind-eyed disregard toward fiery xenophobia. Despite a popular hip-hop single proclaiming that “Århus is mega-fucking street”—sung to the tune of Madness’ “Our House”—Århus is viewed by the youth of the capital as little more than a provincial maritime/college town. Still, whether justified or not, many people the world over (and not only Muslims) have attributed the affront to the tiny nation as a whole.

It wasn’t always this way, musically or politically. The Savage Rose, arguably Denmark’s most famous and beloved band, and certainly one of its longest-lived, shot to prominence—and notoriety—in the late ’60s on the twin engines of radical political activism and seismic, alchemical freedom-prog. What other band can boast (or threaten, as the case may be) invitations to play both PLO events in Lebanese refugee camps and Black Panther rallies (including a benefit for incarcerated mayoral candidate Bobby Seale)? What other rock group has made a gospel record with a jazzman of the stature of Ben Webster (see 1972’s luminous Babylon)? Not one I can think of, and these are Danish hippies we’re talking about here.
Their history is the stuff of Scandinavian legend: unfussy, bold, and remarkably mercurial, though buttressed by a consistent aesthetic and conceptual unity. Inspired by the antiwar movement and nascent Copenhagen squat culture—along with those titanic and ubiquitous catalysts, the Stones and Dylan—composer and child prodigy Thomas Koppel (son of celebrated composer Herman D. Koppel) decided in 1967 to stop “fighting those big black grand pianos” at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in order “to move down to the street.” He recruited a band that included his artist brother Anders as organist and lyricist, his then-wife Maria on harpsichord (which doubled as their baby’s changing-table) and Alex Riel, Denmark’s top-rated jazz drummer. (Counting Koppel’s own virtuosic piano, that makes three keyboards.) Guitarists and bassists came and went, as they are wont to do. The first two, Nils Tuxen and Jens Rugsted, were drafted from a beat/R&B combo (perhaps Denmark’s first) called the Dandy Swingers, along with their dynamic and absolutely singular frontwoman, the 18-year-old Annisette, who came to define the band’s sound as much as their signature spectral, submarine organ did.
Their eponymous debut, a kind of Scandinavian perversion of the Zombies, Jefferson Airplane and early Floyd, only way, way jazzier and spookier, roared to the top of the Danish charts in 1968, vying with Sgt. Pepper’s and supported by an earth-shaking public debut at Tivoli, the amusement park and gardens in the heart of Copenhagen. In 1969, poised for success in the States, Savage Rose nailed a slot between Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown at the Newport Jazz Festival—feeling, as Thomas once said, “like a very small hot dog in a very big hamburger. The following year, they refused a lucrative contract with RCA when the label suggested they play for American troops in Vietnam.
By the mid-’70s, they had completed their two masterpieces, the searing psych-soul epic In the Plain (1969) and the influential, largely instrumental ballet score Dødens Triumf
(The Triumph of Death) (1972). Taken together, the two records demonstrate the band’s entwined mastery of American vernacular forms and contemporary classical concepts. Shortly after releasing Dødens Triumf, Savage Rose abandoned both commercial recording and the English language, retreating back underground to play political rallies, release ultra-limited private-press records and write in Danish, only to reemerge to much fanfare in 1995 with a new album and public persona. Last I heard, they were living in L.A., hanging and recording in Mick Jagger’s mansion.

Any discussion of Savage Rose will almost certainly highlight Plain and Triumf; each offers a convenient amalgam of the disparate styles in the group’s rangy repertoire. And any discussion of In the Plain, their first major work, necessitates a discussion of their diminutive one-name vocalist, who personifies both the feverish intensity of the band’s delivery and attitude as well as the fervor of their appetite for assimilating unexpected musical influences. Famously described by Lester Bangs as reminiscent of  “Grace Slick at 78rpm,” and even more aptly as “Minnie Mouse on a belladonna jag,” Annisette ranks high in the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll singers, up there in that inimitable, scary strata with Captain Beefheart and Mark E. Smith: invasive, impossible-to-ignore voices that inspire either worship or disgust. Equal parts terrifying and sublime, her voice veers without warning from a piercing squall to a cartoonish vibrato down to a creepy, childish whisper. Enamored with diametrically opposed divas Aretha Franklin and Edith Piaf, her keening style offers a weird mutation and grotesque extrapolation of the tropes of American soul, gospel and jazz on the one hand, and European art song and folk music on the other. To me, she sounds maybe how Carla Thomas would have if Papa Rufus had swapped his Funky Penguin costume for a Snarling Werewolf suit. Mostly, she doesn’t sound quite human, but that’s a response, I think, not just to her freakish timbre and range but to the sheer force of her voice. It’s hard to believe anyone could possible believe so vigorously in the power of the human voice as a tool of transmission.
The first shock of In the Plain arrives in opener “Long Before I Was Born,” when after the pounding, barrel(art)house piano intro, Annisette’s witchy voice, shrilly declamatory for 12 measures, suddenly launches into the stratosphere. Before you know it she’s singing about reading of her own murder in the paper and suggesting the listener lie to his or her lovers. She holds back somewhat for the next two numbers, both slow-burning psych swingers, until we’re hit with the furious, protean “Ride My Mountain (Jade),” our first exposure to the muscularity and expansiveness of the band’s three-keyboard attack. Dueling guitars struggle to swim out of the din of piano slab, organ drone and harpsichord twinkle, and by the time you reach the anthemic coda, suddenly you’re listening to something transcendent, anchored only by Riel’s loose-limbed, syncopated drumming. This descending coda structure is repeated brilliantly for “The Shepherd and Sally,” but it arises out of a pastoral English folk setting instead of the boogie chug of “Ride My Mountain”’s boogie chug. Ambient tone poem “God’s Little Hand”—with its crashed calliope, watery organ and chillingly intimate (and at four brief lines, sparse) vocals—predicts and one-ups New York art-stars Gang Gang Dance’s entire career in the span of two minutes. It’s the first substantial bite of Thomas Koppel’s avant-garde classicism on the record and tellingly it points not just forward, but also backwards, to Chopin’s “Sunken Cathedral.” The album’s final song, the ambitious seven-minute “A Trial in Our Native Town,” pushes the thicket of growling guitars to the front of the mix, with looming stabs of thick keyboard dissonance. Lumbering, doomy and impossibly heavy, this is nothing if not metal, a blistering, outraged indictment of Scandinavian solipsism, politically and culturally as relevant today as in 1969. Annisette spits out the memorable couplet, “The fields are heavy with dust/ Remember the smell from your City Lost?,” after urging a lover (the listener) to forsake “the landscape behind [his] fingertips” and to “just roll on from [his] native town.”

Written as a score for a ballet based on Ionesco’s Surrealist play The Triumph of Death and danced by the Danish Royal Ballet for seven straight years of sold-out performances, Dødens Triumf is a quite different beast. Koppel, who had prior experience writing for opera and theater, began work on the project in 1970 and finished two years later, with a work that equates Ionesco’s mysterious disease with sinister rumblings about a fascist European Union. (The record sleeve, signed “F. Fanon (the condemned here on Earth),” enjoins the reader—in Danish—to “abandon this Europe, with its endless talk about mankind, while it murders people everywhere, on every street corner, in every corner of the world.”) The recorded version became Savage Rose’s most popular album in Denmark, selling about 200,000 copies. It’s a measure both of the band’s cult status and ’70s Danish liberality that an instrumental classical/prog soundtrack with improvisational elements—there are only two vocal tracks and just one with lyrics—could achieve that level of success.
Dødens Triumf builds on a handful of repeated themes, refracted through a sort of genre prism: airy harmonica blues (“De unge elskende”) give way to musette waltzes (“Bruden pyntes”), moments of Morton Feldman-like minimalist calm (“Borgerens død”) and reeling, prog-rock rave-ups (“Bryllup”). It’s a wonderfully spacious record, helmed by Alex Riel’s remarkably sensitive and understated percussion. Even the careening organ ostinatos and piano arpeggiations of opening track “Byen vågner” melt into chiaroscuro, transforming into the melancholy “De unge elskende.” The austere “Soldaternes død” is a stuttering, pointillist drum solo that gradually builds to “Dear Little Mother,” the only track featuring Annisette singing words. By this point, she and Koppel had married, ousting his ex Maria and adding a new guitarist and bassist; in the liner notes, Annisette is credited first, but with no specific contribution, while the other musicians’ names appear with instrument details. When we finally hear that jagged voice, though, it’s climactic—we get only four folksy stanzas, repeated twice, each interrogating a different character about “what’s in [his/her] bag.” The answers—Mother has “chocolate and sweets”; Mr. Postman has “a note from your beloved”; Mr. Tailor has “the finest wedding dress”; and Mr. Harvester’s got “solitude and death”—are delivered laconically, without her usual theatrics. And then it’s over.
The record, as a whole, radiates bleariness—the changes are so subtle and the playing so fluid that’s it’s difficult to calibrate exactly what’s happening. The scale never becomes clear. By turns magisterial and miniature, exultant and lonesome, the listener’s spatial sense is repeatedly disoriented. That’s a good thing, I think, and one Danes and Americans alike would be wise to embrace. Despite distance and the disparity of our nations’ sizes and interest in global influence—not to mention the disproportion between the Danish cartoon scandal and the U.S. government’s policy of war-mongering—we suddenly find ourselves both challenged by international opinion. As Americans, our dominant and ubiquitous global culture can cause nearsightedness. We have a tendency to view ’60s and ’70s pop-cultural radicalism through the lens of our own accomplishments, with Dylan as the poet laureate and apotheosis of the movement. But beyond the obvious (and generally African American) exceptions—James Brown, Sun Ra, the Last Poets, the Fugs—American musicians of that era generally drew a stark line between experimental musical form and topical or politically transgressive lyrical content. (We can ascribe this mutual exclusivity to that generation’s devotion to the idea of traditional American folk forms as intrinsically political in nature, a notion cultivated by the triumvirate of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax.)
But the Savage Rose belongs to that rarefied international artistic community—along with Nigerian Fela Kuti and Brazilian tropicálistes Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso—for whom sociopolitical boundaries were as permeable and elastic as established sonic boundaries. Exposed to the double-din of American and indigenous music since childhood, they were free to invert, subvert and conflate sounds both foreign and native, thereby stumbling upon new, syncretic pop forms that echoed their cosmopolitan political extremism. Disorientation, getting lost and braiding together distant spaces and sounds, is their method and legacy. Thomas Koppel writes of the power of music—with typical, though endearing, heady idealism—largely in terms of place:

Eventually we did connect, on huge festivals and smoky jazz clubs; from fine white concert halls and royal theaters to sport arenas, dark streets, picket lines where my accordion was sometimes covered with snow so I couldn’t even feel my fingers, between sniper bullets in mountain refugee camps and slum churches filled with dancing hookers and pick-pockets. Wherever we were, the music opened up long-forgotten windows to the hearts, theirs as well as ours. Maybe it is true that music can’t change the world; but by opening these secret windows, it can certainly release energies in people that might someday change the world. On such an event, big or small, you just feel love. You feel your own love, and you feel everybody’s love. Everybody’s long-forgotten, mutual longings for a rich and meaningful life, freedom, happiness. I believe this is the only power strong enough to really change the world.

[Postscript: After writing this piece, I was astonished and saddened to hear that Thomas Koppel, founder, composer, and pianist of the Savage Rose, passed away on February 25, 2006, in Puerto Rico. At the time of his death, he was working on a new album, a play about Greenland, piano improvisations, and a book of poems. His funeral was held at Christians Church in Copenhagen on Saturday, March 11. He was 61.]


~ by Baldhead Growler on October 1, 2008.

One Response to “A Trial in Our Native Town.”

  1. dude- coming correct!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: