This project doesn’t operate by some master plan, but it does operate keeping in mind a number of principles. I want to explore various ways to combine words with music. There’s a long tradition of setting poetry to music as Art Song or Lieder. While elaborate melodic contours can sometimes detract from the expression of the text, I have no objection to that tradition, just a feeling that there are other approaches.* I want to vary the music used, as much as my resources and skills allow. I would like the texts to vary in expression as well, so much so that even though this project started with the help of a fellow poet and musician, Dave Moore, it doesn’t use our own poetry or writing for text to connect with music much here. I like to honor “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” but I also like to go crate digging for overlooked writers and poems. And unlike most of the modern web, this blog and this project isn’t out to sell you anything. I’m well past my sell-by date as an indie music act.
I’ve been at this for around five years and presenting things here at this blog for nearly four. Today’s piece makes the 450th combination of various words with various music. My current expectation is to continue this project to the 500th piece. The audience continues to grow, which is gratifying and motivating, but this project takes a tremendous amount of effort. How can one weigh these things? My own subjective feeling right now is that the continued amount of effort involved would make more sense with a larger audience than I’ve been able to attract, even now as this thing nears its fourth-year anniversary.
the 450th audio piece since we launched in August 2016
There are ways that might increase that audience that are somewhat known. Most of them have costs in money, time, focus, and complexity that are daunting to me.** The introverted, heads-down composer, researcher, writer, and musician for whom those efforts would be undertaken is likely incapable of sustaining that and continuing to do as much creative work as this project has become accustomed to. Other than the rewards of perseverance, much of the growth that motivated me in the past few years has been due to the efforts of readers and listeners to spread the word. If you’ve done this, even a little bit by telling a friend or linking a piece, particularly on those social networks that I don’t have time to participate in, thank you!
I should reach 500 pieces sometime later this year. I continue to think on these things and what to do about this project as I continue to work on new pieces.
Today’s piece violates that principle of featuring other writers. I may bend that way a bit more in the coming weeks than in the past, as I have a few pieces I wrote that I want to present. But it does speak to my thoughts today about this project at piece #450. “Birds Busking” is about that music offered every morning by those exiled dinosaurs. Oh, they have hopes too, if not actual open musical instrument cases with a few bills salted inside. Maybe some territorial claim, mating opportunities, or commiserating calls to like birds-of-a-feather. But one can think, as poets do as they continue, that they might sing anyway.
I may have invented a word (“eached”) in the 12th line.
How many poets have listened to that birdsong? I cannot count and neither can you. The countlessness of that is magnificent! The wonder of all those poets and all that music is what this project is about. And so I write and post this new piece here this morning, tenaciously.
The player to hear “Birds Busking” is below.
*In fact I enjoy Art Song, and just because the style has its characteristics doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its worth. But I can’t sing elaborate melodies successfully (my tune bucket’s got a hole in it). Similarly, I think hip hop can do remarkable things, but the fast rap flow is something my voice can’t quite hack.
**I’m not even good at following up and acknowledging your comments on these pieces. It’s not something you said! I’m just writing another piece of music, or recording it, or researching or looking for a new poet or poem.
There I was, thinking it’s been over a month since I’ve presented an Emily Dickinson poem here. I didn’t start this project thinking that Dickinson would be so prevalent as a source for texts, but that’s what happened, and during the past four years my appreciation and wonder at Dickinson has increased greatly.
One thing I came to sense in her poetry that I had not noticed before was an air of the mystical combined with an almost psychedelic playfulness. This can be dark or light depending on the poem, but since many of the things I’ve been working on lately have been in a darker, more gothic vein, I thought I’d look more to the lighthearted side. I started a search for Dickinson and spring, and while I’m not sure exactly what keywords I used, this poem turned up very near the top, and it immediately captured me. I had thought I’d be searching for a while but found my next piece in less than 10 minutes.
It opens with two remarkable and attractive lines that don’t present a distinct image. I’m not sure which meaning of the word “Fair” we’re to understand in the first line. Fair as in a celebratory meeting or market (like a county or town fair) or fair as in beautiful, but rainbows and fair in the first line and we could almost be in My Little Pony land if Dickinson doesn’t launch us further out quickly into a “A vision of the world Cashmere.” I first thought of the luxurious wool,* but she also could be using this word as an alternate name for the Asian region called Kashmir. Peacocks complete the luxurious imagery of the first stanza. In later context we’ll see that this is an image of wildflowers, but at this point we’re still in mystery and allure.
Next stanza is lovely in sound and more specific in what it pictures. Butterflies are butterflies, ponds have insect sounds again, and in an image that might make one laugh out loud, bees are “barons” out of their castles and on the ambling march.
Third stanza, robins have replaced the enrapturing snow that Dickinson so ably described in a poem many liked here last winter. She next gives us an orchis flower prettying up for an old lover, the exotic Spanish nobleman “Don the Sun” who is revisiting her in her swamp.** The sensual and the silly playfulness keep mixing it up.
In context we now suspect that the poem is describing wildflowers in its more impressionistic and feathered images. And the final stanza marshals the spring blooms into an army. And then, like it started, the poem departs with two lines that end in mystery. What’s up with the flower children of “turbaned seas” and the “Circassian Land?”
So this is a very particular and odd way to end the poem—but even if you know nothing of the current events of the mid 19th century, it does still convey that exotic flavor. A reader reading this without context may still find it an enjoyable spring celebration poem. It certainly captured my interest at first reading. But wait, there’s one more bit of context!
It may well have been intended to capture it’s reader, as it did me, in that it’s one of the poems Dickinson sent in a letter to her friend, sister in law, neighbor, and possible lover Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1859. If you look at the end of that handwritten manuscript, it ends with this note:
Dear Sue, I haven’t “paid you an attention” for some time. Girl.
As with all things Emily and Sue, there’s a gathering amount of modern speculation and scholarship to these matters. Just a little friend to friend note or a bread-and-butter obligation repaid to a sister in law? Or is this poem meant to be an encoded mash note to a romantic crush?
If it’s consciously or unconsciously erotic, one may be able to see that reading without strain. Cashmere as fabric for a vest or blouse. The pervasive flowers now as the beautiful reproductive organs of plants. And butterflies. The bees, are they singing Slim Harpo’s“I’m a King Bee” from a hundred years after Dickinson’s poem? That Orchis waiting for a lover? Oh, for certain. Sensuous feathers. The whole captive in a harem as role-playing. It’s not just the spring wetlands that are getting steamy in here!
In the end, the poem may stand either for spring’s desire and delight or the poet’s. And as I said last time, it captures you with it sound of thought either way. The player gadget for my performance is below.
* Dickinson might have had it in mind, as this textile from Asiatic goats had been introduced to western countries, and Massachusetts in her time had mills that wove it into fabric.
** The informal British English meaning for “bog” was not likely on Emily’s mind. However, one of Dickinson’s poetic heroes Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped propagate the Latin lover trope with her publication of her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850.
***Emily Dickinson was an avid gardener, and as a young woman compiled an elaborate herbarium classifying a great many flowers in her region. Whenever Dickinson mentions a flower you can be sure she knows more about it than the average person.
****These overseas battles were covered in the Springfield Republican, a Massachusetts newspaper that was read in the Dickinson household and which was one of the few places that published an Emily Dickinson poem while she was alive. Alas for the Circassians, the final outcome of this invasion was diaspora and what in a quaint 20th century euphemism was called “ethnic cleansing.” And to think that I sought out this poem because I wanted contrast to other, darker stuff I was working on.
It’s leap year, and the last time there was one of those, Dave Moore wrote this song about the mysterious cosmologies and quantum physics of love.
We’ve already met Stephen Hawking here, though in a roundabout way, as the universe may be. When Hawking died a couple of years ago, at his public memorial an astronaut read a passage about the cosmos from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem to eulogize the great cosmologist. Coincidence? Well I looked, and I was surprised to learn that Shelley, that early 19th century romantic poet, could write on the physics of light and calculate the speed of a light-year. Not quite quantum theory, but a better performance than many poets today might do. Romantic wonder and physics may be objects that are closer than they appear.
I suspect Sadie Hawkins is a more obscure star in our firmament these days than Stephen Hawking. Dave would know Sadie first-hand because he’s much more knowledgeable than I am about what once were comics and are now whatever they are fancied as an art form. Back when they were funny papers Sadie was created by cartoonist and satirist Al Capp.
Al Capp ran a comic book company too. In 1957 he published a comic book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which helped bring to the fore Martin Luther King. The story in Dave Moore’s family is that his mother typed MLK’s thesis in Boston. Like I said, objects are closer than they appear.
I can’t quite fathom how to condense Capp into a short blog post. I proudly thought I could come up with two or three sentences to sum up Capp’s career—but that’s impossible. His Wikipedia article covers the high points I guess. I will say that by the time I was reading comic strips the Al Capp mythos was probably past its prime and unappealing to me. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t know Sadie Hawkins. Schools still had annual “Sadie Hawkins dances” where young women were licensed to ask men to a date or dance, and all this (along with some legends about Irish Saint Brigid) got melded into a tradition that women could propose to men on Leap Year day.
That’s enough to get you into Dave’s song. As long as you’re willing to entertain a song about a once highly popular cartoon strip and theoretical physics, you’re the audience for this one. I don’t know if that’s enough to fill a Sadie Hawkins Dance floor, but the wallflowers are more interesting there I’d think.
How do quantum forces work? I doubt I know more than Percy Bysshe Shelley. I planned to present this piece for leap year day sometime back, but what did I think two years ago when I heard Shelley’s poem? That he had written of a mazzy heaven, and that flavorable word brought me to think then of Mazzy Star, an indie rock group that can trace its way back to Minnesota about the time Dave and I started to make music together. Now as I write this post this week, I read that the person whose particle path made that traverse, Mazzy Star principal David Roback, has just died.
The player gadget to hear the LYL Band perform Dave Moore’s “Sadie and Stephen Hawkings” is below.
And now for something completely diff…Oh, Monty Python references may be lost on a good portion of the modern audience—and then today November 22nd is one of those dates that some folks remember, and some don’t. Someone older than Dave, George Bernard Shaw, once said “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Kurt Vonnegut said “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” And Ambrose Bierce who for all we know is still wandering around a Mexican border wall with a Sawzall and a book of poems by Du Fu, defined history as “An account false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”
So how much should we care for all that? Well, as I often say here, my opinion is less important than yours. Today’s audio piece, written and sung by Dave Moore, says something like that too.
Note that in each case today I’m giving the opinions of humorists, the class of thinkers and writers who expect that whatever you attempt you’re going to fail at it a little or a lot. Maybe that’s the lesson of history: that every advance for humankind has been across a field of failure.
This gives me a chance to include another Bruegel painting. And it’s a good thing it’s a painting, because sightless people cannot be offended by seeing it.
Use the player below to hear Dave backed by the LYL Band sing his song to those that will dance upon our graves. For those who’ve come here expecting poetry: as my son predicts, it’s likely we’ll be back soon with more of that dead poets society stuff.
I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.
In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!
So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.
Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.
Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.
I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**
But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone” is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.
When I wrote “Soon Be Gone” some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.
“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left
The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon” which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***
As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone” doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.
It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!
The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.
To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.
*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.
**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.
***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”
****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.
The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears” or “Light My Fire.”
It’s second-hand and my fingers misunderstand it, but I’m somewhat musically indebted to a few guys who grew up in Maryland back in the mid-20th century. Depending on where you sit in the culture most of them, probably all of them, won’t be familiar to you. That’s OK.
Who are these guys that I’m saying you probably don’t know? One was named John Fahey, and two others slightly younger were named Max Ochs and Robbie Robinson (who eventually changed his name to Robbie Basho). There was also a fourth, named Ed Denson (who eventually changed his name to ED Denson).
Readers here of my age may remember there was this music called “The Blues” back in the Sixties, a charmingly obsolete Afro-American folk-art form* that had been revived so that British rock stars could be paid enough they could afford their hotel damage deposits. The Maryland guys were part of the early crew that went around finding the old 78 RPM records** that represented the earliest extant examples of that. Mind you that music was only about 30 years old back in the 50s and early 60s, but it could seem pretty cool and mysterious.
The Maryland guys were learning off these records and even from the surviving original artists who made them. But they decided to do something you might not expect with that music. They started to mix in other stuff. Stuff like South Asian music. Stuff like modern orchestral music. They used flat-topped, steel string acoustic guitars, like the pre-war Blues artists usually did, and they used techniques learned from these 78 RPM era Blues artists.*** They saw hidden or potential connections in what these mostly rural Afro-Americans were doing with Ravi Shankar and centuries-old Indian music, with what Erik Satie and Claude Debussy had done with the traditions of classical European music.
Max Ochs somewhere in “The Sixties”
Can you see now why I might have been influenced by that? I love the unusual combination and what it can illuminate. Also like myself and this project, there was next to no recognized commercial potential in this startling combination. So, this Maryland group started a musician led/curated Indie record label. Sixty years ago, some of these guys were doing what people who produce non-commercial music today do. They didn’t ask permission or wait to accumulate the right resumé, they just did it.
Their adventurous acoustic guitar instrumental music never became a big thing, but eventually it became a thing. Art doesn’t always ask to be big. It doesn’t ask for everyone or large numbers of people to remember it. It asks for some to remember it, and then for some of those to remember the experience of it deeply.
Which brings me back to one of those guys I said you probably haven’t heard of: Max Ochs—but this is a place Where Music and Words Meet, so I can focus on some of Ochs’ words today. I ran into “Don’t Die” on the Tompkins Square label’s web site 10 years ago. Perhaps Ochs’ words will strike you as they did me when I first read them.
Sometimes when you come upon words (like these of Ochs) by accident the connection is immediate, more so than ones you have searched for intentionally. These were words I needed, as deep and unpretending as those worn grooves on a 78 RPM record cut into solidified South Asian bug juice. A few days later I pulled them out and sprung them on Dave Moore and the LYL Band in an impromptu performance you can hear today.
Lately I’ve been presenting words from a fair number of poets who self-harmed themselves. Does self-harm make despair more authentic? Nope. Not only is that way too simple, it’s obviously a self-limiting tactic. When the world tells an artist they aren’t important and your art’s not worth it, the world’s in some way right—and it’s your art that tells the world it’s wrong. It’s a strange conversation that. I think some of the best art makes the argument that the world’s first assertion doesn’t prove its second one. The world’s objective argument that it’s not worth it is one of art’s arguments for why it must exist.
That objective argument, the number of listeners and readers, the level of fame, the amount of money exchanged for it all has integers to count for it. Against it I ask you to array that singular connection, often counted as one, between the artist and reader/listener/observer.
Max Ochs somewhere in the 21st century.
This past week, pedaling my bike on Highway 61 just south of the US/Canada border, I thought again of those words of Ochs I had performed nearly 10 years ago. I found a possible email for Max Ochs online, sent an email asking permission to present the words here and got a reply from Ochs. The Department of Synchronicity (where there are no schedules, but folks show up on time anyway) reported also via that email that someone else, Douglas Seidel, had just done a version this July of a spoken word piece of Ochs on Soundcloud. Seidel’s piece is pretty good too. Max said in his email that he had written music for“Don’t Die,” but that he’s never recorded it. You’ll have to settle today for what the LYL Band and I came up with.
Thanks to Max Ochs for his words and his permission to present them here. To hear “Don’t Die (Max Ochs Prayer)” performed by the LYL Band, use the player gadget below.
*I kid, I kid. Afro-American music and the Blues which was a 20th century expression of it, is the largest single component of American music, and some of those British guys understood that. A lot of Americans got introduced to other American blues artists by those UK musicians.
**These precious records were made of shellac, a resin secreted by bugs in South Asia. Therefore, if one listened to old Skip James or Charlie Patton records and then started trying to mix that with Indian ragas, you’d literally be digging deep into the histories of the records as objects.
***What techniques? Open or altered tunings, where the conventional EADGBE tuning of the guitar is changed to allow different resonant and harmonic effects. Finger-style plucking which allows for independent melodic lines to be played simultaneously. Slide guitar, where the strings are not fretted with the fingers, but stopped with an object like a metal tube or glass bottleneck. String-bending vibrato. The last two allow not only for vocal like effects but for microtones that exist outside of the standard chromatic and tempered scales used in most Western music since Bach’s day.
When we last left-off Kenneth Patchen he was beginning his career as a proletarian poet in the 1930s, writing a strikingly prophetic (in both senses of the word) poem about what the middle of the 20th century was holding in store. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that poem also speaks of our 21st century’s future.
I didn’t have time to discuss that Patchen’s 1952 Wikipedia picture looks like Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island.
Patchen never left his concerns with society’s dangers and constraints, it remained part of his poetry throughout his career until his death in 1972, but that’s not all or even much of what he became known for. Here are some of those things:
He was a significant influence on the post-WWII independent, largely non-academic Beat explosion. The bohemian aspects of his life and outlook, as well as the ways his writing expressed itself was a key living American model for the Beats.
And speaking of the Beats, he and his friend and fellow Kenneth, Kenneth Rexroth, were enthusiastic pioneers in the tradition of performing their poetry with musical accompaniment. Though many Beat Generation poems still live on the page, I’m not alone in hearing many of them, even when read in silence, as spoken voices, a jazz group cooling it behind. Patchen was more committed to this combination than most he influenced, touring his “Poetry-Jazz” in the late ‘50s.
Obviously, that style is part of what’s led to the Parlando Project, though I wish to expand on it. Patchen too seemed open to other musical genres with his writing: for example, a longer piece for radio performance with a musique concretescore by John Cage, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat.”
American bohemian arts flowed out from the Beat era, and Beat’s immediate predecessors like Patchen, in a series of connections and mutations. Diverted poet Jim Morrison used his psychedelic ballroom singer money to help Patchen publish one of his final books. And a figure as singular-seeming as Leonard Cohen has links in his expression that seem to connect closely with some of Patchen.*
It wasn’t just music that Patchen combined his poetry with, but visual art—drawing and painting pages that were as much pictures as poems. While this has precedent in medieval illuminated manuscripts, the painter/poet/engraver William Blake, and some of Dada’s work, Patchen’s style of combining his own naïve art with epigrammatic text connects with some of the poster art of the Sixties.
Closer to Pedro Bell than William Blake? Art by Kenneth Patchen.
One of the reasons I so like presenting figures like Patchen or Blake is their “get in the van” indie spirit. Art does not need to ask permission, it perpetrates itself anyway, figuring out a way to use the resources it can scrounge together.
And lastly, another thing Patchen became known for, even if it wasn’t as widely imitated in the Beat era, was his love poetry. It would be restrictive to think of him as just a love poet, but it was a substantial part of his writing and audience. As the billboards changed from “The Beat Generation” to “The Love Generation,” Patchen was already there with his poetry. A case in point, today’s poem “O My Darling Troubles Heaven” performed here by Dave Moore and the LYL Band.
So, enough talking without a band. Go ahead and click on the player below to hear Dave’s performance of Patchen’s poem.
*Like what? The love poetry combined with the prophetic social dread is a recognizable Patchen trope. The combinations of art and writing, such as in Cohen’s Book of Longing can be similar. And while Cohen’s typical poetry plus music style isn’t often reminiscent of Patchen’s, the two obviously didn’t mind mixing those arts.
Don’t worry, we’re only taking a break from our regularly scheduled mix of various words (mostly poetry) with original music to tell the history of the Parlando Project’s alternate voice Dave Moore. So far in our story, he’s gone from poet to pioneering Twin Cities indie band lyricist to full-fledged songwriter to singer-songwriter-keyboardist for a two-person band of poets with instruments in about two years. If you’ve been following along, I’m the other poet.
How did this turn out?
Returning to 1980 after the release of the Lose Your Lunch Band’s Driving the Porcelain Bus recording, the two-man-poet-band thing seemed to be a problem. Around this time a handful of Twin Cities indie rock bands had eked out a local circuit of venues that would book them. This was all very tentative, and only sufficient to give bands the initial toe-hold on a career, and it wasn’t really open to something as sparse and loose as we were. Could we possibly have tried to push that square peg, a “hardly rock band,” into that circuit?
Perhaps. We started looking to fill out the band, with the drummer being the biggest problem. I had started to dabble with electric bass, and Dave’s Farfisa combo organ had left-hand gray keys which could be dedicated to keyboard bass duties in the Ray Manzarek mode. The first third was Jonathan Tesdell, a guitarist who had a set of congas, and who was drafted out of a commune down the street. Jonathan practiced and played with us for a few gigs on electric guitar, but I can’t recall us ever even trying the congas as a replacement for a more rockist drum set live. But after a few months, Jonathan left town, traveling light. I once heard that his Gibson Firebird electric guitar that he sold before packing for travel was bought by The Replacements’ Bob Stinson.
Next up was a very talented guy who I believe was working then in the live comedy and theater scene,* Dean Seal. Dave somehow recruited him**, and Dean played drums and bass. Of course, not at the same time, a limitation we overlooked because he was willing to play with us. Dean could write great songs as idiosyncratic as Dave’s, and he had a good singing voice (later recordings with Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal demonstrate his cabaret-ready performance chops***). Dean later went on to a long and unique career, leading the Minnesota Fringe Festival for several years, and in this century becoming a UCC minister who combined his theater and comedy experience with religion.****
Performing “Magnetized,” the rarely seen, full LYL Band live in the ‘80s. L to R: unknown drummer (see below) Dean Seal, Dave Moore, and Frank Hudson
Alas, Dave and I had sort of lost the fire to play out around the time Dean joined up. I’m not even sure if Dean could have been the singing drummer (harder than it looks) and songwriting voice that could have given Dave a rock-club ready band. With us, Dean played mostly electric bass, and he took a liking to a cheap Japanese copy of a Gibson EB0 bass that I had found in a second-hand store. We traded basses, mine for his similarly low-quality Made In Japan bad-translation-of-a-Fender bass. That instrument sits next to me as I type this, and I still play it often on pieces you hear here. Somewhere in the later ‘80s the LYL Band went, as press-releases still say these days, “on hiatus.”
Why? When I asked Dave today he said he hadn’t thought of that, but as we chewed it over I think it was the matter of both of us, in committed relationships and needing to pay the rent and bills at the lower edges of the economy, gradually converting the concept of the public band to a private joy.
But as that was, almost imperceptibly to us, happening, Dave’s songwriting took one more turn. The goth and gothic Fine Art lyrics and the agitprop and Dada characters of the early LYL songs were joined by unconventional and sincere love songs.
It’s more than 30 years ago, but I can still remember the first time I heard Dave sing this song, as I have heard Dave sing many songs before or since, stone cold fresh. We didn’t often discuss songs before playing them. Unless specifically working out a live set, we didn’t work out arrangements, run through the changes or discuss accompaniment. We just let it happen for fun or failure.
So, there we are in the 1980s. Dave’s standing at the Montgomery Wards electric piano, I’m no doubt sitting with my Cortez 12-string acoustic guitar with a DeArmond soundhole pickup. I’ve programmed a simple three-drum beat on a Mattel Synsonics electronic drums toy. I hit record on the cassette recorder. Dave hammers out some chords and I figure out the key and some kind of pattern as quick as I can. He begins to sing—and I suddenly realize this is, surprisingly, a love song, a damn fine love song, though still uniquely Dave. What do I think next? Well, that I had better not screw this up. Playing lead/melody lines on a 12-string has a catch: the two highest string courses are tuned in unison, but move to the G string and lower, and they jump up to courses tuned an octave apart. Listening to this now, I can still feel how I kept that in mind as I played. If music be the food of love, don’t lose your lunch.
I have some later, better-recorded versions of “(I Think I’ve Lost My) Total Recall.” The lyrics Dave wrote as a younger 30-something were good then, but when I perform or listen to this song now, thoughts of memory loss mixing with love are real as well as art representing the impact of love. As songs occasionally do, it’s gone from heartfelt to heartbreaking—but this is the moment I first heard it, and so, excuse the archival audio quality and listen.
As a bonus, although also low-fi, here’s what a putative ‘80s LYL Band as a fully realized rock band would sound like. We’d planned this gig at a Native American center with Dean Seal playing drums or bass on alternate numbers. We’d setup and sound-checked ourselves, and then left our instruments sitting on stands at the end of the building’s gym. As we left for the rest of the event before we played, four guys, unknown to us, went over to our instruments, and began to play them. They were pretty good as I recall, sort of blues-rock. We figured there was no reason to stop the better, volunteer musicians. They played a short set, maybe two or three songs or so. Later that night, the drummer asked if he could sit in for our set on Dean’s drums. Trusting in chance, that’s what happened. The song “Magnetized” is a Dave Moore lyric, another love song, but I think I wrote the music and sang it here. Once more it’s a cassette recording, taken from the vocal PA that night. You can hear me slightly off-mic trying to let the band know when I’m going to the bridge and walking over to let the rhythm section know that it’s time to end the tune.
*Someone should write a book on that circa ‘80s Twin Cities comedy scene, and yet oddly enough no one has. Louie Anderson, Liz Winstead, Joel Hodgson, Kevin Kling, Jeff Cesario—and I could go on—were all starting out in the Twin Cities in this era.
**Dave remembers he was working as a record store clerk for a time at the Wax Museum on Lake Street, and his manager there, knew Dean, and probably introduced them. Dave doesn’t recall knowing anything about Dean’s theater and comedy work then, only that he played bass.
***One story is that when Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal recorded an album at Prince’s Paisley Park they did it so quickly that it was the least expensive recording ever made there. Here’s some of their work.
The ‘70s outburst of new bands that were called punk, then new wave, and finally indie can be traced to a beginning (or beginnings), and here’s what’s too-little recognized about that: it started with poets and writers.
Some who know that punk didn’t start with Johnny Rotten, say that it all can be traced back to a band that called itself Television who convinced a desperate bar owner that his Bowery bar called CBGB should let them play music there in 1974. Television wasn’t a gigging band, rather it was the idea of two poets, friends since high school who had moved to New York City and started to call themselves by suitably poetic names: Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell.
But even before that, two other NYC writers were combining poetry with rock’n’roll: Lenny Kaye, a guitarist and rock critic with tendencies to musicology, and Patti Smith, a poet who thought that if she wanted rock’n’roll to be a fit subject and context for poetry, maybe the sound of rock should come along explicitly. In 1971, the pair linked up to perform at St. Marks in the Bowery with Kaye on electric guitar, at a long-standing reading series (instigated by Paul Blackburn, who we’ve met here previously). Eventually there would be a band, the Patti Smith Group, but that band started as an idea of two writers, and for awhile it was just Kaye’s guitar and a piano player with Smith’s chanted vocals.
So how far back does that idea go, two poets or two writers, imagining a rock band? Let’s set the New York wayback machine 7 years further back, to 1964. Two poets and well-rounded Greenwich Village bohemians Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg looked at the folk music scene, understood that the term means what it says, that any odd folk were allowed to make music, and so they gathered some handy musicians and imagined a band they called The Fugs. Their first recording was titled on its first pressing on Folkways The Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction, and it was produced by Harry Smith, the important folk anthologist, but they eventually became a rock band touring with an irregular accumulation of Village musicians. Besides having the foundational indie spirit of we’re going to make music without asking for permission, The Fugs were also sometimes gleefully obscene—something that bohemian poets had already done, and they brought this with them to music. In today’s world of autotuned rappers, their sexual hijinks may not shock as much now as their naked-to-the-world out of tune vocals.
And what bridges the Fugs to the ‘70s NYC punk-rock poets? Poet Lou Reed, musician John Cale, and eventual English Literature PhD Sterling Morrison formed the Velvet Underground. Like the other poet bands, the idea of forming a group preceded any complete organization into a band. The Velvet’s original drummer famously quit when the band got its first gig, because he thought accepting any gig would be selling out.
Do you notice a rhyme scheme here? None of these situations started with a full band of musicians looking for their chance. These weren’t musicians looking to get poetic, these were poets looking to get musical. Of the seven writers above, I believe only Kaye and Reed had ever played a gig before they dreamed their bands. What musicians were recruited, what musical skills would be developed or obtained, all came after the idea, an idea that was launched in performance before it became a fully-formed rock band.
These weren’t musicians looking to get poetic, these were poets looking to get musical.
I’m not suggesting this is the best way to start a band or establish a career, because this is pretty much the way the LYL Band started. Dave remembers that Fine Art had looked to him for words, and once asked, the words that could be songs started building up in him. I had been writing songs for a year or so before I came to the Twin Cities. I had an acoustic and electric guitar, Dave had an old upright piano in his living room. Sometime a few months after Fine Art got underway, in 1979, we started playing together, a two-person version of the traditional song pull. He’d do a song and I do a song and we’d try to figure out what went with what the other was playing.
Whose idea was it to form a band? I think it was likely Dave’s. Dave’s not entirely sure. The broader gestalt of punk and indie breaking out was part of it, including the example of Fine Art of course. We both shared an appreciation of The Fugs, and that anarchic idea of a band that would perform any idea for a song, even if their musical execution might be imperfect. Hell, their LP title “Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction” could have been our tagline too.
The idea of just an acoustic piano and a single guitar as a band was incomplete and we knew it. Even in the loosest standard in the era, we couldn’t be a rock band. As Dave’s songs built up, we performed at a few open mics acoustically as a duo, and we started to call ourselves “punk-folk.” We played several midday informal gigs at the Modern Times restaurant on Chicago Avenue (I worked nights, which cut into more conventional times) and from this short-lived noon-time schedule we named ourselves The Lose Your Lunch Band.
Poet to songwriter to performer: Dave Moore at the keyboards during a 1982 LYL Band concert.
Still a duo in 1982 we recorded our only “official” release, the mostly electric (Dave had bought an old Farfisa organ) Driving the Porcelain Bus. Recorded by Colin Mansfield on what was probably the same 4 track open-reel deck that recorded those Husker Du demos. You can see that we weren’t shy about the emetic band name, but it had nothing to do with the songs we were singing. We sang songs about political subjects, blue-color experiences, and satirized the Me generation. Driving the Porcelain Bus was probably the first cassette only release in the Twin Cities indie scene, but it came before there was a regular distribution method for pre-recorded cassettes. Besides the usual direct sales, I reverse-shoplifted the cassettes (each packaged in a folded brown-paper lunch sack with the track list printed on the paper) dropping them into spaces in the LP bins of record stores. I wonder if any clerks remember being asked to ring up a strange recording that wasn’t actually in inventory?
It was the Reagan decade, the rise of the new affabulatory GOP. Dave had lots of song material. We’ll continue the story of Dave’s new-found songwriting in another post, but here’s today’s audio piece: Dave Moore performing his song “Evil Man” live at the Modern Times sometime in 1981 with the two-person LYL Band. Dave is pounding the house piano within an inch of its life and has a vocal mic. The MT sound system had one more channel which meant that I’m trying to get my little acoustic guitar to be heard over the piano while shouting backing vocals into the mic halfway down my body to where the guitar was. I believe I recorded this on a portable cassette recorder sitting somewhere on one of the restaurant’s side tables. As they say in collector’s circles: archival interest only sound quality.
This month, I’m going to start a series here featuring the words and music of Dave Moore. This is different—and not—because long-time listeners will have heard Dave’s voice and words here from the beginning, but this time I’m going to expose a little more of Dave’s range of work. If you’ve come here expecting our usual eclectic mix of poetry from various eras with music, don’t worry, we’re not abandoning that (and there’s lots here, just look at the archives on the right), I’m just taking some time to present something different, and “something different” has been my aim since the start.
I’m going to try to put Dave’s stuff in context, at least the way I’ve seen it. I’ve known Dave for 50 years. He was writing poetry before I met him, and he’ll write things for the page to this day, but he became a songwriter and he has had a long-running one-panel comic for decades too. I’ll start by talking about the songs.
A little over 40 years ago Dave’s words were used for the lyrics of a third of the songs on one of the pioneering Twin Cities punk/new-wave/indie records: 1978’s Fine Art’s Fine Art. Dave didn’t perform with the band, and as far as I know, he didn’t have any direct input on the music the band created for the songs. Fine Art existed from just before their only LP was recorded until around 1983.
That you haven’t heard of Fine Art is likely derived from several reasons. The biggest one is that they, unlike some later Twin Cities’ Indie bands, never made it nationally, but I remain puzzled as to how they have disappeared from the memories, books, and posts of those who have sought to cover the local Minnesota-based heroes that made and made up the late 1970s scene that produced The Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum, and even to some degree Prince, a scene that was then the platform under an even later generation of Twin Cities connected indies like Babes in Toyland, The Hold Steady, or the Jayhawks. Like other cities who experienced the eruption of indie bands in the late 70s and early 80s, the Twin Cities has its own selection of “They were so good and original, how come they never made it as national acts?” bands. The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs*, and The Wallets were unforgettable to most who saw them locally, but their national/international profiles never really existed, and are now, like our weather will be soon, below zero. Fine Art, who have a good case to being seminal to the scene, who staked their own distinctive sound within it, are forgotten even locally, and that pains and puzzles me.
So, if you make it through this post, you’ll know more about the band Fine Art than anything you’ll be able to find in a book or on the web. In talking about why they didn’t make it into history, I’m going to try to sneak in why you should care about what they did.
OK, what were the problems and obstacles that explain why you haven’t heard of Fine Art, even though they helped break the ground for a significant Indie rock scene?
Their name, Fine Art, can be understood unironically. Their leader**, Colin Mansfield was a highly experimental guitarist, and his compositional ideas were not punk pure nor entirely pop accessible. A sizeable portion of the Twin Cities scene followed the early 80’s movement to make hardcore music which was intense not only in its volume and velocity, but in the kind of loose authenticity that later was called grunge.*** “Art rock” was another of the labels hung on “Progressive Rock,” and that was the enemy to this segment. Fine Art, particularly in it’s early days, could be just as much (or even more) a focused frenzy as, for example, Husker Du,**** but that band had a non-sequitur, non-significant name, and Fine Art’s name on a concert handbill may have suggested the wrong thing to some of the market.
They were song-oriented. Despite the continuing connoisseur appreciation for Grant Hart, Paul Westerberg, and Bob Mould as songwriters, the early TC live indie music scene then was not conducive to them. PAs, live board ops, and venues tended to make all the bands vocals unintelligible. On record, the songs come through, but Fine Art issued too few recordings: essentially one self-titled LP of an early version of the band before they were fully formed, and one EP, Scan, that better represents the middle of the band’s life. I’m unaware of any other Minnesota band with the breadth and quality of material from this early ‘80s era which left so little recorded legacy—but then that proves my point I guess, how would I know if such other bands existed?
The Fine Art lineup in 1980 fronted by Terri Paul and Kay Maxwell, Colin Mansfield on the far right. Also visible is Liz, their bass player that year which gave the band a 50/50 male/female split.
Live shows. The power of Fine Art in a live show could be substantial, perhaps most intensely on a small stage in a small room, but despite having exceptional singers/front-women over the band’s lifetime, they didn’t always come over on the First Avenue mainstage, the largest venue to present indie acts by the early ‘80s. Their contemporary local heroes The Suburbs (who like Fine Art never limited themselves to hardcore punk-rock moves) would in this era have one of the most dynamic high-energy live shows I’ve ever seen. Last night I watched Sammy Hagar on TV relating what he thought the wisest words legendary concert promoter Bill Graham had imparted to him: “It isn’t the audience’s job to win you over, you have to win them over.” Sammy Hagar, then as now, wouldn’t be a cool re-teller of an always controversial promotor’s bromide, but Fine Art in all it’s incarnations, had a cool stage demeanor, putting out the best music they could devise without a smarmy sales pitch, but also never explicitly pulling the audience into their vision. This stance works more often after you’ve become famous, or (paradoxically) after you’ve become famous for not catering to audiences in an overt way, but it’s the more difficult shot to make, and Fine Art didn’t make its shot.
I was going to write even more dancing-architecture about Fine Art on stage when I discovered that there is available a good quality film of them just past the midlife of the band, performing at the famous 7th Street Entry small room in Minneapolis. This was a good lineup for the band musically, and the performance is about as open and inviting as any I recall seeing. The short film misses some of my favorite numbers, any 45 minute film would, and in particular it includes none of the songs that best showed singer Kay Maxwell’s more exploratory vocal work. But, apropos of my point above, this is about as open and warm as they got, even in a small club. Guitarist Colin Mansfield even smiles. On stage. While the camera is on him.*****
Fine Art in 1981 perform a set in First Ave’s small 7th Street Entry room. As per usual, I think Dave Moore may have written about a third of the lyrics in the songs here.
They didn’t tour. I can’t say for sure why they didn’t. Any bootstrap band has to commit to a “get in the van” leap even for an Indie tour. This means no income other than chancy part-of-the-door proceeds and increased costs even if only for gas and repairs. Hometown relationships will be sacrificed. And the logistics for a six-person band with two women are a much greater challenge than for say a three person trio male-bonding road trip. Realistically, if they had toured, would out-of-state audiences have reacted differently than Twin Cities ones? In some markets I think it’s possible, but far from assured.
Front women. Throughout almost the entire run of the band’s life it used dual female lead singers. This was unusual in this era, locally and nationally, but more so in Minnesota indie circles before the mid-‘80s. Gender mix at indie shows in this era from my memory showed a higher male attendance, and the tastemakers were almost entirely male. Early versions of the band paired Kay Maxwell with Terri Paul until Terri Paul left to marry Suburbs’ principal Chan Poling. Maxwell then was joined at the front of the stage by violinist/vocalist Jennifer Holt, who in turn left to form Tete Noires, another needs-to-be-remembered-more Twin Cities band that prefigured the Riot Grrl idea of the later ‘80s. In theory, you could expect CIS sex-appeal to be a marketplace-trumps-art plus, but remember Fine Art wasn’t a band that wanted to explicitly ingratiate itself with audiences, and the band’s songs almost never featured conventional or playful boy-girl romance or sexual come-ons. In fact, most Fine Art songs throughout the life of the band took a distinctly cool look at relationships and their frictions with individual autonomy, something that pop and rock music didn’t allow female singers to do much in the 70s.****** In this skeptical and examining regard, they were doing in the small Minnesota scene what some post-punk bands in England and the US coasts were doing, but it’s likely that Fine Art was developing this attitude independently. My guess is, that to the extent the young men of the Brent Kavanaugh generation heard the lyrics at a gig, or absorbed the stance portrayed by the singers on stage in a non-literary way, Fine Art wasn’t going to be their new favorite band. Would it be better if they listened? I certainly think so.
Fine Art circa 1982 on the First Avenue mainstage: Ken Carlson, Jennifer Holt, Kay Maxwell, and Colin Mansfield
Today as I think through these things I wonder what would have happened if I was rich and possessed a time machine, could I use cubic money and hindsight to change things? Could I have tried to break them as a recording act without local scene cred? No assurance in that. Try to move them to New York and ace out Blondie, but end up as The Shirts instead? Move to Athens Georgia and try to be the B52s, but end up as Pylon? I suspect the best fantasy bet would have been to move them to England, an even more imaginary gambit, but it was a scene more capable of breaking unusual bands because the extensive network of critics and music press there competed relentlessly to find unusual bands to champion.
OK, we’ve left Dave Moore for awhile here, so let’s circle back. Fine Art had women frontmen who handled the vocals. That means that Dave’s lyrics first were sung by women. A song like “Nailed,” performed by Fine Art on their LP and regularly in concert afterward, is ostensibly a vampire blues that might have been the text from an issue of Tales From the Crypt, takes on a different cast sung when sung by two women in harmony. Lines like “I gave you my body, and you took it too. Always thought you’d give it back—shows how much I knew” change in that context.
Here’s Dave Moore’s lyric “Nailed” performed not by Fine Art, but by the LYL Band. Colin Mansfield wrote the music here, and we only approximated it. I’m doing the lead vocal, though Dave peeks through on backing vocals. If you watched the Fine Art/7th Street Entry video you may be able to put together a mental construct of what the “real thing” sounded like on a good night. Let me assure you, it was even better than what you are imagining.
Because what’s more punk-rock than footnotes
*The Suburbs are perhaps the most similar Twin Cities band to Fine Art in style. Their principal Chan Poling brought a broad outside musical background into his band as did Fine Art’s Colin Mansfield. And at their best, each band’s rhythm section was solid, and their approach to songwriting eclectic and unafraid of oddness. The Suburbs had the more dynamic live show though, even on a large stage, and the conventional all-male lineup presented a show that could be enjoyed without further thought by the plastic beverage cup waving male club goer. My impression was that the Suburbs were soon a very consistent live draw for any venue hosting them, and Fine Art never was that. Of course, all that talent and appeal didn’t mean that even The Suburbs made it past local hero standing.
A survivor band version of The Suburbs still exists, and Poling (who performs with them) has gone on to a successful career in music that continues to today.
**I don’t know exactly how the band was organized, but Colin Mansfield, along with his then wife Kay Maxwell and outstanding rhythm guitarist, the late Ken Carlson were the three members who participated in every version of the band, and though music and lyrics were contributed not only by Dave Moore but as well by the rest of the band, I always got the impression that Colin was the organizer and collator of that process. I’ve lost the thread with Colin over the years, but he transitioned to in the box electronic music later on, and unlike the Fine Art material, that later work is available.
***As a marker for this aesthetic, I’ll note that Soul Asylum first performed under the band name Loud Fast Rules. The Replacements, whose IP holders should see about the availability from Blackglama of the phrase “What becomes a legend most,” were able to gain attention as the ultimate in anti-showbiz casualness, where a sloppy show meant that they really meant it.
****Colin Mansfield from Fine Art produced Husker Du’s first demos and their initial single, which sounds less like later Husker Du and more like Fine Art. After Husker Du broke up, Colin and Du bassist Greg Norton formed a short-lived trio Grey Area.
*****In my experience Colin Mansfield was a pleasant, understated and helpful man, as well as quite a musician. I once suggested, from my position on being less than any of those things, that it might help if he looked more animated and moved by the music on stage, and he asked back if there wouldn’t be some visual value in all that sound coming out a still and undemonstrative musician. We both were probably right, but he was right from a position of greater talent and achievement.
******Here for example are some of the other songs from that LP issued at the band’s beginnings in 1978, and remember all vocally performed by women: “Don’t Tell Me That,” “Too Much Pride,” “I’ve Got to Protect Myself,” Rapist,” and “Speak My Language.” Ken Carlson wrote the first three, Andy Schirmer wrote the third, and only the last was written by one of the vocalists, Terri Paul. It’s an odd dynamic isn’t it? Songs of self-assertion, anger, skepticism toward love relationships as a system, sometimes inward turning pain, written largely by men to be sung from the viewpoint and voice of two women. I don’t know if this was planned, my suspicion is that was something of an accidental combination which the band allowed to happen and then grew to embrace. I never asked. I don’t even know if any of the band men thought of themselves as feminist, and it wouldn’t shock me if any of the women in the band would have stories where the men failed to show feminist understanding. Human beings, they’re like that.