Archive for September, 2012

Getting Bombed: Salutations from 1812

September 7, 2012

You really ought to hear Shop Boy’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Seriously. I’ve never been asked to perform at, say, a baseball game. Or a football game or … OK, anywhere. Your loss. But I’ve done it (very, very late at night) in my Baltimore kitchen. And let me tell you, when the song/poem hits that third stanza, the one not too many folks know about, you want a Marilyn Manson fan like Shop Boy behind the microphone. Me bringing the pain … you appreciating hurting. Dogs barking. Police summoned. The performances are understandably as rare as they are surely breathtaking.

Let’s set the stage anyway.

There’s a dude stuck on a boat on the Patapsco River, hard by Baltimore, Md. He can’t use his cell phone to call for help or text his friends to let him know where he is and when he’ll be back.

Mostly because it’s 1814. September 13, to be exact.

And he’s kind of a captive.

See, the British weren’t quite as squishy back then, and they were kind of bugged by all the smug posturing of a newly independent nation such as the U. S. of A. And they were honestly still a little raw over the idea that a ragtag bunch of militias had defeated them 30 years or so before in the Revolutionary War and had the gall to set up a legit government and ports that could compete (by hook or by crook) with London’s traders. So, they sailed a fleet across the Atlantic Ocean to smack us up.

Anyhow, our captive’s a part-time poet, name of Francis Scott Key. In the middle of all this War of 1812 mess, he’d gone with a team of ambassadors to meet with the British navy to negotiate freedom for political prisoners. Alas, once he’d stepped on deck, looked around and seen the size of the British fleet anchored just off America’s shores, and accidentally heard a little bit too much, he couldn’t simply be sent home to let the locals know an attack was imminent, now could he?

So the supremely confident British figured, while they’ve got Key and his boys there, why not toast the Americans’ crumpets just a bit, forcing them to watch the bombardment into submission or death of their brave countrymen at Fort McHenry.

Umm …

Fort McHenry’s cool, if you’ve never been there. Kind of a star-shaped set of fortress walls, lots of grass, ancient cannons for kids to climb on and what look like they must have been cramped and cold quarters. They make you sit through a movie before you can see the grounds, but it’s informative and (all right, all right) stirring. Patriotism aroused, or not, it’s totally awesome once you get to walk about. The cell where they locked up the traitorous, South-leaning Baltimore mayor during the Civil War? I get a TB cough just thinking about it. Today, the cannons point out mostly toward industrial loading docks. But in 1814, the fort was the last line of defense for the City of Baltimore and, in British minds, America itself. Washington, D.C., had been whipped. Kill Baltimore and the annoying “don’t tread on me” snake was snuffed too. And the Redcoats were on the right track there. There’s an interactive map of the British plans, by both land and sea — along with the strokes of luck and genius that stopped them — that will scare the stars and stripes out of you. I mean, if you were, like, rooting for the Yanks. British visitors might find their day dampened at the prospect of what might so easily have been.

OK, so Francis Scott Key is stuck inconveniently if not uncomfortably on a British boat as part of a gentlemen’s agreement — today they’d cut off his head and send the videotape to his peeps — and experiences from afar a terror, torment and, ultimately, a triumph that will lead to a poem, and a national anthem.

The first stanza is all (warranted) apprehension over the fort’s fate. Look, the Americans were outgunned big time. No, “big time” doesn’t cover it. The British were loaded for bear, fully prepared with more modern, potent guns to shell the ever-loving hell out of Fort McHenry and its comparatively tiny battalion of defenders. Meanwhile, the British gunboats could park just yards (or what would be known today as “meters” if they’d succeeded) beyond the reach of the American cannons and fire at will.

O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming,
And the Rockets red glare, the Bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there:
O! Say, does that star-spangled Banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

Well, as the night goes on — and the British shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot, and the fort stands — Key gets more confident himself.

On the shore, dimly seen, through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence repose,
What is that, which the breeze o’er the towering sleep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream,
‘Tis the star-spangled banner. O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Then, dare we say, lippy?

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Don’t go there? Yes he did. He gets all Marilyn Manson, Body Count, “we’re gonna Dougie on your dead.” The trash talking is a bit much, to be honest. But, big American finish …

O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our Trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

(Probably best that the national anthem as it’s traditionally performed today stops just as Key is getting warm.)

So here we stand, two-plus centuries down the road in this crazy experiment we loosely call democracy. Say what you will about American missteps, and they have been and continue to be legion, but your mom and dad were basically right that you were lucky to be born in this nation. What’s not so good? We’re working on it.

Anyway …

Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, two-thirds of the late, great rant-rock band Double Dagger and 100 percent of the superstar graphic design firm Post Typography (they’re MICA faculty, to boot), began talking with Mary about a really star-studded idea for the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The guys are creating artworks for an exhibit at the Windup Space, a hangout on Baltimore’s slowly gentrifying North Avenue just perfect for such things, and they’d like to use — ahem — wooden type from the Globe Poster Collection at MICA to create original prints for it. Show runs September 8 through October 27.

She’s in. Partly because it’s an awesome idea, to set the first stanza (good call) of the “Star-Spangled Banner” as a four-panel, stream-of-consciousness love poem to Key, to 1812, to Baltimore, to wit, to graphic design and, yes, to Globe. (The wood type is in, too, looking for all the years of hard, magical poster making as though it might have been at Fort McHenry that crazy night, wearing its scars just as proudly.) And Nolen and Bruce, who’ve got some letterpress experience, are up for doing the physical labor if Mary’ll be their sherpa.

Seeing as Mary also has an entire Pandora Radio channel dedicated to Double Dagger (groupie!), it should come as little surprise that she agreed. Any money that Globe and MICA would receive for her efforts was an afterthought. (Shh! Don’t tell the guys!)

If you’ve not worked with older wood type or long forms of hand-set prose, then the amount of labor and the number of hours it takes to produce such a project would likely amaze or intimidate you. But Bruce and Nolen had a clear vision of what they wanted the panels to look like, and they loved the idea that not all the Globe type is in the same physical shape. So, if the perfect E for the line had an “arm” that wasn’t quite type-high anymore, they eagerly set to work on make-ready, painstakingly building up a corner here and there using bits torn from the whisper-thin pages of a phone book. (Phone book … talk about your 19th-century concepts.) And the kerning (spacing between the letters) was just as big a job. Might even say the hours and hours they shot and shot and shot and shot and shot at the 1812 project show a distinct lack of sanity. Very rock-and-roll, though.

The prints they made? I won’t blow the surprise to bits, but they’re bloody brilliant. And available, on a limited basis. But come see for yourself.

If you’re not stuck on a boat somewhere, get over to the opening on the eighth — that’s Saturday night! — for a look at these prints and other cool stuff Bruce and Nolen have created. Mary and Shop Boy will be aboard. I probably won’t be asked to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” there, either. But I might hum a few bars if you ask nicely. Or just tell you the wet-your-pants story of Mary and Shop Boy loudly trading ideas at 3 a.m. on where the inflection should come on the fourth line of the third stanza.

Our final answer: Wherever you want.

It’s a free country.