The Story of Dave Moore and Politically Pointed Songs

Today we’re going to have our first Parlando Project double-header, two pieces whose words and music were written by Dave Moore back in the 1979-1982 era and both of which appeared on the Lose Your Lunch Band’s only official release, the cassette-only Driving the Porcelain Bus  in 1982 1980*.

The LYL Band and Porcelain Bus  were not entirely political, but the elements of political protest and social commentary were a big part of it. Some of this was based around the election of Ronald Reagan as US President in late 1980 which at the time seemed to be the culmination of a long conservative struggle dating back to the early ‘50s.**  You could say it was like today’s post-Trump election era, and one could point to similarities, although the pendant in me could list considerable differences too. I’ll just let that rough likeness stand to simplify the history for our younger readers. It’s close enough for rock’n’roll.

Dave also points out that his spouse and her relatives at the time were politically interested, and discussions in their circle often included political analysis and issues. I’d add, knowing Dave from a decade before that, that the same could be said about him. Let’s just say that around 1980 it wouldn’t be strange for political dialectics to be part of a casual conversation in South Minneapolis, again, just as today.

But here’s something interesting I noted as I rethought those years, the local music scene really didn’t reflect that directly. I recall folk-singer Larry Long, a man who has sought to continue the legacy of Pete Seeger, as being around the cities during this era, but at least as far as recordings he comes later. John Trudell an activist and singer was based out of the region later in his career, but in the early 80s his musical expression was just beginning, and he was living in California then.

Of course, artists portraying the world and how people relate to it cannot help but reflect political and social connotations in their work, and to that degree that any of the biggest bands to eventually emerge out of the Twin Cities indie scene were political, it was largely that.***  Those bands had something to say about life: what they opposed, what they preferred. An argument can be made on both artistic and commercially-distributed subversion levels for that. But the songs Dave was writing then were sometimes upfront about their political stance. In those songs, subtext, which was also there, was what was beneath the politics, not the other way around.

See the LYL Band Modern Times Cafe Ash Wednesday by Dave Moore

Traveling to a telephone pole of the past, we see a Dave Moore Dada poster for an early ‘80s show

 

So, let’s step out of the history and into the songs.

Here’s “Scrap”  a companion song to “The Night Inspector”   which you’ve already heard here, inspired by Dave’s work in a machine shop in this era. There was a good live version sung by Dave on Porcelain Bus,  but I don’t have access to a digital copy of it right now, so in its place here’s a later solo acoustic guitar version where I sing it.

 

And here is an actual cut from the Porcelain Bus,  engineered by Colin Mansfield, just after he was helping Husker Du get underway, a song asking the rhetorical question “What’s Wrong with That?”

 



 

If you’re asking yourself, where’s the poetry and various musical settings that you’ve seen here before, know that I plan only about one more history-of-a-band post before returning to our regularly scheduled programing. If, on the other hand, you wonder how this all turned out, the next post will be about that.

 

And, of course, footnotes, but we reject the hierarchy of superscript numbers for asterixis!

*I’ve just located a few digital scans I made years back of the even then moldering materials form this era, and they show the the Twin City Reader reviewed Porcelain Bus (see footnote below) in their issue that covered the upcoming week interval of January 7th to the 13th 1981. This would mean we recorded it in late 1980 and probably released it before the turn of the year.

**for a detailed history of this conservative effort, I recommend Before the Storm  by Rick Perlstein. For me a lot of what he covers was current events, but for most present-day Americans, it’s history. His two follow-up books are good too, but why not start at the beginning?

***Two exceptions I can note, even if neither are the best-known songs in their respective catalogs: Paul Westerberg’s “Androgynous”  from the 1984 Replacements LP Let It Be,  a heart-felt yet casual sounding and appropriately ambiguous song about busting gender roles, and then Prince’s arch “Ronnie Talk to Russia”  from 1981’s Controversy,  where Prince sounds like the LYL Band would sound if they had Prince’s skills, work-ethic and recording studio (or at least a drummer and bass player). Perhaps Mr. Nelson was paying tribute to The LYL Band and our sound, but Prince’s song was released a little less than a year before “Driving the Porcelain Bus.”  OK, the new date for Porcelain Bus  means that theoretically Prince could  have heard Dave’s Farisa drenched sound before he used a similar punky combo organ sound on “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” File this under “improbable.”

OK, that last part is irony for you English majors, but Porcelain Bus  was reviewed and got a cover blurb on the local alternative weekly in 1982 January 1981, along with Prince protégé’s The Time’s LP. The blurb said “The Time Ain’t No Lose Your Lunch Band,” a statement that I think we can all agree on. The review said we might become a cult band. If you’ve read this far, you’re our last chance as cult adherents. You don’t have to shave your head, sell tracts, move to a compound in the country, or worship Dave as a semi-divine incarnation—unless you think it’ll really help. I believe Dave would rather be worshiped as an Andy Devine incarnation anyway.

Justice Denied in Massachusetts

Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.

Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.

I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.

And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.

One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.

“Let us go home, and sit  in the sitting  room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.

Millay stands for something

Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.

 

My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.

Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”

Poetry vs. Children in Cages

The Paris Review  recently selected four guest editors, poets who will be asked to help select and present poems during a project in the upcoming year. To introduce their project and these editor/poets, they asked the poets for remarks on “Where is poetry now?” Each of the poets had interesting things to say, but I was struck particularly by part of what Vijay Seshadri said.

Seshadri is a contemporary poet of some accomplishments, awards and note, but I had not noted those things, nor could I recall any of his work before reading his remarks. That alone could be remarkable under the subject of “Where is poetry now?”—but let us ascribe that to my own focus and hit and miss reading habits. Seshadri addressed the question I’ve brought up here a number of times: how can or should poetry address political and social questions?

Vijay Seshadri

Words Vijay Seshadri did not say: “And so students, poetry lets you experience Other Peoples’ Stories intimately…but now the part you came for, my acclaimed one-man performance of the first season of ‘Stranger Things.”

 

Seshadri tells of a recent poetry workshop he taught. He describes his students as “young, sensitive, and deeply empathetic.” Looking to current events in the United States, he asked them “to consider the children in cages,” implying that he would like them to address that with their workshop poems, but he found that they could not do so in the work they presented, at least during the week-long workshop. Another writer could have used this observation as a springboard to that hardy perennial topic: “What’s wrong with the younger generation?” or its broader targeted version: “What’s wrong with our culture or society?” Seshadri didn’t.

What did he say instead about why this might be difficult for artists, and what they might do about that difficulty? This is what I present in today’s audio piece, using words of his that I extracted from his remarks. I use as an epigraph a line from one of Seshadri’s poems, and the title I use here, “Poetry vs. Children in Cages,”  is my own concoction, but I hope I am being fair to his thoughts.

These are important questions. I know many of the readers here are poets or other artists. You may not agree with Seshadri’s thoughts on this, but you are still charged to think about this. Perhaps, like Seshadri’s students, you won’t have an answer in a week’s time, but that’s not a reason to stop thinking and trying to find a way to address our world.

To hear my attempt to convey Vijay Seshadri’s thought, use the player below. Musically this time,  I’m back to using something like a traditional rock band instrumentation: electric guitars, bass, and drums, but I also made an attempt to use a virtual instrument rendition of a sarangi, which is a Indian sub-continent version of a bowed fiddle with resonating sympathetic strings, conceptionally similar to the Norwegian hardanger. Even in it’s VI guise, I found I had to be careful of those resonances.

The Witnesses

A couple of posts ago as I presented a piece using words by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I mentioned that his prestige has fallen greatly.

How far? His Wikipedia article shares some snark:

Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”

“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”

And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.

Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.

Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha,  which has left its imprint all over my own region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.

OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.

I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this as well, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?

Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow seeking to instruct, and the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled at it too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.

The Zong Atrocity

The obscenity of human jetsam. I learned about the Zong case only this year while traveling in Britain.

 

“The Witnesses”  is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.

A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.

Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, a principle here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,”  with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures. If he had access to an electric guitar he could have been Frank Zappa.

Once more I’ll break with my usual practice and apologize that I don’t feel I’ve fully realized this audio piece, mostly because it really should be performed with a number of featured voices and a chorus. While my computer and inexpensive collection of “virtual instruments” lets me reasonably realize a large number of instruments, it cannot represent vocal works very well. Go ahead and listen anyway, and if you can listen on speakers instead of earphones, crank the volume a bit.

 

Long Guns

Here’s Carl Sandburg again, this time from his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel.   Today’s piece “Long Guns”  is a protest poem of a kind. A few decades later, around midcentury, the folk-song revival in America (which Sandburg had helped to kick-off with his pioneering American Songbag  collection of folk songs) grew a wing that wrote protest songs. Bob Dylan, a man who thought enough of Carl Sandburg to want to visit him as he was revolutionizing songwriting, wrote a few of them himself, even though Dylan once categorized the usual efforts of the protest song genre as “finger-pointing songs.”

So how does one go about writing a protest song or poem? There are probably lots of ways, and some work more often than others. Sandburg, the early Modernist, would sometimes write Imagist protest poems, which is quite a trick to pull off, though the classical Chinese poets that influenced Imagism had figured out how to do this centuries before. “Long Guns”  however, is more in Sandburg’s Walt Whitman mode, what with its parallelism and lists.

Sandburg wants to call attention to the disorder of order established by armaments and guns, but rather than doing this as an essay would, or by leading off with some singular event that will arrest our attention, he starts by addressing an otherwise unidentified someone named “Oscar.”

This is a puzzling way to begin, and I have no idea why Sandburg did this. My guess is that most current readers will just figure Oscar is some random name, and stumble past this, but since I hate to leave specific things unexamined, I eventually had to try to figure out who Oscar was.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of him, but I think it’s Oscar Ameringer, a radical humorist who was styled “The Mark Twain of Socialism.” Ameringer was Sandburg’s contemporary, and both spent time working for Socialist candidates in Wisconsin, though their time in Milwaukee missed overlapping by only about a year. At least to fellow Midwestern Socialists, this call out to Oscar may well have been recognized when “Long Guns” was written.

After this mysterious opening, Sandburg lays out a condensed history of the world, a Genesis story of armed nationhood, a litany of the primacy of guns, speaking too of the long-range artillery that had been part of the new warfare of WWI.

And then, just past midway, Sandburg jumps somewhere else entirely—which is the freedom we allow poetry (as we allow it in music)—to a twisted fairy tale, the payoff. In the end, this is how Sandburg makes his protest point. We are like that child, and we are creating the child in that story.

howlin-wolf

How would Howlin’ Wolf comment on this Carl Sandburg poem?

 

In performing and presenting “Long Guns”  I decided to throw a frame around it. A couple of posts back I mentioned some other Modernists, largely, but not entirely, separate from the recognized literary Modernists. In the same early decades of the 20th Century, some Afro-Americans were “making it new” with a different lyric language and music, which was labeled “The Blues,” and from which Jazz and Rock’n’Roll and modern popular music draw even to this day. There’s no Ezra Pound or T. E. Hulme to point to here, a name that we can say sparked things off. The Blues’ 19th Century Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman-like predecessors are barely known as names. I still want to say more on this later, but as a frame for “Long Guns”  I used a blues line I know from the singing of Chester Burnett who performed as “Howlin’ Wolf:”

I wore my 44 for so long, it made my shoulder sore.

What a striking and original line! If Li Po or Pound had written it, we might read it in a literary anthology. A man whose fear or anger he must carry, like a heavy revolver, painfully, always. As it happened, I know this poetic line from Burnett singing it, as the Wolf; where as part of his performance style his voice is unnaturally raspy, his delivery as if spoken by a spirit, perhaps not a normal man. A man who lives where the running of the world was all in guns. Is that a normal man?

To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s “Long Guns”   framed with music in the style of Howlin’ Wolf, use the player below.