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.
I’ve noticed that most of what I’ve written about this Parlando project in the first month or so has concentrated on words and the world they reflect; but Parlando’s subtitle is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” This piece has a simple musical setting, and yes I’m going to talk more about words, but the subject of “In Memory of Clarence Clemons” is a working musician and what a musician can do.
Clarence Clemons was a working musician his entire adult life. That’s an achievement. The number of people with a handful of musical gigs in their background (someone like myself) is much larger than the number of people who spend their working life doing that. The reason for that is that it’s a hard life, however rewarding in moments. Many of us who play music know those moments, and they are much intensified when those moments happen to be shared by other people. Drugs and sex are compared to that experience, but to many musicians they are pale shadows to that experience of musical communion. This is a reason why some musicians over-indulge in drugs and sex, to try to match, with quantity, that quality experienced when music is communicating. There is another reason musicians seek such salve. Being a musician is, over time, a collection of wearing days against those bright moments: the frustrations of every informal job with irregular hours, irregular pay, irregular working conditions, irregular demand for the music the musician plays, irregular co-workers and bosses, topped with the specific failures that can be the other side of music’s joys.
I did not know Clarence Clemons. I know next to nothing about his personal life, how he coped with or experienced these things. But I do know how that musical communion feels, both as an unfaithful musician and as an ardent audience.
In the early 1970s I was living in New York in a city that was suffering, and a large part of that suffering was racism and racial tribalism. It was like America—and the world I suppose—in general in that regard, but a little more intense. Some folks, I was one, tried to make life work despite this. This is the glory of humanity: suffering from such blindness and weakness--yet even with those handicaps, some, perhaps even most, try to make it work. Compared to this, art sometimes seems trivial.
Among rock critics of the time there emerged an implicit search for what was called “The New Dylan.” They had figured they needed to find “The New Dylan” because the old one seemed to not want the job anymore. Why was this important to them?
There is a famous maxim about rock critics “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Though no one knows who said it first, it’s been said many times because it points out a truth about how rock music was written about. Since it’s hard to write words about music—and particularly hard for non-musicians writing for non-musicians—rock critics, to a large degree, weren’t music critics. They were performance critics, fashion critics, social movement critics, and—here’s the biggest portion—lyrics critics. Because of that, “rock criticism” was largely the child of the emergence of Bob Dylan.
Since I have other points I need to make, I’m going to say this as briefly as possible. Bob Dylan utterly changed popular song lyrics. It’s impossible to underestimate his importance in this. There are scattered influences that Dylan had to draw on as he made his lyric revolution, but afterward his influence is everywhere. In '60s and '70s it was possible for a time to easily understand lyric writers were imitating Dylan, but as time has passed we no longer remember what those changes were.
So in the early 70s rock critics had no fresh Bob Dylan revolution to write about. They believed they had no one who was using words in an exciting new way reflecting new ways to experience the world. It’s a disrespectful joke to say this, but if Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would have to have invented him. In actuality, this was one cross Springsteen had to bear for the first decade of his career: that rock critics had invented him to fill their needs. The debate, of course, was held between rock critics.
I bought Springsteen’s first album in 1972 after reading about it in a magazine article that quoted generously from the lyrics. I’m sure the article somewhere must have used the term “The New Dylan.” Yes, I was attracted by the playfulness in the use of language, but I was also drawn to what was emerging as his subject matter: the honest confusion and struggles of life. To go beyond this writing about the lyrics, the article’s architectural ballet, I had to listen to the LP to hear the music. My favorite track turned out to be “Spirit In the Night,” which was kind of a Van Morrison groove, and in place of what would have been the obligatory guitar solo, a sax solo. That was Clarence Clemons.
By 1972 you weren’t likely to hear a sax solo in a rock tune. The instrument was already in its long popular music decline from near ubiquity in '50s R&B to now. Can you think of one significant current indie rock band with a full-time sax player?
About a year later the second Bruce Springsteen album came out: “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.” His lyric writing had improved, but musically this album is at a whole different level. His song structures are often through-composed, the playing is great, and the arrangements are sublime. The front cover of that LP is a perfectly serviceable sensitive-singer-song-writer picture reminiscent of an isolated frame from Van Morrison’s Moondance cover. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the musicians who played the music. In the center of that picture (as is should be) is the young and dark face of David Sancious, who was the main contributor to those arrangements and that playing; and at the beginning of the lineup, standing next to Springsteen is Clarence Clemons, the second Afro-American in the band.
Integrated bands existed before and after this. It’s a common musician’s peccadillo, in their professional blindness, to care less about color and more about sound. But I’ll say this, there was such hope in that picture for me at that moment, living in that city that maybe didn’t even know that it’s sadness had roots in tribalism and hateful racial stereotypes. A couple of years later, while I was still living there, the Born To Run LP came out, with the iconic fold-out cover: against a stark white background, Springsteen leaning on the much larger Clemmons playing his sax.
So when Clemmons died in 2011, all that came back to me in a rush. The words came out almost as you hear them here, and I recorded this performance myself over a humble bass and drum loop shortly after writing them. The way it came out was one of the things showed the way to the Parlando project.
This is a more difficult piece for me to put out for you to hear. Not because of the quality of the performance by the LYL Band, the performance is fine. Nor do I disagree with the performance, as it does what a performance should do: it represents a physical, working version of the feelings in the piece. The problem with it is, that taken in particular, it can be heard as out of balance.
I wrote this at a specific time in my life, for that matter at a specific time of year and even a specific time of day. When it was written and performed, I was exiting my middle ages, and elements of my life were out of balance. And it was written at this time of year, which in my upper Midwest US means that it is now dark when one awakens in the morning. At this time in September, there is no more promising summer sunlight tempting you to arise early, the sunlight that says the day has already started and you should go and catch up with it.
Perhaps you’ve had the thoughts I had on the day. You know you have things to do, many of them things you would not choose to do at that morning moment in time. How should one view this predicament?
Albert Camus wrote of this famously in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” You can read the concluding section of that work here. It is not long, but if read thoughtfully it is arduous. Was I thinking of Camus when I wrote this? No, I was thinking of my own life; but other people’s stories, in effect, other people’s myths to explain this mystery, show that we hold these thoughts in human commonality.
I will not try to explain Camus thoughts on this, he does this better than I could. I have no quibble with his analysis of the situation, but as I’ve mentioned previously here, I currently suspect all myth of understanding more than it knows. Furthermore, the close association of myth and heroism makes me the more skeptical.
And that’s why I found this piece, one I myself wrote and performed, problematic. Inside it I come to the same consolation that Camus did, but Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” and my piece “This Is the Darkness” can both be easily experienced in an unbalanced way: the absurd predicament is so strong an image that the consolation, our revolt and continuance of seeking right action in the face of that predicament, can seem all too vainglorious.
So let me suggest another myth. One plainer and less heroic. There is a plainspoken yet strange hymn associated with Christianity “Work for the Night Is Coming.” You can hear it sung here in this short video. As I said, this is a Christian hymn, still sung in Protestant Christian churches. Does it mention Jesus or any divinity? No. Does it elaborate any moral code? No, not really. Does it offer a sure explanation of any mystery or absurdity? No, not directly. It simply says “Work, because soon enough you will not work anymore”. In the context of Christian myth, this can be taken to mean heaven or the advent of heaven on earth, but this strange hymn decides not to say either.
Not so strange that this was written by a Canadian--the natural brethren of us upper Midwesterners, someone who would know intimately that the darkness beyond summer is long--but strange in that Anna Walker Coghill was 18 years old when she wrote it. I had to be much older to understand her words.
Here’s another piece with the voice of Dave Moore, and I guess you could say it deals in myths. In the notes for the last episode “Print the Myth” I said that myths arise out of the need to explain mystery, and that there are some dangers there. Your explanation, your perfectly good and gripping story, can be just wrong on the facts as we learn more; but also your favored myth may say more about your culture and yourself than you realize it does.
However sometimes we’ve simply forgotten what the questions and cultural associations were that gave birth to a myth, and they become these free-floating, free-associative ideas charged with a mysterious weirdness that defeats explanation. The myth returns to mystery.
Across the world there are demi-human nature-creature myths. I suppose they might have arisen out of explanations for the capriciousness of nature or the randomness of fate. At other times they serve as perfectly good characters to satirize human foibles in demi-human form. I think one of the strengths of “The Green Fairy” is that none of this is quite clear. Within Dave’s piece, we only know that the Green Fairy, like Godot, is coming (and not coming). I think that late summer mystery is its charm.
While producing this piece, I wanted to serve that mystery musically. I treated Dave’s keyboard part in a sort-of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds manner and stayed on the drone with my stringed instrument parts.
A few pieces back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.
In that previous post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.
When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.
You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here: “Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”
This gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”
One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.
Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one, and it was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.
Previous Parlando readers and listeners will know that a few years ago I renewed my appreciation for the poetry of Carl Sandburg. Here’s another Sandburg selection from his powerful Smoke and Steel collection of 1920.
Sandburg excelled in portraying his modern age, the early 20th century in the United States. His best known poem is the title piece of his Chicago Poems, the “Hog butcher to the world/city of the big shoulders” paean to Chicago, and Sandburg remains associated with Illinois in many minds because of that poem and his birth and youth spent in Galesburg, but even before that Chicago poem Sandburg had traveled widely around the US observing closely the work and lives he crossed. This poem is not set in Chicago, but instead in the fabled Lower East Side of New York City where generations of American immigrants first settled. Immigrants who often came from rural and village backgrounds to the most intensely urban section of America.
Sandburg can compress so much into a tiny portrait such as this. I’ll let you look at Sandburg’s picture without further explanation as you listen to the piece.
Two coincidences interesting to me are attached to “Home Fires.” A few years back I was able to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City and took a walking tour that leaves from there and crossed the Rivington Street mentioned in the poem. I highly recommend the Tenement Museum to anyone who visits New York. Coincidence number two: when another childhood hero of mine, Harry Golden, first visited with Carl Sandburg in the 1950s, he reported that Sandburg read this poem to him.
Musically this is fairly rich setting for me. The core tracks are the LYL Band with Dave Moore supplying one keyboard part (that’s the breathy flute sounding part in the right channel) and I am playing bass guitar and electric guitar. After the initial tracking I added some orchestration using a swelling synth patch, some clarinets, and (of all things) a bassoon. The clarinets and bassoon are synthesizer approximations of the real instruments, but I liked how those colors worked out.
Tomorrow many US schools begin their school year, so here’s an audio piece about a child going through that first week back in school after what seemed to be an infinite summer.
The schools in Iowa, where I grew up, began a week earlier than the “day after Labor Day” start that is more common elsewhere in the US. I’m not sure why. Maybe farms needed kids more in the spring to summer transition weeks than in the summer to fall interval. Maybe it was an advance allowance for the inevitable “snow days” that would cancel school during the winter, days that if made up in the spring would move the end of the school year into June. Maybe it was, in some way, a gesture to say Iowans cared more about getting down to education than slacking neighbor states.
All I know is that as a kid I thought this terribly unfair. A whole week! My cousins in Minnesota got a whole week more of summer! That next week was always going to be the best week of summer, the one that you got to do whatever you hadn’t done, or done enough of, during the rest of the summer vacation.
Now my son goes to school, and the school yard the kids are walking across to get to the first day of school is like my schoolyard was. Maybe all schoolyards are like this. The grass is still a little beaten down from every independent path the kids have taken too and from, still worn from every recess outside last spring.
I feel like taking a break from the cosmic today. No mystic visions. No musing on transcendence. However, I’m going to go someplace different just the same.
For a little over twenty years I worked for a radio network that had a booth at the Minnesota State Fair. Midwestern US State Fairs are odd events. Tens of thousands of people attend each day for a ten-day run, yet what compels them is somewhat vague and mysterious. There’s a ton of food-truck style food, some of it comfort food--often sold in gallon buckets, which is more comfort than is comfortable--along with other fare that sometimes tries a little too hard for uniqueness. There are musical acts, but not anything that wouldn’t be on offer any weekend in Minnesota. There are exhibits, but in the Internet Age, one probably doesn’t need to go yearly to a few acres on the border of Saint Paul to find out anything.
In this piece I choose to highlight two other of the Fair’s most venerable traditions. The event serves as essentially the state championship round for livestock and animal breeding. Many of those animals are raised by rural kids. And the Fair is a prime stop for office holders and political candidates to speak, debate, discuss, and campaign.
Vague and mysterious compulsion: vegans and pubic cynics would be repelled at best by those two things. I am neither, but I also doubt that the average modern metropolitan resident gets up a month before or after now, and says to themselves: “I wonder what well-raised livestock looks like and I sure would like to hear a politician talk.”
The former is an understandable consequence of the modern age. The latter is more problematic, as the modern American republic expects the political business to be carried out by a largely disliked and disrespected crew. This modest little piece won’t change that.
Because I worked for a radio network, I was usually at our Fair booth on Judson Avenue before it opened. Judson is a reasonably wide but otherwise ordinary two lane city street. By the afternoon is will be filled shoulder to shoulder with people up and down its length, as far as one can see. But before 7 A.M. it’s just the folks who have Fair work to do. People compelled by very ordinary and understandable things, which is what this audio piece is about.
During most of the time I worked for the radio network, one of those folks with a job to do who’d arrive in the early morning would be Gary Eichten and his show’s producer. By midmorning, Eichten would interview office holders or office seekers, and take questions from the gathering crowd, fulfilling that second State Fair tradition. He was always the friendly professional, yet even working with him behind the scenes it wasn’t clear where his own political opinions were. One thing that did come though: he respected the job those office holders had or were seeking.
So this audio piece is my short Minnesota State Fair story: part that early Fair morning that few see, and part a tip of that hat to those folks who do their jobs every day. Musically we have the LYL Band in folk-rock guise again, with Dave Moore handling the organ. I played the bass line, and then the guitar part largely shadows the bass part an octave higher. My dad once asked me why lead guitarists always concentrate on the higher strings. Seemed like a good question then, and this time I didn’t.
I promised last time that we’d move on from Emily Dickinson’s church of the August crickets to another take on something like the same thing. Dickinson’s words are set in the afternoon, but this one, “August Moonlight” moves on to August nighttime.
I knew nothing of this poem’s author, Richard Le Gallienne, before I found these words looking for some material on the end of summer. I still know little about him. He’s from Liverpool England, but his lifetime only overlapped the Beatles a little at the end, and besides he’d moved to France by then. In his youth he wrote for The Yellow Book, a short-lived but influential periodical of the ‘90s. No, not the grunge ‘90s, though the thought of Husker Du, Nirvana, or The Replacements being drawn by Aubrey Beardsley (the Yellow Book’s art editor) gives me pause to think. No the 1890s, the “yellow decade,” when using art to throw light on difference, and difference to throw light on art was all the rage.
I’ve always loved the visual art associated with The Yellow Book and the circles surrounding it, but frankly, I’m not a big fan of most of the writers associated with that movement. There’s a kind of dead-end romanticism about a lot of it. Even in my youth, when such things might have been attractive to me, the writers, taken as a group, seemed stilted, like it was a paint-by-numbers picture of a Keats poem.
The visual art however gets past any of that, because it’s just so beautiful in line and color. 70 years afterward, the art of the Yellow Book circle was one of the chief influences on San Francisco rock poster art. So I could have thrown Le Gallienne’s words in with my take on a slinky Grateful Dead space jam or maybe some Beatley folk-rock. I did neither. Instead I paired it with the night-time side of the Velvet Underground, the representative New York City rock group of the 60s.
While I’m at it: Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground. They’re supposed to be in complete opposition. Sonically there is a bit of a gap there, I’ll admit, though nothing that music couldn’t bridge. But nothing alike? Each band is fronted by a guitarist who has a problem with heroin. The bass player (and sometimes the keyboard player) is really an avant-garde classical composer. They both start out playing to dancers swimming in colored lights at events heavily associated with and promoted by a non-musician guru. Both bands had trouble selling records, at least at first, but those who did find them started forming bands beloved by cliques of college students. Both bands are known for an un-compromising poet maudit stance. Of course, one band hangs out with gangsters leading to a well-publicized incident of an audience member getting killed at a show. One wanted to call to call an album “Skull F**k.” One band put a drug kingpin in charge of its sound system. The other band hung out a lot with artists in lofts and had girl-germs for letting a woman be their drummer.
Seriously folks, I kid. I think it was John Keats who said that great artists must be capable of liking both the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. He called it Negative Capability. Coleridge was always reminding him of that whenever Keats couldn’t clamp onto a good ground when trying to jump-start Coleridge’s rusty Borgward sedan.
Alas I’ve run out of time. You could have been reading “William Morris and Andy Warhol, pretty much the same thing.” Feel free to use the rest of your time listening to “August Moonlight” as Richard Le Gallienne thinks about what it all means out behind the barn. And you know, that rhythm guitar part might have been a little influenced by the Beatles “Rain…”
William Blake wrote “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Brothers and sisters, it’s time to testify, and I want to know: are ready to testify? I give you a testimonial:
Okay, that’s a metaphor. The poem that provides the words to this piece “Further In Summer Than the Birds” uses a similar trope. Dickinson starts with a similar joke, yoking the language of a high church Christian service (instead of the rock’n’roll revivalist call I supply above) with--what? Late summer, the laziest time of year, before harvest. And worse yet for the comparison, she leaning down to the grass and hearing not mighty choirs or church organs, but those famous orchestrators of silence: crickets.
Dickinson, like Blake, was a religious rebel. Many members of her family were swept up in the 19th century religious revival, while she, an otherwise dutiful family member, actively resisted this. I think the poem starts off drawing us in with satire of religious services, but then we get to the mysterious last stanza. Dickinson’s syntax is so abstract that I (and other readers) are tempted to just let the sound of the words flow over the ear without need to extract meaning. Perhaps this was effect Dickinson wanted, as my best understanding of that last stanza is close to that. That line “No Furrow on the Glow” sounds great, but is also seems to say: no easily extracted message can be “farmed” or “gardened” from this church of the crickets.
Similarly, I don’t know exactly what “A Druidic Difference” is. Might be more satire. Or it might be that this glowing August sound which can’t be used to raise crops of meaning, is the meaning. The Druidic difference may be the isness of nature itself. But that’s me attempting to cultivate the experience, furrowing my brow to plow another furrow on the glow.
I think this speaks to the heart of something the Parlando project seeks to highlight. Poetry is not merely meaning, Poetry’s sound. It’s statements, its way of saying, has the structure of music; and music, it has the beautiful structure of thought and the human voice without the burden of specific meaning. That is why music and words meet here.
The music for "Further in Summer Than the Birds" shows a little of my Velvet Underground influence, and specifically with this piece, their eponymous 3rd album. Later this month we’ll visit another set of words about August and crickets along with some louder Velvets influenced music.
This piece tells a true story of a remarkable co-incidence that I don’t think has been noted before. We’ll start with William Blake. Blake evidenced lifelong faith in his art. Near the end of that life he was still laboring to complete a set of illustrations for Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, even though he was in even more dire poverty than was the norm for him, even while he was deathly ill with liver disease that may have been brought on by the chemicals his engraving process required.
I recently had a chance to visit England, and one of the must stops for me was the Blake room at the Tate Gallery. The room is deliberately kept in dim light to protect the fading inks and watercolors, and I needed to get very close to the small pamphlet-sized prints of Blake’s work to see the detail. This room was so filled with contrasts. A dark room to protect what had been bright colors. Small prints filled with gods, angels, cosmic events. The work of a man who lived in poverty and general disregard that now has his own room in one of the great art museums of London. Sadness, triumph.
Back to this audio piece now. The first part re-tells an account from one of Blake’s friends of his death in a tiny apartment off an alley in London. You can’t quite visit the site of Blake’s last work and death. The area was later rebuilt. Looking at what was there now, I noted that the replacement building was The Savoy Hotel. That’s when the connection light went off in my mind, something that my twin interests in music and poetry was bound to see, and that’s told in the second part of “Angels in the Alley.”
You see, the Savoy Hotel was a major setting for "Don't Look Back," the documentary film about Bob Dylan touring England in 1965. And in that film is the famous film clip of Bob Dylan flashing hand lettered cards with key words as his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” blares out. Where was that filmed? In the alley next to the Savoy Hotel. One of Dylan’s Beat Generation older siblings, Allen Ginsberg, is standing in the background as this plays out. Just before the song winds down and everyone walks off, Ginsberg gestures grandly, raising both his hands over his head. It’s like he’s trying to show some kind of mind expansion. Or strike a ballerina pose. Or shape his arms like upraised wings, like an angel.
If you’ve read other early posts and show notes from this Parlando project, you know William Blake was a childhood hero of mine. As a young person I was attracted to the romantic, mystic Blake, the man who insisted on seeing the world his own way. As an adult, I grew to more admire the persistent Blake, the writer, artist, and printmaker who learned and redeveloped all the techniques he needed to continuously publish his work. This piece features yet another Blake, the social and political radical of the late 18th century.
There are many ways we can see the once singular figure of William Blake in our modern world. I’ve already compared him to the independent “indi” musicians who simply ignored the conventional entertainment world’s structure and gatekeepers, making their own forms of music, making their own venues and recordings, without waiting for permission--a natural thought for me who looks to musical arts. But specifically, Blake was combining words and art, so perhaps he was the first indi comic book creator?
If you want to see how Blake himself presented the work in which the “Proverbs of Hell” appeared, with his own words, lettering, drawings, printing and hand coloring:
Social and political radical? As an Englishman, Blake wrote this in a world in which one of England’s chief colonies (the USA) and its greatest historical enemy (France) had both undergone revolutions—revolutions that had instituted democratic republics, something unheard of in an age of monarchy. Tom Paine himself, was part of Blake’s social circle. And Blake was raised in a dissenting religion, as a Swedenborgian, a system of beliefs that fundamentally questioned official religious doctrine. By the time he wrote the “Proverbs of Hell”, he had begun to question if Swedenborg, the religious rebel, had been rebellious enough.
The resulting work has been memorized as the proverbs they are, but lines from it have also appeared as graffiti, bumper stickers and t-shirts. I have heard that one proverb, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” is engraved in gold letters on a wall in Donald Trump’s penthouse library.
The music here has a basic rock band core: drums, bass, guitar and piano; but then I’ve added a little orchestration: bassoon, flute, and some strings. The orchestration may first sound like a repeating loop, but it’s not, each repetition changes subtly as the timing and relative volume of each part vary.
In the prairie states of the US, we have come to the season of schools supplies and state fairs. All around the country, the weeks and days that students only lived during the summer now cannot escape becoming a countdown to the school-year.
It’s been decades since I’ve been pinched between the rollers of that calender, but August and September still hold some sense of a time to begin things before something ends or because something else is beginning. That’s one reason this project has been launched this month.
Nearly 50 years ago I met Dave Moore, the chief collaborator in this project, one September. 60 years ago, Frank Zappa met Don Van Vliet, who later performed as Captain Beefheart. 40 years ago, my late wife met the teacher Phil Dacey.
Across the country this fall, people are going to be meeting folks who will alter their lives. You may know or not know that as you meet them. Most likely you will be somewhere between knowing and not knowing—that’s the way our lives are—but what comes from those meetings depends on what you do.
“As August Empties” imagines that middle meeting, when two high school students made common cause over some old blues and R&B songs. Dave Moore plays the keyboard part.
I’ve always appreciated Don Van Vliet/Capt. Beefheart as an artist, but Frank Zappa became a model for me on how to be an artist after a brief meeting in 1970. I had other artists I emulated before that meeting, but I had not met them. For example, I admired William Blake for his visionary imagination and his stubbornness—but I did not yet know the full extent of his self-sufficiency. The William Blake I would have imagined in my youth would have been out there conversing with the angels he found waving in the boughs of trees. I didn’t yet know Blake the painstaking and inventive engraver, the man whose impoverished household none-the-less contained a printing press. Frank Zappa would have laughed himself silly thinking of anyone conversing with angel/trees, but Zappa and Blake honed the desire and skills to take the ideas they had and make them into things. Through a happy coincidence, Frank Zappa was able to be generous to me in showing a little of the making of things.
It’s a mistake to think that creative people are the people who come up with great ideas. No, creative people are the people who make things.
Do you know the artists who influenced the artists who influenced you?
I live in a city now where many streets and public schools are named for 19th century New England literary worthies. My son’s grade school is Whittier school for example. And a few blocks over is a street I ride on to get to one of my favorite breakfast places, Bryant Avenue.
I can’t say William Cullen Bryant ever registered much with me as a poet. He was never Longfellow famous. My city has not only a Longfellow school, but several other streets and institutions named after Hiawatha or characters in Longfellow’s once ubiquitous poem. My father, even in his later years, could recite large portions of Longfellow poems. But Bryant is left, like Whittier too, in a state where his name is barely remembered and his work is unknown.
Coincidence of nomenclature aside, I would not have discovered “The Prairie”, this William Cullen Bryant poem, if not for an accident. Dave Moore, the musician and poet who often supplies keyboard parts, words, and is an alternative reading voice here, took a trip this summer to visit the large pre-Columbian mounds along the Mississippi river. He came back with tales and some writing about these remarkable large earthworks, some of which we have worked into musical pieces. Since I have not seen these great mounds, I had to search for words to borrow if I wanted to contribute words. Bang! It turns out that Bryant had just what I needed, and it was very good stuff.
To explain these mysterious mounds, Bryant had to take on suppositions borrowed from some 19th century mythologies. This is complex subject, worthy of long post in itself. In cutting his piece for length, I’ve excised most of that, leaving what I find is still vivid: what would these mounds have seemed like standing in the middle of unplowed frontier prairie, and what thoughts would have then flowed through this 19th Century New Englander as he beheld them?
Bryant is great at that. He channels a bit of Homer in his suppositions, mixed with a soaring American anthem. The strength of his writing here surprised me. Turns out, though I had forgotten and had not read Bryant; modern America’s great 19th century poetic grandfather Walt Whitman had read him, and he had picked up something.
I knew Minnesota poet Philip Dacey through my late wife, who was a writing student of his back in the 70s. I had the good fortune to hear him read his poetry several times, as he was an excellent performer of his work.
One indelible memory I have is Phil reading a poem in which Marlene Dietrich was mentioned, and rather imperceptibly he transformed into Marlene Dietrich, leaving the lectern and slowing reclining on a desk chair in the Blue Angel pose.
Sound hokey to you? Sound like some kind of Am-Dram over-reaching to make poetry more palatable? Nope. I was there, and it was riveting. Phil was so damn generous and genuine, and the actions so integrated into the open and honest poetry he wrote, that there was not a bit of disingenuousness about it. His being illuminated that poem.
Another Phil Dacey reading I’ll remember was a performance of several of his poems backed by a rock band his sons had formed. While that was not the origin of this Parlando project, it was one of the several threads that helped form this thing.
I was saddened to hear that Phil died last month. I suspect that Phil the performer of his poems now will only exist in our memories. Of course we can still read the poems ourselves, and we can be happy for that. Luckily for us, his poetry is full of his irreplaceable personality.
The story in this poem is more or less true. I was visiting his house with my wife, and he was talking with me as if I was some kind of peer as a writer, which was so welcome to me. I should have left the moment be, taken a good long pause to listen, or perhaps I should have just given him a big hug of thanks. Instead I just rattled on about things I sort of knew, an unfortunate personality trait I often inflict on others. Oh well.
William Blake once wrote that “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” I hope he’s right about that, though I can’t tell for sure, since I’m still in the persisting part of things.
Blake was a teenage hero of mine. I think I ran across him from two directions, and I’m not entirely sure which was first. My parents had a bookcase of books, some perhaps from their youth, some old enough to have been from my grandparent’s time. There were some odd lots in there. I remember at least one book that was devoted to William McKinley, and another was titled “The Beautiful Life of Frances Willard.” One of them was some kind English poetry textbook, with a section in the back about minor English poets. Its paragraph or two about Blake included a summary: “Wrote some charming short lyrics as good as any in English, but his later, longer works seem evidence of madness.” That intrigued me. Around the same time I read that, I was able to use some gift money to buy three LPs, one of which was “The Doors,” a record with a track called “End of the Night” where the singer crooned a pair of lines: “Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to endless night.” I read that the singer had kyped that from Blake.
There are nearly no poets today who will say a good word for Jim Morrison or the Doors, because there is so much foolishness associated with them. I’m wise enough not to go up against that. Please do not note the number of pieces here with shaky guitar, boogie piano, or weird organ—some of these pieces even without electric bass.
Unlike my attraction to the poetry of Sandburg, it’s easy to see what I liked about Blake. Stubborn iconoclasm. A belief that one’s own internal vision of things was more valid than the common view. A DIY ethic which had Blake creating his own books that he engraved on plates himself. What’s more punk rock than that? If Blake had been an indi-rock band, he wouldn’t have just made his own record; he would have cut the damn master on his own vinyl lathe.
What’s a teenager not to like in all that?
If I live a few more years, that teenager is a warning to me that there are things I believe now that will seem foolish to me then. Of course that teenager was foolish, but he also knew some things I don’t know now, so that teenager and I talk all the time.
William Blake wrote down what the Angels told him, but what did Blake tell the Angels?
Water isn’t just earth’s life-blood, it’s blood’s life-blood. Humans are, after all (as the Star Trek quote puts it) “Bags of mostly water.” So we had better pay attention to what happens to water.
In this piece we again have The LYL Band providing the music. Dave Moore wrote this and he is the speaker and the keyboard player in this performance. I’m playing guitar. Most of the pieces in this project will have me reading the words, but Dave will make regular appearances here as another reader.
Just as the words say, my friend and collaborator in this project Dave Moore was riding on a European train after visiting a Dutch art museum, and his moment of vision was that the clouds he was looking at out the train window were, in some way, the same clouds that the museum painters had portrayed. He wrote a somewhat longer set of words about that thought. I edited them down and added the music.
That was an audacious thing to do. Dave allowed it, something I’m grateful for. Not just because I’m rather fond of the resulting piece, but because this was an early part of my journey to transform other people's words and to set them among music.
Close listeners, you may hear in the catalog of museum painters the name “VanVliet”. Yes, there was a fine 17th century Dutch painter by that name. A few hundred years later a Californian added “Van” in front of his family name of Vliet, possibly seeking a connection to that painter. Audacity! Run paint run!
What a writer writes may come to mean something else to a reader, and what that reader thinks can change over time.
Many years ago when I was a young student, I had a mixed reaction to the American poets of the first part of the 20th century. I liked some of things found in the typical school anthologies: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound. But Robert Frost was a sticking point for me: a fuddy duddy, I thought, using an epithet that was created around the time of Frost’s youth to characterize that now old man.
What? You think I’m being unfair to Frost? Well, my opinions changed over time. We’ll return to Frost later in this project.
There were lots of excuses for why I thought that then, but never mind. Our prejudices, our subjective likes and dislikes, will always contain unfairness. One of the joys of art is that there is so much of it, and for everything we dismiss, ignore, or are exposed to only from compulsory education, there are so many other things that we can fall in love with instead. One such example for me was Carl Sandburg, who was Frost’s contemporary. Just as with my young person’s dismissal of Frost, my like for Sandburg was a little hard to explain. One thing I liked was his expression of the commonalities of human experience.
So even as I write here about reading Sandburg, from where I was at that time, and as a particular individual, one of the things I liked about him was that his poems weren’t obsessed with such internal monolog. His poems are almost never about “here is this strange and plausibly interesting thing that happened to me” but instead about those strange and notable things that happen to us.” He helped me form one of principles I’ll try to follow here: “Other People’s Stories.” Even when I write in these blog postings about myself, that’s only a frame for the real art: the music and words in the audio recordings.
As I got older, in my middle ages, I forgot about Sandburg. By and large the world did too, even though during his life Sandburg had reached just about the highest level of celebrity that a writer can reach.
I started to re-discover Sandburg in the past few years. For one thing, I picked up a book of his poems in a little bookstore along Lake Superior and began to remember what had attracted me to him in my youth. And as I started to think about ways that music and words could combine for this project, I began to wonder what Sandburg, that poet who always seemed to have a guitar within reach, could add.
Then, as I was intensively testing my ideas of combining music and spoken words this past winter, David Bowie died. What could I do to respond to that loss? I could write some words myself of course, but instead I found this little piece by Sandburg, published in 1920, that just seemed to sum up something I was thinking as I reflected on all the work that David Bowie had put out over his life.
On January 11th I recorded the basic track “live” with The LYL Band, and later that week added the synth strings and finished the mix that is now available here. I hope you enjoy it.
This weekend I’m officially launching my new project “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.” Parlando will allow you to subscribe to a regular release of short music with spoken word pieces deliverable through podcast subscription and documented with blog posts.
Why Music and Words?
One of my favorite attempts to define poetry is to call it “Words that want to break into song”.
What is it that poetry wants to do by striving to sing? I think it wants to fold the pure pleasure of sound and rhythm into words. It wants that like a lover wants their beloved. It’s not some clever plan. Poetry’s desire here is not mere technique, not some tactic to dress up words in a fancy way. It just wants it.
And what about music? Well, it’s got its drives, its desires too. It wants to find its logic, its pattern. It’s always speaking to time, saying to time that music knows better than time itself how time sounds and moves. Music is always explaining to time what time contains.
My plan here will be to bring you pieces from two to ten minutes in length. The music will be as varied as the talents of my collaborators and I can make it. I’ll be using words from non-copyright infringing sources during the first few months, although I would like to include more recent work when I can figure out how to navigate the rights issues. In the first month you’ll also start to hear music and words from Dave Moore, a fine writer and performer who I’ve worked with for decades.
You may not like everything you hear here, but it’s my hope that this project will bring something new into being, a meeting that will surprise and intrigue you.