Don’t Die (Max Ochs’ Prayer)

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 60s

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 21st century

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.

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To Carthage then I Came

Here’s my performance of the concluding segment of “The Fire Sermon”  portion of “The Waste Land”  which I presented for this year’s National Poetry Month celebration. If you want to hear the earlier sections, they’re all here along with over 300 other audio pieces presenting a variety of poetry combined with original music.

The middle of the “The Fire Sermon”  is one of the few times in “The Waste Land”  when who’s speaking identifies themselves, and where they are allowed to speak more than a single line or so, but as “The Fire Sermon”  concludes here, it’s once again altogether confusing who’s talking. Eliot identifies who’s speaking in his footnotes for the poem as the three Rhinemaidens/river nymphs, who had been singing non-words in the previous section—but without the footnotes* I’d have never guessed that.

Miss_Rheingold_1949

The Rhinemaidens are from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. However, when I hear Rheingold, I think of the New York beer.

 

Even more so than the Typist/Man Carbuncular coupling or the subtle come on from Mr. Eumenides earlier in “The Fire Sermon,”  this is the dirty-book section of the poem. A speaker tells of having sex, flat on their back in a canoe** and furthermore (this may be another speaker/river nymph) tells of another sex act with their “heart under [their] feet.”***

This ends in tears and a question that many who’ve suffered from depression cannot answer from within their hall of dark mirrors: “What should I resent?”

If Eliot’s footnotes are saying it’s just the river nymphs talking, it soon gets specifically personal. The next stanza (“Margate Sands”) refers to the off-season resort where Eliot was taking one of those “rest cures” for his own depression. It wasn’t enough, he next went to a psychiatric hospital “By the waters of [lake] Leman.”

The final stanza (“To Carthage then I came”) is made up of quotes from St. Augustine, who as a teenager traveled to the famous African city to battle his own demons of human sexuality and spirituality, mixed with a refrain from the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon”  which says that all things are burning, consuming any constancy in desire and wanting. Joking doesn’t change what it’s about and what’s at stake: the wheel of suffering. But joking, if observed correctly, is also a demonstration of earthly things passing from significance.

John Fahey

John Fahey. Il miglior fabbro.

 

I performed this seriously as a solo acoustic guitar piece in Sebastopol tuning, using what I once absorbed from the playing of John Fahey, another man who had both demons and angels to laugh at. To hear it, use the player below. If you’d like to read along as I perform it, the whole poem, including this year’s part “The Fire Sermon”  is here.

 

 

 

*At last, I get to write a footnote on the footnotes! Oh, pendant’s delight! Eliot wrote extensive footnotes for the poem that appeared when an American publisher agreed to print a book containing the poem. These footnotes have always been controversial. Ezra Pound said they were only included to pad out the size of the book. Eliot himself said he originally wrote them to properly cite all the literature that he’d sampled in this extensively collaged work of text, and he sometimes expressed regrets at allowing the notes to be published with the poem, making “The Waste Land”  seem some scholarly treatise instead of an anguished cry.

**As the joke goes. “Q: Why is drinking American beer like having sex in a canoe? A: Because it’s f…ing close to water.” Note “The Waste Land”  was written by a serious poet, who was seriously depressed by the world and his life, and in this section he’s using sexual exploitation as image for that. How serious was he? Eliot took lay religious vows which included a vow of chastity just six years after this poem was published. This footnote is included for scholarly purposes only and you shouldn’t laugh at it.

***Class, if we turn to our Kama Sutras that’s page 112, where the person on the bottom is on their stomach and their legs are bent upward so that their feet are over their thorax. Also, there’s the connotation that one’s heart is being stomped on. More pedantic or podiatric joy: a foot note that’s a note on feet.