Spoken Word

"I'll meet you under the words". There's a large building in Cardiff, Wales with a poem embedded directly into its front wall. The poem is written half in Welsh and half in English by Gwyneth Lewis, who is part of a vibrant Welsh-speaking renaissance that draws in families, musicians, writers, artists, hipsters and academics all across this ancient land. Welsh began to disappear centuries ago when Wales became part of England, but some have managed to generate a significant new sense of community by striving to keep the language alive. When these folks gather for festivals, dances, hip-hop beatbox sessions and poetry slams, they really are meeting under words.

Gwyneth Lewis is profiled in Language Matters, a delightful and captivating two-hour documentary currently running on PBS. The documentary is directed by David Grubin and hosted by poetry raconteur Bob Holman, who visits three locations around the world where great languages are in danger of disappearing: northern Australia, Wales and Hawaii. The films make the case that irreplaceable cultural knowledge is entwined into these regional languages, and that every time a regional language is lost, a way of thinking is lost as well.

The first journey in Language Matters is the most stirring. On the northern tip of Australia, Aboriginal families live peacefully and intermingle freely in small neighborly clusters-- and yet, entire vast different languages are spoken within these family groups. Nobody in this area is monolingual; to speak each of your neighbors' languages is a sign of respect, even though languages like Kunwinjku and Amurdak may be as different from each other as, say, English and Polish.

Some of these distinct languages are only kept alive by individual family networks or, in one extreme case, by a single person. Language Matters focuses on an elderly man who is the last person on earth to speak the language he grew up with. The kind of loneliness he must feel is barely visible in his dignified face, as he calmly delivers halting explanations of living words that will soon be lost.

It's because a language is more than words that no academic transcription can ever capture the essence of a language that was once alive. In this documentary's last segment in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin salutes the elusiveness of language, quoting a Hawaiian verse that can be translated, but not translated well, because the Hawaiian rhythms and sounds are part of the verse's meaning. In Hawaii, as in Wales, schools have been built by tuned-in educators and linguists and caring community members to keep their cherished ancestral languages alive. We visit children in schools where they are instructed to only speak Welsh or Hawaiian.

Of course, the fact that these children are immersed in Welsh or Hawaiian at school does not mean they will not learn other languages too. But there is clearly a heavy cultural significance here; to embrace Welsh or Hawaiian is an act of protest against the conformism of an English-speaking planet. The significance feels more acute in northern Australia, where the critical mass to keep dying languages alive does not exist.

Language Matters features stunning dance sequences and beautiful nature photography along with narration and interviews by Bob Holman, who turns out to be very good at this kind of thing. I've known Bob Holman for years via his Bowery Poetry Club, and we published a piece he wrote about slam poetry attitudes called "15 Rules For Hecklers" in 2010. Language Matters is the kind of project Bob Holman is born to do, and if we're lucky he'll do more and more.

There are, after all, so many more endangered languages around the world. I remember visiting my grandmother and her sister in Brooklyn and being amazed by the Yiddish newspapers they read, printed in blocky Hebrew letters completely incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant not only of the language my grandmother spoke, but even of her alphabet.

It occurs to me now that my grandmother was actually making a choice in continuing to read Yiddish while living in Brooklyn for over 70 years. Of course she was perfectly fluent in English, but Yiddish gave her and her sister a connection to the world they wanted to be living in. I never asked her what this language meant to her, and now I wish I had.

Language Matters appears to be a television documentary about remote cultures and faraway peoples. It turns out to be a show about us all.


A new documentary showing on PBS explains the deep cultural significance of regional languages, many of which are destined for extinction.

view /LanguageMatters
Monday, January 26, 2015 09:22 pm
A Welsh poem embedded upon a building.
Levi Asher

(Literary Kicks is twenty years old today. This fact has left me speechless, so I asked Jamelah Earle to send some retrospective thoughts. -- Levi)

When I was 16, I was on my high school forensics team. This was not in any way related to anything you might see on an episode of CSI, but instead was competitive speech and dramatic performance. That year, I had chosen poetry as my event, and I was looking for a poem to perform. The trick with forensics events, I had learned in a previous season, when I did storytelling with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, was to come up with something that nobody else would be performing — Alexander was a popular piece, and more than one time I would be in a competition round with another person doing the same story. So, when I switched to poetry, I was determined to come up with something nobody else would do.

My coach gave me a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems to see if anything in it would work for me. I eventually ended up choosing the poem "America" and I had a great season. I think I would've made it to the state championships that year, had I not gotten laryngitis so severely that I was rendered essentially mute during regionals. Alas, I'll never know, so I can just imagine that I would've gone all the way. Maybe I could have even won the chance to tell my hometown newspaper how to spell "Allen Ginsberg".

What I do know is that I read Howl and Other Poems cover to cover several times over the second half of my 11th grade school year. This was both an easy feat — it's a small book — and a not-so-easy one. I'd never read anything like Howl before. It wasn't the type of book that came up in my school English classes, and though I was (and still am, to a degree) a voracious reader — basically, put anything that has printed words in front of me, and I will read it, regardless of how interesting or dull it may be or how many times I've already read it, which is why I have the ingredients list on the back of my shampoo bottle in the shower memorized. But I'm not sure I would've come across Ginsberg on my own had it not been for my coach Amy handing me that book.

I wanted to know more, though, so I fired up my coal-powered modem and looked Ginsberg up on the internet. It was then that I found a site at charm.net called Literary Kicks. It was broken up into different pages about different writers. I read more about Ginsberg, I read about Burroughs and Kerouac. I liked the site; the writer, Levi Asher, was engaging and interesting, and I would check back from time to time and read the updates on the Beat News page, which was essentially a blog, before the word "blog" existed. I never sent Levi an email, because he said he didn't answer them, but Literary Kicks was a go-to website for me. I learned from it, and I got a lot of reading recommendations.

Not long after, I started my own website at Geocities. The site was mostly links to other sites I liked, but I also had a page where I'd write thoughts about things. This was just a static HTML page that I'd update from time to time with a paragraph or two, and it was the genesis of the site that I run these days. Nothing of it even remotely exists now; I cleared out the last vestiges of it in, I think, 2005, when I was using Blogger to create updates and I decided that since the blog (the word "blog" existed by then) was the only really active part of the site (the other sections were pages of photographs, fiction and poetry), I would convert to having only a blog and get rid of the rest. I used my website to learn how to create things for the internet — I taught myself HTML and CSS and my site was always under construction, because I always had to try out this new thing I just learned. When Litkicks became a blog in 2004, it went live with my design (tweaked, because Levi and I never agreed about colors).

I'm getting ahead of myself.

During my last semester of college, in 2001, I went back to Litkicks for the first time in a long time, and I noticed that the format had changed: there were message boards. I didn't post anything for awhile, but I did read them from time to time, figuring out the lay of the land, as it were. I think my first post on the boards was in April or May 2001, right around the time I graduated. I posted a little, here and there, but didn't really get sucked in until later that year. I always wanted to be a writer, whatever it means to be a writer (I'm still not sure, except that it involves writing — beyond that, the particulars are sketchy), and in Litkicks, I found a community of people who also wanted to write, who wrote, who shared. It was in this community that I began creating work and sharing it for comment, an act that had seemed so terrifying when I was a student that I stayed out of all possible creative writing classes in college.

I learned a lot, and I wrote a lot. I've never been so prolific since (there was something strangely magical and compelling about that little text box I would type into when writing a Litkicks post — a blank Word document just doesn't have the same pull). I also met a lot of people, made a lot of friends. I talked to people from all over the world about books and writing and everything else; I still talk to some of those people to this day. (I also got my very first stalker and death threats thanks to Litkicks — it really was a wealth of experience.)

In August 2002, about a year after I started hanging around Litkicks, I traveled to New York to perform at a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I stayed at Levi's apartment. I had fun that weekend, doing a practice run at the famed Chelsea Hotel, performing at the Bowery Poetry Club, shooting pool at a bar after the show, hanging out with Levi and Caryn. It was during this weekend that I learned that Litkicks was run from a computer in Levi's kitchen, and not from some magical room full of computers and servers like I'd imagined. It was also during this weekend that I agreed to become part of the Litkicks staff.

Litkicks already had been such an integral part of my life, but after joining the staff, it became even more so. Levi, Caryn and I had regular meetings on AIM (remember AIM?!?) about what we were doing with the site. We did some cool events (The QUEST, 24-Hour Poetry Party, October Earth), we published a book (Action Poetry), we had some ideas that barely made it out of beta into production (Indie Writers' Marketplace). I remember it as a somewhat frenetic time, though my personal life was also somewhat frenetic in those years so I'm sure that's related, and we had fun.

Since 2004, when Litkicks switched from message boards to blog, I've been around here and there — weekly at the beginning, and much less frequently in recent years. I will say this, though: out of all the places on the Web, there's still just the one place that feels like home, and that's Literary Kicks. In the past decade, I've worked with another online community, and restructured my personal website too many times to count, but these days, when I barely turn on my computer when I get home from work, if there's a site that I drop by, this is it.

This is how my own internet history has gone full circle, I suppose.

I've been around Litkicks for most of my life. I've learned so much here, about writers, about writing, about graphic design and user interfaces and maybe trying the fluorescent green. I've laughed, I've cried, I've traveled, I've argued about all sorts of things, from CSS to whether jam bands are listenable to if we'll ever have world peace. I was hanging out with Levi and Caryn a couple of weeks ago, and I thought how funny it was that back when I was a teenager, I looked up Allen Ginsberg on the internet, and then, nearly 20 years later, I was having a beer and talking with the guy who created the website I'd found way back when. Life is funny, and that's the best thing about it.

Happy birthday, Literary Kicks.


On the 20th birthday of this website, Jamelah Earle remembers her first encounters with Literary Kicks.

view /GrowingUpWithLitkicks
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 12:42 pm
Growing Up With Literary Kicks by Jamelah Earle
Jamelah Earle

Maggie Estep, the charismatic and accessible spoken word poet and author, has suddenly died of a heart attack. She was 50 years old.

Maggie Estep was a big part of the slam poetry scene that emerged from Chicago and New York City in the 1980s and briefly flared into pop culture via MTV in the early 1990s. Her early published works include records like Love Is A Dog From Hell. Later, she published novels including Alice Fantastic and the Ruby Murphy mystery series.

It's hard to comprehend that Maggie Estep has died of a heart attack, because she was so young and seemed so healthy, and was a familiar and casual presence in the New York City literary community. The news is still fresh; I'll update this page with more information as it becomes available. To start, here is Carolyn Kellogg's obit in the Los Angeles Times. Here's a blog post by her partner Seth Rogovoy, and another from her friend Amanda Stern.

Further back in the archives of Maggie-ness, here's a Bat Segundo interview from 2009 and and a prototype on her website for a magazine called Dog Lady Magazine that she was planning to launch with novelist Porochista Khakpour. And here's her cover version of "Vicious" by Lou Reed.

Here's Maggie on the television show Def Poetry Jam performing her signature piece about confused love, "Emotional Idiot":


Slam poet and mystery novelist Maggie Estep has suddenly died at the age of 50.

view /MaggieEstep
Wednesday, February 12, 2014 11:45 am
Maggie Estep performing on Def Jam Poetry
Levi Asher

(This blog post about my lifetime of Lou Reed concerts is the second of three parts. Here are part one and part three.)

I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he'd been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou's mask was off. The psycho show was over.

Lou would eventually release a song called "Average Guy", which perfectly describes Lou's onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over -- it was over for good.

My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.

I caught many shows by the Voidoids, which featured not only the expressive Richard Hell on bass and lead vocals but a weird old guitarist who looked like a shady businessman: shabby jacket, collared shirt, sad bald head, bad posture, dark glasses, permanent scowl. This was Robert Quine. He played his guitar like he was ripping a tree apart with a chain saw. The sound he invented was completely distinctive and unique.

I don't know exactly what technique he used to create streams of notes like sheering walls of noise, but it must have been a pretty good trick. I'm pretty sure he was striking droning open strings (allowing them to intone like the sympathetic strings on a sitar) while also bending and slurring two-finger chords, or something like that. Whatever it was, he managed to maintained a constant wall of dissonant feedback during his melodic solos, enabling a bombastic sound that was a perfect match for Richard Hell's howling poetry.

I sometimes wondered why Robert Quine wasn't famous and playing in Madison Square Garden instead of grinding it out with a punk poet in Bleecker Street nightclubs. His style clearly had a lot of potential, and yet he was unknown outside of downtown New York.

I brought my record collection with me to Albany State, including several Lou Reed favorites, but by this point Lou wasn't even at the top of my pile. Those were the albums by the rising punk bands: "Blank Generation", "Rocket to Russia", "Never Mind the Bollocks", "Easter", "More Songs About Buildings and Food". I still listened to Lou, but I knew he wasn't cutting edge anymore. At one point I'm pretty sure I imagined how cool it would be if Lou Reed were to freshen up his image by finding a powerful and emotive guitar player like Robert Quine.

We had a cute little record co-op next to the food co-op at the Albany State campus center, and I used to browse the paltry shelves between classes. The "New Releases" chalkboard began to list an upcoming new Lou Reed album called The Blue Mask, his follow-up to Growing Up In Public, and one day I found the album there. I read the back cover and nearly passed out from shock right there in the campus center record co-op floor.

The guitar player on Lou Reed's new album was Robert Quine.

I didn't even know that Lou Reed had ever heard of Robert Quine. I didn't know that anybody had ever heard of Robert Quine. I rushed the record back to my dorm room, where some of my suitemates became equally excited, because I had spread my affection for the Voidoids' Blank Generation to several of my friends. We put the new record on the turntable.

We listened. And waited. Then, finally: "Hmm". "Kind of interesting."

Yeah. Lou Reed had an incredible way of ruining good things in his late 70s/early 80s period, and it was clear that The Blue Mask was another musical dud. Like Growing Up in Public, the album was bursting with fascinating psychological self-analysis, but it was a severely talky record, musically simple and dull. Lou's voice was mixed loud in every track, Quine and Lou strumming gentle wallpaper chords. It had a hypnotic effect ... but it was as if Lou had hired Robert Quine just to ask him to play folk guitar.

The Blue Mask was actually a pretty good album of spoken word poetry. The verses were touching, painful, honest. But a good spoken word poetry record is something you'll listen to maybe three times. A good Lou Reed record is supposed to be something you'll listen to maybe a million times.

The album contained a few attempts at hard rock, and a couple of very short Robert Quine guitar solos, but any single minute of Robert Quine on Richard Hell's Blank Generation was more exciting than this entire record. It wasn't just me who felt this way -- I could see it on the faces around the dorm suite after the phonograph needle reached the end of side one. We all looked at each other and sighed and agreed to take a break. "We can listen to side two later."

On February 26, 1983, I managed to make it down from Albany to New York City to catch a rare Lou Reed concert, my second, at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. Lou now had a brand new album out, a follow-up to The Blue Mask called Legendary Hearts, with the same band and the same talky, boring kinds of songs. Well, I thought, maybe the Lou Reed/Robert Quine band will find their mojo when they jam on the old tunes.

The show opened with "Sweet Jane", just as my first Lou show four years ago had (it's unusual to open a concert with one of your most popular songs, but I guess Lou likes a strong kickoff). The band kept up a good beat. It was fun for me to see Robert Quine standing there to the left of Lou, just as I'd seen Quine standing to the left of Richard Hell so many times, and I liked the way he and Lou traded grungy, crunchy chords that laid a gripping foundation for "Sweet Jane", and then for "I'm Waiting For My Man", in which Robert Quine finally did a one-verse solo, though it was so short you'd think somebody was charging him money by the note. They then did a third rocker, an intriguing new song called "Martial Law", and I was pretty happy with what I was hearing.

It was a very even and controlled performance -- powerful yet still not exactly thrilling. I was still put off, as I had been at my first concert, by a sense that Lou Reed was failing to project himself into the lyrics, that he had lost his inability to inhabit his characters. Some of the songs he was singing were highly emotional, like the cathartic "Waves of Fear", or the piercing and obviously personally painful song "Kill Your Sons", which tells of the electroshock therapy his parents had forced on Lou Reed as a teenager because they suspected he was gay. And yet, even as he sang these songs, I did not sense that Lou Reed was fully there. His expression rarely changed -- at most he would emote with a tiny convulsive shudder of the head, or by bulging and squinting his eyes, but the emotion would rarely connect with his voice, which was consistently monotonous, flatlined, stripped of nuance.

Seeing the new Lou Reed band in person helped me understand something else that I didn't like about his current sound. Lou's bass guitarist since The Blue Mask was a guy named Fernando Saunders, and I now saw that Fernando played a fretless bass. A fretless bass is great for jazz or lead bass, because it allows a wide range of voicings and microtones. But a fretless bass has a twangy sound, and very poor attack.

Unfortunately, a fretless bass was a terrible sonic match for Robert Quine's guitar, which is all attack. The combination doesn't work, though it might have sounded intriguing in theory. Maybe Lou Reed was trying to achieve some kind of free-jazz elasticity by bringing in Fernando Saunders, and maybe this would have even been a great idea if he had matched Saunders with a guitarist in the band who fit his style. But a wobbly, querulous jazz bassline didn't create a solid backbeat for the power-guitar duo of Lou Reed and Robert Quine. Maybe Lou knew that, and was trying to subvert the potential capability of his band. Or maybe it sounded great to him, even though from the reaction in the crowd around me I wasn't the only one in the room who found the entire musical equation of the new Lou Reed band simply puzzling.

Here we had two truly great lead guitarists on stage, blasting through the classic Lou Reed songbook ... and the only one whipping out a solo in every song was Fernando Saunders. He was adding jazz syncopation to straight-ahead bar-chord slab-rockers like "I'm Waiting For My Man" and "White Light/White Heat", which never needed it at all. I got to the point where I felt like if I heard another boingy "twang" where there wasn't supposed to be one I was going to bang my head into a pillar.

Well, at least Lou Reed was playing guitar again. A nice moment occurred as the show was ending, as the band was raving up the final encore of "Rock and Roll". I suddenly heard a change in the song's rhythm, and a shift to a unusual but strangely familiar rhythm, a beat even more primal and simple than the square measures of "Rock and Roll". I also noticed a few others in the audience nearby perking up their ears, as if they'd picked up on the same odd rhythmic change too. What was happening? Then Lou stepped up to the mic and intoned, "Rockin' Sally inside ..."

Now a lot of people in the room were perking up. Lou was playing "Sister Ray".

Well, well, well ... I had never expected to hear Lou Reed play "Sister Ray" no matter how long I lived. The 17-minute Velvet Underground epic song had never been part of his setlist before. Quine looked pleased at the crowd's reaction and almost revealed a rare smile, the energetic drummer smashed his tom-toms in happy time, and even Fernando Saunders stuck for once to the primal song's heavy two-note bassline without popping any more twangs.

"Sister Ray" was a hell of a way to end a pretty good show, and as I crept sleepily back that night to Port Authority and finally fell asleep on a Peter Pan midnight bus back to Albany, the song's majestic rhythm pounded happily in my ears.

I saw Lou's band with Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders again on September 21, 1984 at Stony Brook University on Long Island. (I had now graduated after five years from Albany and was back at home with a starter tech job.) I saw that Lou was playing and figured, "sure, I'll go see him again."

By now I had really lost interest in Lou Reed, though I humored him by buying his boring albums whenever he released another one. They seemed to come at a steady rate of one a year. I'd just bought the latest, New Sensations, and I hated it.

New Sensations was a little more light-hearted than Legendary Hearts or The Blue Mask, but it still lacked any trace of the intense musical spark that had fired up Lou's classic works. Even the spoken word poetry felt weak -- the songs were about going to the movies with his wife, going shopping at the store. The cover artwork was dumb and seemed to strain for MTV-era relevance.

But New Sensations featured a limp attempt at a hit pop single, the bouncy "I Love You Suzanne", and I guess Lou was touring college towns like Stony Brook to pump the single. He'd added a keyboardist to the band, so now they sounded like Elvis Costello's Attractions (if Elvis Costello's Attractions had Robert Quine on guitar and a fretless bass). I enjoyed the Stony Brook gymnasium show -- but only because at this point my expectations that I'd ever experience the intense Lou Reed concert of my dreams were thoroughly damped.

Then I found out that Lou was swinging up to Albany the next month on the same college tour, and I went up to visit my alma mater and see the show yet again. At this point, well, me and Lou Reed concerts were getting pretty comfortable with each other. The experience was barely exciting anymore, though it was always pleasant. After the Albany show in October 1984 I had a feeling I wasn't going to be seeing Lou Reed again for a while. I'd wrung the sponge dry. There was no point to it anymore.

I didn't even buy Lou's next follow-up album, Mistrial (and I've still never heard the whole thing, though I know it includes an awkward attempt at hiphop called "The Original Wrapper").

Four years later, something miraculous happened, some kind of spontaneous awakening. Maybe it was triggered by a random event in a single neuron in the center of Lou Reed's brain. Or maybe he had planned his reemergence to take place in exactly this way, after a decade of dormant self-isolation. Whatever triggered it, the outward change appeared suddenly to Lou Reed's patient fans in the form of a new record album and a new musical project. A door closed, a door opened.

At this point in my life, I was a computer programmer working for a robotics laboratory in Hauppauge, Long Island, and taking fiction writing workshop classes at the New School in Greenwich Village at night, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing as an adult in this world. I wasn't listening to Lou Reed at all these days. There was a lot of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in my Walkman around this time, or when I needed a faster beat I'd pop in a Guns 'N' Roses or Beastie Boys cassette. Lou Reed? Yeah, I remember that guy, I used to listen to him when I was younger.

Then an album called New York came out.

Yeah, this album called New York. It was January 1989. Word was out that Robert Quine had finally stormed out of Lou's band, and Lou wisely decided to fire the rest of the band, and now he'd found a whole new band and a whole new sound.

And word was out that this new album was like "wow". Like really wow. Lou Reed had sprung back to life. And my own lifelong mission of trying to finally experience the great lost Lou Reed concert in the sky was about to go off in a whole new and different direction.

This three-part memoir's happy ending will be posted on this blog tomorrow.


Part two of Levi Asher's memoir of a 32-year span of Lou Reed concerts ... from "The Blue Mask" to "New York".

view /NIneConcertsInSearchOfLouReedPartTwo
Thursday, October 31, 2013 06:35 pm
Lou Reed and Robert Quine at the Bottom Line
Levi Asher

There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.

Actually, strike that. It was Questlove who said that, on page 4, in a question & answer session with his other co-manager Richard Nichols. These moments of organized confusion are common in Mo Meta’ Blues, which is structured more like a jazz jam session than a traditional memoir. Voices chime in like instruments, creating riffs and variations on Questlove’s memories. At 40 years old, the musician is looking back on his life and taking stock. But because of who he is and the period of the timeline he’s lived through, the book is also about taking stock of the state of hiphop. When Questlove’s co-manager Richard Nichols puts him on the spot, demanding “Tell us why your story matters”, Questlove explains:

Because we're the last hip-hop band, absolutely the last of a dying breed. Twenty-five years ago, rap acts were mostly groups. You had Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and you even had bands of bands, like Native Tongues collective, which was three loosely affiliated groups: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. I grew up looking at that model, at the sense of community and of a larger purpose. Even the negative things that came out of that arrangement, like competition and tension and sibling rivalry, were productive – that's what you get when you group. But today it's all solo acts. Maybe it's simple economics. Everyone thinks, “I'm Michael Jordan and I can do this on my own and pick up the check.” And maybe you can't blame people for that. The system isn't set up to think about it, not at all. New acts worship the star system because they see the highlight films, and that's all they can see, because that's how the experience is packaged. Solo acts are also easier for labels to deal with: they're easier to control, and you don't need to do any dividing and conquering. Even if I think of this as my book, it's never only my story. It's the story of other musicians, of other hip-hop groups, of other minds. The Roots is literally the last band on the caboose of that train …

Longevity. I am roughly the same age as Questlove, and I remember when rap and hiphop were new. They were so new that some radio stations in New York City -- yes, in New York City -- said flat out they’d never play a rap song. Back then, “YO! MTV Raps” was the closest thing MTV had to a reality show. Whatever hiphop was, parents hated it. It was so different that no one really knew what to make of it.

Today, hiphop has gone beyond mainstream. It’s become an entire genre, like rock-n-roll, jazz or country. It’s taught pop a few things about production values. But that’s not how it was when it started.

The Roots formed in the mid-80's, after Ahmir met Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. As Questlove tells it: Tariq was in trouble. Ahmir was trying to get a girl. (This dynamic, by the way, repeats itself throughout the book). LL Cool J, Run DMC, Fat Boys, World Class Wreckin' Cru (featuring young Dr. Dre) and Mantronix all released albums in 1985. The Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill in 1986. Public Enemy’s first album dropped a year later. The Roots witnessed hiphop’s birth, its transition into mainstream and everything that came after. They got to be a part of it.

So, if anyone has the authority to discuss the history of rap and hiphop, it is Questlove. But he never makes the mistake of pretending to be a solo act. Questlove may have the drum skills, but Black Thought always led the group’s lyrical visions. The level of respect Questlove holds for Tariq is apparent when he describes a freestyle video the Roots released online. Tariq improvises rhymes as Questlove points to objects in an alley.

It's gotten some currency online as proof of his talent, and it was certainly a moment where he was in the zone. But for me, I don't need that as proof: I go right back to CAPA in 1988, watching Tariq dismantle kids at the lunch table, to the point where other guys wanted to fight him. I saw the power of words wielded in that way. He was amazing.

And, while this might be Questlove’s book, the dedication page reads: “... well Tariq?”

This author’s lack of ego is one big reason the book has hit the bestseller lists. Mo' Meta Blues is a smart, well-written, thoughtful examination of a man’s -- an artist’s -- life within the context of a cultural movement. Other musician memoirs are too often just self-indulgent extensions of the author’s therapy. I was personally very far from this book’s target audience when I started reading it, and yet I couldn't put it down. It’s funny, entertaining, insightful. You don’t need to be a music nerd to enjoy this book, and it might help turn you into one.

Since finishing Mo’ Meta, I've been downloading the Roots albums, watching videos of the group online, DVR-ing “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” (which features the Roots as the house band).

While this book includes a fairly straightforward narrative about Questlove’s life and musical influences, it also features a series of question & answer sessions with Roots manager Richard Nichols. At times, Rich footnotes and “corrects” Questlove's memories. There are also several of Ben Greenman's emails to the book's editor, Ben Greenberg -- which caused the confusion I mentioned at the beginning of this review and which had nothing to do with their names. Add in, also, Questlove’s playlists, which are divided into years and all from the period of his life before he went “professional” (though the term “professional” is relative, as music was always a part of his life. His father was a successful musician, and not only Questlove but also his mother and sister became part of his father’s group).

Questlove's career has always been about collaboration. And while frustrations are a part of all creative relationships (though, for a music industry memoir there is a surprising lack of animosity and backstabbing here) his relationships remain strong to this day. And not only with the core group, the Roots. Questlove talks about being part of a conscious community that extended outwards to include Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, The Fugees, Eve and even Jimmy Fallon. He talks about roller skating with Prince (in one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read), collaborating with Jay-Z, and tense moments when the Roots worked with P. Diddy. He’s very humble about the place he and the Roots have carved out for themselves in the industry. It feels as if he's spent his life looking for and building something bigger than a band.

Somewhere along the way the Roots made the decision not to identify themselves with a specific lifestyle or persona. This means they’ve never had to worry about outgrowing an image, which helps to explain their longevity, and their long-lived credibility. (In a footnote Rich makes the case that it was the Roots' artistic authenticity that attracted Jay-Z when he chose them to back him on MTV Unplugged).

Mo’ Meta Blues ultimately does more than explain why the Roots are considered legendary, and why they're still important after more than 25 years. It's a generation defining book. For those of us of a certain age, it helps us to understand and better appreciate the music that was playing in the background as our lives were happening. Even if we weren’t necessarily listening to it at the time.

* * * * *

Tara Olmsted has previously reviewed a memoir about Che Guevara on Literary Kicks.


Tara Olmsted reviews the new memoir by hiphop scenester and Roots drummer Questlove.

view /MoMetaBlues
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 08:58 pm
New memoir by Roots drummer Questlove
Tara Olmsted

Changes. Funny thing ... I was planning on writing a blog post today about some changes I'm planning on making here on Litkicks. The site turns 18 years old (!) this Monday, July 23, and I'm planning to shake a few things up. I was going to write about that today, and then I heard some news about the Bowery Poetry Club.

The Bowery Poetry Club has always been my favorite night spot in New York City. It opened in the spring of 2002 -- a great time for a new spoken word poetry club to open in a New York City still recovering from the shock of the previous September. The club is the handiwork of poetry raconteur Bob Holman, a guy we like a lot and think should be Poet Laureate of the United States.

For the past eleven years the BPC has been a cozy and friendly spot for amateur and professional poets and slammers and lyricists. Everybody who worked there was a poet, and you'd find Moonshine and Shappy (two good spoken word guys) mopping the floor or tending the bar. There's a Walt Whitman Lite Brite behind the stage, tasty organic coffee and tarts out near the front ... and halfway decent poetry acts at least half the time. Whenever a friend was coming in from out of town, I'd tell them to hit the Bowery Poetry Club.

Unfortunately, it's closing down. A restaurant will probably replace the club, though there is some word that the restaurant will continue to host poetry events. Bob Holman sent out an encouraging message earlier today:

The rumors of the death of the Bowery Poetry Club are greatly exaggerated!! It is true that ten years into Project Utopia, the hamster-tail chase of booking 30-35 gigs a week to allow the Poetry we know and love to live has produced a fatigued staff, a ragged Board (of Bowery Arts + Science, the nonprofit that books the Club), and a space that's crying out for a dose TLC. But toss in the Po' Towel? No Way, Joe! By spending the summer renovating and working out a partnership with a restaurant (rumors of Duane Park as our collaborators are sweet and the two entities surely do share a love for the populist arts of the Bowery, but nothing is signed yet folks), we hope to reopen come fall and be SUSTAINABLE with a neighborhood (Loisaida/Earth) focused poetry schedule, utilizing other neighborhood resources as well as the Club. Look for a fuller deployment of the POEMobile around town, state, country, solar system, and a commitment to a global poetics rooted in the Endangered Language Movement. To the communit-y/-ies who have supported us, and to our staff, deepest thanks! Stay tuned -- we love you. Come party with Sean T and Ann and all on Tues July 17. Everything is Subject to Change! -- and for our Tenth Anniversary next year, the BPC will look different. To survive and sustain. All the better to serve the world poetry.

In other words, Holman says we don't need to worry about poetry in New York City ... and from what I know of the strong slam poetry community in New York City, we definitely don't need to worry about it. It's good news that the Bowery Poetry Club organization will continue to be active, and I'm sure they'll keep it hopping on the Lower East Side.

I was at the Bowery Poetry Club the day it opened, and I have participated in and hosted many unforgettable events there. The last thing I went to was a beatnik birthday party for Herschel Silverman, a year ago. Luckily, there are still plenty of other places for beatniks to hang out in downtown New York, and there always will be.

* * * * *

Changes. I've also got some changes in mind for this Literary Kicks joint, this little web/writing project of mine, nearly 18 years old (!). I figured it was time to stretch the format a little bit, and try some new things out. These future experiments will involve other formats like iOS, Kindle, ePub, Semantic Web, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, etc. (I've been doing some geeking out, and I bought a new Mac.)

As you know if you've been around here a while, I like to mix things up on the website every few years. That's how I keep it fresh. I'll tell you a little more about what I have in mind during the next couple of blog posts.

view /BoweryChanges
Monday, July 16, 2012 11:49 pm
Levi Asher

1. What do we learn from Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, the second volume of letters edited by Beat Generation archivist and expert Bill Morgan? We learn that Burroughs' obsession with literary splicing and combining possessed many of his thoughts; he writes about the cut-up method constantly, to everybody. We learn that he was polite to his parents and warmly paternal to and concerned about his son Billy. We learn that he had a calm demeanor but a cutting temper, that he couldn't stand Timothy Leary but was considerate enough to offer support when Leary was arrested, that he really hated Truman Capote (and never offered Capote any support), that he had great regard for Barney Rosset of Grove Press, and none for Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press (the primary difference seemed to be that Rosset always paid Burroughs the money he owed him, and Girodias never did). Overall, this collection of letters doesn't much change my understanding of William S. Burroughs, but is worthwhile for the pleasure of spending time in the company of this erudite and broadly original brutalist/postmodernist. Especially when Burroughs paraphrases Shakespeare, as in this quip about Herbert Huncke's imdomitable sneakiness: "he is not only a junkie but a thief, strong both against the deed in the words of the immortal bard the raven himself is harsh who croaks the fatal entrance of Huncke."

2, Barney Rosset of Grove Press and Evergreen Review was an inspiration to many indie publishers who followed. Here's his 1997 Paris Review interview with Ken Jordan.

3. The official On The Road movie poster has been released, and the upcoming movie now has a twitter account. Meanwhile, here's one amateur filmmaker's vision of an On The Road movie. NOTE: this is NOT an actual trailer for the Hollywood movie coming out this May. But it might be better -- we'll have to wait and compare.

4. Jazzman and ethnomusicologist David Amram is the guiding soul behind David Amram Poetry Jam, a quiet riot of Beat-inspired spoken word poetry by Casey Cyr, Ron Whitehead, Steve Dalachinsky and Lee Ranaldo, accompanied by the master himself on piano, doumbek, Lakota chanting flute and french horn.

5. If you're into Beat poetry, you should really check in regularly at the Allen Ginsberg Project blog, which has lately been sharing remembrances of Ginsberg's courses on William Blake. When I sat in on one of Ginsberg's classes at Brooklyn College in the mid-1990s, he was teaching this Blake course.

6. Beatitude ... by Larry Closs at the Next Best Book Blog.

7. Silence -- there's something that's truly evergreen. The Poetry Foundation remembers the ten year vow of silence taken by poet Bob Kaufman between 1963 to 1973. I don't know many poets who could manage a feat like that.

view /Evergreen
Tuesday, March 6, 2012 08:33 pm
Levi Asher

It's getting to be around that time in December when I put up a wrap-up post and disappear for a week or two.

I stopped by the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City recently, and was once again energized (a visit always helps) by the spirit in that eclectic room. You know, some people have asked why I claim to be interested in poetry when I don't follow the lit journal/academic/prize scene at all. Well, the spoken word scene is quiet but very much alive. The poems are still good, the talent keeps renewing itself, and the format still works. I guess the reason I keep this Action Poetry thing still rolling on this site (it's been around since early 2001) is to try to capture some of that spoken word spirit here on this blog. Which is why I'm happy to announce the launch, on Thursday morning, of this year's Action Poetry Randomized Wrap-up. One poem per click, all the poems you can want (from the best ones posted this year), just like we always do at this time.

I reach the closing days of 2010 in a reflective mood; not exactly satisfied, not suffering either. Let's just say I feel optimistic about the year ahead. Here on Litkicks, I'm looking forward to continuing my weekend excursions into philosophy (and politics, psychology, sociology, religion, ethics and history). I'm also looking forward to continuing to work with the excellent gang of Litkicks contributors (you can see 8 of our best names in the "By Author" panel in the right sidebar, in case you haven't noticed) who will certainly help me stay on top of the literary news of the day in 2011. I'm always looking for new contributors, too, so get in touch if you'd like to be a part of Litkicks 2011.

I'm in a rush and don't have time to stir up my usual bucket of snarky literary muck today, but here are a few real quick links before I blow this popsicle stand and catch you in the new year.

1. My oldest daughter showed me this New York Times Book Review feature about what people read on the subway and said "don't you think it's cute?". Yeah, I said, and it was also cute two years ago when I thought of it first.

2. The legendary and popular swinging-80s-era Limelight nightclub in New York City (think Jay McInerney and Rielle Hunter on an off night -- hey, they let me in, so how cool could it have been?) is now a pathetic shopping mall. Limelight was famous for being the only New York City nightclub in an actual church. The disco-ball-strewn cathedral is now an unholy church of Christmas-spirit commerce, with an Au Bon Pain and massage chairs. Ahh, Jay McInerney is probably an investor.

3. Here's an excellent list of literary films, one per year since 1982, by Carolyn Kellogg of Los Angeles Times. My favorite of the bunch? Either A Room With A View or Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle or Trainspotting. My un-favorite of the bunch? I thought The Outsiders was much worse than the book, and I didn't get what Robert Altman was doing to Raymond Carver in Short Cuts at all. And I'd like to add Tom and Viv for 1994.

4. "BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS?" This hilarious kid doesn't like it. Well, for the record, I was always very happy to get books for Hanukkah.

5. Jeff Price at Electric Literature ponders Samuel Beckett and Joshua Ferris.

6. Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly rants about the year's ten worst books. You know I loved Freedom, but I still like this insult:

The cynicism of our Worst Novel of 2010 is the God the Father of such evil, The Great Author. Franzen’s oily, unsmiling acceptance of this horrific honorific is not the least of his many sins, and his arrogance is by far the worst part of Freedom, a big fat speeding ticket of a novel that’s as long as it is bland, as strident as it is dull, and as stilted as it is silly.

7. A promising film experiment: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in a modern-day setting in Chicago. I'd like to see it.

8. Here's the latest Quarterly Conversation if you're looking for something else to read ...

... and with that, I'm out. Don't forget to come back Thursday to read some poems!

view /TheWindUp2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 07:30 am
Levi Asher

1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.

2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.

3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!

4. It looks like Sander Hicks's new political testament Slingshot to the Juggernaut will be published by the currently shape-shifting Soft Skull Books, which is highly appropriate since Sander created Soft Skull. Nice move, and I'm looking forward to the book.

5. Robert Crumb's daughter has written a comic memoir, Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist. Can't deny that pedigree.

6. The University of Chicago is e-publishing Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, an apparently epic multi-volume work I haven't yet read but hear amazing things about. They're giving the first of the 12 books away free during the month of December.

7. Henry Mayhew's newly republished London Labour and the London Poor captures the streets of 19th Century underworld London, with haunting antique illustrations intact.

8. Tom Stoppard's early radio works.

9. Chapter 16: A Community of Tennessee Readers, Writers and Passersby.

10. Ben Hamilton ponders Hiphop and Literature.

11. Absinthe for breakfast.

12. The Tatter Prize by Daniel Scott Buck.

13. Illuminating visualization of Red and Blue voting trends in the United States of America for the last 88 years. (Though we didn't start using "Red" and "Blue" until recently, apparently the regionalization of political ideology is nothing new).

14. Literary critic James Wood on the wonder of Keith Moon. "Moon is the drummer of enjambment." Apt.

view /UnderWorlds
Thursday, December 2, 2010 08:12 pm
Levi Asher

Bob Holman, creator of New York City's Bowery Poetry Club and one of the early innovators of spoken word/slam poetry, has published a useful list on Facebook: 15 Rules For Hecklers.

Every serious poet should get heckled now and then. It helps to cut through the deadly pretension and solipsism of the form. Here's a helpful guide to the joyful art, from a master who's put in his time on both sides of the heckle.

15 Rules For Hecklers
by Bob Holman

1. Be fearless, be bold!

2. You are part of the show.

3. All art is interactive. The Heisenberg principal covers “observing” and says one cannot observe without affecting that which is being observed. In other words, looking at something is heckling!

4. That doesn’t make sense? Then try the Evolution of Orality. Heckling is nothing more than Call & Response where the Response is as creative (or more) than the Call.

5. You gotta listen, deep and hard, soulfully connecting with the artist. Great heckling is a George and Gracie skit where the heckler is Gracie, Costello to Abbott, Lewis to Martin, Smothers to Smothers.

6. Be in tune with the audience. You are their voice, you are the Chorus.

7. Or not! Sometimes you have to go where no one has ventured before and lead the audience to undiscovered dimensions of understanding. Have a good lawyer.

8. There is a place for sophomoric curses and responses. Like after a 12-pack.

9. Speed is essential; timing is all. You gotta drop in the heckle with rhythmic integrity.

10. Be heard. Bellowing may be in order.

11. Have the audience at your back or get the hell outta Dodge.

12. If this is a one-shot heckle, when people turn to look for the source, you crane and look too, or grow a halo. Heckling is an art of words, not an ego ploy. No matter what the polite ones think or say!

13. Politeness. Heckling is not polite. Heckling means the world has standards to live up to, and when artists fail, they thank you for pointing that out to them.

14. If your heckle isn’t better than the art, pack it in. A good heckle is, as Bob Dylan says, a corkscrew to the heart.

15. Practice on easy targets first, like politicians. On second thought, that might be too easy, like heckling a balloon.


Bob Holman, creator of New York City's Bowery Poetry Club and one of the early innovators of spoken word/slam poetry, has published a useful list: 15 Rules for Hecklers.

view /HolmanHeckle
Monday, August 2, 2010 09:16 am
Bob Holman at the Bowery Poetry Club
Levi Asher