Saturday, December 19, 2009

Letter from Les Murray on our Sydney Highrise score

Let's face it, it's not the response one might have hoped for, but Les Murray has responded with a letter from Australia in response to our score of his long poem The Sydney Highrise Variations:

Dear Chris, my Egyptian son,
Thanks indeed for Sydney Highrise. Interesting! The music does fight the words more than somewhat, at times. But it's all up in the air now, even more than when we recorded the thing; I mean the future of poetry, performance, publication.
He goes on to ask after my daughter - my wife was very pregnant with Leyla when Les visited our house in New York - to extend holiday wishes, and to explain in brief the poem on the other side of his handwritten note, which ventures to answer the question posed by the opening line: "Why write poetry?"

He signs, "Les, of the Bowels" - a reference, I take it, to the drawing of mine on which I had inscribed my letter to him that accompanied the score. I had drawn a cartoon of Oliver Cromwell speaking a line that, in The Sydney Highrise Variations, Les said Cromwell never thundered: "After all, in the bowels of Christ, this is the seventeenth century!"

As for his salutation ("my Egyptian son"), I sign my drawings, as I had explained in my letter, with the Egyptian hieroglyph for son, which my Aunt Dorothy once described as "a duck getting hit in the butt with a stick".

Why score poetry? Not to please the poet, thank God. Poets know their own poems so intimately and have such a deep set of private and aesthetic associations with them that it's hardly fair to expect that a musical setting of a poem will please the poet.

Still, of course, one might have hoped for something better than "the music does fight the words more than somewhat, at times". But Les is an honest man, and given his eloquence and capacity for detailed description, I should be thankful that he kept his criticism as brief as he did!

After reading his letter, as soon as I could I gave our score a fresh spin, listening throughout for a fight between the music and the words, and I still don't hear it. I am still very satisified with our work.

I am also happy that Les was alive to hear the finished piece, whether or not it pleased him. When we started scoring poems, we took our good, sweet time, separated as we are in four separate cities, with no organizational structure or budget. It took a long time.

It so happens that the first two poets we scored, Leo Connellan and Ece Ayhan, died while we were working on the scores. I will admit, at some point we began to feel like harbingers of a curse. I can't tell you how much of a relief it was when the third poet we scored, our friend and colleague Stefene Russell, was still drawing a breath when we finished Go South for Animal Index.

Les was next, so we are now 2-2 in poets surviving being scored by us, and 1-1 in our approval ratings from the poets who actually lived to hear the score. (Stefene loved the Go South score and reportedly wept to hear it.)

The translator of Blind Cat Black, Murat Nemet-Nejat, lived to hear our score of the poem and was enthusiastic about it. Since we scored Murat's English translation of Blind Cat Black rather than Ece Ayhan's Turkish original, I am going to go ahead and bump our poet approvals rating up to 2-1, our poet survival numbers to 3-2, and decide to feel good about where we are.

Though I do agree with Les - it is all "up in the air", the future of poetry. That is one of the reasons we translate it into other media - to help it survive.


Sydney postmark from the New South Wales archives.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Drinking with Jack Ruby's Girls and Michael Cooney

I wrote this I don't know how many years ago, but it is all true, still. And looooog ...

I thought of Pops Farrar, unavoidably, while driving into downtown Belleville, a place given a convincing lick and promise since I had seen it last. The pub where the lads were playing was just around a handsome roundabout that circles a grand, phosphorescent fountain.

As I entered the pub, the only vacant table was stage-right, just off Pat Egan's strumming elbow. Or, rather, it was the only vacant chair. Opposite me at the table was an older man, who looked lost in his cups, though he wasn't drinking.

The remarkable thing about him, in addition to his odd half-slumber, was an item of clothing – the garish, orange, reflective vest of a roadman on the night shift. (I guessed that he walked home late from bars and wanted to be seen by the drunks operating motor vehicles.) Every so often, he would seem to wake and would shake his fists furiously in rhythm to the music.

I had been telling people for days, and I firmly believed, that there would be no better music performed on Earth that night. Michael Cooney, the keeper of the Irish pipes; Tom Hall, a redheaded piece of the St. Louis blues; and the mournful Irish songster himself, Pat Egan.

As the bartender, Bobby, a veteran of the late-'80s McGurk's glory days, said at the end of the night, "It's like having Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis together."

I was happy to be alone, or alone with your man in the glowing vest, because that left me free to read in the bright pub as the music swirled madly.

I had in my clutches Jack Ruby's Girls, an intimate portrait of the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, written by two women who had worked in Ruby's Carousel Club, Diane Hunter and Alice Anderson. The book was a key source for the poet David Clewell in his composition of Jack Ruby's America, which we are scoring.

Jack Ruby's Girls was published by a no-name press in 1970 and is long out-of-print. My reading copy came courtesy of Esme Green, chief librarian for The Skuntry Museum, Library & Beer Cellar, rising bibliographic professional in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, and distant descendent of the Donner Party named for a character out of Salinger (her brother, necessarily, is named Holden).

As I adored my pint of Guinness, perfectly formed, with a foamy, golden brown head and oil-black body, I thought of Esme's husband, Chris Perry, a man born for a perfectly poured Guinness and Belleville's fiercest known admirer.

Perro (as we call him) loved Pops Farrar as much as any of us, having camped out at the old man's spread on the edge of town during a memorable visit to the Lou. Oddly enough, his favorite baseball player, the journeyman Brian Daubach (who was a fan favorite at Fenway over a few productive seasons), is also proudly a Belleville native.

So, as I sipped my pint, I was alone and not alone. I was there with the cry of the pipes, the ghost of Pops nodding calmly under a fishing hat, and Perro and Esme laughing at the thrilling changes in the reels. And Jack Ruby's girls were whispering in my ear.

Their book is a dead-on portrait written in the dead-eye prose of a 1960s Dallas striptease joint. I was reading it to see what I could learn about Ruby's "orchestra," as he called the Carousel Club's combo of "usually four or five pieces," which we hope to recreate for our poetry score to Jack Ruby's America.

The authors identify no players by name, but I did learn that Ruby once lost his left index fingertip to the teeth of a musician from his orchestra, which soured him on the musical tribe. Musicians got the least of his respect after that. The only player even identified by instrument in the book is a drummer, who was ordered to help Ruby drag from the club a loudmouth he had knocked cold.

Apparently, Ruby was a poor judge of talent, especially of dancers, his club's bread and butter, though his inabilities in this regard were captured with a musical metaphor. "Theatrical agents told one another that Jack Ruby couldn't distinguish a flute from a curtain rod," his girls wrote. So, a certain ragtag character to our reconstructed Poetry Scores orchestra might be considered authentic.

Two clues to repertoire and arrangement emerged. Andy Armstrong, the Carousel Club's bartender and de facto manager (a black man, by the way), used to whistle the "Dixie" theme to alert a favorite waitress to the presence at the bar of a sucker with a fat bankroll. Evidently, our poetry score must include "Dixie," whistled by Joe Jonas, the elder statesman of the Dallas blues who contacted us about Rosco Gordon – and who, it turns out, gigged at the Carousel Club as a youth.

The authors also tell the strange story of a dancer who was able to move her breasts independently of one another and with the assistance of no other body part. She was quite a smash at the club.

Eventually, Ruby (remember his tin ear for talent) had her attach a bell to each of her breasts and try to play "The Eyes of Texas" with them. While replicating the exact logistics seems uncalled for, "The Eyes of Texas" arranged for two bells seems fated for some seamy moment in the poetry score.

I soaked in these ideas, along with hours of soaring pipe melodies and a string of pints funded mostly by the musicians themselves, who treated me like visiting royalty. Between sets, they also inspired me to imagine lines for Two Birds in a Field, the play about the plight of the modern itinerant folk musician that Cooney has commissioned me to write.

Michael Cooney (in Act I, after a long stretch of mutual kvetching about how hard gigging musicians have it): So, why do we do it, Tom?

Tom Hall: “I don't know. Do you want to go back to bartending?”

Cooney: “Why, no. It's the wrong side of the bar.”

Hall: “All I have to do is picture myself back at The Orphanage. Where I tended bar. Not my first.”

Cooney: “Bartending job?”

Hall: “No, orphanage.”

Cooney: “You don't mean it ...”

After the last set, Tom Hall pulled me aside. "If you really want to do this play thing," he said, "you have to interview us both about how we met and everything."

"So," I said, "how did you meet and everything?"

"I don't remember," Tom said. "All I know is I always hated Irish music. I hated it. I couldn't tell where one tune started and another one ended. And it didn't have a backbeat. It was just, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. It was ... so white. Then I was stoned one time with Alice (Spencer), when the (Geyer Street) Sheikhs were still together. And I heard Cooney play a slow air. And I saw it just coming out of his pores, the music. And then I got it. The Irish are the black people of Western Europe."

As we joined Cooney at the bar for last call – "last call" being an extended and fuzzy phenomenon after a session in an Irish pub – a third role wrote itself into the play.

A very drunken young woman from the pub's staff greeted Michael, saying, "Are you Michael Cooney? The Michael Cooney? The person I have been answering the phone for all week? 'When is Michael Cooney playing?' 'When is Michael Cooney playing?' 'When is Michael Cooney playing?'"

I had worked the room a bit that night, trying to sell CDs for the lads, and I had seen her, off-duty and partying hard, seated far from the music, which her table seemed to be ignoring. It was name magic, not music, that brought her to the piper.

Cooney guiltily let himself be paraded to her table and fussed over and made to sign autographs for an entire table of drunken young women. A couple of pints deeper into the last call, the girl who had been answering the phone all week took to calling the great piper "The Coonster."

You devote your life to a few hundred melodies that somehow stayed alive God knows how many centuries in the Sliveardagh Hills of County Tipperary, and you end up "The Coonster" to drunken American youth simply because the pub phone rang off the hook for you.

So Cooney and Hall will be joined in Act I ("A Nervous Waltz") by a young stewardess, and in Act II ("I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave") by a young barmaid, played by the same actor. Her youth, energy and innocence could provide a comic foil to the bitter wisdom and exhaustion of the musicians. I am thinking to imagine her as a hip-hop head, for whom Tom Hall's blues are just as "white" and foreign as Irish music.

When "The Coonster" had escaped back to the safety of the men at the bar, he floored me.

"Chris," he said, "about Sunday night."
We had planned a solo recording session with Roy Kasten for that time.

"I heard every word you said about what you want to do. And I agreed with every word of it. And I have too much respect for what you are trying to do to give you anything but my best. And, geez, Chris, I don't play on Sunday nights. I work all weekend, and then I don't play on Sunday nights. I'd much rather come over to your museum, have a bit of that African moonshine, and talk creatively. I don't want to rush it. I want to come back to town later just for this purpose. I want it to be after a tour, when I'm really ready, I want to have fresh reeds in my pipes, and I want to have it all worked out with you beforehand."

I could see that he was gravely concerned that he was letting me down, but just the opposite was true. I rejoiced at the seriousness with which he was taking one of my longest-standing musical fantasies (along with writing and recording a pop record for Elton John): recording a Michael Cooney solo record. Just the pipes, with the drones represented as forcefully as the reeds, so that the drama between the drone changes and the melodies – which Michael has mastered, and his mastery of that drama is what makes listening to him play such a seasick experience – can stand forth in their full complexity.

And to hear Michael Cooney talking with such gravity about visiting The Skuntry Museum!

I tried to share with him my happiness, fumbling all over myself.

"Thanks, Chris," Michael said, in turn. "You see, I've got to be careful with the music. I don't only represent myself. I represent a lot of other people as well."

That would be the best mission statement of the traditional musician I have ever heard.

A bit tipsy now, from Guinness and the respect of Michael Cooney, I decided to hit Tom up again on the way out the door for another long-deferred dream of Roy's and mine: a Tom Hall solo record. I told him what great sounds Roy has been getting with other artists, like Palookaville.

"Let me finish my blues record first," he said, as he has been saying for five years. "But I want to do it. I keep thinking about it. All originals."

"All originals!" I said. "What's the title?"

"The Life and Times of Huckleberry Jesus," Tom Hall said, as he began to gather up all his gear at the end of another gig.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cesar Vallejo plays the piano keys of my soul

My vocation these days is to set long poems to music. The organization I cofounded to accomplish this work, Poetry Scores, has projects planned and in the works for years to come. We have many needs, but a new long poem to score is not among them.

Yet and still, I am always reading poetry, and when the poem is a long poem, I listen in my inner ear for the sound of music, always prepared to conceive of a new poetry score.

This past weekend, I heard that music. It hit me as hard as music has ever hit me when I was reading a poem. The long poem that sang to me is called "Trilce" by the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, in Clayton Eshleman's most recent translation.

I was reading at a brewpub on a wintry Saturday afternoon, which may be my favorite thing on Earth to do. My family was in Jefferson City for the weekend, the Missouri state capital, which is a bit depopulated on weekends - especially when the Legislature is not in session. That's when we find this central Missouri city a comfortable place to disappear.

In the hotel bed, I had been tangling with Vallejo's first book of poems, "The Black Heralds," without really getting anywhere. I took the end of that book, in The Complete Poetry, as a good spot to stop, shower, then pack off to lunch at Prison Brews, the new brewpub down the road.

And it was there, slumped over the bar with a Double Deuce Ale, that Cesar Vallejo began singing to me, as soon as I cracked the spine on his second book (and the last published in his lifetime), "Trilce".

I say Vallejo sang to me, but not really. It was actually the same multifaceted orchestra that always sings to me, the same odds and ends that always work their ways into our scores, the trusty piano keys of my soul: I heard Heidi Dean singing rapturously, a sad wash of slightly amateurish brass, our scrappy indie rock songs, Richard Selman thumbing mbira, Amy Camie thrumming out lush harp lines, Adam Long sawing cello, and a Babel of varying human voices.

Since we won't get to this score until 2013, at the earliest, after Jack Ruby's America by David Clewell, Incantata by Paul Muldoon and Give by Alice Fulton, I look forward to spending the next few years trying to reassemble this orchestra outside of my head.

"Trilce" is a sequence of 77 poems, and we can fit just about 77 minutes on one CD, so the challenge suggests itself: to construct 77 musical miniatures of one minute each.

Back to The Minutemen! As always.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Poetry Scores talks business with Lola van Ella

I had lunch today with the one and only Lola van Ella. The hardest working girl in St. Louis burlesque is collaborating with Poetry Scores to add a showgirl dimension to our 2010 score, Jack Ruby's America.

The subject of David Clewell's poem, Jack Ruby, owned a Dallas nightclub at the time he shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead in 1963. His nightclub, The Carousel, featured showgirls - it was a burlesque club; in the language of Clewell's poem, a "burleyque".

Since Clewell is local and St. Louis has a thriving burlesque scene with an intelligent and collaborative character like Lola in it, I hit upon the idea of performing our score live with the poet, a jazz trio, and Lola's burlesque act.

I sent Lola a link to videos of burlesque at The Carousel back in the early 1960s, and that caught her attention. Over lunch today at Mangia, we more or less sealed the deal, with only dates and details to be finalized.

The idea is for Lola to work out a routine to the musical interlude that will follow the movement of Clewell's poem that relates most directly to the showgirls at the burleyque, "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl: November 21, 1963". Today Lola was telling me that burlesque in Dallas back in the day was "very bump and grind," so we can expect from Lola something very bump and grind, which is sure to disappoint no one.

On the CD to the score, we will follow Clewell's reading of "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl" with a fragment from a tune by The Kennebunkport Jazz Workshop, which will be titled, on the score, "You twisting in the wind" (a verbatim quote from the part of the poem that precedes it; this is a formal rule for titles of instrumentals on poetry scores).

When we perform the score live, Lola will materialize on stage as Clewell sounds the title of his reading, "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl". She will interact with the poetry, not the poet, while Clewell is reading. Then, the band - The Dave Stone Trio - will hit; and Lola van Ella will bump and grind.


"Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl: November 21, 1963"
David Clewell
(Recorded by Roy Kasten)

"You twisting in the wind"
The Kennebunkport Jazz Workshop
(Recorded by Lij)


Photo of Lola van Ella from her Facebook page, by Michelle.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with His Sister

V / Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with
His Sister, Telling the Truth as He Knows It:
Parkland Hospital, December 31, 1966

So ask me how many times did I know anything, really.
in this life. Ask me did anyone ever bother handing over
anything I could use. These days almost no one recognizes me.
Up here on the sixth floor, I’m Jack Shit in a bathrobe.
And the doctors making their hypodermic rounds are claiming
everything’s for the pain, as if that’s what they’re trying to get rid of.
I’m not supposed to realize they are delivering more of the cancer
because obviously someone out there still thinks enough of me
to want me gone, especially now with my conviction overturned.
and instead of getting the Chair I’m down for a new trial out of town,
somewhere that isn’t Dallas. These last three years that’s all
I’ve asked for: let’s go someplace else and talk. I should live
so long. I’d say a few things so good, they’d stay said that way
forever. Three years go by, and I’m not your same brother. I’m related
to history now, condemned to keep repeating myself until someone finally
listens. I want to put things right. But not here.

After that sorry Oswald collapsed, I admitted doing it
to show the world that Jews have guts. Or to spare the widow Jackie
another trip to Dallas.
At the time, I was shooting for impulsive
or sympathetic – reasons enough, it turns out, to convict me anyway.
But now someone’s decided anything I said clearly should have been
inadmissible. My lawyer Belli tried to sell the jury I’m a victim
of psycho-something epilepsy – all you need to know is blackouts, Jack.
Hell, I wouldn’t buy that myself is Jesus Christ was giving it away
on the courthouse steps. It took the jury less than an hour
to figure of course I’m guilty, and what else could they say.
No one in that courtroom was expecting an order of death, but that’s
what the jury recommended. I could have gone for something lighter
that early in the morning. Death seemed a little much.

Real guts would have been telling Marcello’s guys to shoot their craps
in hell when they called me of all people, wanted me to know
some unsuspecting putz I’d never heard of in my life had failed
to leave the country fast enough or else –
by sheer coincidence, you understand – get taken out himself. Instead,
he’d been brought in by the wrong cops, unexpectedly
alive. Lee Fucking Oswald – another one of history’s three-name nutjobs.
And I could feel it slipping away, that moment
he was still their unfortunate problem more than he was mine.
They were thanking me already for remembering who
I should gladly thank for being still alive in the nightclub business.
And this is when I figure out what’s going on for myself: it’s not
some half-cocked flake on the loose by himself in Dealey Plaza.
And this is when I know I’ve got to take the play. If I don’t,
all kinds of things get taken from me, fast.
And I know people in this town who would never be able to get enough
of that: Yessirreee . . . hitting a Catholic boy’s not bad at all
but can we still get us a Jew?

I came out of fucking nowhere,
and I’ve been working my way back ever since. But there’s no way
I’m about to die even close to guilty in the eyes of the law.
I’ve been reversed for two months now, and it’s as if what happened
never happened – my part, at least. I’m almost beside the point.
I said it before: I’m history. I’ll stay written down forever
in the Warren Commission Report. Twenty-six books it took those guys
to dish out all the bullshit required to conclude what they already had
in their made-up minds to begin with: Oswald. Only Oswald.
Once they’ve got that down cold, the Ruby, only Ruby part’s a snap.

I’ve got my own Magic Bullet Theory, and this one you can take
to the bank. It’s not any single shot zigzagging through Kennedy
and Connally, opening seven wounds and breaking bones along the way
before finally emerging as Warren Commission Exhibit 399 when it’s found
hours later, pristine on a stretcher here at Parkland.
My theory says
it’s the bullet all of us have to bite, sooner or later, like our lives
depend on it – a kind of making do, getting by this shaky way
or that, even if we’d rather not. It’s nothing that goes through us
and comes out clean on the other side. It’s whatever we have to go through,
ourselves, at midnight or high noon. With no one watching.

And when a few minutes go by, or days, or years of actually feeling
free, in the clear, like we’ve dodged another round of trouble and maybe
we can get back to business as usual: here comes that unmistakable bullet
with our name on it again. Just like in the cartoons, now it’s changing
directions, about to hit us one more time in the ass. And that means
one more time we’ll have to swear we never saw it coming.

So Happy Fucking New Year, Sis. How about you try the Ritz
or maybe Phil’s for some pastrami, corned beef on rye with a few extra
kosher dills. Bagels and cream cheese, lox and green onions. I say
bring it all on. This is still America, last time I checked,
and who knows. Maybe I’m still strong enough to keep a lot of it down.
You tell them you’re there for Jack Ruby. And how much
I appreciate that. Tell them make it lean, because Jack Ruby did everybody
at least one favor in his life. Tell them what I told you:
more than ever, I’m history. But I was there for them, too.
And if your order’s not completely on the house after all of that,
you tell them, if it’s not asking for too damn much,
for all the business your brother’s done his part to keep them in,
maybe he could get finally a little credit this one time.
Only make it sound better, OK? Make me sound better. Not so small.
You’re so good to me, it hurts. Play it however you want to,

but you never even thought about any of this, let alone discussed it
with me or anyone else, until you saw that, to your surprise,
they were still open on New Year’s Eve. And you walked through the door.


From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

The Difference a Day Makes (part 4)

IV / The Difference a Day Makes
(part 4)

This morning Jack’s getting in free. When he arrives
in the basement garage at 11:19, he hears a car horn honking
from the top of the exit ramp its shave-and-a-haircut, two bits.
A phone call goes up to the third floor, where Oswald’s squirming
Into the sweater he’ll wear for the transfer: everything’s in place below,
it’s time to put this show into motion. But truthfully, so much is utterly
out of place: reporters are hopelessly mixed in with the police,
who are supposed to fall into a protective human corridor formation
when Oswald’s finally escorted to what they’re calling the getaway car
for his painstaking ride back to Dealey Plaza and the county jail
twelve risky blocks from here. And that car’s nowhere in position
at the bottom of the ramp, but Jack is: no badge, no press credentials,
but he’s on official business nonetheless, and the cops have let him
get this far at least in this roughhouse ballet of synchronized movements.

This is going like dimestore clockwork:
Oswald’s coming down in the elevator, Jack’s moving along the railing,
one hand in his pocket, the other at the brim of his fedora.
The klieg lights have cast everyone down here in their most unflattering light,
and Jack’s trying hard to concentrate on his small piece of the action.
He’ll only have a single take to hit his mark, deliver, and get lost.


And Oswald’s off the elevator, headed toward the cameras.
He’s walking Jack’s way, expressionless,
a detective on his left arm, another manacled to his right wrist
and it’s just a crazy, fleeting though, but Jack can’t help thinking
what a sharp cut of cream-colored suit the handcuffed detective’s wearing.
The gun’s out of his pocket by now and he’s pushing irretrievably forward
a few more feet until there’s nothing between himself and Oswald
in his crummy thriftstore sweater that can possibly save them.
And Jack’s holding his arm straight out as if he’s about to hand over
a gift or ask for an autograph, but instead there’s this irrevocable
pop as he unloads his single shot at point-blank range.


Two men have just gone down so close together in the crowd that at first
it’s hard telling who’s who, but one of them is smaller, down for good.
They’re giving him artificial respiration – the worst idea in the world,
considering where that sudden bullet’s lodged. They’re doing their best
to restrain the other man, giving him some half-assed third degree,
as if he’s really listening. The last he knew, he’s among friends here.
He’s pissed they’ve knocked him down, and where’s his fedora, this isn’t
the way he pictured it going. They’re treating Jack Ruby like a perfect
stranger in their midst, and there’s a sickening feeling coming on
strong in Jack’s stomach, too. He’s only trying to get away
with the rest of his life, but not so fast: there are still too many
questions, and no one’s going anywhere but down again today.


V / Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with His Sister


From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

The Difference a Day Makes (part 3)

IV / The Difference a Day Makes
(part 3)

The good people of Dallas are going to church or, forgivably,
staying home this one Sunday to watch the TV coverage of America’s
ceremonial grief. Today the cortege will leave the White House,
making its darker, anti-motorcade way up Pennsylvania Avenue
to the Capitol Rotunda. There’s not a chance Jack’s staying home
to be any part of that. He waited hours by his phone for someone to call
this whole thing off, but he’s long gone now. He’s been to Western Union
wiring money to his pregnant dancer in Fort Worth. The entire Carousel crew
except for Jack is out of work for the weekend, and Little Lynn especially
could use the tiding over. Jack’s hoping to use his generosity later
as the reason he’s downtown at all coincidentally with his cash
and a loaded gun. Wherever he is right now, he’s only protecting himself.
He’s carrying two thousand dollars. He’s wired Lynn twenty-five bucks.
His Western Union receipt says 11:17, and he’ll say he wasn’t even thinking
about the police station one block away until he finished his transaction
and figured it was Sunday, what the hell, he had a little extra
time to kill and his surplus curiosity and how’s he supposed to know
that the ballyhooed 10 AM transfer of Oswald from the city lock-up
to the county jail had been delayed. Let them all think Jack’s too late
for any premeditation. This is his only chance: it’s got to play out
as a stroke of dumb luck – good or bad, depending as always
on where you’re standing. Spontaneous is the word he’s looking for.


Jack’s walking down from Western Union to the station right now.
The Preludin he’s swallowed no doubt quickens his step. He’ll be there
in ninety seconds. Not that Jack really needs the extra stimulation,
but for months he’s been telling his doctor all the good it does him:
I’m a positive thinker. I don’t have any inferiority, and my reflexes
are fan-fucking-tastic.
And Jack is positive no one’s going anywhere
quite yet. Finally there’s a party in Dallas that won’t be starting
without him.
He’s wearing a white shirt, black silk tie, his best
charcoal-brown suit, black shoes, and grey fedora. Pretty spiffy
for nothing more than a casual errand. He knows exactly where he’s been
headed all along. This is one of Jack’s special detective get-ups.
He read a sidebar in yesterday’s paper: in 1901 the Buffalo, NY police,
worried about a hostile crowd, sneaked out President McKinley’s assassin
by dressing him as a cop. Surely Jack can turn that around with ease.
He’s practically an honorary cop already, so what
could it hurt to take that approach himself today, sneaking in.

Appearances are deceiving, but only if you’re willing to work at them.
Jack bathes and shaves twice daily. It’s like getting one more crack
at the same gritty day. He pampers his skins with lotions and creams.
He swims and works out when he can at the Y. He’s always operated
on the notion that what’s on the outside makes or breaks a person.
in this world. What’s inside may be an entirely different story,
and even that one changes a little every time it’s told.


What’s inside Jack’s white, two-door 1960 Oldsmobile this morning:
two sets of metal knuckles, the holster for his pistol, a paper bag
stuffed with another thousand dollars, a stash of unpaid parking tickets.
Several white handkerchiefs, for the show of sweat Jack always manages
doing the simplest things. A white bathing cap, a left golf shoe,
a roll of toilet paper, one can of paint, a Lo-Cal chocolate shake.
Days of newspapers full of Kennedy’s impending visit, but folded open
to the pages with the nightclub ads. A notebook listing the names
and numbers of cops with lifetime free passes to the Carousel.
And Sheba, Jack’s beloved dachshund, who goes everywhere with him –
to work, back home, to favorite all-night restaurants: I call her
my wife. We argue and we make the hell up
. She’s his stroke-of-genius
ace in the premeditation hole: no one would believe he’d ever leave her
waiting in the car unless really he had no idea what he was about to do.
Part of him doesn’t believe it himself, and it’s all he can do to walk away
and not look back.

But the main thing Jack hopes anyone would notice
is the snazzy wash-and-wax job. As far as he’s concerned today,
anything beyond that is one else’s business. Anybody’s guess.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Difference a Day Makes (part 2)

IV / The Difference a Day Makes
(part 2)

Jack’s too wound-up to sleep. His heart is thumping to a tune
he can’t begin to carry. Especially not here at 4 AM, but at least
Friday’s over in America. Officially, it’s a new day that finds jack
in the main office of the Dallas Times Herald, showing off
his latest sure-fire get-rich-quick scheme – the Twist-erciser,
a five-dollar exercise gimmick based on what’s left of the dance craze:
a platform the size of a bathroom scale, set on seventy ball bearings.
Jack steps us, and he swivels. He shimmies. He’s turning in every
direction at once, a squat 180 pounds of wobbling, centrifugal force.
He’s trying to get dibs on its national distribution,
so are there any questions he can answer, how many are they good for.
He’s in a crowded, smoke-filled room again, but this time Jack
is the only reason. These people need some kind of relief about now.
A few of them are laughing until they hurt, until it only looks like
crying. They never knew what this guy was going to think of next.
And Jack’s laughing too, like there is no tomorrow. He needs buyers
right now for whatever he’s selling. He can’t keep spinning this way
forever. Another night’s taking a sharp turn into the next morning
in the middle of his life, and Jack’s still going.
He’s hanging on. He’s trying not to lose his balance.


Jack’s collapsed on his living room sofa
in whatever version of sleep shear nervous exhaustion allows him.
Something happened this Saturday afternoon that turned him around
and upside down, bringing out the hangdog he keeps shut up inside
his garrulous, showboating self. He hasn’t done anything yet,
but he’s hiding out finally where no one would ever think to look.
Jack Ruby is unbelievably home, and he’s holing up here until morning.

He shouldn’t have answered the phone ringing off the hook at the Carousel.
He was only there because where else is he supposed to be.
This time the police were looking for him. They were actually asking
for the pleasure of his company. They were passing down the word
that sounded suspiciously like the word that sent him from Chicago
to Dallas in the first place. And Jack has forty thousand reasons why
he’ll still be good enough. If he doesn’t get it done, he’s as good
as dead, he’s got a feeling, stranded and uncelebrated forever
in Dallas. Maybe this can be at last his parting shot, his ticket out.
With no warning, he’s in way over his head. But he’s in, goddamn it,
he’s in.
And in a flash he sees who the cops are working for.
He can only imagine the months of rehearsing that went into this
One Show Only in Dealey Plaza. The only flub, apparently, was Oswald,
who never understood his part to begin with – one more hapless actor
asking whoever’s directing What’s my motivation? Now he’s absolutely
off the script, and who knows what he’ll say with the cameras rolling.

So here’s where Jack comes in: last-minute bit-part addition, a walk-on
to end all walk-ons. And he can be a real quick study when he has to.
It’s the weekend’s sudden acceleration: in a matter of seconds Jack goes
from knowing zero to knowing just enough to be dangerous tomorrow.
He’d rather be smack in the middle of another Carousel Saturday night,
bouncing some unruly asshole down the stairs if he had to, OK,
but that guy would always manage to pick himself up off the ground
and get on with the rest of his no-account life.


Jack’s turning over and over in his sleep. There’s no way he’ll ever
get comfortable tonight. Maybe it’s just another bad dream: this owner
he knew years ago from a competing club is slashed bad in a fight.
Jack hustles down to Parkland again to donate some of his own blood.
And when the guy wakes up, there’s Jack at his bedside,
shaking his head and whispering Well, I guess we’re partners now.
Jack’s always taken pride in working alone, but he can’t tell
if the Jack in the dream is only kidding.
And it’s getting all mixed up
with the episode of Gunsmoke on the TV Jack never turned off.
Now he’s in a crowded saloon, pushing past Marshal Matt Dillon
and his gimpy-legged deputy, Chester B. Goode. He’s looking around
desperately for the high sign from some flunky at the bar, but
before the bad guy of the week can make it through the swinging doors,
Miss Kitty smiles and drops her skirt, and everyone in the place can see
she’s packing enough heat to kill any man several times over. And Jack
is sweating a lot by now. He’s reaching deep into his pocket
for one of his Carousel cards. He need a new headliner with genuine
star power, some undeniable class, and they should discuss what’s possible
after whichever one of them gets to Oswald first.

This whole thing
could turn out all right, he’s guessing. In the bargain there’s a chance
he could be treated like some kind of hero. And he’d be saving Jackie
the emotional expense of coming back to Dodge for the trial. He can almost
see it now: there goes the Chicago Cowboy riding off into the credits,
heading north again into a long winter of television snow.


IV /The Difference a Day Makes (part 3)
IV /The Difference a Day Makes (part 4)
V / Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with His Sister


From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

The Difference a Day Makes (part 1)

IV / The Difference a Day Makes
(part 1)

You guys all know me. I’m Jack Ruby.
– to the policemen who wrestled him
to the floor after he shot Oswald

You can get more out of me. Let’s not break up too soon. I have been used for a purpose, but it can’t be said here. Unless you get me to Washington, you can’t get a fair shake out of me. Dallas is a homicidal town.
– Ruby, to Earl Warren

When the motorcade hits Dealey Plaza, Jack’s five blocks away
at the Dallas Morning News, placing an ad for the Carousel.
He’d be at the parade, but he’s already pushing the paper’s
Friday-at-noon deadline, and these days he has to pay up front
for everything. In the composing room a portable TV can barely contain
the breaking news. Jack can’t believe anyone would whack a president
in this kind of broad daylight.
He’s stunned but undeniably
excited, racing to Parkland Hospital. He’s always known the shortest route
to any spectacle in Dallas. There’s bound to be some serious actiongoing down there, and he wants to be one of the first to find out
if Kennedy’s going to make it. And if not, should he close the club –
it would be the gentlemanly, graceful thing to do –
and for how many goddamn nights?

He’s there in time to hear the doctor pronouncing death. A black eye
for the city
, Jack says to the man standing next to him. And why
does it have to be the weekend, when things are smoking most
in his business? A Saturday is worst of all to lose.
His ad’s already paid for, true, but surely for Jack Ruby
they can turn it into something more respectful: Closed or In Memoriam.
Whatever’s classy. He’s up to his neck in this historic moment:
no club he’s put over half his heart or money into voluntarily
has been dark for even a single night. He hope those unpatriotic
Weinstein brothers in their greed stay open for everyone to see.


It’s way past dark when Jack makes one of his trademark stops
at Phil’s Delicatessen: a dozen corned beef sandwiches, a dozen
bottles of celery tonic. He’s jawing to the counterman: In my mind
suddenly it mulled over me that the police were working overtime
So to speak. An impossibly detailed description of the suspect,
Oswald, was circulating scant minutes after the fatal shots were fired.
Seventy-five minutes later, he’s hauled out of a movie theatre,
a matinee showing of Audie Murphy’s War is Hell, and this day in Dallas
has been that kind of war: president assassinated, governor wounded,
a mail-order rifle and shell casings found in the Book Depository,
an Officer Tippit gunned down miles from Dealey Plaza, supposedly
with a mail-order Smith & Wesson .38 in the hands of this scrawny,
omnipresent 24-year-old ex-Marine. And something about Russia
and Fair Play for Cuba, and Jack is still waiting for his order
and thinking out loud it’s in-fucking-credible, how fast
they’re fitting all these pieces together. How much news there really is.
And foot soldier Jack wants in before this war is over. He’s not too proud
to buy his usual position up at the front line. From way back
he’s been an enlisted man with a bad haircut, but he can dream,
can’t he: No shit, it’s been a nightmare, Phil. And my goddamn feet
are killing me
. He means this day in Dallas. How it just doesn’t quit.


Jack steps off the elevator at midnight, and cockeyed luck is with him:
he’s being swept along through the crowded hall to the Dallas PD’s
basement assembly room where Oswald’s about to be put on display
so the rumors that this prisoner’s been in any way manhandled
can be laid to rest. In this blur of wingtip shoes that’s passing
for history’s forward momentum, no one’s about to stop Jack Ruby.

In his dark suit and customary snap-brim, Jack could almost be
a plainclothes detective. He’s standing on a table in the back,
craning his neck, making notes like a reporter. He could be mistaken
for either one, and for the moment he’s having it both ways:
the time of his imaginary life. He’s correcting the district attorney
who’s just mentioned Oswald and Castro and a “Free Cuba Committee” –
that’s Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Don’t these guys ever listen
at least to the news? And now comes his first good look at Oswald
himself: he seems so small, so lost in the crowd, as if
he’d be a lot happier right now giving a souped-up Chevy the gas
and gunning down Main Street until there’s nothing but the day ahead.
Even his matter-of-fact I’m a patsy is all but swallowed up
in this ricochet of questions, the crossfire of self-congratulation.

And no matter where he finds himself, this is Jack’s time of night.
A few more minutes, and Oswald’s gone. Show’s over, but Jack
is in no big hurry to leave. He likes being awake at this hour
with his usual roll of cash and loaded snub-nose in his pocket.
And this evening’s no exception. Yes, he should be considered armed
but not real dangerous tonight. He’s pressing the flesh
with the out-of-town reporters, handing out his “Jack Ruby, Your Host
at the Carousel” calling cards, and they should try to stick around
a few days, he can make it worth their time. The drinks are on him
when the club reopens, when all the Dallas hoopla finally dies down
and Jack can make it his business again to give folks a little
something they can’t get at home: a taste of pizzazz and a shot
of hubba-hubba
. And when the reporters ask can they quote him on that,
he says of course, he does it all the time himself.


IV /The Difference a Day Makes (part 2)
IV /The Difference a Day Makes (part 3)
IV /The Difference a Day Makes (part 4)
V / Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with His Sister


From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

Jack Ruby Talks Business with the New Girl

III / Jack Ruby Talks Business with the New Girl:
November 21, 1963

I will say this only once to you, I promise: business
is business. It’s nothing personal. All business
is good business. You heard of selling the sizzle,
not the steak? Be sure you’re only sizzle. Nothing but.
They’re hungrier than that, they can beat it somewhere else.
I run this place so clean, some nights people hear it squeak.

Smile all you want, but no life stories, ever. I never knew
a smile that hurt, but keep your real name to yourself.
And when you hear whatever name you’re going by tonight,
it’s your turn to dance. And you dance. With class. Like
nobody’s business. You make your entrance, hit your mark,
and get it done. And let’s face it: the music
isn’t much. But it’s all yours. Do what you can.

And somebody thinks he knows how to soften you up with sweet
talk or a roll of bills, remember: you always know better.
This is no business to make that kind of mistake in.
Take it from me: you don’t want to walk into anything
you can’t talk your innocent-enough way out of.

And if there’s trouble you didn’t see coming, don’t worry.
That’s what I’ll be out there looking for. I may be incognito,
just another hat in the crowd. But if you want to know the truth,
all you have to do is ask. You say Jack and I swear
I’ll come through. Say the word, and some guy’s as good as dead.
He’ll learn fast: guys like him are our business, and who we are

is really none of his. As long as you’re working for me,
you’re covered. Partners. No matter how it has to mostly seem.
Yeah, you’re the one who’s out there at point-blank range,
but I will never leave you twisting in the wind, whichever way
it’s blowing that night, alone in any of this business.


IV / The Difference a Day Makes
V / Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with His Sister


From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Chicago Cowboy

II / The Chicago Cowboy

I have heard stories of personalities that are notorious. That is the extent of my involvement in any criminal activity.
– Ruby, to Earl Warren (1964)

We could not establish a significant link between Ruby and organized crime.
– The Warren Commission Report


It was 1947. Jack heard he’s be getting a call.
After all these Windy City years, it was surely his time to go West
and he was thinking Los Angeles, maybe Vegas. He was thinking
he was that important: finally they’d let him have his own piece
of some sophisticated action. When the word came down
he’d be heading to Dallas, Jack couldn’t believe someone had him
all wrong. His talents would be wasted in a nowhere town like that.
The Chicago Boys smelled Texas oil, and they were looking
to control the wide-open gambling scene. They thought of Jack
as a man who could handle the chump change, and would he please
be good enough to dole it out as needed, making fast friends
with the Dallas police?
They promised he’d feel bigger down there,
and Jack had to admit he liked the sound of that, even if
down there was some kind of joke. He’d suck it in. He’d zip it up.
He’d be their Chicago Cowboy, as long as he got his.
He’d ask them to spring for a little velvet, something jazzy
In a white snap-brim hat. He could show them good, but
they shouldn’t count on Jack anymore to be that good for nothing.


Sixteen years later there’s not much left for Jack to think about:
the Carousel club, 1312 ½ Commerce. The half’s because he’s one flight up,
where rent’s a little lower. The stenciled message on the stairway wall,
A FEW STEPS CLOSER TO HEAVEN, wasn’t Jack’s idea. The single
rectangular room wasn’t quite the place he’d hoped for, either.
He’d dreamed of a sumptuous club-in-the-round, slowly revolving
on the top floor of a tower, where some kind of breathtaking view
was just a reservation away.

Still, by his peculiar standards,
he’s made the most of it: jet-black booths, dark red carpeting,
gold mesh curtains. Over the bar, a squadron of gold crowns
hanging from the ceiling – Jack liked the idea of working around those.
From the moment he first walked in and took over the operation,
he could see it wasn’t called the Sovereign for nothing.
And one enormous black velvet painting of a well-hung stallion in gold.
Jack guaranteed the bartender who helped him nail it to the wall:
The 3-D effect is what makes it real class. His favorite word,
class, is all he wants to be known for. This wouldn’t be a joint,
but a nightclub. And his girls would be dancers, hostesses,
. Truly a man ahead of his euphemistic time, this Sultan
of Schmooze, this Kibitzer King, with his homespun sense of nobility.
And this is his low-rent kingdom. Welcome to the house
that Jack built: If they complain about the two-dollar cover,
tell them it’s worth it just for an eyeful of the d├ęcor. We’re fucking
class on top of class in here.


Before making a go of the Carousel: the Silver Spur. The Ranch House.
Hernando’s Hideaway. Then enough of the Texas motifs. Let’s try
the Vegas. And, of course, the Sovereign. Jack had a rapid succession
of dreams that didn’t stick. But this is the one he can’t seem
to shake: the Carousel, sandwiched between the Weinstein brothers’
Colony Club and the Theatre Lounge – where every night is Amateur Night
and the Weinsteins have got Jack fuming. He’s the one paying
for professional talent, trying to keep up some thin veneer of class.
He’s been known to travel out of town just to recruit it.
He’s still trying to live up to the good name he’s made for himself.
Jacob Rubenstein’s no proper name for a night-spot operator.
The reporters and cops come here to hang with Jack Ruby, club owner,
Producer, dispenser of small favors: free drinks any time.


If you ask Jack, he just can’t help thinking of Dallas
as one gigantic Amateur Night. In his heart it’s never been a city.
Back when Chicago was nearly wiped out by fire, Dallas was barely
on the map, too green to burn. It’s still too new. There’s no fire,
there’s nothing neighborhood about it, and Jack is neighborhood
all the way: do-for-you, do-for-me. No questions. No problem.
He learned his lessons on solid concrete stoops, along miles
Of narrow fire escapes, in tenement backyard clothes-flapping breezes
where any street worth its name had something new to teach you,
like how you could finally manage to stand to your own full height
and deliver. Even as a sawed-off kid, Sparky Rubenstein delivered:
sealed envelopes, a buck an errand, for Capone’s associates.
He pushed keychains, bottle openers, knives from a cart. Scalped tickets
outside Soldiers Field, hustled peanuts during the game. He sold himself
on helping others: tip sheets at the races. Carnations in the dancehalls.
Awful chocolates in the burleyque’s raucous dark.


Jack believes in what he insists on calling his orchestra:
four sorry tuxedos sitting at the back of an otherwise naked stage.
Ever since the night a musician bit off the tip of Jack’s finger,
there’s been no love lost between Jack and the music. Still, he wants
to do it up right. He’s always looking for any cut above.
More clothes are coming off to the sound of rock ‘n roll records
all over town. But where Jack’s the master of ceremonies,
he wants everything live.
He’s making his uneasy way through the crowd
with a microphone in his hand, when bang, out of nowhere:
the drummer’s rim-shot. And good evening, he’s our host, Jack Ruby,
and we’re not going to believe what he’s planned for us this time.


The best music Jack ever heard was in Havana.
When he squeezes shut his eyes just right, he can still see
the dazzling lights of the Tropicana after sundown. Now, that
was a nightclub, cabaret, casino supreme – room after room
of posh and glitz. No other action in the world came even close.
In exchange for delivering some crates of unnumbered rifles and guns,
Jack shot the Caribbean breeze with the wheels of the operation:
Santo Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, and his particular heroes,
Meyer Lansky and brother Jake. As long as Batista could hold on,
there would be the fabled Tropicana, where the insignificant likes
of Abe and Barney Weinstein would be spots on the silverware.
Everyone at the table knew what was coming if Castro moved in to stay:
there goes the glittering neighborhood.

But no one can take it away
from Jack now: his few days in the Cuban sun, the bloody steaks
a cut above, the umbrella drinks he never touched, but he liked how
they were there for him. Trafficante himself nearly busting a gut
when Jack played Conway Twitty air guitar on It’s Only
Make Believe
. And Jack soaked it in, he ate it all up, this living
at last high off the hog, an honorary Kosher Nostra boy.


This afternoon Jack’s in his tiny Carousel office,
and his head is spinning. Along with the gun-metal-grey desk,
beat-up easy chair, and the hand-lettered sign on the wall – SHOW
SOME CLASS – now there’s a safe Jack actually had installed.
For the man who’s always kept his cash in brown paper sandwich bags
or wadded thick in his pockets, who’s never had a checkbook,
who never cracks a smile when he calls his money dough,
this may take some serious getting used to. He’s on the phone,
letting his attorney know he’s just in from the Tropicana
in Vegas, and he’s got the simoleons to pay off his back taxes.
And Jack is nearly giddy, for Jack. He’s off the hook again.
He can keep his doors wide open for the indefinite future.

They’d told him it was the least they could do, a small 40-grand
favor he should consider more of a thank-you for all the years
in the Texas sun. For being there.
And for a minute
he almost dreams himself out of his cash-and-carry life. Jack’s
good for it
is what they’d said. For Dallas. For business.
For the long green. Somewhere out West he’s sure he could be
a real nightclub operator. A-listed partygoer. Fedora sensation.

Confidant to the stars.
But there’s no time off for good behavior
in the Lone Star State, and the Chicago Cowboy will be right back
where he’s always been: would-be highroller in a rumpled suit,
in precarious business for himself again
a few steps short of heaven. 1312 ½ Commerce – halfway between
the police station and the county jail. A rock-and-a-hard-place
kind of thing
, he jokes nightly at the mike. The cops drink free
and barely pay attention. But except for the Weinstein brothers,
Jack’s never minded being in the middle. If there’s any action.

So plug him in and light him up. Full of his misguided sense
of decorum, he’s about to go out there again and try shooting off
his mouth full of cornball gratitude in front of another crowd
that isn’t here to listen. They’ve paid their deuce apiece
for Girls! Girls! Girls! and who’s Jack Ruby to insinuate himself
into such a straightforward arrangement?
He’s learned one thing
over and over again in his obligated life: there’s no way
he can really help himself.



From Jack Ruby's America
By David Clewell

Jack Ruby Orders the Chicken Salad

I / Jack Ruby Orders the Chicken Salad:
November 21, 1963

You know how I need it, Sweetheart: all my orders are To Go.
I’m the king of Carry-Out. Today I’m good for a dozen – half rye,
half rolls. These are heading down to the station, so pile it on
a little thick, OK? They know me there. I’m a regular
no-baloney guy making sure the cops get a decent shot at lunch.
You can’t say I don’t love Dallas, but still: give me Chicago
for cold cuts a man like me could die for – hot pastrami, corned beef,
tongue that doesn’t quit. I go for sandwiches in a big way, a handful
of good will folks can sink their teeth into. And people remember
certain things. Don’t get me started on how crazy it is sometimes
to be me, in Texas. But then I’ve always liked going out of my way

if it lets me in on the action. When you’re the one with the sandwiches,
you let other people do the talking. Just look who’s talking now,
right? I need sandwiches, I’m friendlier. So to speak. Human nature,
if you ask me. I’ve studied it. I’m talking my whole life. Go ahead
and ask me is there anything I don’t know about human nature. I’m here
to tell you mostly it’s not much: I’m talking one sorry load
of chicken salad sandwiches bagged up in the front seat of a car
in the Dallas sun. At noon. You know it won’t be long before
it goes completely bad. And we’re Texas, down here so Deep
in the Heart that it’s never been lip-smacking good to begin with.

So what do I finally owe you? Here’s a twenty. Keep the change
and get yourself something later. Something you’ve always been
meaning to. On me. I’m talking something extra: a little bit
of trouble or excitement you don’t really need. That we can live
without either one, thank you, is no good reason. I’m talking America,
getting whatever we deserve. Human nature: remember that. Remember me
to the rest of the shift. I’ll be back. I’m always coming back.
And next time, you can cut the Mister jazz. Jack is good enough.


II / The Chicago Cowboy
III /Jack Ruby Talks Business with the New Girl
IV / The Difference a Day Makes
V / Jack Ruby Spends His Last New Year’s Eve with His Sister


From Jack Ruby’s America
By David Clewell


My review of the book from 2000 when it was new makes much of this opening movement.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Game ball for the 2009 Poetry Scores Art Invitational

This is the game ball for the 2009 Poetry Scores Art Invitational, signed by most of the artists who contributed to our show, which was a smashing success and a rousing good time.

I try to remember to get people to sign game balls when they work on a group project together. I can't exactly explain why, except that I have a mystical view of the game of baseball, and imagine that the game can be used as a metaphor to describe almost anything good.

For example, if I were to field an imaginary baseball team from a selection of artists in this year's Invitational, it might look like this on the lineup card, in batting order:

Jeremy Rabus, SS
Heather Corley, 2B
Michael Hoffman, LF
Jon Cournoyer, RF
Andrew Torch, 1B
Alicia LaChance, CF
Greg Edmondson, 3B
Kim Humphries, C
Robert Longyear, P

Longyear, of course, would be the right-handed starting pitcher staff ace. The ace lefty starting pitcher would be Dana Smith. The closer would be Eric Woods. And the erratic, bearded setup man out of the bullpen, for the problematic 8th inning, would be Tony Renner.

During interleague play, we'd move Cournoyer to DH to rest his wheels and field Gina Alvarez in right (she would bat sixth, moving everyone else down a notch in the batting order).

I'm the manager of this imaginary team, of course, with Thom Fletcher my pitching coach, Stefene Russell my bench coach, and Matt Fernandes (third base) and Stephen Lindsley (first base) coaching the runners and relaying signals.

I know this is all crazy, but I believe every word of it. I can field a baseball team of anything. Anything I care about can be transposed to positions on a baseball diamond and in a batting order. I know a surprisingly large number of other people who feel the same way I do.

By the way, it's a fun road trip game. For example, field a baseball team of your favorite cities, or American states, or U.S. presidents, or film directors, or sandwiches, or alcoholic beverages. Anything. Former girlfriends (or boyfriends). Novelists. Poets, God knows - which is how this whole thing got started, in more ways than one.

If you won't more of this daft, batty stuff, then you should read my essay about the time I mailed a baseball to the Australian poet Les Murray, asking for an autograph, and he mailed it back to me in New York from Bunyah, New South Wales.

It is fitting that this poetry score and art invitational ended with an autographed baseball, because we scored and they made art to Les' poem The Sydney Highrise Variations - and this entire project began with that baseball, mailed back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, between an American rock musician and an Australian poet.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Heather Corley's starving spirit is fed upon the heart

We are lucky to have Heather Corley in a Poetry Scores Art Invitational this year for the first time. Here is her piece, "The starving spirit is fed upon the heart".

I like how it combines her characteristic image of the heart with a gridlike pattern suggestive of an urban grid. This year's Invitational is devoted to a great poem of cities, The Sydney Highrise Variations, so this is very fitting.

Corley went along with our suggested bargain basement $50 opening bid for tonight's silent auction.

Robert Longyear stills the city's conversation

At the last minute, longtime Poetry Scores supporter Alicia LaChance recruited fellow artist Robert Longyear to show in this year's Art Invitational.

This is his remarkable piece, and two details from it. Its starting bid at the silent auction is a measly $50.

Robert chose from the poem The Sydney Highrise Variations the following title: “They rose like nouveaux accents and stilled, for a time, the city’s conversation.”

Robert told me, when he dropped it off, "I don't usually contribute to benefits, but the poem really seduced me".

Here is the part of the score that incorporates this line: "The starving spirit is fed upon the heart" by Robert Goetz.

Here is how the silent auction works.

Kim's and Dana's "Freud's cobwebbed poem"

Here are two completely different takes on the same phrase from Les Murray's poem The Sydney Highrise Variations: "Freud's cobwebbed poem".

Kim Richardson uses the urban context as backdrop and foregrounds the psychobiographic connotations evoked by the name of Sigmund Freud.

Dana Smith does a bit of research and depicts the part of the Sydney (Australia) business district that is specifically referenced in this line, albeit obliquely.

Kim did her piece all in one day on Wednesday after struggling for a long time with a poem she found "too male" to approach in her typically instinctive, soulful ways. Interesting, then, that she chose the most directly phallic phrase in the poem!

Dana - who is a man - worked for months at his piece, without mention of the poem's alleged masculity.

Their paintings will hang side by side at the show tonight at The Luminary Center for the Arts (Reber Place at Kingshighway, on the southwestern corner of Tower Grove Park) once I get down there and hang Kim's paintings. It's sitting in my kitchen right now.

Both will be on silent auction, with opening bids of a measly $50.


Here is the part of the score that sets this phrase to music: "Hot air money driers" by Three Fried Men.

Here is how the silent auction works: How a Poetry Scores Art Invitational works.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

From below, Cindy Tower's ponderous grotto

The other day, I saw Cindy Tower walking down the street near my job carrying a painting, when I realized it must be the painting she made for our show.

Indeed, it was. And it is a beauty. Here is an image of the piece, and a detail. It's titled "From below, a ponderous grotto". I find the use of religious iconography in this squalid industrial scene ingenious and moving.

Like the other pieces in the 2009 Poetry Scores Art Invitational, this piece is titled from the poem The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray. The art will hang Friday, Nov. 13 at The Luminary Center for the Arts as a CD release party of our score to the poem.

Here is the part of the score that covers the same lines Cindy painted: "Inked in by scaffolding and workers" by Three Fried Men.

The art will be sold on silent auction. We begged the artsts to set their opening bids low. Cindy's opening bid is $50. It won't stay in two figures long - and I, for one, will be in on the bidding war.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How a Poetry Scores Art Invitational works

I've been fielding questions about how a Poetry Scores Art Invitational works, which is fair enough, it's evolved into its own thing.

It's a silent auction. There will be 50 works of art in the space that all respond to the same long poem. Somewhere near each piece will be a bid sheet for it listing the starting bid price. In almost all cases, that's a crazy cheap $50.

You like a piece, you bid by writing your bid on the bid sheet. You really like it, you keep an eye on the bid sheet and compete - you keep bidding higher.

So, it's this Friday, Nov. 13 at The Luminary Center for the Arts (Reber at Kingshighway facing Tower Grove Park). It's listed for 6-10 p.m. We'll probably close some of the bidding for some of the pieces every hour on the hour, with the last announcement being near 9 p.m. In each case, we'll make an announcement that there are 10 or 15 minutes left to bid on a set of pieces before we close them out.

We need to close bidding in stages to make the sales logistics doable. All sales will be handled that night - cash, check, PayPal or (last resort) credit card number.

Also, if there are early bidding wars, we will want to be able to announce a winner for those pieces before the end of the night, so those who don't win know they still have some money to spend if other pieces look good. I've seen almost all of the show, and most people will want to bid on more than one of these pieces.

Like I say, all sales are final that night and people will be expected to take their new art home. I haven't seen a piece yet that isn't portable. As we are wrapping up the final set of sales about 9:30 p.m., people can start packing up their acquisitions to be out of there by 10 p.m. - and on to The Royale for the afterparty.

Proceeds from the art auction are split evenly between artist, venue and Poetry Scores.

In case you wondered, Poetry Scores is a Missouri non-profit arts organization dedicated to translating poetry into other media. The Art Invitational is one of our two annual fundraisers and the occasion for releasing our poetry score CD for the year - which is the same poem the artists responded to, set to music.

This year, we scored - and artists responded to - The Sydney Highrise Variations, by the Australian poet Les Murray.

The new Poetry Scores CD (and select archival works) will be on sale at the event. All contributing artists get a free copy (and two free drink tickets). We will be playing the new CD, and previous poetry scores, on The Luminary's excellent sound system throughout the show.

The Luminary also will run a bar (cash/tips). John Eiler of Poetry Scores will provide food (free). Senor Pique of Mexico City/Ballwin will provide homemade chips & salsa for 300 (free).

Any questions? Email Chris King at brodog [that there @ sign]


The image is John Minkoff's contribution to the show, "Transients at speed," a line from early in the poem. John is a Chicago artist who also plays electric guitar in Three Fried Men, which performs much of the score.

Here is "Transients at speed" by Three Fried Men, from the score, with John on electric guitar.

Other contributors to the score include Middle Sleep (Los Angeles), Robert Goetz, Frank Heyer, Thom Fletcher, Stefene Russell and the poet. Joining Three Fried Men here and there are Christopher Y. Voelker, Carl Pandolfi and Roger Moutenot, who produces Yo La Tengo.

Three Fried Men is a St. Louis-based indie rock band that gew out of Eleanor Roosevelt, which grew out of Enormous Richard, which was a weird contemporary of Uncle Tupelo (and Chicken Truck and Bob Reuter and The Lettuceheads and ...) in the early St. Louis indie rock scene.

RFT preview from this week.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On the summit that exhilarates sick beloved engines

The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray begins from the perspective of a motorist whose car has died atop a bridge, and as a poem that pointedly addresses the mentality of the 20th century, it is appropriately an automotive poem (and a poem of planes and spaceships).

Two artists contributing to our Sydney Highrise Variations Art Invitational have taken on this automotive imagery head-on. This is Greg Edmondson's piece, "Sick beloved engine", a modified Pinewood Derby car.

Greg's piece is unique among this year's contributions for being a commission. We were yukking it up at The Tap Room one night when he said he was making a Pinewood Derby car for the Pierogi show in Brooklyn.

Greg has shown all over the world, and got stuck in something of a backwaters art market as a parent with a child here. He is none too enthusiastic about showing in St. Louis, but I figured I could get him to make another Pinewood Derby car for our Invitational. And I was right!

The poem begins, "So we're sitting over our sick beloved engine," and we hang art in our shows depending on where in the flow of the poem the quote chosen for the title of the art appears. No one made art for the show titled "So we're sitting," so Greg's "Sick beloved engine" will be the first piece in the show. This piece will be the second: “On the summit that exhilarates cars” by Andrew Torch.

Andy is taking a quite literal approach to the opening images of the poem, since the "sick beloved engine" is stalled atop a bridge over Sydney Harbour and he has depicted the harbour-side Sydney Opera House.

Torch is a card-carrying Surrealist, and he has done magnificent Surrealist paintings for past Poetry Scores Art Invitationals. So it is quite a departure for him to depict such a literal scene. Of course, the architecture of the Opera House (by the late Jorn Utzon) has a Surrealist tinge, so this is in some sense a realist take on a scene with Surrealist elements. Andy might not have to tender his card.

Andy also is an antque toy merchant, and we can see his dayjob making a cameo in this marvelous piece, which he inscribed "For Les," for the poet. I intend to seek permission from the Poetry Scores board to bid on this with house money at the silent auction, and buy the box as a gift for the poet.

What is this chiseller doing in here?

It so happens my daughter Leyla Fern was playing art director to her daddy, instructing me how to carve a wardrobe box into a convertible for jer while we putative grownups had our heads under the hoods of our own imaginary cars ...

I hope Leyla will attend the Invitational on Friday, Nov. 13 at The Luminary (4900 Reber Pl. at Kingshighway, just across the street from Tower Grove Park); and if so, perhaps we'll bring her car and some markers, to give her something to do with all the inspiration she will be absorbing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Cantilevered Behometh" by Stefene Russell

This is a working draft toward Stefene Russell's contribution to the 2009 Poetry Scores Art Invitational, The Cantilevered Behometh.

The title is chosen from The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray, and the work responds to the poem. The piece will be hung in the show depending on where in the flow of the poem the language chosen for the title appears.

The Invitational/silent auction will be held at The Luminary Center for the Arts (located at 4900 Reber Pl. at Kingshighway, just across the street from Tower Grove Park) 6-10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, with an after-party following just down the block at The Royale.

I asked Stef how she made this and what she was thinking.
I scanned in pages from an old British Xmas catalog, Gamage's - it had that old-school Brit feeling that lurks in a lot of the corners of the poem. At first I was thinking those "archaic spirits" Les mentions were Aboriginal, since he writes about that a lot, but when I really got to thinking about Modernist architecture, it seemed like a direct reaction to that sort of dark, wooden, repressed Victorian thing, the sort of world that the Xmas catalog represented.

This could just be my wingnut theory, but seems to me the Industrial Revolution in Europe, when it squashed this whole old Celtic world of nature spirits & tribes but it soaked some of it up at the same time, or at least its shadow (e.g. Blake's "Satanic Mills"). & that those white boxes, and high-rises, were sort of an attempt to scrape off that creepy Victorian darkness that still had in it elements of the old, old world, or at least a very enraged & pushed-underground aspect of it (in Australia too, not just England - that Crown exerts a heavy influence).

Like building closer to heaven to get away from the cthonic, in a way. But there it is, flying around like a kite ... it shows up anyway. If that makes any sense! Anyway, it'll get printed & mounted & painted, but pretty subtly. I am excited about it.
I thought that improvised email had so many varied insights into Les' poem that I printed it out for him, along with this image, and will post it to him in Australila tomorrow, along with a long hand-written letter from me.

My band, Three Fried Men, set this part of the poem to music for the poetry score - we even used this phrase for the song title.


"The cantilevered behometh"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

Recorded by Lij at The Toy Boy
Mixed by Adam Long