#08: Nessun Dorma

RealityJockey on Feb. 18, 2024

OK, folks. Strap in for the commentary on this one. I've gone to extremes in the footnotes that would make The Mezzanine author Nicholson Baker proud of me. So here goes…

FOOTNOTE A: No One Gets Any Sleep!
It's fitting that the title of this week's strip, “Nessun Dorma,” given that I've stayed up all night hyperfixated on these crazy footnotes. This week's strip is very fondly dedicated to guitarist Jeff Beck, who passed away just over a year ago, and his loved ones. Jeff was a genre-busting genius whose versatility on the guitar was topped only by the sublime humanity and deeply personal tone he spent his long career developing. In his early days with The Yardbirds (there's a “Clapton is God” joke here, of course), Jeff was the best of the guitarists who were doing what he did. By the end of his career, he was the ONLY guitarist doing what he did. I was lucky enough to see him live exactly once, on Valentine's Day 2010, and will miss his music a lot. He never stopped evolving. We should all be so lucky. One of his last big award-winning records, 2010's “Emotion and Commotion,” had his magical instrumental cover of “Nessun Dorma,” the signature tenor aria from Puccini's opera Turandot…what a fearless piece to conquer without a word.

Reading the libretto now (I forget the words when they're not in front of me), it's remarkable to see, at dawn, how all these things are connected. How the whole world of ideas is magically connected, magically resonant.

I won't give you the Coles Notes version of the opera, not when there's so much else to say (see below!). But aside from the usual heartbreak and death, there's "le stelle che tremano d'amore e di speranza" (“The stars that tremble with love, and with hope!”). There is also the theme of the the stranger whose name is not yet known, and we certainly have that in this strip. But the pretty-toxic “love” story at the heart of it all is kind of a celebration of the idea that you can accept the most horribly bloodthirsty murderous behaviour from your adored if only there's some physical chemistry there. Okay, maybe not EVERY SINGLE thread connects. But when I spin a web that ropes in Mel Blanc and Melmac, Batman and the Spanish royalty, Walter White and George R. R. (soon a third honorific R.?) Martin, Charles Lindbergh and the Royal Saxon Court of Winchester, I hope I can be forgiven if not everything in the universe is perfectly in order. With that, we push on:

FOOTNOTE B: Alfie has many names.
One of them is the Old English name Alfred, which itself has three distinct referential meanings.

(1)Alfred is of course a nod to Alfred Pennyworth, the faithful butler of Bruce Wayne in the Batman comics (and movies, his deep and ancient connection to alien invaders (both in the English history sense and the science-fiction sense); his love of learning, languages, and the law; and his kinship with his pet Luke, a somewhat lesser-known human figure who shared Alfred's twin burdens of over-education, particularly in law & literature, and ill health from his late 30s onward that would throw a bleak shadow over his later life.

FOOTNOTE C: The Language of Alfred
Luke's flippant comment about a “very primitive dialect,” lifted straight from Return of the Jedi, may hold some weight. The language spoken by the unnamed Visitor, oddly enough, is very close to the Old West Saxon dialect of Old English that would have been spoken at Alfred's Winchester court in the 870s. What can that possibly mean? Better like, subscribe, share, and stay tuned to find out!

FOOTNOTE D: “Aaaaaaaaaaaalbæ Quercūs”
A final riddle, since over-educated Saxon kings loved riddles: “Blancǣċ,” as the unnamed Visitor describes it, is not attested in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. It may be a compound word meaning, simply, “White Oak,” or the Place of White Oaks. What this could mean to an interstellar traveler is unknown. However, the equivalent Latin toponym, “Quercūs Albæ” for a place of White Oaks was preserved in the form of the somewhat bizarre Spanish derivative, “Alburquerque.” The word has survived since the Middle Ages—probably since the time of Alfred the Great—as the name of a small town in western Spain, in the Province of Badajoz on the Portuguese border.

The Spanish town of Alburquerque is tiny, boasting fewer than 5,800 inhabitants today. That's actually fewer than the 7,600 it had during its 17th-century heyday. At that time, the reigning Duke of Alburquerque, a fellow with the weirdly repetitive name of “Francisco V Fernández de la Cueva y Fernández de la Cueva,” was also the Viceroy of New Spain, the Spanish territory established in the southwestern United States. In 1706, as the reigning Viceroy of New Spain, Duke Francisco founded the first trading and military outpost of “ALBURQUERQUE” in New Mexico, and named it after the beautiful little town in Spain over which he ruled. That new outpost, owing to its place of great importance on the Royal Road (more on that in a moment), very quickly eclipsed its sister town in the Old World. In the 318 years since its foundation, the Modern City of ALBUQUERQUE may have lost the first letter “R” in its name, but it has also grown into New Mexico's most populous city, with a 2020 population of around 565,000.

Oddly enough, no one knows where the missing “R” in Albuquerque disappeared to. But I for one have my eye on one of New Mexico's most famous long-term residents, bestselling fantasy author George R. R. Martin, who was born George R. Martin, published his first letter to Marvel's Bullpen under the name George R. Martin… yet when he resurfaced in New Mexico around 1979 to begin his full-time career as a serious author, the second R. has appeared.

How very interesting.

Speaking of very long desultory writing, The 11-minute song “Albuquerque” was released in 1999 by that paragon of prolific parodies, Weird Al Yankovic.

The “Al” in “Weird Al,” by the way, stands for Alfred, just like the King of Wessex. So maybe Alfie's name actually has four distinct meanings.

FOOTNOTE E: “We Return Full Circle”
The name “Duke City,” and many other things, will be well-known to my readers in New Mexico. But up here in snowy Canada (that's “North of the Wall” for my fellow George R. R. Martin fans“), the main reason we know Albuquerque (and can spell it even after some gleeful miscreant ran off with the extra R) is of course because of Vince Gilligan's ”New Mexico" TV trilogy: Breaking Bad, its spin-off Better Call Saul, and the Jesse Pinkman follow-up movie El Camino that gave one of New Mexico's greatest claims to fame a worthy send-off.

So how DID this little pueblo become such an important city? And what is the significance of the title, really, in Gilligan's follow-up film? Well, they both have the same answer: El Camino followes the story of Jesse Pinkman's last, desperate push to get free of the drug trade that has ruined his life, and to find some redemption. The film, casual viewers think, might be named after the car Jesse flees in at the end of Breaking Bad. His plan is to get on the road in Todd's old-school Chevrolet El Camino and head north, toward a new home, a new life, maybe a new beginning. I won't spoil you on it.

But “El Camino,” and I'm sure a smart guy like Vince Gilligan knows this, has many meanings. It was probably slapped on the first Chevy El Camino produced in 1959 as a sign that this model was issued in direct challenge to Ford's Ranchero, a similarly goofy car-truck hybrid with a vaguely Latino-sounding name. (Some of the first Rancheros made for U.S. markets were produced just down the road from me in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. But again, i digress.)

There's nothing inherently Latino about the El Camino model, which began its production run in Flint, Michigan. (It does seem to have been popular in many subcultures in the American southwest, but I'm not an expert). What we do know is that it's named, in essence, not just for the road, but for a particular road. In Europe, “El Camino” is usually said in reference to the pilgrimage trail of Santiago de la Compostela. but in America, El Camino Real, or “the Royal Road” to us speakers of Alfred the Great's language, was the collective name for the Spanish crown highway built by the Spaniards in Spanish America to truck silver and gold (and centuries later crystal meth, if you pay attention to Breaking Bad) northward from Mexico into the west, centra, and easter parts of the American Southwest. The reason Albuquerque was so prosperous and grew to such a significant city was because it existed precisely on the central branch of the Spanish Camino.

Like Alfie's name, the road itself became synonymous with many, many things: for some fleeing poverty and crime in Mexico, it meant salvation, new life, and new hope in America: I think this is what it means for Jesse Pinkman, too. But it's also a pipeline for gold and silver, for colonial violence, for drugs, a conveyor belt for the violent crimes of the desperately disadvantaged, and for the unspeakable white-collar crimes of those on top.

Where the Royal Road goes straight north, through Albuquerque, it runs straight into those two mythical figures of American crime: Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (is there any more gringo pairing of surnames than that?!).

But where the Camino breaks west, it heads up the coast of California, through Anaheim (itself a beautiful portmanteau of Santa Ana and the Norse -heim suffix, signalling the shared Norwegian/German/Spanish roots of the city). It heads through the little town of Whittier, California—an idyllic small town best known as being the birthplace of Tom Waits in 1949, and then for being the little town that Eternian wannabe overlord Skeletor nearly laid waste to in 1987. And from there, it winds its way up to Northern California, or NoCal to people in a hurry, and through San Juan Capistrano, a central location in a very particular short story.

Not-so-casual pulp readers and nerds of all types will recognize San Juan Capistrano not from the Italian saint who gave it its name, but from the 1919 novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley…the novel that gave us the very first appearance of the masked hero Zorro, and his civilian alter-ego Don Diego Vega. The Western branch of El Camino Real was Zorro's Gotham City: it was the developed, colonized, exploited trunk line where all of the crime in Spanish California happened. The novel, serialized in August to September of 1919, was such a huge hit that it was adapted within the year for the silent film The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and released in 1920.

If you believe the original timeline of Batman, the one set in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, The Mark of Zorro was the movie little Bruce Wayne was seeing with his parents, Thomas and Martha, when they were gunned down at the beginning of Batman's origin story. Most writers, even as Batman is invented and re-invented every few years, have kept the tradition of putting the shooting after some retro screening of the 1920 film, or after the release of one of the many Zorro remakes. The link between Zorro and Batman, and in fact between Zorro and all masked heroes with secret identities, is well-established.

The link between Zorro and Jesse Pinkman and George R. R. Martin and King Alfred the Great and the planet Melmac and Weird Al Yankovic and Bugs Bunny, I think, is a little less well-established. But I hope in this tiny humble footnote I've done my part toward setting the record straight.

FOOTNOTE F: “That's All, Folks”
So how did Bugs Bunny find his way onto that list? Well, if you've made it this far through the footnotes, you've completed a pilgrimage of your own, and so deserve a little bit of grace.

Upon making his thunderous arrival in Alfie's World, the Visitor's first intelligible line (we're still debating the meaning of “Hwæt,” ask any Old English nerd) translates as: “I knew I shoud have taken that left turn at Albuquerque!”

This is, of course, a classic catch-phrase of golden-age Bugs Bunny. It appears first (as far as I know) in the 1953 Merrie Melodies cartoon short, “Bully For Bugs,” written & directed by Chuck M. Jones, in which Bugs was on his way to the Coachella Carrot Festival, misses his turn, and ends up at a Mexican bullfight (that's right, kids, that's how long Coachella Festivals have been a thing).

Long before Pearl Jam kicked off the current generation of Coachella Music Festivals in 1999, the valley near Palm Springs was a popular getaway spot precisely because it was inaccessible. In 1920, if you were Douglas Fairbanks and The Mark of Zorro had just made you so famous that you needed to get away, it was where you went when you didn't want people to be able to get to you. But in 1926, the U.S. completed U.S. Route 99 (along the modern Interstate 10 route) and the famous Route 66 (along the modern Interstate 40 route, I think, though that doesn't make for such a catchy song).

Suddenly, this magical hidden valley was easily accessible from almost anywhere in the continental U.S., turning a wonderfully peaceful getaway into the “it spot” for massive noisy gatherings of all kinds. Bugs Bunny's frustration comes from the fact that in downtown Albuquerque, for a brief period from 1926 to 1937, Route 66 actually intersected itself in downtown Albuquerque, meaning that you could in fact find yourself at the intersection of Route 66 and Route 66.

So Bugs Bunny's quip, and one I think is now lost on a huge generation of kids' cartoon-watchers, referenced the fact that Albuquerque represented, among other things, a truly central hub where countless travelers could, and did, get utterly lost. Remember that this was an age without Google Maps, and also an age of rapid road expansion when even the printed paper maps and route names would change from year to year. Given the climate of the New Mexico desert, if you came through Albuquerque on the new Route 66 at noon on a sunny day, you could be 200 miles off course in the wrong direction before the sun sank low enough for you to make sense of the error. If you were headed to Phoenix, Arizona, that's enough time for you to find yourself entering Amarillo, Texas instead. If you're on your way to Denver, Colorado in the 1920s, you can actually hit Juárez, Mexico before your first clue that you're not going skiing is that the road signs are no longer in English.

Keep in mind that to entertainment-industry folks who worked primarily in New York and Los Angeles, this was an actual reality of their daily lives. When the highways opened, New York to LA flights were the province of experimental airplane pilots, and took upwards of 18 hours in small craft (Lindbergh did it in an astonishing 14h 45m in 1930, beating the previous record by nearly 3 hours). Even at the time that cartoon was made, maybe Humphrey Bogart could afford to zip across the continent on the much faster jet airliners coming out, but it was out of reach for most people in the Warner Brothers world… giving rise, of course, to the old-timey slang for very rich people as “the jet set” or “jet-setters.” So that weird one-liner that barely gets a snicker today, and only because Mel Blanc says it in a funny voice, would have had California animators howling in the aisles with laughter, especially since Bugs Bunny's by-then solidified Brooklyn accent told you exactly how far away he had come from.

Well, I think that's enough of a footnote for today. Enjoy the comic, I guess! ^_^