Minnesota State Fair 7 A.M.

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.

Click the gadget below to hear the audio piece “Minnesota State Fair 7 A.M.”

August Moonlight

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. The gadget to play it should be right below this. And you know, that rhythm guitar part might have been a little influenced by the Beatles “Rain…”

Further In Summer Than the Birds

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:

Emily Dickinson!

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 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.

To hear the “Further in Summer Than the Birds” as played by The LYL Band, use the gadget below:

 

 

Angels In the Alley

This piece tells a true story of a remarkable coincidence 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.

The gadget you should see below will let you play my audio piece, “Angels In the Alley” performed with the LYL Band.

 

Proverbs of Hell

We’ve talked enough (or too much) about William Blake. It’s time for some of Blake’s own words.

If you’ve read other early posts 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 see here.

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. Oh my! That would be a long post in itself.

The music for this piece 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.

To hear this reading of Proverbs of Hell, use the gadget that should appear below.


 

As August Empties

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.

So hop into your Oldsmobile, cruise somewhere with an Internet connection, and then click on the gadget below to hear “As August Empties” coming out of your dashboard.

The Prairie

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 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. 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. Those mythologies are a complex subject, worthy of long post in themselves. 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.

Below is a gadget that should allow you to play The Prairie, taken from William Cullen Bryant’s poem about the great mounds