Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Poetry Scores shown love by Turkish newspaper

Here it is: physical evidence that Poetry Scores is now big in Turkey. There it is, a story about our poetry score to the great modern Turkish poem Blind Cat Black being discussed in the Turkish press.

The notice appeared yesterday in a national Turkish newspaper called BİRGÜN. It comes described as a "left-wing daily" that was "founded in 2004 by a group of Turkish intellectuals. The most important point of the newspaper is that it doesn't have any owners."

Those are our people.

Our main person in Istanbul is the poet Zafer Yalçınpınar, who discovered our project when putting together the first-ever website devoted to Ece Ayhan, author of Blind Cat Black, though we scored the gorgeous English translation by Murat Nemet-Nejat, and we are doing our best to bring Murat with us into the glory days of the Ece Ayhan revival.

Zafer has promised to mail us a copy of the actual newspaper, which will be nice to have indeed, and he may find the time to translate the article so we can understand what those left-wing intellectuals in Istanbul have to say about us.

For now, I actually am just excited to read ".. turkishturkishturkishturkish Chris King turkishturkishturkishturkish Poetry Scores turkishturkishturkishturkish ..." It makes me feel like, I don't know, I did something with my life. That we. Are doing something. With our. Lives.

Zafer also has expressed interest in screening the silent movie we wrote, shot and edited to our score for Blind Cat Black in Istanbul. Lead editor Aaron AuBuchon and I have set aside a month of Wednesday nights in January to do final color treatments and master this thing, and the Ece Ayhan events in Istanbul are in February. So I'd say we have got ourselves a deadline here!

As a little treat for any Turks who find this item and are trying to download and collect all of the pieces from our score that I have been posting up, here is a good one we haven't posted yet! Enjoy!

Free mp3
From Blind Cat Black
Poetry by Ece Ayhan
Translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat
Music by Flatrock
Reading by Pops Farrar
Produced by Chris King
Recorded by Lij
Mastered by Adam Long

Monday, December 29, 2008

Two by Frank Heyer for Sydney Highrise (free mp3s)

Not so long ago I welcomed into the Poetry Scores fold the creative St. Louis musician Frank Heyer. I carried on a little about how well his constructed improvisations fit in with what we do.

My coproducer Matt Fuller has since remarked to me with wonder how much Frank's music sounds like Middle Sleep, a group of improvisers from Lookout Mountain (Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles) active in the early 1980s, that we work into every poetry score.

I have since, under the tutelage of Robert Goetz, got one with and learned how to upload and share the mp of 3 digital audio format. And so at this time I will let you hear for yourself the raw Frank Heyer pieces we will be working into our score for The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray.

Free mp3s

By Frank Heyer

This one will get melded with the poet Les Murray's crazy mushy mouthmusic and who knows what all else - all doing ambiguous battle, at length.

* "Modernity's strange anger"
By Frank Heyer

The last track on the score. The intention right now is to leave this as is. When we get around to making the silent movie to the score (a rube in the city flick, a la Chaplin, in which the city blows up suddenly around his humble shack) this will be the close credits outro music.

Frank made the music and it belongs to him. We're just making something else out of it.


Photograph of Sydney Highrises by Flemming Bo Jensen.

Poetry Scores: we're big in Turkey

Poetry Scores has received its first publicity in Turkey of which we are aware in a poet's blog post dedicated to our work scoring Blind Cat Black by the late, great modern Turkish poet Ece Ayhan, as translated into English by Murat Nemet-Nejat.

The posting is by the poet Zafer Yalçınpınar who discovered our work on Blind Cat Black while putting together the first-ever website devoted to this complicated but important poet, who could be considered controversial due to the attention he pays to transgressive themes, such as drug use and prostitution.

"I wanna thank you for all of your work, material ... and faith for ECE AYHAN POETRY!" Zafer wrote to us. "We are grateful to you."

His posting provides links to 16 mp3s from our score that we had posted up for him, and downloads of the music from our account have been steady ever since.

Evidently thrilled to have found kindred souls in America, Zafer has been promoting us to Turkish underground literature groups ("Karga Mecmua," "6:45," "Kadıköy Underground Poetix") and adding us to reference works devoted to the poet. He also has expressed interest in screening the Blind Cat Black movie that Aaron AuBuchon, Chizmo, Kevin Belford and I made to our score to the poem in an event he is organizing for February.

It's worth noting that after the poem's translator, Murat Nemet-Nejat, gave me a copy of Blind Cat Black (published by Green Integer in a companion volume with Orthodoxies) in the mid-1990s, I reviewed it in the prestigious Nation magazine. This was in the good old days when my editor John Leonard still ran the book pages at The Nation. That review was bootlegged in a Turkish translation and widely read in Turkey, as I learned later when I met and befriended Talat S. Halman, the dean (the god) of Turkish letters.

Poetry Scores is not otherwise a stranger to international acclaim. Our score to Crossing America by Leo Connellan was profiled on the BBC. I expect we will get some attention in his native Australia next year when we publish our score to The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray. Not that our own St. Louis has failed to show us love!


Image of Ece Ayhan from the new website devoted to him, which has lots of pictures of this obscure poet.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Blind Cat Black" as my invisible dog

A man named Zafer Yalçınpınar, a Turkish poet from İstanbul, contacted me very late last night. He and his friends are assembling a website for Ece Ayhan, whose great prose poem Blind Cat Black we scored and released in 2006 with an accompanying art invitational. Zafer asked for an image of the cover of our CD and some information about it. I thought, in addition to sending him what he asked for, I would publish it here as well with a link to his site, the first Turkish website devoted to this complex and important modern poet.

I prepared this essay for a deluxe CD package that we decided to forego, letting the stark simplicity of Julie Doucet's amazing drawings (above) speak for themselves. Many of the embedded links in this essay will pop up mp3s for the part of the score being discussed that you may enjoy or even download and keep, though the CD remains in print and may be purchased from us directly or at most independent shops in St. Louis.

Thanks to Zafer Yalçınpınar and his friends for reminding me that this essay of mine exists and had never been published!


Blind Cat Black as my invisible dog
Ten years and nine lives scoring one poem

By Chris King

This record began when I had no place to be – no job, no home, no binding attachments of any kind, just a battered old Chevy and friends in many places.

One such friend, also free to roam, was Pops Farrar, a retired merchant marine. We ended up, one cold, wet night, on the grounds of an abandoned hippie commune, in central Tennessee. In a cabin home, musicians were improvising on instruments they had made themselves – homemade harps, drums, thumb pianos.

In the atmosphere of a dream, I thumbed through my satchel and laid my hand on a book of Turkish poetry, translated by a rug merchant. I handed the book to Pops, who delivered the poetry, in his Ozark drawl. Someone had a field deck running, capturing sound on cassette. In this strange way, we recorded the opening piece of what would become this poetry score and also “The Secret Jew,” which ends, in Pop’s reading, with the line “the brother of my Ex-Mistress (my Corpse) who disappeared.”

Pop’s voice, and then the music, disappears. There is a page break in the printed text, which Pops apparently didn’t follow, though the poem continues, with a few difficult lines about a “delicate insect-eyed family mask.” I forgot about the part of the poem that Pops forgot about, until I sat down with Adam Long to master this record, nearly ten years later.

One rule we set for ourselves, in poetry scores, is to use every line of the poem, in the order written. Something had to be done with that family mask of insect eyes. By then, Pops himself had disappeared, become a corpse. I called Stefene Russell: cryptic poet, cult film heroine, unpretentious friend. Her voice plugged the hole in the poem, crackling through my cell phone on “That Guy,” over blues licks Tom Hall had originally laid down for the poetry score to Leo Connellan’s Crossing America, which never made it onto that particular journey.

By the time this vagrant record finally consented to be completed, I had many possessions and attachments – a cell phone, a house, a wife, a baby, a newspaper job. The other principals in Poetry Scores who were on the road together when we met Murat Nemet-Nejat, the rug merchant translator poet – Lij and Matt Fuller – would also be more settled, by the time Adam and I assembled a final sequence. Poetry Scores, our hobo phantom of the heart, would be in the throes of incorporation, as a non-profit.

Murat views the poem as an integration narrative, that moves from outcast to citizen, and in fact we followed a similar arc, in the years we wrestled with the score. Some of the poem’s sadness is to be traced, in our productive changes. We cherish our children like the best of fathers, are happy in our homes, and salute the Poetry Scores board, but we miss the days when we wandered the road, with no place to be that was not of our choosing, piled into a car crammed with recording equipment, looking for musicians to breathe sound into poetry.

Lij and I plotted, together, our first poetry score, Crossing America. Matt and I composed, together, the next piece, Go South for Animal Index. It perhaps makes sense that Blind Cat Black, the loneliest poem I have ever known, was left alone, mostly, inside one mind, mine. To borrow an image from the poem, it became “my invisible dog.”

Yet, black cats did adopt us, along the way. The final work done on the record was a car jam of Adam’s master that Lij and I did during a Sunday morning drive, in the wilds of St. Louis County, to a state park on a river. Lij admired the tonal balancing act Adam had managed in the mastering process. On the drive back to my house, we passed a handmade road sign for a lost cat – of course, a black cat. The next line on the poetry score spinning out of the CD deck in Lij’s space barge of a family mobile was “where he secretly escaped, a new self-sufficiency,” as if the poem had suddenly taken on the burden of telling the tale of this stray, black cat we had seen advertised on the roadside.

I fed my invisible dog unlikely scraps, over the years, always trying to finish this thing. Much of the early work was recorded by Meghan Gohil, in a stately St. Louis apartment building. I dragged Pops Farrar and his wheezing concertina over to The Senate, to collaborate with South City raconteur Fred Friction, who doused his cigarette on his tongue as he entered Meghan’s apartment. Tim McAvin wandered through those sessions, then exited my life and stayed gone for years. As we prepared to release Blind Cat Black, ten years later – and, then perform the score, on a Friday the 13th in the haunted month of October – Tim reappeareded in our band, Three Fried Men, a jumble of music and mysteries, with no memory whatsoever of his performances or his one composition you hear on this record.

Roy Kasten and I recorded The Fighting Molly McGuires, a sort of transcontinental roots music supergroup that included All-Ireland piper Michael Cooney. In the session at Roy’s apartment, Cooney unspooled a solo pipes tune. It put me back in Soulard (a section of St. Louis so soused, even its name sounds drunk) in the days when Cooney was the town’s house piper, and the night was longer than it is at present. I thought of a phrase from Blind Cat Black, “from the sea of late hours,” as Cooney played his sea-sick tune. “Your poem is welcome to that particular piece of music,” Cooney said with his gentle brogue, sitting beneath a painting of Cesar Vallejo and an orange.

Lij trekked back into the heart of Tennessee to record a fanciful band, which soon after disbanded. David Jelema, a sophisticated clarinetist, had gathered Nashville’s local pop stars (Sam Baker of Lambchop, Seth Timbs of Fluid Ounces) into a jazz workshop. Hearing the rough gusto of mostly brilliant amateurs, rather than the nuance of a polished ensemble, Lij arrayed microphones to print a scratchy, archaic sound, in a recording that was vintage on the day it was made. That hazy version of David Jelema’s “Blackberry Wine” sounded, to me, exactly like “the marching band of his friend and of death,” which the poem told us we needed to find. We had found it.

I kept a spot in my heart for another phrase from the poem, “bats without wings; wet guns.” I wrote a punk rock melody for it, which I liked, but the poem didn’t like it. After a puzzling series of adventures, involving a baseball mailed back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, I befriended Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Les Murray. When we two pen pals later met up, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Les gave me recordings the BBC had made of him, including a piece written and performed in what Les calls “bat English.” It was perfect for that part of the poem; now, we only needed a bed of music for it – or, rather, a bar of music, a bar from which to hang a wingless bat, upside down.

Matt and I traveled to San Pedro, with the sentimental motive of recording the basic tracks to our next poetry score, Go South for Animal Index, in the town of the late d. boon, bandleader of The Minutemen. We paid a respectful call to Richard Derrick, a former roommate of d. boon’s, who had recently released some of his dead friend’s rarities.

As gifts, Richard sent us away with some other unreleased recordings from his personal archive, experimental rock music from Los Angeles in the early 1980s. One of his projects, called Middle Sleep, recorded on Lookout Mountain in Laurel Canyon, had recorded an improvisation that sounded good for hanging a bat upside down from a snippet. That same piece, played at full length, without distraction of bat English, sounded like madness putting on a porkpie hat. So it became that, too.

All this while, in a garage in Los Angeles, Matt Fuller was playing guitar and recording his ideas. He was recording the promising parts and mailing them to me, on cassettes, which would go into my car, wherever I was going, and my invisible dog went along with me, too. A rock riff got snagged on “Epitafio.” Country jangle slid down “the sewers of my veins.” A squiggly blues figure seeped into “the muddy music of the ink squid.” Adam liked so much the accidental hiss and frizzle from that home recording of Matt’s, on a cheap guitar with a loose cord jack, that he purposefully mastered the track to make these incidental noises muddier, inkier, more squiddy.

Heidi Dean was always on call, whether she knew it or not, contributing the upper register in my mental mix, and eventually in the studio with her own gracious actual person. She drove her two ridiculously well-behaved dogs, Jim and Georgie, down to Nashville, one of the many times we tried to finish this thing. Matt got on a bird from L.A. We all descended on Lij, the only core member of Poetry Scores still making a living off the music industry.

Lij was desperately out of sorts with his job, which is our passion. Lij’s musical contributions to Blind Cat Black date from that dispiriting weekend. When we thought we would be finished, but had barely accomplished anything, Lij took a call from the “It” rock band that was holding him in thrall at the time. The singer belligerently informed Lij that there was too much “breath” in his vocal tracks and that he wanted to re-record everything. Lij’s black mood settled into a deep, dark, hopeless blue, as he set up a microphone to record his own whistling solo on “My Son is a Queen.” This performance expresses exactly what the poem requires at this point: the half-hearted outpouring of a shattered soul.

None of this, thus far, is particularly Turkish. Nothing wrong with that. No transgression in asking an outcast poem to travel outside of its own culture, to swap spit with other misfits. Murat himself remarked, at the outset of this project, on the odd affinity of Pops’ soft drawl for the opaque English language poetry Murat had so painstakingly carved out of Ece Ayhan’s dense and idiomatic Turkish.

Murat’s own furry, mournful, Turkish Jewish voice makes a pair of cameo appearances, on “A flood of first summer” and “Without wings.” Through the Traditional Crossroads record label in New York – run by an Armenian from Fresno with a sacred love for Turkish music – we found Latif Bolat, another Turk, whose Sufi meditations on oud and piano came (again, from Los Angeles, of all place) like a gift from the gods, to establish musically the Navy blue melancholy of the poem’s closing movement, particularly in “This monster traveler in hashish,” “Mitsrayim” and the final piece in the poem, “Ipecacuanha, the emetic.”

In the end, we owe it to the Turks, this sad, necessary feeling, of seeing a friend from a vast distance, after a long, hot, tight time together, knowing your time apart will stretch further into the future than the time together trails behind.


Free mp3s embedded here - I have included the track number on the final score (which has 28 tracks) so you can see what you are and are not hearing.

All poetry by Ece Ayhan.
All English translations by Murat Nemet-Nejat.

2. “Epitafio
(Fred Friction, Three Fried Men)

5. “The marching band of his friend and of death
(Kennebunkport Jazz Workshop)

(Pops Farrar, Flatrock)

8. “That guy
(Stefene Russell, Tom Hall)

(Fred Friction, Three Fried Men)

(Murat Nemet-Nejat)

(Les Murray, Middle Sleep)

(Middle Sleep)

(Michael Cooney)

(Latif Bolat, Gary Haggerty)

(Three Fried Men)

21. "Why the sea rises"
(Tim McAvin)

22. “Mitsrayim
(Murat Nemet-Nejat, Latif Bolat)

(Three Fried Men)

26. “Without wings
(Murat Nemet-Nejat, Latif Bolat)

(Chris King, Latif Bolat, Heidi Dean)

The CD of the score is still in print and available through us and at most independent shops in St. Louis. The book Blind Cat Black (published in a handsome edition, along with a separate Ece Ayhan long poem, Orthodoxies, both translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat) is still in print and available through Green Integer.

In the sewers of Fred Friction's veins, there, a rat

Should you ever have the need to sing about a rat in the sewers of your veins nibbling at the hanging tree in you, or of a charred corpse in your cellar, call Fred Friction.

That's what I did.

I was scoring Blind Cat Black, a masterpiece of Turkish surrealism, with my friend Matt Fuller. It's a book-length prose poetic sequence by Ece Ayhan, translated into English by Murat Nemet-Nejat (a Turkish Jew who lives in Hoboken and sells antique Oriental rugs to support his poetry habit).

And we came across this amazing piece of language! Check it out!


The Secret Jew

Lidless, one of the devils, he is pulling out with my streetcar money. From time to time, going downtown like this, I feel sad and shaky. In the hotel I sleep in his (my Corpse's) bed. When his hair keeps growing jet black like that what is it that my live body begrudges and I try to give to him. With my large beefy hands. A sharp spur. Odor of sulphur. A scarred copper-branded ass. In the sewers of my veins, there, a rat. It nibbles at the town and the hanging tree in me. Crazies, rats, male rats, share (you must share, children) a charred corpse. In the cellar. There were no little words of loving him, these keys on his belt (warden, lover!) couldn't be little cooing words of loving him. I ran away, scared, not to meet the porcelain doll. To meet him. That would be my going back to the Lexicon of Torture. The widow plant of the idiot forests eating up joy, the poppy hatred of seven years, the silk hand with cowhide gloves doling out inheritance. He doesn't want to be buried, he says. He is cold. On the back platform of the streetcar the young devil on fire disappearing. I am picking out my spectacles from the swamps of my envy. After the arsonist’s fire the brother of my Ex-Mistress (my Corpse) who disappeared. He can be recognized by the delicate insect-eyed family mask covering his coarse face. That guy. Why should I sob anyway. He loves easily, passes his hand below the belt of my vault, forgets easily what a secret Jew I am.


We already had the crusty old Ozark Merchant Marine Pops Farrar reading this entire piece live, backed by improvising musicians playing homemade instruments on an abandoned hippie commune in central Tennessee.

And, just like I always say, "Class, it's good when you can get the father of an important indie rock musician with an Ozark drawl, reading Turkish surrealist poetry backed by improvising musicians playing homemade instruments on an abandoned hippie commune in central Tennessee."

But sometimes that's just not good enough! Sometimes, you need more!

See, we have this rule we set for ourselves in scoring long poems. You have to score every word of the poem in the order it appears. But, once you have scored a longer stretch of the poem, you can backtrack along the way and picked up choice bits you have already scored and do something else with it.
How is this for a choice bit?

In the sewers of my veins,
there, a rat.
It nibbles at the town
and the hanging tree in me.
Crazies, rats,
male rats, share
(you must share,
children) a charred corpse.
In the cellar

Yeah! What do you want to do with that? Say, score it as sung text over a twangy guitar figure, and have Fred Friction sing it? Yeah!

So, we did that.

Twangy guitar figure by Matt Fuller, recorded in his sister's garage in Hollywood, sent to me on a guitar tape, set to melody by me in the car somewhere. Singing by Fred and me recorded by Meghan Gohil in the Senate Building in St. Louis, just off Forest Park. Drums, bass, and swirly keyboards added at Lij's Toy Box in Nashville, years later.

Then I went and made a movie to the score, and Kevin Belford made a seriously trippy video miniature to this piece.

Free mp3s for the people:

* "The Secret Jew"
Lyrics by Ece Ayhan and Murat Nemet-Nejat
Music by Flatrock
Performed by Pops Farrar and Flatrock

* "In the Sewers of my Veins"
Lyrics by Ece Ayhan and Murat Nemet-Nejat
Music by Matt Fuller and Chris King
Performed by Fred Friction with Three Fried Men


To commemorate the release of the new Fred Friction debut solo record Jesus Drank Wine, I'm doing a little series of posts devoted to Fred's contributions to Poetry Scores. Also in this series:
Fred Friction sings "Cheyenne" w/ Three Fried Men
Fred Friction and Pops Farrar on backing vocals
Fred Friction, spoonsman, in a jailhouse ensemble


Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Epitafio": Fred Friction's fate in Spanish

Fred Friction wrote me a letter years ago in which he mentioned that he had spent the previous evening "in a roomful of Spaniards and a guitar with a broken string."

The line stays with me, though I've lost the letter and forgotten the occasion for his sending it. Maybe that line is why I thought of Fred when Matt Fuller and I were scoring Blind Cat Black and we needed a singer for a strutting guitar song in which someone's fate is "in Spanish."

The strutting guitar figure originated with Matt, worked out in his sister's garage in Hollywood. The words are by the Turkish poet Ece Ayhan, translated into English by Murat Nemet-Nejat, a Turkish Jew who lives in Hoboken and sells antique Oriental rugs to support his poetry habit.

The piece we wanted Fred to sing is called "Epitafio"; it's the second piece in the prose poetic sequence that is Blind Cat Black.



They came drowned in the afternoon to the blue house on the wharf of brown broadcloth cafes. Her fate was in Spanish.

They are bending their heads again, for their sister, as in the morning. She promised. She will comb their hair and part it in the middle. The deadtangle.

And it is calling them, screaming, screaming, from an alley of card players, a children's game with thousands. The jack is up.

They see it and how they laugh with their enduring chuckles. But they can't join the game. What can one do? Their bundles are being wrapped. They are in a hurry. Rotten ...

Will she appear again before them, the fat woman who wants the hooks and eyes of her winter coat to be clasped, and their sister, also, on the mossy rocky road to Africa?


I liked Matt's sketch on the guitar tape he had mailed me from Los Angeles so much that we used it on the score. Meghan Gohil transferred the guitar track from Matt's cassette into a digital format and we had Fred over for a memorable session in the Senate Building in St. Louis, just north of Forest Park on Union, where Meghan was living at the time (he has since ended up in Hollywood, too).

Fred followed the melody I had written for the song, but paced his vocal differently. It took him a little more time to get through the lyric and he couldn't quite squeeze in the final line of the poem - "Will she appear again before them, the fat woman who wants the hooks and eyes of her winter coat to be clasped, and their sister, also, on the mossy rocky road to Africa?" So our song "Epitafio" trails away on the line "Will she appear again ...?" which I thought was effective.

Since the rules we set for ourselves in scoring poems requires that all of the words be used, in the order they appear, I set the rest of that line to music myself, and we recorded that as the next song in the score, "The Fat Woman".

To finish "Epitafio," we later added Matt on drums, Lij on bass, and the angelic Heidi Dean on backing vocals at Lij's home studio in Nashville. When all of these other elements had the effect of drowning out Matt's original guitar part, we had him layer another guitar track over it, with more distortion. That was the last thing we recorded, in Meghan's studio in Hollywood, which means this track began and ended with Matt laying down the same guitar part in Hollywood, nearly a decade apart, and Meghan recorded sessions in two different states for one two-minute song!

Free mp3s for ya ...

* "Epitafio"
Lyrics by Ece Ayhan and Murat Nemet-Nejat
Music by Matt Fuller and Chris King
Performed by Fred Friction with Three Fried Men

Lyrics by Ece Ayhan and Murat Nemet-Nejat
Music by Chris King
Performed by Three Fried Men

* We also have a rough cut of the corresponding scene from the movie posted up on YouTube. It's crying out for color correction, but there it is.

The Blind Cat Black CD is still in print and available in various independent shops in St. Louis and through us directly.

The photo is by Mathew Pitzer and was taken during the filming of the movie to Blind Cat Black at CBGB, which we conceived of us "the blue house on the wharf of brown broadcloth cafes."

To commemorate the release of the new Fred Friction debut solo record Jesus Drank Wine, I'm doing a little series of posts devoted to Fred's contributions to Poetry Scores. Also in this series:

Fred Friction sings "Cheyenne" w/ Three Fried Men
Fred Friction and Pops Farrar on backing vocals
Fred Friction, spoonsman, in a jailhouse ensemble

Fred Friction, spoonsman, in a jailhouse ensemble

This is a pair of spoons that actually has been played by the great St. Louis spoonsman, raconteur, drummer, and songwriter, Fred Friction. I acquired them one late late night (early early morning) in the kitchen of his former home, adjacent to the former Frederick's Music Lounge, as folks were passing the guitar and telling tales.

When I told Fred I wanted a pair of spoons he had played, he got this pair out of his silverware drawer and gave them to me. When I asked how he could be sure he had played them before, he said, "Give them here" and proceeded to play them for awhile against his spindly leg, before returning them to me.

I would like to think the autrographed diagram of how to play the instrument dates back to one of Fred's epochal "Night of a Thousand Spoons" events in the old Cicero's Basement Bar, and The Skuntry Museum does possess one ticket stub from one of those shows I attended, but those nights were drenched in Jagermeister shots and memory no longer serves.

The white substance on the one spoon, by the way, is baking powder. I thought it would be good juju to use one of Fred's instruments as the prop junky spoon when we were making the film Blind Cat Black, based on the poetry score to Ece Ayhan's classic of Turkish surrealism, which has a junky transvestite streetwalker (played by local hip-hop diva Toyy) at its heart.

Anyone who knows Fred's ouvre as a songwriter will appreciate how very at home one of his spoons must have been in the filming of scenes from the life of a junky transvestite streetwalker!

I can't be certain that these are the spoons Fred performed on the score that Lij and I produced for Crossing America by Leo Connellan, though it's possible. Fred brought his own spoons to the session (at Pops Farrar's house, on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois) and took them back home with him. They may have passed in and out of his silverware drawer over the years until finally passing into The Skuntry Museum collection that early early morning in his kitchen.

Lij and I heard Fred's spoons clacking away on part of the score that deals with the poet's petty jailhouse days in Colorado towns.


Friday night in Colorado towns
helping the sheriff make his count,
he’d work with you all week if you
helped him look ridding the community
of vagrancy and bums when the good
working voters came out to drink
and spend their futility on
draining beers and didn’t want
to stagger against indigents.
So into a cell with the door left
wide open unlocked, as long as
they were off the street, out
of the way provided with cigars
and cards and a chance to read
the paper, rest up for your time
on the town, when Monday morning
came again and none of the
sheriff’s men would do a thing
about your bumming people on
the street, no matter how many
complained, nor would the
sheriff’s deputies do a thing
about your even falling down
drunk of heat any other day
of the week, as long as you didn’t
fall head first through any windows
or knife anyone or do anything
you shouldn’t.

Our work on the score started with recording the poet Leo Connellan reading the entire poem in the basement of Curbstone Press, one of his last publishers, in funky Willimantic, Connecticut. Leo's reading of this section of the poem is one of his more wryly comic performances. I can hear in his voice all of the hard wisdom of the downbeat straggler who knows that cops and street criminals collaborate on the terms of the games they play far more than "the good working voters" would ever guess.

One of our motives in scoring Crossing America was to incorporate fragments of as many forms of American music as possible. For this piece, I came up with a singsongy melody built around the phrase (which would provide the song's title) "Ridding the Community of Vagrancy". The intent was to arrange the piece for a barbershop quartet, and I even made an overture to a local quartet, but in the end we did it ourselves: Lij, Matt Fuller, and myself, with Pops Farrar bopping along with a bass chorus of "bums! bums! bums! bums!"

Fred added his signature spoons to the stew, with Matt adding additional percussion intended to sound like something you might find to beat on in a jail cell, like steel bars, for instance. Lij's harmonica line completes an ensemble of bums you could imagine making do over the weekend in a jail cell "with the door left wide open unlocked," riffraff kept "off the street, out of the way, provided with cigars and cards and a chance to read the paper" and to make a little jailhouse music with their mouths, spoons from the evening mess, and a harmonica produced from a grubby pocket.

To commemorate the release of the new Fred Friction debut solo record Jesus Drank Wine, I'm doing a little series of posts devoted to Fred's contributions to Poetry Scores. Also in this series:

Fred Friction sings "Cheyenne" w/ Three Fried Men
Fred Friction and Pops Farrar on backing vocals

The Crossing America CD is still in print and available in various independent shops in St. Louis and through us directly, though all of the posts in this series have links to free mp3 downloads of a part of the poem and the accompanying movement of the score.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Fred Friction and Pops Farrar on backing vocals

To commemorate the release of the new Fred Friction debut solo record Jesus Drank Wine, I'm doing a little series of posts devoted to Fred's contributions to Poetry Scores.

Fred's is one of many voices in the rabble of a choir doing background vocals to "The Apple Country" on Crossing America by Leo Connellan. Here is the section of Leo's poem we scored:


The apple country when
Sunday smelled of our taste buds,
our loneliness rattled in freight
eluding irises of law men, north
to apple picking and then to pick vines.
There is nothing so wrong as steel bars
on wide open land like daggers in
innocence, a life of jails, camaraderie
with sheriffs tolerantly turning the key
on our weekends because we were not
prison time, but to be yanked out of sight
once our power was in tavern cash registers
and out anguish blew up in the drink.
Staggering behind Sally Tambourines
down your main street. All you saw
was your flag, never the wrecks of men
who were broken in your service or
shook Mamma loose, scattered in
Father dictum “if you do this
you are on your own.”

Now, here is the poet Leo Connellan reading it (recorded in the basement of Curbstone Press, one of his last publishers, in funky Willimantic, Connecticut).

And here is our musical response to this part of the poem, "The Apple Country." I'll have to admit it's not the most amazing stand-alone piece of music we have ever made, but it provides a nice departure in the middle of the long journey of the score, and I like that we arranged it as a worksong to fit the subject matter of seasonal, migrant labor. Call it imitative form, if you will.

There also is quite a bit of music history packed into this tiny snippet of sound. Banging on the piano (with chains draped across the strings) and leading the worksong is jump blues legend Rosco Gordon, the progenitor of ska and reggae. Rosco grew up outside of Memphis and did farm work as a young man, learning and singing the field hollers that formed one of the raw ingredients of the blues - which is why I asked him to sing this piece.

He did it as a favor, but he made a face when I mentioned his past life experiences that made me think of him in this context. I think of field hollers and worksongs in terms of musicology and folklore. This stuff reminded Rosco of racism, long days, backbreaking labor and, ultimately, slavery.

Lij and I recorded Rosco singing and banging the piano in the apartment of Lij's brother, the jazz pianist Nate Shaw, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (just then enjoying the beginning of its hipster revival). We recorded the rabble of a background chorus in Pops Farrar's house on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois, and Pops' old sad sailor voice is in there somewhere, along with Fred, Lij, Matt Fuller, and myself.

It's a small category of people who fully appreciate Rosco Gordon, Pops Farrar, and Fred Friction - all three of them - but those of us in that tiny category have to cherish this ungainly little piece of music.

If you also have heard and dig the call-and-response singing of the pygmies of the Congo rainforest, as Lij and I have and do, then you may also discern a thoroughly unexpected and unintended parallel in the way our voices come unglued at the end of "The Apple Country." Pops called his spread The Belleville Rainforest, so you could call our chorus The Pygmies of the Belleville Rainforest - and drunken pygmies, at that.

The Crossing America CD is still in print and available in various independent shops in St. Louis and through us directly.

The image of Fred has me in the background. We are in the old Cicero's Basement Bar, preparing for the first-ever Three Fried Men gig, which featured Fred on spoons (you can see the set list in my hand if you double-click on the image to enlarge it). My Polaroid of Pops and Lij was taken during the multi-day session when we tracked these backing vocals and, in fact, finished Crossing America.


Fred Friction sings "Cheyenne" w/ Three Fried Men

I have been spending some time enthusing on my Confluence City blog about the new Fred Friction debut solo record Jesus Drank Wine, which I consider essential listening, particularly for anyone who ever washed up in this old river down.

The instinct to spread the word about great art made by an old friend gives me the excuse to devote a little series of posts to Fred's contributions to Poetry Scores. He goes back to the beginning with us. He was a sideman with the band Enormous Richard that turned into the band Eleanor Roosevelt that turned into the field recording project Hoobellatoo that turned into the arts org Poetry Scores. He showed interest in our field recording subjects, especially Pops Farrar, and he has sung on two of our poetry scores, including the first one, Crossing America by Leo Connellan.

Our double-Grammy-nominated in-house producer Adam Long was still working out of Clayton Studios (where he did Nelly's first recordings with the St. Lunatics) when we were adding the finishing touches to Crossing America. Lij and I coproduced that score, and from our earliest notes on what to do with the poem, we knew we wanted to arrange a couple of the more scrappy bits for country-inflected band songs and recruit some great, growly voices to sing them. We set our sights high, at Fred Friction and Brian Hennemann (who was, at the time, just putting together The Bottle Rockets) - and we got them both.

Adam and I tracked Fred and Brian on the same night - a late night, done afterhours, off the clock (we have never had money to pay for anything). Brian was pretty calm, as usual, no work whatsoever, but Fred was kind of high-maintenance that night. He arrived drunk, promptly put out a cigarette butt on his tongue, barfed in the men's room, and then continued drinking - all before we could get him in the vocal booth for his take. Which he nailed.

I'll give it to you three ways. First, the part of the poem in question:

Now, outside that bus station was Cheyenne, see,
but I didn’t go look. I was young and I’d be
back! What could it be but a city with buildings,
because I was on my way to the Dakotas, where I
never got, and the thing that hurts later is that
I was right there in Cheyenne and didn’t stay
awhile and look around. I never got back there.
The bus we rode into Wyoming that time
when I was young pulled in to the run down part
of town. Even the idea of days-old cellophane
wrapped sandwiches for sale in the dirty old
bus station of cows, revolted us. Somebody hanging
around the station, gawky with a blank face, said
that across the street from the station you could
get a real good steak. I really didn’t believe it,
the place looked gray, but it was one of the best
steaks I ever ate anywhere, right across from the
old Cheyenne, Wyoming bus station.


Now, the poet Leo Connellan reading it (in the basement of Curbstone Press, one of his last publishers, in funky Willimantic, Connecticut.

And finally, the moment we have all been waiting for, Fred Friction singing the passage scored as the song "Cheyenne," backed by Three Fried Men (Matt Fuller, drums; Chris King, acoustic guitar; Dave Melson, bass; Steve Rauner, slide guitar; Seth Timbs, piano).

Steve was on loan from Nadine and Seth from Fluid Ounces. We tracked the band and Steve in the old Undertow studio in Downtown St. Louis, and Seth at home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. We crossed America to record Crossing America!

After the session at Clayton Studios, I remember driving Fred home to somewhere in South St. Louis, near some gigantic cemetery, still drinking (both of us) in the early morning light.

The Crossing America CD is still in print and available in various independent shops in St. Louis and through us directly.


Image is of Fred Friction playing spoons onstage with Enormous Richard at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago the night that Operation Desert Storm broke out (January 16, 1991).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Robert Goetz scores Les Murray (x2)

People who wrote songs in collaboration with others, especially long-distance, before the advent of digital recording technology and file-sharing media have memories like mine.

It started with leaving melodies on the answering machines of bandmates. It then progressed through (my favorite phase) receiving guitar tapes in the mail and driving around for months inventing melodies and attaching scraps of lyrics to them. I'm still up for that experience, any time anybody wants to send me a guitar tape, though this blog thing is proving to be a great workshop tool.

Today (Merry Christmas 2008!) I am posting up two songs that are finished and were not written in collaboration. Robert Goetz wrote these on his own when we first started scoring Les Murray's great poem The Sydney Highrise Variations. My gut feeling is that they are done, in their stark simplicity, and will provide two quiet centers to the score. We'll see.

I am posting the recordings here because I can (Goetz showed me my new best friend, and because Robert and I have assembled a new working group of Three Fried Men that also includes Dave Melson, Tim McAvin and Anne Tkach. Whether or not they add touches to these recordings, they'll need to learn them so we can perform them. And now here they are to be learned! We plan, for the first time, to have a working band that performs songs from the poetry score at gigs, which seems to lead, logically, to including a live set at the CD release party and art invitational next fall (which is about to become this fall; yeek).

I am including the fragments of the poem that Robert scored so you can appreciate his artistry in getting some dense and tricky language to fit a melody simple enough to remember and hum. Achieving that feat is one of my favorite things about scoring a poem. I was ecstatic to get these recordings from Robert and am excited to share them now, even out of context. (The titles are hot links to mp3s.)

The starving spirit is fed upon the heart
(Lyrics by Les Murray, music by Robert Goetz)

clearing bombsites for them. They rose like nouveaux accents
and stilled, for a time, the city's conversation.

Their arrival paralleled
the rise of the Consumers
gazing through themselves
at iconoclasms, wines,
Danish Modern ethics.

Little we could love expanded to fill the spaces
of high glazed prosperity. An extensive city
that had long contained the dimensions of heaven and hell
couldn't manage total awe at the buildings of the Joneses.

Their reign coincided
with an updraft of Ideology,
that mood in which the starving
spirit is fed upon the heart.


(Lyrics by Les Murray, music by Robert Goetz)

It rose out of the Nineteenth, steam pouring from venturi
and every man turning hay with a wooden fork
in the Age of Piety (A.D. or B.C.) wants one
in his nation's airline. And his children dream of living
in a palace of packing crates beside the cargo terminal:
No one will see! Everything will be surprises!


I snapped Goetz admiring wine, iconocalsms, Danish Modern ethics and Michael Lynch's illustrated guitar.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rough "Sydney Highrise" sketches w/o Matt Fuller

On Monday the Three Fried Men working group in St. Louis that is tending to the poetry score for The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray welcomed into the fold two musicians: Anne Tkach on drums and Tim McAvin on lead guitar and vocals (and, eventually, organ).

Anne was seen as the major coup. Not so much because I've been playing music with Tim as long as I have been playing music (literally; that's another story), but because the drum chair is so very hard to fill.

My principal songwriting partner, Matt Fuller, is a drummer, and a very good one, so I am hard to please on drums. Matt lives in Los Angeles, so we have no choice but to find a local option if we want a local working group. The original Three Fried Men used the great jazz drummer Billy Teague, but Billy moved to Tennessee.

When I moved back home to St. Louis from New York, I started a new version of the band for one reason only - I saw my old friend Hunter Brumfield jump up onstage at a Nadine reunion show (where the drummer was late) and play perfectly tasteful rock drums, much to my surprise (I knew the guy as a rapper). But then Hunter killed himself.

I next asked David A.N. Jackson to replace Hunter on drums, and David is a magician - but, unlike the rest of us, he makes a living off of his art, and I really don't want to assume the burden of trying to make money playing original music in St. Louis.

So Three Fried Men went dormant. And then Bad Folk broke up.

Most people in the St. Louis scene would understand this to be a bad thing, and I am not rejoicing at someone else's loss. However, I have heard Tim Rakel's new project with Brien, The Mayday Orchestra, and it's the best thing he has been a part of (to my ears). And, then, there is the phenomenon of Anne Tkach, suddenly being a little more available to play in another band (for example ... mine!) - which is, to me, a very great thing.

She fit in perfectly and instantly. Immediately, we recognized we would be able to put together a set of songs from the Sydney Highrise score by Wednesday, February 18, when Michael Friedman will be in town (venue to be determined; Anne's other other band, Rough Shop, also on the bill and backing up Michael).

Coproducer, audio engineer for the working group, bassist and sideways-at-the-omnidirectional-mic vocalist Robert Goetz showed me how to upload mp3s to be shared; so, by golly, here are our first roughs from our first session with Anne (and Tim; except he and I were born joined at the musical hip; another story).

* Hot air money driers
(lyrics by Les Murray, music by Matt Fuller and Chris King)

* In the land of veneers
(lyrics by Les Murray, music by Matt Fuller and Chris King)

* Six hundred glittering and genteel towns
(lyrics by Les Murray, music by Middle Sleep and Chris King)

No duh, but like, uh, click on the titles to hear the mp3s. These are rough mixes of rough sketches, but we were satisfied - especially for a first rehearsal.


The image is of Matt Fuller tracking drums in the living room of the late Pops Farrar's old house, working on the Eleanor Roosevelt record Water, Bread & Beer which (gasp) we actually plan to finish this year, too. Note sophisticated sound separation of drums!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Spend your money on Poetry Scores stuff

It's possible to be a little torn this holiday season over the annual riot of consumerism that somehow mysteriously is meant to honor the birth of Christ. Speaking for myself alone, Barack Obama's election made me more proud than ever to be an American, and Christmas shopping is the American way; however, the unregulated bailout of the financial sector makes me more ashamed than ever to be a tax-paying, goods-buying capitalist.

All that said, we got stuff for sale! And anybody with stuff for sale at this time of year is supposed to remind people that they have stuff to sell! Here is our stuff!

I remember putting copies on consignment at:
Firecracker Press, 2838 Cherokee;
Vintage Vinyl, 6610 Delmar;
Euclid Records, 601 East Lockwood;
Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road;
Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid; and
Apop Records, 2831 Cherokee.
What they don't have, we do.

Go South for Animal Index - a poetry score CD setting to music the atomic bomb poem by Stefene Russell, enfolded in an art book with prints by The Firecracker Press and essays by the poet and coproducer Chris King (that's me). Featured artists: Three Fried Men, Middle Sleep, Amy Camie, Heidi Dean, Richard Selman, Christopher Y. Voelker.

Nailed Seraphim b/w The Epileptic Camel Driver Speaks to a Refugee Death: Elegy for Fakin' Floyd Raintree - a two-faced art book of poetry by K. Curtis Lyle with two poems, each with a print by The Firecracker Press.

Blind Cat Black - a poetry score CD setting to music a Surrealist Turkish streetwalker poem, with cover art by the great Julie Doucet, printed by The Firecracker Press. Featured artists: Pops Farrar, Michael Cooney, Fred Friction, Three Fried Men, Les Murray, Middle Sleep, Heidi Dean, Tim McAvin.

Crossing America - a poetry score CD setting to music the poem by Leo Connellan, with cover art by the great Michael McCurdy. Featured artists: Dave Stone, Eric Markowitz, Brian Henneman, Fred Friction, Three Fried Men, Nate Shaw, Chuck Hatcher, Heidi Dean, Pops Farrar.

Other stuff I have a hand in that I tend to drop off for consignment when I drop off Poetry Scores stuff:
Rosco Gordon, No Dark in America - last record by a legend of the blues; coproduced by Lij and me

Pops Farrar, Memory Music - Merchant Marine songster from the Ozarks sings, plays and muses; produced by me

Two Eleanor Roosevelt CDs - Crumbling in the Rain and Walker with His Head Down. Roots rock with lyrics from world folklore.

My chapbook of poems, A Heart I Carved for a Girl I Knew, by Chris King

Buy! Buy us! Buy us now! And if you want any of this stuff and can't find it, or would rather cut out the middleman, then email me: brodog [@]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fun with words: 'background vocals'; 'session beers'

Our work last Monday on the poetry score to The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray in Robert Goetz's home recording room (Studio Hate?) was a lesson in vocabulary.

We did a little bit of singing. Robert, Dave Melson, and myself all did some singing. On one take, I was supposed to be doing the lead and Robert was singing background vocals. We were trying to record the room sound, with both vocals going into the same microphone and onto the same track, for atmospheric effect.

Robert was standing at kind of an odd angle, and closer to the mic than me, for no great reason, that's just where he was when we ran through the session again. We listened back, and he was too loud in the mix. I suggested he move behind me - into the background.

The background. Vocals. Like, the background ... vocals. Background vocals. Now, I get it!

We also did some beer drinking. Poetry Scores' double-Grammy-nominated mix and master guy Adam Long brought me back a raft of New Glarus beers from his recent northern sojourn to his home country of Minneapolis. I thought I should share them. I shared them. We split each beer three ways.

These were beers ... for a recording session. Session ... beers! Like, session beers!

Actually, that's spurious etymology, since a "session beer" (to fancy beerhounds like us) is a beer you can drink any time and more than one of, a so-called "lawnmower beer," and New Glarus ain't that.

But, still, fun with words! That's what Poetry Scores is all about.

Anthony Brescia readies homebrew for Jon Cournoyer

Anthony Brescia, that beautiful man, has made good on his offer of a case of customized homebrew, which Jon Cournoyer bought on live auction at the Poetry Scores 2008 Experiential Auction, held at Atomic Cowboy.

Anthony writes to Jon:


There is a case of beer for you here in the manager’s office at the Schlafly Tap Room. The bottles with letters on the top signify the vanilla chocolate porter; the bottles with plain caps are the wheat wine. Realize that 3 or 4 bottles of the wheat wine might make driving fun, difficult or unwise.

Also regarding this beer, the longer it sits the better the carbonation will be. Id est*, if needed a few could be opened around Christmas time, but the longer they sit the better. The VC** porter might go well with some spicy foods, and certainly cookies, cakes and chocolates/truffles. (Also with the VC porter, one might open it over a sink, as a few have been overcarbonated. Both of these beers can “breathe” and drinking either at 45 or 50F is not a sin.)

Otherwise, simply a sipper. Likewise for the wheat wine. A winter warmer for sure, but it might go with duck, some cheeses, lamb, or whatever you see fit***.

Supply me with feedback if you like and at your leisure. I hope you and yours enjoy it. Cheers, and thanks for supporting the arts.


Note that the auction item proper was a customized case of beer brewed for the occasion and labelled in a custom manner, but Anthony offered a mixed case of previously brewed beers and Jon said that would be jasper dandy. As for the labels, Jon designs the fabulously gorgeous books published by The Saint Louis Art Museum, so we will trust him to brew his own labels. The beer, we understand, is bound for his father.

Anthony Brescia was recently inducted as Poetry Scores' house translator for beer, wine and spirits. We will be consulting with him soon regarding a beer to brew in response to The Sydney Highrise Variations, by Les Murray, which we are scoring for 2009.

*** NOTES ***

* Id est, Latin for "that is"; Anthony is really, really, really, superlearned.

** VC, "vanilla chocolate," not "Viet Cong".

*** Whatever you see fit, id est, I, Anthony, know a lot more about this than you do; however; I recognize that the less supelearned have free will to make their own inferior decisions regarding food/beer pairings.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fragment of a faded rose from a brokenhearted girl

This is a detail of the latest addition to the Honest to God Art Collection in The Skuntry Museum, which I curate in my basement (and in whatever other slivers of the house my wife will let me encroach upon).

It's untitled, or if it's titled the title is unknown to me. It is found art, but since Rick Hawkins found it, framed it, and presented it as art, I suppose he gets the credit for it.

It was given to me this week by a mutual friend, who gave up on a long-distance relationship with Rick (who lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee) some time ago and couldn't get over the sadness of having his art in her house.

I am posting this up on Poetry Scores, rather than on my personal blog, because Rick contributed a companion piece from the same series to the 2oo6 art invitational for Blind Cat Black that we curated at Mad Art Gallery.

The pieces in this series are relics of very old wallpaper that Rick found (I hope I am remembering this right) when stripping the walls of his house. He found a certain haunting beauty to them, and those who have seen the pieces tend to agree. (I remember Stefene Russell being especially struck by the piece he contributed to Blind Cat Black.)

I can't remember what Rick titled the Blind Cat Black piece, but the poem has a flower vendor in it (played by Jason Wallace Triefenbach in the movie) and a great deal of elegiac floral imagery, so Rick would have had plenty of titles to choose from.

Blind Cat Black is written (in Turkish by Ece Ayhan; translated into English by Murat Nemet-Nejat) in a fragmented, layered style, which made it fitting to have a fragment of a buried layer of wallpaper as a contribution to the art invitational. A scrap of buried, disintegrating wallpaper also befits the mood of the house imagery in the poem, such as "My Aunt Sadness drinks alcohol in the attic," a line that provided the name for the character Stefene portrays in the silent film.

Rick was one of the earliest contributors to Hoobellatoo, the field recording project that spawned Poetry Scores. He documented one of our earliest journeys, and met and photographed many of our now-deceased subjects, such as Nymah Kumah, Leo Connellan, and Rosco Gordon. He partakes of a particularly soulful human type that is one of my favorites: the Southern white guy who "gets it".

Note to self: Get Rick involved in next year's invitational. Get Rick to come to St. Louis for the show. More Rick, not less.

Rosco Gordon prospecting for grave dust

Poetry Scores grew out of a field recording project called Hoobellatoo, which had evolved from a rock band called Eleanor Roosevelt. The Hoobellatoo recordings were made by three of us from Eleanor Roosevelt: Lij, Matt Fuller and myself. We specialized in rather old people, which means as reasonably young men we ended up with a lot of dead friends.

It's been an adjustment. Vic Chestnutt (with whom I have a number of mutual friends in Athens, Georgia) once sang, "All my friends are off in the graveyard." When I hear that line, it has the capacity to make me stare off into space and think for a long time.

This experience is complicated - for me, it's enriched - by the fact that several of our subjects who are now friends off in the graveyard held articles of faith that upheld the value of ritual contact with the dead. Our first subject, the West African musician, wise man and clown Nymah Kumah, grew up in what he described as a Stone Age culture that venerated the dead as ancestors and believed in the transmigration of the soul, values that I (for one) came to share.

Rosco Gordon, whose record No Dark in America was one of the last things we finished as Hoobellatoo, grew up in the African Diaspora of the sharecropping American South, outside of Memphis, in the Mississippi Hill Country. (As a child he actually picked cotton - didn't appreciate the memory.) Up to his last day, Rosco held fast to certain African animist remnants of rural African-American culture, stuff that got swept up into blues lore and have been sung about by infinite bar bands who had no clue whatsoever what they were singing about, really.

Lij recorded Rosco's last sessions without me present, down in Nashville, though I remained updated throughout and was reporting back to the other people in the project via email. I recently came across this note, of Rosco searching for a root doctor and grave dust between takes in Tennessee, in an effort to undo what he considered to have been a curse laid upon his heart.

It sounds quaint. It wasn't. I saw him through several dark nights of the soul over just the same pain. I also knew the woman who broke his heart. Rosco saw heartache through the prism of juju, of voodoo. As we might say, using a similar metaphor that has lost its capacity to horrify, it hurt him like hell.


Rosco Gordon in Nashville: a session note
By Chris King

Rosco Gordon is in Nashville tonight, tracking with Lij. They are working in Lij's home studio with a crack band of local musicians: Ken Coomer (drums), Warren Pash (bass), and Joe Pisapia (guitar).

Ken and Joe are known to many in the indie rock scene – Ken was in Wilco, Joe fronts the band Joe, Marc's Brother. "He doesn’t like this to precede his reputation," Lij says of Warren, but Warren wrote a song none of us ever got out of our heads: "Private Eyes," recorded by Hall and Oates.

Last night they laid basic tracks for "Now You're Gone" and "There's No Dark in America," the post-9/11 tune that Rosco and I wrote together. Rosco has been suffering from a terrible writer's block and has asked me to bail him out of several jams. It's damn pleasant, let me tell you, sitting with a living legend, sipping a dwarf Budweiser, scratching lyrics.

The session has been hindered by another suffering our man has been going through. Lij has been driving him around local graveyards looking for some juju to throw off something a troublesome woman put on him just before he left New York.

"She put the bug on me!" Rosco just told me, using Lij's cell phone as they returned from a futile juju run. "I'm not supposed to feel this way about somebody like that. I can't remember my name!"

Confusion and suffering belong in these songs. Lij just played me their last take last night of "Now You're Gone." I heard Rosco singing,

There's no sunshine in my life
Nothing but heartache in this life
Now you're gone

And he sang it like he meant it, his heart on the line.


Memories of Rosco and Nymah make me want to spend a weekend in Nashville going over our

old source recordings with Lij and finding snippets of song and voice from our dead friends that we could use in future poetry scores. That would be a collaboration across the grave that anybody could appreciate!

Photograph of Rosco at his last session by Rick Hawkins.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rest in peace, Rosco Gordon, seed of reggae

Almost completely hidden on our first poetry score, Crossing America by Leo Connellan, is one of the most influential songwriters and musicians of the 20st century: Rosco Gordon. He clanks on Nate Shaw's piano with chains draped over the strings, and he sings a fragment of Leo's poem ("The apple country") that I had set to music as an old worksong chant.

Rosco is well known to historians of the blues and Americana, in part because Sam Phillips recorded him just before there was a Sun Studios. There is a photograph of Rosco posed with a very young Elvis Presley in the very early Sun Studios days, and the amusing thing is the picture was taken at the insistence of Elvis, then an unknown raw kid, who wanted his picture taken with the great Rosco Gordon, who already had had a No. 1 hit record.

But that doesn't account for Rosco's claim to the first ranks of musical influence in the 20th century. That claim is based on the world dominance of reggae, certainly one of the century's most popular worldwide musical forms, and one solely traced to the jerky rhythm that came natural to Rosco Gordon when he played the piano.

I am not making this up, it wasn't my idea, and it has been proven to me as methodically as anything has ever been proven to me.

When Rosco died, Lij and I were in the middle of making a record for him (which later appeared on Dualtone as No Dark in America; every home should have a copy). This gave Lij and me the distinction of having recorded Rosco Gordon's last session and eventually producing his last record.

Two Jamaican deejays doing the show Midnight Ravers on WBAI, the New York City Pacifica Radio affiliate, knew about our record because they had Rosco on the show once a year to talk about this backbeat of his that transformed the music of their home island, and eventually the world. When Rosco died, they had me on the show to talk about the record and Rosco himself, who was the best man in my Queens County Courthouse wedding and a dear, dear, dear friend.

On the show, these deejays played some of Rosco's early hits - "Booted," "No More Doggin'" - each followed by a string of cover versions by Jamaican artists. Their presentation showed what happened to Rosco's backbeat on the island - the musicians sped it up to get ska, and then slowed it down, to far slower than Rosco ever played it, to arrive eventually at reggae.

I'll never forget one of the Ravers, Terry Wilson, trying to convince me of the importance of this musician who had been my friend, first and foremost. "Rosco Gordon was not the root of reggae, man," Terry said. "He was the seed!" Emphatic as only an island man can be, when he's not sure you are following him, Terry went on to say, "You understand, the seed is primary to the root. Rosco was the seed."

American copyright laws, like so much else about this country's structure, have a British model (and probably a French model before that, since the Brits steal from the French only slightly more than they disdain them). This means you can copyrights words and melody, but not a rhythm, not a beat.

In traditional Africa, as Nymah Kumah explained to Lij and me, every tribe has a distinctive beat: you shall know a person's culture by their rhythm. An African-derived copyright law surely would respect the right to claim a rhythm and would have enriched Rosco to Beatles-like proportions. But the folks with the distinctive rhythms in their heads didn't get on the ships to America carrying the charter documents (or if they did, they were classified as cargo, like the charter documents), and they weren't allowed to help write or even read those documents until they were all done deals.

Now that I've arrived at transatlantic slavery, I'll move onto another tragedy, the death of Rosco and his funeral, which I attended. Rosco died with his bags packed for a gig in Green Bay and was discovered days later. It was a terrible situation. It affected me for a long time afterwards.

It's no consolation, but a curiosity, that his funeral landed me in both the documented history of the blues and a Martin Scorcese film, as the services were shot by Scorcese's documentary crew and people who have seen the documentary series (I haven't) and who know what I look like have seen me standing near Rosco's grave in one brief scene.

I had never heard of a blog at that time, but I wrote and emailed the following note to other people working on our project that day. Rest in peace, Rosco Gordon, seed of reggae and my good friend.


Burying Rosco
By Chris King

I said goodbye to Rosco for all of us just after noon today, when I laid a yellow rose on his casket. We put him in the ground in the Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, N.J., beside his second wife, Barbara.

The wake and service were held last night in a small funeral home not far from Rosco's apartment. I brought a jambox, and we played Rosco tunes until the preacher got started. The mourners were mostly family, a West Indian deejay and a film crew making a documentary about Memphis blues.

Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King sent flowers, though in the end Poetry Scores did not. I reflected on Rosco's priorities and our poverty, and decided he would prefer to see our money go into his music.

The gravity of the ceremony was thankfully broken by the choir, which was just awful. I kept thinking what Rosco would say to hear these off-key, tuneless droners as the opening acts at his last gig. I imagined him cussing and plugging his ears inside the closed casket.

There was an interlude in the service when everyone was welcomed to speak. Lots of memories of getting calls in the middle of the night to hear the rough draft of a new tune. The deejay gave a sharp summary of Rosco's musical importance as the progenitor of reggae. I shared Rosco's favorite prayers (Psalms 45 and 71) and remembered something Rosco said when we first met him.

Lij and I had asked him how he stayed sane knowing people had stolen all of his songs. "They stole my songs," he said, "but I'm just happy they left me." I reminded everyone that, in addition to his songs, we all still have Rosco.

I know it's selfish to miss him. When I read Rosco's unpublished memoir, I asked him why it dwells on his early tours. "Music has always been my baby," he said, "and I had the light on me at the best time in my life – when I was young. Now, it's a business. Now that light is awful."

Stage light had become hateful for a sick man who once lived to play music. I'd like to think he is now singing and dancing and doggin' in a different light.


Photograph of Rosco at his last session by Rick Hawkins. Rosco's memoir still unpublished but in my possession!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

He's a real nowhere fish from a real nowhere creek

This animal is not the Las Vegas Dace, but rather the Speckled Dace. Unless there is a picture out there somewhere that even mighty Google can't find, the Las Vegas Dace vanished from the Earth without leaving behind even an internet avatar.

This is an extinct species from an extinct habitat - the Las Vegas Creek. He's a real nowhere fish from a real nowhere creek. St. Louis songwriter and musician Mike Burgett has adopted him and will write and record (hopefully, with his band The Lettuceheads) a song setting to Stefene Russell's poem "Las Vegas Dace" from her evolving poetic sequence, The Extinction of Species.

Get it? An evolving sequence about species that flunked the final exam of evolution? Making all his nowhere fish plans for nobody.

I did find crappy black-and-white images of our guy in an online archive of a 1984 publication about the species (Rhinichthys deaconi) by Robert Rush Miller. Talk about dancing on a fish's grave! The author is crowing "new species here!" when the fish he is naming is long gone, along with the creek he rode in on.

"The last known collection of the Las Vegas Dace was made in 1910," Rush Miller writes. "The fish probably survived in one of the springs and outflows until 1955 to 1957, when the policy regarding the amount of water that could be withdrawn from the artesia basin beneath Las Vegas was drastically changed. It was extinct before 1967."

I was born in 1966. Dude was checking out right about when I was checking in.

He made it from glacial lakes dwindling all the way down to a desert creek only to be done in by unrestricted groundwater pumping to flush casino toilets and launder sheets soiled by tricks.

I can't figure out how to get these crappy images of our nowhere fish off the Pdf of the publication, so I'll just share some of Rush Miller's descriptions. Prose snapshots of a nowhere fish.

"Head cone-shaped, snout blunt; mouth terminal to subtermirial, slightly oblique; mandible relatively long, its proximal tip lying below middle of pupil, its distal end with a strong symphyseal knob."

He was a conehead with a blunt snout and "a strong symphyseal knob" (or maybe he was just glad to see somebody). We're also told they had "rather chubby bodies," "a moderately large and often oblique mouth," and other common "characteristics of desert spring isolates."

A chubby conehead with a blunt snout, a typical desert spring isolato.

Colors? Nowhere fish had colors. Sure.

"Color: Life colors, as noted in the field by Carl L. Hubbs for UMMZ, were as follows: males with orange in axils of paired fins and along base of anal fin; those with strongest tubercles (extremely developed males) had this color extended backward to base of caudal fin, which commonly was orange near its lower edge. Some with red suffused over abdomen and an orange fleck at upper edge of gill opening. The general color in both sexes was olive, with blackish markings around scales near middle of body (back and sides); dorsal black spots often tend to occur, one per

Olive with splashes of orange and red. Like some tropical martini, smudged with black, for that desert isolato look. "Isolato. Why won't you come to your senses? Come down from your fences? Open -"

Oh, and how about home sweet home? That extinct habitat of his?

"Today, nothing is left of this spring-fed system but a hole in the ground with stagnant water at the bottom."

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except for the creeks and the desert spring isolatoes. They vanish into oblivion.

We can't save them. Maybe we could have - royal we; species we - but we didn't. At least we can remember them. Mark Stephens, on another extinction, Max Potts: "I'll try to bury you the best I can in the words of a song."