At night I often sleep clutching a bottle of frankincense oil in my right hand. A reflex perhaps from when I was a baby, a clenched fist – the tucked thick glass of the essence fits perfectly into my hand and is comforting : pale streams of olibanum dematerialising into my palm.
Whenever I think of this essential oil, oddly perhaps, I think of Boy George. Known to wear pure frankincense as a perfume, the singer of Culture Club and a personal icon from my childhood has, despite his litanies of controversy over the years, always, like Madonna, been fascinated by spirituality, incorporating visual and lyrical religious themes into his work from the outset, particularly in his excellent 90’s incarnation as the singer of Jesus Love You.
A bizarre incident from ten years ago or so confirms this. A Greek Orthodox Church representative, Bishop Porfyrios, was apparently sat one evening at home, watching a BBC documentary on Boy George (as you do), when he suddenly spotted, to his astonishment, hung on the pop star’s living room wall, a stolen painted icon of The Jesus Christ of Pantokrator, looted forty years ago (- not by Boy George, naughty as he always was) from the church of Charalambos in Neo Chorio-Kythreas in northern Cyprus. Startled, he immediately set about contacting the former George O’Dowd through his Cypriot composer friend John Themis – and the precious artefact, without contention, was promptly returned to its original source. According to a legal document published by the University of Geneva, ‘during a personal meeting between the singer and the bishop, appropriate certifications for the ownership of the icon by the Church Of Cyprus were presented to Boy George and both parties orally agreed to a settlement’.
When I worked in the leafy, ultra wealthy area of Hampstead, North London, in the mid-nineties, I used to sometimes deliberately walk past Boy George’s house on my way to the Heath back home – noting wistfully and nostalgically all the graffiti and chalked kisses on the walls scribbled outside the house from still obsessed fans (Japanese particularly – he was a superstar a megastar, here; worshipped by screaming stadia of young teenage girls who fell in love with his kabuki androgyny) and reigniting my obsessional adolescent pop enthusiasms in my bedroom when I would play both Culture Club and Dead Or Alive on repeat and do pastel paintings of both lead singers – I went to their concerts, out of my mind with excitement, shrieking hysterically with female friends from school (and for Pete Burns even wearing an eyepatch as he did in Spin Me Round): I even once somehow actually persuaded my dad to go in costume as Boy George – a combination of the Victims sleeve – see top – and the Miss Me Blind/It’s A Miracle cover – below – for a fancy dress party where his colleagues and acquaintances were quite horrified by his camp mutation into the Karma Chameleon, but where I was, obviously, the reverse and rather ecstatic.
Keeping it in the family, another interesting Culture Club anecdote: : one evening in 90’s London, the very same Boy George was giving unambiguously come-thither bedroom eyes to my brother (a sound engineer/ mixer at clubs in London) when he was guest star DJing there and Greg was working his graphic equalizers ; flirting with him outrageously and trying to take him home – to no avail. I was very jealous – not that I could ever see George that way; to me he is more a rebellious instigator, a gorgeous singer, and a bitch-tongued melodicist who loves or loved the limelight and who I looked up to because he was just so out there, ‘gender bending’ along with the divine Annie Lennox and others of the period and almost terrifying when he first appeared on Top Of The Pops singing Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?…. Like other icons – David Bowie, Bjork, Prince, Kate Bush, Lady Gaga – I could never see him as a sexual being (to me they are more like extra terrestrials and he was more like Mother Theresa). I would have loved to have swapped places with my brother through, to have the opportunity to meet and chat with the Church Of The Poison Mind, to tell him what we meant to me, perched on a leather banquette in the venue with a couple of drinks, if not necessarily – as he was apparently hoping with mon frère – in the sack.
But back to frankincense.
Like the man himself, at night I sometimes put some frankincense essential oil on my wrists (in my case for sedation purposes – it changes the mental calibration), but there is always also a medicinal rush of terpenes too sharp on the skin at first, transposing to more spectral octaves only a few hours later, when the smell has a hallowed purity to it that makes you understand why it is vital to the rituals of so many world religions. It really is a kind of sanctuary.
As a perfume though, it doesn’t quite cut it. Serenity notwithstanding, unlike patchouli, vetiver or sandalwood, it is just too volatile and vaporous – always rushing its way towards the heavens. To be worn aesthetically, for me it needs to be fixed with other materials to do it justice, to anchor it more in the real world. I like how the substance is handled in the majority of the best ecclesiastical niche incense perfumes on the market, particularly those by Filippo Sorcinelli, who treats frankincense quite beautifully, with an almost masochistic, devotional transparency: I can also enjoy it though in much more secular ‘oriental’ settings, sweetened with amber or vanilla. Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant was always compelling to me but a little too harsh and burnt among the sweet embers of the crystals; scents like Heeley Cardinal a little too self serious. More sugared, and gentle frankincense perfumes include the lovely Baiser De Florence by Ella K – heliotroped and fluffy, eminently wearable, and the rich, crimson cushioned frankincense-amber that is Herve Gamb’s wonderfully simple Rouge Cardinal, one of the best in the genre. Now, another delightful addition to the frankincensian canon, (finally, he gets to the perfume, exclaim the billowing readers) is Encens Suave, by Matiere Premiere.
What is so nice about this extremely wearable perfume is the central note of Somalia Resin Incense – beautifully clear and balanced in terms of translucence and radiation and always at the core of the scent throughout – muffled ethereally with an interesting note of ‘Venezuelan Coffee Extraction’ Andalusian labdanum absolute, and a steadily sweetening but nicely tempered base accord of benzoin absolute from Laos and vanilla absolute from Madagascar ( a real ‘culture club,’ in other words – boom boom ). The frankincense stays throughout, though, like a jewel in the centre of a gold ring, even as the benzoin, ever so slowly – on my skin at least – I wore this last night – starts to dominate the whole. By morning, rather than comfortably ghostly and resinous, it was much more vanillic and sexy – probably more like the church choir’s floozy. The point is, though, that there were no cracks in the development, no gaps – all was contiguous and smooth and expertly blended. In other words, whether you take to this particular frankincense will depend entirely on your tolerance/addiction to the benzoin and vanilla – D was loving this on me last night I have to say and I also found it very pleasurable – but which at times take on an accent that is redolent of Prada Candy ( – if it was doing Holy Communion).