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‘The Day of the Dead’: Putting Malcolm Lowry to jazz

The loss of ignorance makes existence worthwhile. Two days ago I’d only vaguely heard of the late English composer and jazz musician Graham Collier (1937-2011) and would probably have never hooked up with his work if not for a tweeted image of his 1977 album The Day of the Dead that set me off on an Internet voyage of discovery.

Collier was a musician, composer and teacher of considerable note—which only underlines my paltry knowledge—and wrote a significant body of work before his untimely death. But my attention was drawn to this photo by the name of the author on the cover of the album: Malcolm Lowry—one of the great misunderstood and underappreciated authors of the 20th century, whose books demand to be read and kept permanently in print—currently only one of his books is available, not surprisingly it’s his classic novel Under the Volcano.
Little ole drink anything me, Malcolm Lowry and his classic book ‘Under the Volcano.’
Lowry’s Under the Volcano is the Faustian tale of Geoffrey’s Firmin, a British consul to Mexico, and his descent into a personal hell. This book inspired Collier to write The Day of the Dead, which was then described as his most “sprawling and ambitious” work as a composer.

Too often there is an awkwardness born out of improvised jazz and spoken word (listen to Jack Kerouac’s recordings) which can ruin good music and good words, but here Collier managed to wed Lowry’s words (culled from Under the Volcano and spoken by John Carbery) with his storm-tossed, intense music. It’s a revelation and has been deservedly hailed as his masterpiece. As critic Thom Jurek wrote of the album:

Collier’s vision here is focused, intense, and spiritually charged by Lowry’s work. This is not some jazz with text, where a written text becomes the thematic cause of a group of instrumentalists, but more a series of passages that offered great textural and spiritual depth and dimension by this obviously on fire group of musicians.

This is vanguard music, but it is far from “free jazz.” The gorgeous chromatic range is almost overwhelming as these players entwine around one another, and the text, further extending the entire notion of collaboration between literature and jazz.

The totality of this set makes for Collier’s most ambitious work yet, but also his most realized statement on record for a group of this size. This is the text for British and European big bands to follow.

Graham Collier creating ‘the text for British and European big bands to follow.’
Collier had an understandable obsession with Lowry, as the writer mined a solitary path against insurmountable odds. In fact it was incredible that Lowry ever managed to write anything as his fondness for alcohol often had the better of him—here, was a man who would literally drink anything, including aftershave and hair tonic.

But Lowry for all his demons was a man who understood and loved life—he thrived in the joy and complexity of existence, writing everything down in his notebooks before it was all too quickly gone.
Listen to Graham Collier’s ‘The Day of the Dead,’ after the jump….

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Wish you were here: Imaginary postcards from the life of Malcolm Lowry
01:30 pm


Malcolm Lowry

Who wouldn’t have wanted a postcard from Malcolm Lowry? The old sot who wrote the marvelous Under the Volcano and Lunar Caustic. And of course, apart from its literary worth, the receipt of said postcard from Malc, off boozing in some foreign clime, would reassure the recipient that there was no need to lock up the whisky, the after shave or the hair tonic.

Lowry, you see, drank anything—including all of the aforementioned. How he ever managed to get his books written, only gives evidence to his desire to write, and write well, everyday. Writing was the only thing more important than boozing.

Lowry wrote everything down in small pocket books, which provided much of the content for his novels and stories. Alas, only two of novels were published during his lifetime the semi-autobiographical Ultramarine, and the excellent Under the Volcano. The rest appeared after his untimely death by suicide, or possible murder, in 1957. Lowry ingested a large quantity of alcohol and barbiturates, the latter had been prescribed to his wife Margerie. Gordon Bowker suggests in his excellent biography Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry (1993), that an exasperated Margerie may have fed Lowry handfuls of the pills in his alcoholic stupor. It sounds possible, for who could live with such a relentless drunk? Also, Lowry would not have gone gently into that good night, without filling a notebook or two with his thoughts and feelings, and last farewells.

Since we never received that decorative missive from Mr. Lowry (“Wish you were here!” lost in the post), here is the next best thing a Tumblr site dedicated to imaginary Postcards from Malc, in which vintage postcards are tied together by Lowry’s life, letters and books.

Bowen Island, Canada December 1953

You’ve me caught me at a bad time to write a letter like because I have to catch a boat to an island whence the posts are few and far between. In fact a December Ferry to Bowen Island.

          - Letter to Albert Erskine 27/12/1953


Milan 1954

In Milan I met the translator of the Volcano and worked on it with him for a couple of weeks. It is scheduled for March publication and I understand they are going to launch it with much fanfare and publicity.

          - Letter to Harold Matson 20/11/1954

More postcards from Malc, after the jump…
Via Postcards from Malc

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Alice Cooper: Certificate of Insanity

The Alice Cooper Certificate of Insanity (issued by the School for the Hopelessly Insane) was a limited edition document given away free with Cooper’s album From the Inside, in 1978. Whether this was a recommendation or, a comment on the quality of the record, was never made clear. What is known is that rather like the source for Malcolm Lowry’s excellent novella Lunar Caustic, Cooper’s album was similarly inspired by the singer’s stint in a New York sanitarium for his alcoholism.

From the Inside was co-written with Elton John’s song-writing partner, Bernie Taupin.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

Through a Glass Darkly: Malcolm Lowry, Booze, Literature and Writing


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Through a Glass Darkly: Malcolm Lowry, Booze, Literature and Writing

When the DTs were bad, the writer Malcolm Lowry had a trick to stop his shaking hands from spilling his drink. He would remove his tie, place it around the back of his neck, wrap either end around each hand, take hold of his glass, then pulled the tie with his free hand, which acted as a pulley, lifting the glass straight to his mouth. Lowry drank anything, hair tonic, rubbing alcohol, after shave, anything. But unlike most drunks, Lowry was a dedicated writer, a constant chronicler of his own life - everything was noted down as possible material for his novels, and generally it was. He couldn’t enter a bar or cantina without leaving with at least four pages of hand-written notes. That’s dedication.

In 1947, when Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano was published, he was hailed as the successor to James Joyce, and his novel hit the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. Move ten years on, to the English village of Ripe, Lowry is dead from an overdose, at the age of forty-eight, penniless, forgotten, with his books out of print. It was an ignoble death for such a brilliant writer, a death that has since been clouded with the suspicion he was murdered by his wife, Margerie Bonner, who may (it has been suggested) have force-fed him pills when drunk - for the pills he swallowed were prescribed to Margerie, and Lowry was unlikely to have taken his own life without writing copious notes of his final experience.

Lowry was born in Cheshire in 1909, and educated at The Leys School and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. At school he discovered the two passions that were to last the whole of his life - writing and drinking. He wrote poetry and became friends with the American poet and novelist, Conrad Aiken, sending him letters about his drunken excesses. Aiken recognized Lowry’s natural talent and encouraged the teen literary tyro to write. But Lowry didn’t have the experience to write from, so between school and university, he enrolled as a deckhand and sailed to the far east. This provided him with the material for his first novel Ultramarine (1933), the story of a privileged young man, Dana Hilliot, and his need to be accepted, by his shipmates. The story takes place during 48-hours on board a tramp steamer, the Oedipus Tyrannus, “outward bound for Hell.” Like all of Lowry’s work it is semi-autobiographical, and contains the nascent themes he would develop in Under the Volcano (1947), Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968) and October Ferry to Gabriola (1970).

Booze flows through Lowry’s writing. It’s a way of escape, as much as the sea voyages and plane journeys he wrote about. In Medieval times, a definition of possession included drunkenness, and Lowry was well aware of drink’s shamanic association:

“The agonies of the drunkard find their most accurate poetic analogue in the agonies of the mystic who has abused his powers.”

Few writers physically endured the excesses of alcohol or wrote about them so powerfully. While everyone knows Under the Volcano and its tale of the descent into Hell of alcoholic British consul, Geoffrey Firmin, during the Day of the Dead, in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, it is his novella Lunar Caustic which gives the clearest insight into the cost of Lowry’s alcoholism. It’s the harrowing tale of Bill Plantagenet, a pianist and ex-sailor who, after a long night’s drinking, awakens to find himself in New York’s Bellevue psychiatric hospital surrounded by the dispossessed and insane.

The story is as much about Lowry as it is about the “collective and individual anxieties of the age,” and it was a story Lowry worked on repeatedly during his life. Early versions were published in literary magazines, and Lowry eventually spliced it together into a novella he thought too “gruesome” to publish in his lifetime, though he gave it a most interesting title:

Lunar Caustic as a sardonic and ambiguous title for a cauterizing work on madness has, | feel, a great deal of merit. But lunar caustic is also silver nitrate and used unsuccessfully to cure syphilis. And indeed as such it might stand symbolically for any imperfect or abortive cure, for example of alcoholism.

Like many drunks, Lowry teetered between self-pity and self-loathing, but the writer in him kept careful watch on his often disastrous and eventful life, and it is because of this his writing never indulged in the worst excesses of the bar-room drunk of being boring. Indeed, Lowry’s books are complex enough to deserve more than one reading, for as Schopenhauer once wrote:

“Any book that is at all important ought to be at once read through twice; ... on a second reading the connection of the different portions of the book will be better understood, and the beginning comprehended only when the end is known; and partly because we are not in the same temper and disposition on both readings.”

Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry is an Oscar nominated documentary which:

focuses on Malcolm Lowry, author of one of the major novels of the 20th century, Under the Volcano. But while Lowry fought a winning battle with words, he lost his battle with alcohol. Shot on location in four countries, the film combines photographs, readings by Richard Burton from the novel and interviews with the people who loved and hated Lowry, to create a vivid portrait of the man.

It does create a vivid portrait, but one under the shadow of Lowry’s last wife Marjorie Bonner, and it was not until after her death, in 1988, and the publication of Gordon Bowker’s top class biography, Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry, that a complete picture of Lowry came to fruition. Still it’s a damn fine documentary, and well worth the watch. As for an epitaph, I’ll leave that to the man himself:

Malcolm Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank daily
And died, playing the ukelele


Previously on Dangerous Minds

Kerouac’s Boozy Beatitudes on Italian TV, 1966


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