Well, it’s strange. It’s the second time I find myself in need to talk about music, and I haven’t written about music since… well, since that Amanda Palmer thing in 2012, but it actually involved a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, so I’m not sure it even qualifies.
Maybe this doesn’t qualify either, since it’s music inspired by a graphic novel.
I remember it as if it was yesterday.
My papa took me to see the ancestral home of our clan.
The desolate castle on Dismal Downs, abandoned since the 17th Century,
now inhabited by no-one but golden eagles in its turrets and
ptarmigan & grouse in the heather o’the clan cemetery.
In this sight of former glody, of ochre grass and bracken,
sadness and hope, this is where I begin my story.
Rannoch moor, 1877, the eve of my 10th birtday…
Stupiti, as Guccini would say. Vi vedo stupiti. What do you mean… papa? Well, yes. If you are wondering, you probably aren’t familiar with the Life and Work of Don Rosa (who, I’d like to repeat it once again, is not a priest).
As we all know, partially thanks to Claudio Bisio, ducks don’t have fathers nor mothers. Nobody has kids. There are no brothers nor sisters (except for Huey, Dewey and Louie, but they are more like clones). The only exception seems to be Grandma Duck, who can’t really be anybody’s grandmother since she doesn’t happen to have any kids, so… there you go, you get headache just trying to figure it out, leave alone trying to explain it.
In this enormous, titanic mess created by the equally titanic strife not to cope with freudian issues, there stood a man and He stood tall. His name was Carl Barks. But we are not here to talk about him: we’re here to talk about the man who has been said to be hos heir. His name is Keno Don Hugo Rosa y Chico y Gonzales y Mendoza, better known as Don Rosa because comic books were small and his full name just didn’t fit on the covers. He looks a little bit like Doc McBrown. And he must have been positively insane when, back in 1993, he took Carl Barks legacy and made an updated version of the Donald Duck Family Tree. Yes. I said Donald Duck and family. In the very same sentence. From that diagram, we can even learn that Donald Duck wasn’t born before his egg and actually has a mother, some Hortense McDuck. We learn that Grandma Duck actually is a grandmother, and she is not uncle Scrooge’s sister (so he actually does have a reason to call her “grandma” like everybody else).
But I digress.
The main point is that yes, in order to undertake this journey with Don Rosa, you have to take back a little bit of that disbelief you suspended when you accepted that ducks were just uncles and nephews with each other.
And it’s not going to be like Don Rosa won’t make use of cognitive estrangement (it’s still Disney, after all): bizarre things will happen and we will have to accept them, but meaningful things will be built as well. We will even learn what inspired a Finnish symphonic metal composer to write a concept album based on Scrooge McDuck’s extraordinary adventures.
Music inspired by ‘The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck’ by Tuomas Holopainen
Maybe you are familiar with Nightwish. Maybe you like them. Maybe you don’t. Personally, I am not overly fond of them: I find them palatable at best, with occasionally nice intellectual contamination when it comes to lyrics. But this will probably be the subject of another post. The point here is that I am not a fan of the band. And since I am not particularly competent when it comes to music, I had no idea that the author of this concept album was linked to Nightwish or, as someone would say, that he was the very mind and soul behind that Finnish band. I just knew he was a Finnish composer with a metal background and I was told that this work was interesting. So I started listening.
The first track takes us back to what originally was the first story of the grand epic that is The Life and Times of Scrooge: The Last of the Clan McDuck, written in 1994 and set in Scotland between 1877 and 1880. Scrooge is a child from a poor family and cleans shoes in the streets. And we are greeted by the voice of old Scrooge himself (Alan Reid, Scottish as Scottish can be), starting his tale in words that stick very close to the original comic book, down to quoting it literally when it comes to describing Clan McDuck old manor.
I remember it as if it was yesterday.
My papa took me to see the ancestral home of our clan.
The desolate castle on Dismal Downs, abandoned since the 17th century,
Now inhabited by no-one but golden eagles in its turrets and
Ptarmigan & grouse in the heather o’ the clan cemetery.
In this sight of former glory, of ochre grass and bracken,
Sadness and hope, this is where I begin my story.
Rannoch moor, 1877, the eve of my 10th birthday…
The mood is evocative as if with an ancient fragrance, expecially when vocalist Johanna Iivanainen steps in, partially overlapping old Scrooge, singing as his mother Downy O’Drake. Tha ‘n sgeul ag aiseig bu bràth / Toirt taic bho tiotain a tha gar deanamh mar a tha sinn.
Howls on the moor
Dreams of sailing all seas
Call of the hills
And a fiddle of farewell
Young scrooge is dreaming of sailing away, literally while the fiddle of farewell plays on top of a harp.
It is the very first story, ideally, where Scrooge earns his infamous first dime and vows never to be cheated again. Ambitious, hard working and proud, he hunts his family’s legend: one of his ancestors, determined not to be robbed of his fortune just as Scrooge seems to be determined to earn one, once sealed his treasure into the old McDuck manor, accidentally sealing himself away with it (and this will be extremely important as a symbol of what old Scrooge risks himself, as we progress with the story). Young Scrooge explores the castle, but he doesn’t find the treasure. What he uncoveres instead is a frode of his family’s old nemesis, The Whiskervilles, who tricked the people into believing the castle was haunted. He also finds determination to make his own fortune, much to the satisfaction of the real McDuck ghost, disguised as an ordinary duck. Scrooge decides to go to America to earn his fortune. That’s the birth of a legend.
Far, far into the night
Your calling guided you
Far, far across the dark
Horizon filled with red
And yearning of a childless ma.
Adventure and nostalgia kick in, in this second track. We have the farewell to Scotland, again with Johanna Iivanainen as Downy. We have the sound of a cowboy campfire, as
We are in Scrooge’s western period (The Master of the Mississippi, The Buckaroo of the Badlands, The Cowboy Captain of the Cutty Sark, Raider of the Copper Hill) when he seeks fortune as a cowboy between Montana, Mississipi and the Dutch East Indies, he meets Blackheart Beagle (father of the Beagle bandits) and Theodore Roosevelt, he tries his hand at different business and trades, by earth and sea. That’s the Scrooge we will know. But he is not the World’s Richest Duck yet.
Duel and Cloudscapes
Words are not the predominant part of this album, and many tracks are instrumental. Duel and Cloudscapes is one of them and, as the first track, it’s not inspired by a period of Scrooge’s life but by a single episode, a single story. The New Laird of Castle McDuck takes place in 1885 when Scrooge has become rich after selling his mine, and comes back home only to find it usurped by the infamous The Whiskervilles. As Odysseus, he has to reclaim it and he does so in an epic duel on the crenellated battlements of Castle McDuck, again with the aid of Sir Quackly McDuck, his ancestor. Again the advice coming from this old ghost gets Scrooge into trouble: there’s a terrific storm and he falls into the moat, where he is hit by lighting and dies. In McDuck Heaven, his forefathers are playing golf on the clouds and decide to grant him another chance at life. Reviving in the moat, young Scrooge is drowning because of the heavy plate armour and he uses his first dime to unscrew its bolts. Victorious at last, he has to spend all his freshly earned money in order to save Castle McDuck but he will try his hand again at becoming rich, and nobody will be able to stop him this time.
Duel and Cloudscapes is about these feelings. There’s adventure and action above everything, cape et épée, and a touch of comedy when we find ourselves playing golf above the clouds. There’s Dismal downs. There are a father and a son, and a rainbow painted with a triumphant chorus.
Knight and cowboy, shoe shiner and treasure hunter, sea captain and adventurer. Scrooge has led many lives and seen many places, always in search of gold. And when he is done with the old West, it’s not America he returns. Dreamtime refers to the time Scrooge spends in Australia during Dreamtime Duck of the Never-Never, after briefly visiting South Africa where he first meets his nemesis-to-be, Flintheart Glomgold, and goes straight to the core of the story: the didgeridoo. You can’t have a story about Scrooge and Australia without mentioning the didgeridoo. Or John Philip Sousa. He is important as well. And Holopainen doesn’t renounce any of them, quoting the latter and makng extensive use of the first in this oniric track in which it is well reflected the original atmosphere or acid-driven visions
It tells of Kakadu the dingo, he steals the crocodile egg from its nest!
But the great platypus chases Kakadu…
…and Irria, the black cockatoo, sends Bunyip, the water monster, after the egg thief!
Bunyip chases the dingo…
…and the great platypus finds the sacred egg, but loses his firstborn in the fight!
Scrooge finds and returns a giant opal, looses and retrieves his first dime, and is allowed to “see his dream through the crystal eye”. He sees the northern lights of Klondike, at last, and wanders off happily. While he disappears whistling over the horizon, his guide looks into the glass himself and sees Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie. They are Scrooge’s second layer of dream, although he doesn’t know yet.
Cold Heart of the Klondike
There we are. It’s 1896, Klondike Gold Rush, and Scrooge is at the very heart of it. The notes of a lost love start to insinuate in the adventurous and epic melodies.
Charm of a dancehall girl
A true star of the north
Those precious 30 days.
A letter in the snow
Love lost yet always there
A burning need of life.
Who’s this? Glittering Goldie O’Gilt. Scrooge’s lost love, never forgotten. The beautiful, strong willed, not-so-greedy-after-all and cunning Goldie. She’s the beating heart of this concept album, although we don’t get to hear “her” voice in this track, yet. Instead, the narrator is voiced by that Tony Kakko already known for Sonata Arctica and Northern Kings, and in spite of his reknown hybris I have to admit that he passionately gives voice to this particular track, smoothing its banalities and bringing focus over the struggle at the core of the story. It’s a story of pride (and prejudice). A story of regret and adventure, of cold and passion. And – needless to say – Still a Better Love Story than Twilight. By far.
Glittering Goldie is the hidden diva around whom this whole album revolves, and it’s unsurprising that Don Rosa chooses to draw her reflection in the moon, while sketching the cover of this album. As you might or might not know, you can learn if prople are fan of Don Rosa merely by asking them about Glittering Goldie and observe their reaction, although you might find yourself talking with a Duck Tales fan and… well, that’s where things get messy, since Goldie appears in the series in a much edulcorated Saint Valentine’s Day episode.
The original inspiration for this story lies in a classic by Carl Barks, Back to the Klondike, where Scrooge returns to the Klondike only to find that his old spot in White Agony Creek is being usurped by a mysterious lady with a quite aggressive domesticated grizzly. This triggers a dive in Scrooge’s past, where we learn how he and Goldie originally met. It’s one of the most controversial stories Barks ever wrote, with people being drugged, bar fights and violence: Scrooge is robbed by Goldie and, as a result, he kidnaps her and forces her to dig up gold in order to repay him. In a pure mix of Stockholm syndrome and reverse manipulation, the two form a bond: Goldie plans on robbing him again while growing fond of Scrooge, while he is both suspicious and enthralled by the maliard lady. When lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, accompanied by Judge Roy Bean, arrive at White Agony Creek to rescue the girl, it turns out that she doesn’t want to be rescued at all (and by the way they all are historical characters: Roy Bean even has his own Life and Times). Their background is better told in Don Rosa’s masterpiece, The Prisoner of White Agony Creek, and its cover depicts this very moment, where Scrooge faces the lawmen. And in truth it doesn’t have anything to learn from famous comic books covers such as Bob Oksner‘s cover for Lois Lane #128 or John Byrne’s cover for Uncanny X-Men #137. He’s better than Tex Dawson, for sure, and sexier than Conan the Barbarian. She’s more alluring than Emma Frost, slyer than Catwoman.
Cold Heart of the Klondike is a track that explores one side of this story, with hints to Hearts Of The Yukon (specifically that letter lost in the snow). Musically, it’s one of my favourite. The chorus in the background fits perfectly the atmosphere, percussions are a little banal but then again, it’s Nightwish after all. The pace is good, in a good alternance between a romantic melancholy and a dramatic chase. It’s more “epic”, but in a way it’s less emotional than the following track: it explores their story as seen from the eyes of an ipothetical narrator, in contrast with the next track where the point of view is split between Goldie and Scrooge.
If you are familiar with Don Rosa’s Life and Times of Scrooge Mcduck but not with its companion, you probably won’t know which sled this is, as The Last Sled to Dawson is a story that wasn’t originally included in the collection. It was published in Uncle Scrooge Adventures #5, out on June 1st 1988, and it tells yet another story of uncle Scrooge going back to Yukon in search of memories and, specifically, of a sled he had lost long before. Again, the track hits perfectly the melancholic atmosphere of the story, with Holopainen quoting Don Rosa, quoting Robert W. Service.
There’s Gold, and it’s haunting and haunting,
it’s luring me on as of old.
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting so much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up
It’s the forest where silence as lease
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder.
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
Again we find Alan Reid playing old Scrooge, as in track 1, whereas Glittering Goldie is played by Finnish vocalist Johanna Kurkela, also known for Sonata Arctica along with Tony Kakko.
And I have to admit that the song really is beautiful. Even if lyrics can get banal beyond embarassment, there’s a genuine passion behind it, a love for this story, strong enough to overcome all faults. And while Scrooge recalls his days of the gold hunt, Goldie sings on top of him, recalling their time in White Agony Creek, with “starlit sky and coffee & beans”. And a hint that Scrooge’s motto according to Don rosa, Fortuna Favet Fortibus, was in some way suggested by her. You might remember this and this.
The song chooses to focus exclusively on this, leaving out all the rest of the story (which has incredible adventures, a pig villain, balloons and iceberg rides). Indeed the treasure uncle Scrooge finds in his sled are his memories: his old coonskin cap and deerskin coat, his old coffee pot and skillet, his gold pan, pick and shovel. And, more important of all, a box of chocolates for Goldie: the reason he was returning. And chocolates are like memories: frozen in time, but still sweet.
Still, it’s not that time yet. Not in the album. We aren’t in the future looking back: we are still in that past, at a turning point of Scrooge’s life. He has lost Goldie. In The Billionaire of Dismal Downs, he returns to Scotland, he finds that he doesn’t have anything there and decides to go to America for good. His father Fergus McDuck stays behind, and passes away as his chidren ride away. It’s quite an unique page in the whole Duck history, as Don Rosa was the only one bold enough to write something like this. One of the most delicate death scenes in all history of comic books, probably.
To be Rich
Upon arriving in Duckburg, the life of Scrooge McDuck starts his downfall. We see how Donald’s parents meet, and how the money bin gets built, but Scrooge is focused on becoming the richest duck in the world and sees nothing else. The Empire-Builder From Calisota sees him traveling the world in search for wealth, and he has become ruthless: his sisters Hortense and Matilda leave him, he even burns to the ground an African village. When he comes back, he is scornful and short-tempered. He alienates his family and receives a kick in the ass by his young nephew Donald, in one of the best pages of the whole Life and Times.
This track, mostly instrumental, follows the drama and loneliness of this dark period in Scrooge’s life, with Goldie’s ghost always lurking upon him.
Silent night, silent years
The cold heart haunting still
Sleepless watch of the night
And her face on the moon
A lifetime of Adventures
The following track is the natural answer to the previous, and has strong connections with the most important Scrooge story of all times, where he meets his nephew Donald and grand-nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. The Richest Duck in the World is staged twenty years after Scrooge’s hunt for richness and sees an old, tired and grumpy Scrooge, much similar to his Dickensian counterpart. The sleigh-bells create the opening of this track as Christmas sets the stage for the story: it’s Christmas eve, and Scrooge has his nephew coming in for dinner. Everyone else who might remember him is dead. He doesn’t come out from his money bin anymore, and the people of Duckburgh don’t even remember there’s someone living inside that old, odd landmark on top of the hill. As many of Don Rosa’s stories, this story follows up closely on Carl Barks’ Christmas on Bear Mountain, published on December 1947, where Scrooge McDuck made his first appearance, and you just have to admire the beauty of the symmetry: Scrooge’s first story gets to be the last in The Life and Times and still it stays the first, as it’s the story where we learn how old Scrooge has recovered from his apathy and found again the will to live and have adventures. What is it to be rich? As he was saying, it’s not the gold so much as finding the gold. To be rich is to still remember, to treasure your first dime, to seek, to relive a memory. And, as uncle Scrooge tells Huey, Dewey and Louie when provocked into it, “the only limits to adventure are the limits of your imagination”. Therefore he returns the kick to Donald, he reopens the office, he gets back in business, because his greatest adventures are yet to come.
The music is soft as a discovery. Lyrics are whispered as if they were revealing a secret, and indeed they are. The secret of Scrooge McDuck’s true wealth.
The Bonus Track album contains two versions of this track: the original one and a single version, with minor musical arrangements, shorter lyrics and no Christmas bells at the beginning. It’s usually considered the only commercial track, or at least the only track fit for the public’s ears. It’s the only track that has been broadcast on radio. Still, I don’t understand why, since Cold Heart of the Klondike and The Last Sled could appeal to the public too.
Go Slowly now, sands of time
Now, that was a swell ending. It would have been a good ending for the album, too.
Still, Holopainen decides to follow in Don Rosa’s footsteps till the end. The end of uncle Scrooge, to be specific.
Now, Don Rosa has Scrooge die in 1967 as a supreme homage to Carl Barks, since that is the year of his master’s retirement. Holopainen is satisfied in suggesting his death, by quoting Robert L. Stevenson‘s Requiem:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Scrooge, voiced again by Alan Reid, asks the sands of time to be slow just a moment, since he has this last verse to pour. In a Rostandesque act, he fends off death for a moment while he writes his own epitaph and he takes one last moment to remember. Who is he remembering to dance with is just so simple a guess to make.
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne.
Robert Burns is the last Scottish poet who gets quoted in this complex, sophisticated, ambitious album. Sophisticated and ambitious just as Don Rosa’s Life and Times was. Still, should all this not be enough for you to buy this album, the Bonus Track digital version comes with a sumptuous booklet which contains not only lyrics, but pictures and original sketches of the original stories by Don Rosa. The Castle of Dismal Downs. Scrooge in the old West. A beautiful Goldie. The last page of The Last Sled to Dawson. And the beautiful cover and back-cover, with Scrooge looking into a full moon that has Goldie’s face painted on it. If this still is not enough… well, take a look at the deluxe edition. Oh, and my birthday is on February 3rd, in case you are wondering.