“I’ve driven your highways and backroads, I rode the great dog
Through the snow and the sleet and hail,
Through the sunlight, through the fog.
I’ve heard the ravens call morning up
With their little raw saxophones
But the darkest of ravens was Nina Simone.
Yeah, we’ve all been to hell and come back
Where love cut us right down to the bone
But walking beside us was Nina Simone.”
-Tom Russell, “Nina Simone”
I try to see as much as I can, as time and money (and the corollary effect of needing to keep my job) and sanity and my health will permit. But no matter how open you think you are, there will always be blind spots, always be things that either fly under your radar or consistently get pushed down on the agenda- seeing poetry falls to working late on Mondays, seeing metal falls to seeing a show where you’ll have more friends, locally-produced theater gets the short shrift compared to proven out of town work even when it’s produced by the same company. We all do it.
This is a circuitous way of getting to an apology that I haven’t written much in here in a while. I’ve seen stuff I loved but couldn’t think of what to say about them besides “That was real good” – Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard, In the Red and Brown Water at Steppenwolf, Sarah Jones at the Lincoln Theater, Smoking Popes, etc. Both the last two weekends have included art that didn’t take my excuses:, tired, over-stimulated, whatever the case was.
It shoved me against a wall and gave me that feeling, the feeling I started a blog to try to document - where a spark went straight up my spine and all the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end, and I think I see the connecting thread between all of it. Art that’s intensely personal but also works through and around genres, that shrugs off memoir or persona poem or black metal and cracks those trappings like a shell then paints the pieces of that shell that still cling to the art so it’s recognizable, not trying to disguise its references, but organically changed so the resonance is picked up by the history and the now – the audience - and vibrates us both. Makes you feel a little less -or more – alone –or both, which is a pretty sweet feeling itself.
These weeks of joy started with Scott Woods doing a fundraiser feature at the Poetry Forum on Monday March 8. One of my favorite poets in town at the longest running reading series (at Larry’s for over 20 years, now at Rumba Cafe as Larry’s has become the Sloppy Donkey). Doing two twenty minute sets of greatest hits and some new work, from poems I’ve loved for a long time – including the devastating “How to Make a Crackhead” with orbits around the line, “Grow up” which the person being addressed does and the person named in the title never gets to do; “To the High School Thug that Broke into His English Teacher’s Car” which manages to sketch two complex, complete characters and praise Nina Simone in less than four minutes; and “Elementary”, maybe the best example of the kind of love poem Woods was originally known for in town.
Also working in some work I’d never heard, including the hilarious (and cringe-inducing, it hit so close to who I was at 16) “I Hate Zombies Like You Hate Me”. “Republican Poets” which resonated with a recent blog about where’s the conservative art gone, who’s making it, are they just not on the radar of those of us who aren’t interested in the message or is there something else going on. “Jesus, Judas and the Case of the Old Woman’s Son”, as perfect a mastery of voice as I’ve ever seen. The cut-up/collage “Bob Ross Loves You Baby”, which picks up the thread of his early “Bob Ross, Give Me Strength” but using all Ross’ own words, put “in a blender” as Burroughs and Gysin said, to show the vein of ‘70s loverman underneath.
The open mic was also, as the forum goes, typically solid with some beautiful work – especially Frank Richardson’s poem about two Goya paintings – and some work that’s still clearly in the chipping-away-everything-that-doesn’t-look-like-an-elephant stage. But I walked home and took another crack at a poem I’d abandoned the next day on the bus so the wheels were already getting turned, rust falling off.
Wednesday of that week was the kickoff/pre-party day for the Women of the World Poetry Slam. I bought the $50 all-access pass even though I knew I wouldn’t make some big events of this, because I wanted to show my support. I think Slam’s focus on the audience has been generally good and there’s some beautiful, as well as rhythmic/visceral/whatever clichés you want to use, work to come out of slam land, but I don’t care who scores what. I want to hear a poem, as Stephen Coleman said, “I wanna say yes at the end because I’m sick of saying no” (this comes back later). I want to hear a poem that smacks me in the face or makes me throw some devil horns in the air, that leaves me tapping my feet to its rhythm without any musical assistance. And this event brought some damn firepower. Some of the strongest, most entertaining poets I’ve ever run across and twice as many I’ve never heard of.
The first open mic preceding the Last Chance Slam was like – and I mean this in the best way – the first twenty minutes of a science fiction convention, or the best Wednesday night of Twangfest – people who only see each other a couple of times a year at poetry events hugging and catching up, but also very focused, very intent on hearing out the voices of the people taking the stage. And the stage was big enough for the guy with the three-page free verse choking on its own metaphors (don’t look at me like that, I promise I was exchanging some eye-rolling at the side) but shit, he had the balls to get up and do it anyway.
And some straight-up greatness, including organizers like Mahogany Brown and Louise Robertson (who did a poem that has maybe my favorite opening line ever, “My Mother taught me how to lie. It’s like breaking asparagus. Snap. Pop. Done.”) and a woman who was too young to officially compete did a poem about the corroding effect of love, its ugly-making properties, that blew my hair back. And last year’s champion Rachel McKibbens closed that night’s mic with a Jan Beatty “cover” taking us all back to the Lollapalooza spoken word stage and those MTV poetry segments.
The next day – after a Jameson-sponsored whiskey tasting at the local Fado, A. accompanied me to a first-night bout at Kickstart Coffee, all of us sitting around scooters and motorcycles for sale listening to some phenomenal poetry, including Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s poem critiquing her boyfriend’s drunk song-poem that’s given A. and I a mantra for the ages - “Sandwich, I’m gonna eat you” - and a number of poems there, the Erotica open mic at La Fogata that evening, Zanzibar on Friday, and the First Draft Open Mic at Columbus State on Saturday afternoon that all gave me that elusive feeling, poems by people I knew about (like Vernell Bristow, Laura Yes Yes, and those completely unknown to me (especially Dusty Rose from San Francisco who I saw a couple of times, and a woman who did a persona poem about the mother of a serial killer), and I wish I could write this up better by either having taken better notes or by the participants/nights sheet still being up on the web to jog my memory but suffice to say every one of those shows gave me something to think about and felt like I put my finger in a light socket.
Much like the solo Woods , there were a plethora of genres cut and bent, mutated, reshaped or sometimes just refined to such a pure essence that you could see right through them. Personal work that always eschewed easy memoir even when they put a needle right into the artist’s own past and sprayed the blood in front of light so you cold see a rainbow in it. Just seeing the diversity of perspectives – while also seeing how work grew out of the communal slam history and all its regionally evolved subspecies.
Genre getting its face reconstructed in a back alley surfaced again the same week, at the corporate-advertising multi-venue Scion Rock Fest, four venues full of underground metal for six hours at each and I saw at least pieces of six bands. Obviously, with this kind of show, not everything’s going to burn its impression onto your brainpan. Even those that didn’t quite grab me still did what they did at full speed and ferocious intensity – including 3 Inches of Blood, textbook NWoBHM done very, very well, and Absu whose brand of hybrid black/thrash metal might have sold me if I saw them earlier.
But the four bands that did – again, why this is one War and Peace blog and not something more digestible – didn’t take my excuses, reconfigured, flummoxed and confused my conceptions about rock and metal and ultimately reaffirmed by belief in its potential. I’ve never been a huge metalhead, but I loved those Earache deathmetal bands in high school (my “punk rock” when punk rock was all post-Op Ivy SoCal dross) and Slayer and Motorhead are two of my favorite bands.
Starting with the two bands that worked me over but didn’t fire the kill-shot, Ludicra, in Bernie’s, fronted by two women, one of whom handled mostly the screaming death vocals and the other playing guitar and handling vocals more reminiscent of Black Sabbath-era Ozz, tweaking the metalcore/hardcore trend of a more melodic singer and a screamer, and male rhythm section you feel in your ribcage and your groin before you even realize you’re nodding along. Students of every important trend in heavy music of the last ten years, from the thick grooves of Pantera and Monster Magnet (and maybe even a little White Zombie funk) to stoner’s long song-forms breakdowns that fell between vintage hardcore and vintage Morbid Angel, occasionally shooting to thrash’s velocity as a way to build tension, not to release it. Everything in this set was perfect and attuned to their intent and their mission. You walk out trying to describe this and end with “You know what? This was a great fucking rock band, that’s what this was.”
Hate Eternal with Erik Rutan from Morbid Angel and a bassist/backing vocalist and a fiery, very professional drummer performed a kind of reverse alchemy from the magic Ludicra brought, maybe the defining death metal guitarist taking those death and black tropes (and that monowire guitar tone) and boiling it down into a Motorhead or ZZ Top-style power trio, using the cliches of both areas but infusing them with the energy of the other. When it got too groove-y, he’d spray it with a guitar solo that was chemical flame; when the breakdown got too steady and rhythmic, the bass player would start into a counter rhythm or some beautifully weird harmonics. And conversely, when it got too technical or avant, that giant drummer-led groove was back. And I don’t mean “professional” as an insult to the drummer, because he hit every note they asked him of with aplomb and, a couple of times his cymbals started to come apart but he didn’t miss a beat, he played around the technical difficulty while his tech got it fixed and they didn’t need to stop even one song.
And then the main course. The evening started with more than a bang via Lullabye Arkestra, a husband-wife duo from Montreal playing bass and drums, that started with slow tense bass-plucks and tiny cymbal patterns almost like playing a Ruins or Lightning Bolt 45 on 33 instead, then as though a switch got flipped, it moved through vintage mid-‘80s cusp-of-thrash metal, third-wave rockabilly, ‘70s cosmic soul, all on just bass and drums and those two voices in perfect, smoke-weathered harmony. Most accessible band I saw the entire night, I can’t think of anyone who loves rock and roll who wouldn’t have loved this but that’s not to say it was simple, there was plenty of depth and substance and quirks to dig into.
And Liturgy would have made my going worthwhile even if everything else had sucked. New blog-hyped, Bard-educated black metal from Brooklyn sounds like about the worst thing ever, but I always had a weakness for black metal when I could find something not tainted with the racism/homophobia couched in Teutonic folk or Nietzschean purity and Kyle Gann’s shout-outs got me to check out the record. It was great, but I still had my doubts of how it would be live on a bill of “real” metal bands. So, so glad to be wrong. They came out with wordless vocals, as much doo-wop as the choruses/infernal chants you expect from Black Metal, and it kept going on and on and the three and four note patterns repeated out of sequence by different voices, turning into almost a Steve Reich piece before my eyes. Then the crash of the drums and the first song surges up, and it’s an amusement park ride through everything I love about music of the last half of the 20th century, black metal grooves and snarled vocals, yoked to Ennio Morricone guitars getting dissolved in a Jesus and Mary Chain acid bath and even a little Pavement and AC/DC along with more Reich echoes. Show of the year so far.
And the next week was the work that, as Sondheim said, “sum[med] it all wide up and [blew] it all wide open”, and I hope any of the two of you reading this who get that reference forgive the tastelessness. Available Light holds onto their title of most interesting theater in town by doing a victory lap of previously-produced work that I, at least, missed the first time, both one man shows in an afternoon at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, Killadelphia, billed as a “mixtape” by Sean Christopher Lewis, and The Absurdity of Writing Poetry by founder/artistic director Matt Slaybaugh in collaboration with sound designer Dave Wallingford.
Killadelphia disarms you at first when Lewis walks on with a book of “material”, tells you it’ll be a minute, does some work and then it’s on. This is a mixtape in the sense of putting together things for a teenage love to try to get your feelings across indirectly (one I received as I recall included James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Cake’s cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, and lots of whispers that turned into giggles) or for yourself to try to make sense of these feelings (one I made around the same time that I didn’t send, as I recall, included me reading Yeats’ “Politics” along with Tom Waits’ “Please Call Me, Baby”, a rare recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance All Night” and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s “Lush Life; some things don’t change much). But I don’t mean that connotation to imply that the work is juvenile, it put me in mind of that because sometimes throwing everything experienced around and sifting through it is still the best way to make sense of completely incomprehensible events/people/history, even when you’re an adult.
Lewis goes from his original impression on what he thought he’d be doing in the Philadelphia prison program to document - “The world’s greatest white b-boy prison bonanza” – then the corrections officer he meets and slowly the prison itself and the prisoners start to shift that. But not in the way you’re expecting, no holding hands, no hugging. He comes out knowing some people change and some people don’t and some people only change if their circumstances change and revert immediately if that goes back to the old status quo. And he manages to hit all of these perspectives – and even more, all of these individual people – and these voices in an incredibly entertaining, moving, harrowing hour. No one in the audience, I can almost guarantee, walked out forgetting this show any time soon.
The Absurdity of Writing Poetry takes its title from the Wislawa Szymboraka poem “Possiblities” which is one of a number of poems and other sources (including George Saunders, Margaret Atwood and James Kolchaka’s “The Trouble With Comics”) collaged into kind of a theatrical one-man version of a Rauschenberg combine. Opening with Steve Coleman’s “I Wanna Hear a Poem”, arguably the modern slam poetry ur-text (it got quoted and its words appeared on the screen in the Def Poetry opening credits, for chrissake), which I mentioned about a million years ago in this blog post, talking about the WoWPS, and with a sparse stage littered with props (books upon books, boxes with written fragments, an old manual typewriter, a chair, and a ladder) this show was the shot of adrenaline I was looking for, and I don’t think I was alone seeing the faces in the audience.
The piece traversed through Rosewicz and Mos Def, Saul Williams and two Ferlinghetti pieces, Howl of course and Okerele’s “The Pioneers”, all spelled out in the program, and part of the joy was the way the sourced-work appeared, figuring out the connections and occasionally babe ruthing it, but most of the time being wonderfully surprised. This kind of thing could have so easily been the equivalent of those quotes taped around Harlan Ellison’s typewriter but it was infused with so much soul and humor that it works as monologue and a rallying cry and an ars poetica even if you didn’t have the built-in knowledge, if you didn’t get the references or know the artists Slaybaugh cites in the climactic laundry list that seems like it’s going on forever but delivered so intently you want to throw a fist in the air. And bringing this all back to the Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz rallying cry earlier, “Fuck yeah, sandwiches are awesome!”
I’ll be back soon, with something a little more manageable. Promise.