Jan 12, 2011, 04:20AM

Amidst Whale Bones and Old Hulks

Captain Frank Thompson from Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast reviews Ke$ha's new mini-album Cannibal.

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Many a time a man has overhauled me in the street and, bold and saucy as ye please, has asked me if I was Frank Thompson, of the Pilgrim, the one that Mr. Dana wrote about in his book, and if I had really flogged and hazed those men the way that Dana put it down. It's customary to encounter rats aboard a ship and any Jack Tar or officer who marvels at 'em is like as not touched by the sun or wanting for lime; but it ain't to my credit to pretend that I don't marvel every day at that two-legged rat Dana, and how I ought to have sweetened him when he pitched his rig in my forecastle.

It ain't easy for a man to see himself calumnized in print as a Herod of the quarterdeck. A captain who don't sweeten nor haze his crew when they affront him won't long ply hides in California, not with the trading company agents aboard, not while they watch from knotholes with ink on their fingers while you soger your tars out of their hammocks and into the teeth of a sou'wester, fleeing Santa Barbara harbor before the gale. Does Mr. Dana think that I ought to have asked sweetly, that I could have crept from my cabin in stocking feet and whispered at the hatch of the fo'c'sle, “oh boys, my dear and darling boys, if it don't trouble ye, might I ask ye to turn out of your bunks and set the studding sail and cast off our anchor?” When I know as like as not the men are swapping yarns of the time they saw me tumble in the scuppers of our long boat and come out wet as a dog, with my monkey-jacket be-tarr'd and grimy? Or the time that Mr. Foster, the worst second mate who ever shipped to sea, found the Jonas Brothers mix on me iPod?

The point is, that it's a solitary and hateful thing to be a captain some times, and when a sailor gets my dander up why shouldn't he expect the hawse to come down across his back, and his captain to ask if he likes being driven thus, and if he admires his new condition, and if he contemplates any further insubordination? Aye, 'tis a fit subject for me dream journal, if ever there was one, and me mood shall go down “black as pitch,” or black as a cannon ball—I'll apply to Mr. Dana for a metaphor of such perfumed and lacy perfection as to set the sparklers of Paris all a-titter.

On the same course, Mr. Dana may tell his fellow landlubbers at Harvard what he likes, as they mince about the parlor in their lacquered pumps (sewn together from hides that better men than he cast down from awful promontories and carried on their heads through roiling surf in California), but he knows and I know that it's the captain's right to haze his crew, and that though he may have slept and ate before the mast for two years he ain't a salt any more than I'm a Chinaman.

I don't mean to give ye the impression that I'm fixed on Mr. Dana, though I won't dissemble and say that it wouldn't bring a spring to my step to knock him down in the streets of Boston; rather, this serves as a preamble or introduction o' sorts to me real yarn, which is an appreciation or at least some talk on Ke$ha's new album.

Mr. Dana don't know of what I did after I worked the California coast and turned over the Pilgrim to Faucon. It ain't much to tell, and I don't aim to plumb it in much detail, but the Alert and I both reached the Sandwich Islands in 18--, and as was my custom I went ashore with neither mate nor mariner and I sought out a low captains bar, where I could stand my brother officers to a jack of grog and hear yarns, as the able seamen do in the fo'c'sle, but in grander style and nicer appointment. 'Twas in such a bar at O'ahu, as the kanakas call it, that I first heard talk of the yarr blonde singer Ke$ha, who's like as not a siren or a harpie, a-judgin' by her generally glitter-crusted appearance, and by certain things that sailors have seen on the sea, and by sights I've seen myself.

The bar in O'ahu was fit to the character of the islands, which is mean and small, and the inkeep was a lean and mangy kanaka with a milky eye. Only one other white man sat beneath that smoky thatch, an ill-favored and queer-smelling Massachusetts man named Obed Marsh. Unlike certain men of letters I don't hold with tarring a man's reputation in print, but a drop o' ink won't make a chimney blacker'n it already is, and Cap'n Marsh was moored to a reputation so bad and so black that as poor a pen as mine could hardly worsen it.

Cap'n Marsh was known for certain warm tendencies towards fish that made both Protestant and Papist captains shift a mite uneasy in their boots, and avoid eye contact, and make excuses not to shake hands nor to exchange addresses, nor even to accept the greasy and ill-labeled mix CDs that Marsh handed out like so many cartes de visite (write to Mr. Dana should you need a translation of that French—as I understand Harvard men acquaint themselves quite closely with their brothers the Gauls).

Cap'n Marsh joined me at my table (without leave nor even bothering to ask) and straight away he set to interrogatin' me on Mr. Dana's account, and would I sue, and had I saved the hawse that sweetened the backs of ol' what's-his-name and the Swede. I put him off but as I had already ordered a bloomin' onion I couldn't leave. His talk turned odd and ugly, and I watched a queer sort o' spider crawl up a beam and into the thatch as he muttered.

The kanaka who kept the board seemed frightened and presently I looked up and he was gone; Cap'n Marsh and I faced eachother across a slut-lamp, as close and intimate as if we were in a boudoir (a situation that I won't attempt to draw in too much detail, since unlike certain other famous naval authors I've spent me life on the quarterdeck rather than prancing from closet to closet in Boston).

Cap'n Marsh didn't so much tell me his yarn as he made insinuations and nasty hints, and he leered and I glimpsed his little white teeth a-bitin' and grinding in his greasy face. Up close he smelt like harbor-wrack or spoiled fish, though I don't know if this was derived from his character or from the company he kept. The kanaka had left the crock of grog and we both grew drunk, though I did more than he—he persisted in sipping at his own mug, a heavy pewter tankard carved all about with an octopus motif.

The spider came out of the thatch and fiddled and spun in the light of the grease lamp, and presently its friends joined it and commenced a regular spider jamboree above our heads. “It's older'n you and even older'n me,” Cap'n Marsh said, fumbling in his pocket. I wondered to myself if I would see the bloomin' onion before six bells the next morning.

Cap'n Marsh inclined over his grog and tapped the table and sucked at his tankard and yarned, in the most indirect and irritating o' ways, of his voyages to the South Pacific, and of the queer and awful things he had seen there. He saw men spill blood on parcels of goods, and he claimed that he brought home idols that a man from a University tried to buy, only he wouldn't sell them. “They're kindly ugly and twisted-up things,” he told me, “but they make a body want to look at 'em will ye nil ye.”

The kanaka finally brought the bloomin' onion and we drank and ate (Cap'n Marsh recoiled from the zesty sauce like it were a California rattle-snake, which made me smile).  As the sun rose he gave me to know where he had buried a brass coffer (I won't tell ye where, since there was other things a-buried with it, and it won't do to have half of Boston traipsing up and down the coast with mattocks and shovels). Before the fall weather turned I had dug it up, though it gave a queer sort of tickle (like corposant playing among the masts) and made my teeth feel a-loosened in my mouth.

Within the coffer among other objects that I don't care to name I found two albums, Ke$ha's debut Animal, and her follow-up Cannibal. Oh, how the kanakas rolled their eyes at that coffer, and how they shrank from my Bose Wave Radio as I played Ke$ha's infectious pop hits! “We no thinkee that Ke$ha very good,” their leadertold me, "she no singee, sort of talkee, 'e no seem particularly talented.” To these kanakas, and to the gray heads of Boston who lament that Ke$ha might encourage sin (as well-rebutted in Mr. Berlatsky's article) I say, tend to your proper business of picking oakum or darning socks, unless ye want me to make a soger of ye just as I did of the Swede. As Genoese captains defend the mother of Christ, so to do I defend me beloved Ke$ha.

Now, to the album—we've steered a wide course, but be of good cheer, me hearties, the harbor's in sight! On Animal Ke$ha concentrated on poppy sing-alongs fit to make the men skip 'round the windlass. On Cannibal she returns to that port with tracks like “We R Who We R,” and “Blow.” Would that me tars' hooks were as infectious and effective as Ke$ha's in these clubby ballads—every man aboard would feast on tunny and mackerel nightly, and the complaints of ship's bread and salt beef would cease.

“Crazy Beautiful Life” reprises the love of grog and the Virginia Reel covered so memorably in “Party at a Rich Dude's House.” Ke$ha charts a new course with “Sleazy,” which would put a man sitting alone and cold in his quarters in mind of Missy Elliot. Her voice lilts with a Feejee delicacy on the chorus, “I don't need love lookin' like diamonds.” On the cryptic “Grow a Pear,” the golden imp's voice quivers like a great Jamaican bosun. Frank Thompson may be a hard old down-East Johnny cake but I'm man enough to admit that I didn't “get” much of Ke$ha's wordplay on this track—I've been round Cape Horn more times than most men have gone to the grocer, but I've never seen a “vag” nor a “mangina,” and neither of the mates nor the ship's commercial agent knew the meaning of “sitch.”

The darling lass turns softer and sweeter on “C U Next Tuesday” and “The Harold Song.” I'm proud to say that I would soger that Harold and drive him like a slave if I could catch him—what sort of black-heart would hurt poor Ke$ha so? As for the title song, I don't like to speak of it, nor did the kanakas like its talk of eating up a man's body and sucking his bones, though I tried to explain to them that the eatin' was in the way of a tall tale or a metaphor.

I set the coffer in my stateroom as we set sail for Boston. We struck out for Cape Horn very late in the season, and by the time we reached the coast of Chili the winter storms loomed and threatened to put an end to the Alert, to the company's hides, and to every soul aboard. We crept through black seas surrounded by the blue and white and hoary awfulness of the ice bergs. The sailors stood at the ship's waist still as statues. The rigging glowed mauve with witch-fire.

All around us rose such an awful and hideous groaning as I have never heard since. The commercial agent trembled beside me and suggested that it was the ice bergs calving into the water and giving voice as they rode over one another in the high sea; to me it seemed that something hungry and evil inhabited the bergs, and that it cried for us, and licked at our tears, and sat in freezing caves and watched us with pinhole eyes.

The white squall came on while we all stood dumb; the sails stiffened with sleet and frost, and the men stumbled to reef them like a crew of old women. “Turn out, turn out as jolly as you please!” I cried, “I'll sweeten ye, I'll drive and soger ye all, pull, Jack, pull for your life, for it's yours to save!” At every word the seas washed the decks. The scuppers filled with a scum of ice and water. The purple effulgence from the rigging squirmed. I could hear Obed Marsh's wet voice in my ear, coughing out his fish-smelling laugh. I turned and stepped to the wheel; my boot struck ice and I fell, my Scotch cap lost in the swell, my arm fastened on the taffrail like an iron bar.

I saw her then, astride a great faceless eel or slime-hag that reared from the chopping waters into the vile chaos of the storm. She wore a crown of three tiers and held a steaming brass handspike, and her pretty lips curled in a smirk. Her face glowed and sparkled with hoarfrost and gilt. Her servants, all the horrible things of the waters, plunged and capered around her.

Across the storm she screamed—I saw two able seamen, Stimson and the ship's boy, torn to pieces, their blood flashing steam then streaming in long gory strokes across the deck, frozen, stained there until we anchored in Boston harbor and I effaced them with kerosene. “I'm not gonna sit here while you circle jerk and work it,” she shrieked with the gale, “I'm-a take it back to where my man and my girls is!”

'Tis I a voice I hear abed when the wind wails through the gables of Boston, and in sleep I see her a-laughing at me through sleet and clammy fog and hail. Perhaps I will follow the commercial agent's example and visit an alienist. I think some day my body will sink down through the green quiet of the salty waves, down into the twilight dark and then the deeper dark, until I come to rest upon the slime amidst whale bones and old hulks, and there she will wait for me, perched as pretty as a Boston maid atop a heap of foulness, and her long fingers will twine about my face as she sings and breathes her cold currents across my lips, and eels and crabs will crawl amongst my ribs, and the scaly brutes of her court will make dishes of my limbs, and I will look up and see her face twinned in the moon, as blank and as cruel, and this will be the last thing I see.


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