The Pretty Things - SF Sorrow - alternate story concept

The Pretty Things
SF Sorrow - alternate story concept

Released 1968 on Columbia
Reviewed by Andfurthermoreagain, 07/06/2011ce

There’s already a decent review of this album up here and enough has really been said about the musical and lyrical content of this astounding album so I thought I’d post a different take on the story here that I used to have but recently started considering again.
Anyway, to be brief, The Pretty Things' 1968 psychedelic masterpiece details the story of Sebastian F Sorrow and his appropriately tragic life from birth, through adolescence, war, bereavement, monstrous visions and finally a lonely detached death – this is the acknowledged story line as detailed in the lyrics and album sleeve narrative. However, there are a few nagging ‘plot holes’ - well one huge plot hole to be frank. It’s never made explicit what exactly the terrible insight is that Baron Saturday reveals to poor Sebastian in the wake of his self imposed misery through their hallucinatory journey – rather like Scrooge’s Dickensian ghosts, only without option or chance to change matters for the better. Whatever is in the so called Well Of Destiny is never quite explained, merely hinted at in the nightmarish sound-scape of the track itself which leaves our ‘hero’ questioning his own existence and relationship with the world in Trust and ultimately resigning himself to a pointless fate – but why and how?
You see, I first heard SF Sorrow having obtained the US double album on Motown/Rare Earth (with Parachute on the second disc). This release, whilst handily packaging the Pretties’ two classic psych period albums together unfortunately didn’t feature the original artwork, no lyrics and no story narrative to help tie the songs together. In the pre-internet age I had very little reference points for SF Sorrow and had to negotiate its seemingly complex tale within the boundaries of my own imagination so my idea of the story became rather a unique version until I got hold of a proper copy which revealed the ‘definitive’ story as being slightly more straightforward than my warped vision. ‘Ah, so that’s how it goes!’ I satisfyingly concurred yet still pondering the frustrating aforementioned well and its ramifications on hapless Sebastian.
So, the acknowledged, official version sat happily in my mind for about fifteen years until I happened to watch the film ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, a horrific psychological drama based on a Vietnam veteran’s (Tim Robbins) battle against demonic apparitions and the unfolding nature of his life reality and something made me think of SF Sorrow!
Essentially, Jacob’s Ladder is inspired by the writings of Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and particularly this notion;

“the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth”

Essentially, (and if you’ve not seen the film – here is a big SPOILER ALERT), Tim Robbins’ Jacob in the film is actually dead, he died back in Vietnam and the demons he is haunted by in his subsequent ‘life’ are in fact angels trying to secure his place in heaven, trying to guide him to acceptance of his death as detailed in the above passage – in the end he accepts this fate and ascends ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ from ‘hell’ to heaven.
‘Wait a minute’, I suddenly thought, ‘this is SF Sorrow! Or rather, my former, uninformed version of the story’. But with a twist. Read on!

So let’s go back to the story, and look at SF Sorrow – The ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ version.
Right, so the first segment of the album is the same, it’s unquestionably clear. SF Sorrow Is Born, Bracelets of Fingers and She Says Good Morning are the character’s early years as detailed on the album, is widely acknowledged – birth, adolescence and love – in a nutshell.
However, it is with the next track – Private Sorrow – that the story in my original idea (and in my now revisited version) changes. I always found something slightly sinister about the end of this track, you know the bit where the guy is reading the list of killed and MIA soldiers. Listen closely to the names - they are listed in alphabetical order, by last name and we’re hearing ‘S’. Now the voice seems to fade away just at the point where we might get to the name ‘Sorrow’. This always spookily struck me as being significant. If the climax of the track was to demonstrate the cruel losses of war in this manner, they could have chosen any point in the alphabet and it may be a coincidence but why the ‘S’s and why fade away just as the names are moving from ‘Sm....’ to ‘So....’. Why cut out just before a possible revelation of potentially awful implication! Was, in fact, Sebastian F Sorrow killed in action?
So how would that link into Balloon Is Burning then? A song that blatantly seems to portray his girlfriend trying to join him after the war and promptly dying in the ensuing balloon tragedy? Well, here we alight upon Sebastian’s deathly unreal life. A land called ‘Amerik’, a transport zeppelin called the ‘Windenberg’ – for a tale set in an apparent real world scenario, we appear now to be in a fictional, slightly altered reality where things are not quite as they are (or were, or should be). If in fact, Sorrow was killed at war then this is his ‘hellbound’ imagination – he didn’t want to die, he wanted to be with his girl and settle down happily ever after! As long as he holds on to this earthly desire he will not accept his death and spend an eternity in thrall to tragic and demonic delusion. Hence his fantasy of domestic and spousal fulfilment is torn apart by the hellish and almost apocalyptic flames of the balloon disaster – perhaps at the gates of Hell and not New York. In that respect, is the song Death, Sebastian ruminating on his departed lover or hinting at the reality of his own fate?
If we hold to the Jacob’s Ladder notion of SF Sorrow, the segments involving and surrounding Baron Saturday become a little clearer and almost stark in their terrible significance.
Baron Saturday takes the part here of the demon/angel of 'Jacob’s' story – a seemingly evil apparition who seems intent only to plummet Sorrow’s mind into further turmoil and inescapable misery through vision, revelation and trickery. Yet, is this really the Baron’s intention?
Baron Saturday as the name would suggest is Baron Samedi, the Haitian voodoo deity who despite his hellish and unsettling appearance and behaviour is tasked with guiding and healing the dying spirit and it is only he who can accept the individual into the realm of the dead. He also ensures that corpses rot in the ground to prevent the soul returning in the form of a brainless zombie.
This clearly explains, within the bounds of this concept, Sorrow’s journey and the mysterious but foreboding Well Of Destiny. By demonstration and revelation Baron Saturday is trying to explain to Sorrow that he is indeed dead and that until he accepts this fact he will remain in hell, tormented by loneliness, mortal detachment and the inability to follow the life plan he so dearly desires (a life which is impossible anyway given that he is in fact dead). This is why his girlfriend was consumed by flame, this is why he cannot ever find happiness, this is why he is condemned to walk his imagined earth as something akin to a tortured ghost. This is what is revealed in the well and this is the fact that destroys Sebastian’s reason.
Baron Saturday is merely trying to guide Sebastian from clutching at the straws of an unreal and unresolved life, into the safety of the underworld, Heaven, the afterlife – whatever. Saturday/Samedi is his dying spirit’s guide and is actually attempting to help. He is not a demon but the angel that will show his soul to Jacob’s Ladder and reconciliation.
Unfortunately, and this is the twist, Sorrow is not having any of this – he grasps furiously at life and refutes his death, holds fast to the bitter, tormenting memory of his lost love (I See You?), yet as the Baron has shown, that one thing is truly inevitable and undeniable. If he continues to snub death, if he refuses to accept this he will remain a broken and directionless spirit. Sorrow is aghast, he returns to the ‘world’ defiantly reasoning that he no longer can trust anything, Baron Saturday, his life, his death, anything! He is indeed broken and merely sits in hell acting out his selfish and imagined vision of life, in an overwhelming shroud of self pity and depression. He even fantasises his own imaginary aged ‘death’ (Old Man Going – a song which in the official version merely depicts his real death as an old man yet is not the end of the story) which turns out as expected, as he witnesses his 'funeral' in third person, to be a disillusioned and unresolving affair.
The end of the story, which actually arrives after Old Man Going is sadly detailed in Loneliest Person – Sorrow is indeed the loneliest person in the world - at least ‘his world’. He can’t even die. The funeral witnessed in Old Man Going was merely a segment of his defiant and unremitting fantasy, the illusion of real life that he steadfastly will not let hold of and which even in apparent death leads ultimately nowhere. He actually died some time ago and he is aware of this, yet here he exists and will do so for eternity having cast aside the truth as revealed by Baron Saturday. He has rejected the ladder to salvation and so that Well of Destiny is an incarcerating pit of hell where he shall remain forever, dead, ‘alive’, lonely, nothing!

Note - of course, this is my own personal interpretation - I've never read anything to support it officially and certainly Phil May's story is probably the definitive article. However, much has been said over the years regarding Sorrow's 'revelation' at the hands of Baron Saturday and as with portions of Tommy, seems to be agonisingly ambiguous and therefore open to question. It doesn't seem satisfying that the Baron merely hammers home the futility and misery of Sorrow's life which leads to his climactic dispondency. Yeah, Sebastian's life is beset with tragedy so what wouild be the point of simply reinforcing this via a mystical or psychological 'journey' with no apparent enlightenment or conclusion to be drawn. I dunno, whilst my positing of Old Man Going may be admittedly a little tenuous I just can't help going back to that eerily ominous bit on Private Sorrow - what name were we about to hear after Smith?

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