Saturday, March 14, 2009

Two songs from 'Technicians of the Sacred'

I am embarked on a sojourn in Los Angeles long enough for me to look up some of the people out here I have thought about for years, and first on that list is the poet, translator, and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg.

It's a trip how I got into Rothenberg. One of my high school buddies, Sean McGovern, turned me onto Rothenberg's 1968 anthology Technicians of the Sacred. Sean is a bright guy from Granite City, but not known for his love of the classroom or of literature. But this book - poetic presentations of world myth and ritual - really grabbed him, when he was assigned it at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

He loaned it to me, his literature major buddy at the allegedly more prestigious Washington University. It changed my life - and my songwriting - forever, much more than my own formal studies had managed to do. Reading these gritty, hilarious, profound probings into the sacred from every native corner of the earth, I wanted my songs to be more like their songs.

So I began setting their words to music. I am still doing so.

Jerry - as his friends know Rothenberg - and I have a mutual friend, in the poet and translator Michael Castro. It slipped my mind to ask Michael for an introduction to Jerry before I got on the plane, though I thought about Jerry during the flight and had every intention of tracking him down once I got out here. I seemed to remember he taught at USC.

My first night in town, I did a studio session at Hollywood Recording Studio with my old friend Meghan Gohil. And what did he leave sitting out on the table for me to notice and take with me? The copy of Technicians of the Sacred I had lent to him!

I suppose it was nothing more than a coincidence, though I enjoy coincidences, and when a coincidence pertains to a collection of sacred texts that has become personally sacred to me, then just try to stop me from taking it as a sign of ... something. Maybe just that I'm on the right path.

That path doesn't lead to Jerry Rothenberg's door, not on this journey. He did invite me to meet with him - but in San Diego, where he teaches at the U. Cal. campus there. I let him know that this trip is all about fulfilling at least some of my outrageous love for Los Angeles, and promised I would make it to San Diego next time.

I also told him I would start posting mp3s of our song settings of texts he had anthologized or translated. Here are two from Technicians of the Sacred - the poems appear a mere eight pages apart in the 636-page tome that is the beautiful (and still in print!) 1985 University of California Press edition.

Free mp3s

"Head in a hummingbird's nest"

Lyrics: Quecha trad., trans. W.S. Merwin
Music: Chris King, Lij
Performed by: Eleanor Roosevelt
Produced by: Meghan Gohil


Lyrics: Alonzo Gonzales (Yucatec Maya), Allan F. Burns
Music: Matt Fuller, Chris King, Lij, John Minkoff
Performed by: Eleanor Roosevelt
Produced by: Meghan Gohil

Both songs appear on Eleanor Roosevelt, Walker With His Head Down (Skuntry, 2007), which is available at independent shops in St. Louis and via digital download.


U Penn has uploaded mps of the 40th anniversary reading in honor of Technicians of the Sacred held at the Bowery Poetry Club.

The signs of a Mayan ritual cycle are from Ancient Scripts.

Quizzical music scene p.s.: My Granite City buddy Sean McGovern who sent me down this path is the front man of Paint the Earth, for many years the most popular cover band in St. Louis. Meghan reports that they now perform their own songs.

No comments: