I lost myself on a cool damp night
I gave myself in that misty light
Was hypnotised by a strange delight
Under a lilac tree
I made wine from the lilac tree
Put my heart in its recipe
It makes me see what I want to see
And be what I want to be
When I think more than I want to think
I do things I never should do
I drink much more that I ought to drink
Because it brings me back you
Lilac wine is sweet and heady, like my love
Lilac wine, I feel unsteady, like my love
Listen to me, I cannot see clearly
Isn't that she, coming to me nearly here?
Lilac wine is sweet and heady where's my love?
Lilac wine, I feel unsteady, where's my love?
Listen to me, why is everything so hazy?
Isn't that she, or am I just going crazy, dear?
Lilac wine, I feel unready for my love
Feel unready for my love
James H. Shelton, the lyricist of “Lilac Wine|, this spellbinding love- and grief prayer, goes back to 1925, referring to the author Ronald Firbank and the French fin-de-siècle style in his “Sorrow in Sunlight” storyline. Although many artists have included this song in their covers, among them Eartha Kitt and Elkie Brooks, even contemporary ones like John Legend and the Cinematic Orchestra, the two covers that are beyond comparison are those of Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. This is because apart from the spiritual restlessness, what also characterises airiness is that it signifies delusion, insignificance, even madness. And that can be detected in the superficially similar, yet radically different way Simone and Buckley emotionally -and vocally- embraced the struggle of self-imposed oblivion, the reality which hides behind the lyrics’ meaning.
What Jeff Buckley succeeded, due to his rock ’n roll-soaked, sorrow-sentenced, anarchy-structured voice attributes, was to find a form which accommodated the mess included in the struggle for resisting memories. Although trying not to be biased by his lifestyle specialties which are displayed in his musical violence, -typical example of which, is the mysticism which characterises his striking single “Tongue”-, when it comes to Lilac Wine, he seems to stress more the parts that indicate delusion and hallucinating detachment. That refers to his tension when mentioning the atmospheric misty light of detachment from reality, the hypnotic delight of selective memory and the aggressive practices which compel the body to the spirit of relieflessness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PC68rEfF-o
And then, Nina Simone. With her hoarse, gloomy, rasping voice, which bears all the meaning of the song in the very tremble of her pitch. With her violently mournful yearning in the lyric “Where’s my love?”. With the “black-classic music” features rousingly emphasising the vocal acrobatics of the lyric “Listen to me, I cannot see clearly”. With the existential dimension of the meaning which is merely focused, due to her mastery in letting emotion dictate what the arrangement should be. With the notorious aeriform of her vocal attributes that, as felicitously illustrated by Daphne Brooks in her book “Grace”: “would go belly deep or off key because the melody can’t carry all of her feeling. Her voice vibrates like a “motor running,” moving with a “rich, deep thrumming under the cracked surface.” It can be unpleasant at times, but it’s these “cracks” that allow the raw vulnerability within her voice to shine through.” The woman who has all her life sung injustice, stripping whichever orchestral arrangement down to her voice and the soft piano sound, emphasises the inequality which underlies every romantic relationship. Every violently emotional erotic subject, whose madness for sentimental tension rips apart any possibility of power-balance within his love stories. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LT38CIgRse4
With that said, Simone and Buckley’s covers cannot be compared to any other before or after, simply because the feeling of war that their stories and voices bear, is embodied in a way that necessitates its self-destructiveness; leaving now clues of the recipe of escape for the musical descendants.
To all the melodies that explain nothing, but thanks to them our feelings become explicable, and K., because if anyone, she can do better than Simone.
Written and Curated by Marianna Serveta
Lensed by Elen Aivali
Special thanks to Diana Kavalieri for the graphic designs of the blog
Featuring “Meadow” Manteau