During this project’s first April #NationalPoetryMonth back in 2017 I started what has become a 5-year serialized performance of the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” And here we are today, finally completing that portion of our Parlando Project.
Why “The Waste Land?” for this lengthy each-April presentation?Several reasons.
Like a number of literary cultural artifacts, the single thing widely known and carried forth from it is only a single line. A certain significant ratio of us knows “The best of times, the worst of times,” or “Do not go gentle into that good night,” or “To be or not to be” — and so you may know “The Waste Land” from its opening line: “April is the cruelest month.” That small keepsake of a long poem is much brought forward for anything that occurs in any April, and as much or more than Chaucer’s April preface to his Canterbury Tales, it’s likely the reason April is National Poetry Month. As an opening line it’s not misleading. Much cruelty happens in Eliot’s poem. Is it cruel to be kind as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe might put it? Is it just cruelty for shock effect — or can it cure, however partially? Our long serialization explores that, covering all those parts that you may have forgotten even as you remember and repeat the first line only.
“The Waste Land” is also a landmark, a milepost, a line in the sand for a certain kind of Modernist English language poetry. While this project is not entirely about the rise of Modernism, the current rules of public domain make work from the first quarter of the 20th century the latest I can surely use for my project’s purposes without complications. If time permits me, I may follow up today’s post with a later one about what I’ve learned about Modernist poetry before and after “The Waste Land” while working on this project; but when I first encountered the unescapable “The Waste Land” in a schoolbook and classroom as a teenager one thing that I understood about it (perhaps the only thing I understood about it) was that it’s quite musical in most all of it’s movements.
“The Waste Land” is not, at least in America, a beloved poem from what I can tell. Even among college-education-exposed Americans it’s not commonly memorized, kept in a commonplace way, used for occasions, or re-read for pleasure or new insights. Consistent with that, for the most part, these every-April “Waste Land” segments have not been among the most popular here.* Even among poetry lovers there are some that actively dislike it, find it a pretentious mishmash overrated by those afraid to speak plainly. Eliot himself seemed to avoid speaking about it or reading sections of it at later public readings. He may have thought his later poetry more accomplished, but I also wonder if he didn’t care to revisit the more unbounded elements of his life reflected in The Waste Land.
Which brings me to the main reason you’re about to get a chance to hear this performance today: The Waste Land is not just one thing by design or execution, but it is significantly about someone in the throes of depression. Indeed, much of this year’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” was first drafted while Eliot was hospitalized for this. This section is not “The Waste Land” of scholarly footnotes, bank officer work, gender blurring and questioning, or the knowledge of a night-class schoolteacher for working class women, or the lament of a man who has a personal sense of the intimate losses of a great war. This is the howl of personal despair of a consciousness who can portray those things — and it’s the howl of someone seeking to explode and break out of that state.
The LYL Band performance you’ll hear if you click on the player at the bottom of this post is a live performance from more than a decade ago, long predating the other sections I’ve presented here of “The Waste Land” over the past 5 years. At the time of that performance I myself was emerging then from an episode of depression, one of two I believe I have gone through in my life. Depression has a variety of feelings and absence of feelings, and if one reads good writers describing their own depression experience you may well get a sense of the blind men’s elephant of fable, but my own feelings on the day and hour this was recorded were largely feeling sick and tired of those depression feelings. At some level I felt this section of Eliot’s poem was similar to what I was seeking, feeling, finding: an expression of an expiation of that, of demons transferred into mad pigs being cast into the sea. This coincidence of my life, a performance, and the poem would make it dear to me.
As I said, this is a recording of a live performance. Besides my voice and electric guitar playing, you’ll also hear Dave Moore’s voice spontaneously following along as I unfurled mine. I was cold-reading Eliot’s text here, I had not rehearsed or prepared for this performance, other than printing out the text. Embarrassingly, as I reached many of the foreign words in the text and fully in high transport of the moment, I mangled their pronunciation or dropped them from the reading. I used a handful of short samples you’ll hear mixed in the background to restore some of the dropped text.
In later, calmer reflection I continue to think this element of expiation is part of Eliot’s design here. A line I recall feeling strongly and intimately as I came upon it in my reading and performance that day is:
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”
Whatever part of the elephant of despair or depression you might jiggle, touch, or be crushed by, we think of the key. Can we also think, hope to think, expect to think, of the prison as invalidated, destroyed, or obsolete?
What you’ll hear if you click on the player or hyperlink is rough, it has some mistakes, and being recorded live there is little I can do to fix them — and by intent it’s not a very genteel and formal presentation of Eliot’s poem. If that was my intent on that day over a decade ago, I today renew that intent by concluding our long, serialized The Waste Land with this performance that predates all the other segments. In one of Eliot’s later poems (“The Little Gidding”) that he may have uprated over his 1922 landmark, he wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
And so it is here too: every episode for this serialized presentation of “The Waste Land” has been informed by that beginning, performed and recorded long before, that is now being used at it’s conclusion.
Poetry as an immediate witness to momentous history is not a common thing. Poems of events tend to autobiography, deaths, love, births, personal injuries and triumphs. Today’s piece has both elements—memorable on both counts.
Guillaume Apollinaire is a major figure in Modernism with an influence across the arts as a critic and theorist. He popularized the term Cubism, invented the term Surrealism, and using his own name “Orphism” helped explain and formulate abstract expressionism. In the era surrounding WWI his influence and omnipresence was stronger from his base in Paris with French-speakers than Ezra Pound’s was for English-speakers from London. As a poet Apollinaire bridges the 19th century Symbolists to the Dada and Surrealism to come, and though he wrote in French, many of the English-language Modernists looked to French models for their verse.* While his work is experimental with form and language, it’s also very open-hearted and joyous in a way I associate with later 20th century American Frank O’Hara.
“The little car” tells of a day of Apollinaire’s that would change his life. On that biographic matter alone it would be of interest to literary historians. But it also tells us about the early days of the most influential event in Modernism, the outbreak of WWI. Apollinaire’s poem is comparable to W. H. Auden’s better-known beginning of WWII poem “September 1, 1939.”
So, let’s begin talking about the poetry as history today.
World War I started over a series of days earlier in the month of August 1914, kicked off by a ham-handed assassination in the Balkans at the end of June, followed by a slow enactment of various alliances and agreements plunging the whole world into warfare over the course of weeks (or in the case of the U.S., years).
Unlike the reputation of WWI as a brutal struggle of attrition between trenches, the opening August weeks were fast-moving. German troops cut through Belgium taking over that country in short order, putting them at the northern border of France as they met the French army. Large military movements and formations just slightly modernized from the Napoleonic era, that still included cavalry charges and fife and drum, met modern artillery and rapid firing weapons. Aerial bombings were introduced to warfare (though ground-based actions were more deadly to civilians). Soon amplified by propaganda, there are widespread accounts of bestial atrocities by the advancing army.**
Before the events of today’s poem, which self-dates itself to the end of August 1914 and into the following September day, during the Battle of the Frontiers, France’s army had suffered its largest single day of deaths and casualties in this or any war before or since, a staggering total of 27,000 killed in one day, with a figure of 300,000 casualties. The French army was reeling, withdrawing back toward Paris, which was the Germans’ objective in this first month of the war.
Apollinaire and his friend the artist André Rouveyre are in Deauville on the northern, English Channel coast of France. The poem doesn’t say, but I’m assuming they feel that the German advance is threatening their location, and so they do what threatened people unsure of the future often too, they head for home, Paris, not weighing that the French capital is the objective of that invading army.
Here’s my new translation of Apollinaire’s “La petite auto” used for today’s performance
That they leave “a little before midnight” is not just an image of imminent dark change, it also may say something of a necessity not to wait, or perhaps a decision that traveling at night, as difficult as it might be with primitive headlights, may be safer under the cover of darkness.
The poem continues with a series of Symbolist images, assembled in whatever order, as a Cubist painting might be. These are not mere inventions. Although expressed symbolically, they are reportage. Indeed, some of the symbolic events which may seem mundane to us in our world, would be accounts of dreadful wonder in 1914: men fighting in the sky, submarine monsters of war—the masters/merchants of war with their opulent and extraordinary wares.
Another feature of this poem is that the text begins to wander on the page and eventually is laid out in a manner that Apollinaire called “Calligrammes” to form the shape of “The little car” of the title.*** I’ve not included that concrete poetry text in my new translation for reasons of length and focus on the spoken potential of the piece.
The poem ends with Apollinaire and Rouveyre arriving in Paris on the afternoon of September 1st. I note the poem says they stopped for a bit in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, which indicates that they took a round-about route that day since Fontainebleau is south-east of Paris though they were coming from the north-west of Paris.
The “mobilization posters” he speaks of that were being put up as they pulled into town tell of the irony of their route to escape the Germans. The German army is now threatening Paris itself, advancing to between 20-30 miles from the city, and legend has it that the French army was able to redeploy quickly by dragooning the entire taxi-fleet of Paris.****
Many of Apollinaire’s WWI generation lived on as forces in my post-WWII lifetime, as still-living actors in the culture, but Apollinaire was not to be one of them. So influential as he was in the early-20th century’s cultural ferment, it could be said that his death during the war was the single most important cultural casualty, more important than the death of promising poets such as Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen because Apollinaire, like another casualty, T. E. Hulme, was more than just a writer, he was a leader and promoter of ideas. You can make the case that his death is the same magnitude as some alternate-time-line where the world lost Picasso in 1918. Or you could make another judgement: he was so effective in the pre-1918 years, and the Modernist urge was so strong and then intensified by a world war that made the old artistic forms seem like a cavalry charge against machine guns, that his continued life was not crucial. That’s a cold debate. His friends sure missed him, and kept working.
Dionysus and Apollinaire.
Musically I’ve had this thought lately that I’ve avoided use of some of my most basic musical genres. And Iggy and the Stooges are the definition of that. They started as an art project, making free-form noise on stage, with Iggy Pop, a converted blues-band drummer as their front man. Somehow they decided that the most elemental and elementary expression, however untutored and unvarnished was the way to go. Iggy Pop’s lyrics were the “Blue Undershirts” of 60s rock, the rejoinder to “you call that poetry.” A song such as “1969” from their debut LP is a bored and hedonistic critique of a year deep in another war, cultural and shooting. Robert Lowell it’s not. It’s really not. No, it’s really really not.
For this performance I’ve enlisted my son, the “in his first year of it” bass player and singer, who from his interest in punk and indie-rock can explore that aesthetic with a fresh set of fingers. Conceptually, this song is inspired by the Stooges “1969” because here we have (with “The little car”) two songs about war across a nation,***** but in my tribute I simplified the Stooges’ typical 3 chord trick into a 2 chord chug. Of course, to my son the Vietnam era is exactly as old as WWI was to Iggy and the Stooges. All wars should be so old.
***E. E. Cummings was heavily inspired not only by Apollinaire’s dropping of punctuation, but his freeness with placement of text on the page.
****The taxis that saved Paris legend may not hold up. But my favorite part of this linked story? The account that the taxi owners kept the meters running and presented a bill to the government after the battle. Paging Joseph Heller or Milo Minderbinder to the white courtesy phone.
*****Or not—at least by intent. On the rattling plastic luggage record players of the time, I always heard Iggy Pop’s opening lines in 1969 to be “It’s 1969 OK/War across the USA.” Some cover versions say I’m not the only one who heard “war” as part of the folk process. The published lyrics and close listening with headphones say Iggy was singing “All across the USA.” Well, excuse me while I kiss this guy. The Iliad was carried by an oral tradition long before it was written down. Regression analysis says Homer wrote it about some sunny Mediterranean partying and dancing. The homoerotic and warfare parts were just misheard by the folks in the back row.
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.
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.
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.
I’m going to take a break from my Dave Moore series today, if only because I rather like this piece I’ve been working on and want to present it to you.
“Fog” is likely the most well-known poem by Carl Sandburg without Chicago in its title, and it appears in many school textbooks where it serves as an introduction to metaphor. The Carl Sandburg who wrote it didn’t intend it to be a lesson. I think he wanted to write a Modernist, Imagist poem, the way a small group of others were writing them in the era roughly 100 years ago.
One thing I’ve learned searching out pieces for this project was that Modernism in its High Modernism guise has overtaken the work done by those preceding Imagist pioneers. As those who’ve visited here during cruel April Poetry Month will know, I enjoy somewhat those knotty, learned, collaged and college-ruled works that T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland laid out. And World War I, we should not forget, was a terrible disaster with near untellable loss of life and loss of hope for its generation. WWI probably had to change things. The Carl Sandburg who wrote his early Imagist poems went about his pre-WWI world with an open heart and open eyes. In his poetry and in his political writing there’s a panorama of evil and survival, loneliness and stubborn love.
So, to reduce “Fog” to a lesson on metaphor is to amputate that context, and to forget the Imagist quest to renovate entirely metaphor as it had been received by Sandburg’s generation. Imagist poems often wanted to break through the fourth wall of metaphor, to make it more than an a decorative, this stands for that, analogy. “Fog” is fog, and the cat is a cat. Yes, they have meaning beyond that, all reality does.
You could start by asking yourself, if this is a real cat then, what kind of cat is it?
A house pet, one used to demanding the pricey wet food and best place on the dry, warm bed? No, it’s on the docks. It could be a ship’s cat, a fellow laborer, or a feral cat making do with what it can find there. It can’t call attention to itself for its prey and its own risk, and so it’s silent—and like its life and labor, obscured by the fog, by the cat’s own actions and the actions of the world. Sandburg sees his worth to see that.
Carl Sandburg at the machine of his labor.
That’s an Imagist poem, a direct presentation of reality, with no false rhymes of conventional or show-off imagery. There’s love and respect in it too, for the working common of us, singing the insubstantial and all-covering fog of our lives and labor, that save for the notice of the poet or artist, is silent and then moves on.
That, dear readers and listeners, is why you should pay attention to Carl Sandburg, who’s nearly fallen out of the cannon of important Modernists and consideration as an important poet, who is, I tell you, as you are, more than an example of metaphor.
Remember back to the formation of the LYL Band were we self-labeled ourselves as “Punk Folk?” Given that folk music by definition doesn’t ask for certifications or approval to be performed, that was something of a tautology. It occurs to me that what I’m doing here with pieces like this, using a string quartet I play part by part along with two pianos (one electric) and a drum set could be Punk Orchestral. My string parts are extraordinarily simple, like unto a lot of downstroke strums of power chords in some Punk.
Decades back, the Pixies helped popularize the Punk soft/loud arrangement, but of course orchestral music did it OG before them, and I exploit that in this one. Some other incidental ideas that helped steer me in this piece came from reading some recent posts at the Brettworks blog, where a more trained and accomplished composer talks about some of his processes and inspirations. Specifically Brett was talking about creating a piano part that had enough space where the various notes could have enough time to express their decay trails. Musically, this piece started by exploring that idea, but then the string quartet decided to kick out their jam.
I peform Sandburg’s words like a stalking cat hunts, sliding forward and stopping, then slipping forward again before pouncing. To hear this, use the player gadget below.
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.
In search of words to combine with music here, I sometimes find it necessary to translate from other languages. Poetry translation involves following strange paths.
Here’s the path I followed to present today’s piece, Jules Laforgue’s “My Poor Bagpipes.” Throughout this month I’ve been presenting parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as part of my celebration of April as National Poetry Month. This causes me to look more at Eliot and where he derived his sense of modern poetry from. Eliot’s own testimony says that a late 19th Century French poet, Jules Laforgue was very important to his own poetics. That’s about all I knew about Laforgue: important to Eliot.
I search and find some Laforgue poems, though only a couple in English translation. Luckily, there’s a site, laforgue.org that has put a great deal of his work online in its original French. I pick out a handful that have interesting titles or first lines and see what rough machine translations will show me.
As I looked at the rough translations I was struck by déjà vu—only in English of course. “Hey, that sounds familiar! I’ve read something like this poem.” In French it was “Poètes a Venir,” and of course it was Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come.” It appears that Laforgue may have been among the first to translate America’s Whitman to French in 1886, while Whitman was still alive. And from his work translating Whitman, Laforgue began to write “vers libre”—free verse, himself, helping to pioneer that idea in French poetry.
“The very illustrious company of the black cat with his famous shadow plays, his poets his composers.” Remembered by its posters long after it closed, the Chat Noir cabaret was a place where music and poetry mixed in 19th Century Paris. A very Parlando Project thing, no?
I will not be translating Laforgue’s translations of Whitman back to English here. I picked his “Air de Biniou” to try, primarily because I was intrigued by the first line “No, No, my poor bagpipes.” I’m attracted to incongruity and black humor, and I kept double-checking to make sure that line’s “cornemuse” in French must mean “bagpipes.” The poem’s first verse seemed to refer to the bagpipes’ famously raw timbre and pitch issues: “everything is a mistake, everything turns out bad” claims Laforgue’s first stanza.
Inserting gratuitous bagpipe joke:
Why do bagpipers walk while they play?
To get away from the sound.
As I worked on it, I had trouble with several words, two or three of which I’m still unsure I’ve translated correctly. This may be a general issue for anyone translating Laforgue, as he liked to play with language and meanings, sometimes using unusual words. But I soon had a more serious issue, after dealing with “occit” in the second stanza. A poet’s images are not his literal manifesto, and irony was part of Laforgue’s stance. In this second stanza he says Nature is a wife the artist will kill. I get his point: the artist thinks they can better the mundaness of nature and create something new and above it. And it’s nature—an inanimate concept, not a person. Yet and all, it’s still a too-casual image of a too-serious and widespread problem, domestic violence, for me to be happy with it. Looks like this is a general issue with Laforgue too. He consistently used images of women, sex and relations with women as a repository for his issues with our biologic nature. In a word: misogyny.
Clearly he’s not alone in this. It could be one of the things Eliot picked up from him too. Like Eliot, he’s not stinting on masculine failures, but this can reveal an attitude that men fail because of their souls while women fail because of their gender. I tried to mitigate that stanza by dealing with another problematic word in it: “carambole.” It’s a word usually used for a particular fruit, but it’s also a bumper pool game, and something like that later meaning I think was what Laforgue intended. I was going to use something like rebound or carom in my translation, but at the time I performed it, I went with a more archaic meaning of the word where it may refer to cannons. At least that put the poet and Nature in a running battle. I may have made a wrong choice there, but that’s one of the things you run into in translation, needing to convey the author’s outlook which may not be your own.
We have little space left to wander more in the twisted paths you find when translating. I think it can be tremendously helpful for poetry composition, because it puts you, hand in hand with another poet, trying to find the right word with the right sound and connotations.
“Je suis bagpiper!” says the man in the center. “Daddy, can we talk about the patriarchy and your intonation issues.” says the girl on the right.
But one last thing, those surreal bagpipes in this French poem. Laforgue’s family was from Breton France. Bretons are a Celtic culture, and yes, they have bagpipes. As to my music here, while I enjoy composing string parts and breaking out the classical guitar, sometimes I don’t want to be careful, I just want to grab electric guitars and bash something out. “Everything is a mistake” says Laforgue. Nonetheless. Use the player below to hear it.
Sometimes the things we present here come together quickly. For example, some of the LYL Band pieces heard here are first takes where the musicians are reacting to the words spontaneously the best we can. Other pieces ask to spend a little time underground to think, like seeds think.
Today’s piece is one of those later ones. Nearly two months ago Grant Hart, a founding member of Hüsker Dü, a Minnesota indie rock group that achieved some fame before breaking up in the late 1980s, died. After Hüsker Dü broke up, Hart had continued working in music and visual art, some of it quite striking, none of it as well-known as it should have been. We are used to stories of a young person whose indie band is on the rise, there is less notice for those artists whose work continues past middle-age. After all, even when there are new levels to the work, there may be no apparent market. While thinking of him, I noticed, strangely, for the first time, that Grant’s name was, in effect, a two-word prayer.
Young musicians, young artists, need will and lot of work to get a chance to succeed.
But at a certain age, they will need even more of that will to continue to make art.
Around the same time, I was talking with Dave Moore (who you’ve heard here, vocally, keyboardely, and composerly) about his household’s garden bounty coming to an end.
These two thoughts combined into the words for today’s piece back in September. And early last month I wrote the music—so this piece has existed, on paper, for a month. I performed it on acoustic guitar for a handful of people in a living room in October. It seemed to work. So why haven’t you heard it yet?
I really wanted to get the performance right. And this month I attempted that, getting as close as this recording. I wanted it to be good, but I didn’t want it to be polished either.
Here are the words to “Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)”
The LYL Band began roughly the same time as Hüsker Dü. We even shared a producer of our first recordings back in the day (Colin Mansfield). But we were much different. We were a band of poets and artists, closer to the Fugs or Billy Bragg than the Who or the Jam. And I was then, as now, not a consistent and confident performer and a problematic singer. That was my problem as a band-member back then. As passionate as I could be in my writing, I couldn’t find the heart to focus that passion on stage, to the detriment of the band.
So, it didn’t take just the two months the song was in process, it took some decades to get close to what this song requires. When you listen to “Garden Elegy (for Grant Hart)” you’ll hear me going for it as best I can, trying to focus passion. About halfway through you’ll hear the body of the guitar bang into the amplifier.
And that’s my prayer for artists today, perhaps your prayer too: that we may be granted heart.
As I started doing some translations of Tristan Tzara, the man who was most famous for being one of the “Presidents of Dada,” I was surprised in more than one way.
Like some writers I’ve presented here, Tzara was known to me only by reputation, as a name, and that reputation was not only as a founder of Dada, but of being the theorist of its most nihilist and avant-garde wing. Dada as Tzara spoke of it seemed to say: let’s destroy everything, and see what remains. Sounds like a pretty fearsome guy, and from my generation’s punk rebellion in music, his reputation reminded me of the those just past the first wave of punk that bought into a first principle of denigrating everything that came before. That could be a useful corrective, a way to clear the creative mind from everything you feel has come to a dead end, whether it was “Tales of Topographic Oceans” or Tennyson; the horrors of WWI or the denigrations of Reagan and Thatcher. Such a stance, pure as it is, has dangers of discarding the baby with the bain-eau.
Tzara also provoked with ideas like his “How to Make a Dada Poem:”
Take a newspaper
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
One can read this and miss the satire in it (particularly that last line); or one can read this laughing, and miss the value in this practice, variations of which were carried out throughout the rest of the 20th Century by Surrealists and Beats and unclassifiable modernists like John Cage. I, myself, independently discovered an analogous method as a teenager, and composing pieces by randomly opening a dictionary and blindly pointing with a finger at word after word. And Tzara did publish pieces that seemed to be just such an assemblage of words and phrases, for example “Bilan.”
Never Mind the Boustrophedon, Here’s a Tzara Poem as published in Dada magazine
Not only is “Bilan” typographically incoherent, the phrases are such things as “the bloody revenge of the liberated two-step” or “satanic horoscope dilates under your vigor.”
I believe this sort of thing can work: as a corrective, as a breaker of writer’s-block, as a reminder of the random and irrational component in creation, and as an insight into the dead and clichéd language which infests all societies. I think it works best in small doses when needed, and longer pieces based on it, or continued reliance on it, can be analogous to over-reliance on laxatives.
So that was the Tzara I assumed I would meet as looked for pieces to translate and use here with music: a man with little to say other than to point out with broken language that language is broken.
And to some degree that was reinforced as I looked at the few English translations available on the web of his work. Occasional beautiful lines, perhaps of accidental beauty, mixed with incoherent lines. Here is a link to an English translation of a Tzara poem “Vegetable Swallow,” though its translator is never credited on the several sites which have it with identical wording. This is the same poem which I use in today’s piece, but with my own translation from the original French.
I’ll talk more about what I found as I translated Tristan Tzara in my next post here, but I’ll summarize by saying that I found problems in the translation I linked to, surprising problems that sometimes feel to me a bit like reading the “bad quarto” of Shakespeare. I could be wrong in my interpretation of Tzara’s “Vegetable Swallow (Hirondelle Végétale)”— I am neither a scholar of Dada nor anything even close to a fluent French speaker—but I don’t even like the translation of the title, though I have kept it, because it may be what an English speaker is likely to know the poem as. “Hirondelle” is French for the species of bird, the swallow. I might have my own inevitable and anachronistic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” connection with the swallow, but in the title’s context along with the English word “vegetable,” one thinks of that scary and prescriptive phrase from childhood: “Eat your vegetables”—not how it’d be understood in French.
Tristan Tzara (on the left, photo by Man Ray) would have suggested a monocle.
In my translation, Tristan Tzara is providing something more like a Surrealist’s Lover’s Rock lyric—more Paul Éluard than Dan Bern hilariously parodying Bob Dylan. Musically, I’m not attempting reggae though. I’m not even sure what genre to call my composition on this one, but it is, like Tzara proclaims, “Swimming in disparate arpeggios.”