naspritus

“Naïveté is one of the mothers of invention.” Tom Cochrane wrote that, and I think it’s true. As witness, I present the naspritus tree.

In the early 1980s, I listened to a lot of rock music, mostly on CJAY-92 (which, unlike many stations, you could still get as far up the Bow Valley from Calgary as Banff). I listened mainly on car stereos and the monophonic speakers of my bedroom clock radio and similar devices. If something was a hit in southern Alberta at the time, I heard it. Some songs that were big in many places were utterly foreign to me; others that were big hits in my world were little known elsewhere (for example “Love Me Today”). One song that was somewhere in between was “White Hot,” by Red Rider.

“White Hot” had the distinction, along with April Wine’s “Say Hello,” of having had a section of its instrumentals used for a time as theme music for the CTV station CFCN’s 6 pm news show. But that’s a bit of local side fame. The song was actually number 20 on the Canadian charts (and number 48 in the US) in 1980. So I heard it often enough.

But, you know, I heard it on those not-that-great radios, never with headphones, and almost always doing something else at the time. So I just had this sense of the song as being something about some war memories involving random African places, in particular Tripoli and Tanzania. The person singing it was white hot and couldn’t take it anymore and needed rain. And there were trees of various sorts. (“Fuselli, foxy rifles, and the trees, in Tanzania!”)* The one that stuck out for me was the naspritus tree – the words I heard every time it played were these:

I can remember the naspritus tree in Tripoli
We were so much bolder then
Had you in my core tree to protect me
We were both soldiers then, older then, colder then,
I need rain, I need rain, I need rain

The word naspritus was pronounced /ˈnæspraɪtəs/, like “nass pry tus.” Oddly for me, I never bothered looking it up, probably because (a) I wasn’t in a position to when I heard the song and (b) to be honest, it wasn’t a song I liked so well I would buy the album, so I wasn’t really going out of my way for it. Look, it took me a couple of decades to look up one odd phrase in a song I did like well – which led me to the made-up word classiomatic. (Who just makes up a word like that?)

I had an imagined idea of this naspritus tree when I listened to the song, of course. It seemed likely to be some kind of fruit tree, tall, leafy, in which a soldier might hide with his gun to protect another soldier. Somehow it had some local importance. Was it eternal like a Joshua tree, folkloric like a baobab tree, just one of those things one encounters locally like a maple tree, or some personal memory like, perhaps, a bergamot tree? Were its fruits like nectarines or tangerines? Its name was obviously a Latin species name – not something well enough known to have a non-technical name, unless it had gotten the name and then became known, like flowers such as acanthus or aspidistra. It seemed to me to be, most likely, a tree that wasn’t really all that special but was one of those convenient sufficiently exotic pegs on which to hang the superiority of a foreign memory.

But all that seeming barely outlasted the duration of the play of the song. Only occasionally would it cross my mind at other times to wonder what a naspritus tree might be, or what in fact Tom Cochrane actually was singing if not that.

A naspritus tree, as it turns out, is a tree on which grow the fruits of naïveté and illumination. When we pick up its fruit as we find it lying, it is naïveté. In naïveté we hear a thing and fill it in as best we can according to sound patterns we’re used to, much as we fill faces and figures into furniture when looking around a dark room. Names need not have obvious sense, after all; as long as it sounds plausible you can assume some reality for it. Why would there not be a Lady Mondegreen, or a car called a classiomatic?

But when we finally look up, the fruit we see is illumination.

Look up into the tree? Look up in our references. Look up the word or words we had heard. We are at last illuminated.

So now, having consulted transcriptions of the lyrics, having listened more closely on a better system, I can tell you that the words I heard are these:

I can remember the nights by the sea in Tripoli
We were so much bolder then
Had you and my poetry to protect me
We were both soldiers then, older then, colder then
I need rain, I need rain, I need rain

Does that still not make perfect sense? It will help a little in the context of the song, which by this point you really ought to listen to:

But what will really help is this, Tom Cochrane’s reminiscence of writing the song, from http://www.tomcochrane.info/songstory/whitehot.php:

I guess it proves that naivete is one of the mothers of invention… I wrote most of the lyrics in a dusty corner of Guelph University’s Porter Hall library after reading Henry Miller’s White Heat/Time of The Assassins, an essay on Rimbaud. Kenny came up with the mystical piano intro after I played him the song at his place in north Toronto. I would travel to Somalia during the crisis there some 15 years later with World Vision. This was a country in which Rimbaud had sold guns, and unfortunately that legacy still remains.

There are two more things I must mention. First, if you listen to the song, you will hear something that sounds sort of like “summer lie” and, later, in the chorus, something that sounds sort of like “summer lyin’ shore.” These are in fact references to Somalia, as Cochrane says in the quote above. I’m really not sure how he got that odd hyper-Anglic pronunciation; it’s not in Oxford, let alone anywhere else. Perhaps it is one of the ground-lying fruits of the naspritus tree. Second, Arthur Rimbaud was the author of, among other things, the volume of poems Illuminations. I wonder whether Tom Cochrane had the occasion to read it while he was holed up in the library at Guelph… Illumination is, after all, one of the daughters of curiosity.

PS Guelph, pronounced “gwelf,” is a small city about an hour west of Toronto.

* The actual lyrics turn out to be “For selling faulty rifles to the thieves in Tanzania”

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