Being a huge fan, it's hard for me to write about Don Van Vliet and keep it down to a short article. He was an artist on so many levels: a sculptor, a painter, a musician, a poet. I will refer to him simply as "Don," as "Captain Beefheart" does not really represent the whole man (as Don once said, "It makes me itch to think of myself as Captain Beefheart. I don't even own a boat").
He was born Donald Vliet (no "Van" then; he later added that) to parents Glen and Sue in Glendale, CA, 1941. From the very start, Don rejected American traditions and culture, preferring to go about things his own way. He called his mother Sue, saying that "mother" was too cold and formal of a word. He developed an interest in nature very early and began sculpting (at his youngest ages, out of soap) every animal he had ever seen or could find a picture of in an encyclopedia or dictionary, and some he imagined. His distrust towards mankind began when he discovered that many of his favourites were already extinct. At age 3, his parents took him to see the La Brea Tar Pits, and, in hopes of seeing a dinosaur on the way down, he attempted to jump in but was caught before making it over the railing.
Don claims he never went to school. Ever ("if you wanna be a different fish, you gotta jump out of the school"). He spent his days holed up in his room sculpting, vacuuming hair from the cat to give his sculptures fur, and having his mother slide meals in through a slot in the door. He appeared on a TV show with his sculptures along with Portuguese sculptor Antonio Rodriguez, who discovered him. At age 13 he was offered a 6-year art scholarship in Portugal, but his parents wouldn't allow it, saying "All artists are queers," and then they took him and moved to Lancaster in the Mojave Desert.
It was in the desert at high school age (since Don denies ever attending school) that Don met Frank Zappa. Zappa was walking about in a graveyard (next to the school) and Don offered him a ride home. They became friends, and it was Zappa who got Don involved in music. Together they comprised a band called The Soots and did nothing aside from record some songs. It was from one of these songs and a screenplay written by Zappa that the name "Captain Beefheart" emerged. In a 1982 appearance on the Late Show, Don said it came about because he has a "beef in his heart" with mankind and the way they treat each other & nature.
Zappa pushed Don to get serious with music, and Don got together a group of musicians, forming Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. They became a local hit with a powerful version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy." They played blues and Rolling Stones covers mainly. Don began playing harmonica a lot, because at first his singing wasn't very good; however, it rapidly improved.
Eventually came the first album, 1967's Safe As Milk, featuring a 16-year old Ry Cooder. It was 60's blues rock, but not unaffected by Don's unique creative vision. It included a bumper sticker, two of which John Lennon had on display in his apartment. Also, the inner jacket contained the words "MAY THE BABY JESUS SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR MIND" and "CAUTION: ELECTRICITY MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO HEALTH." "Electricity," the album's most innovative track, made such use of Don's allegedly 5-and-a-half octave voice (I'm not disputing, but he later also claimed 7 octaves) that he destroyed a $1200 microphone. On this track, Don insisted on avoiding the usual 4/4 rhythm because he thought it was corny. Also, just before the time came to record it, Don changed the drum line to a set of shifting, syncopated patterns unlike anything that had ever been heard in rock and roll; drummer John French stepped up to the challenge incredibly well. "Electricity" was a harbinger of the coming storm.
Before it was time to work on the next album, the Magic Band lineup changed almost entirely, which would end up happening many more times. However, the music was pretty much unnaffected, because it all originated from Don (well, on Safe As Milk, guitarists Ry Cooder and Alex Snouffer were given quite a bit of freedom, and Cooder is actually credited with some arrangements). Knowing absolutely nothing about music theory, Don had to communicate melodies to his band through whistling, humming, or harmonica, and it proved to be a lot of work, because he demanded that the compositions be played exactly as he wanted them.
The next recording sessions were meant to be for a double album, but ended up being two different records: Strictly Personal (with a jacket designed to look like a brown paper wrapper with stamps attached, addresses handwritten on, and "Strictly Personal" stamped on; a reference to mailed pornography packaging), which was phased by the producer and then released, all without the permission of Don or the band, prompting their quitting from the label; and Mirror Man, which was sold to another company for release. Mirror Man is regarded by fans as Beefheart at his bluesiest; it consists of four long, lumbering songs with lots of improvisation. One song, "Tarotplane," features Don wailing on a shenai, which is essentially an East Asian musette. Strictly Personal was more "far-out," more "psychedelic," but only a hint of what was to come next. Songs continually moved away from the normal 4/4 rhythm, carried along greatly by John French's mind-boggling skill with a drum set. However, Don stil clung to his blues roots, borrowing musical phrases from actual blues songs in songs such as "Ah Feel Like Ahcid" and "Gimme Dat Harp Boy." One song, "Beatle Bones 'n Smokin' Stones," which I interpret to be about the apocalypse, actually irked John Lennon with its "strawberry feels [sic] forever" refrain.
By this time, there were producers and managers ready to, as Don said, "throw money at me if I would 'just sing the blues.'" They wanted Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band to be just a blues rock band, they wanted an American answer to the Rolling Stones. And Don certainly could've competed in that arena; but he didn't go for it. His "baby," as he often referred to his creative muse, wouldn't let him.
Don got a house in Woodland Hills and was given a piano as a gift. A new Magic Band lineup accompanied him to live in the Woodland Hills house. This lineup is regarded as THE Magic Band by most fans, and is quite possibly the most important. It consisted of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton on guitars, Mark Boston on bass, and John French on drums. Don gave them stagenames: Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, Rockette Morton, and Drumbo, respectively. This lineup is important because they were the band at ground zero when IT happened.
Don began writing songs on piano, which John French transcribed, and the band split up into parts between each other. It was extremely difficult work; the parts were strange, with all preconceived notions of music thrown out the door (Harkleroad remembers thinking "where are all the blues tunes?"). It didn't help matters that Don didn't understand how difficult they were to play, and would berate the musicians to no end for playing them wrong. He would tell them to play a part, then say they played it wrong, it goes like this; then he had them play it until they got it right, and to the other musicians each version sounded the same. Sometimes the parts required playing 7 notes at once, which is of course impossible on a 6-stringed guitar; but it took a while to make Don realize this.
The writing was quick. Don claimed that he did the whole thing in 8 hours straight, one session at the piano, which is a total lie. But it was quick. It was the learning on the musicians' behalf that took a lot of work. They rehearsed on every available day. They were only allowed to leave for shopping. When it started, the whole thing was okay; but Don's dark side began to reveal itself. Frustrated, Don became a slave-driver. At one point, Harkleroad attempted to escape. Jeff Cotton became keeper of the lyrics, and would be forced to recite in a high-pitched voice until his throat bled (that could be some hyperbole in the account). There were what Harkleroad called brainwashing sessions, in which Don would pick a member of the band and treat him as the enemy of the day, keep him awake on coffee for hours, accuse him of trying to sabotage the music and ruin everyone's chances of success, and basically just torture him mentally to the point where he was saying "OK, OK, I'll do anything you say!" The only thing that kept the band from quitting was a deep admiration for Don's creativity and art, and knowing that they were doing something that had never been done before; they had to put Don's paranoia and neurotic bullshit aside. Which is exactly what it was. Don was later diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.
After about six months of constant rehearsal (by everyone but Don, who almost never rehearsed with the band), Don decided that they were ready to record. They were signed to the Straight label on Warner Brothers. Frank Zappa produced, and started to record the album at the house, but Don objected and demanded it be done in an actual studio. So Zappa allowed the band 8 hours to do about 70 minutes worth of backing tracks, and they did it in 6. When time came to add the vocals, Don couldn't stand the headphones, and so only had the leakage through the windows of the recording room to go by. Of course, as soon as he opened his mouth he couldn't hear anything.
The result of all this was the 1969 lumbering 80-minute 2-disc watershed monster Trout Mask Replica. This album marked the outer limits of rock and roll. The twin guitars played gloriously complicated angular counterpoint, rooted in the blues but injected with jazz and expelled into an alternate universe. The bass was nothing more than a guitar with lower strings. The drums were a melody instrument, and yet, every instrument on the record was a rhythm instrument. Each instrument played in a different time signature. Don's skronk saxophone antics blew across the arrangements like insane gusts of wind; his vocals were improvised, the lyrics not even memorised (he referred to them from a book). The notions of normal beats, melodies, and chord changes were thrown out the window in favour of shapes, aural sculpting. There were no straight lines; this was natural music (look in nature and tell me if you see any straight lines). The lyrics were full of playful exercises in free-association & word images, filled with such delicious lines as "an oriole sang like an orange, his breast full of worms/and his tail clawed the evenin' like a hammer" and "the white ice horse melted like uh spot uh silver well." The titles say it all. "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish." "Ant Man Bee." "Hobo Chang Ba."
Not surprisingly (to everyone but Don), TMR didn't sell. One reporter remarked that it sounded like a blues band being pushed down a flight of stairs. Others have said that if your favourite part of going to see an orchestra is the part where they're all tuning up, you'll love this record. Some said it sounded like it was being played backwards. Many people assumed that they were just playing random notes. So many have listened and turned away from the caucaphony, saying "this is awful!"
But they missed the point. To say that Trout Mask Replica sounds like it is played backwards is to assume that Neil Diamond plays forwards. "There's no pleasant melodies," (actually, there's one, at the end, but everyone neglects that fact) "there's no rhythm, there's no form!" listeners may scream. Well, since when has "music" meant something with a pleasant melody, an easily danceable rhythm, and a predictable form? I challenge that music is nothing but organised sound, and the level of organisation may vary. People listen to TMR and say "that's not music!" If I'm not mistaken, people also said that Marcelle Duchamp's work wasn't art. Heck, they said Monet wasn't art, they said Matisse wasn't art. It's a bit more difficult now to find someone who agrees with those statements now. They may not like it, but they'll concede that it's art. For some reason, people are willing to accept abstractness in visual art, but not music. Well, that's exactly what TMR is, abstract music. And if Dadaism is all about the spirit of play, then I will be more specific and say that TMR is Dada rock.
Some of the lyrics on TMR are serious. "Dachau Blues," "Ant Man Bee," and "Veteran's Day Poppy" all contain messages about the evils of war; "Frownland" is like "Are You Experienced?" taken to a deeper level; "Moonlight on Vermont" and "My Human Gets Me Blues" reflect Don's disgust with organised religion; "Wild Life" and "Steal Softly Thru Snow" have shades of the naturalism and ecology that runs throughout Don's body of work, going all the way back to "Plastic Factory" from Safe As Milk.
It was after TMR that Don met Jan Jenkins at a party, and had her move in with him. She was a fan of his music and was 12 years younger than him. They were married shortly, and remain married today. In a short documentary made in 1980, when asked what was most important to him, Don answered "My wife. Definitely my wife. Sorry, girls. I'm taken." Jan brought an organization to Don's life of which he was incapable, keeping track of his enormous catalogue of work (Don wrote hundreds of pages every day) and providing emotional support. Also after TMR, Don and the band all quit doing drugs (although Don would periodically lapse). For the band, it was a necessity for playing the music. For Don, it was just a decision that he didn't want to do it anymore. Although I think Jan had something to do with it.
Following TMR, the band (including Victor "The Mascara Snake" Haydn, Don's cousin, who has some spoken parts and plays bass clarinet on one track) played one show, and then started working on another album. At one point, Don became angry with John French for some reason (one of his paranoid neurotic moments) and threw him down a half flight of stairs, telling him to "take a walk." So he did, and Don replaced him with a hippy-in-the-park-with-bongos drummer who couldn't handle the parts, who Don christened "Drumbo," as though he could conceal the fact that French was gone. The "Fake Drumbo" also got in a fight with Jeff Cotton, breaking several of Cotton's ribs, so Cotton quit. Eventually, former Mothers of Invention drummer Art Tripp III (named Ed Marimba by Don) filled in, and French came back, so they had two drummers (when Tripp wasn't playing marimba) with very different styles, creating an unparalleled explosive sound. The next record was written on piano like TMR, but conditions for the band were slightly better. It was entitled Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and was just as weird as TMR, but shorter. It contains Harkleroad's finest hour, the complex guitar solo piece "One Red Rose That I Mean," and a beautiful guitar and bass duet entitled "Peon," which was an exact replication of a once-through piano piece played by Don. Also on the album is the ecological warning "Petrified Forest," my favourite lyrically. Don wrote a surreal TV commercial for the album, but it was banned by the local stations, who said the title was "obscene." This album is considered by many to be Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's finest, but is sadly the only one out of print. The Decals tour (which also featured TMR material) was arguably Beefheart's best and was full of bizarre theatrics. They picked up Elliot Ingber to replace Jeff Cotton, and Don named him Winged Eel Fingerling. It was also during this time that Don's career as a painter began. His first exhibit was in England, and showcased a set of black and white paintings he had done while on the tour.
After Decals, John French again quit, which resulted in a necessity for making the music simpler; despite his immense talent, Art Tripp found it too difficult to play drums in French's style. Plus, the far-out records weren't selling and Harkleroad & Mark Boston almost starved to death. So Don put away his piano, again relying on his harmonica and his voice, used his sax sparingly, and allowed the band more freedom (but it was still a pain in the ass working with Don). Songs were composed loosely and then hammered out in lengthy jams. The next two albums were slower (Harkleroad hates the first one, says it made him feel like a zombie playing it), more basic blues-rock albums, but were still Beefheart; meaning that they were still "weird." These were Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, and contained such fun classics as "Big Eyed Beans from Venus" and "I'm Gonna Booglarize Ya, Baby," the short, surreal accompanied poem "Golden Birdies," and the instrumental "Alice in Blunderland" in which Ingber was given complete freedom on the guitar.
Both albums had limited success, and Don finally decided to "go commercial" (actually, the working plan for the past three albums was to try to be more commercial, to not scare listeners away so much; although Decals came nowhere near that idea). The next album was Unconditionally Guaranteed, on which Don allowed producers to sugarcoat the music with overdubs. As soon as the record was finished, the entire Magic Band quit, and Don was forced to play the tour with a pickup band from Vegas who were used to accompanying lounge acts; they weren't capable of playing real Magic Band music. This became known by fans as the Tragic Band. Don recorded one album with them, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, his darkest hour. Don put his imagination on a tight leash, trying to make a commercially acceptable record. And he acted it up in interviews; he praised this new band as "the best batch yet," and pushed the tepid new album, acting very enthusiastic about the whole thing. The magic was gone. It's depressing, it's an artist practically selling his soul, and it's all made worse by the fact that it didn't work. These albums didn't sell either.
(Well, okay, Moonbeams isn't all that bad. It's actually some good music, but in comparison to the rest of the Beefheart catologue, it's bad.)
After the failure of Bluejeans and Moonbeams, Don took a hiatus from music, until Frank Zappa approached him with an offer. The friendship between the two had been all but broken after the failure of TMR, which Don blamed on Zappa's shoddy production (I happen to like the production, but oh well). Zappa asked Don to sing and play on the Bongo Fury tour, and Don obliged. Don got another record deal put together a new Magic Band and wrote (with the piano again) and recorded the album Bat Chain Puller, which was never (legitimately; somehow, someone's selling it under the title Dust Sucker) released. The Bat Chain lineup did, however, play a few live shows.
After a few changes in band lineup, Don wrote 6 new songs and took 6 from Bat Chain Puller, and released Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) on Virgin, marking his "comeback" and the return of the magic. Half the songs are fairly "normal," as if Don was saying "Listen, I AM capable of normal music," but for the most part, Beefheart was back, and the music was "weird" again. This album showcased such wonders as the carnival(ium) party song "Tropical Hot Dog Night" and a Beefheart twist on the old farmer-defeats-the-devil theme "The Floppy Boot Stomp." Also included is "Bat Chain Puller," a rhythmic track that paints vibrant images of a rainstorm and an unearthly, surreal train (which I interpret to be an evil entity equivalent to Moloch in "Howl"). The drum part on that track provides the rainstorm all by itself; it's drummer Robert Williams playing a reproduction of a recording made by Don of the windshield wipers on his Volvo. "When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy" is a strange track. If you read the lyrics, they sound kind of lame, especially by Beefheart standards; and then when you hear them in the context of the music the first time, it's disturbing, sounds Oedipal; but repeated listening reveals it to be a chilling rumination of mortality. And then there's "Apes-Ma," a bone-chilling warning to mankind. It's so short, I'll just quote the whole thing:
Remember when you were young Apes-Ma?
And you used to break out of your cage?
Well you know that you're not
Strong enough to do that anymore now
And Apes-Ma... The little girl that
Named you years ago died now
And you're older Apes-Ma
Remember when she named you
And it was in the paper Apes-Ma?
You're eating too much
And going to the bathroom too much Apes-Ma
And Apes-Ma, your cage isn't getting any bigger Apes-Ma
By this time (late '70s, early '80s), Beefheart influence had spread all over music, and especially the punk/new wave movement. Groups like the B-52's, Devo, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and Talking Heads all cited Beefheart influence and praised the man's music. Don was uninterested. "Why should I look through my own vomit?" he said. He also didn't like that the punk movement that drew so much from TMR was clinging to that same old 4/4 rhythm, that "mama's heartbeat" as Don put it.
Don's music in this period was also more structured and accessible, but not in any cliched way. What I mean is that it was more controlled, less rambly and bulbous. But this doesn't mean it lost any edge. In fact, the next album, 1980's Doc at the Radar Station, proves it. The music may be simpler, but the sound and lyrics are so much harsher that many people have difficulty listening to it even if they've been listening to TMR. Titles like "Ashtray Heart" and "Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee" tell the story. However, there are "quieter" moments, such as the sterling guitar solo "Flavour Bud Living." The Doc band was basically the Shiny Beast band, but without the AMAZING Bruce Fowler on trombone (who achieves things I didn't even know were Possible on the trombone; listen to Shiny Beast. There's only one horn sound that's not his trombone, and that's Don's unmistakeable sax skronks on "Suction Prints"). This band played on Saturday Night Live twice one night, playing "Hot Head" and "Ashtray Heart" from Doc. It was a horrible episode (I saw a re-run), but the performance by the band was excellent, and superior to the album versions of the songs (in my opinion).
After the Doc tour, Don went to work in 1982 on the next album, with mostly the same musicians. By this time, Don was doing cocaine, and his voice was beginning to suffer from it. John French chalks the cocaine use up to fear, he believes that Don already knew by that time that he had the disease that would later prevent him from ever coming out of retirement. He was also getting tired of the music business, especially after asking Zappa for the rights to One (just ONE) song from the original Bat Chain Puller and being denied. Don proceeded to go home, take a hit of marijuana, turn on the tape recorder, sit at the piano, and crank out "Skeleton Makes Good," one of my favourites lyrically, in time for the album deadline. The album was titled Ice Cream for Crow, and a music video was shot for the title track. The video was rejected by MTV for being "too weird," so Don went on the Late Show and had the video shown.
There was no tour following ICFC. Don decided he was sick of the music business and went full time into painting. This makes ICFC his final album, and I can't think of anything better to end with. The album has a sort of sad bleakness to it, full of farewell. And the photograph on the cover breaks my heart every time. It's beautiful.
His paintings are wonderfully imaginative, wild little things, that look like his music sounds. He had several exhibits, but nothing recently. He now lives reclusively in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. He will never perform again; h e is taken with an illness that prevents him from it. Everyone is very quiet about the exact nature of his illness, but it is apparently multiple sclerosis.
The secret of Don's creativity has always been childishness. Long ago, he decided not to grow up. So he didn't, and he remained creatively free. This also left him without a normal concept of reality or any way of dealing functionally with society, which is probably responsible for the neurotic way he treated his musicians (but it must be said that he never forced them to stay; they could have quit at any time), but the wonderful body of work it resulted in is well worth it. It also resulted in him being a beautiful and deeply interesting human being, which is more than can be said about some other people with a "normal concept of reality."
I kinda get the feeling that I didn't describe the music well enough, but, how do you describe it in words? All I can say is, "go buy it and listen." I dream of a world where everyone owns a copy of TMR and plays it enough so that it grows on them (which it does) if they didn't like it at first. I will leave you with some quotes from Don Van Vliet's mouth, and then some links you can check out if you want to read more.
"Why would I want to do something like anyone else? Then I'd just be contributing to the sameness of things. I say, Lick my decals off, baby!"
"Modern man keeps wanting to graduate, but they graduate in the areas that seem to be so solitary instead of the kind areas, like dolphins graduating across the horizon into the sun. Man graduates with no sand and sun and water. I think more children should play with mudpies, but that's out now."
"The largest living land mammal is the absent mind."
"I don't like music; I like sounds. Because Music is just black ants running across white paper."
"People use funny toilet paper because it means they're rich if it's perfumed. I think perfumed toilet paper causes rectal cancer. You can almost judge how screwed up somebody is by the kind of toilet paper they use."
"I became a vegetarian because I couldn't imagine biting an animal and spitting out the fur and eating the meat. I said, why should I bite an animal? But then why should I bite a vegetable, it's the same thing. I eventually resigned myself to the fact that I had to eat something to survive."
"Be kind, man -- don't be mankind."
The Captain Beefheart Radar Station: excellent site, loaded with interviews (text And streaming audio) & lyrics & record info & pictures of the paintings. You can also watch the "Ice Cream for Crow" video, the Lick My Decals Off, Baby commercial, the SNL performance, both of Don's Late Show appearances, and a segment about Don from a 1980 biography show, which includes an interview with Don. And a bizarre clip of Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's feet.
The Captain Beefheart Timeline: last I checked, this was down. But it was great. Chronicled everything Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band did from beginning to end. Most of the info in this article came from this site; everything else came from the Radar Station.
Trout Mask Replica Replica: this is a little tribute I did.
"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
James Douglas Morrison's poetry was born out of a period of tumultuous social and political change in American and world history. Besides Morrison's social and political perspective, his verse also speaks with an understanding of the world of literature, especially of the traditions that shaped the poetry of his age. His poetry also expresses his own experiences, thoughts, development, and maturation as a poet--from his musings on film at UCLA in The Lords and The New Creatures, to his final poems in Wilderness and The American Night. It is my intention in this essay to show Morrison as a serious American poet, whose work is worthy of serious consideration in relation to its place in the American literary tradition. By discussing the poetry in terms of Morrison's influences and own ideas, I will be able to show what distinguishes him as a significant American poet. In order to reveal him as having a clearly-defined ability as a poet, my focus will be on Morrison's own words and poetry. I will concentrate on his earlier work to show the influence of Nietzsche and French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud and the effect they had on Morrison's poetry and style.
Being Buddhist is about as punk as you can get. That's according to Santa Cruz spawned author and meditation teacher, Noah Levine. "Punk points to the Buddha's first noble truth," he says, "that there is suffering in this life."
In his debut book, Dharma Punx, Levine traces a parallel between the Punk Rock ethic of "NO FUTURE" and the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and universal suffering. "Buddhism teaches present time awareness," he says. "It's not about living for some future date. It's about moment-to-moment awareness in this present time. That's punk. The Buddha said his path leads against the stream. That's punk."
He admits that to a conservative observer, punks pounding pace and seemingly violent mosh pits might appear in sharp contrast to the tranquil settings usually associated with Buddhism. "The Buddhist meaning of no future," he admits, "is quite different then the punk feelings of no future. One is coming from wisdom. One is coming from nihilism." It is possible, however, to integrate the two and, according to Levine, recognize punk rock as perfect launching pad for spiritual practice.
"The masses are deluded into thinking that they have to be happy all the time and that there is something wrong with them if they are suffering," he says. "From the punk perspective, everything is fucked. Punk clearly sees that there is incredible suffering and oppression in life. Realizing this is the first step in the right direction. Punks have taken that first step." Dharma Punx have gone a few steps further and through meditation and prayer have found ways in which to reconcile their nihilistic political beliefs with their life-affirming spiritual faith.
Levine, the son of world-renowned Buddhist teacher, Stephen Levine, is currently touring the country and discussing his newfound philosophy and the recently released book that chronicles its genesis. The book follows Levine's dangerous rite of passage and, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful, spiritual journey from punk junky to Dharma Punk. It takes you from his first trip on mushrooms to his first trip to India. More than that, however, it attempts to tell the story of how some of the angriest members of what has been dubbed Generation X are trying to find their own spiritual footing on their own terms.
The offspring of divorced parents, Levine spent most of his young life shuffling back and forth between a loving but unfamiliar home in Taos, N.M. and a volatile and sometimes unwelcoming home in Santa Cruz, CA. Between divorce and a dysfunctional family life, a bountiful breeding ground for the anti-establishment punk ethos was laid. Being a teenager in Northern California didn't help matters. "There was such a huge punk scene in Santa Cruz in the early 80's when I was growing up," he says. "All of the best punk bands from around the world came through Santa Cruz and the street scene was really wild."
The first half of Levine's book, despite the drugs and disillusionments, pays homage to the early 80s punk scene in Santa Cruz and the now historical days of all-ages venues like Club Culture and the beginnings of local punk legends like BLAST. According to Levine, Santa Cruz in the 80s (and even today) was very fertile ground to raise a punk. "In Santa Cruz," he claims, "there was such a big punk movement because there were so many hippie parents." Growing up in Santa Cruz, Levine's generation was surrounded be parents that were practicing a plethora of spirituality. As a kid, however, he wondered what changes were they really making? What differences? Was the world really a better place because they tripped acid and smoked pot? As an adult, Levine recognizes the fallacies of this view but, as a kid, it was enough to spark a rebellion. "The punks," he says, "in a lot of ways came as a reaction not only to the greater ignorance of society but also to our perceived failures of the hippie counter-culture."
Before finding the solution in spiritual practice, Levine sought freedom from the problems that plague the world and its inhabitants in all the easy but unfulfilling places. Drug addiction and dissatisfaction became staples in his life. Crime and violence became his main means of support. He left home at 16. At 17, already a veteran of incarceration, he hit rock bottom sitting in a juvenile hall facing criminal charges. He called his father who offered him, via the phone, "anapanasati," or mindfulness meditation instruction. "I had tried to live the nihilistic punk lifestyle and all I got was pain and more pain," he says. "Once I started on the path of spiritual practice, particularly meditation, I realized I had found a solution."
Levine realizes that having a father recognized the world over as a great Buddhist teacher gave him an introduction to spirituality most punks don't have. That's why he wrote Dharma Punx. "I want to make meditation and spiritual awareness more available to people," he says. "I want to remove the stigmas from spiritual practice. Spiritual practice isn't just for hippies anymore. It's for everyone. It's for the punks. It's for the kids."
Born 'Angela Marie DiFranco' on September 23, 1970 in Buffalo New York where she was also raised, Ani DiFranco pronounced (Ah-nee Dee-Frank-O) was nine years old when her parents bought her her first acoustic guitar. It was at that same store where she met and befriended a Buffalo singer-songwriter named Michael Meldrum. "So Michael Meldrum started taking me around to his gigs. He was my buddy. I was his sidekick, and he started the Greenwich Village Song Project: He was bringing singer-songwriters in from New York City to play in little folk venues in Buffalo, and he needed a place to put up these folk singers, so they actually stayed in my room."
Ani's parents were both very creative people, both interested in the arts and consistantly surrounded Ani with art. Allowing Ani her own free reign to bring folk singers into the house helped her develop an interest in poetry as well as folk music at a very early age. Unfortunately like many of us Ani's parents separated and divorced just before Ani hit puberty. Ani moved into an apartment with her mom and began to play in bars and coffee shops. Ani began to accumulate a local following as she would pound out Beatles tunes and aggressively own the stage commanding the attention of anyone within earshot. Ani began writing her own songs at the age of 15 when she moved out of her mother's apartment. Living on her own, she played every Saturday night at the Essex Street Pub, and at sixteen she graduated from the Visual and Performing Arts High School. At 18 Ani moved from Buffalo to New York City where she began making her first record. To finance her first album (self titled), Ani depleted her bank account and borrowed the rest from friends. After a few years in the big city Ani moved back to Buffalo. She rejected offers from indie and major labels alike, and instead started her own record company, Righteous Babe Records. "I don't think the music industry is conducive to artistic and social change and growth. It does a lot to exploit and homogenize art and artists. In order to challenge the corporate music industry, I feel it necessary to remain outside it. I could be selling a lot more albums. Life could be a lot more cushy. But it's much more interesting to try and hammer out an alternative route without the music industry and maybe be an example for other musicians. You don't have to play ball." The grassroots response to that first album and the ones that followed led to lots of offers for shows, and within a few short years she was moving from coffeehouses and college dates to larger theaters and major folk festivals.
Fast forward to 2003: Ani not only writes and publishes her own songs, but also produces her own recordings, creates the artwork, and releases them. She employs like-minded people in management and staff positions, supports local printers and manufacturers in her hometown, and utilizes a network of independent distributors in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
To date Ani has written, produced and released over 20 albums the newest and much-anticipated being Evolve (released on March 11, 2003). She has also participated with other musicians and folk singers on their albums including Utah Phillips, Nora Guthrie (Woody's daughter), the Peace Not War compilation, and has opened for such artists as Bob Dylan. In 2002 she released her own documentary entitled "Render." Her folk background strongly influenced by Arlo & Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the People's Songs Movement shows up in every album as well as rock and roll, funk, jazz and hip hop tendencies.
Ani DiFranco's lyrics have always been very personal and very poetic. Including the emotional, sexual, or political she has touched on topics such as broken relationships, abortion, religion, gun control, women's rights, and the tried and true sex drugs and rock and roll. "The Million You Never Made", on the album Not a Pretty Girl, talks about why she continues to turn down major record labels: "If you don't live what you sing about, your mirror is going to find out." Also on this album she reads a poem about abortion, sings "Shy", a seductive invitation to on-the-road trysts, and "Light of Some Kind", in which she explains to her boyfriend why she slept with a girl. By talking about issues such as abortion and bisexuality, she makes it clear to us that personal is political and that "If we can bring ourselves to admit to all this shit and then talk about it, I think we're that much better of."
Ani realized at some point that people were attending her shows simply to look at her and not listen to her music. She found herself in the old dilemma where men would size up a woman for her looks. So she changed - by shaving off her hair. "I thought I would rather you just listen to my music. Men don't smile at you as much. But at least when they do smile, you know it's genuine and not necessarily a come-on. I think I caught a glimmer of what racism might be like," she says. "Conversations would stop when I would enter the room, or people would move to the other end of the subway platform, or follow me around stores. It's a very subtle thing, but it's very claustrophobic after a while." "It's the music that's important to me, and not the fame and fortune," says DiFranco
Since then Ani has grown her hair out and wears dresses, again shirking off any image or box that people want to put her in. And through it all she has stayed true to not only herself but her music and fans as well. She continues to encourage her fans to be active and involved in not just their community but nation-wide as well. In "Face Up and Sing," on her album Out of Range, Ani DiFranco encounters a female fan who's thankful to her "for saying all the things I never do." To which the she replies in that song, "It's nice that you listen. It'd be nice if you joined in." She has recently added an ACTION: our actions will define us! section to her website where fans can access links to sites under MEDIA & PEACE AND JUSTICE that are alternatives to main stream media coverage and local and nation-wide peace movements.
Ani continues to be an inspiration to those of us who are tired of corporate owned media and music. She signs other musicians to her label that also put out individual unique sounds that you cannot get from Sony or BMG. She is of a firm belief music should not only be artistic but a way of communication also. However, she has made it quite clear that it's not about the money or power: "And me. I'm just a folksinger, not an entrepreneur. My hope is that my music and poetry will be enjoyable and/or meaningful to someone, somewhere, not that I maximize my profit margins. It was 15 years and 11 albums getting to this place of notoriety and, if anything, I think I was happier way back when. Not that I regret any of my decisions, mind you. I'm glad I didn't sign on to the corporate army. I mourn the commodification and homogenization of music by the music industry, and I fear the manufacture of consent by the corporately-controlled media."
Ani DiFranco is a bold refreshing change for folk music and the people who make it. She continues to challenge our beliefs, thoughts and actions as well as our ears. If you take anything away from this article take away the fact that Ani DiFranco is a force to be reckoned with and will continue to be an active musical power for years to come.
if I drop dead to morrow, tell me my grave stone won't read:
Please let it read:
I was twenty years old in 1969. I was a seminary student for the priesthood and on summer vacation in the summer of 1969. I was a loner, a peripheral man on the fringes of both the counterculture and society at large.
It was a turbulent time in America with wars raging on both the foreign and domestic fronts. With assassinations of our liberal leaders, civil unrest, discrimination and the questioning of all authority, The institutions of this country were being rocked to their foundations. In this environment the counterculture took on added appeal.
My favorite group was The Doors. I had a record player that played single 33rpms. The only record I owned was Riders on The Storm (The first choice for my book title) which I played over and over. I also liked the later Beatles, Temptations, Dylan, Lovin Spoonful, Rascals, Kinks etc. Aside from the Temps and Four Tops, which were, feel good groups; the other music acknowledged underlying feelings of alienation and angst.
The Hippie movement was more than bell bottom pants and long hair. It was a state of mind. A world view. A philosophy and lifestyle. It was so pervasive that it crept into and finally overran the mainstream culture. We were all part of it to some degree. We shared common values such as basic human rights for all people, the sanctity of life, the search for truth and a better world, the power of change, a distrust of those in power.
Civil unrest was the first wave of change to sweep the country. Demonstrations quickly turned violent Hatred and division ran rampant. Then women rights and the counterrevolution. The "hard hats" (Middle America) and government were terrified and struck back. Black people were beaten and hosed in the streets. The student protesters were savagely beaten by Mayor Daleys police at the 68 Democratic Convention. Our fellow young men were being brought home in body bags by the thousands. Daily bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia. Assassinations of Presidents and Civil Rights leaders, all of the above brought to us in living color each night on the 6 oclock news.
The Vietnam War was evil. Perpetrated on a foreign people by industrialists and government determined to advance their capitalistic and political agendas with total disregard for human life.
The drug scene was a way out (not a real good one) of the day to day oblivion and despair many of us felt. I began riding motorcycles, studying philosophy, visiting a friend in the town of Woodstock regularly, riding the subways of Manhattan alone late at night and spending time in Greenwich Village.
I attended the Woodstock Festival in 1969. I was involved with student sit-ins at Lehman College during the Cambodia bombings.
I was barely twenty years old. I followed a girl I had met the week before in Tarrytown N.Y. She was in a Camaro with her girlfriend and two guys. One looked like Jimi Hendrix, the other like Lynyrd Skynyrd. I followed on my motorcycle, with ape hanger handlebars and a sissybar to which was tied a very large duffel bag.
I stayed the three days. Pretty much. I was a loner but followed a car with four people in it. One was a girl that intrigued me.
I wasn't a protester but I was a seminarian questioning my vocation. I was on vacation and went spur of the moment. No-one knew what was in store for us up there. I didn't get injured but the person I ended up with did.
I lived in Sleepy Hollow, i.e. Tarrytown, New York. I was single and in the seminary as I stated. I also went to Woodstock 79, 94 and 99. At Woodstock 69 I did a few things I shouldn't have. At Woodstock 79 no one was there. At Woodstock 99 I went around telling the young people to be careful.
Here's the best Woodstock story ever told. I was barely twenty as I said. I had my motorcycle against the curb on Beekman Avenue in Tarrytown when a pretty girl pulled up in a new Mustang. She noticed me admiring her car and asked me if I wanted a ride. I said yes if I could keep my helmet on because I didn't rust female drivers. We drove around Tarrytown for two hours and became friendly. She invited me to follow her and her girlfriend up to Woodstock the following week. I met her and her girlfriend and the two guys I mentioned above at the foot of the Tappan Zee Bridge that Friday and we headed up the New York Thruway. When we got within 15 miles the traffic began to back up. The girl jumped out of the car wearing only jeans, a top, and no shoes. She made me throw my gear in the trunk of the car and we rode along the edge of the highway into the festival site and waited for the car to catch up. It never did. All the cars came to a stop and we realized we would not connect with our friends. I turned to her and asked if she had any money? She had $60 which was a fortune in 1969. I told her that the rules of he road dictated I watch out for her the entire weekend but she would have to split the dough. She agreed and jumped back on the bike and we got a bottle of wine and rode into the Festival. She was barely seventeen. So there I stood on the edge of the grassy oval with this pretty girl with hair down to her waist (she looked like the girl on the Mod Squad TV show) a bottle of wine and my bike surrounded by 400000 soul mates. It doesn't get any better! Then we watched as a tractor drove along a cleared portion of earth (all the grass was trampled and the mud and 500 years of cow manure were coming to the surface) I watched as the tractor ran over what appeared to be a mound of earth as a human hand flung out. It became evident that a person had been in a mummy sleeping bag and had been run over. I ran to the trailers and banged on a door until the doctor came out. I told him he had to come and help because someone had been run over. "What do you want me to DO!" he said, explaining that thousands of people were overdosing, having babies etc.
"Are you kidding?" I said "I'll knock you out, damn it!"
" I'm sorry," he said "but I will call a medivac unit." The helicopter flew in and removed the young man already dead. It was like a replay of the 6 oclock news with all my fellow young Americans coming back in body bags from Nam.
Then the rain came. We were cold and wet and found refuge in other peoples tents was we slept briefly an hour at a time. We sloshed around together the entire weekend, listening to the music and taking in the scene. My friend stepped on glass and cut her foot. She got help in on of the medical tents. In between the music played and everyone got along- no assaults or murders. People loving each other. Saturday night Sly and The Family Stone came on stage and sung "Gotta Get Higher" and 500,000 young people shouted the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
By Sunday I was sick and thought I had pneumonia. So I decided not to wait for Hendrix and took my friend home. Riding down the Thruway in torrential rain I had a premonition of a crash. Just then the memory of my roommate from the seminary entered my mind to remind me he worked in a camp in the Catskills. I turned off the road and stopped at a store and asked if they heard of St. Vincents camp. It was just down the road! I pulled in to the camp with a full beard and leather jacket, a big knife strapped to my waist on my black bike. The young girl on the back was literally in tatters. The old Irish Catholic nun at the gate was mortified when I told her I was seminarian. My roommate identified me and was let in. I slept under ten covers in a big log bed while news reports about the disaster area we had just come from played on the TV.
The next day it was sunny and clear as I dropped my new friend of on a corner in Tarrytown, Tears welled up in her eyes as I explained I was headed back to the seminary. Once back at school in my vestments whenever I opened my prayer book the picture of that sweet girl with tears in her eyes would appear. I put up with it for three months before I cranked up the b ike and rode back over the Throgs Neck Bridge to tell her I might be able to see her once in a while. PS: thirty two years later we are still married! A very true story.
There was no police harassment at Woodstock that I observed. Just the opposite. They left everyone alone and were friendly.
I felt a camaraderie with the downtrodden and oppressed. I was poor, strong willed, and a fiercely independent thinker. I was a philosopher and an existentialist. When I ultimately decided to leave the seminary (I had studied since age 13) I underwent a religious and moral crisis. It was a time of deep emotion and psychological soul searching.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be selling luxury automobiles thirty years later!
I think a lot of us became disillusioned back then just after Woodstock, Altamont and Kent State. We all went on with our lives and buried our ideals. We became jaded and cynical. We ultimately matured (how horrible!). But there is a reawakening, a resurgence beginning to sweep the country, I feel. A lot of us including myself are beginning to look back to those times and question the paths we have taken. (Thats part of the reason I wrote my book). We are trying to recapture the magic and the light we left behind.
The experiences of the past were both liberating and dehabilitating. Many of us who experimented with mind-altering substances for instance, may have actually changed who we were, the very makeup of our own brains and personalities. There is something sad in that I think. Maybe that explains the comical situation I put myself in at the twenty-fifth reunion at Woodstock in Bethel were I walked around at night telling young people smoking pot that "you really shouldn't be doing that".
Being a parent now myself (a grandparent actually), I wished I had taken it a little easier on my own parents. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I went all the way and became ordained. How many people would I have helped?
To borrow a phrase, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". I have enjoyed the fruits of my labors to some extent in my adult life. Although I bought my first house at age 25, and drove fancy cars most of my life, I never became a slave to money. But I did become a slave to the retail business. A workaholic, putting in 12 hour days for thirty years. I took few vacations, and smelled few too many flowers. Yet for what, I now as others ask myself.
The first e-book to catch my attention was 'The Plant' at Stephen King's website. I downloaded the first couple of chapters, which were free at the time, and I had fun reading them. When it came time for me to start paying for installments I fell off, not because I didn't want to spend two bucks but rather because I always have too much to read anyway and I didn't feel motivated to fill out yet another annoying credit card form. Still, I *almost* paid for it. And this was the most time I'd invested in reading Stephen King since 'The Stand' when I was a kid. So overall I'd say my first experience with e-books was pleasant and painless.
A couple of weeks ago I tried my second e-book, a review copy of Jack Kerouac's 'Orpheus Emerged.' This is a previously unpublished story from Kerouac's formative years, produced in a lively multimedia format by an electronic publisher called Live Reads. While Stephen King's novel was presented in austere, dignified black-and-white, this book is a colorful, highly designed hypertext experience. I'm not tremendously excited by this particular story, which is in the same collegiate hyperintellectual vein as Kerouac's first novel, 'The Town and the City'. But I like the idea of Kerouac in e-book form, and I like what the publisher did to liven up this work. I also enjoyed toying around with the Adobe E-Book Reader as I read. After I was done I found a nice pile of free classic novels, poetry books and non-fiction works, among other things, at the Adobe E-Book Library. A free library of classics is a nice touch, and I think it's smart for publishers to keep giving away e-books to help readers get comfortable with the concept. I'm looking forward to what comes next.
Back to traditional formats -- here are a few new things worth checking out:2. Halfmoon is a film setting of three stories by Paul Bowles, and Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider is a documentary about the writer, created by Catherine Warnow and Regina Weinreich.
3. The Bop Apocalypse is a study of the religious significance of the Beat Generation. A long overdue topic!
4. So George W. Bush is going to be president. Well, I don't dislike him nearly as much as I disliked his father. Not yet, anyway. And so far he's saying some decent things about bipartisanship and reaching beyond divisive party boundaries -- and maybe he'll actually deliver on this. But just in case he doesn't -- a refresher course in political dissent couldn't hurt, and there is no better place to start than the recently republished Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman.
5. Beat poetry and punk rock may not seem to have a lot in common. But in downtown New York City, the two scenes have always travelled together. This literary/musical intersection is the subject of an enjoyable new book of essays and interviews, Beat Punks by Victor Bockris, a familiar biographer and chronicler of the New York downtown scene. The East Village is the locale, St. Mark's Place is the epicenter, and Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol are the characters who show up in these highly interesting pages.
c/o Toshi and Pete Seeger
Beacon NY 12508
(checks made out to David Amram and marked "gift" are tax-deductible)
I don't make a practice of mentioning fund-raising efforts in these pages, but David is one of the most generous and good-hearted people I've ever met, and I know there are people out there who have gotten a lot out of his music and would like the chance to give something back now that it is needed. If you'd like to know about a benefit performance that will take place somewhere early next year, write to Brian Hassett at email@example.com. And, if you've never seen David sing or play piano (or french horn, or guitar, or his collection of Native American flutes, etc.) you can buy his excellent new CD, 'Southern Stories' and hear what everybody's been raving about.
Also, Bob Holman was nice enough to remember the event by putting up the words spoken by Charles Plymell here.
2. Speaking of the Bitter End event (no, I can't seem to stop speaking of it), one of the reasons I'd thought to invite Lee Ranaldo to participate in it was that he's been working with Jim Sampas and Rykodisc to collect some of Jack Kerouac's best unreleased recordings onto a CD. The CD is a revelatory collection that anybody who is interested in understanding Kerouac will want to hear. While Kerouac's existing poetry albums are sometimes hard to listen to (I always found them somewhat stiff and difficult to enjoy compared to his written work), these newfound recordings of Jack's are charming, musically adventurous and surprisingly satisfying. Highlights include a plaintive version of the pop standard 'Rain or Shine', some complex verbal blues choruses set to music by David Amram, a 28-minute prose reading from 'On The Road' and, to top it all off, a rocker by Tom Waits with Primus (yeah!). This CD will be released in early September.
3. 'The Source', a well-researched and intelligent new documentary full-length film about the origins of the Beat Generation and its main players, is coming out in a couple of weeks. Directed by Chuck Workman (who also directed a movie about the Andy Warhol scene, 'Superstar'), the film focuses heavily on Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and tries hard to fairly represent many other writers. It adds up to an informative and breezily entertaining introduction to this literary movement. Among the good points: the facts are accurate (though the chronology gets confused), and there are no boring talking-head shots of men in sweaters sitting in front of bookcases (thank God). At the same time I didn't find the film completely different enough -- much of the footage was familiar, and the summary style was pretty much the same as that of all those $35 coffeetable books about the Beat Generation that keep popping up in bookstores, whereas I wished to be taken somewhere new, to see some challenging connections made, either politically, spiritually, aesthetically or in any other way. A captivating filmed scene of actor John Turturro screaming the hell out of the great poem 'Howl' in an urban schoolyard is probably as "out there" as the movie ever gets, and this was for me the most memorable moment in the film. But even if 'The Source' sticks basically to the middle of the road, the movie is well worth watching, and nobody will regret the time spent soaking in the familiar footage of our lovable literary stooges, one more time.
4. And one lovable literary stooge who never played it safe was underground poet d. a. levy. I was happy to walk into Barnes and Noble recently and see, next to all those coffeetable books, the first trade edition collection of his works: ' The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail: The Art and Poetry of d. a. levy,' edited by Mike Golden. This guy was weird and a true original -- check this shit out.
I knew my friend Brian Hassett knew how to put on good poetry events, so I asked him to get involved, and with his help we secured a prime spot, the legendary folk-rock club The Bitter End, in downtown Manhattan. The setlist kept growing until I had assembled such an amazing group of talented poets, web writers, jazz musicians, haiku masters, spoken-word artists, punk rock legends and Beat storytellers, I could barely believe it myself. I spent much of the last few weeks running around the city like an idiot, trying to organize posters, hotel rooms, musicians ... in fact some friends report seeing me walk into a fire hydrant in a confused daze, scribbling in a notebook and yelling into a cell phone. I have no memory of this but I believe it. Anyway, Wednesday night July 21 finally rolled around, and it was time to get on stage. Here's how the night went down:
Vermont writer Marie Countryman opened with some self-revelatory poems, followed by an excellent short story, 'The Shock of a Feather' by novelist David Alexander. Next, web writer Xander Mellish read the beginning of her short story 'Extraordinary' to the tune of a Miles Davis recording. Xander was followed by book editor Holly George-Warren, who read the introduction to her just-published Rolling Stone Book of the Beats.
The evening then started to veer towards the outer orbits with an amazing microtonal bebop poetry performance by Bayonne candy store poet Herschel Silverman, accompanied by legendary jazz composer David Amram on piano and a vocalist named Jessica whose full name I'd like to know if anybody can send it to me. Things got a little more gentle when Briggs Nisbet read some of her California nature poems, and this was followed by two sublime haiku readings featuring, first, Beat scholar Walter Raubicheck and then Cor van den Heuvel, editor of the new 'Norton Haiku Anthology', both poets accompanied by Daniel Srebnick on sax.
Smug.com's talented editor Leslie Harpold then read an excellent short story, 'Princess Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall', about strip poker and skin types, and this was followed by what was possibly the evening's most unique moment: a spontaneous spoken-word performance by John Cassady, son of Beat legend Neal Cassady. John had never visited New York City before, so a lot of people had come down specifically to see how Neal's son had turned out and what he looked like, and not only the Village Voice but even the New Yorker had listed the fact of his upcoming stage debut. John is a nice guy but also a "regular guy" like you or me, and so I was in a bit of suspense wondering what all he'd say when he stepped up to the mike. As the Mighty Manatees (a great jam band from Delaware County, our house band for the nite) kicked into a soft bluesy jazz riff behind him, John started telling stories, and fifteen minutes later John was riffing left and right on an unpublished letter he'd found in his father's papers, and the "John Cassady Rap" was becoming legend before my eyes. John then hooked up his guitar and sang Chuck Berry's "Nadine" as a tribute to the Dad he'd been missing for the last thirty-one years.
The show went on -- Robert Burke Warren stepped up to the mike and ripped into "Rave On" by Buddy Holly, then we all took a break, and then the David Amram Trio went onstage to sing "Pull My Daisy" and jam. I read a short story of my own, and then I introduced the enigmatic webmaster Mark Thomas, creator of Sorabji.com, who played a beautiful rendition of Philip Glass's 'Wichita Vortex Sutra' on piano, which was a great segue into a moment of deep literary exploration with Wichita/Cherry Valley blues/bop poet Charles Plymell who read an extremely affecting fable about John F. Kennedy Jr. as the Manatees, John Cassady and others played behind him.
Next was Brian Hassett with a piece from his upcoming screenplay, "Don't Be Denied", and after this began the main "I'm not worthy" part of the evening for me, as I introduced three people in a row whom I seriously respect for their seminal artistic legacies, and for their moral contributions to the thriving independent writing/publishing scene of today. First was Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, who turned the lights low and read in a soft voice as a calming humming sound played on the PA, then Richard Hell a personal hero of mine for having had the good sense to invent punk rock in the early 70's, and then having the talent to write the excellent novel ' Go Now ' in the 90's. Hell kicked off with a few short verses, told us "I never cared about that whole beatnik thing anyway" (fair enough), and then recited his unique poem "Weather," which contains 12 different alterations of a single poem, each growing in its own unique direction. Hell was followed by Lower East Side poetry hero Bob Holman, who years ago helped start the spoken-word revolution with his friends at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe in the East Village, and now helps to run the excellent About.poetry website (among many other things). Holman took the band with him on a bizarre "Peter and the Wolf"-style instrument-vocalization jam that had subtle moments and also occasionally blasted into some excellent kick-ass screaming and yelling, Holman-style.
The show continued: Meg Wise-Lawrence delivered a smoky, snaky performance of her prose-poem 'Twelve Beginnings ... One End' accompanied by avant-garde blues pianist Toby Kasavan, and this was followed by a beautiful moment contrasting Kentucky poet Ron Whitehead, who read his powerful "I Will Not Bow Down" among other things, and Icelandic web innovator Birgitta Jonsdottir Next up was a thoughtful language poem by Aaron Howard, a light-jazz-toned excerpt from Breathing Room by Christian Crumlish (the only one besides Bob Holman to show up in a zoot suit), an inspiring and lyrical reading by poet Breath Cox, some fresh and funny moments with John Grady (whose "New York Bagel" is one of my favorites), and a closing performance by avant-garde/surrealist Gregory Severance. With no more poetry to read for the night, the Manatees, David Amram and John Cassady stayed onstage and closed out the night, appropriately enough, with a couple of Dead tunes, 'Bertha' and 'Going Down the Road Feeling Bad'.I know everybody who was there enjoyed it -- in fact there was a certain fascinating edge of insanity to the whole event that has made many of us, myself included, think back to that night and wonder exactly what was in the air that made it all so unusual. Anyway, thanks to all the performers and everybody who helped, especially Brian Hassett, and thanks to the Bitter End for letting us own the dive for the night. Biggest thanks and apologies go to a few patient poets who couldn't stay out late enough to get their own time on stage, and who were gracious about missing their moments at the mic. It was definitely crazy to think we could fit 30 performers onstage in a single night -- we learned a lot and will know better next time.
Chaos reigned at many moments during the event, but then I think chaos has always been a friend to poetry, and this night proved it to me.
-- Levi Asher
-- July 28 1999
The Living End!
by Marie Countryman
Brian Hassett writes ...
The Literary Kicks Summer Poetry Happening
Then the 80's began. Reagan became President, MTV was invented, the culture of money-style replaced the culture of art-style in New York City, and Richard Hell was gone from public view. I was in college during these years, and I wasn't listening to Hell much any more. I soon started forgetting to even remind myself to remember Richard Hell or the Voidoids, and then eventually like a stuffed animal left at home I came to forget them completely.
Then around the mid-90's Hell suddenly resurfaced -- still living in New York City, still looking drugged-out and underfed and tired and angry, in fact looking not much different than he'd looked before. Except now he was the author of a brilliant, sparklingly well-written first novel, 'Go Now', which had somehow been published not by some downtown indie zine shop (which is what anyone would have expected for Hell) but by an imprint of the refined mass-market publishing conglomerate Simon and Schuster. The novel, a semi-autobiography in a neo-Beat flavor, even got excellent reviews in respectable magazines and newspapers. I have no idea how Hell pulled this marketing coup off, except that the book was good enough to deserve every bit of attention it got. Maybe quality and artistic integrity really does still count for something in large-corporate publishing (though there aren't many other indications of this these days).
But will 'success' go to Richard Hell's head? No fucking way. He helps to run CUZ Editions, his own indie publishing shop, and he produces occasional strange, appealing literary experiments like a recent book of poetry in which every page is a slightly different version of the same single, simple poem. You can find out more about this and other stuff at the CUZ website. There's also an interesting recent interview with Hell in the music zine Perfect Sound Forever.