The Shock of the Nu

Emilie Foyer_Nugrape Whale_Mag
Photo by Emilie Foyer.

The Nugrape Twins recorded six tracks for Columbia Records between 1926 and 1927 — four gospel tunes (including “Pray Children if You Want to Go to Heaven” and “There’s a City Built of Mansions”) and two anthems for the soda Nugrape, hence the moniker on their 78s — “I got Your Ice-Cold Nugrape” and “Nugrape — A Flavor You Can’t Forget.” They recorded in Atlanta, accompanied by a company piano man. They are named in the Columbia accounts register as Matthew and Mark, biblically, appropriately. No last names. What we have is all we know. I’ve been listening to these six tracks for two years now, their haunting harmonies, their inscrutability, the tape phasing and the wax warping a rhythm of decay, jamming. These are songs on two themes: salvation and soda. Gospel tunes and singers being a dime a dozen, the Nugrape Twins took their name from what was unusual, the soda songs. But it’s unclear whether or not these jingles were commissioned by the Nugrape company, or are simply effusive, raucous praise (perhaps aiming at such a commission).

“I Got Your Ice-Cold Nugrape” has been stuck in my head for a year now; whenever I pick up a guitar, my hands clench unthinkingly into the claws that will scratch out its choral turn. A philosophical friend tells me Kant was intensely annoyed, flabbergasted, by earworms. Perhaps he was abnormally beset and plagued by them — this does, of course, raise the question: what songs got stuck in Kant’s head? But I’m not a philosophy major. Anyway, Kant says that you can tell music is an inferior art to painting because it’s a joy to get a painting stuck in your head, but a burden to get a song stuck in your head. The worst, I could imagine, would be jingles — songs designed like computer viruses or tapeworms, burrowed into the brain, muddy eddies in the stream of consciousness. But I’ve never drunk a Nugrape, and I don’t intend to. Not that the Nugrape Twins don’t make a compelling case for their elixir: it will assuage your blues, it will win you a wife, it will cheer your children, it will save your marriage. Nugrape is worldly pleasure, The City Built of Mansions its heavenly counterpart. Surely this soda is a golden calf, a false idol. Surely this is kitsch. Why, then, is this the song that’s stuck with me?

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The answer may be simple: it’s catchy, it’s weird, it’s an excellent pop song. Its harmonies are otherworldly. And it comes to us resembling holy speech, distant, disembodied. The Twins have long since disappeared; I think we’ll never know who they were. The recorded voice makes us think of ghosts. Someday, if you’re interested, you should listen to the oldest sound recordings we have of ghosts themselves. In 1930, a Yorkshire ghosthunter recorded ghosts rapping on wood. It’s terrifying. It sounds exactly like a person rapping on wood. You have to work to supply the spirit, draw it out.

I’m reminded of Tithonus, the Trojan lover of the rosy-fingered dawn. Dawn won his immortality, but she forgot to ask for his eternal youth. Over hundreds of years his body withered until it started shrinking, flecking away, and then there was just his voice, babbling by the sea, singing as his lover stretched herself across the ocean, streamed across the strand.

 

A seashell, as my father taught me when I was quite young, was the first record. You hold it up to your ear, even in landlocked central California, and you hear its song. It sings the ocean where you found it. I think of Tithonus, and seashells, when I hear the Nugrape Twins cutting through the crackle and phase of the wax.

Beachcombing, too. One of the ways we talk about old shit like “I Got Your Ice-Cold Nugrape” is that it’s washed up on our shores. If you want to get really freaky, you can say it’s like a message in a bottle. A message in a Nugrape bottle. But I stand back from that. Let collecting be collecting, and beachcombing, beachcombing.

Nothing is bigger than a whale on a beach. Two or three things about whales, from someone who’s neither a cetologist (nor a biologist of any stripe), and hasn’t read “Moby Dick”: they wash up onshore sometimes. They are central to God’s argument for his overarching justice and power. They started out like dogs or deer, 50 million years ago, and decided against evolution’s turn to land, and went back to the sea. When they wash up on shore now, sometimes they explode. Gases from their insides decomposing build up inside them, until their body cavity bloats to the point of bursting in a violent explosion. In Taiwan in 2004, a whale carcass washed up onto a beach. Noxious fumes spread across the strand, which was as you can imagine a serious pleasure-drain for the community. They took a truck and tried to haul it away to a dump, but the gases had built up to a critical mass, and it exploded in a crowded street, a great fatty bomb in the marketplace. The same thing happened in a German coastal village in the 17th century; several died when the horses carting the carcass spooked in the explosion. Dozens more were mauled to death by wolves that had come down from the forests in search of the lingering whale bits. Imagine, the terror, a slow-ticking bomb, a great greasy meteor!

 

In the final analysis it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do when a whale comes to your shores. It’s a nuisance defined by its sheer mass. Where do you bury it? What do you do with it? You can’t just leave it there, stinking up your beach, rotting like some horrible play with an interminable fifth act, wondering if it’s going to explode and cover you and your family in oily sea-goop. You’ve gotta do something with the body.

(There’s a funny old book by a Polish poet who died young called “Killing Auntie,” in which the narrator bludgeons his kindly aunt to death in the apartment they share, but is at a loss as to how to dispose of her surprisingly heavy mortal coil. The book is the story of the hiding of the crime. Brancusi, the sculptor, once said: “the work of art is a perfect crime.” Now you can visit his studio, reconstructed in its integrity, buried in Paris at the Centre Pompidou. Did he get away with it?)

But the funeral is not the only quandary when it comes to whale carcasses. Sometimes they are quandaries themselves. Sometimes they wash up so disfigured, so fragmented, that they are completely unidentifiable. Since the 17th century, mysterious masses of tissue, hair and bone have washed up on unsuspecting shores. Oaxaca 1648, the Orkney Isles in Scotland 1808, St. Augustine Florida 1898. They take shapes like creatures hitherto unknown, or long thought dead. They could be leviathans yet hidden from view, testaments to the sheer expanse of the sea, and the powers still occulted in its depths. Remember your theodicy; remember God, to Job, in the founding big-fish tale: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish-hook?” Well, can you?

Sometimes a basking shark rots and it looks like a plesiosaur; we know this now. Sometimes a whale’s head breaks apart on the seafloor and massive lumps of adipose tissue rise to the surface, making the landward turn, and their decomposition makes new bodies just close enough to creatures to pose the question of their origin.

So, the thing is, when you find a globster (as it’s been termed), it’s unclear whether or not it speaks to a revelation, a glimpse at some depth of the world yet unplumbed, or if it’s just beach trash, puked up out of the snotgreen sea. You can’t tell whether or not it’s divine or base. The problem of the globster, like the problem of the Nugrape Twins, is about distinguishing the real thing from the fake. It’s about art versus kitsch. It’s about signs and wonders.  It’s about carefully balancing low things in high places and seeing how they stand, or fall.

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