Here’s more of my condensed history of what showed me ways the Parlando Project could be done. I’m continuing, though I’m needing to disregard some fear or wisdom (can we ever tell which is which?) that I’m talking too much about myself, a person of little consequence. What keeps me going? While I write this expecting that what I’m trying to talk about is of interest to only a few, I continue in the hope that for those few it’ll be of value. While I love some music loved by millions, that’s not all of musics to me. And poetry, the supplier of the words used here, is a strange art: omnipresent yet under-considered. Combining literary poetry with non-commercial music is not the way to millions of Internet clicks. I’m hoping for individual interest — yours, valued readers and listeners, and I appreciate that attention.
There are democratic and utilitarian reasons to care about majorities, but most majorities upon a closer look are made up of smaller groups. And too, few majorities are born that way, they start and accumulate smaller groups. “I contain multitudes” said Whitman — multitudes of smaller groups, inconsequential taken to themselves. He called his book Leaves of Grass, not The Biggest Damn Lawn You’ve Ever Seen. If we’re lucky in life we will have found small places, families, affinities, constrained spaces we can contain and explore. In some of those places people will make art, that encapsulated way we exchange our inward handful-grasps of the outward world.
So, I was talking about the end of my teenage years, as I was off to what would be a shortened not quite 2-year experience of college in The Sixties. I’m going to next write about three artists of that time that I was introduced to while still in Iowa, each of which left seeds of what years later would make up the Parlando Project.
In my very first day at college, I was walking in the center of the little campus when I happened to strike up a conversation with a stocky man in a cape. I’m not talking a Superman or Batman cape. No, this cape had a full collar and could be buttoned at the top. It was more of a 19th century woolen military cape, or like the green cape that musician David Crosby liked to sport around the same time, though Crosby and his scene wasn’t anywhere near the two of us in Iowa. This caped crusader had an interesting conversation starter: “Do you know who the Fugs are?” he asked.
Here’s what I knew: I seen a mention of them as an outrageous act in the New York City area, with unprintable lyrics that could only be cited by their suggestive titles. “They’re a dirty rock’n’roll group” I replied. I was better or worse then for capsule descriptions.
“Do you know who the Mothers of Invention are?”
“They’re another one.” This was nervous inarticulateness on my part. Though I had not heard a note of their music, I had read their leader’s insightful essay in a Life magazine round-up of what was starting to be called “Rock,” the “’n’Roll” having just been significantly dropped by doughy critical burghers due to a new appreciation of the all-protein counter culture. Zappa’s essay perceptively pointed out that culture is always present, always countered of fitness and absurdity in some mix.
This minimal performance on my part must have encouraged the caped one. We immediately conspired to get our dorm room assignments switched around to share a room. I think he may have had a preliminary dorm assignment secondary to being a football player. Later I would see that both his legs had simitar scars from knee operations secondary to his high school football career.
The caped guy’s name was Jimmy Scanlon, he was from Chicago. He’d seen those groups perform, had their records. His plastic record player was a little fancier than mine, and had two small speakers that swung out from each side, a stereo. I soon got to hear all those two group’s records.
Let me write first about The Fugs because they are by far the least known and admired of the three artists I’m going to write about, and that’s odd since they were pioneers who I believe directly influenced other artists we now remember as the pioneers. Richie Unterberger, a man from a later generation who looks back at this time calls them “Arguably the first underground rock group.” That’s something I’d say too, even though the core of the Fugs were not musicians in any functional way. They were instead anarchist/beatnik/poets from New York City who just on guts decided that they could get together and sing in 1964. In this instinct they were directly influenced by the short-lived jug band fad that emerged in the folk music revival. The idea of the folkie jug band was this: rather than relying on the individual stage presence of a single performer at the mic (underrecognized: that’s difficult!) you could get up with a bunch of vaguely related instruments and make a somewhat coordinated noise. But the Fugs were distinct from that fad in these ways: their material was politically and socially outrageous, clearly making no play for commercial markets, they soon added musicians who played electric instruments, and they couldn’t sing. Am I being too blunt about that last part? Call me experienced here: this is a pot calling that kettle. They were pitch challenged, they didn’t have, nor did they attempt, pleasing vocal timbres, and they recorded anyway.*
Does this sound indie AF? Does this sound akin to what earliest rappers did with what they had a few years later in NYC? Does this sound like punk rock to you? It should. A decade before CBGBs that is what this was. And they performed a lot in the city. The Velvet Underground had to be aware of them as they were both forming within blocks of each other simultaneously. Did Bob Dylan think of them when creating the most ribald and playful Basement Tapes songs? No matter how fully formed Frank Zappa’s ideas were, did he at least see his Mothers as competing in the same atmosphere when they both had extended runs in rented theaters in NYC?
Does this sound indie AF? Does this sound akin to what earliest rappers did with what they had a few years later in NYC? Does this sound like punk rock to you? It should.
Those things happened from going on guts. From believing the things you are apprehending have value. It’s too limiting to call this competition, or rivalry, it’s the mutual demonstration of possibility.
Before I leave The Fugs, here’s a very Parlando Project thing about the Fugs. They were poets themselves, and yet they formed a band. They performed other poets work regularly.** When Dave Moore and I started performing ten years later I (we?) described what we were aiming for as the Fugs performing with the Yardbirds.
The Fugs repertoire was political, satiric, scabrous and — well, very sex-positive. But they could carpe that diem with the poets too. Here’s my rendition of a Tuli Kupferberg song “The Garden is Open” that I performed a few years back.
Since I wasn’t in New York or connected directly with any of this, here are a couple of accounts of the Fugs from those who where there. One by Fugs founder Ed Sanders. One about Tuli Kupferberg’s life. And this account of how the musical scene including the Fugs interacted with the general poetry and art scene in NYC.
What about the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa? Wait. Though Jimmy Scanlan and that same year Dave Moore too, introduced me to these two groups almost as a pair, you’ll need to wait for my Frank Zappa story. And there’s a third artist that I was discovering in my late teens that helped me formulate this Project. We’ll get to him too.
*I’ve had long suffering partners in my life, what with the kinds of music I am too well drawn too. Most of them couldn’t stand more than a few minutes of the caterwauling of The Fugs. I wouldn’t blame you either — but I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s parable about what a beautiful singer, Sam Cooke, said about this: “Voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” I love music. I love the beauty it can manifest, even without words. If I had to choose a world with only beautiful singers or only truthful singers, I’d take the latter.
**Ted Berrigan, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Burroughs, Charles Olson, and of course band founders Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg were poets themselves.