King Crimson

Formentera Lady....


King Crimson
Seminal pioneers of progressive rock, Robert Fripp's King Crimson are a band that have always excelled in breaking musical barriers; and though they have evolved through several wildly different incarnations, they have always kept their committment to musicianship, exploration, and excellence. They are also my favorite rock band....


Even though it is a bit atypical of their sound, King Crimson's atmospheric and jazzy fourth album is one of my favorite works by the band. Islands, with lyrics by Peter Sinfield and music predominantly by Robert Fripp, is a loose concept album that evokes the Homeric ideal of seafaring travel. Gentle and luminous at times, harsh and disorienting at others, the album has a mythic feel to it that adds a certain weight to the lyrics, which pull from a collection of images that range from The Odyssey and Carl Jung to, perhaps, Joyce.
Although there are no direct Joyce references on the work, Jon Green, Webmaster of the "Promenade the Puzzle" site, sent me a letter in which he postulates that Joyce's Ulysses played a definite, if covert, role in the creation of Islands:

My website concerns the first four King Crimson albums. While working on my chapter concerning the fourth King Crimson album, Islands, I began to notice some rather curious parallels to Ulysses. Islands, like Ulysses is based on Homer's Odyssey and seems to borrow primarily from Joyce's "Circe."

Circe and Odysseus are mentioned in the first song on the album, "Formentera Lady" (an anima figure like the women in Ulysses). The second track, "Sailor's Tale," is a dark chaotic instrumental that parallels the "Circe" chapter, Bloom and Stephen's descent into the underworld. In the subsequent chapter, "Eumaeus," there is an actual sailor's tale. The third track, "The Letters," suggests the suicide of another anima figure from Circe, the Veiled Sibyl. "Ladies of the Road," the album's fourth track eventually reveals these "ladies" to be man-eating Sirens and, in so doing, a food metaphor is used to describe sex as simultaneously enjoyable and disturbing. In "Lestrygonians," Joyce describes food as both pleasurable ("Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed") and repulsive... Similarly, Joyce describes sex as enjoyable and disgusting.

The Sirens' spell is broken at the end of "Ladies of the Road" allowing the album's protagonist to gain spiritual nourishment from the "Song of the Gulls," the album's next track.

"Lestrygonians," is devoted to an exploration of various facets of food, an exploration that becomes increasingly cannibalistic. The chapter begins with Leopold Bloom feeding the seagulls. What is most curious is that he feeds them "manna" and complains when they do not utter a sound, ("not a caw") as though he considered his "manna" a fair exchange for their singing (his offering of spiritual sustenance for theirs). Islands turns the sequence around. The food metaphor is used first, followed by the (spiritual) feeding of the protagonist by the song of the gulls.

In the title song of Islands the protagonist becomes quite fond of water. In Ulysses, in the chapter comonly called "Ithaca," there is a long monologue concerning why Leopold Bloom admires water.

Reincarnation, a subtext of the album, also figures into Ulysses.

This link summarizes some of the connections between Islands and Ulysses:

--and this link, the chapter on Islands, includes quotes from Ulysses that correspond to tracks on the album.

Although Jon Green admits that neither Fripp or Sinfield have commented upon his hypothesis, I feel that it is certainly plausible, and definitely interesting enough to warrant inclusion here. Fripp, who has a well-earned reputation as an intellectual, has often compared his music to such modernists as Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky; and Sinfield's lyrics have always held to a highly literate standard -- it is not impossible that either one could have been influenced by Joyce's Ulysses as well as Homer's. And even if it is just a wishful projecting or even "over-reading," it still gives me an excuse to put up a small King Crimson tribute!


"Formentera Lady"

Houses iced in whitewash guard a pale shore-line
Cornered by the cactus and the pine.
Here I wander where sweet sage and strange herbs grow
Down a sun-baked crumpled stony road.

Dusty wheels leaning rusting in the sun;
Snuff brown walls where Spanish lizards run.
Here I'm shadowed by a dragon fig tree's fan
Ringed by ants and musing over man.

I'll unwind my old strings while the sun shine down
Won't climb any high thing while the sun shine.
Formentera Lady sing your song for me
Formentera Lady sweet lover.

Lamplights glows on old guitars the travellers strum;
Insence children dance to an Indian drum.
Here Odysseus charmed for dark Circe fell,
Still her perfume lingers still her spell.

Time's grey hand won't catch me while the sun shine down
Untie and unlatch me while the stars shine.
Formentera Lady dance your dance for me
Formentera Lady dark lover.

"The Letters"

With quill and silver knife
She carved a poison pen
Wrote to her lover's wife:
"Your husband's seed has fed my flesh."

As if a leper's face
That tainted letter graced
The wife with choke-stone throat
Ran to the day with tear blind eyes.

Impaled on nails of ice
And raked with emerald fire
The wife with soul of snow
With steady hands begins to write.

"I'm still, I need no life
To serve on boys and men
What's mine was yours is dead
I take my leave of mortal flesh"

"Ladies of the Road"

A flower lady's daughter
As sweet as holy water
Said: "I'm the school reporter
Please teach me", well I taught her.

Two fingered levi'd sister
Said, "Peace", I stopped I kissed her.
Said, "I'm a male resister,"
I smiled and just unzipped her.

High diving chinese trender
Black hair and black suspender
Said, "Please me no surrender
Just love to feel your Fender."

All of you know that the girls of the road
Are like apples you stole in your youth.
All of you know that the girls of the road
Been around but are versed in the truth.

Stone-headed Frisco spacer
Ate all the meat I gave her
Said would I like to taste hers
And even craved the flavour

"Like marron-glaced fish bones
Oh lady hit the road!"

All of you know that the girls of the road
Are like apples you stole in your youth.
All of you know that the girls of the road
Been around but are versed in the truth.


Earth, stream and tree encircled by sea
Waves sweep the sand from my island.
My sunsets fade.
Field and glade wait only for rain
Grain after grain love erodes my
High weathered walls which fend off the tide
Cradle the wind
to my island.

Gaunt granite climbs where gulls wheel and glide
Mournfully glide o'er my island.
My dawn bride's veil, damp and pale,
Dissolves in the sun.
Love's web is spun - cats prowl, mice run
Wreathe snatch-hand briars where owls know my eyes
Violet skies
Touch my island,
Touch me.

Beneath the wind turned wave
Infinite peace
Islands join hands
'Neath heaven's sea.

Dark harbour quays like fingers of stone
Hungrily reach from my island.
Clutch sailor's words - pearls and gourds
Are strewn on my shore.
Equal in love, bound in circles.
Earth, stream and tree return to the sea
Waves sweep sand from my island,
from me.

© 1971 EG Music Ltd.
© 1971 EG Records Ltd.
All titles published by EG Music Inc. (BMI)

Links/CDs/Sound Samples

Jon Green's excellent page is one of the most intellectually stimulating rock pages I've ever run across. Called Promenade the Puzzle, it is an exploration of the lyrical worlds of Peter Sinfield. More relevant to the Joyce connection, you can skip to his Islands page or directly to the "Ulysses -- The Musical?" section.

For a more generalized look at the band, the best total King Crimson page on the Web is Elephant Talk.

Here is the King Crimson over at the Ultimate Band List.

Islands is put out by EG Records. You can purchase the CD, browse other King Crimson discs, or listen to sound samples at below:

King Crimson / Audio CD / Re-Released 1989

--A. Ruch
15 December 2000
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