Here is a little Halloween sidetrack. Last year, before the Parlando project, when people asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was writing a rock opera.
Daft looks on their faces, particularly if they’d heard me sing. It was pretty much a conversation stopper.
“it’s about Vampira.” I’d follow up with.
Blank looks now.
But it wasn’t my idea. The idea was Dave Moore’s. Well, not the rock opera part—that was mine—but the idea of a series of pieces on Vampira was Dave’s. As I read those pieces they had voices, various emotional states, and a loose tread of events. It just seemed they needed music and I got working on that along with Dave. In the end, we had around 10 complete songs worked up as demos. This is one of them.
Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, who in that character originated the concept of the drolly comic host presenting old horror movies on television in 1954 in Los Angeles; but by the time of this song in the sequence, she has left show business and is recounting one of her last roles, an appearance in 1958’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often judged the worst film of all time. Oddly enough, that conspicuous badness gave the film a robust second life. Plan 9’s auteur. Ed Wood, even got his own biopic.
Nurmi’s successful earlier TV work was never archived (save for this small fragment). Her attempts to find other outlets for her character came to naught, and so to many people she was only known for her short appearance in this bad movie.
So here is the story of a true original who, alas, is largely remembered for being part of the worst project in her career.
Unlike jokes, you can explain a poem without killing it. Explanations may wound or amputate the poem a bit, but sometimes the dissection reveals things you couldn’t see before. My rule here on the Parlando project is to generally not explain the poem or the music, to let you experience it as it unfolds. But I like to break rules, so today I break this one.
I started writing The Day Lou Reed Died on that day, exactly three years ago, but it took me about a month to come up with version you hear here. I did the music shortly after finishing the words, playing all the parts myself.
The poem takes a rhetorical stance of negation. It tells you what it thinks using the dark illumination of telling you what it doesn’t think. The first part parodies Frank O’Hara wonderful poem on Billie Holiday’s death, which is full of details of life in New York City in the high 1950’s. In that same section I remind the listener that Lou Reed was part and not part of that time, a man (like myself) a generation younger than O’Hara. Like O’Hara apparently, it was a surprise and not a surprise for me to hear of Reed’s death while planning for a social occasion. Holiday, like Reed, was known to be sick, but there was no public death watch.
The next section is a list, continuing the rhetorical negation. I start right off with saying I’m not thinking of Andy Warhol, whose connection to Lou Reed’s first band, the Velvet Underground, was something of a platinum-blond albatross around its neck. The assumption was that Warhol was the mastermind behind the Velvet Underground, which slighted the real innovators inside the band (Lou Reed and John Cale), and it allowed folks to contextualize the band, as many of Warhol’s pieces were then, as a put-on, a commercial parody of “real art”. As the list goes on I use the Warholian tactic of linking to a variety of commercial Andies, humorous in their inapplicableness to Lou Reed. I end the list with two unlike entries: the title of a famous avant-garde film and then “androgyny” to turn the incongruity one more time, as we might well associate Lou Reed with either.
The next section “I put on the indie rock station” starts, like the unexpected death announcement, with an actuality of the day I experienced. I expected them to be playing a lot of Lou Reed songs if not a full-fledged format change to all Lou Reed. Instead there was nothing--but so influential was the Velvet Underground to indie-rock, that as each song began I wondered if this was going to be a Lou Reed song or a cover version of one. No one put it better than Brian Eno did when he said, “The first Velvet Underground record sold only a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought a copy started a band.” This section was my way of saying the same thing, while noting that Lou Reed’s death did not get the public attention that David Bowie or Prince’s deaths a few years later did.
And the social event I was preparing for in the first section? The wedding reception for two women who had married that year after same-sex marriage became legal in my state. I try to recount the great sweep of change in my lifetime in this section. The young Lou Reed helped pioneer portrayal of gay, bi and trans people in his songs. The emergence of that portrayal in Reed’s art is a complex subject I’ll largely skip here, as it would take too long. In short, at least at first, Reed associated his gay characters with the demi-monde he sought to portray in other aspects. Like the term “demi-monde” I just used, this was something of a 19th century, or early 20th century way of looking at things—but I use it because those of Reed’s age (or mine) grew up in a world in which the culture and still living authority figures were from before WWI or its aftermath.
And at this reception, there were many children, grade school age and younger, and to keep them occupied there was a gymnasium dance floor and, a boombox and some rented lights. Their parents were dancing with these children, and as the swirling lights drifted over these single-digit-age dancers my mind recalled the young adult faces attending the Sixties “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happening that was the public debut of the Velvet Underground, documented on the back cover of their first record. As much as an old man can while dancing, I figured the actuary tables on these children. Some of them may well live into the 22nd century. From a world where homosexuality was unspoken, to a world in which it was roundly denounced, “treated” and imprisoned, to a world where there is a homey, pot-luck Midwestern wedding reception, to a world I will never see or be able to predict almost 90 years from now. This is the arc of our culture and our experience of and as living artists.
The last section has gotten a rise out of a few people. What I wrote is somewhere between subtle and a mistake I fear. Staying with the negative rhetorical tactics I’ve used throughout the poem. I say “As artists are inessential to art, art is inessential to change.” More than one has heard those lines and missed that it’s a two-part equation. Are artists inessential to art? No, in that obviously living artists are necessary to make art. But also, yes, in that we know that art continues to have impact past the lifespan of the artist. Perhaps in that 22nd century someone will still listen to the work of Lou Reed. The second part says this artist/art comparison is equal (“as”) to art is to change. So, to the same degree that living artists are necessary to art, art also creates change; but in the passage of time in which immortality may allow art to outlive artists, that change will become something that is no longer “change” as it becomes part of everyday life.
As good an ending as “And everyone and I stopped breathing” then? Probably not, but I’m trying. And Frank O’Hara didn’t play no electric guitar.
Looking over the pieces the Parlando project has presented so far, I think we’re a little over-representing the romantic and the tragic. It’s easy for the page-poet to fall into that kind of thing. After all, there we sit with a mute page and all the time until a piece of paper rots in front of us. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to set down those final things, time to let the future know we have felt the tragic pangs of life.
Oh, and it’s a lot easier to go that route. Say sad things badly, muff the music, grab at the easy statements that this is so hard—no matter—we’re overcome with tragedy and within our just-past-real visions, such imprecision is to be forgiven, even expected. After all, we suffered for our art, now it’s your turn.
That’s something live spoken-word poetry balances better than page-poets I think. Page-poets and critics favorable to them, will make that case for me while marking down live spoken word poetry as relying too much on humor; but when you have an audience in front of you, the need to entertain, to connect, to make it worth their while, is hard to escape.
So as baseball fans look forward to the start of the World Series this week, we present this piece about Yogi Berra who participated in 21 World Series, meaning that the man was in almost a fifth of all Word Series ever played since 1903. As time passes, fewer remember him as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a deadly serious student of the game, yet his rhetorical gift for humorously expressing the quantum state in many a duality lives on, and that’s what this piece celebrates.
The voice and author of Yogi Berra is Dave Moore. Musically here, the LYL Band just lets it rip and avoids making any wrong mistakes, or playing harmonica.
Earlier here you’ve heard me proclaim that Bob Dylan changed how folks wrote songs. Before Bob Dylan circa 1964, no one wrote songs like Bob Dylan. Afterward, the things he did (portrayal of fragmented personal experience, florid and unlimited imagery, a questioning attitude toward accepted beliefs) were everywhere, until by today we may have forgotten (or for younger generations, never knew) that these things were once “Dylanesque.” And because songs with lyrics were the primary way late 20th century people experienced poetry, that revolution impacted the culture generally.
Of course, page-poets had already done those things. Some European poets worked with these concepts decades before Bob Dylan. American modernists of the first part of the 20th century did these things too, and in American English. And the Beats, Dylan’s slightly older siblings, knew those achievements and applied them to the post WWII American landscape.
So, take away the Nobel prize! Dylan had influences! And his revolution was maybe the fourth time around!
No. First off, the page-poets did not generally ally their words with music. Yes, I know there were exceptions to this “generally” statement—and I think those exceptions deserve more notice and listening—but that’s my point, those exceptions didn’t get much of an audience. As the Parlando project seeks to demonstrate, poetry gains resonance when paired with music. The inherent abstractness of music allows listeners to more easily accept abstractness and difficulty in words, so those producing the more difficult, abstract or hermetic writing needed music even more. Add to that music’s ability to amplify and re-cast emotions, and Dylan’s linking of those page-poet concepts to music meant his was a new force.
So, I say the very thing that causes some to say Dylan should not be considered a literary hero: that he is a songwriter, is one very good reason he is just such an authentic hero.
And here’s another reason. We sometimes like to pride ourselves in finding what we believe are the first movers of things. In songwriting, Dylan is just such a first mover, but if we take his words or his music in separation, he is not the first mover. However, as to impact, it makes less difference who did something first compared to who got the experience to the audience, the listener, and/or the reader at the time and way they were primed to hear it. So, if we artificially separate Dylan’s words and music we can say they weren’t the first, we can even believe they were not the “best,” however we figure that out, but that combination of words and sound was a revolution that succeeded in ways that previous efforts didn’t. It’s romantic to mourn failed revolutionaries, but let’s not let our mourning obscure the power of successful ones.
While I wrote this episode’s audio piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” it is not the sort of work I usually put here. It’s a recounting of personal experience, something that is already over-represented in poetry and particularly in spoken word poetry. That can be a valid kind of poetic expression, but there’s no lack of it elsewhere, and as a creator I’m instructed by my experience as a reader that most poems about the writer’s personal experience fail for several iatrogenic reasons, such as the writer’s inability to fully see and question their own assumptions, an approach to individualization that can cut the writer off from their connection to and balance with the rest of the world, or even the simple ability to judge what another person will be interested in.
If I work out getting permissions for more current work by other authors, there will be more poems spoken in a personal voice here, but I believe they will gain from being selected by someone else, and spoken by someone else, not by the poet themselves. That’s one of my Parlando principles: “Other People’s Stories.”
“On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” is published here, not because it’s a tale about myself, but because it tries to convey that listener experience that occurs when the listener is primed to hear something. Will someone who listens to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” record album, as suggested by the Nobel Secretary last week, hear a different album than I heard nearly 50 years ago? On one hand, surely they will. Every ear in every time is always its own. On the other hand, I could give you answers—I just typed and erased some now—but instead I leave you with wishes for more, and perhaps better, questions.
Next episode we move on from Bob Dylan. Which is about right. After all, even Bob Dylan got tired of being Bob Dylan, several times in fact.
Early in 1964 the then 22-year-old Bob Dylan and some friends decided to go on a road trip, and so they all piled into a new Ford station wagon. The group had (or developed along the way) some objectives. Some sight-seeing. Dropping off some donated clothes for mine workers. A couple of scheduled concerts (one sold-out, the other had to be re-sited to a smaller venue due to lack of ticket sales). They probably had some generalized youthful expectations of adventure, the “whatever comes our way” feeling. Bob Dylan was also expressly trying to change his songwriting.
Bob Dylan, the performer, was not yet widely known, but Bob Dylan, the songwriter, was a going concern. That summer his song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had sailed up the pop charts when sung by another group, and other performers lined up to record the song.
Bob Dylan was writing a lot of songs; in quantity alone, amazing to those in the know at the time, and yet “Blowin’ the in the Wind” seemed to be a different kind of song. What was its difference? It was clearly a song about social issues, the sort of topic that never challenges the dominance of desire and partying as popular song subjects--but also it dealt with those issues in a metaphoric way. That was not unprecedented. For example: Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes “If I Had A Hammer” was written in 1949 and had also been a hit that summer for Trini Lopez, and that song used verse by verse metaphors in a similar way--but still this poetic approach was not common for topical songs.
Around the same time Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wrote another song, one with even more uniqueness: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” How unique? Nearly seven minutes long for starters. Instead of the neat metaphors of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “If I Had a Hammer” marching in ordered procession, the images come rushing out as if they are escaping for their lives rather than being marshalled for presentation. Social issues aren’t being addressed in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” they’re being hit with a fragmentation bomb. It doesn’t aim to be another polemic so much as to convey the experience of the polemic forming. It doesn’t try to convince you of its opinion so much as to entice you into having a passionate opinion.
There was no song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before Bob Dylan wrote it, and afterwards you can see holes from its shrapnel everywhere. The man who could write “Blowin’ in the Wind” could be a successful songwriter. The man who could write “A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall” could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, even if that would take a while.
That previous summer, poet Allen Ginsberg was at a party. Someone puts on Bob Dylan’s LP, the first side. The side begins with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and ends and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and as that last song plays Ginsberg says he wept, because “It seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”
But back to our 1964 car trip. How much of this does this 22-year-old Dylan know? Who can tell. The best supposition is that he knew he was onto something and he wanted to do more of it. So in the back seat of the car he has a portable typewriter—the mechanical, steam-punk laptop of the day—and throughout the trip he’s writing songs. Principally he’s writing “Chimes of Freedom.” Again, who can tell, but I think a lot of creatives would empathically suspect he was feeling a heady mix of excited and relieved that he could do it again.
Their car trip gets to North Carolina. Dylan says they must visit a poet who lives around there somewhere. Not only does Dylan’s era and car lack laptop computers, they lack smartphone apps and GPS. So they stop and ask a local. This is how Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto tells the story:
“Where’s Carl Sandburg’s place?” (Dylan) asked the tall gangling mountain man in coveralls. “You know, the poet.” The mountain man considered that for a while. “You mean Sandburg the goat farmer?” he asked.
“No, I mean Sandburg the poet.”
“Don’t know about no poet. There’s a Sandburg has a goat farm. Wrote a book on Lincoln. Little guy. Littler than you, even. If that’s the one, take this road two miles up there, turn left after the little bridge, can’t miss it.”
So here’s the 22 year old Bob Dylan, the man who is about to take his own jangled and re-mixed reception of modernist poetry and societal criticism and collide it with guitars and transistor radios in an unprecedented way, and who does he want to see? The 85-year-old Carl Sandburg.
Accounts of what happened next differ, and may not matter if we consider only that one thing, that Dylan wanted to see Sandburg.
I’ve talked about this before here. Everyone who influenced us had an influence. It’s a great long chain across time. Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie, Woody was influenced by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was influenced by Walt Whitman. Whitman was influenced by William Cullen Bryant. Bryant was influenced by Homer. And now going forward from 1964: Every rapper’s flow that jumps from one thought and observation to the next without catching its breath, every indie-rock song that decides to show the oblique confusion and emotion of confronting experience without boiling it down to conclusions, every self-penned ballad where the singer insists we hear how specifically she or he saw things comes (however indirectly) through Bob Dylan’s lyrical revolution.
So after all that introduction, here’s a short autumn-themed piece with words written by Carl Sandburg with music I did myself. Like Dylan’s later work, Sandburg’s “Under the Harvest Moon” unflinchingly addresses issues of love and death.
Early on here I mentioned that I didn’t care for Robert Frost when I was young. When I first was introduced to him he was still alive, but the very image of an old man. I think of him on a cold, windy and monochrome day reading at John Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony, more than 80 years old, more than 70 years older that I was then.
Teachers introduced him as moralist:
“What does this poem tell us?” “What does he mean by the ‘road not taken?” The teachers would ask.
And as a formalist:
“Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” That was his most famous quote not taken from a poem. All that wild bohemian, beatnik stuff--that’s like cheating!
Meaning in poetry can be problematic. It’s not that poets can’t express original observations or analysis of things, but poetry’s preference for brevity tends to make poems more like a hint than an instruction manual. I wonder how many students ended up hating poetry, thinking the poetry the teacher wanted them to interpret and “understand” was tricking them with irony and obscure metaphor. Frost, as he was taught when I was young, was “meaningful”—but worse than that, he seemed to be held up as someone whose poems were meant to teach good behavior and noble thoughts. As a teenager, I already felt I already had all I needed of that.
It was only a few years ago that I was looking for poems to set to music and sing, and to my surprise came upon the Frost of a hundred years before, the writer of short poems that just sang off the dry page. This sort of thing is very hard to do in English. I know, I’ve struggled to do it. What Frost could do wasn’t just tennis with the net strung up, this was playing grand slam tournament tennis while dancing classical ballet!
So here’s an example of Frost doing that: “October” written in 1913. Frost is a master here of singing vowels. This is less a poem than a singing mediation. Meaning? Well, yes this is one of many poems that look at October as the time of approaching Winter. That this is not a strikingly original thought is not really an issue, because the poem isn’t about the thought, it’s about the moment of that thought, common to many of us, and how to hold ourselves inside that thought. The real, valuable, “meaning” is in the sound and the way of saying it.
Musically I tried to serve that feeling of meditation, and once more I have a tambura drone grounding the melody lines. Dave Moore, who you may have heard reading other pieces here, is playing the keyboard part, which I call your attention to because I think it’s a fine performance on his part.
Let’s continue for a one more episode on the theme of the musician, but since here in the Parlando project we believe music and poetry to be naturally joined, let's go there though a poet.
Decades ago, in a small Midwestern classroom, a teacher wrote on the chalkboard “It is better to read (or study) Homer than to be Homer.” I do not remember the teacher’s name. I do not remember who was the author of this epigram--though I have vague memories that the teacher wrote that down too—and no amount of modern web searches have ever been able to give me the source of it. But except for that one ambiguous word (“read” or “study”) I have never forgotten that line. Perhaps what helped me remember the line is the teacher gave us no context. I simply encountered what they had written on the blackboard. Though I’m going to violate that impact here in regards to that epigram, I endorse it with the Parlando project’s audio and podcast element, where the audio pieces are meant to stand alone without resume or external authority.
What I took that line to mean is not just that the life of an artist may be difficult or cursed by troubles; but the revelation, emotional resonance, and sensuousness of art when it is experienced, can easily be greater than the costs of its creation. Greater for even one reader. Greater than the author’s own understanding of that which is so close to them that they may not see all its sides and size.
So here’s a meditation on that idea. I wrote it after watching a re-broadcast of the initial episode of PBS television’s Soundstage which shares this piece’s title. I believe the producers of the TV show wanted to reproduce a somewhat similar gathering of older and younger blues musicians that resulted in an excellent LP called Fathers and Sons recorded in 1969. Musically, what they captured wasn’t at that record’s level alas, but it was well-filmed and that alone makes it worth watching, for there are small, moving, privileged moments between the musicians captured on camera. About halfway through watching it myself, I found myself noting that almost every musician on that stage is now dead, and it didn’t matter if they were the younger generation or the old guard. Some of the old guard outlived the young guns.
That’s part of the nature of a working musician’s life: there may not be a full measure of it.
And then I looked at the close-in audience filmed at the same time. Since they were my contemporaries I felt I could see through the period clothes and hair styles and make some rough but fairly accurate estimate of their class membership and likely demographic future.
Let’s just narrow our focus to one musician. If you could step back in time, would you ask Michael Bloomfield if it was worth it? “Hey Mike, I’m from the future and I know you’re going to die at 37. Would you rather have stayed in college now knowing that?” How complex that question is for just that one instance, and equally complex in different ways for each of the musicians on that stage. I suspect some days they’d say “yes” and some days “no”—and much of the time they’d say (in so many words) that your question was beside the point.
Now ask yourself: would you rather Mike Bloomfield had a longer life or you had recordings like Highway 61 Revisited, Super Session, or East/West to listen to? Assuming you weren’t Mike’s friend or relative, and that you know and have experienced his art, then honestly your answer is likely: you’d take the records.
And those college students in the bleachers? Maybe some of them became doctors, nurses, teachers, faithful and helpful friends. Maybe one day one of them will write something on a chalkboard like that epigram I read decades ago, and I will not be able to remember their name.