Saturday, June 5, 2021

Reconsidering Peter Sinfield: King Crimson Lyricist as Wandering British Poet

-Originally published in PleaseKillMe as "Bringing Words to King Crimson's Court", May 2021-

Reconsidering Peter Sinfield: King Crimson Lyricist as Wandering British Poet

By John Pietaro

In the Court of the Crimson King, beyond bestowing progressive rock’s hierarchy to King Crimson, brought with it the canonization of Robert Fripp and his ever-shifting band of brothers. But with each variant of line-up, from explosive debut through ongoing reconstruction, the lyrical content has been eminent to the legend. Whether coated in psychedelia, painted by otherworldliness, misted in wayfaring balladry or haunted with rueful agitation, the voice of King Crimson is found within its verse. That it all began with a young, wandering poet is too often lost in the band’s tenacious history.

Peter John Sinfield was born in the Fulham section of London on December 27, 1943. The circumstances of an absentee father and a jocular, bohemian mother offered young Sinfield a foundation of equal parts wonder and upheaval. His formative years, however, were largely spent in the company of the family housekeeper who’d been a member of the Flying Wallendas aerial circus act. One can easily imagine the impact this intriguing mélange had on a bright, creative child. At age eight he was sent to a suburban boarding school where he gained a rich introduction to literature. When asked in a 2010 interview about his literary origins, stated: “I think that it was probably in my mother's womb, because I was born with a tyrannical talent to consume and put forth words. At the age of 10 I wrote poems for the school magazine and a little bit later, used to waste my time in geography lessons rewriting the words to the current hits.” 

Leaving his studies at 16, Sinfield took up with art school students (as nascent ‘60s rockers were wont to do) and traveled through the continent and on to Morocco, writing, playing a newly purchased Hofner guitar, and earning keep by selling hand-made craft items. He’d by then fallen under the influence of 17th Century Japanese master haiku poet Matsuo Basho “when it became fashionable for myself and others on the "Underground Scene" to investigate the literature, music and philosophy that was becoming available from all over the world. George Harrison discovered Ravi Shankar and I discovered Basho. Perhaps Haiku appeals to me as a lyricist since it seems I have been forever trying to describe life, love and the universe (to sit with music) in the minimum of words.”

By 1967, once back home, Sinfield founded a band with saxophonist/flutist Ian McDonald. Though short-lived, Infinity as it was known, introduced the pair to Michael Giles, Peter Giles and Robert Fripp, the trio of which was now expanded to include singer Judy Dyble (an early Fairport Convention member), and a repertoire framed by the Sinfield-McDonald “I Talk to the Wind”. The song reflected the restlessness and vision shared by so many in this generation.

Said the straight man to the late man,

Where have you been?

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and

I’ve been in between.

 

I talk to the wind,

My words are all carried away,

I talk to the wind,

The wind does not hear.

The wind cannot hear.

    (lyric excerpt, “I Talk to the Wind”” by P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

First recorded as a single by Giles, Giles & Fripp, “I Talk to the Wind” wouldn’t make it to the band’s singular album. Recorded in 1968 but not released for some 35 years, The Brondesbury Tapes featured the song. It is notable that Greg Lake had replaced bassist Peter Giles by this point and his presence was central to Fripp’s next project.

-       Giles, Giles & Fripp: “I Talk to the Wind” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXiWbV0d2w0

The lyric by Sinfield made enough of an impact for Fripp to recognize the need for a poet in King Crimson. After naming the new band, Sinfield wrote the lyrics so powerfully emoted by bassist/vocalist Greg Lake throughout In the Court of the Crimson King. Alternately shocking in its literary challenge and familiar in its drug-induced expanse, Sinfield’s poetry balanced the great instrumental force. The album’s opening number, “21st Century Schizoid Man” functioned as urgent commentary on post-modern societal provocations – as well as the life, bare income and single-minded pursuit of the poet, the artist. Sang by Lake through a blizzard of distortion and played with both shrieking free improvisation and the tightest, most orchestrated precision unisons, the song alerted listeners to Crimson’s ultimate journey:

Cat’s foot, iron claw,

Neurosurgeons scream for more

At paranoia’s poison door.

Twenty-first century schizoid man.

 

Blood rack barbed wire

Politicians funeral pyre,

Innocents raped with napalm fire.

Twenty-first century schizoid man.

 

Death seed, blind man’s greed,

Poet’s starving children bleed.

Nothing he’s got he really needs.

Twenty-first century schizoid man.

    (lyric, “21st Century Schizoid Man” by P. Sinfield, EG Music Ltd)

 

-       King Crimson: “21st Century Schizoid Man” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OvW8Z7kiws

 

The lyric conjures, more than any other, the scarlet entity that Fripp would claim to be haunted by over decades, whereas the title song painted this myth with medieval imagery, casting the crimson king amid prism ships, pattern jugglers, yellow jesters and dancing puppets.

 

The rusted chains of prison moons

Are shattered by the sun.

I walk a road, horizons change,

The tournament’s begun.

The purple piper plays his tune,

The choirs softly sing

Three lullabies in an ancient tongue

For the court of the crimson king.

    (lyric excerpt, “In the Court of the Crimson King” by P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

 

Overall, King Crimson’s debut offering was a critical and popular success, launching international tours for the band. But what place for the Blake-inspired poet who toiled over the lyrics during the forging of such an album? Sinfield, who also demonstrated skill as a visual artist, became the band’s lighting tech, drenching the performers in purples, reds and flourishes, as the case may be. He was also called on, sparingly, to add additional keyboards to the soundstream, but largely stood as Crimson’s “pet hippie”, according to Sinfield in an early interview.

The working ensemble, by 1970, was fractured with the exit of Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles, and then Lake soon after. Sinfield sought to maintain stability with Fripp and King Crimson’s sophomore album, In the Wake of Poseidon, was completed under considerable duress. In the end, Lake agreed to cover the majority of vocals, and both Michael and Peter Giles (bass) were on the sessions. Fripp also called on such musicians as woodwind player Mel Collins, pianist Keith Tippett and drummer Andy McCullough, all of whom would return for the band’s third release and remain Sinfield associates well beyond.

Marked by the lyricist’s initial attempt at record production, In the Wake of Poseidon offered him a wide breadth of material even if much of the imagery perpetrated sword-and-sorcery depictions. Still, Sinfield’s poetry shined as it called out the complexities about him, railing against the excesses of urban capitalist society:

Concrete cold face cased in steel,

Stark sharp glass-eyed crack and peel,

Bright light scream beam brake and squeal,

Red white green white neon wheel…

    (lyric excerpt, “Pictures of a City”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

-       King Crimson: “Pictures of a City” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7QdzDssvqY

More so, the album’s single, “Cat Food”, an acerbic condemnation of commercial impurities, brandished a lyric that skids cleverly over the music by Fripp/McDonald which moves in and out of a 19/8 time signature.

Lady Supermarket with an apple in her basket

Knocks on the manager’s door.

Grooming to the muzak from a speaker in the shoe rack

Lays out her goods on the floor.

Everything she’s chosen is conveniently frozen

“Eat it and come back for more!”

    (lyric excerpt, “Cat Food”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

-       King Crimson: “Cat Food” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmnqX4iNBpI

A year or so later, jazz vocalist Annie Ross included her rather uncomfortable version of the song on live album You and Me, Baby, complete with alley cat moans and hisses. This wasn’t the first time a jazz artist tried their hand at the repertoire: in 1970 trumpeter Doc Severinsen, primarily known as Johnny Carson’s bandleader, recorded an intriguing instrumental version of “In the Court of the Crimson King” on his Doc Severinsen’s Closet album. A variety of international pop and rock artists also produced their own adaptations of Crimson material over the years, offering the lyricist his share of royalties, as the case may be.

-       Annie Ross, “Cat Food” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFBjC6kD2h4

Sinfield’s role as King Crimson lyricist was maintained over the next two albums, he and Fripp providing the only solidity of an often shattered ensemble. For Lizard (1970), Sinfield’s poetry delved into alchemy, the occult and tarot card imagery. With hindsight, one may assume that 11th Century sorcerers and Mongol invasions were more of a comfort than the session battlegrounds the band couldn’t seem to shake. Islands, a year later, would too suffer from its lack of cohesion. Fripp, after completing the recordings, briefly abandoned the project and Sinfield not only completed production but chaired post-production as well. Unfortunately, his conception wasn’t thoroughly successful. Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, had no problem attacking the musical and lyrical vagueness, labeling it “a fusion of jazz and rock and folk and corn”. He also cited Sinfield’s lyrics as “quasi-Victorian/Shakespearean doggerel”, adding that they’re “worth quoting if not much else”. Interestingly, Bangs describes the lyric of “Ladies of the Road” as “an elegantly punk macho trip” several years before the actual punk movement would develop on the Bowery. Bangs somehow missed the humor:

Stone headed Frisco spacer

Ate all the meat I gave her.

Said would I like to taste her’s

And even craved the favour.

    (lyric excerpt, “Ladies of the Road”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

The irascible rock critic added that the song’s primary benefit is as a sleep aid, posting a warning to Fripp and Co. to “recapture some of the primal drive.” Even die-hard fans tend to agree: the music, its breadth and weightiness, had become extremely dense and hyper-dramatic. Fripp would go on to reshape King Crimson into a leaner, harsher ensemble but first the band went on tour in 1971 with Fripp, bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell (later of Bad Company), saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins and drummer Ian Wallace plus Sinfield who occasionally appeared onstage, adding bits of keyboards, but continued his role as lighting director. The capture of their concert at Frankfurt’s Zoom Club, following months of rehearsal, indicates the band’s strengths as a working unit, though this line-up too would recede into the mists of Crimson lore. But the founding lyricist’s role, particularly on the road, had become painfully obscure.

-       King Crimson: “Ladies of the Road” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sckkHW487y0

 

Sinfield, in any case, sought his own path. Back in London he produced Roxy Music’s successful 1972 debut, attracted to the band’s “mixture of kitsch and burlesque, and so clever”, earning him considerable attention within the industry. And then the poet began work on his own album, Still. While his vocals and guitar playing were not deemed strong enough for King Crimson, Sinfield regardless envisioned a solo career fronting a band. Encouraged heartily by Greg Lake, already several years into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Sinfield plotted out his audio “variety show” (as stated in the liner notes), recorded just down the hall from the studio KC labored in for their own upcoming release.

Influenced by the structures of later Beatles’ albums, Celtic finger-picking guitar styles, macro-biotic eating and the country atmosphere of West Cranmore, Sinfield composed “the sort of stuff that I left off with in King Crimson.” And this connection extended to the guest musicians as well. Lake offered a joint lead vocal with Sinfield on the title cut, also electric guitar and backing vocals on two others. Mel Collins overdubbed a plethora of woodwinds on opener “Song of the Sea Goat” which also included KC alumni drummer Ian Wallace and pianist Keith Tippet, as well as bassist John Wetton who’d join that year. Other tracks included Boz Burrell on guitar and a 5-piece horn section arranged by Collins. But the core band was drawn from new associates in the country after leaving London. Sinfield would later muse over the hardships of recording the album, standing as its lead vocalist in a time when he had no concept of changing a song’s key to better suit his voice. Later, he would recognize his near inability to grapple with rock and roll vocals and “the danger in using your friends…when your friends don’t get it right 12 hours later, it gets very, very difficult.” The final product progresses slowly, pensive to a fault, but readily builds with increasing points of horn-driven improvisational intensity. But for all of its positive aspects, Still never made the impact Sinfield desired. Other than a handful of live and television performances (including BBC’s ‘the Old Grey Whistle Test’) with Collins, Burrell and Wallace, among others, Sinfield’s solo career has woefully faded from memory.

-       Peter Sinfield: “Song of the Seagoat” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzoxJT74W0w

The philosophy within the verses of the title song remains vibrant, baring traces of Thoreau, Marx, Gandhi, perhaps Abraham Maslow too:

Still I wonder how it is to be a stream

From a dark well constant flowing,

Winding seawards over ancient mossy wheels

Yet feel no need of knowing?

 

Still I wonder how it is to be a tree,

Circles servant to the seasons,

Only drink on sky and rake the winter wind

And need no seal of reasons?

    (lyric excerpt, “Still”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

-       Peter Sinfield: “Still” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9EC51RwMf4

 

The poetic landscape, even with the tension of the helm about him, was wide open. On “A House of Hopes and Dreams” Sinfield wrote Across the floor lies broken bowls of pride, and on “The Night People”, his tale of life on tour, Blue neon clock fingers. But he also used the opportunity to air the stressors with Fripp. He’d later state, “I do a bit of angry every so often”, specifically on “Envelopes of Yesterday”:

I’m upside down, I’m an empty town

My eyes are full of ghosts

Of dusty windowed certainty and spider-webbed almost.

I love, I hate this rock and roll,

The ladies and the lights

Ate my flowers long ago but the roots came through all right.

 

Whilst now my toast is the crossroads post

I hear just out of sight

That the Black Pick’s found this Chaldean lamp

After years in a concentration camp

But I fear he’s still out on ice

With his bagpipe mouth and cup of crimson speiss

    (lyric excerpt, “Envelopes of Yesterday”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

Unfortunately, at other points Sinfield fell through the usual portals of myth and magic. In the end such excesses of leading a band in the King Crimson orbit proved to be ineffectual. Greg Lake had invited him to compose lyrics for Emerson, Lake and Palmer the year prior, while Sinfield was constructing Still, and after completion of the album the time was right; the poet’s ELP immersion came at an opportune point. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was the trio’s first album of both public and critical acclaim, from its fold-out cover by H.R. Giger to its surprise of a hit single, “Karn Evil 9” (the title of which was another Sinfield gem). The full work, a nihilistic vision of a computer-ruled society, was built over three Impressions totaling a near half-hour in length. Sinfield’s major contribution was in the lengthy latter Impression, though he also worked with Lake in other sections.

Man of steel pray and kneel

With fever’s blazing torch

Thrust in the face of night;

Draws a blade of compassion

Kissed by countless kings

Whose jeweled trumpet words blind his sight.

    (lyric excerpt, “Karn Evil 9, Third Impression”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

Simultaneously, Sinfield partnered with Procol Harum’s Gary Booker in writing a series of songs for that artist’s first solo outing. While ELP toured the world amidst laser lights and pyrotechnics, performing all of the complexities of Brain Salad Surgery, Sinfield was back at home working with the trio’s label Manticore. He produced the 1973 album of Italian progressive ensemble PFM and, with Mel Collins, opened for that band’s European dates. 1974 saw the publication of Sinfield’s poetry collection, Under the Sky, the title piece of which reached back to the roots of his collaboration with McDonald, signaling both a release from and rapprochement to the crimson one. That same year he produced PFM’s second release and its first live album, and in ‘75 wrote the lyrics for and produced a widely successful single for Lake, “I Believe in Father Christmas”, which included a 60-piece orchestra and 30-voice chorus. And it was just about the holiday season that Sinfield decided, for the second time, to leave the glitter of London for a quieter locale, this time the Spanish island of Ibiza.

 

In 1977, over several months, ELP released both of their momentous Works volumes, carrying Sinfield’s lyrics over turntables and stages across the globe.

 

Spare us, the galleon begged,

But mercy’s face had fled.

Blood ran from the screaming souls

The cutlass harvested

Driven to the quarter deck, the last survivor fell.

She’s ours, my boys, the Captain grinned,

And no one left to tell.

    (lyric excerpt, “Pirates”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

Ironically, most of the poetry apart from the above was restricted to love songs like “Lend Me Your Love Tonight” and “Watching Over You”. Odd that the band at the helm of stadium-geared progressive rock, after releasing albums of the highest order, felt the need for such a formula.

The unfortunate fall of both ELP and Sinfield’s lyric contributions, however, came in the form of Love Beach, the album that moved more rapidly to LP cut-out bins than even John Travolta’s fateful leap into music. From the open-shirted, tanned Bahamian imagery to the unexpectedly commercial sounds, the album strayed far from rock art song.  In a bizarre turn, when looking back on the single “All I Want is You” as well as the title song, one detects pop hooks of quality and Lake’s voice is surely in top form. The all-star band Asia, which included Carl Palmer, would form within two years in an attempt to popularize such prefab progressiveness, forging an emulsion of electro-pop and prodigious playing, just where Love Beach left off.

 

-       Emerson, Lake and Palmer: “Love Beach” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABKtXIWJmko

 

Through 1979 and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sinfield’s production and writing credits continued. In 1980, he returned to London and began work with songwriter Andy Hill on several projects including “The Land of Make Believe” for UK singer Bucks Fizz which quickly went to number one. The pair wrote several others for Fizz, little known on these shores, as well as for Lulu (“If You’re Right”), Leo Sayer (“Have You Ever Been in Love?”), and the hit for Celine Dion “Think Twice”. As before, Sinfield was called on by foreign-language artists to write English lyrics to their songs, but also worked with Chris Squire (“Run with the Fox”), Moon Martin (“X-Ray Vision”), Eric Clapton (“Leave the Candle”), Bad Company (“Smokin’ 45”), John Wetton (“Get What You Want”), among others. Sinfield, with a select band drawn again from KC forces, performed on Spanish television in a rare performance. But perhaps his most intriguing credit was the debut album of Unrest for their song “Manhattan”, “an adaptation of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" from the Woody Allen film Manhattan with King Crimson & Half Japanese lyrics recited simultaneously”, as stated in Sinfield’s discography. The description alone remains a total draw.

 

1993, the 20th anniversary of Still, saw a reinvention of the album under the title Stillusion which the poet has since disavowed due to the label’s disorder of the tracks. He continued working as lyricist for other artists and contemplated a second solo album, working at points with John “Poli” Palmer, vibraphonist/flutist of Family. In 2005, after recuperating from open-heart surgery, Sinfield mused over the place of poetry in rock music, offering: “Well I would class Randy Newman as a man who conjures intelligent, 'poetic writing' with depth and disturbance. With him sits the mighty Mose Allison; in fact dozens of old blues legends. John Lennon of course, Bob Marley and Youssou N' Dour. There are so many; very recently a young singer called Laura Marling (another old head on young shoulders) whose new album, " I Speak Because I Can", I am currently listening to.” Never one for complacency, in recent years he appeared in the BBC documentary Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements, and also collaborated with experimental Italian musicians Max Marchini and Paola Tagliaferro, offering both his own spoken word performance and a lyric for Tagliaferro’s vocal.

 

-       Max Marchini and Paola Tagliaferro: “Blossom on the Tree” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fdl7z27B3s

 

Residing today in the coastal English town of Aldeburgh, Sinfield is an active writer working primarily in haiku who has been featured in numerous European festivals of poetry. He is still reading Blake, Kahlil Gibran, Shakespeare, Basho, Dylan, when not engaging in farming, natural cooking and herbal medicines. Rumors of his planned second album remain pervasive.

 

 

 

References:

 

Sinfield website: https://www.songsouponsea.com/

 

Smith, Sid: liner notes, Still, 2009 re-release (Esoteric Records)

 

Smith, Sid: “Happy Birthday Peter Sinfield” https://www.dgmlive.com/news/happy-birthday-peter-sinfield-and-the-making-of-still

 

Rockerilla Magazine, May 2010, Sinfield interview by Max Marchini, http://www.songsouponsea.com/galleries/press/rockerilla2010.html

 

 King Crimson website: https://www.dgmlive.com/

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Book review: Edward D Wood, Jr., Selected Poems, Unexpurgated Edition

 

Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, February 2021

 The Literary Odyssey of Ed Wood: Beyond the Notoriously Bad Films, Here’s the Unearthed Poetry  

Edward D Wood, Jr., Selected Poems, Unexpurgated Edition (Black Scat Books, 2020)

  by John Pietaro

Yes, it really is that Ed Wood. Recalled in cult movie circles as the bizarro planet’s Orson Welles, Wood was writer-director-producer of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster among other Golden Turkey recipients. Yet, there is more to Edward Davis Wood Jr than the mere obvious. Beyond the movie infamy, Wood is probably best known for his cross-dressing, but within a filmmaking and fiction-writing career, latent credit is due for his bold introduction of a once secret drag society to a conservatively fearful America. The fact is Glen or Glenda?, which featured Wood in the titular role(s) and included others from the L.A. trans community, premiered in 1953—the year of the Rosenbergs’ executions--as the Hollywood Blacklist, loyalty oaths and whitewashed conformity raged on. The seventeen years leading to the Stonewall uprising was, in effect, a lifetime away.

 Wood’s output through the ‘60s focused on horror, crime and the supernatural, increasingly incorporating lurid sexual imagery (i.e. - Orgy of the Dead). At baseline bizarre, these films often walked the line between pseudo-experimental and merely exploitative. Into the 1970s, suffering from major depression and alcoholism, Wood earned a meager living writing porn and taking the odd role in X-rated films. He died in 1978, just 54-years-old.

 A review of Wood’s rather sordid writing life clarifies that he was a kind of prodigy, even if largely of the bad, having completed at least one work of non-fiction, engaged unsuccessfully in authoring drama for the stage, and penned multiple articles, numerous screenplays, and some 80 pulp novels (occasionally under the pseudonym Ann Gora) including Take It Out in Trade, Raped in the Grass, Necromania and Death of a Transvestite. Somehow overlooked, though, was the poetry. According to legend, Wood in 1968 decided that these poems were worthless and released the chapbook manuscript into the La Brea tar-pits. Posthumously, Selected Poems was published in a limited edition in the 1990s, followed by a brief run by Black Scat Books that has since fallen out of print, leaving very few with the knowledge that this work even existed. However, on November 7, as per the publisher’s announcement: “In honor of Donald Trump‘s historic election loss we’re bringing back an out-of-print classic from our Absurdist Texts & Documents series”. Certainly seems timely.

 Unexpurgated as it is, the title page shows a photo of the author’s original cover, handwritten in fountain pen. Also included is the image of one of his typed interior pages decorated with corrections, deletions, blotches and even a line of poetry, long lost. Far from deeply artistic, the work remains a fascinating document. Some of the poetry is grown from screenplay synopses and science-fictional visions, while others are based on the author’s wider musings and ideals, much of it leaving the reader with only more questions. Opener “There is No Here There, Either” (page 11) is dedicated to Gertrude Stein, yet his focus remains on the supernatural. Or does it?

                          There’s something out there/out there in the cemetery/that’s too near/for comfort there

 The piece begins with a seeming renunciation of fantasy escapism, committing to only the “you” cited herein; as per the dedication, the subject is Stein, the celebrated author and fully out lesbian of a still earlier, even more groundbreaking time. The symbolism seems of particular import (and I’m locked up here/not there), though far too brief a gaze into Wood’s personal struggles. Unfortunately, there is no indication as to when these poems were actually written. He offers more insight with “The Woman Thing” (pp 16-17) which was composed “for Glen and Glenda”, perhaps a challenge to those refusing to accept the trans lifestyle. Later in the book, Wood responds with more overt militancy in “Screw You, Mistress Crowley” (page 24):

                                   Can your heartthrob stand/my shocking corset/the mink straitjacket/

I’m a pretender in the nightlight/and there’s no pretender!

 The poems, however, which directly relate to his 1950s films are, as expected, bizarre enough. See “Poem Nine from Outer Space” (page 20) and “Second Thoughts” (page 15), both of which appear to be stage direction excerpts from the script of Plan Nine, the latter actually having been read aloud on screen to the footage of Bela Lugosi, that which was shot briefly before the actor’s death.

 So much of Wood’s work, in every media, was riddled with conflicted sexual concepts, often of a violent sort, so a piece like “Paula” (page 18) opens with generally erotic imagery that is soon realized as the rape of a sleeping or drugged woman. Halfway through the poem, the rape is ironically attributed to Eros, the Greek god of love, but it ends hauntingly cold:

                                            Paula running/Paula running/running beside the road.

 This theme is also evident in “Nothing from This World” (page 13) which vacillates between the other-worldly and the brutally guttural:

                                                         It’s getting dark/where she is pointing/                  

His awful wife/buried in the ground/

Pointing up while he/lies down sealed in a vault

 Within this mix of emotional upheaval and splintered symbolism, Wood closes the chapbook with a particularly notable piece, one indicating his inclusion in both the literary underground and the LGBTQ community as well as the sorrowful reality of unsuccessful arts careers. It is dubbed “Howl” (page 25) and opens with a sharp, possibly satiric awareness of Ginsberg:

                    I saw the best flicks of my generation destroyed/by critics/ranting hysterical mutants/

Dragging directors in drag through the mud like/blood-thirsty bullies

 Here, Wood deems himself “the angel-headed genius in the orange neon dusk of Hollywood”, and observes his audience both laughing at and cheering him in the cinema before

                                                    They staggered off into the sunset strip/

Leapt off the Hollywood sign into the bliss of the curvaceous cult-womb/

That wrapped them forever in its loin-lit angoric embrace


 For more information on Selected Poems of Edward D. Wood Jr.https://blackscatbooks.com/2020/11/07/the-saucer-has-landed/

Monday, January 11, 2021

Jazz/Poetry: Phillip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, Elliot Levin

 IN HONOR OF THE LATE PHILLIP LEVINE'S BIRTHDAY, HERE'S MY NYC JAZZ RECORD CD REVIEW OF A JAZZ/POETERY THREE-FER FROM 2018.

Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, May 2018

Phillip Levine
Phillip Levine (NPR)

Benjamin Boone/Philip Levine, The Poetry of Jazz (Origin 2017)

Yusef Komunyakaa/David Cieri/Mike Brown, White Dust (Ropeadopa 2017)

Elliot Levin/Gabriel Lauber Duo, Yu (Dimensional Recordings 2017)

The tendency of poets to break out of the two-dimensional boundary is often seen as a post-War phenomenon, yet poetry was oral long before written language emerged; this lineage extends back to the oldest of folk forms. The African American jazz tradition, begotten from a brutal melding of divergent cultures, cast a certain boundlessness. The music’s central swing and bop allows the poet to emote and embellish with shifts in meter, stress, dynamic, repetition and, surely through improvisation.

The fusing of verse and music is exhibited quite classically on the Poetry of Jazz. This encounter pairs Philip Levine, Pulitzer Prize recipient and US Poet Laureate, with alto saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone. The two collaborated while teaching at Cal State, Boone being a musician constantly drawn to words, and Levine a perpetual jazz fan who grew with the music. The album was recorded in 2012, three years before Levine’s death, documenting the moment and the movement. The poetry flows through Levine’s lips most fluidly. Of special note are homages to jazz heroes backed by charts embracing the honorees and poet alike. But the album opens with the poet’s musings on drinking gin in youth and its symbolism of adulthood’s challenges. Boone’s music effortlessly captures the vibe of the late ‘40s-early ‘50s, particularly the West Coast sounds. Arrangements are clean, sumptuous and driving and the album boasts an array of musicians including Greg Osby and Tom Harrell (on a gorgeous piece dedicated to Clifford Brown). Karen Marguth’s vocalization tops off the melody on two cuts recreating the era anew. Oh, this is hip. But on “Making Light”, Levine calls on “the blue light like no other”, describing summer in the west within a cool waltz that ends abruptly, only to land upon “the Unknowable”, a piece dedicated to Sonny Rollins’ quest for a higher musical truth on the Wiliamsburg Bridge. “Singing through the cables of the bridge that were his home” recites Levine as Chris Potter’s tenor obbligato becomes a solo flight, and the poet wonders “how he knew it was time to inhabit the voice of the air”. While most of the journey is a celebratory exercise of Levine’s poetry of (and through) jazz itself, the album closes with a somber recollection of “What Work Is”, here the struggle for dignity among the unemployed in painful expectance, and those lost in toil.

White Dust, the project of poet Yusef Komunyakaa, however, focuses on the subtlety of emotion within this chapter of the author’s cultural- and self-awakening. The CD opens with the words: “I love how it swells into a temple where it is held prisoner, where the god of blame resides” and affirms his individualism as well African heritage. Komiunyakaa states: “A ghost hums through my bones like Pan’s midnight flute” and later, speaks of “West Africa’s dusty horizon”, where it seems he may have composed this piece. A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Komunyakaa was a correspondent during the Vietnam War and his works are politically aware and interwoven with the soaring of jazz and the blight of the unconscionable. If James Baldwin had sought a career in spoken word, this is probably what it would sound like. Masterful.

The quietly prideful improvisations of pianist David Cieri, bassist Mike Brown, and alternating percussionists Sam Ospovat and Shahzad Ismaily carefully lures the poetry, read in a dark baritone, static but never unmoving. Drawing on the legacy of blues as much as an ethereal timelessness, the music embraces the atmosphere as much as the words. “Dolphy’s Aviary” makes artful use of space to build tension and then colors it with the waterphone and distant, Eastern-sounding vocalization of Cieri. The mix is magic. And yet the pianist, who created the score for Ken Burns’ outstanding “Vietnam” series, leans into a raw, almost rural blues just as cannily (ie-“Letter to Bob Kaufman” and “More Girl Than Boy”). Brown, Ospovat and Ismaily appear to welcome the ambience like it’s another improviser. Ospovat’s brushes tell the story as do Ismaily’s use of found metals, percussives and Moog. Take special note of bassist Brown’s probing, searching counterpoint to all spoken and left unsaid.

Philadelphia’s Elliot Levin is a monster of the tenor saxophone and flute, a musician of unique command who plunders his instruments’ histories in a manifest of experimentalism. His early work with Cecil Taylor notwithstanding, Levin has left an indelible mark in the annals of the underground. But he’s also a studied poet with several books of verse to his credit. On Yu, his new duet CD with drummer Gabriel Lauber, Levin makes judicious use of both his musical and spoken word skills in this tour de force of free jazz. Lauber, a Swiss musician residing in Mexico, founder of the Dimensional record label, flawlessly reflects and expands via a barrage of skin and metal. The album is comprised of nine varied selections, with opening and closing pieces “Yu” parts 1 and 2, respectively. The first is a sonic blast, a joyously manic conversation which leads into the more subtle “Be Tasty, Be Poetry, Be Fado”. Here, Levin blows and then moves into spoken word, initially at a whispery tone which feels Ginsburgian. Then with full-voiced, Kerouac-like jazz phrasing under Lauber’s post-post-bop accompaniment, the spoken word serves as another lead line, colored with neologism and vocalization. There is an enduring magic in this art. “Some Are of Sadness” and “Berlin Mystic Dawn” put Levin’s voice at center, under which Lauber’s breathless improvisation speaks to the ages.


The Poetry of Jazz:

Gin/Making Light of It /The Unknowable (Homage to Sonny Rollins) /Yakov/ They Feed They Lion/ I Remember Clifford (Homage to Clifford Brown)/The Music of Time /Soloing (Homage to John Coltrane) | Benjamin Boone/Arrival/A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One/Our Valley/Call it Music (Homage to Charlie Parker)/By the Waters of the Llobregat/What Work Is

Philip Levine - poetry and narration

Benjamin Boone -alto/soprano saxophone 

Tom Harrell - trumpet

Branford Marsalis - tenor saxophone 

Greg Osby - alto saxophone 

Chris Potter -tenor saxophone 

Stefan Poetzsch - violin 

Karen Marguth - vocals 

Max Hembd - trumpet 

David Aus - piano 

Craig von Berg - piano 

Spee Kosloff - bass 

Nye Morton - bass 

John Lauffenburger - bass 

Brian Hamada - drums 

Gary Newmark - drums 

Atticus Boone - French horn

Asher Boone - trumpet

 

White Dust:

Andodyne/Letters to Bob Kaufman/Charmed/Dolphy’s Aviary/Jumping Bad Blues/Loneliness/More Like a Girl Than Boy/New Black Yoga/Ode to the Qud

Yusuf  Komunyakaa- poetry

David Cieri=keyboard, piano, waterphone, voice

Mike Brown- contrabass, looping

Shahzad Ismaily- percussion, MoogSam Ospovat-percussion

 

Yu:

Yu/Be Tasty, Be Poetry, Be Fado/Wam Warn Awning/some Are of Sadness/Under Cover Army of Salvation/Berlin Mystic Dawn/Prayer for the Ancestors/Like When We Were Young/Yu

Elliot Levin-poetry, tenor saxphone, flute

Gabriel Lauber- drums

 


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Book review: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American

 

Originally published in Truth Out, January 5, 2021

https://truthout.org/articles/graphic-biography-highlights-the-life-of-actor-and-activist-paul-robeson/

Graphic Biography Highlights the Life of Actor and Activist Paul Robeson



A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American, Art and Text by Sharon Rudahl, Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware (Rutgers University Press, 2020)

 Book review by John Pietaro

Paul Robeson, born in 1898 to a father who understood the pains of slavery firsthand, rapidly developed into a renaissance man the likes of which this nation had rarely imagined. Scholar, vocalist, athlete, actor and fearless activist, he was practically disappeared by his own government in the decades leading to his death when he was all but neutralized at age 76. This story has been told before, but never in such a visceral manner. With the latest graphic biography in the Paul Buhle pantheon, A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American, artist and writer Sharon Rudahl (a civil rights activist, writer and political cartoonist of many years) offers the tale of Robeson to a new generation. Rudahl displays the influence of the young Paul Robeson’s father, William, who fled north to escape slavery. William fought in the Union Army and then studied at Lincoln University to become a church pastor and raise a family. His youngest child was Paul, whose life seemed to have been built of equal parts liberation, education and self-expression. Robeson’s story is not only moving, particularly when told in such a manner, but deeply inspiring to people of color, the working class and oppressed people of any race.

One gripping fact made evident in this graphic biography is that Robeson’s mother, who was legally blind, died in an accidental fire when he was but 6 years old, the flames catching onto her skirts; Robeson apparently never recalled this traumatic occurrence. The struggle continued as Rev. William Robeson was fired from his initial employment due to the incorporation of early liberation theology into his sermons. Rudahl effectively displays the young Paul’s fights for equality in New Jersey schools and Rutgers University, including the brutal attempts of white students seeking to injure him on sports fields where he was an All-American football player. His tenacity in those areas, as well as during his move into the theatre, with the lead in Simon the Cyrenian followed by Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along and then a tour of England for another theatre work, are movingly part of this biography. And while Robeson completed his law degree and became an attorney, the racism he encountered in this profession forced him to recognize the opportunities awaiting him within a full-time career as a vocalist and actor.

From 1915, the Provincetown Players -- a Greenwich Village theatre troupe founded by Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook (later additions included Edna St. Vincent Millay and Floyd Dell) -- were writing and producing vitally important works of a decidedly progressive nature. Robeson soon became an actor of note within this organization, making an initial statement in O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun and then, most famously the Emperor Jones. These roles led to celebrity status for Robeson who then, in 1925, had a starring role in Body and Soul, a film built around Black spirituals. The experience led Robeson to focus on this music as important African American repertoire, and he toured these songs widely, something he maintained throughout his career as he shared culture and art internationally.

Another powerful component of Robeson’s life was the role played by his wife, Essie, a writer and photographer. Even early on she was his adviser and confidant, acting as his agent for years. Rudahl displays Essie’s importance in Paul’s attaining an initial recording contract and wider stage and film roles. Robeson’s involvement in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, and of course, his role in Hammerstein and Kern’s Showboat, are also keen points in this book.

While Robeson was an artist of the highest order, he was always aware of the racial injustice in his midst. Rudahl offers vivid details of Robeson’s maturing recognition of the machinations of racism within capitalism, starting with his Welsh tour of Showboat and his solidarity with a local miners’ strike. His commitment to international labor was maintained from that point on, often placing Robeson into a boldly activist role. More so, his studies of African heritage, the various nations and languages of the continent, allowed him to recognize the great contributions Africa brought to the world. He would of course make a study of various cultures, focusing ultimately on linguistics and using this skill to not only speak to the peoples he came into contact with on tour, but learn their songs as well, thereby reaching audiences on a profound level.

Much of this book is dedicated to Robeson’s political maturity and actions on behalf of the earliest civil rights movement. Also, beautifully depicted in the book is his 1934 visit to the Soviet Union following an invitation from Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. Rudahl tells and shows the reader how Robeson stared down and confronted Nazi guards in Berlin as he, Essie and friend Mary Seton anxiously boarded their train into Russia. Though Lenin’s great vision of the Communist revolution was already becoming torn by Stalin, the advances for the poor, people of color and women so impressed Robeson, who famously stated, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being. I walk in full human dignity.” The Robesons chose to have son Paul Jr. remain in the Soviet Union to attend school for two terms where he’d be free of racism. And by 1936, Robeson became a pivotal supporter of the left during the Spanish Civil War, traveling through war-torn areas and performing for the International Brigade wounded. During World War II, he became a major anti-fascist voice, working almost exclusively within the Popular Front and debuting “Ballad for Americans,” composed by CP Earl Robinson, on national radio.

At the height of his fame, Robeson lived by his ideals, refusing to perform in segregated theatres and singing a wide array of works both live and on radio, including Spanish and Chinese revolutionary material. He also took on the historic role of Othello in a smash Broadway run. Following the war, Robeson worked for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign and was a featured guest at the Paris World Peace Conference. His bold comments at the Conference, denouncing that Black people, living within institutionalized racism, were potentially drafted to fight in a segregated Army against the Soviet Union was all of the material that the right-wing U.S. reactionaries needed in a campaign against Robeson. After being openly blacklisted on these shores, his passport was revoked, and Robeson was unable to travel for performances as his films and recordings were taken from circulation. His initial bout with major depression began in this period. Robeson was called before the brutal House Un-American Activities Committee, powerfully depicted by Rudahl, where he refused to comply, offering legendary responses to the Committee. Ultimately able to travel to Europe, he had a massive breakdown and was in London as the 1963 March on Washington occurred. Robeson desperately wanted to return home to be a part of what he had helped found decades earlier. He was largely forsaken by the younger generation of activists and, with declining health and diminishing performances, he retired and experienced a slow, sad eclipse. Robeson died in 1976

The book concludes with a text Afterword by editors Buhle (renowned historian and author/editor of some 40 volumes) and Lawrence Ware (a professor of Africana Studies and writer on race and culture for The New York Times). This section encapsulates Robeson’s vast significance in history and offers summary of his re-emergence in recent years, including Rutgers University dedicating a “Paul Robeson Plaza” last year. Martin Duberman’s sweeping yet equivocal biography of 1989 is acknowledged in the Afterword while also contemplating the relevance of volumes published since. More so, Buhle and Ware examine Robeson’s leading role within the Popular Front as well as the fading memory of this movement in recent decades. Happily, their depth of knowledge is imparted in this “extended scholarly footnote” for any reader unfamiliar with the Popular Front’s vital role in global anti-fascism.

The text closes with a quote by C.L.R. James, a figure Buhle has written on with passion, proclaiming Robeson as “a man of such magnificent powers and reputation (that) he gave up everything…such is the quality which signalizes a truly heroic figure.”

 

 

 

 

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