Absinthe, poetry and little girls (by moonlight)

Doug Fitzgerald - Blue Moon I (1979) - from fitzgeraldspub.blogspot.fr

Doug Fitzgerald – Blue Moon I (1979) – from fitzgeraldspub.blogspot.fr

This is a story of inverted logic, successfully going backwards from positing conclusions to finding facts, and filling the holes with desires and wishful thinking. But perhaps there is no logic at all here …

I-I-I am, the backdoor man
Well, the men don’t know
But the little girls they understand
Willie Dixon, Back Door Man

The surrealist poet André Breton often walked in the streets of Paris at night with a friend, in order to find inspiration or to provoke strange events. Before him, Ernest Dowson and his friend R. Thurston Hopkins made a strange encounter during their game of ‘Blind Chivvy’: “The idea was to find short cuts or round-about-routes from one busy part of London to another by way of slinking alleys and byways which then were not well known to the average London man.” They met a living dead!

Dowson, the worshipper of little girls, who adored the child actress Minnie Terry before falling in love with the young Adelaide Foltinowicz …

National Portrait Gallery - Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond (1889)

Elliott & Fry – Minnie Terry as Daisy Desmond (1889) – National Portrait Gallery

Dowson also loved absinthe, a spirituous drink popular amongst poets and artists; he used to sayWhisky and beer for fools; absinthe for poets,” and “absinthe has the power of the magicians; it can wipe out or renew the past, and annul or foretell the future.

This liquor (based on wormwood) was invented in Switzerland and became extremely popular in France during the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century it was demonized and blamed for all ills; flawed scientific research accused it of causing madness and epilepsy, in fact the symptoms attributed to absinthe were simply caused by alcoholism. Following vigorous opinion campaigns, it was finally banned in many countries, in particular in Switzerland in 1910 and in France in 1915. (See Le Musée Virtuel de l’Absinthe for a rich documentation on the subject.)

The taste of absinthe was soon forgotten (and replaced by poor substitutes, such as pastis), and throughout the 20th century it was repeated that this liquor was neurotoxic. Finally in 1988 European law allowed liquors made of wormwood, and absinthe was completely liberated in Switzerland in 2005 and in France at the end of 2010.

So I have embarked on a quest for the magic beverage that can “wipe out or renew the past, and annul or foretell the future”, and which you won’t find in ordinary places. Searching on Internet, I discover a shop in Paris, probably the only one in France: Vert d’Absinthe. Browsing its catalog, I find that it sells a CD entitled … Little Girl (with 4 titles). O divine Ernest, your two passions gathered at the same place!

MoonCCat - Little Girl EP

MoonCCat – Little Girl EP

After further searching, it appears that the shop owner, Luc-Santiago Rodriguez, aka Julian Katze, aka MoonCCat, is a poet, photographer and musician fascinated by the 19th century, its old-fashioned photographic techniques and its ‘poètes maudits’ (but he seems not to really know Dowson). He has written some poetry and tried to publish it (without much success, apparently), and has also recorded a few songs whose music he composed himself, using 19th century poems as lyrics.

MoonCCat - Dreams to sell

MoonCCat – Dreams to sell

He is also the singer of the group Little Girl, and this name is the title of one of their songs. The music and lyrics of this group look more like standard rock and roll, and do not have the strangeness and poetry of his solo songs issued under his nickname MoonCCat.

MoonCCat - Little Girl

MoonCCat – Little Girl

Where does that name ‘Little Girl’ come from? Its origin is given in the band’s site. The story goes back to 1927, when the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote the poem Alabama Song, which was then set to music by the composer Kurt Weill and finally included in their 1930 opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). It is sung by alcoholic prostitutes, they are craving first for a ‘whiskey bar’, then for a ‘little boy’ (in the 1930’s, this designated a bottle format), and finally for a ‘little dollar’:

Alabama Song (Bertolt Brecht)

Oh, show us the way to the next whiskey bar!
Oh don’t ask why,
Oh don’t ask why!
For we must find the next whiskey bar
For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar,
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We’ve lost our good old mama
And must have whiskey
Oh, you know why.

Oh show us the way to the next little boy!
Oh don’t ask why,
Oh don’t ask why!
For we must find the next little boy
For if we don’t find the next little boy,
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We’ve lost our good old mama
And must have boys
Oh, you know why.

Oh show us the way to the next little dollar!
Oh don’t ask why,
Oh don’t ask why!
For we must find the next little dollar
For if we don’t find the next little dollar,
I tell you we must die!

Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We’ve lost our good old mama
And must have dollars
Oh, you know why.

(Note: in the lyrics found on Internet, there is ‘pretty boy’ instead of ‘little boy’.)

This song was adapted in 1966 by the rock group The Doors, whose singer Jim Morrison changed ‘little boy’ into ‘little girl’ (maybe he did not know the meaning of ‘little boy’ as a bottle format); he also omitted the third part about the ‘little dollar’, see The Doors lyrics.

Doug Fitzgerald - Blue Moon II (1990s)

Doug Fitzgerald – Blue Moon II (1990s) – from fitzgeraldspub.blogspot.fr

MoonCCat, Alabama Moon and little girls … I am reminded of the Moon Maiden in Dowson’s The Pierrot of the Minute. Are little girls linked to the night?

Another song adapted by The Doors is Back Door Man by the blues musician Willie Dixon. In the culture of Southern United States, the phrase ‘back-door man’ refers to a man having an affair with a married woman, who uses the back door as an exit before the husband comes home. Indeed, the funny lyrics tell of an adventurous man making his ‘midnight creep’ when ‘everybody is trying to sleep’, then of the vexations he suffers at the hands of jealous husbands, cops and judges. It repeats the strange refrain “I am, the backdoor man / Well, the men don’t know / But the little girls they understand.” Howlin’ Wolf recorded his version of it in 1960, with slightly modified lyrics. In the 1966 version by The Doors, the lyrics are further reduced (with many shouts and empty words instead), but they still repeat “I’m a back door man / The men don’t know / But the little girls understand.

Morrison had many women fans, and maybe little girls too. There is a short animation showing a little girl who has fun stroking Jim Morrison’s hair (see also here). One image from it illustrates a video of the song You’re Lost Little Girl by The Doors (see the lyrics here).

Jim Morrison is best known as the singer of The Doors, but he also wrote poetry, some of which found its way in his song lyrics. He published two books of poetry in his lifetime, and more volumes were compiled after his death in 1971. In an article on his blog, MoonCCat suggests that he was frustrated by not being recognized as a poet. He likens Morrison to the 19th century ‘poètes maudits’, not only for his writing style, but also for his alcoholism (he was fond of whisky and cognac, and often performed drunk on scene). He wonders, if absinthe had been legal in his lifetime, would Morrison’s fate have been different? One can imagine that he would have been a devoted amateur of the green fairy. And maybe it could have brought out the flowers of his poetry.

MoonCCat - Absinthe Minette

MoonCCat – Absinthe Minette

Absinthe, little girls and the moon: the magical formula of the poets that can “wipe out or renew the past, and annul or foretell the future.”

I would not alter thy cold eyes;
I would not change thee if I might,
To whom my prayers for incense rise,
Daughter of dreams! my moon of night!
I would not alter thy cold eyes.
Ernest Dowson, Flos Lunae, in Verses

One of Dowson’s passion was demonized and banned for most of the 20th century, and many poets unknowingly were deprived of this powerful source of creativity. But now his other passion is demonized and persecuted since nearly 40 years. Little flowers of the moon, secret dreams of poets, shining lights in the night, kept in estrangement. For how long?

Duy Anh Phan - Mai Vi

Duy Anh Phan – Mai Vi

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7 thoughts on “Absinthe, poetry and little girls (by moonlight)

  1. Well, as ultra-religious than I am, normally say I don’t like alcohol but I can not… simply this beautiful teenager that you put here (last picture) has captivated me, also I’ve seen her in your Google+ account, so please where I can get the other images at full size? I want to put her as wallpaper to worship her (literally).

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    • This image is not full-size, the full-sized one (1067×1600) makes 1.4 mega, too big for WP, but I could send it to you by email, if you just gave me a correct address…
      [Update: I have posted it on Google+, click on the photo, then in the “More” menu, select “Download”.]
      You can see two other images of the same girl, full-sized (1024×683), on the January archives as featured images above posts (but not visible inside individual posts). Otherwise here are the links:
      [https://agapeta.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/tumblr_ma8s4rb5hx1qadv0oo1_1280.jpg]
      [https://agapeta.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/tumblr_ma8s4rb5hx1qadv0oo2_1280.jpg]

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  2. I got to drink some home-made absinthe when I was a youth – a ‘paysan’ acquaintance of my father had given it to him as a present. I was curious – but my father warned me that when he’d drank some he’d been violently sick soon afterwards.
    I tried it – not in the traditional way (I think it’s called ‘louching’) with the special spoon and the sugar cube – but just as it came out of the dust-coated bottle.
    I was violently sick soon afterwards.
    I’d understood that the problem with distilling from wormwood is that, essentially, your making alcohol from, well, wood. So there can be quite a lot of toxic methanol (wood alcohol) mixed in with the ethanol. Presumably a good still should sort that out.
    Is it not true then that the impressionists painted the way they did because of the deterioration to their eye-sight caused by drinking absinthe?

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    • Lensman, your comment is typical of the moral panic discourse: amalgams, hearsay, hackneyed phrases, ignorance and outright fallacies presented as facts. Knowing your opinions about other moral panics, you were the last one I would have expected to say such silly things.
      First what you drank in your youth was probably a contraband moonshine, and not the real absinthe. When something is illegal, you have no efficient way to sort the real thing from the counterfeit. Moderate drinking (one dose diluted in water with sugar) of real absinthe does not make you sick. I have never been sick from it.
      Second, wormwood is a plant, artemisia absinthium, and one uses from it the leaves and flowers, not the “wood”. It is a cousin of artemisia annua from which the Chinese extracted artemisin, the powerful anti-malaria drug. There is no methanol in the absinthe liquor, if it was toxic the EU would not have allowed it. So don’t say “I’d understood”, but “I was brainwashed”.
      Third, absinthe’s agents, beside mainly alcohol, are thujone (from wormwood) and also a few other such as fenchone (from fennel). The claim that thujone is neurotoxic comes from the flawed experiments of the psychiatrist Valentin Magnan who exposed mice to high doses of vaporized thujone, which made them epileptic (while alcohol vapors made them tipsy). The problem is that for a human to ingest such a high dose, he would have to drink several bottles of absinthe, and he would be dead from alcohol before the poisoning by thujone would have an effect. British scientists were not taken in by Magnan’s arguments, they said that the problem was just alcoholism, and indeed absinthe was never banned in the UK. Absinthe did not attack the visual system of painters, but excesss of absinthe or any other alcohol provokes the symptoms of alcoholism. So, about impressionist painters,don’t say “Is it not true that”, but “Is it not a legend that”.
      The ritual of absinthe, like the rituals associated to cocaine or heroin, has a psychological effect, but most of it is in the mind, not in the thujone. Some good readings:
      http://www.museeabsinthe.com/
      http://www.thujone.info/
      http://www.heureverte.com/

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      • Oh, well that’s me told! 😦
        I don’t doubt you’re right – as so often ‘experience’ is merely a record of our errors and misjudgments.
        Still wouldn’t touch the stuff, though: I’m attached to my stomach lining, and intend to remain so!

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