If you were to rewind time back precisely twenty five years, at this exact moment I would have probably been dancing ecstatically around my bedroom in a daze of awe and elation to my 12″ record of Like A Prayer. It was a song – no, more than a song – a monument, that had been out for a couple of months now but which had taken an absolute, reckless hold of my consciousness. I couldn’t actually believe how good this new release was, how she had managed to change herself so utterly effectively again just at the moment that her image had begun to get stale, that her profound, chameleon intuition had allowed her to lay low for a while, dye her hair black, get divorced from Sean Penn, and re-emerge, triumphantly, with a fantastic, epic record of such monster proportion. I had always really liked Madonna, but now I loved her.
We had already seen her acute sensibility to cool, and the brutal, unsentimental ability to shear away the past, in the swift conversion from the ribbons and lace shenanigans of Like A Virgin to the shorn, cold, ice-bitch gleam of True Blue (a look she had blatantly ripped off from Melanie Griffith’s porn star turn in Brian De Palma’s Body Double), but by 1987, four years into her success, the sound was already beginning to get a touch samey and ‘typical Madonna sounding’ with the Who’s That Girl soundtrack and You Can Dance remix album; she was resting on her laurels, she was stuck. I, personally, pop pundit extraordinaire, thought that was that, that she was finished, because at the time I felt that I was so attuned to the fortunes and misfortunes of all pop stars and rock bands, the shifting conscious in relation to their positions in the pantheon, that I could sense, like a seismological instrument, the exact moment that their fashionability dipped, the tragic moment when Duran Duran released ‘Notorious’ and lost their edge (although in reality that was with the release of ‘Wild Boys’), or when solo acts like Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw, popular at their exact moment of hit status i.e 1984, suddenly entered the farewell land of uncool gone forever. Essentially, it was, and is, extremely difficult for a pop act to keep their edge, their relevance in the fickle world of teenagers, record companies and trends, and virtually no one was able to sustain interest, let alone dazzle the public, beyond a couple of years. Cyndi Lauper managed it for about three years, Michael Jackson already seemed outdated by the time that he released Bad, Culture Club looked, and sounded ludicrous at the five year mark, and although the Human League had latched onto Janet Jackson’s producers Jam & Lewis to update their sound for their ‘Crash’ album, it was to be just luck; a fluke of fate.
Madonna was an entirely different entity. With Like A Prayer she crashed back into the public sphere fresher and more vital than ever. Seriously, whatever you may think of her, the woman is a genius in this regard, her antennae always listening in, her instincts, in those early days especially, infallible. When Like A Prayer was released, with its genuinely uplifting, gospel chorus, and dance floor power, it was as if she were an entirely different person ( and so were we). It felt as fresh as a daisy and just as shiny and new. Sensing the oncoming beginning of the nineties, she had updated the sound, ditched the disco nuances, brought in a live rock band to record the music, and imbued it all with emotion; memory, familial reminiscence, melancholia. And rather than the separate, four minute pop slices of the previous albums, there was a continuum to the songs, a cohesion of spirit, with upbeat, rousing anthems such as Express Yourself and Keep It Together being juxtaposed by far sadder, emotive songs such as the exquisite Oh Father, Spanish Eyes and Promise To try, tracks that brought her back to her childhood, the sixties, and the death of her mother. And, fascinatingly for the olfactive sensitive, Madonna did something that I have never experienced before this album or with any musician since: she had each album scented with patchouli oil. I don’t know how this was achieved, precisely, with the record company and logistically (you can imagine the manufacturers being up in arms at this request), but it is a well known fact among Madonna-philes that the initial editions of the album inner sleeve were all doused in musky, well-aged patchouli essences to add, overtly or subliminally, to the church-incense vibe of the title track. And it worked, brilliantly: when you lifted the paper inner sleeve out of the jacket, you were assailed with just the right amount of spectral patchouli – not the cheap music festival ‘oils’ but the essential: it lingered, and it of course scented even the record itself, the label in the middle, meaning that as you put on that album for the millionth time, as it spun round and round it gave off an evocative atmosphere of patchouli, making you associate that smell with Madonna, the paisley patterned aura of the music, the Strawberry-Fields-Forever sixties’ longing of the sweet child’s lullaby Dear Jessie, the delicately scented past. My original copy is still in my parents’ garage in England, but I am pretty sure that even a quarter decade later, if I were to take it out from the pile of records it would still be smelling, clearly, of patchouli, a gimmick if you like, but one that three-dimensionalized the experience of Like A Prayer ingeniously, making the music, the scent, and the icon fuse into one.
With music I tend to suddenly crave a certain artist or album without knowing why exactly, and then I realize that it is because this was the season or the month that the record originally came out, when it flooded my brain and took over. I find that I start singing certain songs completely out of the blue, then impulsively have a fierce desire to hear them again, or, rather than the usual iTunes mix, as people used to do, listen to a complete album from start to finish. A similar thing happens to me also in regard to perfume. Before even thinking about Like A Prayer, a couple of weeks ago, while still in my jasmine & coconut phase, patchouli sinuously started to wind its way into the back of the brain, telling me it needed to be worn, that something deeper and more complex than tropicana was on its way.
The required scent, that was rising up slowly in my subconscious like a necessity, was not the simple, unadorned Haight & Ashbury love of the Madonna record, however, but Parisian patchouli chypre, a genre of scent I adore absolutely, that clings to you the entire day like a second, imaginary skin, orchestrated, finished, the embellishment of patchouli oil with rose and other flowers, balsams, spice and animalics to produce that black magic undertone that is always so sinewed, stylish, and je ne sais quoi. I speak, of course, of Eau Du Soir, Cabochard, Parure, Magie Noire and the like, but last week the specific perfume that was suddenly being called out for and that I knew absolutely I would have to wear come the weekend was Montale’s delightful Aromatic Lime. I bought this a few years ago from a perfume shop in Tokyo, and have not worn it all that much, but when I found it at the back of my cabinet and sniffed it from the lid I knew that I was right. This was the one. In some ways rather similar to Eau Du Soir in its essential profile and sillage, this is nevertheless possibly more masculine, less floral, and more long lasting, with a lime note in the top that keeps the whole thing smelling delightfully fresh throughout. The initial impression is quite odd, almost like a rich, lime chocolate ganache, with saffron, patchouli, vetiver and myrrh competing with the greener notes of bitter orange, galbanum and lime essence, but it soon dries down to a heart and aura that is, indeed, very ‘aromatic’. Like the perfumes that I mentioned earlier, it has that quality of complexity and shadowiness that you feel is trailing intriguingly wherever you go.
This weekend was a busy one socially, and I knew beforehand that the patchouli vibe was definitely how I wanted to be continuing. On Saturday night there was a friend’s birthday party in Sangenjaya, eighties themed, although we had been too busy, this time, to do proper costumes. What was funny was that aside one girl, who had come as an 80’s singer from The Philippines, every single other woman was there as Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, with the day-glo colours, ripped tights and leather gloves, the teased up hair, showing the singer’s absolute domination of that decade in the popular psyche. It was Madonna central. D won a lip-syncing contest (which I thought was hilarious, singing along to Tainted Love), while I spent much of the time chatting to a woman called Anastasia, who was also got up as the Madonna but to far more pleasing effect. Perfume-wise, I was perhaps a little overdressed, having decided to finally debut the glorious Piguet Bandit shower crème that the extravagant Rafael sent to me at the beginning of this year, and that I knew I wasn’t going to touch until the moment was right, until the patchouli phase began its inevitable hold.
And this, I have to say, is the ultimate. I have never worn Bandit before ( I prefer Cabochard, with its more powdery, hyacinthine edge ), not, on the whole, going for that kind of harsh and uncompromising bitter leather, Germaine Cellier’s fighting call for women’s olfactory emancipation and its acridly voluptuous smack, but on this occasion I felt, intuitively, that it went perfectly with the Montale. Where most shower gels lather up and bubble and foam and leave you only vaguely scented with the signature perfume in question, this unctuous, satin-esque creation deeply perfumes your skin with a spiced, leather patchouli, all-over-scent, to the extent that you could almost leave it at that. I didn’t, of course, and went for a Kenzo Pour Homme stick deodorant for an extra, patchouli/marine effect, with the Aromatic Lime worn on my clothes and skin. I worried, initially, that it was too much (moi?), but D assured me that the whole thing smelled actually really fresh, the citrus on top coasting on the air and jamming the patchouli waves, keeping it all strangely subtle. It was, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, nomihodai, or ‘all-you-can-drink’ (god those parties are dangerous), and before you knew it, leaving just in time to get our last train, we were walking down the street, arm-in-arm, singing, yes you’ve guessed it, Like A Prayer, at the instigation of Yukari, belting it out at the top of our lungs, to the bemusement of onlookers (and the police), and it still felt great, still had the impact. That song is timeless.
Sunday. Well, usually I don’t like to have two nights of seeing people and socializing in a row – I think one is ideal, followed by a more mellow day just spent at home, but there was a dinner party on the cards that had been planned for a while, three people who had never been around to the house before, and I was actually really in the mood for it for some reason: perhaps I am just getting more sociable now the weather is heating up and summer is almost in full swing. This time I opted for the same scents, essentially, but toned down: the Bandit shower gel used in smaller amounts (it is pungent!) and just a couple of sprays of the Montale on my T shirt, which I wore under something else. I loved how this combination smelled, the way it would occasionally rise up but not overpower, somewhere between quite masculine and androgynous, but definitely enigmatic ( or so I like to believe). Curiously enough, there were more Madonna connections: Spring Day, one of the guests – her real name, and an excellent stand up comic, incidentally, was tantalizing me with tales of how she had not that long ago had lunch with one of the dancers from the Blonde Ambition tour in Los Angeles, how she had loved Madonna for years ( I love such vicarious pleasures) and it wasn’t very long before we were on the piano singing along to Oh Father and Spanish Eyes and getting all emotional. I botched Like A Prayer itself with an ironic theatrical theatre organ sound that I thought would liven things up a bit after those ballads (in fact it just sounded stupid), but it was hilarious fun nevertheless. And then something else happened: Makana, a recent friend from Hawaii who had come along with slinky Jonathan, said he wrote songs and lyrics, and wondered if I could try and put down some chords and music for them. I have never done this before, and have an inadequate knowledge of chord structure, but before you knew it there we were writing a pop song; though I felt bad for the other guests, as once we were getting down to it the music took over and we didn’t talk to them (!) there was something delightful about the spontaneity of all this: it is something I have long wanted to try, at the back of my mind, I think: I have had the knowledge that writing a song would not be impossible, but having the lyrics and the basic melodic ideas laid out (he is a Leo, like Madam M, who also works this way, co-incidentally) meant that there was a template, that I could try different permutations until we got it right. Like Madonna, Makana is also somewhat exacting, and the song, if it ever surfaces, is not quite ready yet – I/we will have to work on it, and I look forward to it, actually, but the whole thing, at that moment felt exciting, and new, everything rising up spontaneously; freely; and without restraint.