Hey! Orpheus

Sometime afterwards I recall “Hey! Orpheus,” a song by Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up.

Vocalist Ian Svenonius’s Prince-like, Eros-stricken shrieks of pain — a signature of his performance ever since the days of his band Nation of Ulysses — are put to good use throughout amid a sound aligned with and inspired by organ-laden psychedelic pop groups of the late 1960s. Michelle slides her finger down the neck of her bass and sets the song in motion, with drummer Steve Gamboa and the rest of the band leaping forth to join her moments later.

The band adopts the guise of a collective subject — Earthlings, mortals, “We the Living” — singing through Ian to an Orpheus other than the Black Orpheus of midcentury France.

“Hey! White Orpheus,” he sings,

“Do you remember us?

We’re up in the sunlight.

You’re down in the furnace.

Hey! White Orpheus,

in the Earth’s crust,

open up all the doors,

come on and bury us.

Living there, down below,

gave your soul to Pluto,

all for your Eurydice.

I want to eat pomegranate seeds.

White Orpheus,

don’t be so jealous.

Up here it’s the age of elephant ears

laced with angel dust.

Hey! White Orpheus,

from dawn to dusk,

you’re oblivious

to anything other than

your sacrifice for love.

Living among stalagmite floors,

bellows pumping Devil’s calls.

To be like you, what must I do?

I wanna eat the pomegranate, too.”

Organist James Canty interrupts to deliver a punchy, powerful organ solo mid-song — perfect for a work that revels in speed and brevity. Contemplating the song now, though, I find myself wondering after the whiteness of its Orpheus. Why does the band recast the color of Orpheus from black to white?

Black Orpheus is a 1959 film made in Brazil by French filmmaker Marcel Camus. The film reimagines the myth of Orpheus set amid a favela in Rio de Janeiro, so it has its hero Orfeo descend into the underworld by attending a Macumba ritual to save his lover Eurydice on the night of Carnival.

The Make-Up, meanwhile, a band based in Washington, DC, preached a variant of liberation theology that they took to calling “Gospel Yeh-Yeh.” Might their recasting of the color of Orpheus teach us something about the tenets of the band’s theology?

My inquiry leads me to “Black or White Orpheus: Votive Transmutation Shrine,” a 34-minute jam by Portland-based artists Corum & Zurna.

Orpheus in Hades’ Lounge

There’s a parking, a journeying outward. Up and out we launch past West End Mill Works, off on tonight’s adventure, beginning with an evening stroll. Graffiti marks the spot. Stream to one side of us, water rushing over rocks. Spotify shifts from Steely Dan’s “King of the World” to Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know,” voices and cars in the distance. Looking both ways, we cross the street and rush down onto a shaded path through a nearby park, crickets singing in parallax with Neil Young’s “Computer Age.” We turn off the song and continue for a moment in silence. Upon arrival to a crossroads, we ask of each other (like Ginsberg to Whitman in Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”), “Which way now?” Looking up, we rise and step proudly toward pink clouds. Conversation turns toward Old & Used Books as we pass a graffiti-clad muffler shop. Bulldog with paintbrush arrives as comic relief — reality for a moment a goofy animal fable whodunit. We grab beers as day turns to night. Ginsberg’s “lights out” reverberates, hangs in the air after us having heard earlier in the day Let’s Active’s “Orpheus in Hades’ Lounge,” featuring hometown hero Mitch Easter.

Can Orpheus be told anew? We recall to each other the character’s many forms. Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus (1959). Also Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay of that name. And let us not forget Samuel R. Delany’s Lo Lobey, the Orphic protagonist at the heart of Delany’s 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Hoots is a Hades’ Lounge, is it not, with its red light hanging above its corner booth? So we think as we drink, glorying finally in each other’s presence. “What would happen if our Time Traveler were to stage the scene again?” wonders the Narrator, listening alone now, seated at the same booth many months hence. With “King of the World” still fresh in our ears, members of Steely Dan singing, “No marigolds in the promised land; there’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow,” we restate the refrain of Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know.” Amid Orpheus wailing away on his flute come the words, “You’re to know that I love you. You’re to know that I care.”

Saturday January 30, 2021

When thinking about Freud, we should think also of one of his most important successors, Frantz Fanon. Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925 and studied medicine in France, specializing in psychiatry. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he rewrites Freud, positing in place of the latter’s Western imperial Ego a black psyche: a diasporic, anti-colonialist Orphée Noir or “Black Orpheus,” as Sartre would say, seeking to liberate itself from a white world. Fanon is angered because the French Empire imposed upon him through colonial schooling the Master’s language, “the mother tongue,” the language of the core. The anticolonial subject takes possession of the language and talks back — though not, as he says, with fervor. Fanon tells us he doesn’t trust fervor. “Every time it has burst out somewhere,” he writes, “it has brought fire, famine, misery…And contempt for man. Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 9). What Fanon performs instead is a kind of radical psychiatry upon Western consciousness. His books are psychotherapeutic treatments for those whose heads have been shrunk.