Source: Crazy Horses: Mari Lwyd
Out of the mist comes the jagged silhouette of the horse-skull, teeth perpetually bared, bone-clack of jaw, death-rattle of stiff-wooden tongue, draped in a spectral sheet, swaying to the doom-doom beat and the wassailers make their groggy way up the milk-bottle street. It is New Year’s Day in Glamorgan. In the villages and towns of the coal-black valleys the newly ancient custom of the Mari Lwyd is being enacted. It is led by the ostler by umbilical rein: accompanying him are outlandish characters, Christmas cast-offs, Father Christmas or one of his misbegottens, green men, white ladies, following the Y Fari Lwyd, the Grey Mare, or Grey Mary to some, as it dips and jinks to the threshold. A sharp rap-rapping at the door, a rude awakening. The cold slaps you like a hangover. Curtain-twitch curiousity. The gummy-eyed REM of the street’s dreaming, axe-picking at the coal-faces of their chthonic longings in bedroom blanketed snugness, is disturbed. Which reality is this? Which year? Old year or new? Get up! Grey Mary’s here! And she’s wanting to come in for tea and brith like Lady Muck! Grab a dressing gown. Gather your wits. Pull up your knickers. Speak the pwnco. Call-and-response. Banter for your life. Death must be invited in. Given food and drink. Cold meats and warm cider. And then you’re off the hook, possibly. The Reaper might pass your home by with his big black book, a bony digit scrolling down the lists of surnames. Death’s lotto. It could be you. The fatal thunderball. The terminal jackpot. When your numbers come up, the surprise will kill you. But the guizers stagger groggily onwards to the next house, their next victims. The wild has been let in with its muddy boots, its lack of manners. Lustful intrusions. Rubbing up the girls. A frisky mortis. Dancing our shadow, unbound by the corset of rules and codes which constrict and protect us the rest of the year. But for one day, reality bends, and the Grey Mary arrives like Rhiannon to rock our worlds on her cock-horse, jangling her hells bells. She carries us over the borders, between the worlds, between the years, and we must placate her to survive. And all before bloody breakfast.
This is the New Year custom of the Mari Lwyd which can still be spotted in South Wales, most authentically in Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, but also throughout the Llantrisant area. In Chepstow this custom has reached its apogee with a conscious ‘revival’, which has grown over the last decade from a small number of dedicated wassailers to hundreds of morris, public and this year 9 Mari Lwyds. The Chepstow Wassail takes place on the Saturday nearest to Old Twelfth Night (17th January), the traditional end of Yuletide (in the Julian calendar). The day begins with Morris dancing outside the Three Tuns, each side taking a turn. Then there is a procession, led by the Maris to the new orchard planted at the foot of the castle. There the usual wassail custom takes place: the singing of the Wassail song, the ‘toasting’ of the tree (with triangles of toast) and the scaring away of bad spirits with party poppers (as opposed to shotguns – a concession to health-and-safety). The gathered process three times around the apple trees, singing the wassail song. The Maris linger among the orchard – seeing several together is strange and eerie sight on a chilly winters day, but also wonderfully delightful and eccentric. Suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore, or Glamorganshire for that matter. It is like being in an episode of Dr Who, one where the monsters get together to have a bit of a knees-up – Daleks and Cybermen getting tipsy at the works do. Children look up at the Maris in awe. Yet the horse-skulls are beautifully decorated with all kinds of foofaraw, outdoing each other in their folk-bling. They prance and preen like glamour queens – a queasy mix of the camp and gothic. This is the Folky Horror Show. The procession rambles back to the pub and everyone tries to squeeze into the Tuns for a singalong. For a while its sardines. Then a space clears and a black-faced pirate burst into chanty, and us land-lubbers chant along. There’s more morris – they breed ‘em round here: Border Morris that is, figures in black clacking sticks lustily, bellowing out like rutting stags. Later, the English make their way to the Gloucestershire side of the Wye to be given hospitality at a friendly natives place overlooking the river. More wassailing takes place, then a rocket is fired and the English contingent process to the bridge pulling a cart with an apple tree on it. On the bridge there is a ‘folk-off’ between the Welsh and the English. But instead of fisticuffs, there are handshakes, Happy New Years and dancing. St George and St David flags are exchanged. The Maris ‘rave’ on the bridge, engaging in a bit of horse-play, and the atmosphere is one of a very British Saturnalia. The English are welcomed in, and everyone makes their way to the museum for more wassailing. Later on there’s a ceilidh and drunken singing late into the evening. This is the folk tradition alive and well on the Borders – blood and cider flowing in its veins. Where else could such a custom take place? Except here at the fringes. There is nothing quite like the Chepstow Wassail.
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 17 January 2016
Imagine a being with different coloured eyes, thin and androgynous, changing its face, its hair, its clothes, its demeanor through the decades – conquering the airwaves with otherworldly music which spoke to all outsiders. A being who made life art, and death the greatest performance of all.
If such a creation did not exist in actuality, blowing the minds of generations of music-lovers, they would be a fascinating character from a story spanning two centuries – the work of a great storyteller.
David Robert Jones. David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell To Earth… Pop legend David Bowie, born January 1947, died January 2016, was a true original. His music career spanned six decades and in each of those Bowie redefined himself and help define the cultural zeitgeist with his prescient and paradigm-shifting songs.
The first track on his eponymous first album, ‘I Dig Everything’, although naïve in style, could be seen as a foreshadowing of his eclectic magpie approach – his restless explorations and experimentations with musical styles and genres.
In the Sixties, after dabbling with Mod, folk and psychedelia, he introduced us to The World of David Bowie and Bowie’s first hit (reaching No. 5 at time; No. 1 when re-issued in 1975), Space Oddity, which, in the year when man landed on the moon, encapsulated the culmination of the Space Race, riffing on Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s mind-bending 2001: A Space Odyssey and the footage of the Apollo missions beamed to new TV sets in living rooms across the West. Its luxurious soundscape, produced by Tony Visconti (who would remain Bowie’s key producer for decades), complete with Rick Wakeman on mellotron, would not have been conceivable at the start of the Sixties, but after the groundbreaking Sergeant Pepper’s, Their Satanic Majesties Request and a plethora of good and not-so-good mind-expanded psychedelia, all things were possible.
In the Seventies Bowie created the androgynous extra-terrestrial alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, in the hugely successful 1972 album, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.’ The iconic look, with the flash of red lightning across the face, the skin-tight costumes, the red shock of hair, set the fuse of the Glam explosion. This was augmented by 1973’s ‘Pin-ups’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ with its raucous ‘Jean Genie’ anthem. 1974’s Diamond Dogs heralded a darker, apocalyptic sound. By the time Glam had become cheesy cliché, Bowie had moved to Berlin and created a new sound, experimental and discordant, in a triptych of albums, Heroes, Low and Lodger.
And Bowie unforgettably heralded in the 80s with the spiky, eerie Ashes to Ashes, resurrecting and deconstructing his fictional astronaut, Major Tom, as a junkie. The video depicting Bowie as Harlequin leading a mournful procession of commedia dell arte characters and a bulldozer created a vogue for the form which became viral throughout the decade. The ‘Sci-Fi gothic’ feel of the song could not have harbinged the decade more prophetically, an aesthetic seen on the big screen a couple of years later with the release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The tech noir, as it became known, was ironically ‘quoted’ in Bowie’s own mid-decade restyling as the golden crooner surfing the airwaves of pop with ‘Modern Love’, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Dancing in the Streets’. This was Bowie at his most commercial and successful. But the shapeshifting maestro had not finished with us yet.
Although subsequent albums saw a downward trend in his artistic stock (‘Never Let Me Down’; ‘Black Tie White Noise’; ‘Earthling’) with disappointing side-projects (The Tin Machine), Bowie bounced back with a classic performance at Glastonbury in 2000 and a recorded set for the BBC in the same year. Bowie’s back catalogue was the perfect post-modern soundtrack for the Millennium year. It evoked the genius loci of the last four decades when Britain went pop. When Bowie stopped performing in 2004 due to ill health it seemed like we’d heard the last from the Star Man. Had he finally fallen to Earth? But to everyone’s surprise he released a new album in 2013, The Next Thing, completely out of the blue – and it was full of killer tracks. This uncannily co-incided with a hugely popular exhibition at the V&A in London. Suddenly Bowie’s stock had gone stratospheric again. Compared to the attention-hungry posturings of many of his musical peers and imitators, Bowie’s self-imposed exile and lack of game playing had paid off. No one was cooler, no one was more versatile, and better at capturing the spirit of the times, as in his melancholic self-retrospective, ‘Where are we now?’ Then, a few days before his shockingly sudden death, Bowie released what was to be his final album, ‘Black Star’ which appears to be a conscious epitaph, with eerily resonant tracks, such as ‘Lazarus’. It had received critical acclaim even before his sudden death (in fact the climax of a devastating cancer which he had typically kept quiet). Once again, Bowie had caught us by surprise. Black Star fizzes with energy and invention. Even as he approached his 70th year, Bowie showed he still was a tour-de-force of creativity. A musical genius, a one-of-a-kind, and, going by the incredible world-stopping reaction to his death, adored by millions. His music touched lives, and gave us all permission to live creatively. He himself said his subject matter was always himself – and yet it was never narcissistic. Themes of isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, as well as a kick-ass joie-de-vivre, touched the hearts of countless bedsit misfits. His music literally reached orbit when astronaut Chris Hadfield performed Space Oddity aboard the ISS – the first music video to be made in space. As a musician he was out of this world.
David Bowie, Star Man, RIP 1947-2016