‘In quella parte del libro de la mia memoria dinanzi a la quale poco is potrebbe leggere, si trova ina rubrica la quale dice: Incipit Vita Nova …….
In that first book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life.’
(Dante from Vita Nuovo)
‘Yonder comes my lady, rainbow ribbons in her hair …. Nobody, no, no, no, nobody stops me from loving you baby … And you were standing there in all your revelation! It’s too late to stop now!’
(Van Morrison, ‘Cyprus Avenue’)
‘Some sweet day I’ll make her mine, pretty flamingo
Then every guy will envy me
‘Cause paradise is where I’ll be
Pretty flamingo, pretty flamingo.’
There really are moments when the course of your life is irrevocably altered. Moments when your history, your story, becomes divided into Before and After. After such a defining moment you look at and experience the world around you as if it were an entirely fresh landscape glistening with new possibility. Epiphanies are lightning strikes to the dormant consciousness; quickening barely acknowledged dreams into blood pumping, temperature raising life.
And, so often they occur without warning. One moment you’re a regular fellow shooting the breeze with the guys on the corner of the block and the next, the next, you’re a hopeless, helpless fool prepared to mortgage your entire future for this girl, no , The Girl … If you just could – if she just would, if she just would, if she just would!
And, this can happen at any stage of your life. It might happen, as it did, for the 9 year old Dante Aligheri on first glimpsing the divine vision of the crimson robed 8 year Beatrice Portinari in a Florentine Palazzo. It might happen, as it did, for the teenaged Van Morrison obsessively haunting the tree lined avenue, so close and yet so far from his working class East Belfast home, as a rainbow-ribboned vision of beauty came into view.
It might happen, as it did for me, at 40 plus, in a worthy seminar about third world debt – suddenly realising that the woman I had just met was without any shadow of doubt the woman I must captivate because she was the woman I was going to marry, the woman I HAD to marry .. If I just could, if she just would.
Mark Barkan, a jobbing Brill Building style songwriter, in early 1966 through some divine inspiration came up with a perfect pop song, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ which captures, as few pop songs have ever done, that moment of abandonment to the dream of finding the love of your life. The lovely image of the crimson coloured Flamingo, simultaneously familiar and exotic, brilliantly captures the sensual glamour of the beauty who, simply walking by, turns an ordinary day into a never to be forgotten one.
The original and in some senses definitive version of the song was by the Manfred Mann group who took it all the way to Number 1 in the UK in May 1966. It went on quickly to become an anthemic world wide hit.
This is a very 1960s beat group record brim full with youthful energy and vigour. The brash guitar is loud and upfront as the song starts and remains powerful as it beats on throughout; perhaps portraying the rib pounding rhythm of the protagonist’s heart as he comes to terms with his new, captive, situation. The background wash of keyboards and the lovely woodwinds point to the escalating wonder and desire for one who seems so out of reach and out of sight. You can almost feel the sigh as she walks by with that crimson dress that clings so tight.
Vocalist, Paul Jones, manages to capture the wonder and the longing of the situation as well as the bewilderment. I love the, ‘Huh!’ he inserts as he contemplates whether he really could and whether she really would!
This incarnation of the Manfred Mann group had Manfred providing jazz chops on the Hammond Organ, Mike Hugg on drums, Jack Bruce (only very briefly a member) on bass and Tom McGuiness on guitar. I’m assuming that the gorgeous flute work was provided Mike Vickers who had only recently ceased to be in the band.
The group had become a strong musical outfit through intensive gigging from from the very early 1960s. They combined musicianly multi-instrumental prowess and a love of jazz, R&B and Soul music with a flair for picking top quality songs from the emerging titans of the American songwriting scene (Carol King, Greenwhich/Barry and the peerless Bob Dylan).
I think you can hear their musical togetherness and attack in, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ reflecting their joy in music making and the thousands of road miles they had travelled together. Their version of, ‘Pretty Flamngo’ should always be in any representative collection of the finest 1960s pop.
A song and a record like, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ was certain to light a flame in heart of would be tough but tender songwriters the world over. So it is no surprise that the 16 year old Bruce Springsteen, listening to his radio in Freehold, New Jersey should have been bowled over by the song and kept it bright in his memory in the ensuing decades as he progressed from a tyro writer and performer to a global superstar.
I would hazard a guess that along with the operatic arias of Roy Orbison the echo of the yearning of, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ was somewhere in the creative mix in Bruce’s mind as he wrote ‘Thunder Road’one of his indisputably classic songs.
The magnificent opening of that song with the vision of Mary’s dress waving as she dances across the porch recalls for me the sashay of the Flamingo as she brightened up the neighbourhood and constricted the throats of every guy who wished she would let him be the Guy, not just one of the guys. The Guy who had made her his!
Listen to Bruce’s live version of Flamingo from 2014. He performs the song solo, virtually acapella, and introduces the song with a meditation outlining how the song tells a story, a primal story, that’s always true and current. For men as long as they breathe will fall in love with a girl, the Girl, as she passes by your porch.
He muses, sotto voce, as he begins to play the song that, ‘You’re always…. ‘. I think we can take it that by this he means that we are all always hoping that this time, today, will be the moment when could and would miraculously coincide so that together you take up residence in the longed for paradise.
Bruce, the mature twenty-first century Bruce, performs Flamingo with a wry romanticism that includes real erotic charge as well as an almost elegiac plangecy. It may be that has something to do with Bruce’s inevitable recognition that his days as one of the guys on the corner of the block are long past – no matter how fondly remembered. The consolations of such a realisation are however beautifully captured as Bruce’s own flamed haired beauty, his wife Patti Scialfa, joins him duetting at the microphone.
Sometimes all your dreams of the sweet day when you make the Girl, the fabled Flamingo, your very own turns out to be more than a daydream. It turns out to be what you were living for before you knew what you were living for.
As the ornithologists among you will know the name Flamingo derives from the Iberian, ‘Flamengo’ (with the colour of flame) is a highly distinctive wading bird prone, eccentrically, to standing on one leg. The Flamingo, which can vary in colour from light pink to Dantesque Crimson, is in the genus Phoenicopterus from the family Phoenicopteridae. Don’t you just love the Greek language and Taxonomy!
Their 60s output is a cornucopia of delights and you will be amazed at how many of their songs are already in your own mental jukebox (take just, ‘The Mighty Quinn’, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’ and,’ 5-4-3-2-1′ for starters!)
The succeeding Chapter 3 and Earth Band have intriguing catalogues with regular forays into the Dylan and Springsteen catalogues as well as radio classics such as, ‘Joybringer’ and, ‘Davy’s on the road again’.
As a pop classic Flamingo has been covered innumerable times. The versions I recommend are:
The Everly Brothers – an ineffably tender rendition from their 1966, ‘Two Yanks in England’ record.
Elvis Costello – a rave-up version (powered by excellent drumming) where Elvis turns spa like Montreux into a sweaty simulacrum of 60s beat dives like Liverpool’s The Cavern or London’s The Marquee. He is joined by the brilliant songwriting team from Squeeze Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook along with his own mentor Nick Lowe. Their obvious collective pleasure, as hardened songwriting professionals, in playing such a glorious pop confection is a joy to behold.
Paul Weller – has recorded Flamingo acoustically and also performed a tremendously rousing live version where he shows how acute his ear for the merits of the 60s pop song has been since his emergence from the punk pack.