Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Cannabalism, adultery and murder: The dark side of Nantucket Sleighride


An ode to 19th-century whaling hardly seems a topic for a 1970s hard-rock band, but Mountain made it work with their 1971 song “Nantucket Sleighride.”

The title song to the group’s second album was created by Felix Pappalardi, the band’s bass player/producer, and his wife, Gail Collins. Pappalardi came up with the idea for the song while he and Collins, who penned the lyrics, were on Nantucket Island off Massachusetts. Now a tourist mecca and summer playground for the wealthy, in the first half of the 19th century, Nantucket was at the heart of the New England whaling industry.

For a time, whaling was a huge industry, with factory ships setting sail for long, dangerous voyages to harvest sperm-whale blubber, which produced a fine, light-colored oil that greased the gears of the industrial revolution and provided lighting for nearly everything from lighthouses to miners’ headlamps. The whale-oil bubble burst when kerosene, petroleum and other fossil fuels became much more popular and reliable than whale oil.

Whales were harpooned by hand from small, open boats. The term "Nantucket sleighride" refers to the snagged whales dragging the boats across the ocean until the wounded mammals finally succumbed to their injuries.

On the surface, Collins’ lyrics speak of a sailor separated from his one true love while on a three-year whaling expedition. But the song’s subtitle, “To Owen Coffin,” alludes to a grisly incident of starvation and cannibalism at sea.

Coffin was a teenaged sailor aboard the whaling ship Essex when it departed Nantucket in August 1819. In November 1820, a whale rammed the Essex, causing it to sink in the Pacific Ocean. The crew escaped in whaleboats with enough supplies for only two months. Starving sailors began to eat the bodies of those who died, and when that grisly fare ran out, the four survivors in Coffin’s boat drew straws to determine which one of them would be slaughtered so the others could survive. Coffin lost, was shot and killed, and was eaten by his shipmates. George Pollard Jr., the captain of the Essex, was Coffin’s cousin and offered to take the young man’s place as dinner fare, but Coffin refused, apparently claiming it was his “right” to save the others.

Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, documented the shipwreck and the ordeal of the survivors in his 1821 book, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. That book inspired Herman Melville to write his quintessential American novel, Moby Dick, in 1851.

But, wait. There’s more.

In the song, the woman left behind as the ship sails away is named Robin Marie. That is the name of a woman with whom Pappalardi was having an affair. Collins, obviously, had some issues she was dealing with over the affair. Pappalardi and Collins’ open marriage was hardly a blissful union, marred repeatedly by affairs and drug usage. On August 17, 1983, after Pappalardi returned home from a visit to his mistress, Collins shot and killed him with a derringer he had given her months previously. Her first phone call was to her attorney, not 911. Police found the marriage license shredded in a wastebasket, but Collins claimed the shooting was an accident that occurred during a firearms lesson -- at 6 a.m. The jury bought her sob story, and she served two years in prison for criminally negligent homicide. She died in Mexico in 2013 while undergoing experimental cancer treatments.

For a time, Pappalardi and Collins were a rock power couple. Pappalardi was a producer for Cream, beginning with their Disraeli Gears album. He and Collins, in collaboration with Eric Clapton, penned Cream’s hit song, “Strange Brew.” Collins also co-wrote Cream’s “World Of Pain.” She co-wrote Mountain songs and contributed her artwork to the band’s album covers.

At first, Leslie didn’t like it:
The Nantucket Sleighride album made it to No. 16 on the Billboard 200. At first, Mountain guitarist Leslie West hated the title song because he found it so difficult to play due to its complexity. Eventually, he mastered the song, and it became a signature number at Mountain’s live sets. “It was very popular; the big number, we closed the shows with it,” West recalled. “It was a nightly jam, really. I wanted us to be like a heavy rock orchestra band, so I made my guitar sound like a violin, a viola and a cello.”

Eclectic song mixture: Topics for the other songs on the album are varied indeed. There is a Lord of the Rings tribute to Jimi Hendrix, a song for Pappalardi’s mother, another for his dog and one that makes outlaw heroes out of the perpetrators of an infamous British train robbery.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Spammers will not be tolerated. You casino scammers will be reported immediately and your comments deleted.