Rockface

For a short while, Son’s favorite song was one about a man on a polar expedition gone wrong. In the song, the man – his name is Alfred Pesonen – falls through the ice, but somehow gets back up and survives. The setback frustrates him, though, and he decides to go for an African expedition instead. While there, he sees elephants and, impressed by their size and strength – “that would beat even a walrus” – he decides to take a few of them with him to another polar expedition.

Unfortunately, the African elephants, not used to the arctic conditions, die, even though Alfred covers them with fur coats. Alfred gives up, and goes hunting for a white whale.

Years later, when scientists find them, they take them for mammoths.

Well, I can’t be entirely sure it was Son’s favorite song, because he was just a few months old when I sang it to him daily, but it’s one of the top songs on one of my favorite albums of all time: Kake Singers debut album from 1979.

Album back cover

It was one of those late summer, early fall days, at my grandparents’ place in the Helsinki countryside. In Helsinki, you don’t have to go very far outside the city to find yourself in the countryside, and my grandparents’ little farm was just 40 minutes from our apartment in the city. We’d often drive up in the weekends.

That day I was out in the yard, probably kicking a soccer ball against the garage door, when Dad called me in.

“Come quickly!” he yelled. “There’s a funny bit on TV, you’re gonna love it,” he said.

I ran up the gravel path, and jumped up the concrete steps that were a little too high for me to simply walk up, then rushed through the kitchen, into my grandparents’ bedroom where the TV was. On the screen, there was a band that looked like they had just escaped from a circus: A guitar player all dressed in white, another one with rouge on his cheeks and a straw hat on his head, a singer that was dancing like he was having an epileptic seizure, two female dancers with ostrich feather scarves, and in the back, a bodyguard who didn’t even blink. They even had crazy artist names – Ola Ollenzo Ollen (the singer) and Juknur Highfly Trambolino (straw hat).

“Listen,” Dad said, and gestured at a chair.

The song, just like the song about Alfred Pesonen, had a very funny text, and when I heard the chorus, I realized why Dad thought I would find it funny. The song was called “Mäntsälä on my mind”, and Mäntsälä was where my grandparents’ little farm was. Just barely, you could see the highway that was the border between the two small towns from the yard, but the farm definitely on the Mäntsälä side.

And the lyrics went something like this. “If you want to go to Sweden, you’ll have to sail. If you want to go to Moscow, you’ll have to take the train. But if you want to go to Lahti, you’ll end up in Mäntsälä”. And later on, “Who’d miss Mäntsälä, I, for one, sure wouldn’t.”

The fact about ending up in Mäntsälä on the way to Lahti was technically true, because the highway was just half-finished then, and on a Friday night, the traffic going north from Helsinki often came to a stop in Mäntsälä, a small town about at the halfway point between Helsinki and Lahti, as Helsinkians rushed to their cottages.

Now, I know Dad knew why I’d like it. He knew I was a proud and cool Helsinki boy, and that I’d enjoy a little Mäntsälä bantering. He might have also known that Grandma didn’t appreciate the humor as much as I did, but he never said anything to me about it.

Grandma did.

“Are they making fun of us?” she asked me, but made up her mind before I had had time to say anything.

“They’re making fun of us. Such frivolous … bums,” she said.

And it made the song all the more fascinating to me. Of course they were bums but they were such creative and funny bums. I wasn’t laughing at Grandma or Grandpa, or even Mäntsälä, but I loved the fact that somebody was. After the song was over, and the jury – including my future music teacher – gave Kake Singers their points, I ran back out, singing the song.

A few weeks later, I bought the album, and learned the song about Alfred Pesonen, and the 17-second song called “Boxing is a fun sport”, and the one about rye bread. Oh, and the one slow love song to end all love songs which I understood was a parody, but which I still learned to sing by heart to the girls in my dreams.

This week, I found myself in a bar in downtown Helsinki, celebrating the birth of a new citizen of the Earth, co-produced by a good friend of mine. The bar was tiny, and even our small group of three almost filled it. They also played only Finnish music in there.

I was sitting on a bar stool, listening to the tunes, when suddenly, I heard the first chords of “Mäntsälä on my mind”. I smiled and probably sang a little before the man next to me said something I’ll never forget.

He said: “I wrote this song.”

I looked at him, trying to figure out if he was serious.

“You wrote this?” I said.

“Yup,” said the man, and smiled.

I stared at him, as he stroked his beard, still smiling.

“Riku the Rockface?” I said. I still don’t know how I remembered that name, let alone how I could put it together with the correct rockface some 30 years after I had studied the album cover.

“That’s right,” he said.

Riku.

And then we talked about the band, and the songs, and how the highway just ended right before Mäntsälä, and how they had really made fun of Mäntsälä – “there didn’t seem to be anything there” – and which other songs he had written, and how he had “gone into business” when the band broke up, and how I had loved even the parody love song.

“Dude, that was definitely a parody,” he said.

“I know, but it was so sweet,” I said.

Then it was time for Mr Rockface to leave the establishment. The bartender came out from behind the bar to walk him to his hotel around the corner, apparently an arrangement they had had in place for a while.

I sat on the stool and watched them slowly walk past the bar window, and I thought about Mäntsälä. And white whales.

How does that make you feel?