Sunday, June 28, 2009

Off Topic - The Face of Fame

Now that a few days have passed, and like everyone I have been assaulted with all-Michael-all-the-time, I've had some opportunity to reflect.

The birth of celebrity-worship culture can be traced, roughly to the first issue of "People" magazine, which would have been some time in the late Seventies. Before that, images of the famous were controlled, with the notable exception of Jacqueline Onassis. (As in the film "People vs. Larry Flynt," the appearance of blurred long-lens photos of a tanned figure supposed to be Jackie Naked birthed "Hustler," one of our culture's finest moments.) But, as long as you weren't Jackie, you were allowed a bit of dignity.

A decade or so ago, I had a job writing copy for home video releases of movies from the Golden Age of MGM. My research involved looking at news clippings about the stars and the up-and-comers of the era, snippets designed to make these people seem like the rest of us, which was that studio's approach to celebrity. I was astonished to see that, often, the star's home address would be printed somewhere in the article! As in, "Robert Taylor, of 1916 Beverly Glen Boulevard..." A certain level of propriety was assumed.

How quaint.

Modern fame is monstrous. I can't put it any more simply than that. It focuses the worst aspects of humanity. There is a rictus grin in the presence of a celebrity that I have seen on many a face, a frozen, ear-to-ear lockjaw smile that resembles a baboon's grimace. Fame makes baboons of us. Imagine seeing that rictus on everyone's face. Seeing it everywhere you go.

When I consider the life of Michael Jackson, it is a life without moorings. The little boy whose image is covering screens all over the world this weekend looks wrung out, with deep lines of exhaustion under his eleven-year-old eyes. The man...what is left to say about him?

If fame had a face, it would be the face in this photo, almost unrecognizable as human. It is a face that was never anchored, never told "no," the face of an alien being. From the molestation trial documents, it's clear that children were delivered to Neverland like sacrifices, usually by their own parents. Human sacrifices; to what have we reverted, since the MGM days?

All of this current Michaelmania is revisionism. It's as if humanity wants to forgive this man for all the horrors, the nose, the oxygen chamber, Neverland, the chimp, the fetishism and, oh yeah, the pedophilia, of the last twenty years. We want to remember that talented, exhausted little boy who, ultimately, became Fame, defined only by the mirror into which we gaze. When he finally died, broke and desperate, he gave humanity the ending it expected, and needed, from him.

I hope we never see Fame on his scale again.

The photo, from a fan website, was taken during Jackson's 2005 trial.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Magic Carpet Ride

When I started writing “Olfactarama” just about a year ago, I didn’t expect much. I thought I’d simply post to it a couple of times a month, maybe, and that it would have a readership of one -- me. And that would be it. But some people started reading it, and I posted to some forums. Others saw it, and, eventually, it became somewhat known in this small but jewel-like world of people who love fragrance as wearable art. So here I am, still at it, with a first anniversary, a hit-counter milestone to mark, and some like-minded new pals. Not bad for one year!

To celebrate, I got myself some samples of Amouage perfumes. Not to wear on the town, or to impress strangers or scent a crowded room, but for me to wear on long days alone. So I’m sampling the women’s versions of Gold, Lyric, Jubilation 25 and Ubar, and yeah, I’m delirious -- not too much to analyze, of course, not ever -- but I haven’t taken the plunge, and it’s because of, uh, well, you know, er...the money.

We don’t discuss price much in perfumeland, although the name “Amouage” is generally synonymous with “big honking cash outlay.” If you are, say, the wife of an oil baron, confined in so many ways, but with all the money in the world to spend, you might feel free to line your vanity table with big bottles of Amouage. The thing is, I’m not a sheik-ah, so; well, just “so.”

Nevertheless, it is such gorgeous stuff. If you are, say, a sultan, and you give a legendary perfumer like Guy Robert carte blanche on the budget, that perfumer would come up with the likes of “Gold,” and did. My impression? It screams luxury. With an aldehydic floral Paris accent. And no less an event than attending the Academy Awards would seem splendid enough for this scent, which is why I wore it to shop for onions today, and will again.

Life is short.

“Jubilation 25,” created by Lucas Sieuzac, smells a lot -- a whole lot -- like vintage Rochas "Femme." It’s got that unmistakable caramel musk, is called a “fruity chypre,” and is unabashedly seductive, but you know what? I already have Femme. And “Boudoir” (a sample anyway.) This, of course, is better quality; richer, smoother, deeper, but it’s not unique enough for me to make that long-term commitment.

“Ubar,” the new one, is a reformulation of the 1995 version. It's the only Amouage (so far) I can imagine wearing in summer. The original formula was credited to a group called “Creations Aromatiques” which also made the original Paloma Picasso’s “Mon Perfume.” (I couldn’t find out who did the reformulation.) This is my second-favorite of these four, with a springlike bergamot opening, a sharpish herbal-lemony mid and an animalic-floral-musk finish, and it goes on and on.

And then there is “Lyric.” The opening is like...whatever was really in those boxes that the three wise men brought to the infant Christ child. It couldn’t have been just frankincense and myrrh, right? It must have been something that smelled like this. It’s a late bloomer, too, ripening from the rich spices to an almost-fruity dark black rose, and then to the softness of vanilla and tonka. I haven’t tried them all yet, but for me, this is The One So Far. (The perfumer is Daniel Maurel, who hasn’t many other credits, yet.)

So, anyway, I hear that smaller bottles of these elixirs of the Gods are sometimes available, and decants of course; never far from my mind. It’s all about the want, with perfume. It’s an odd combination, this mixture of art and commerce. Before I started this blog, I’d never heard of Amouage, but, before long, I started picking up whispers here and there, about these Arabian-nights fragrances of royal Omani lineage, in crystal bottles, outrageously expensive. But not because they had to pay celebrities to shill them. Because they found the best ingredients in the world to make them.

Amouage: for me, the perfect accompaniment to onion shopping.

Photo composite by Olfacta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Real Life Layers

I'm a little out of steam today; combination of general summer slowdown, dealing with Photoshop, working and not working, all kinds of things. So I'm just going to throw out some randomness and see where it lands.

In the meantime, awhile back when I posted an image of one of my paintings, several readers asked to see more work when I finally got something resembling a web page together. If you're interested in looking at a sampling, click here.

On to scattered thoughts:

One of the things that we perfume fans have in common is that we wear fragrance to bed (to sleep in, okay?) This is where my spraying is the most lavish. Lately I've been into Sophia Grosjman's creations for this, as a friend sent me a handful of samples, all lush and opulent. I’ve been wearing them all as sleep scents.

What are your favorites for sleeping?

Annick Goutal "Gardenia Passion" with Ma Griffe EDT (modern) layer well. The AG is sweet, the MG sharp, together they’re interesting.

Shalimar (even the modern) is another great sleep scent.

O de Lancome and Elizabeth Arden's Green Tea, perfect for humid nights.

(In general, oil of bergamot under citrus fragrances makes them last longer and gives them depth.)

Ralph Lauren's Turquoise mixed with florals, which sweeten the dry modern chypre.

Bulgari's "Pour Femme," one of the Grosjman scents, violet and jasmine and a little green.

Rose and patchouli, a la Rosine’s “Rose d' Homme.” Delicious and long-lasting!

Van Cleef and Arpel's "First," lush but not overpowering.

Lately I’ve been mixing scents with abandon, too. Hmmmm. What could this mean?

Other things that improve the General Quality of Life:

Tomato leaves and dirt

Thai chili paste as a rub for grilling

Iced tea brewed with fresh mint

Chlorinated water and coconut-scented sunscreen

The beach, a cool shower, then white cotton clothing

Peanut butter and jelly (still!)

Rosemary oil and artisan bread

The summer landscape -- a thousand different shades of green

Atmospheric perspective turning distant greens blue

Macaroni and cheese (considered a vegetable here in the South)

Wearing shorts most of the time

Owls hooting at night

A double-scoop ice cream cone

Sweet and salt (as in bacon dredged in brown sugar, then baked until crisp)

Brushing against a lavender plant in bloom

Refrigerator pickles and homegrown tomatoes

...loving summer!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Score

I was browsing around the new books at the library yesterday, and came across one called “Will You Take Me As I Am -- Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period” by Michelle Mercer, a writer and contributer to NPR. I wasn’t going to even pick it up.

I read it in one afternoon.

We’re always talking about perfume and how it can bring back flashes of memory. Music can, too, no big secret. This music, Mitchell’s seventies work, was the soundtrack of my time as a young woman. I woke up last night with “The Last Time I Saw Richard” playing in my mind. “All romantics meet the same fate someday,” sings twenty-seven year-old Mitchell, “cynical, and drunk, and boring someone in some dark cafe.” (My guess is that she’d like to take back those words now; who wouldn’t? )

The book is fascinating, because it explores her life, but also her music, how she learned it, why she was different. Casual guitarists would find that her songs never sounded anything like they did when she played them. This was because she tuned her guitars differently, custom tunings for nearly every song. It was a work-around. She’d had polio as a child, and nerve damage in her hands made standard tunings difficult.

Here’s what so many remember about Joni Mitchell, though: her active love life. The tumult of rapid serial monogamy gave her most of her the material for her music, and she sought that inspiration openly. She admitted that then and admits it now. How many male stars, though, have to face a life-list of lovers splashed across a page in “Rolling Stone,” as she did on her rise? Or music-industry trade ads explaining a delayed album with the phrase “Joni Takes Forever?”

Mitchell, along with her immense gift, enjoyed the privileges only beauty grants. She was skewered for that. She’s still paying for it.

Until I read this book, I hadn’t realized how influential she was to me. I wanted to be like her, badly enough so that in one year I accelerated my own trajectory from listening to “Ladies of the Canyon” in a motel in Georgia to a hillside house in Laurel Canyon. I wasn’t her, but I could go to the places she wrote about; California, Greece, Paris. I didn’t have her talent. But I bought and wore out every record she made, and lived alongside her complex voice and music for years. It enriched my life, vastly.

Now, Mitchell has a bad reputation of a different kind. She’s bitter, it’s said, and cynical and overbearingly queen-like, a difficult interview and, the ultimate modern sin, is an unrepentant chain-smoker. The smoking has wrecked her voice, that’s true, but the Mitchell I hear in this book is someone who deserved a place alongside Bob Dylan as a songwriter (and knows it) but instead was laughed at for being pretentious enough to think she could actually play jazz (well, everyone said, she was sleeping with a jazz guy!) or work with the likes of Charles Mingus. Most interviewers, she says, really want to know which of that long list of lovers inspired this or that song. And everybody wanted Mitchell to remain the hippie-chick warbling waif, but she wanted more, and she moved on.

Ultimately, we all do, and then, once in a while, a reminder comes along, turns your gaze to the past, suddenly has you digging through it, visiting somebody you used to know -- you.

Awhile back, I bought some vintage perfumes. One of them was “Intimate,” which I wore when I was seventeen. I put some on today to write this and immediately thought of...a sweater? Yes; a lavender, rib-knit, cowl-necked sweater I often wore at night, when I would sit in my bedroom listening to “Ladies of the Canyon.” I think I still have it, packed away in a trunk somewhere. I have most of Mitchell’s records from those years, too (bought on CD when everybody was replacing their records) and I found them. I played a couple while finishing a painting I’ve been putting off for months. God, they’re great. Those complex lyrics; the soaring, polyrythmic music. A favorite song is “Amelia,” from “Hejira,” which the book call Mitchell’s masterpiece, and I’d have to agree with that. “It scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you,” she sings. “Then your life becomes a travelogue...”

...with a pretty good score. Thanks, Michelle, and, especially, Joni.

The book “Will You Take Me as I Am -- Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period” is new, ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5929-0.

Most, if not many, of Joni Mitchell’s recordings are available for download on ITunes and other music sites.

I wish I knew who took the photo of Joni Mitchell here. If I did, I’d credit it.

“Intimate,” by Revlon, seems perfect here. It’s a chypre, with a sweet and powdery top note and a complex base. It’s discontinued, but available as a vintage here and there.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Old Habit

I am about to repent, to some extent.

For quite awhile now, I’ve been trying to get my hands on some vintage Habit Rouge. I’d heard about its grandeur, of course; this is legendary stuff. According to Perfume Shrine's "Index to Scents Celebrities Wear," this is Keith Richard’s favorite, and I’m a sucker for anyone who appears to have survived the Apocalypse. I liked the sample I’d gotten of the modern version. So, when I finally found the Holy Grail (a very generous swapper who sent me 5 mls of the stuff) I was ecstatic. And then....

Like all perfume from old bottles, one has to watch out for those off notes. You’ll often get that nail-polish-remover-on-a-sweat-sock opening, but then the fragrance -- if you’re lucky -- relaxes and blooms. This one has the old-perfume smell, but it does bloom (much more quickly on skin than paper). Body heat brings out the fabled HR sweet dustiness, and, when I sniff A-B wrist to wrist, one with old and one with modern, it’s clear to me that the vintage is playing in a lower register.

I know this isn’t scientific. Who knows how the source bottle was stored? There is a citrus in that lower register, but it isn’t the fabled HR orange; it’s more bergamot, with a sour edge. And a hint of aromatic resin.

Meanwhile, the new stuff on my other wrist is shrieking “Smell meeeee!” And its voice is at least an octave higher than that of the vintage. On paper, the orange (incidentally, orange isn’t even listed in the notes) is absolutely dominant at this point, while on skin that citrus is a little lactonic, like a Creamsicle -- vanilla, already? But it’s still developing.

Later: the vintage has reached midrange-to-drydown. And, because this is my second skin test, I know that this is going to be as good as it will get. And it’s good, the dust is there, slightly powdery, the sweet resin benzoin, labdanum, oakmoss I think, and it’s definitely masculine. It would make the best after-shave in all the world.

I also know it will last about twenty more minutes, and then vanish completely.

The modern HR is taking its time. It’s much more a unisex fragrance than the old. It’s not sweet, exactly, but its voice is higher. The “punch” is more lactonic than animalic, and the resins smell like they came from somewhere else (probably a test tube). But it still whispers of classic-perfume synthesis, and I know it will last, and last and last. I can spray it on a T-shirt and it will be there eight, nine hours later.

This means a lot to me.

Every now and then, I go on a vintage binge. I’ll sift through hundreds of bottles on fleabay. I’ll hunt down minis in antique stores and flea markets. A couple of months ago, in one memorable week, I bought five bottles of vintage. One bottle was definitely “off.” I tried to deny it but finally had to admit it. I left a slightly questioning comment as feedback, and got a tirade from the seller, “just a mom trying to make ends meet!!!” I decided that the price I had paid wasn’t worth the hassle of challenging such hysterics. Auctions are a gamble, we all know it, move on.

So my face has a little bit of egg on it today. I know what the longevity is about, in the modern fragrance. It’s some kind of synthetic molecule, or many of them, that apparently weren’t there in the old. I like the vanilla-dust sweetness, too, and it just smells good, damn it. And, if I decide to buy some, I won’t have to hunt down half-full bottles, deal with Sellers (ever wonder about these people?) and face the general uncertainty of buying used perfume.

So, my endless tirades regarding reformulation aside, here is the only conclusion I can come up with: it’s possible to reformulate and do it reasonably well. Not likely, but possible.

“Habit Rouge” was released in 1965. The perfumer was Jean-Paul Guerlain, who also created Nahema, Chamade and Parure. The “notes” include bergamot, rose, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, moss, benzoin, labdanum and patchouli.

Photo by Bsauter, used under license from

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Orange of Innocence

Ah, June, the wedding month. In my own adolescent wedding dreams, I’d be walking down the aisle with garlands of orange blossoms in my hair. That tradition has gone the way of innocence, at least in the U.S. -- it took me awhile to even find a photo of a bridal bouquet that looks as if there might be some in there -- but the symbolism is intact, if not exactly accurate. Innocence, chastity, eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness. (Especially fruitfulness, as the orange tree often blooms with last year’s ripe oranges still on the branches.) But there is little innocence about orange trees, or their pretty white flowers.

If you’ve ever walked through an orange grove in bloom, you’ll know that there is nothing light or girlish about this scent. It’s heavy, intoxicating, even indolic. It speaks to the dark corners, and this is the aspect of it that the three perfumes I chose address.

But first a little background; as with so much, the orange tree associated with these flowers, citrus sinesis, originated in the far east -- China, apparently. Cultivation of orange trees spread through India, the Near East, then to Spain with the Moors, the North African tribes that ruled that peninsula for about eight hundred years. Seville, one of their most beautiful cities, is still known for the scent of orange blossom. The courtyards of the Moorish mosques in Andalusia are thick with orange trees.

Christopher Columbus brought saplings to the Caribbean, and they flourished in Cuba. Spanish missionaries took them to California, and it was the irrigation needed to cultivate them that provided motivation for the land-grab scheme featured in the modern film noir classic “Chinatown.” Even in the Seventies, there were still orange groves in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, which, if not for that brutal diverting of water needed to grow them, would still be desert.

Of the fine perfumes based on orange blossom, I chose three: Le Labo’s “Fleur d’Oranger 27,” L’Artisan’s “Fleur d’Oranger” and Serge Lutens’ “Fleur d’Oranger.”

All of these use the orange blossom flower as a mere starting point. Of the three, Le Labo’s smells the simplest, the most linear, to me. They use a steam-extracted absolute of the real flower, according to press; on paper, the opening seems to have a slight mintiness, then a fleeting note of well-used sneaker, but not on skin. On my skin, it’s pleasant, with a nice slug of bergamot, but it doesn’t knock my, er, socks off; it rises to a plateau, and stays there. As with all Le Labo scents, the number refers to the number of ingredients, in this case 27; the perfumer is Francoise Caron, who also did Hermes summer standard “Eau d’Orange Verte.”

The Gold Standard of orange blossom fragrances seems to be L’Artisan’s. This perfume has been produced in two “vintages,” 2005 and 2007, and I suppose a perfume connoisseur, which I am not, yet, would be able to tell them apart; whatever those differences, it is a gorgeous fragrance. It has breathtaking breadth and depth. It opens with a tiny shriek, but then blooms into the citrusy orange with lots of greens -- the company says that all parts of the best Tunisian trees were used. It’s a little edgy, a little pushy, and stays on its feet the whole time -- and, considering the price, it had better. The later stages contain a note of honey. It’s the sweet orange tree distilled, the whole experience of it, including the bees buzzing around it. The perfumer, Anne Flipo, also created L’Artisan’s “La Chasse aux Papillions.”

Finally we get to Serge Lutens' take on the orange blossom. I own this one, albeit in large-decant form, and I wear it when I want to make an impression. This is the Big Mack Daddy of orange blossom perfumes, meaty, nearly hammy, not quite clean, almost attaining armpit territory (but not quite). It starts out sweetly orange, and then the cumin sneaks in -- funny, until I smelled the others, I didn’t realize there was cumin in here -- and then the party gets really interesting, with Tuberose and Jasmine cat-fighting in the courtyard, Rose, with a hibiscus in her hair, knocking back a shot of something with a little nutmeg in it and, well, it’s like "The Women” (the George Cukor version, not the remake, mind you) in a bottle. The perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, is one of the modern top-tier; his other creations include most of the Lutens line, and Chanel’s Sycomore and Coromandel.

If I was a blushing bride, which I most definitely am not, I would choose the L’Artisan for myself, but I’d give my bridesmaids generous samples of the Serge Lutens to wear at the reception, just before turning them loose upon the groomsmen. That seems somehow in keeping with the true nature of this sweet and delicate flower.

photo of bride (hey how about than manicure?) used under license from