Names are funny things. I was recently watching an old TV show from 1969 where Janis Joplin sat on the talk-show couch with a young British-accented rock critic named Michael Thomas. A Platonic dialog of sorts broke out on that show. Janis, the more intellectual than she liked to pretend singer, proposed that rock critics fundamentally obfuscated the experience of music. Thomas, self-evidently aware that he was a member of said tribe, tried to counter that all he was doing was presenting in words the same subjective experiences that Joplin said were the essence of music.
He could have said more, said that he was providing meaning and context for those experiences. She could have replied that meaning was beside the point, or at least meaning was beyond the point of the intricate trivialities that he writes. They could have agreed that experience was the greater part of the meaning of art, but that something remains, and can be changed and reflected upon after the experience and in doing so they could come to the conclusion of poet William Wordsworth, that it’s “Emotion reflected in tranquility.”
But they didn’t say that—commercial breaks stopped the dialog just as it was getting interesting, but I wondered about that guy, Michael Thomas. What had he written? Did he evolve a unique understanding of music as he developed as a critic? There he was, young and good looking, a member of the generation that was going to, like most generations, reform and reconstruct our culture. How did his individual story turn out?
I found a couple of magazine articles online he had written by the time of this TV appearance. Elaborate little hip-bourgeois celebrity profiles of no great import—but then most magazine articles are like that. And he was fairly early in writing about “Rock,” that more serious outgrowth of rock’n’roll that was still new in 1968. There as a lot everybody had to learn then. So, what did he learn?
Turns out there’s no way to tell. Wikipedia has over two dozen Michael Thomases listed on its disambiguation landing page, and none of them are him. Rolling Stone’s archives list a few articles by Michael Thomas, the earliest written in 1970 seem to be by the same man, while the last under the byline are about buying stereo equipment at the end of the same decade. After that? More than 35 years of nothing I can find on the web. If I want to catch up on what, for example, Jaan Uhelszki did after writing about music in the Seventies, it’s pretty easy. Michael Thomas—not so much.
Like I say, names are funny things. My name is shared by several. There’s a Frank Hudson with some elaborately decorated big-rig trucks. There’s a venerable English furniture-making firm with my given name. If I narrow it down to music and poetry, I’m still not unique. There’s a jingoist Australian poet, and fine Travis-picking Kentuckian guitar player. I’d like to think I might be related to that last one, after all I have some family tree roots from around there, and we both seem to play Seagull guitars at times.
Frequent keyboardist and alternate voice here, Dave Moore has his own eponymous issues, but let’s cut to another name issue.
In 1964 a young English guy wanted to get into the performing business as a singer. Lots of folks did in those days. His first recording, a single with his teenage blues band Davie Jones and King Bees came out that year. He kept plugging away at English pop-blues to no great success, until 1967, when he had a problem.
Well, he had a couple of problems. First, no one was buying any of this records; but secondly, his performing name Davey Jones, the informal diminutive of his given name David Jones, was the same name as the performing and birth name of much more successful performer and teen heart-throb Davy Jones of the Monkees. So, he changed his performing name to David Bowie and remained unsuccessful for a couple more years without being confused with the Monkee or the roughly 100 other David Joneses on the Wikipedia disambiguation page.
Eventually, he got his first hit. Eventually he started changing more than his name. Eventually he helped change our culture, making some dazzling records along the way. There was an immediate experience, and then something remained to be reflected on over time.
A year ago, he died. The first episode of the Parlando Project last August was the tribute I choose for Bowie, my setting of Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces” that the LYL Band recorded the day after Bowie died. Now for our 41st official episode, here’s Dave Moore’s self-written tribute that we recorded then as well. It’s a rockin’ little number, because it seems like it’s been a bit since we rocked out.
This is the most difficult set of words to read coherently that I’ve presented so far in the Parlando Project. Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” looks on the page like any other chunk of blank verse (“blank verse:” unrhymed iambic pentameter). Shakespeare wrote whole sections of plays with this rhythm, and the walking one two with a backbeat of an iamb has a forward propulsion that lead the reader to flow through the words.
The problem is, that even the most iron-lunged and fleet-tonged rapper has to pause for breath sometime. In general, it helps to pause for meaning, where the break for breath adds meaning. However, in the Parlando project I’m seeking to merge the words with music, and the musical cycles also suggest pauses.
“An Old Man’s Winter Night” was tough because I decided on a cycle of chords for the music, rather than basing the harmony around a drone, or simply “through composing” the music to follow the words without a repeating structure. I made that choice unconsciously, but I think I was responding to Frost. The poem seems to repeat itself, and my sense of the syntax was that the sentences seemed to start and begin again, just like the central incident in the poem of an old person in a room not remembering why he had gone to that room.
Having set that up, I found I had to work hard to find the breaks while keeping the music. I got it almost right I think. I was further inspired as I worked by being in the midst of Midwest below-zero cold snap while recording this.
I normally do not base my readings on others, though it might have helped me to listen to other solutions to my reading problem. Only after committing to the version you’ll now hear, did I listen to Robert Frost’s own reading of his poem and another good reading which does an excellent job of bringing out the meaning. Of those two, Frost aims to bring out the music in his rhythms, but it’s not a perfect reading. Authors have an advantage, in that they likely know the poem’s meaning—but they are also disadvantaged by that—since they know, they cannot always choose what the listener will need to have emphasized. By combing “An Old Man’s Winter Night” with music, I have another advantage over Frost’s own reading: I don’t have to follow the word’s rhythms closely to bring out the music.
“An Old Man’s Winter Night” embodies aged rural loneliness, something that even today’s modern communications can do little to ameliorate. Frost beautifully describes being alone, separated, cut off; evoking all the surrounding emotions of that situation—yet he doesn’t once mention loneliness or any of those allied emotions by name. A great trick to pull off don’t you think?
This episode recounts a common Midwestern experience, returning on a holiday to the much smaller town where one grew up.
For my post WWII generation, these smaller towns retained in our youth much of the vibrancy they had gathered in the first half of the 20th Century. The American rural world was larger then. Car travel was still not universal. Small farming and small manufacturing and small schools hadn’t been efficiently improved to larger sizes. Mass media, which seemed so large and potentially dangerous then, amounted to radio, newspapers, magazines and eventually a trio of gray and silver TV stations as the little rounded screens hovered into homes like flying saucers. So these little autonomous towns continued, 1950 like 1920.
How many of us, old now, can still, in memory, walk down main streets of their towns and small cities of their youth, seeing the storefronts, and hail silently the adult walkers and lost peers who might be walking there too?
When we grew up, went to college, or left for adventure, marriage, or other work, we left a town and a time. When we went back to these towns, to visit our parents, our parents and our towns are found changed, not into coral bones and pearls, but into places slowly emptier and less vital. The storefronts empty and the eyes less bright; the houses, faded with dead paint and backs swayed.
Eventually, it is as if the thread of memory has been unraveled from a large ball of yarn and now the ball is no more.
In this way, our hometowns disappear, becoming gradually diluted of everything we could return to. Today’s piece “Homeopathic Hometown” is about this.
Musically, I was trying to emulate here the sound and feel of the David Bowie/Brian Eno “Berlin Trilogy” when I wrote and recorded this in 2015, about a year before David Bowie would suffer his own sea-change.