Johnny Cash was an artist. Maybe one of the last remaining on the scene.
Johnny ran with a no-bullshit, hard-living, hard-partying crowd of artists. Forget the label
“Country”—it could be argued that the Highwaymen—Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie
Nelson, Waylon Jennings—defied any label. Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you
negate me.” Johnny and his gang wouldn’t be negated—battles with record companies,
fighting to have their music heard the way they knew it should be, private battles they
were never ashamed to make public—they fought to communicate what they felt, no
matter what it might mean.
That, to me, is the heart and soul of Art.
I think the epitome, the sheer embodiment of what it meant to be Johnny Cash—man and
musician—can be found in the song and video for “Hurt.” I talk to my acting students
about Truth—what it means to have enough conviction and faith to stand naked in front
of the world and just Be, whatever that means. So many performers are just that—
Hollywood “bad boys,” scantily clad buxom bimbos who wouldn’t show their
intelligence in public for anything, temper-tantrum athletes, and smarmy politicians.
Everything is so carefully considered and staged and scripted that there’s no hope of
communicating any Truth, and that’s probably not their aim. They have moved so far into
Character/persona that there’s no person, no connection, nothing but a big glossy finish
and desire to make everyone else feel Small.
I can’t imagine Johnny had much patience for that crap.
I don’t think I need to rehash all the lyrics or do a frame-by-frame analysis of the song
and video for “Hurt.” If you loved Johnny, you know both of them quite well. Those
thundering Am and F chords in what might be called the “chorus” (it’s all so solitary,
chorus seems a grossly inaccurate word for that moment in the music) invade and pull
and talk until a mirror rises up and I am suddenly considering myself within those words
Trent Reznor wrote.
Johnny was good at making you think about yourself with his simple, personal story-
songs and piercing eyes.
The song is short—like life; like most messages of Truth. If you consider that Rumi could
say in 16 lines what it takes the entire New Testament to fumble thru you’ll see just what
I mean. The video visually resonates through no more than five or six repeating images—
the table of uneaten food, the closed-up Cash Museum, Johnny and June, instruments and
awards, shots from younger days. But isn’t that the way? I find myself picking up my
guitar in odd hours of the day and night and picking out those opening chords over and
over—Am/C/D, Am/C/D—all the while playing out my own narrow catalogue of
scattered yet connected images over and over, wondering at my own roads, my own
choices, paths, and opinions. My own empire of dirt—all those I’ve let down and made
Somehow watching Johnny’s shaky hand pour out that glass of blood-wine over those
piles of untouched food makes it easier to be upfront about my own shortcomings and
decisions and all the hurt they’ve caused.
That’s Art, to me—like gazing into a painting of Pollack’s and seeing all your own stacks
of stuff in there.
Maybe it’s age, or the coming to terms with death, that allows a man to go so far on the
eternal record book that is film, but I’d like to think that Johnny could have made that
video any time he wanted. He just knew when it’d be best.
Johnny seemed to understand some things about that rotten bastard Time.
Losing Waylon must have been a bitch (Everyone I know goes away in the end), and the
commercialization of Country music to the point of insincerity and unrecognizability had
to have made him shake his head and long for elder days (I know it does for me) but then
again, there’s always a danger in trying to analyze and theorize about what a man means
when he decides to sing someone else’s song.
So I think I’ll leave that where it lies.
(Yeah—I think that is a pun...)
I miss Johnny Cash. He’s on a very short list of contemporary Artists that come to mind
when I press myself for other examples. Forget actors, man—there’s rarely a sincere one
in the bunch. Kristofferson is still out there, and he does the acting thing, too—but he
seems to come alive and dance closer with his dharma with a guitar in his hands. I heard
him in a phone interview the day after Johnny died and I swear I heard that Am chord in
the scratchy, weathered drawl that is Kris. He’s gonna miss the Man. No denying that. No
other musicians really come to mind—well, none you’ve ever heard of, I don’t guess—
and I would bet the same could be said of all the living writers that come to mind.
It’s easier to work in the hues and tones of Truth in a basement where no one sees your
work. That kind of Truth is easy.
It takes a Johnny Cash to bring true Art into the Light, unchanged and at full potency,
like Bacchus beneath the moon. If the world can handle it—fine. If not, maybe it’s just as
Maybe the disciples always have to be the select.
I miss Johnny, though I’m glad to have his tapes. I’m glad to have a Dad who shared
Johnny’s tunes with me when I could barely walk. I’m glad I learned to play guitar so I
can pick out those great low-note intros to so many of his songs. I’m glad to have that
image of him as a young musician standing in an open boxcar traveling to who knows
where and damned near everywhere.
In the end, I guess the lyrics do say it best: If I could start again/A million miles away/I
would keep myself/I would find a way.
Cause it don’t matter what you may have done as long as you knew it was you every mile
down those tracks.
Johnny Cash taught me that.
I wish I’d thought to let him know it before now.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Johnny Cash was an artist. Maybe one of the last remaining on the scene.
The Details: published July 2006 by Dalkey Archive Press (www.dalkeyarchive.com),
$13.95 paperback, 247 pages, ISBN: 1-56478-383-9
The Book: A collection of 150 poems (1991-1998) organized into 10 thematic sections,
varying by style and subject, with translation by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. It is a
grand tour of Paris, the City of Light.
The Poet: Jacques Roubaud has four novels and two books of poetry available in
English translation. He is a member of the innovative literary group Oulipo, whose work
with form, constraint and memory this collection clearly exemplifies.
The Context: An exploration of the conditions and changes of the beloved city that has
inspired so many of the world’s great artists—poets like Rimbaud, Francois Villon, and
Baudelaire; painters like Tolouse-Latrec and the Montmartre personalities in dance and
music and other entertainments that he immortalized; composers like Michel Legrand;
playwrights and theorists such as the four Jeans—Anouilh, Genet, Sartre, Cocteau; and
innovative filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard. The poems bring to mind the magnetism
that drew famous American expatriates to Paris, from Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude
Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald during the café society of the 1920s to rock
star turned poet Jim Morrison, who spent his last three and a half months within her
arms and whose grave is still one of the main attractions of Père Lachaise cemetery.
The Words: The book begins, quite appropriately, with “Paris,” a 4 line poem after
Raymond Queneau (whose influence appears throughout the book—he was also a
member of Oulipo):
“The Paris we find to traipse/Is not the one we used to find/And we’re not wild to get
to/The Paris we will leave behind”
Over the course of the 247 pages the reader encounters all of Paris’ most famous
landmarks—Avenue del’Opéra, Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Bastille, the Tuleries, Rue
de Rivoli, the best known cemeteries, the Bibliothéque Nationale, and the Eiffel Tower.
This latter monument, perhaps the City’s most famous, spurs Roubaud to write:
“It would indeed be difficult to talk of Paris without talking of the tower” and of other
poets: “they have seen it so much that they don’t see it anymore” (“Poem of the Eiffel
Like the sense of change with which the collection so fundamentally deals, this idea of
the spectacular becoming the familiar and ultimately the foreign is not singular to Paris—
it is universal. It is happening in large cities and in small towns no longer small
throughout the world.
It is not only the concrete, physical world of the city that is familiar to us, but the
conditions of the writers walking her streets as well. “Queneau in November” paints a
picture that could be applicable to many late-autumn artists. This exploration of the
condition of the artist also appears in “Among a lot of Poems”:
“A poem I wrote with my feet/As I compose all my poems/Silently in my head walking”
and more cryptically in the poem “Informal Intimate Ode...”:
“I’ve grown stopped growing begun to grow”
Roubaud is obviously a lover of language and an adept when it comes to wordplay, and
this collection has a little bit of something for just about everyone’s tastes, from the
rhyming couplets of “Place du General-Brocard” to the “pictopoems,” or what one could
call word art, on pgs. 176-77. Other notable examples include “Rue Jonas” and “Plesent
Streets.” An extreme example is “Impasse de Nevers,” which uses an almost Joycean
experimentation with language. Along the same lines, there is an interesting permutation
of sentences using the words black, grave and street in “Undated Night, Rue Saint-
Jacques.” Roubaud makes interesting use of nested parens and the mathematical
construction of language in the abstract as well as in the concrete in the form of such
things as street addresses, arrondissements (subdivisions of an administrative district),
and license plates.
Overall there is a nice balance of complexity/simplicity and abstract/concrete, although
the more extreme wordplay and experimentation with language ride the edge of
pretension and cleverness along the lines of T.S. Eliot. There is also the more
philosophically questionable pieces, such as “Invitation to the Voyage” (a list of cities
and other places from A-W) and the section “Hommage to Sebastien Bottin’s Telephone
Directory,” which beg the reader to ask that unfortunate and thorny question—Is this
But, more to the point, does such a label as “poetry” even matter? It is inevitable that
when an artist is testing boundaries over a considerable span of time and experience,
that some things will work better than others and will apply less or more to the individual
reader’s own tastes and sensibilities.
Because of the considerable scope and style of the 150 poems in the collection, it would
have been interesting to hear the translators’ thoughts on handling this aspect of their
work. (There is no translators’ foreword or other elucidations beyond the very helpful
endnotes on the poems and poets, etc. that the poems reference. I have always found
the translators of poetry—especially that which is experimental or particularly abstract or
philosophical—to have wonderful insights into the way they work. Thomas Merton’s
notes on his translation of the Way of Chuang Tzu or Edward Fitzgerald’s on Rubaiyat of
Omar Khayyam come clearly to mind. Note: I did recently receive a notice through a
Listserv that Keith Waldrop has a new translation out of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil that
is billed as groundbreaking.
The section entitled “Six Logical Pieces” bears comment. It is a series of philosophical
dialogues with an interesting format. There are two poems per subsection, that alternate
between the concrete (5 street poems and 1 about Time, the latter bringing to mind
Gertrude Stein) following a predecessor poem that is far more abstract. There was
additional translation help from Norma Cole and Michael Palmer in this section.
I found the 20 Sonnets to not be Roubaud’s strongest, most easily flowing form,
although there were some simply stated yet very profound insights offered that brought
to mind the poems of Rod McKuen. There is also an interesting use of footnotes in
Sonnet XII as compared with the unnecessary editorial footnotes in Sonnets V and XV—
I would much prefer it if such illuminations were left to the reader to discover on his or
The Section Square des Blancs-Manteaux 1983, Meditation on Death, in Sonnets
reminds me of Gregory Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death, and was a very thought-
The prose poems “Square Louis-XVI” and “Our Kings” (pgs. 57-58) seem so appropriate
in the aftermath of the 2001 atmosphere of strained U.S.–French war relations.
At the risk of following too closely in the footnotes that I criticized above, I suggest a
careful read of the two dream poems on pages 78-79.for the subtle differences they
“Quiet Days at Porte d’Orleans” (both a section title and series of poems) has a little bit
of everything, from 2- to 3-line poems consisting of funny little observations to more
complex pieces. There are very subtle changes in the three poems from 1991, 1993,
and 1995 that share the name with the section. They are worth the time it takes to
“Pont Mirabeau” is worth mentioning because it contains a footnote that generates a
second footnote—something I have never seen in my sixteen years of writing and editing
artistic and scholarly works. I say, it’s about time.
For its varied considerations of one of the world’s most interesting cities, its scope and
experimentation and sense of fun, Jacques Roubaud’s latest book of poetry deserves a
place on the shelf of the lover of Paris, the poet, and the enthusiastic student of the
It’s no secret that this 28-year-old musician, poet, and novelist is a favorite at New Mystics.
Patrick Porter’s musical and literary talents have grown steadily over the years, from the time 13
years ago when he was playing drums in his father’s band to his latest works (aside from this
review, we have several of Patrick’s poems on the site this month, as well as a bio and my review
of his first poetry book, Nervous Halo).
For the past several years he’s given in to his wanderlust, splitting time between the environs of
Denver, Colorado and those of New York City, the journeys always providing a wealth of new
material about the people and places Porter sees. His three previous CDs—Lisha Kill, Skylan Mo,
and Maybe Waltz, are what he calls the “NY Trilogy.” (You can read my comprehensive review of
Lisha Kill at http://www.newmystics.com/New%20Mystics%20Music%20Lisha%20Kill.htm. It
contains a lot of background/biographical information in addition to thoughts on all the tracks).
My interest in Porter’s artistic and professional progress stems from his being a Renaissance
man; one quickly coming of age on both the published page and in the recording studio. He’s
Rush’s New World Man, going between the two worlds of the cityscape and the outlands, the
factory and farm—his successes are ours, and his failures as well.
Portland, Oregon’s Greyday Records (www.greydayrecords.com) put out Die Wandaland, which
was recorded in relative isolation outside Denver, with fancy mikes like those used on the
Budweiser frog commercials; a grand piano; his old Casios; and multilayered recording
techniques. This is not so much a sea change in Porter’s recording style as it is a huge upgrade
in technology and Possibilities. He took full advantage and pushed the envelope in many ways,
most notably perhaps in the cryptic line in his press package: “a black and white TV set plays the
We can only guess what he means.
Die Wandaland shows a breadth of influence and subject matter unmatched by any of Porter’s
previous discs, and even extends into the realm of his outward advice to other people. It seems
as though his coming of age process is allowing him to open up and embrace life more than he
has in the past.
The liner notes sum all of this new intention up in their last word: “Repent.”
The cover design and other artwork, with their multiple photos of one blue and one pink duck in
various postures and stages of destruction, neatly convey the layers and layers of symbolism at
play in the songs.
“Lite Sleeper” begins the album with the familiar tones of one of Porter’s beat up old Casios,
slowing down to a drag—his way of continually reminding us of Time. The Casio underbeat stays
semi-consciously insistent the whole way thru. “Lite Sleeper” features multilayered harmonics and
unaborted guitar work—a big deal given Porter’s past practice of killing a solo half way thru.
There is a sense of committal to the role of virtuoso musician on this disc that has been absent in
the past...Porter seems less shy about being so damned good. He’s growing into his artistic suit
of clothes. When the hand clapping begins the song is dancing on the jagged edge of Pop but
never quite gets there—Porter’s down to earth sensibilities won’t let it. We get a little bit of Porter-
speak with an “Oh yeah” that seems to be a form of peacemaking with the vibe of his new, fuller
approach to his music.
It’s a portent of things to come.
“Sears Tower,” with its solid acoustic structure and interesting backing effects and percussion
also benefits from a nice lyric hook: “you know you’re half way home.” There is some strong
imagery at work here, with the “up the elevator, then down again” line being a subtle assertion
that such things are the sum worth of a monument like the Tower and, by extension, some
people’s lives. There is an interesting voice recording at the end about someone trying to steal his
camera before the acoustic finish, complete with a barely there police siren.
While looking over the CD, one of my musician friends noticed the track “Esso Station” and asked
me “They still have those?” It’s a nice moment in time—a comment on Porter’s extensive
Greyhound criss-crosses round the country—often the subject matter of both his songs and his
novels and poems—his East-West dance, trying to heal the dichotomy in the best traditions of the
gone angel Kerouac. [Having spoken to him about this, the geography is well extended—he was
actually in London at the time he saw the sign, and if you listen to the lyrics, all the clues are
there.] Is it that they can’t commit or is it the other way round? The song is supported by his
signature drumming, reminiscent of some of his earliest recordings. Foreboding guitar and
keyboards throw up images of Donald Pleasance in his bad toupee seducing the Bee Gees with
women, food, drink, and drugs in Sgt. Pepper’s. The tonality and exactness of his playing is
particularly crisp and clean, and harmonics and keyboard effects make this song notably
atmospheric and grim.
“Reality Row” opens with a multilingual sampling from Radio and TV containing a commentary on
God and Aliens. The song, as evoked in the opening lyric: “Prayer to 3 am gods,” starts out as a
spiritual meditation with a Toad the Wet Sprocket solemnity that works well, complete with
layered guitars. The second verse adds a tinkling, discordant piano, giving the meditation an
unsettled feel—where I think he really wants us. We get more Porter-speak—“from New York City
to Albany Arms” as the structure transitions into an extended instrumental section and a further
shift as it moves from meditation to accusation: “Cause I know what you represent.” It all ends
with Porter’s voice staggered on two tracks—“I saw this thing on the Church today. It’s better to
forgive and forget than to hate and remember,” conjuring up the familiar image of those clever
little puns in black letters on the white signboard of the local Christian churches that try to draw
the faithful (and faithless) in.
There are two songs on Die Wandaland that deal specifically with death, an interest of Porter’s
that reminds me of the Beat poet Gregory Corso. “Bond Funeral Home” has an opening riff like
U2’s “In God’s Country,” although it quickly progresses into something more complex, including
the falling bomb/rocket effect from Lisha Kill. The song examines the ramifications of the
wanderlust that seems to govern his life. “Afraid to Die” opens with a sampling of what sounds
like a flight simulator game for the computer—we hear warning bells and a voice: “Don’t think!
Wind shear! Wind shear! Wind shear!” It is the requisite Porter death reflection, and when he says
“I know you’ve heard this before,” although he is talking about Romance, he seems to be
acknowledging his preoccupation with sickness and death as well.
The next two tracks on the CD are also the most different. “Dealin’ Doug” is just an acoustic
guitar, slow, insistent strumming, with multilayered vocals whereas “Hey Lindsey” provides the
opposite end of the spectrum—I thought it was the most complex and interesting song on the
disc, with its off-rhythm guitar intro, bongos, a cappella “Hallelujah!” and haunting piano lines. The
guitar interlude offers brisk arpeggios and a variety of styles, including a pseudo-flamenco. The
song is also interesting in terms of its lyrics, which are a series of flat out statements
uncharacteristic of Porter’s more self-reflective approach. The following are the most
“I don’t know what to tell you...I can’t change the way things are about to go.”
“I don’t know what the hell you expect.”
“You should never try to change the things you should just accept.” (This reads to me like a less
sappy version of the Serenity Prayer.)
While I am talking lyrics, I think this might be the first time that the word lachrymose has ever
been used in a pop-rock song...
“Hayseed Highway” gives us our first taste of Porter blues, with deep bass hooks, slide guitar—
the whole nine. It’s no surprise that some of his best lyric work shines forth in this framework, with
such phrases as “Will they grind my bones into nutmeg?” and “Woe is me and woe is they” really
jumping out. He also makes good use of the repetitive Blues element in lines like “It’ll never
change, it’ll never change” and “It’s hard to escape, it’s hard to escape.” The song transitions
toward the end into the repetition of the lines “There’s always Maybe/There’s always Bailey”,
which is ominous given that Porter’s home base is Bailey, Colorado, and the evocation of its
name seems anything but pleasant. You may have heard of Bailey recently—it was the site of an
attack on several young girls by a guy who had been living in his car—he sexually assaulted 4 of
the girls before killing one of them and then himself. The song continues to grow more insistent
and musically complicated and layered until it collapses on itself like an old tarpaper shack.
The last song, “Made of Stone,” feels like an autobiographical confession of a depth notable even
for Porter, who has never shied away from turning the mirror on himself. Lyric lines like “flocked
together, all landlocked birds” bring to mind the literary plight of James Joyce, and his classical
models—Icarus and Dedalus. There is a need to escape from not only place and time but
circumstance. The song features lyrically strong word play and content—it’s true poetry (“there’s
a father and a daughter/which one’s closer, which ones farther?”) and when he sings “It’s not my
fault,” you want to believe him, even if you can’t. The cymbal and snare are haunting and
atmospheric, and in the end, it just ends, abruptly, reminding us that the changes in Porter’s
writing for this disc are far from permanent, the growth not locked in; that he can, on a whim,
leave us hanging, waiting for more.
And so we wait, while he writes and wanders, and writes some more.
There is knowledge that comes with experience and there is the more refined knowledge,
that which we call Wisdom, that comes with experience over time. It has been my great
privilege to be able to write this review of two CDs’ worth of music by Craig Sonnenfeld,
a Boston-area singer/songwriter whose accomplished musicianship and lyrical wisdom
are equally worthy of note.
This is my first time reviewing two CDs from the same artist in a single music essay and
it has been an experience with a great deal of merit. Perhaps the greatest barometer for
measuring an artist is not a single work, but the arc and growth of his or her work over
time. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts on Craig’s two CDs, Reverie,
recorded in 2004 and produced by Steve Rapson, and Storm Clouds Rising from 2005
(New Roots Records, www.newrootsrecords.com), produced by Craig and Steve
In introducing new artists to our readers here at New Mystics, I am often inclined to
reference mainstream artists to create a common language of art. In Craig’s case, the
comparisons are somewhat heady, as you will see, and deservedly so. Decades of life
have gone into these two CDs, both with guitar in hand and not. Because he is writing
about a long life well lived, I sense the same depth of perspective shown in the latest
albums by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and, albeit without the pain, of the last works of
Johnny Cash (you can read my tribute to Johnny on my Literature Page).
So, to the business and biography, and then on to the music.
Both CDs are available through Craig’s website, www.craigsonnenfeld.com, where you
can also read some other reviews and find out some cool things about Craig not contained
in this review. There was also a short article on Craig at
www.insiteboston.com/Jan06/music.html. The article refers to Storm Clouds Rising as a
“somber romp,” which seems to me to be a contradiction in terms, “with little comic
relief” and a “low mood.” Not to take umbrage with a fellow reviewer (our work is, by
nature, highly subjective) but I hope this review does a better job of representing just how
varied and nuanced Craig’s second CD actually is.
Craig, who originally hails from Atlantic City (Jersey in the house!), had left his music
behind for more than twenty years and Reverie, his first release, marks his return to
playing, writing, and performing, inspired in part by a trip to see the Rolling Stones in
concert and mostly by the encouragement of long-time friends. In his youth his guitar
teacher was Philadelphia Jerry Ricks who was playing at the time with Mississippi John
Hurt, Son House, and Skip James, and Craig aptly demonstrates all he learned. He thanks
several Boston area Open Mic hosts on the liner notes for Reverie, and he also played in
Jersey in 2005 at the New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers University and at the festival in
Ocean City, NJ where Tom Rush headlined. His music is played regularly on Jim
Albertson’s “Down Jersey Jim” show on WSNJ in south Jersey. Craig has also played
twice at The Bitter End in NYC, where he was part of the singer-songwriters showcase.
His CDs have also been broadcast internationally in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel,
and the Netherlands.
Reverie is just Craig and his guitar, easing back in as it were, and he wrote all 12 songs
except for “Wayfaring Stranger,” which is a traditional tune. In the folk tradition, no song
(on either CD) is less than 4 and a half minutes and one runs 7 and a half. The cover art
on Reverie was done by his daughter Amanda.
“Junebug” is a ballad about his father’s death that establishes him firmly in the singing
storyteller tradition, a role he plays out with passion, insight, and success throughout both
CDs. “The Joke’s on Me” evokes the bittersweet songs of Jim Croce. “Talkin’ Cubicle
Blues” is an autobiographical piece with no small amount of humor in the tradition of
such Talkin’ Blues folksingers as Bob Dylan. “Bantry Bay” brings to mind the strolling
minstrel vocal quality of Glenn Yarbrough, a quality that is equally strong on the wryly
humorous and insightful “Now that I’m a Geezer.” “Two AM Blues” has a deep
southern-style Blues feel that’s hard to ignore, while Craig’s arrangement of “Wayfaring
Stranger” has all the haunting qualities of some of my favorite songs on Storm Clouds
Rising. “Hills of Wicklow” borrows from the Irish ballad tradition (there are songs on
Storm Clouds Rising that also have a feel that brings to mind the emotionally loaded
songs of Andy M. Stewart and Tommy Sands). Craig seems to have thought a lot about
the comings and goings, the joys and sorrows of Love, as any poetic folksinger must, and
there is much for the listener to think about in turn on “The Only Promise” and the last
three tracks on Reverie, “Too Young, Too Poor, Too Bad,” “The Song that Never Came,”
and “You’ll Always Be There.”
In general, Storm Clouds Rising is a richer and more complex disk (which is not meant to
take anything away from the overall atmosphere of Reverie), featuring several guest
musicians (Steve Rapson on electric guitar, Steve Sadler on dobro, Valerie Thompson on
cello, Lee Adler on keyboards, and Deb Blackadar on percussion), no more than two
playing on any given song. This sparse arrangement really helps to draw focus to the
depth of Craig’s lyrics and his talent with the guitar. Storm Clouds Rising has been
garnering high praise from no less than Bob Franke, and it’s easy to see why.
“Rope of Sand,” the lead-off tune, is a Western ballad in the style of “Ghost Riders in the
Sky,” Garth Brooks’ “Lonesome Dove,” and Dylan’s “Romance in Durango,” and, of
course, the songs of Johnny Cash. Craig’s songwriting universe appears to have expanded
out from the solely autobiographical to the more general Human Experience between the
two CDs, and this change is couched in a larger historical context that manifests
throughout the CD. For instance, “Rope of Sand” is thematically echoed on the last song
of this 9 song set, “Ten Steps to Climb,” which tells the story of a Civil War era ex-
soldier awaiting his hanging in a prison for the crime of killing his wife’s lover.
“Sweet Liza Jane” has a bluegrass feel with nice dobro work. Craig further explores the
bluegrass style in a more vigorous way on “Devil on the Run,” which immediately
brought to mind the awesome guitar work and rich vocals of Dan Tyminski, of Alison
Krauss and Union Station. This is definitely one you’ll want to turn up loud!
There are several haunting compositions on Storm Clouds Rising. “Anne Frank’s Eyes” is
beautifully played and heartfully wrought, and according to some correspondence from
Craig, has been getting the most attention. The lyrics were posted in English and
translated into German by a multicultural youth website from Oberhausen and included in
an article they did on Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank died
(http://www.multi-online.org/downloads/dailynews/daily_news_7.pdf). It has also been
played on the Midnight Special radio show (in a set list that included Tom Chapin, Joni
Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, and Janis Ian). The song was also
syndicated nationally on XM satellite radio and 70 other stations. “Masquerade” has
especially atmospheric cello playing. My favorite track on both CDs, and, to me, the most
haunting (for those who know me, you can see the correlation) is “The Lighthouse,”
which tells the story of a young New England husband lost at sea and the widow he
leaves behind. I’d like to quote the chorus:
“She begged me not to sail so soon
But I was young and heard the tune
Of southern winds and ancient ruins
Of whaling ships and gold doubloons”
I think these four lines will give you a very good idea of just how talented a writer Craig
Sonnenfeld really is. “The Lighthouse” has been getting regular airplay on both WOMR
FM on Cape Cod and Troubadour AM in Shirley, Mass. WOMR had Craig into the
studio for an interview as well.
“Catch Some Z’s” echoes the more humorous numbers on Reverie, with a wonderful tick-
tock rhythm added by Deb Blackadar’s percussion.
“The Very Last Time that We Kissed” features some interesting keyboard atmosphere
from Lee Adler and a subtle effect on the vocals that works very well.
I want to mention in closing that Craig is holding the same Ibanez acoustic with cutaway
body that I have been playing for the past two years...I’m still searching for all those
great licks that he’s managed to find in there...
Craig, if you’re listening, I’m ready to learn them!
Craig let me know that he’s got a full CD’s worth of songs already written and should be
back in the studio in 2007.
I can’t wait to hear what comes next.
The Marble Tea is Knight Berman, Jr., Jersey shore musician and songwriter. You can
read all about Knight—his background, former bands, etc., in my first piece on his music,
“No Boy Wonder,” where I reviewed his I’m Batman EP in 2005.
Knight constructs ear catching and damned near perfect “3-minute pop songs” (the title
and subject of one of his songs, available on the Hoga-rama disc you can get free by
purchasing I’m Batman), creating 15-minute EPs that take the listener on a whirlwind
journey through a number of styles, moods, and philosophical concerns. As he says on
his website, www.marbletea.com (a very groovy site where you can get downloads,
purchase cool stuff, and read Knight’s prosic ruminations), he “continues to examine the
underlying connection between life's smallest things and the grander design behind it all
through an unpretentious brand of indie pop.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The first song on Fantastic Day, the title track, picks up where I’m Batman left off,
offering up a feel-good commentary on life’s simple pleasures—a positive trip that made
I’m Batman such a hit with listeners and reviewers alike (he sings to the kids on the
corner: “I don’t need Sega-vision or Time Warner.” Amen.). Featuring Jeff Booth on
bass, “Fantastic Day” hints at the musical layering to come on the rest of the EP, with fun
piano and harmonics filling out a solid rhythm guitar foundation and a sun-shiny beat.
Simple pleasures for the moment addressed, Knight offers up a little of his take on the
grand design in a mysterious tune called “Mercury.” Beginning with a hi-hat and a
“Theme from Peter Gunn”-esque guitar riff, the song questions the nature of reality and
the shared and individual perceptions of the people weaving in and out of his life as he
stands “outside the Mercury Lounge having a smoke with [his] good friend Mau.” The
song evokes a series of dark and vivid images, including a phone ringing in the
background during a quiet moment—is it intentional? A happy accident? Not knowing is
the point and more than half the fun. The song features some cool guitar effects that show
off Knight’s musicianship while reinforcing the mystery of the Mercury.
Moving from the surreal to the very real, Knight takes us to the crossroads, where his
“digital lo-fi” indie pop meets cautionary tale. Knight, a wordsmith extraordinaire in all
of his songs, comes on especially strong lyrically in “How Does It Feel?” giving us the
stereotypical love-em-and-leave-em type reconstituted as a “cunning Conquistador” who
puts “nicks on his shield” and a “starving Henry VIII” who uses “sex as a meal.” To the
target of the fox’s affections, he says: “Of course you think you’re something more, but
you’re not. You’re not.” Sure, it all seems like fun, but “What does he tell his friends
when he’s slipped from your bedroom, baby?” Knight’s musicianship is now hitting full
tilt, with a fun guitar solo that takes the song into a transitional acoustic guitar segment
with an unsettling little twist. Over and over we hear the lyric: “You’re Natalie Wood and
you died tonight,” evoking images of the tragic end of a Hollywood starlet caught in a
world of unreality and false affection she ultimately couldn’t control.
“There’s a Girl I Know” is something completely new from Knight—a keyboard-based
song. Clocking in at 2 and a half minutes, the song features Brian Eno–influenced sounds
and a subtle echo on the vocals that gives the song a haunting feel that extends out nicely
from the tragic tone at the end of “How Does It Feel?” I hope that Knight continues to
experiment with the keyboard on future discs.
Fantastic Day ends with a wonderful 3-chord tune called “Say Goodbye” about how a
move from the South to the North might affect his cat. There are some beautiful and
thought-provoking vocal lines in this song (including our first clue that it’s a cat, to which
he sings “smooth down your hair”). He talks about the “tree neighborhood,” and saying
goodbye to “Danish cookie breakfast” and the “red bordello hallway.” We hear the sound
of a door opening and a few lines later Knight sings: “your little room-world disappears.”
To demonstrate the disconnect and disarray that comes with such a move, Knight puts in
a discordant interlude that would make George Martin and the Beatles proud. “Say
Goodbye” for all its poetry and elegance also offers one of the most enigmatic lines to
come from the EP. Speaking of the closet, Knight sings: “It’s dark and the clothes smell
like inside your head.” We talked a little bit about it at Knight’s home and at the class-A
used book store in Pt. Pleasant Beach, NJ, the Book Bin, which he helps to run and I can
only say that the line is what you make of it, which is of course the best answer of all.
Before letting you run off to purchase Fantastic Day, I have to mention the free EP that
you get with your purchase—Slave to the Tuna. I don’t want to give anything away by
talking about each song individually (although there is plenty to be said). Instead, I’ll just
let you know that these 5 songs are just about my favorites that I’ve heard from Knight.
In a bit under 15 minutes he covers: dreams (including one involving SNL’s Amy
Pohler), memories, the bittersweet and beautiful mix of love and snow, a hip little thrift
store, and the value of life, both small and great, bringing us back to Knight’s musical
and overall life thesis: life is a mix of both the simple and complex, the sub-atomic and
universal, the child-like and mature, the angels and the imps.
Lucky for us, we get to hear terrific music while Knight’s sorting it all out.
Be sure to check out Knight’s My Space page at: http://www.myspace.com/marbletea
Claudia Beechman has a way with words. She is a versatile and deeply moving poet as well as being an accomplished vocalist, and in listening to her latest CD, The Grand Legrand, a collection of 11 songs (most of which you will instantly recognize by melody if not by title) composed by the amazing Michel Legrand, one cannot help but realize that it truly is the singer as much as the song. Claudia’s deft use of phrasing and her unique interpretations of the songs’ varied meanings and moods put her in the realm of entertainer (well beyond mere technical proficiency) where the greats like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Crawford reside. Making a song your own is like crafting a poem—awareness and manipulation of sibilance, consonance, and rhythm allow the vocalist to stir the listener’s emotions the way an able writer does. This is where true artistry lies and Claudia Beechman possesses it in no short supply.
None of this proficiency and artistry has happened by accident. Music and theatre are in Claudia’s family and in her blood. (What follows is a very brief synopsis—please visit Claudia’s bio on her New Mystics poetry page and her website, http://www.theatrefest.com/claudiabeechman/ to read more about her fascinating and very successful life in the Arts, and for performance dates and information about her other CDs and projects). She started at 14 as a folksinger, where she was influenced by Judy Collins and Joan Baez. She progressed to studying opera, earned a BA in French, and spent a summer in Montreal where she took a course in Moliere and “le francais vivant par l’action dramatique”—living French thru acting. She moved to Paris and undertook serious study of the actor’s craft. While she was home on a visit, her father gave her a deluxe edition of Edith Piaf and she learned the guitar accompaniment and began to perform the songs at several venues. While playing in clubs she was asked by a Canadian actor to do the lead female role in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Her career has developed from there, as she has continually expanded her repertoire of French songs with piano accompaniment and learned to sing songs in Hebrew, Turkish, and Greek.
Before I talk about the songs, I want to share a little information about the man who wrote them. Michel Legrand composed over 200 film and television scores (e.g., Wuthering Heights, Ice Station Zebra, Lady Sings the Blues) working along the way with directors like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Luc Godard, and Orson Welles. He has won 3 Oscars out of 13 nominations, 5 Grammys, and an Emmy nomination. At 22 his album I Love Paris became one of the best-selling instrumental albums ever released. He collaborated with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on some of his most well-known songs (which appear on this disc) as well as the Oscar-winning Yentl score.
Michel’s reputation as a composer gave him the opportunity to work with many accomplished writers and performers, including Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Johnny Mathis, Quincy Jones, Neil Diamond, Stan Getz, James Galway, Ray Charles, Arturo Sandoval, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. After he saw a performance by Dizzy Gillespie in 1947 he got hooked on jazz. After going to New York in 1956 he made his first jazz album Legrand Jazz with no less than Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Ben Webster, among others. He was only 24. Miles used to call him The Frog. Ironically, Michel played on Davis’s last jazz album. Michel went to Hollywood in 1967 and won ASCAP’s Henry Mancini award in 1998.
I found it interesting that Legrand writes at a table, pulling the music from the silence. He says that the instrument would only get in the way and limit the imagination as it creates the music. He also never listens to the album once the engineering is finished because he doesn’t want to have any regrets about his decisions or risk imitating what he’s already done.
And now we come to the songs on The Grand Legrand, and the masterful job Claudia has done with them. The CD, which has been popular in Europe as well as in the United States, features arrangements and piano by Tom Baust (an accomplished accompanist and music director for Claudia and other concert and cabaret performers and a professional singer as well) and cello by Nancy Stokking, who has performed at several top venues, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Both Tom and Nancy have performed with no less than Sarah Brightman of Phantom of the Opera fame, and their expertise and passion are obvious throughout the 11 songs.
The songs on the CD can be categorized by the amount of arrangement and instrumentation used. For example, “One at a Time” and “Summer Me Winter Me”
have very simple cabaret style arrangements, which really showcase Claudia’s memorable mezzo-soprano, including a powerful flash of the top end on the latter and “Happy,” which is a difficult song with varied rhythms, challenging phrasing, and some interesting incidentals, is also quiet enough musically to let Claudia’s talent shine through. This particular arrangement incorporates the theme from “Brian’s Song” to wonderful effect. “You Must Believe in Spring,” another song simply arranged, features a haunting cello that demonstrates how the musical instrument can be as much a conveyor of pure emotion as the voice when placed in hands as capable as Stokking’s. You can hear parts of “The Summer of ‘42” in this song, which is another excellent touch.
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” has a wonderful arrangement with opening and closing phrasing reminiscent of Stephen Schwartz. Claudia really shows off the top of her range in this one.
In contrast to the subtle arrangements on the aforementioned songs, “After the Rain” has an instrumental fullness that overpowers the singer (a danger on some of the other songs as well) and instrumentation, especially the piano, truly goes too far here. The arpeggios and other rain effects are based on a good idea but are just too much. It makes the song too busy and Claudia’s voice is nearly lost.
“Once Upon a Summertime” and “The Years of My Youth” both shine a light on Claudia’s facility with French lyrics, and the result is both fluid and beautiful. It is in both of these songs that Claudia best demonstrates her ability to sell a song, including a well- executed spoken section in the former. Several piano variations on classical themes create a compelling atmosphere in the interludes. Again, the cello is particularly powerful and bursting with emotion. “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” has a wonderful musical interlude as well.
“Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the only recorded medley of the music and sung dialogue from the 1964 film of the same title (there is actually only one song—“I Will Wait for You”). It has the further distinction of being the most popular download on the disc at cdbaby.com, and a few listens will clearly demonstrate why. The film, which won the coveted 'Palme d'or' award was groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first film musical entirely sung, taking as its subject matter a love story set at the time of the French-Algerian war (a subject explored by Jean Genet in his play The Screens just a few years earlier). It featured Catherine Deneuve, then just 19 years old. (My readers will probably know her best from the David Bowie vampire film The Hunger). The medley is done in mostly French with the original lyrics as well as an English translation on the inside of the CD’s cover. Baust demonstrates his further ability as a vocalist, singing the part of Guy with sensitivity and theatrical skill and complementing Claudia’s engaging singing of the words of Genevieve.
“The Windmills of Your Mind” is my favorite track on the CD and my favorite Michel Legrand composition. It is very well done here (and there are several terribly poor versions—including the one from the film by Rex Harrison’s son Noel!) The song comes from Norman Jewison's 1968 film "The Thomas Crown Affair," which starred Steve McQueen. The song featured French lyrics by Eddy Marnay and English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and won the Oscar for Best Film Song in 1969. Claudia’s deft transition from chest to head voice and back while she works her way thru the spiraling lyrics is well supported by Baust’s best piano work on the CD, with Nancy Stokking’s cello complementing at every turn.
The Grand Legrand is the perfect CD for a quiet, romantic evenings with that special someone and a good bottle of wine. It has become a unique and appreciated part of my collection.
Position has its privileges.
As editor of New Mystics, I sometimes have the pleasure of receiving a request from a writer or musician to review their work. In the case of Tom Baust, this is technically the second time I reviewed his work, as he was the arranger and accompanist for Claudia Beechman’s The Grand Legrand, which I reviewed last year.
When Tom contacted me about reviewing his 2004 self-arranged collection of nearly 20 standards comprising 15 distinct musical tracts, I did not hesitate to say Yes! Being a musical theatre performer for most of my life, I knew the songs would be a treat and Tom’s work with Claudia had impressed me in no small measure.
I was not disappointed. From the song selection, to the wonderful anecdotes in the Liner Notes, to the arrangement and execution of the songs themselves, there is a great deal to enjoy.
Before I get to reviewing the songs themselves, let me tell you a little bit about the very talented and hard-working Tom Baust.
Tom is a Native of Philadelphia (Yo, Adrienne!). He began piano at age 5, and violin at age 8 and later studied guitar and composition. He does studio musician work and has played and sung for several publishing companies. He currently does vocal work for Alfred Publishing in California. He is a soloist and core singer with the award-winning Choral Arts Society and has sung with a dozen other notable groups. He sang at New York’s famous Waldorf Astoria at a dinner for Bill Cosby and was a back-up singer for Sarah Brightman (of Phantom of the Opera fame) on her 2000 tour. He has played and sang at other illustrious venues such as Lincoln Center and Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal.
In the Spotlight (available at www.tombaust.com) features solid musicianship from not only Tom but from Spenser Reed on guitar, Tony Marino on bass, and Marco Marcenko on drums. Engineering was done by Kent Heckman. All the tracks were recorded with the music tracks laid down first, with vocals added last, except for “On My Way to You”, where the piano and vocals were done at the same time. Tom was the pianist, vocalist, and arranger for all songs (except the arrangement on “Fascination Rhythm”) as well as serving as the producer.
Although I have never met Tom Baust, a lot can be learned from the design and content of the CD. The Liner Notes are chock full of anecdotes, memories, dedications, and deep thanks to his private tutors (especially Miss May), college instructors, and workshop teachers. They also feature photos of Tom, the groups with which he performs, and his family. They explain Tom’s journeys and connections to the songs, rather than facts about the songs themselves, and I’ll keep to that spirit (with a few exceptions) in this review.
The CD starts with Steve Allen’s “This Could be the Start of Something Big,” an appropriate hint at what is to come. Tom wastes no time in showing the top end of his baritone and his prowess with vocal dynamics. The song ends with a wonderful flourish, both musically and vocally.
He follows the opening track with “Wonderful Day Like Today,” from the show The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (personal favorites of mine). Optimism is the theme here, as it is in many of the other selections. Originally written as a duet, Tom has arranged the piece nicely for a single voice.
It is in the Liner Notes for the next track, “On My Way to You” (music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), that we read the first of several heart-felt stories about the intermeshing of Tom’s life and music. His story of a circular journey revolving around University of the Arts in Philadelphia (formerly the Philadelphia Music Academy) is worth keeping in mind as you listen. The Liner Notes for this piece also give the listener some insight into the genesis of Tom’s different musical styles.
We next hear a solid rendition of “Love Walked In,” by Ira and George Gershwin, which leads into another Gershwin tune and Marchetti’s “Fascination” in an intriguing arrangement by a nameless college friend with whom Tom has lost touch, but hopes to meet again. This arrangement, titled “Fascination Rhythm Melody,” is the first real hint on the CD of the range of Tom’s showmanship, especially in Gershwin’s well-known “I Got Rhythm.” The medley features some nice background guitar work by Spenser Reed and has a nice musical interlude interwoven with a familiar variation on a theme (a favorite technique of Tom’s and one he uses well). The piece builds and builds to a very solid ending.
My favorite track on Claudia’s CD was Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind,” which had lyrics by the Bergmans. Claudia’s CD is mentioned by Tom in the liner notes in connection with his own rendition. This is a nice arrangement featuring excellent piano work and strong cello parts, which he wrote. The song, which comes from Norman Jewison's 1968 film "The Thomas Crown Affair," has been done many times, and not always well. Tom’s rendition, although different from Claudia’s, shares many of the strengths of the version on The Grand Legrand.
“Windsmills” is followed by “I’d Rather Cha Cha Than Eat,” a sadly obscure tune by Grand, Boyd, and Elisse. I could find virtually nothing about this song on the Internet, which is unfortunate, because it is my favorite selection on the CD. Tom says that he was encouraged to explore his comedic side at a workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Connecticut. I for one would like to hear him do a whole CD of these types of songs. Play close attention to the lyrics—they harken back to the heyday of clever multi-part rhymes and top notch lyric-making. The “alter ego voice” (Tom’s own) commenting on food is hilarious—listen close! There is great playfulness in the singing, demonstrating further Tom’s natural showmanship.
The next two songs are well known and feature a perfectly positive message for these trying days of war and strife and for all aspiring and working artists alike. The first is “People,” the classic Barbra Steisand tune from Funny Girl, written by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne and the second is “Sing, Sing A Song” by Joe Raposo. This song was popularized by the Carpenters, although I have distinct memories (although my research turned up no actual proof) of it being sung on the kids’ show Zoom. This is a very upbeat and jazzy arrangement. It appears before “People” in the liner notes, but the actual order on the CD works much better.
“My One and Only Love” by Wood and Mellin and “Tenderly” by Gross and Lawrence are companion pieces on the disc, each a tribute to the standards, and explorations of memory and emotion. The first is a slow piano-bar number that transitions into something of great power and passion before diminishing to its start, like the emotional swell of memory itself. “Tenderly” shows off the low end of Tom’s able baritone voice.
“Orange Colored Skies,” another show stopper, written by Milton DeLugg and Willie Stein, was originally recorded by Stan Kenton and his Orchestra with The Nat King Cole Trio in August 1950. Frank Zappa arranged and conducted a version recorded by Burt Ward, the Boy Wonder of the original Batman series, released as a single on November 14, 1966. (This seems like an appropriate place to plug my review of I am Batman, Knight Berman’s CD). Having Burt Ward sing this tune seems like a no-brainer as the signature line, “Flash, bam, alacazam” is so reminiscent of the Batman fight scenes with their illustrated “Onomatopoeia.” Tom handles the difficult phrasing in the song with energy and skill.
Things slow down with another Babs hit, “The Way We Were,” by Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Tom executes the song with all the proper sentiment the heartfelt lyrics demand. The echo of the spoken word Memory over and over at the end is powerful and appropriate to the theme of the CD.
We get another two-song medley with “Once in a Lifetime,” from Stop the World I Want to Get Off, by Bricusse and Newley and “For Once in My Life” by Miller and Murden. There are some nice sweeping piano phrases in the first part and a funny anecdote in the Liner Notes. The second part of the medley features a very upbeat and jazzy arrangement. Tom seems to be having a blast with the gifts he’s been given and the energy pours out of the speakers, inviting you to sing along. The medley feels like a 1970s sitcom come to life, and as I listened, my thoughts were filled with shots of Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper in knit berets on a busy city street. The medley features great ‘70s style wa-wa-peddle guitar riffs by Spenser Reed. A terrific get up and get going in the morning arrangement.
The CD closes with “There Will Never be Another You” by Warren and Gordon and “The More I See You” by Gordon. The opening line— “This will be our last dance together”—says it all. The closing track is a beautiful blending of the two songs, with simultaneous lines sung beautifully by Tom that once again show his dexterity with arrangement.
In the Spotlight has a little something for everyone, no matter your specific taste, and provides an excellent backdrop for an at-home dinner with someone with which you have shared a great deal.
I anticipate many joyful, reflective listens in the years to come, and am deeply grateful that Tom took the time to ask me to do this review.
Tom can be reached through his website or directly at email@example.com
Picking up Nervous Halo, a collection of poems published by Academic and Arts Press in
2001, I didn't know what to expect. The title, coupled with the mysterious cover
illustration ("believed to be" by Gilles Brenta) led me to think perhaps the poems were a
religious exploration, in the spirit of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.
If there is a little bit of God in everyone and the Devil truly is in the details, then the
cover art and title (which appears as a recurring line in one of the poems) are perfect.
In 25 poems, titled as 26 "Streets" (more on that later), the poet takes the reader on a tour
of a city as seem thru his and other eyes. One peopled with what at first might seem the
pitiful and downtrodden of society, as might be the case when portrayed thru the pen of a
less gifted writer. Porter, however, rises above writing about the lower-class city-dweller
for no other reason than to say, "Here they are. Don't they make a provocative subject for
Real Art?" He is an Insider—not only living and working among his subjects, but
celebrating them; not for their circumstances, but because they are managing to exist in a
hard world, as he does. "8th Street," for example, presents a woman, child in arm,
entering a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. Porter is writing not as an observer but as a
fellow consumer, who says without pretense, "it don't matter/woman/let it fall/let it
drop/let it go" (p. 13). With such nonjudgmental artistry, the poems invite the reader to
get to know these people, and him as well, as individuals, without any imposed direction
from the author. This alone makes Nervous Halo worth reading.
Porter spends a great deal of words on the details of his world—the angle of a streetlight,
the shape of a bottle, the sound of a hinge— and all to great effect. For the reader
unfamiliar with urban living (it cannot all be the sprawling studio apartments and café
lattes portrayed on "Friends") Porter paints a picture of city images that, while not
glamorous and inviting, are not repulsive either. Like an adept set designer, he dresses the
space with the minutiae and detail of his world, and then knows enough to go away and
let the characters move freely within the space. It is clear that he has listened to them and
understands them enough to convey their essence in an unencumbered, moving way,
making all of the poems provocatively autobiographical, without the romance or self-
indulgence that often comes with the use of Self as Subject. Compare, for instance the
poems of Allen Ginsberg to those of Jim Morrison—although they are equally
compelling, there is a near-martyrdom to the latter’s that weakens rather than strengthens
the work. Porter escapes such traps with seeming ease.
Coupled with the detail of his poetry is Porter's varied use of form, which mirrors the
diversity of the city. At times the pages are filled with images and skillful repetition and
at others single words cascade down the page in urgent thought. Some of the poems take
up several pages, while others are only a handful of lines. "26th Street," the last poem, is
a deceptively simple 15-word poem that holds a little mystery for the astute reader (Just a
hint: read the Contents page with care).
No review worthy of the name is complete without a bit of constructive criticism. In this
case, however, it is not for the poet but for the publisher. There are instances where page
breaks were dictated by page length rather than a poem's structure. This made for some
jarring interruptions. Should Nervous Halo see additional printings, this small criticism
can be easily fixed. It is a credit to the poet that his poems were engaging enough over
the first dozen lines to actually be a bit jarring when the victims of an ill-considered
Nervous Halo, and its promising and talented author, is a breath of fresh air from the
"poetry slams" referred to in the publisher's note and the cynical tendencies of some
modern poets. I recommend Nervous Halo to anyone who believes that great poetry is not
only timeless and multilayered, but also allows the reader to have opinions independent
of those of the author.
(Camera Obscura Records, 2005, CAM071CD, www.cameraobscura.com.au)
Patrick Porter is a multifaceted artist in the purest sense, working odd jobs of various and mostly limited duration while he creates his novels, poems, music, and paintings (which often serve as the cover art for his records). Patrick’s work as a poet has garnered a great deal of attention (I reviewed his Nervous Halo a few years ago) and his music is selling very well these days (his Reverb Saved my Life, also available thru Camera Obscura, is a gem). He also has a CD out thru Asaurus Records (www.asaurus.org) called Skylan Mo. He recently traveled Europe in support of his music, producing a blog of his encounters and experiences on his website, www.nervoushalo.com, that was the kind of stripped down beautiful-language literature reminiscent of ole Jack Kerouac.
Patrick’s latest effort, Lisha Kill, recorded in Schenectady, New York in the summer of 2003, is at first hard to wrap your ears around, to get comfortable with—songs often begin or are accompanied by ambient sounds (birds, traffic, dishes being done), snippets of the overwritten, overacted films of the ‘40s (which are directly opposed to Porter’s far more subtle style), or odd/cheaply produced sounds from the second-hand, abandoned instruments he found in a pile of junk at a Salvation Army depot near his apartment, and they end abruptly and often right at the point when they are taking you inside. This is no doubt Porter’s strategy, and he uses it to great effect. All of the contradictory/paradoxical forces at work on the record—musically, vocally, lyrically, and in choice of produced and ambient sounds—invite multiple and attentive listens and put the spectator in the uncomfortable position of having to stop and really see instead of simply rolling up the window or stepping over the legs of the drunken bum between him and the theatre entrance.
There is a great deal he wants us to see. In reading other reviews and the press release from the record company, it seems every other song on the record has a tragic story or sobering anecdote attached—such is the nature of a James Joycean artist keenly tied to the everyday workings and personal tragedies of the place(s) where he chooses to reside. The same unsentimental reporting of daily events in his neighborhood that makes Porter’s poetry so powerful and ultimately beautiful is at work on the 13 tracks of Lisha Kill. A fellow reviewer, Luke Buckham, says “He’s able to haunt us, to gently rattle us out of the trance we often enter when confronted with the commonplace.” I couldn’t agree more. Patrick’s love of simplicity and self-deprecating, unassuming nature make him a trustworthy and capable spokesman for those Just Getting By. Who needs a voice given to their trials and quiet victories more than they?
And what a distinct and worth-a-moment-of-your-time voice he gives them—sharing the most dismal of events with the unapologetic truthfulness of Tool/Perfect Circle’s Maynard James Keenan, albeit with an unsure and understated vocal style more reminiscent of REM’s Michael Stipe. The musicianship is of high quality but Porter never seems interested in trying to prove it. Just the opposite. In songs such as “Free Kittens” and “End Badly” the guitar solos are so well rendered they bring the listener deeply into the song—and then Porter pulls the plug (literally?), leaving us with nothing but the chirping of birds, or a bit of film dialogue or the sounds of a Machine. On “Slow Torpedo” he begins with a cheap-sounding Casio drumbeat overlaid with exquisite guitar playing—Porter the virtuoso truly shining thru—and as a solid organ accompaniment joins in and swells the whole trip is suddenly ended with a mish-mash of drum sounds followed by Porter engaging in some apparently tongue-in-cheek philosophy (“think of it as a big list, from birth on one side to death on the other”). When in doubt, there are the words, sometimes getting autobiographical about writing (like in “Old Words”—“he tried to write a novel and failed” or the next track, “Window Seat”—“look up your own words in your own dictionaries”). In a track called “Mermaid,” he once again uses the Casio drumbeat, this time presaging the lyric “I quit/I quit/Pretentious bullshit.” This is the enigma that is Porter—any time he gets close to musical perfection he exits the plane and pulls the cord rather than risk wading into the waters of Pretentious Bullshit. As if to prove to us how serious he is, Porter adds an old Country song to the mix by resurrecting Bill D. Johnson’s 1957 effort “A Wound Time Can’t Erase,” which is enhanced by backing vocals by Amber Curtis and the sound of the evening dishes being done (the musical equivalent of a coffee stain on a Jackson Pollock piece—life goes on while the artist makes his art). This isn’t the current form of Country with New York–looking models in cowboy hats but the real deal nicely executed. All of this unpretentiousness may be a necessity of his role as Everyman—getting too high would obscure the essential street-level view and disrupt the true genius at work in Porter’s artistic world, which varies from front porches to basements and other makeshift studios in the downtrodden cities of which he writes. Places supplying rooms where, as he says in “End Badly”: “I can be a fucking drag.”
But he’s anything but. The first track, “Good People with Bad Credit,” begins with a mumbling, laughing Porter followed by his seemingly warming up his fingers on the acoustic, which is then joined by a beautifully rendered but quickly aborted guitar passage. Then the song begins…”Baby, Don’t know what to do, Don’t know if I’m going crazy”—which could possibly be the theme for the artist, the record, the town, the country, and the world.
The second track, “End Badly,” begins and ends with the chirping birds, bringing to mind the sparrows that presage the coming of George Stark in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, especially when a careful listen reveals the sound of a quiet but insistent machinery at work behind the birds. Together, they support an engagingly strummed guitar line and solid beat that set the musical tone for what is to come.
In reading liner notes from his past CDs and other Porter anecdotes, one detects a certain irreverence for the musical instruments he uses (as evidenced by the Lindsey Martin–produced photographs of Patrick in a ghoul’s mask kicking and throwing his guitar); they are not sacred items, but a means to an end, and in Porter’s case, they are often borrowed or as mentioned earlier, taken from abandoned piles of other people’s junk. He puts them all to good use while he has them—a few listens and you can easily detect where and how the “Casios, mandolins, toy pianos, accordion and…two-tiered Kimball organ” were used. Music history is full of stories of innovations in instrumentation and recording that have opened new doors of experimentation and expression for the most capable of musicians and Lisha Kill stands strongly among them.
I often think of Patrick’s music as a reluctant but necessary vehicle for his words, like Dylan, the best known and respected of the Poet-Guitarists. This is not to say that either of them are anything but capable and inventive musicians, but the words provide the core around which the layers of music and other auditory philosophies/commentaries wrap themselves—the metaphorical onion just waiting to be peeled. Haunting lines like “Old man what are you runnin’ ‘round here for?” and “Never bother father when he’s had enough of you” stay with you well after the CD is done.
The third track, “Hospital,” begins with the looped electro-voice of the self-serve checkout at the supermarket: “Please select your method of payment,” over and over, which links it to “Good People with Bad Credit” and renders the thought: If you are totally broke, method of payment is a ludicrous idea, especially if your credit is bad. Thematically, this song is to me the most complex and interesting—after the voice loop Patrick uses a lyric lifted from the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer: “Dear god, be good to me/The sea is so wide/And my boat is so small.” As the song progresses, with variations on the verse “Go to the hospital/Get me a specialist/Go to the hospital/tell them I’m feeling sick” (including one of my favorite turns of language on the record, “Get me a doctical”) there is the sound of sirens in the background, themselves sick, a seeming indication that the institution is as sick as the patient. There is then an interlude of cymbals and atonal, pseudo speed-metal guitar, leading the listener to wonder if perhaps the patient has died or perhaps succumbed. Perhaps the sedatives have finally kicked in. As the interlude ends, we are left with a brief and very clean acoustic segment before full distortion kicks in and the sedative is at full effect (it is, however, not to be taken as a cure).
Track four, “Lisha Kill,” the title song, refers to a dirty river in Schenectady, although I found out through a little research that it is also the name of a 112-acre sylvan sanctuary a few miles east of downtown Schenectady in a place called Niskayuna. I don’t know for sure but something tells me that Patrick knows full well about the dual meaning of Lisha Kill and that duality is the heart and soul of the artist and his art. No matter how bleak and dreary the landscape and the lives of Those Left Behind, sanctuary and salvation are only a few physical and mental miles away. During the song, we hear stronger sirens than in “Hospital” and also the sounds of bombs dropping—or perhaps they are Roman candles? In the end we are left with the sounds of what might be a reactor or large generator—more machinery linking the songs. Industrialization seems to have prevailed for the moment, but we are wiser now for the fact that music can mask the insistent drone of Modernity. It’s a comforting thought.
Track five, “Beak” (an immediate reminder of the birds of “End Badly”) begins with Patrick’s voice distorted to sound like a Christmas elf saying “Okay” six times in succession, followed by the lyrics: “So is it for me/or is it for you/I’m in it for me/you’re in it for you” sung numerous times, followed by the answer/confession: “I’m in it for me” repeated over and over. As the music fades we hear a woman’s voice “ooh-ing” the melody line of the “New day dawning/Like a haunting” segment of “Good People with Bad Credit.” Porter’s themes are never far away, and they are slowly revealed as the CD progresses into track eight: “Free kittens,” expressing thoughts of religion, death, Heaven and the devil but ultimately: “As my future fades from view/I thought about you.” This theme of impending death continues with track nine, “Alarm Clock Song” (a wake-up call?), which uses a chimes effect on the Kimball organ that is always there, marching insistently on like time, no matter how many drums, guitars and other, more lightly rendered organ sounds Patrick lays on top of it, and that seems to be the point as he sings: “Cancer, cancer, cancer/I know I’ve got cancer/If I don’t I’m scared anyway.”
Track 11, “Slow Torpedo,” seems to be the symbol key to the whole CD. After the aborted musical opening and tongue-in-cheek philosophizing mentioned earlier, Porter is in fine form, his crisp guitar playing matching and giving strength and confidence to the most clearly rendered vocal lines on the record. Then, as he sings the final line, “Let’s make a getaway,” the song is superceded by an extended piece of dialogue from an unnamed film that begins with a reply to the last lyric: “Forget it, forget it.” The three characters then mention almost all of the underlying themes at work in the 13 songs: insanity, trying to make a getaway, hidden identity (the mask Porter wears on the CD’s art), death, the hospital, strangers, and fighting against Time.
The CD concludes with “Toppy,” a sort of religious exploration that brings to mind the search for truth made by the likes of Jack Kerouac and following the tradition of such album closers as Jim Morrison’s American Prayer line: “Thank you Lord for the white, blind light” and U2’s “MLK,” which ends Unforgettable Fire (“Sleep/Sleep tonight/And may your dreams/Be realized”). Porter’s own lyrics are equally spiritual and profound:
“This is a morning prayer
This is a soul
This is the one time I’m not in control.”
Good words for ending well.
(PrestoMusiCo, 2004, www.marbletea.com)
In a letter to his niece, the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The chief idea of the novel is to portray the positively good man. There is nothing in the world more difficult to do, and especially now.” Nearly 120 years later, the word “disc” (or record/album for us older, more nostalgic folks) could easily be inserted for “novel.” Now, granted, these are politically, socially, and morally complicated times, and I am a fan of the politically edged records recently released by the likes of Green Day and System of a Down, but I don’t believe for a second that plain-old good-time tunes on the positive tip, produced by a “positively good man” aren’t equally vital. Just the opposite—having fun and looking at things simply (and dare I say, with the eyes of a child) is incredibly important—especially now.
So it is with great joy and a lot of excitement that I present this review of Knight Berman Jr.’s five-song EP, I’m Batman, which runs a total of 15 minutes—just enough time to serenade a quick run to the grocery store or accompany the morning rituals that set the tone for the day. It is the kind of top-down, crank it up music that goes perfect with a lot of sunshine and positive prospects—or as a much needed retreat into the thoughts and memories of better times when the weather turns cold and the days ain’t so great. I was lucky enough to be making notes about Knight’s disc in a backyard full of sunshine and subtle breezes and I couldn’t think of anyplace more fitting in which to do so.
Before I get into my thoughts on the songs themselves, I’d like to talk a bit about the songwriter in question. Knight Berman, formally from Atlanta, Georgia, used to play with bands with catchy names like Blond Popsicle and Open Air Surgery before moving to the Jersey Shore and turning his attention to composing and recording what he calls “digital lo-fi,” which is very much the wave of the present as far as cutting edge and alternative home recording goes. Digital lo-fi consists of a guy (or gal), a guitar, some other electronic instruments, a computer for digital recording and sound effects, and, most importantly, a vision. Like Moby in his home studio, a talented musician like Knight can weave his considerable magic at a reasonable cost and with almost unlimited control. Knight has his final mixing and “tweaks” done by Jeff Booth at Squaresville, and then either uploads the songs onto his website, which I’ll get to in more detail, or packages them as EPs like I’m Batman.
The process is undertaken under the moniker The Marble Tea, a name inspired by a “long-forgotten [out of print] book by fringe Beat writer Richard Brautigan” called Lay the Marble Tea (which Brautigan took from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Grave” )(Note: after listening to Knight’s EPs several times and being a more-than-casual fan of the core Beats, I recently purchased a collection of Brautigan’s books. In mentioning that to some other writers, they either love him or hate him—which means he must have been on to something cool).
So, about Knight’s website, which is as fun, varied, and refreshingly casual as his music. Just go to www.marbletea.com and you’ll find a plethora (that is to say, a veritable cornucopia) of treats—
songs of the month and other places to find his songs as well as some of his writings, photos, information on his previous musical projects, and lots of quality links. The website is also the place to download a free EP called Hoga-Rama, provided you first purchase I’m Batman—and I genuinely think you should. Not only has it received a number of excellent reviews (all accessible thru the website) and a nomination for one of the Top 90 Albums of 2004 at a Jersey shore radio station, but it was 2004 CD of the Year at http://independisc.com/.
Knight’s musical style invites a lot of comparisons from fans and reviewers (I make a few myself over the course of this review). He has been compared to Robin Hitchcock, The Kinks, XTC, the Barenaked Ladies, early Beck, and a happy Lou Reed, of all things. Pretty good company to say the least. As for Knight’s own assessment, he has referred to his music as “children’s songs for adults,” which is as good a description as any—Knight’s music certainly speaks to something in all of us that could fall under the psychobabble label of “the inner child,” but I like to think of it as more of the timeless innocence of the artist and visionary than any kind of silly kid-ishness (although that’s damn cool too—I used one of the songs off the EP, “Cricket,” in a workshop last summer with a group of 5 and 6 year olds and as we flapped our knuckled, scraped-elbow wings and moved around the space like insects, I thought—“Now this is fun as hell!!”). Three tunes by Knight, including a cover of the Newley/Bricusse classic Wonka tune “Pure Imagination,” have also been used in another project aimed at kids—the LittleWalks New York video/DVD (http://www.marbletea.com/littlewalks_ny.htm)—which is a “virtual stroller ride” through the city. According to his website, Knight is working on a children’s album, which I bet will be ever better than the decent Here Come the ABCs recently put out by They Might Be Giants.
Now a few words about each of the songs, although they truly do speak best for themselves.
The title song (reinforced by the CD cover photo of a very young Knight at the beach in a Batman headpiece) has an infectious, full sound; catchy, memorable lyrics; and well-constructed and executed backing vocals. When he sings “I may seem timid and I may seem shy/but late at night I’m a super guy” I can’t help but think—Aren’t we all? And that’s what I like best about Knight’s songs—there is ample room to climb inside and join the ride—either by singing along or by simply identifying with what it is he chooses to sing about. Here are a few more lyrical gems from the opening tune: “My bat mobile’s a Toyota Corolla/I don’t know a penguin but I know a joker” and “The world is full of evil all over the world/Put on this little mask and be my batgirl.”
This is some refreshingly wonderful stuff.
The next song, “Your Voice is an Arrow Through My Heart,” has a brief but sweeping late ‘70s-early ‘80s cop show–style introduction (think SWAT or CHiPs; at least, I did) which gives way to a solid, catchy rhythm guitar punctuated by a great bongo and rattle/tambourine backbeat that leads to an eventual Donovanesque flutelike organ solo. Although it is all too tempting, I don’t want to make too much of the lyrics—it seems like analyzing the motion of a grass-blade in the breeze or a stolen moment between lovers in a used book store aisle—the universality of it all is key to the song’s success, and I’m going to leave it at that.
Listening to the next song, “Cricket,” immediately brings to mind Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but with a beautifully alternative twist— What if Gregor Samsa’s whole experience of being transformed into an insect was a positive trip…forget all the human feelings of guilt and not being adequate, and being all alone as being a terrible thing and focus on the positive—the freedom involved in being a magical little music-making insect. That seems to me to be the essence of “Cricket,” accented by the lyric “You can go there with me/If you really wanna be/Free.” Musically, it opens with a classic carnival oom-pah beat, and the simulation of an old style organ grinder straining to keep its momentum but dragging itself along. The subtle melody line is supported by terrific insectizoid instrumentation and effects.
“Cricket” also features a bit of poetic license as Knights says, “Alright, I’m gonna rub my legs together” and then creates a sort of onomatopoeia cricket-sound that can somewhat be rendered as “jzooey jzooey jzooey jzooey.” Technically, the cricket rubs its wings together, not its legs, but we can forgive a little inaccuracy for the sake of artistic vision/clarity, especially when considering the fact that as a human-turned-cricket, anything goes.
The next song on the EP, “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?” is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most complex, philosophical, and musically deft (featuring a well-crafted melody of piano/guitar and a subtler version of the flutelike organ we heard earlier on the CD). It is a touching ballad in the same vein as Cat Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You?” articulating the beautiful struggle with expressing the intangible that is the Artist’s great pursuit. Knight sings about walking along the seashore (I know that journey well, having lived in the same town as Knight all through high school and logging many miles in summer and winter on the same, ever-changing stretch of sand and sea) and “stare out into the water/until it goes.” It’s that wonderful trance and transformation trip that the Seeker knows so well. Obviously, the song got me thinking about a lot of things, and what better compliment is there than that? Perhaps my favorite and certainly in a way the most enigmatic lyric on the disc is the following:
“and the waves roll in/and the waves roll out
and the breeze blows by me, yeah-----“
There is an incompleteness to the second line that deftly sums up the song’s title. “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?” begs for multiple listens and careful consideration. It truly is a gem.
After Knight’s reflective trip to the shoreline, “Whenever,” the final song on the disc, gives us a nice acoustic beat with a great rhythm and terrific fills, as well as a series of cool little spiritual prescriptions about Life and Nature (including a neat bit of bathtub philosophy already quoted verbatim in several other reviews) along the lines of the subtle everyday wisdom of Kahlil Gibran and Rumi. Lyrics like “our mother earth/and our father up high in the sky” clue us into where Knight is as a person as well as a musician and to me, that is always a good thing. We also get a little insight into his approach to his music as just before a bass-note walk down he suddenly says
“uh—oh yeah,” as he is apparently so caught up in the magic he’s weaving that he nearly forgets to play his part. The second time around for the walk down he says “yeah” in a much more self-assured way as though the Seeker and Happy Soul is learning how to walk the line with the Artist to create something lasting and fine.
As “Whenever” ends on a perfect open C chord, it is clear that the Artist and the EP he has created with his digital lo-fi approach have succeeded on both counts.
Some closing thoughts (indulge me): In the year leading up to this review, as I have had the repeated pleasure of listening to this and another collection of Knight’s songs, and talking with him at Kathy’s used book store, The Book Bin in Pt. Pleasant Beach, on several occasions, I have come to truly admire Knight’s music (I must admit that I recently taught myself 2 of the songs on “I’m Batman” because they are just as much fun to sing and play as to listen to) and his perspective on life. With the latter in mind I offer this last bit about the EP. Take it or leave it—I know how easy it is to impose meaning on things—but the following struck me and I have decided to share it as the endpiece of this review:
The five songs on the EP seem to me to constitute a sort of circular shaman’s journey.
“I’m Batman” seems to speak to the roles we all play and how the only difference between the guy playing the Great Conqueror and the one playing the super hero is how much humor and self-deprecation we approach our play with. The young man in his role-play is suddenly faced with his first experience of unrequited love in “Your Voice is an Arrow Through My Heart” (apparently the tip is strong enough to pierce Batman’s famous body armor)—it’s that move to early manhood in the sense of Romeo and Rosalind that forever changes our way of seeing the world. After the heart is pierced it is open to the magical encounter and the journey in flight and music of “Cricket” and the quest to be Free, a quest which often leads to the sea sung so well about in “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?” Knight covers in a three-minute song just about all of the Joseph Campbellesque symbolism that the ocean so richly provides. The final song, “Whenever” seems to me to represent the return of the cricket-shaman come back to the village to share the wisdom of what he’s learned. What makes the journey circular is that the hero is still playing a role, but it is one more concrete and less childish than that of playing Batman—although jumping into the bathwater and playing with a rubber duck still succeed best in the end.
As an avid reader, writer, and writing teacher, I’m always on the lookout for new authors and new forms of literature, especially re-inventions of the novel. My own experimentations with what constitutes the novel form have paralleled the innovations found in film and music—using technology to aid with research, presentation, formatting, marketing, and all the rest.
In Mel Mathews’ novels I have found a new form that leaves modern innovations behind and instead goes for a simplification of the novel into its earliest roots—as a kind of hybrid journal, fairy tale, travelogue, and reiteration of fact thinly veiled as fiction. At least, it seems to be fact thinly veiled as fiction. The parallels between Mel and his main character abound, and the lines of reality are often crossed (“You’re in the next book,” his main character says to people along the way). Samsara (the third book in the series) opens with a potential clue: “The lies will be honest.” In Menopause Man there is even an extended discussion of the fairytale allegory of LeRoi that serves not only as a vehicle for an illustration of the narrow view of an “Old Mockingbird” named Mrs. Shams I talk about later but as an explanation from the author to the reader about what he was trying to accomplish.
Toward the end of Samsara, Malcolm meets a drunk in a pub called “The Wicked Wolf” (names of places and people in the books always seem to have some underlying meaning—along the way we meet women named Sarah and Sophia, a man getting married named Freeman, and a town called Five Points). The drunk, upon hearing his name, says “Malcolm, you know there’s a Saint Mel…[my emphasis],” to which Malcolm answers “’That wouldn’t be me,’ I proudly announced.”
If I am wrong, and the books aren’t thinly veiled fiction, then Mel’s work represents an ultra-realistic form of fiction that rides the structure of a nearly day-by-day accounting of the main character’s experiences over a relatively short amount of time—weeks, usually. Samsara, for instance, covers the time period December 21, 2000 to April 24, 2001 and is presented as a daily diary, with many days having multiple entries.
The parallels extend beyond the story to the storyteller as well. As Mel says on his websites and My Space page (http://www.melmathews.com/; http://www.malcolmclay.com/; http://www.myspace.com/melmathews) he is a storyteller—an ex tractor salesman, and not a novelist. His counterpart in the novels, Malcolm Clay, also an ex tractor salesman, says in Menopause Man, “I write, but I’m not a writer.” Fair enough. Mel doesn’t concern himself much with the high artistry of the writer—the toiling for hours over the construction of the sentence, painstakingly taking out typos and finding the perfect rhythm and combination of words as proscribed by such literary luminaries as GB Shaw and Mark Twain—but instead he viscerally and straightforwardly relates Malcolm’s journey—a journey that takes place physically as well as metaphorically, using references to Jungian psychology, the trixter, Mary Magdalene, and the sacred feminine (e.g., Kali and Lilith), and the traps and trappings of being Male and Female. Along the way we are treated to both explicit and implicit explorations of such motifs as the slaying of the dragon, the rescuing of the princess, and the dethroning of the wounded, ailing king.
A unique element of Mel’s novels is that he has said that you needn’t read the three books in any particular order, even though they are all built around the same main character. The experiences happen somewhat out of time, and one book’s ending does not lead to the start of the next. Adding to this disunity is the fact that Mel has also broken convention by writing the first and last novels in first person and the middle novel, Menopause Man, in the third person. Given these facts, it seems pretty clear that taking this review novel by novel would be a mistake, so I am going to talk in generalities, considering the main character, the considerable amount of people who come in and out of his life, and the larger themes and symbols I found to be at work in these books. When appropriate I will mention specific passages from the three books and parallels between them.
Malcolm made his money young and has or had all the things that go with it—he is very proud of his Tony Lama boots, he owns a plane, which he is trying over the course of the books to sell, as he no longer needs what it once represented (i.e., he no longer needs to be the Eternal Child, the Puer Aeternus, of Marie Louis von Franz), and he has an MG that certainly is more status symbol of middle-aged male virility than reliable mode of transportation (its breaking down is the preceding circumstance of the novel LeRoi).
Malcolm is somewhat the middle-aged American archetype in other ways as well—he is a recovering alcoholic and addict, divorced, and trying to realign his Maleness in the anti-macho modern world so carefully considered by the likes of Robert Bly in books like Iron John. His “rigid Calvinistic heritage” even applies if you insert your own applicable religious upbringing if it felt, like his, more of a prison sentence than a path to enlightenment. But he is trying to change and is making a committed search to do so. Over the course of the novels we find him reading such books as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hawking’s Brief History of Time, and Coehlo’s The Alchemist. A strong selling point of the books is that for Malcolm, like the rest of us Seekers who have read these and similar titles, the initial embracing of the theories is far, far easier than actually applying them as a means to profound and long-term change. Too often a character in a modern novel meets his or her guru/guide and within 200 hundred pages undergoes a wholesale transformation. If only it was that easy…
In the third book, Samsara (a Hindu word meaning the death and rebirth cycle), Malcolm takes a physical journey across several countries (Switzerland, France, Italy, and Ireland) in pursuit of the feminine—spiritually (at a conference on the Magdalen in Florence) and physically (as he pursues a woman named Kelli in Ireland).
LeRoi, published first, opens with the following unattributed quote: “Woman cannot be contained./Real or ethereal,/she cannot be harnessed.”
This pursuit of both the symbolic and physical woman (the “mystical union”) truly is the meat of the matter in these books. Malcolm talks in detail about the mechanics of the chase (“…it was always the woman who came to the man. Man chases, pisses on tires, jumps up and down like a baboon drooling all over his red-assed self, but if the woman doesn’t come to him and open herself to him, he might as well take his shriveled up hard-on back upstairs…”). I found it incredibly refreshing that Malcolm more often than not wound up back upstairs, alone. He also has many at-length discusses about matriarchal, patriarchal, and man–woman matters along the way, especially with the members of the Magdalen conference, a section of the books that provided the most thought-provoking and interesting passages for me. There is lots of good information on sacred feminine art in Florence, the symbolic union of Mary M. and Jesus as the nexus of the male and female aspects in all of us (the hieros gamos), the birth of the Divine Child, and issues of Gnosticism and the Gnostic gospels such as the one attributed to St. Thomas.
Along the way Malcolm meets many women who seem to be male-bashers—militant in their feminism to the extent that they find fault with any man simply for being one. In my own experience, I have found some Wicca covens to be a cover for this sort of attitude, and this issue of Maleness in the postmodern world is one with which many men struggle. One of my favorite lines in any of the books is when Malcolm says in Samsara: “I love women who love men.”
There is plenty of attention given to the child–parent (especially son–mother) relationship and the larger metaphors of how males and females relate. Characters like the diner owner Flo and the landlady Mrs. Shams (who fully lives up to her last name, at least in Malcolm’s eyes) represent the stuck-in-time, all too grounded matriarch who hands down proclamations of exactly how a middle-aged man like Malcolm should be living his life, while younger, more vital women such as Sarah in LeRoi and Sheila in Menopause Man represent the continued evolution of the soul and psyche that comes with the adventure of fully living life, no matter one’s gender or age. Stuck unpleasantly in the middle (as is Malcolm) is Jenny, who wants a platonic experience with Malcolm. She has forsaken sex, claiming menopause at 30, and thus is neither male nor female, and yet somehow both. A pet name she uses for Malcolm in a letter in Samsara turns out to be the source of the second book’s title. Add in Cassi, the wife of his best friend, Turner (they have three children) and we have the Triple Goddess—the maiden (Sheila and Sarah), the mother (Cassi), and the crone (Flo and Mrs. Shams). There are plenty of other examples throughout the three books that reinforce this model.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, Malcolm is not always an easy character to like. Most disturbing to me was his homophobia. He makes remarks about “queers,” “gays,” and “fags” on numerous occasions (sometimes right on the heels of a philosophical–spiritual exploration) and there is even a point in Menopause Man where the narrator breaks into first person and describes a “faggy pair” of teal colored shorts. Malcolm also refers to someone as a “preppy little faggot.” He is absolutely vicious about the French (months before it became über-vogue after 9-11). Malcolm is also, at the end of the day, a wolf-like womanizer; a self-proclaimed “ass-end” man who judges women in very physical, sexualized terms, and he turns such disparaging phrases about unattractive women as “her pink polyester two-ton ass” over the course of the books. This turning on a dime from the spiritual to the physical, at times with unsettling speed, really makes his faults hard to overlook. He can be talking about making one woman “divine” and then make a biting comment about another woman who just came into his view.
He is nothing if not complex.
Characters like Jimmy, Sarah, and Flo, the staff at the diner/boarding house where Malcolm waits out the repairs to his MG in LeRoi, are all archetypes representing the different aspects of Malcolm’s ever-evolving psyche. Malcolm knows it, too, saying “…the people I encountered who had the ability to upset me were often reflections of unacceptable parts of myself.” This dovetails nicely with the Jungian dream analysis in Samsara. Jung said that every member of the dream-cast is an aspect of who the dreamer actually is.
The idea of one’s identity is a key aspect of the books. Mel–Malcolm often comments about people making you into what they need you to be. It seems clear that this practice also applies to the gods and goddesses they choose to worship. Malcolm struggles with trying to find a definition of God, traveling back and forth between the Old Testament god of vengeance and wrath (Yahweh) and the New Testament god of compassion and forgiveness.
The novels all revolve around eateries and those that work in them, which is an excellent device for bringing a lot of different archetypes and life stories into the mix. There are philosophical and spiritual exchanges, long conversations over coffee and sandwiches full of the same, and plenty of “bullshit sessions.” The transience of such an atmosphere also serves the overall theme that life is fleeting and it is the small moments rather than the big ones that chart the course of one’s life—a philosophy that informed Joyce’s work, especially in his collection of short stories, The Dubliners.
There is the very Jungian imagery of fishing in a stream in LeRoi, searching in the depths of the psyche for treasures and trophies. That elegant struggle to land the fish, whatever it may be—money, love, respect, actualization. Being a catch and release man (“all you get to keep of the fish is its tale”), Malcolm is trying to extricate himself from the tangle of material symbols he has anchored himself with in life—replacing them with experience and memory—so the metaphors of the fish and water are apt ones indeed. In many ways, as he sits in those myriad restaurants, he is fishing for tales—he is, after all, a writer, whether he chooses to admit it or not. Like Yeats, he knows about the Masks we all wear, and he is trying to change his—to transition from the lunar to solar phase, as we all must begin to undertake around our fortieth year.
Also in line with the Jungian aspects of the novels, Malcolm is increasingly interested in exploring and explaining his dreams (a practice that finds its full fruition in Samsara). Adam, his chief advisor (although he has many older males with whom he engages in philosophical discussions), has been his biggest help in this way and it is Adam who brings us Samsara, after receiving it via mail from Ireland, where Malcolm spends a good deal of time in the third book.
Perhaps most compelling (and realistic) of all is the fact that in the course of three books and hundreds of pages Malcolm barely changes at all. He gets out of Mrs. Shams’ house in the third book (a major step) and begins to give away to strangers or leave behind many of his possessions—even his cell phone—as he begins to become enlightened, and this manifesting of the spiritual with the physical is a very positive sign, but he still has a long way to go.
And, no doubt, many more books to write.
All three novels are published by Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com, and are available through the publisher, through Mel’s website and My Space, as well as at online booksellers such as www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com