Scents And Sensibility
So what's the most fragrant pop song ever? Could it be 'Chanel No. 5' by American Music Club? Or Joni Mitchell's 'Carey' in which she namechecks her French cologne? Or Rod Stewart during the Brit Ekland years when he bleated listfully about Chanel scent and Cartier rings?
I think 'Perfume' by Sparks is one good contender. The lyrics are a seductive roll call of the most distinguished brands, but hey, the guy isn't interested in Opium, Cacharel or Tommy Girl, because he feels that those creations are merely luring him away from the present. He likes his girl because she doesn't indulge. Hence one of the most interesting lyrics ever: "the olefactory sense is the sense that most strongly evokes memories of the past". Stick that in one of your fancy bottles, Miss Kylie.
Actually two of my all-time favourite songs mention Shalimar, a proper old scent with a 90 year history from the Guérlain family. Johnny Cash referenced it in his stupendously sentimental 'Forty Shades Of Green', a lyric that was apparently inspired by a visit to Dublin. In it, he sings that "the breeze is sweet as Shalimar".
Are you sure Johnny? Shalimar was created by Jacques Guérlain in 1921, and named after the Garden of Shalimar in Lahore, a gesture of big love from Emperor Shah Jehan to his favourite wife Mumtaz. Last time I checked, the Liffey didn't have quite the same aroma.
On Tuesday night, BBC4, I watched the first part of their 'Perfume' documentary. Not really my thing, but I was transfixed when the Guérlain team started work on a revised version of Shalimar. An ancient recipe book was opened and the family secrets were perused. One of the vintage elements is Iris Oil, incredibly expensive to process, but just as important as those notes of bergamot, vanilla and jasmine. All that plus a secret combination, known as the Guérlainade. One female user said the brand was "like being wrapped in a cashmere stole".
Was Van Morrison thinking of such things when he wrote the story of 'Madame George', a flirtatious character of indeterminate gender. As well as playing dominoes in drag and escorting a drunken solder up Cyprus Avenue, this beguiling soul wafts through a haze of something special:
"And that smell of perfume comes drifting through, the cool night air like Shalimar".
Every the sensualist, Van lets us know how it looks, how it sounds and feels and tastes. But importantly, we also know just how it smells. It fills you up, utterly.