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Three Poems (Partly By Me, and Partly By…’Someone Else’).

January 8, 2014

Hello to everyone out there in Internet-land, especially to everyone who’s following my blog. I hope everyone’s doing well, and thinking and reading about things that interest them. Lately, I, your Overgrounder, have been thinking a lot about poetry, which is one thing that interests me more than anything else in the world. In my last article – So Nice They did it Thrice #1 – I explored a song that was partly about the dichotomy between poetry and popular music, and mentioned that I’m a poet myself. In my second-to-last article, Drab Bards, I wrote about What Not to Do when writing poetry, and about the two books that explain this in more-than-lurid detail. I’ve always been fascinated by poetry, and it is one of my greatest ambitions to be respected as a poet. When I’m writing poetry, I feel like I’m doing something I was born to do. With all that in mind, I felt it was time for your Overgrounder to post some handwritten poetry. So, here are three poems, that I’ve recited at poetry slams even though I wrote them to be read on the page, written partly by me, and partly by…‘someone else’.

The ‘someone else’ mentioned above, who the poems are partly by, is Jack Shaman. I put quotation marks around ‘someone else’ because Jack Shaman is actually a character of my own invention. He is – or he will be – the protagonist of a novel that I’ve been working on for more years than I care to admit. Tentatively titled The Mutant Sound, and set in the early 1960’s, the novel tells of how a young man calling himself Jack Shaman leaves his small and uptight hometown, and comes to New York City with dreams of becoming a folk singer or a rock ‘n roll star. I wrote these poems in Jack Shaman’s voice, or in what I imagine Jack Shaman’s voice to be, and I intended them to sound like surrealistic liner notes.  (I must confess here that Jack Shaman and his story are the reasons I get so worked up about novels that imply that no earthly good can come of rock ‘n’ roll – for evidence of this, read my article about Don Delillo’s Great Jones Street).

I hope you enjoy reading these poems – I certainly enjoyed writing them – and I hope they pique your interest in Jack Shaman and The Mutant Sound. If you want to hear more about Jack Shaman – more poems by him, or part of the novel your Overgrounder is writing about him – or if you just want to know more about what inspires me to write poetry, please tell me in the Comments section.

OneJack Shaman’s Muse.

And so I fled the House on Castle Street…
At least I thought I did. Or wished I had.
I didn’t, really. I sat around the house. I mused.
In my dream,
In my glamorous fantasy,
I rushed  out on a quest, for the Golden Muse.
Her hooves look like high heels.
Moonlight becomes her.
But she’s not too pretty to get her feet wet.
I remember,
Once,
She took one look at Joe Crowe
She looked into his eyes, and said ‘My name is Baby Blue,’
And that tawdry fraud just burned on back to his rabbit hole like an
electrified Marshmallow Peep; like a bilious human rawhide chew toy
Sticking a knife into a dog’s head.
My muse guards the imagination’s radiance.
Her charms are saved for artists,
And only she can say the words
That match the music in my heart.

And now I stand outside this troubled city.
I stand mute against the fencing and gnaw on my rage
At these idiotic conventions I see everywhere in this society.
Boredom has been forced onto me.
But when I meet my muse,
In that sudden sweet tumult when we dance under the stars to the music
Of strawberry-red radios,
It’ll be plush after rain, as good as velvet.
It’ll be sweet,
Sweet like two creatures with nothing to lose.
We’ll rush together, spritelike,
Through the ultralight frontiers of this land,
Until we discover our own,
Crystal kingdom.

TwoJack Shaman’s Ambitions.

To emerge a folk hero (with a mad jester’s soul) from the sleek,
Soulful bloodstained Faberge mouth of the most fabulous trickster. To spring onto the stage like a force of radical
Exotic gemstone nature, just like some fanged or cats’-eye-colored fish.
To waltz cool and slow in some shady grove, with six glittering harlequins.
To kiss a witch, touched by musical scandal.
(Or cover her with honey and eat her up).
To be as cagey as a house that’s shingled
With genuine and germane human hearts.

To burst into the supermarket like a bugbear,
And ask the stock-boy if he’s ever heard the sound of a wick burning,
And see him burst into tears. That always makes the hunger go away…
For a while.
To bite my tongue and feed on my own hunger.
To stand back and sneer as the staring stags demand
You there! Stop imitating the boy next door this instant,  you filthy fifth
columnizing fiend, you dirty, stinking rotten Commie rat!”
To turn my back on them and listen in awe,
As antelopes wail and electric lights trumpet.
To fly over rooftops, fly over ditches,
Fly over skylines without any hitches,
While the boss’s brother begs,
Will Governor Gordon refuse to let
This melancholy young murderer die?’
To vanish (Without a trace)
From this miniaturizing put-on shop,
And never again return.
Sincerely, Jack Shaman.

Three – ‘One of Coyotes People.’

Malcontented, bloodied-but-unbowed,
Hiding himself inside a plain brown wrapper,
Wearing – boots for breaking wild horses,
A battered jacket,
An ancient hat pulled down low over his eyes.
He’s one of Coyote’s people a born trickster.

You don’t get to be as big a deal as he is by being a piece of angel-cake.
Because he’s seen disaster – been captured by bandits,
Near eaten by ogres,
Spat at by soldiers.
He’ started fires,
Shot at tigers,
Crossed wires,
Fought with liars,
Stared, with sadistic glitter, into the posturing eyes of hacks,
(Those who thought that love was something you could advertise.)
He knows that bets and calm cold threats and tokens you can buy,
Are drugstore’s signs of happiness – I mean, a dirty lie.
He’s set himself against it all, and that is really why,
He’s one of Coyotes people a born trickster.
They say he was enchanted by a mad enchanter,
Cast out, in pain,
From his home on the secret plains,
Forced to wander endlessly,
All down through our dark history,
To burn – so bright, so gloriously
Wreathed in his mystic melancholy.
And so he has. I mean, he’s been hit pretty good,
He’s sat a bit in his own blood. He’s stared down into several rosy voids or flowery mists,
Sometimes he’s faded away into them.
But he’s come back, electric and dangerous,
To sing out the confounding blues, gladsome and silvery,
To sing out coldly, heedless as an elf,
Of the magic overlooked with our present day,
The mystery living in the ether,
Coursing and forcing itself through our world.
The bright, dread dream of lost and sacred ground.
He plays hide-and-seek with the world,
(Presents himself like a fanciful vision)
And changes people just like
Fanciful visions do.
For he’s one of Coyotes people a born trickster.

So Nice They did it Thrice #1: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ (A Tale of Long-Lost Singer-Songwriters, Boy-Band Bowdlerizations, ‘These Tears that Words Are’, and a Bubblegum Classic With a Secret History).

January 6, 2014

So Nice They did it Thrice is (or will be, I hope), a recurring feature from the Overgrounder. It’s a music column wherein I explore the history and background of pop songs that were covered not once, not twice, but – you guessed it – thrice, and explain why I think they’re nice. In keeping with the Overgrounder’s mission statement, most of the songs I’ll be covering in this column will be from the 1960’s and 1970’s, and a lot of them I must admit, could be construed as cheesy. But I do hope that these columns will give you a new perspective on some old songs, and maybe change your opinion of them. Even more than that, I hope these columns will entertain you.

For my first So Nice They did it Thrice column, I’d like to explore ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter.’ This is a song that many people remember (if they remember it at all), as a pseudo-classic of bubblegum schlock from plaid-maddened ‘70’s boy band The Bay City Rollers. (It certainly wasn’t their biggest hit – that honor went to the vastly inferior ‘Saturday Night’ – and since it wasn’t a hit for anyone else, either, I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t jinxed.) However, if we (or at least, I) examine it closely, we (I) may find that it’s less schlocky than it may seem. For starters, the Rollers weren’t the first people who recorded it. The first person to record ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ was the man who wrote it: an American singer-songwriter named Tim Moore, for whom that weary journalistic cliché ‘unfairly neglected’ could have been invented.

Tim Moore was born in Philadelphia; he went to art schools, and got his start as a performer in the late 1960’s, playing his own songs in coffee houses. After this, Moore’s musical career seemed to consist of endless brushes with greatness that never blossomed into anything substantial, and successes that were never as large as they could be. During the late ‘60’s, he was almost – but not quite – signed to Frank Zappa’s infamous record label Bizarre. (Zappa brought Tim Moore to New York with the intention of producing Moore’s debut album, but was unable to do so because of complications in his own touring schedule. How disappointed Moore must have been by this, I can only imagine.) After this disappointment, Tim Moore moved back to Philadelphia; as the 1970’s oozed onto the horizon, he worked as a session musician and a songwriter-for-hire, working with titans of the Philly Soul sound, like Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff. All the while though, Tim Moore kept nursing his dream of becoming a successful performing artist in his own right. He moved to Woodstock, New York (Woodstock was a haven for musicians and singer-songwriters; Bob Dylan, the Band, and their infamous manager Albert Grossman all lived there), and struck a deal with ABC-Dunhill Records. Around about 1971, Tim Moore released his first single, the admittedly wan ‘A Fool Like You’. Singing backup on the song was Donald Fagen, who would, of course, go on to become part of that superbly cynical jazz-rock duo Steely Dan. Moore returned the favor, singing backup on Steely Dan’s near-forgotten debut single ‘Dallas’, but this was yet another example of Moore becoming peripherally involved with artists who were (or would go on to become) much more successful than he ever would be. Moore’s debut single ‘A Fool Like You’ was not a commercial success, but this did not deter him from continuing to make singles and albums. In 1975, Tim Moore released the album Behind These Eyes. This was the album that included the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter.’

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is the closest thing to a hit that Tim Moore ever had; it’s his best song, and of course, it’s what I’m writing this article about. Here’s where I feel I should examine the song in detail. Sometimes, I really don’t know why I like this song as much as I do, but I really do like it. I’d consider ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ to be a prime example of power pop. Power pop is an amorphous subgenre or pseudo-genre, a self-conscious melding of rock and pop. It existed throughout the 1970’s, and was defined by critic Robert Christgau in the March 1978 issue of his famous Consumer Guide as ‘…hard rock leavened by melody and a certain pop frivolity…[power pop] is a natural evolutionary direction for punk – in fact, much of the best punk (but not all of it) was there to begin with…’ The 1970’s bands most commonly thought of as power pop were The Raspberries (before lead singer Eric Carmen left them for a frighteningly successful solo career making frightfully inane soft-rock songs like ‘All by Myself’) and Big Star (pop genius Alex Chilton’s second band, his first band, of course, having been the Box Tops, who brought you ‘The Letter’) but ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ has nearly all the hallmarks of the subgenre, enough to make me think that Tim Moore should be considered as a power-popper, too. The guitar in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is crude and tough but engaging – I mean, it doesn’t try to bludgeon you to death. This guitar, and the equally crude/tough/engaging drums, is complimented by bright, thin piano chords and sweet, ‘oohooh’-ing female backup singers – the combination of tough and sweet being a power pop hallmark. But it’s the lyrics to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ that fascinate me. We might think, from the title, that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ would be just another silly love song – something about someone writing a love-letter to his girlfriend, most likely. But when we listen to the lyrics, we realize that it isn’t a love song at all. Rather, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is a song about what it means to be an up-and-coming artist. (It is exactly the vision of the performing life that you’d expect a semi-successful singer-songwriter like Tim Moore would have.) Besides that, it’s a song about writing songs, and one that reveals Tim Moore to be a songwriter of more-than-average wit and perception. The narrator of the song dreams of being counted amongst the great poets, but confesses that his heart belongs to the rock ‘n’ roll, with all its lowbrow thrills. The opening verse hit me right where I live: ‘Hey sister poets, dear brother poets too,/These tears that words are make me want to be with you./But I need to spend my body, I’m a music-makin’ man/And no page can release it like this amplifier can…’ As we listen to the next verse, we notice that the ‘love’ in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is not romantic, or physical love at all, but rather something between the ancient Greek/Christian concept of agape (the third definition) and a general lust-for-life. When Moore sings ‘…God, I must be crazy to express myself this way,/But there ain’t much Romance livin’ in the U.S.A…’, we can suspect that he means ‘Romance’ with a capital R, the kind of Romance that the Romantic movement was about – untrammeled expression of feeling, rejection of all preconceived notions, passion for everything above all. By the time Moore, with his power-popper’s yawp, shouts out the final triumphant chorus – ‘…Gonna sign it gonna seal it gonna mail it away! /Send me back one someday!’ – we come to realize that Moore’s rock ‘n’ roll love letter is addressed to the whole wide world – it’s the cri de Coeur of an artist who will either make his mark on the world or die trying.

In gushing so thoroughly, I don’t mean to suggest that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is a perfect song. Tim Moore may be a good songwriter, but (despite what he may be thinking in the first lines of the song) he’s no poet, and the lyrics to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ are not without infelicities. The final verse of the song contains a ghastly confection of inanity, pointlessness and bad pseudo-pun: ‘…But I see an ancient rhythm in a man’s genetic code,/Gonna keep on rock ‘n’ rollin’ ‘till my genes explode…’ And some modern listeners may find the song in its entirety just too ’70’s; power pop isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I will never fail to be amazed by ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, by the power and passion in Tim Moore’s voice and by his portrayal of the struggling artist’s lot. I respond so intensely to this song because I’m an up-and-coming artist myself.  I am, ironically, just a writer, a page-poet with only words to play with, who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about the world of pop music. If I wrote a version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, (a prose version, or a music-less poem version) I’d have to begin it ‘Hey rock nrollers…’ Nonetheless, there have been times where I’ve felt exactly like the narrator of Tim Moore’s song, and I’ll always be grateful to him for writing it. Moore may never have found success commensurate with his ambitions – neither Behind These Eyes, nor any of the three albums he released in the years following 1975 made much impact on the charts, and he has since abandoned performing to become a digital/media strategist – but ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ deserves to go down in pop music history.

Now comes the part in So Nice They did it Thrice where I explain the person – or in this case, people, plural – who did the song for the second time. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ may not have been a hit for Tim Moore, but that doesn’t mean it went unrecognized by the world. Somehow, the song must have come to the attention of the Bay City Rollers’ manager, because in 1976, they recorded a version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, which became the title track of the album that they released that year. People might expect that they bowdlerized it (and they did drop a verse), but as we will see, they didn’t mess with the song as much as some readers might suspect. I won’t go into much detail about the Bay City Rollers. Suffice to say they were tartan-wrapped teen-pop sensations from Edinburgh who picked their band name by throwing a dart a map of the United States and watching it land on ‘Bay City’, Michigan, and that nearly everything everyone else says about them is true, except maybe this – everyone says they were awful, but however fluffy and silly their brand of bubblegum pop may have been, they really weren’t. Boring maybe (that’s why I won’t go into much detail about them) but not awful. Their version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is relatively faithful to Tim Moore’s original, but only relatively. The Rollers speed up the tempo and slick up the instrumentation (dropping the piano and including a much more polished guitar sound), they drop the important second verse and keep the final verse with those wretched lines about ‘…rock ‘n’ rollin’ ‘till my genes explode…’, which I think was a stupid decision, and lead singer Les McKeown doesn’t have half of Tim Moore’s yawp. But when you play Moore’s version next to the Bay City Rollers’, you realize that they’re fairly similar after all. So, the Rollers’ version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is still pretty good (though not as good a Moore’s, in my opinion, and why a band that was already monstrously successful should feel the need to cover a song about being a desperate, struggling artist, I have no idea. Also, I should probably mention here that the Rollers, and their audience, were probably the ones who mistook ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ for a silly love song based on its title alone, and I can’t help but wonder if they ever figured out that it wasn’t.) ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ wasn’t a major hit for the Bay City Rollers – the redoubtable Robert Christgau referred to it in passing as ‘…semistiff…’ But hit or not, I think ‘Rock ‘n ‘ Roll Love Letter’ is one of the few great songs the Rollers ever recorded – certainly the most interesting song they ever recorded – and I suspect that it’s a more interesting song than anything One Direction (the Rollers’ present-day equivalent) will ever record.

It is at this point where I force this column to live up to its name, and explain the people who covered ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ for the third time. These people would be The Records. Unlike with the Bay City Rollers (who many people still remember, though perhaps not fondly), I might have to explain in some detail who The Records were. The Records were a British power pop band who had their biggest success with the single ‘Starry Eyes’, released in 1978 on a tiny independent record label that actually called itself Independent Records. (The Records also signed to the infamous Stiff label, and their appearance on the label’s Be Stiff tour in late 1978 garnered enough valuable exposure to win them a deal with Virgin Records, although this didn’t really help them much in the end). The Records’ lead singer and guitarist was John Wicks, and their drummer was Will Birch (who had previously fronted an obscure pub-rock band called the Kursaal Flyers). Rounding out the Records’ personnel were bassist Phil Brown and second guitarist Hugh Gower. They’d chosen their band-name because it sounded deliberately generic (something they had in common with The Smiths, interestingly enough). The Records had a lot in common with Tim Moore. Like Tim Moore, they were power-poppers (though, because they got their start in 1978 rather than 1971, they were sometimes considered to be ‘new wave’ as well as ‘power pop’), like Tim Moore they were never as successful as they deserved to be and understandably spent a lot of time fretting about the success that never seemed to come their way, and like Tim Moore they thought long and hard, with more detail then eloquence, about the purpose of art and the artist’s lot. In a 1979 interview with writer Jeffrey Morgan of CREEM magazine, Will Birch explained ‘…[the purpose of art is] not to instruct, certainly not…I think the function of art is to reflect what people feel but don’t recognize that they feel until it’s pointed out to them by art – and then to entertain as well. Also, to provide a basis of expression for the artist.’ After all that, it was only natural that The Records should cover ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’, that cri de Coeur about art from an artist with which they had so much in common. Their version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ (which you can listen to here) is much more faithful to the original than the Bay City Rollers’ version. The Records retain the second verse of the song, that the Rollers dropped (though John Wicks sings ‘…there ain’t much Romance livin in the world today…’ rather than ‘…livin’ in the U.S.A…’, because they’re a British band, after all), and include piano (though the piano bits in their version are even more crude than the piano bits in Moore’s version). All they really do to differentiate their version from Moore’s is to speed the tempo slightly, rough up the guitar a bit (in contrast to the Rollers, who slicked their guitar up), and drop the oohoohs in the background. All things considered, The Records’ version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is just as good as Tim Moore’s version (and it should be, it’s so similar). Thusly, in terms of quality, Tim Moore’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ and The Records’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ are tied for first place, with the Bay City Rollers’ version a close second.

Here I will conclude my column. I hope it enlightened and entertained you. I urge readers to listen to all three versions in a row. They prove, if nothing else, that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ is a song that was…So Nice, They did it Thrice.

Postscript: I, your Overgrounder, feel I should explain a few things here that I didn’t have room to explain in the article above. First of all, for those unfamiliar with the term, I call myself a ‘page-poet’ to differentiate myself from a ‘slam-poet.’ While I have performed at poetry slams in the past, I write poetry designed primarily to be read on a page. This is in contrast to most slam poets, who compose poems designed primarily to be recited out loud and who often don’t write down their poetry at all, instead composing on the spot and off the top of their heads. Second of all, when I mentioned above that I had ‘…only words to play with…’ I was quoting a famous line from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The line ‘…Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with!…’  is spoken by Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, and even though Humbert Humbert is one of the slimiest villains in literature, I can never resist quoting him.  I think of that line every time I think about the fact that I’m not a musician.

Third of all, for those unfamiliar with CREEM magazine, which I also quoted from in the article above, it, was the sweetest and most delicious (for a rather grungy definition of sweet and delicious) rock magazines that ever existed, and I’m still sorry that it folded, even though it did so in 1989, before I was even born. Lester Bangs served as CREEM’s editor for a while – and if you don’t know who Lester Bangs is, go find out at once. Suffice to say, I consider Lester Bangs to be part of the holy trinity of rock critics (the other figures in the trinity being Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau). Speaking of Robert Christgau (and forth of all), the only reason I quote him so much is because I do consider him part of that holy trinity, despite the fact that I know many people who consider him (and Greil Marcus, and even Lester Bangs) to be an overrated pompous ass. Robert Christgau is, after all, the self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, and he’s been in the criticism business since 1967. He’s seen it all. As such, his opinions are always strong and mostly fairly sound. Also, I think he’s a genuinely great writer, and he’s one of my major literary influences.

In conclusion (the conclusion to the conclusion, ye gods), I want to ask everyone out there in Internetland: which version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter’ do you like best? Do you have any fond memories of the Bay City Rollers? Or The Records, or the Kursaal Flyers, or CREEM magazine, or poor old Tim Moore himself, for that matter? Do you think One Direction really are the Bay City Rollers’ present-day equivalents? Do you have any respect or admiration for Robert Christgau, or do you think he’s a pompous ass? Most of all, do you ever feel like writing a rock ‘n’ roll love letter to the world? Tell your Overgrounder in the Comments, because I’m dying to know.

Drab Bards (Or, The Importance of Bad Poetry)

January 3, 2014

I have before me two anthologies of bad poetry. The first, and most infamous, is The Stuffed Owl, edited by D.B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, first published in 1930. The reprint of The Stuffed Owl that I have, published in 2003, contains a new preface by Billy Collins. The second anthology – an obvious in imitation of The Stuffed Owl – is Pegasus Descending, edited by James Camp, X. J. Kennedy, and Keith Waldrop, first published in 1971. Both books are organized in the same way; they begin with an introduction by the editors, then a selection of what the editors consider to be ‘The Worst Opening Lines in English’, and then the bad poems themselves. Each bad poem is preceded by a biographical and sometimes critical note on the person who wrote it. I am morbidly fascinated by these books – no, I’m more than morbidly fascinated. I return to them again and again. I am convinced that Lewis, Lee, Camp, Waldrop and Kennedy have done a great service by compiling and publishing these books. I thought I’d better ask myself why? What do I get out of reading risible old poems prefaced by snarky little notes? What would anybody get out of it? The first and most obvious answer is that people read the poems in The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending for the same reason they watch movies like Birdemic or Battlefield Earth – so they can laugh at, and feel superior to, the poor fools revealing their artistic incompetence to the world. But there’s more to it than that. From bad art of any sort –certainly from bad poetry – one can actually learn a lot.

The first thing one learns from reading the bad poems compiled in The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending is what separates a bad poem from a good poem. The editors of both books spend most of their introductions explaining this. In The Stuffed Owl, Lewis and Lee write: ‘…nuances of badness unite to make Bad Verse. The most obvious and predominating tint, of course, is bathos: that sudden slip and swoop and slither as down a well-buttered slide, from the peaks into the abyss…There is often found in Bad Verse that windy splurging and bombinating which makes Victor Hugo’s minor rhetoric so comic and so terrible.  Other plain marks are…poverty of the imagination, sentimentality, banality, the prosaic…obstipation or constipation of the poetic faculty; inability to hold the key of inspiration; and insufficiency of emotional content for metrical form. (xiii). In Pegasus Descending, on the other hand, Keith Waldrop writes that in bad poetry,
      ‘… There appears a ludicrous gap between whatever the writer has set himself to achieve, and his level of talent and intelligence…In bad poetry, sincere failures are the only delectable kind. Whatever is consciously, deliberately bad – that must be shunned like some loathsome beetle or moral leper.’ ( xiii-xiv.)  Meanwhile, Keith Waldrop observes that:
            ‘How often is it that bad verse is needlessly complicated! Such is the work of the bard who beats us over the head with a brilliant display of excessive ingenuity; who has to be tricksy at all costs when (instead) he ought to be passionate. He it is who must lard his lines with alliteration just for the hell of it; who, called on for a paean delivers a pun.’  (xiv).

Interestingly, the editors of both The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending make the same point about metrical, rhyming poetry – that it is more often risibly bad than un-rhymed free verse. In his preface to The Stuffed Owl, Billy Collins writes,
             ‘All Good Bad Poetry is formal poetry, because the reader is allowed to see exactly how the poem is failing to be good…A formal poem risks being indisputably bad, for any reader can recognise the ways in which it is bad, whereas free verse may offer a verbal camouflage where one’s ineptitude has a fighting chance to remain undetected…bad poetry features an anarchy of rule-following that leads to the near breakdown of the serene order that the forms of traditional poetry are designed to maintain.’ (v).
In Pegasus Descending, X.J Kennedy argues: ‘In free verse, as in any other sort of writing, a writer cannot long be fugg-headed, lazy or incompetent without the reader’s catching wise to him; but surely an inept free-versifier can escape detection longer than an inept sonneteer. If…the poet views his work as…spontaneous declamation, no one will laugh if his free verse contains a few natural stutters and imperfections. But writing a formal ode…is like singing an aria: a dangerous thing to belch in the middle of.’ (xv).

If the editors of Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl organized their books in roughly the same way, they did select the bad poems they included according to different criteria. Lewis and Lee arrange their compilation in chronological order; Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp arranged their compilation by category (with sections for poems on Love, Nature, War, Death, Food, etc.) Lewis and Lee selected works written from the mid-16th Century (Abraham Cowley’s ‘On the Death of Mr. William Hervey’) to the mid-19th Century (Tennyson’s ‘Song at the Opening of the International Exhibition’). They forced themselves to stop at the mid-19th Century, though. Because many of the most laughable poets of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were still alive in 1930, Lewis and Lee informed readers  in their introduction that,‘…the enrichment of this book…with extracts from eminent living English poets would not compensate the momentary hot embarrassment all round which perhaps have followed…’ (vii). Writing at the dawn of the 1970’s, the editors of Pegasus Descending – Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp – had no such embarrassment to worry about, and could afford to include all those writers who gave the late Victorian and Edwardian eras a bad name.

Lewis and Lee included in The Stuffed Owl only poems that were specifically intended to be serious, as opposed to ‘light verse’. Billy Collins notes that light verse could not have been included in an anthology of bad poetry because ‘…light verse – when it’s good – is good because it intends to be bad.’ (iv). However, that phrase ‘when it’s good’ implies that light verse, too, can fail. Arguably, when light verse fails, it becomes something that its readers laugh at instead of with. Besides, ‘light verse’ does not always mean ‘comical verse’; it can also refer to ‘verse written on relatively light subjects’ – food, for instance. The Stuffed Owl does not contain many examples of failed light verse, but Pegasus Descending does.

Additionally, Lewis and Lee refrained from including works by amateur poets. As they put it: ‘…the rich mine of amateurism…has been left practically untouched: some attractive imbecilities may have been lost thereby, but…a fall off a cliff is more interesting than a fall off a cushion.’ (xix). Again, the editors of Pegasus Descending differ from the editors of The Stuffed Owl. Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp do deign to include amateur poets in their anthology – people like Frank Elwood Sanford, who published one poem, ‘The Outcast,’ in 1894, and afterwards disappeared into respectability, and Grace Treasone, whose four-line scrap of doggerel ‘Life’ appeared in the ‘This Way To Parnassus’ column of the Morris County News in 1963, and the mysterious ‘C.T’, whose poem ‘Gastric’ is a fine example of the comic poem that one laughs at instead of with. One can’t help but feeling that Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp might have cast their net too wide, or aimed their Gatling guns at gnats. It’s one thing to expose the rare wrong-footed moments of Emily Dickinson or Alfred Tennyson or Lord Byron, or the clunking senillia of Thomas Hardy. It’s one thing to show up also-rans and second-raters like Sydney Dobell, Thomas Holley Chivers and Robert Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But it’s quite another thing to pillory the one-off anonymous submission to the local newspaper. However, even if one thinks that Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp were unfair in preserving for all eternity the likes of Dr. A. Rashid Ghazi’s ‘Poem on Inter-Uterine Device’ – which was intended as a work of popular education, not a work of art – one has to admit that bad amateur poems are often laugh-out-loud funny, and that Pegasus Descending is a funnier book on the whole than The Stuffed Owl.

All literature, even bad literature, always contains something of the era it was written in.  Reading The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending, one gets a real sense of the standards and tastes of the past. Many, though certainly not all, of the poems included in both books were considered genuinely good in their day. Reading them, one learns something about what people in past centuries and decades expected poetry to be. The Stuffed Owl focuses mostly on 18th Century writers – people who rubbed elbows with, and sometimes competed with, the likes of Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope. Reading them, and reading the biographical notes about them, is to discover a time when poets were taken seriously by the reading public and took each other seriously too; when poetry was the preserve of courtiers and gentlemen, and when at least some people daydreamed about being made poet laureate the way people today daydream about winning at Jeopardy. To read about what Lewis and Lee term‘…the brawling and scuffling of the sons of the Muses,’ (51) –to read the works of Colley Cibber and Nahum Tate, who were caricatured by Pope in The Dunciad – is to get a glimpse of a strange and fascinating time. If The Stuffed Owl focuses on the 18th Century, Pegasus Descending, as I noted before, focuses on the late 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century. Here we find two of the most infamous bad writers in history: Julia A. Moore, of Grand Rapids Michigan, and William McGonagall, of Dundee, Scotland. Moore was a sentimentalist of the rankest and most oozing sort, and a complete hack: her poems mostly either advocate The American Way or memorialize dead babies, and furthermore they almost never scan. (Little-known fact – it was Moore and her galumphing elegies that gave Mark Twain the inspiration for the morbid and maudlin poetess character Emmeline Grangerford in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) William McGonagall, described by Lewis and Lee as ‘…A sweet and cheerful soul, even when reporting the slaughter of multitudes…’ (13), devoted himself to chronicling disasters, and published his poems as penny broadsheets under the impression that he was doing a great public service thereby. His poems never scanned either, and he ended both ‘The Albion Battleship Calamity’ and ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’  with the lines ‘…The stronger we our houses do build/The less chance we have of being killed,’ even though neither poem had anything at all to do with houses. Besides those two poor fools, Pegasus Descending chronicles all those late-Victorian and Edwardian and post-Edwardian hacks who pandered to the public in the worst way. People like Eliza Cook and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edgar Guest and Edmund Vance-Cook, James Whitcomb Riley and Harry Edward Mills,  were slicker than Moore and McGonagall – their work scanned – but they were just as craven. They offered up drooling pathos and sentimentality, philistine patriotism, watered-down religiosity and hokum of every description; they were frighteningly successful and they drove their more disciplined contemporaries up the wall. In 1914, Wyndham Lewis mentioned Ella Wheeler Wilcox as someone who deserved  a ‘blasting’ in his infamous Blast magazine, and by the 1920’s, Dorothy Parker was wailing, ‘I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/Than read the poems of Edgar Guest!’ (This is a serious charge indeed, especially for those who know what a Wasserman test is. It’s an antibody test for syphilis; if you flunk the test, you’ve got it). Reading Guest’s and Wilcox’s poems now, one realizes just how far we’ve come during the second half of the 20th Century. One sees clearly how knowing, cynical and above all unsentimental we’ve become. We no longer expect moral uplift and folksy piety in our poems, just as we no longer expect rhyme and meter, for the most part.  After reading poems like ‘The Old Arm-Chair’, ‘The Little Hunchback’ and ‘Lost After All’, I suspect that’s a good thing.

Yes, one can learn a lot from bad poetry. What I’ve written here only scratches the surface of the knowledge one can gain reading The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending. Ultimately though, bad poetry teaches by bad example; it provides readers with lessons in What Not to Do. Realizing this, I will attempt to boil down the lessons of both books into a brief list, which might save struggling writers from having to read all those awful poems.  Rule One: be passionate. In Pegasus Descending, X.J Kennedy implies that passion is the one thing required from poetry; as noted above, he berates those poets who are tricksy when they should be passionate. When one is passionate, one can sustain the pitch of inspiration to the end of the poem and carry the idea to fulfillment. Genuine passion is one of the only things that keeps one from turning into the kind of writer who churns out whatever he thinks the audience wants to hear. We’ve seen what happens to writers like that. Rule Two: but don’t be so passionate that you don’t consider what you’re writing about. Many writers believe poetry can be written about any subject, no matter how ‘unpoetic’ it might be. Some of the works collected in Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl call this idea into question. No matter how much passion, and talent, one has, when writing about an extremely prosaic subject one always risks falling into banality. One has to really ask one’s self if one really should attempt to write a serious, rhymed, metrical poem about, for instance, the kind of insects that damage sugar-cane crops, or the illnesses that sheep can suffer from. I say should because James Grainger [‘They burst their filmy gaol and crawl abroad/Bugs of uncommon shape,…’] and John Dyer (In cold stiff soils the bleaters oft complain/Of gouty ails by shepherds termed the halt…’), have proved, unfortunately, that one can. While you’re at it (this relates to the first part of the rule), don’t even attempt to write a serious poem about food or drink if you can possibly help it. Pegasus Descending features a chapter of poems about food and drink, and they are some of the most contemptible poems in a whole book full of them. The funniest one must be James McIntyre’s ‘Ode On The Mammoth Cheese’ (‘Wert thou suspended from a balloon/You’d cast a shade even at noon./Folks would think you were the moon/about to fall and crush them soon…’) The absolute clunkiest one must be Bruce Weston Munro’s ‘Apple Pies’ (‘Deliver us from apple pies/made in the careless slipshod way/…with fungous growth and seeds galore thrown in and crust supremely tough/These have degraded apple pies…’) Remember, Munro and McIntyre were being serious. Their examples alone should serve as evidence that food might not be a serious enough subject to devote an entire poem to. Rule Three: Do not attempt to write a serious poem in rural dialect. Even if one is irresistibly compelled to write a poem about pumpkin pie, one should have the decency not to purposefully misspell ‘pumpkin’ as ‘punkin.’ Harry Edward Mills did this: ‘What makes you jest ez hungry yit an’ pretty near ez dry/Until you git to workin’ on yer piece o’ punkin’ pie?’ Ugh. No matter what one might think, writing in supposed ‘rural’ dialect does not make one sound down-home and populist. It makes one sound condescending and annoying. Deeply, deeply annoying. And after a while, all those apostrophes start swimming before the readers’ eyes.

Hey…wait a minute. Looking back over my rules, I realize I might have the wrong idea. No doubt there will be people who can think of genuinely good poems that contradict the rules I’ve learned from reading these two books.  No doubt there will be and have been people who have written poems that contradict these rules. The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending taught me a lot, but I haven’t written nearly as many poems since I read them. I fear these books have made me a more timid poet – almost too afraid to write, lest I risk ending up like the wretched failures chronicled by the editors of these old books. I shouldn’t have taken them like that. Badness of all sorts – sappiness, ponderousness and plain old pointlessness – is a trap that all artists risk falling into every time they set out to create. Fear of failure is always more debilitating than failure itself. We can, in the final analysis, learn a lot from books like Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl, but we should not let the failures of our forbearers – or the critical reactions to them – keep us from attempting to create art. Passion is all, as X.J Kennedy and co., put it, and the other rules can be taken with many grains of salt. After we’ve reminded ourselves What Not To Do, we should turn away and remember What To Do instead. Better yet, we should do what we want to do, and hope that compelling art comes out of it.

 

Works Cited:

Collins, Billy, Lee, Charles, Lewis, Wyndham. The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse. New York: New York Review of Books, 2003. Print.

Camp, James, Kennedy, X.J, Waldrop, Keith. Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. Print.

 

The History Of Coven Part III: A Confusion of Comebacks

January 3, 2014

By the end of 1970, things looked grim for Jinx Dawson – her album had been withdrawn, and her band had abandoned her. On top of all that, she and the rest of the music world, were faced with the spectacle of a bunch of upstart limeys riding to an unprecedented commercial success with what looked like a blatant imitation of Coven’s original shtick. English proto-metal group Black Sabbath  released their self-titled debut album in 1970; it took off from the start where Coven’s album Witchcraft… had flopped. From the start, Black Sabbath was considered by many people  to be the band that Coven had wanted to be. Unlike Coven, they had a genuinely hard, heavy-metal sound (as opposed to a semi-psychedelic sound) to back up their satanic songs. And they got away with performing satanic songs, because unlike Coven, they didn’t have any uptight journalists linking their music to heinous crimes. To add irony to injury (if I can mangle a cliché), not only did Black Sabbath steal Coven’s image, but (as I mentioned above) their lead singer had almost the same name as Coven’s bass player. It was more than a human mind could bear. Dawson would not be stopped in her quest for rock ‘n’ roll glory, however. She left Mercury Records behind, and relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles. It was here, after a year of wandering in the showbiz wilderness, that Dawson would finally come into some good luck (despite her name), and re-form her benighted band.

Dawson’s good luck would come from one of the oddest places one could think of, in this context – or rather, from one of the oddest people one could imagine getting involved in this shock-rock saga. In 1971, Dawson was approached by filmmaker Tom Laughlin, and asked to record the theme song for his film Billy Jack. (There has to be a digression, at this point, about Tom Laughlin. Tom Laughlin was a counterculture Renaissance man: independent filmmaker, political activist, educator, and shameless self-promoter. But it was his 1971 movie Billy Jack that would put him on the map and make him a hero of the age and a heartthrob to those teenage girls of the period who considered themselves too enlightened to fall for Bobby Sherman. Billy Jack is a small historical milestone: with figures adjusted for inflation, it is the highest-grossing independent film to date. It is also the sort of desperately idealistic, Utopian counterculture movie that would never be made today, and would probably seem foolish, even bizarre, to modern audiences. It tells the tale of the titular hero, Billy Jack, a mysterious figure, half-Navajo Indian, living outside the law but dedicated the cause of peace and justice, and possessed of mystical powers. Over the course of the film, Billy Jack is called on to defend the hippie students of the independent Freedom School from the cruel, heartless, racist squares – cops and businessmen and mayors and such – who want to close down the school and run the hippies out of town. It’s a strange saga indeed, half muckraking political melodrama, and half modern-day Western.) I only go into such details about Tom Laughlin’s life and film in order to show what may seem obvious: Laughlin was the consummate, the absolute, the ultimate, dippy hippie. He was the sort of person whom one wouldn’t imagine wanting to come near the lead singer of Coven with a ten foot pole, and more to the point, he was the sort of person whom one wouldn’t imagine Jinx Dawson putting up with for more than ten minutes. But for whatever reason (maybe he’d been one of the few people who’d listened to Witchcraft… without being scared off by the Esquire article) he asked Dawson to record the theme song to his movie. Hard-up and desperate for a gig, Dawson consented. Backed by Osbourne and Ross, and by the orchestra who provided the film score, Dawson recorded the song, ‘One Tin Soldier.’ At this point, I want to say ‘and the rest is history’ – but, this being the saga of Coven, it’s more appropriate to say ‘the rest is Apocrypha.’

A poignant folk-rock parable about the folly of war, the song ‘One Tin Soldier’ became a hit, rising to number twenty-six on the Billboard charts in the fall of 1971, and becoming the most-requested song of the year. Anyone who reached film-going or radio-listening age by 1971 probably remembers the lyrics in full, so I will refrain from mentioning them here; the song has become a classic among pop protest songs. Naturally, it was an extreme departure from the cynical, sinister sound Jinx Dawson had pioneered with the first incarnation of Coven. But she sang the song with passion and relish anyway, already having learned that any publicity was good publicity, and knowing it was worth sacrificing her diabolical image if it would mean exposure and success. However, one hit single does not a band’s career make, and ‘One Tin Soldier’ was not the ideal hit single anyway. For one thing, Dawson didn’t write the lyrics herself, and neither did Tom Laughlin – the song did not originate with Billy Jack. The lyrics to the song had been written in 1969 by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, a songwriting team fromABC-Dunhill Records, in L.A. ‘One Tin Soldier’ was as much of a change of pace for Lambert and Potter to write as it was for Jinx Dawson to sing – Lambert and Potter’s biggest successes had been soul songs written for R&B group The Four Tops. The sheer fact that Coven’s biggest hit was written by someone from outside the group made it less than ideal – it ensured that no one in Coven itself would be able to profit from songwriting royalties.  Another large reason that ‘One Tin Soldier’ was not an ideal hit was that Jinx Dawson wasn’t even the first person to record it. The song was written in 1969, and it had been first recorded that year, by a lightweight folk-rock group from Alberta with the improbable name of The Original Caste. (Theirs would be the third improbable name in this saga, I suppose.)
Of course, a less-than-ideal hit was better than no hit at all. Her morale boosted by the success of ‘One Tin Soldier’, Dawson regrouped with her old band-members, and in 1972, Coven released a second, self-titled album, for MGM Records. Though the album cover featured the members of the band flanked by a black cat (that traditional witchy signifier) the album itself demonstrated a marked departure from the diabolical theatrics that Dawson and co. had first tried to make themselves famous with. Dawson, at least, seemed to have wised up, at least slightly, to what the people wanted. This was 1972, occultism was on its way out (at least musically), and squares no longer seemed quite worth scaring. There would be no more songs about witches and devils and human sacrifice, no more ominous tropical drums. There would instead be power ballads. ‘Nightingale’, the first song on the album, anticipated the sound of Heart by about three years; it was a piano-driven love song addressed to a fellow musician, who Dawson metaphorized into the bird of the title. It was a good song, as power-ballads go, featuring superb ululating vocals from Dawson, but it hardly stood out amongst the undistinguished pop-rock songs on the album. More to the point, people who’d heard Coven’s first album could be forgiven for wondering in exasperation (or desperation) where all the blood and thunder had gone. Overall, the sound of Coven’s 1972 album was the sound of a retreat. There’s nothing less rock ‘n’ roll than retreat, and the public must have known it, because the album was not a success.

Even the failure of their pandering second album was not enough to stop Coven. By 1974, Jinx Dawson decided her band was ready for one more shot at the big time. The members of Coven had relocated to Buddah Records by then, and they were all struggling for ideas. Their debut album, with its deviltry and darkness, had failed spectacularly; their second album with its pandering pop-rock, had failed unspectacularly. Someone in the band should have recognized these two different approaches were both dead ends, but nobody did. The proof of this oversight is Coven’s second attempted comeback album, Blood on the Snow, which was no more or less than a synthesis of the themes and styles of Coven’s first two albums. It featured a pseudo-spooky name, a kitschy painting of a fiddle-playing demon on the cover, and a general air of softened, second-hand occultism. (The occultism of Coven’s first album, Witchcraft…, had been pretty soft and second-hand, but now they weren’t even trying to scare any squares, they were just fooling around with blood and devils for their own sakes.) The songs featured on the album were split between light, catchy pop songs and sinister rock songs, with a couple of anomalies thrown in. The title track featured pounding drums, an insistent piano riff, howling background vocals, and the bare minimum of lyrics – ‘It’s so hard to say no, it’s so hard to say no, it’s so hard to say no, just like blood on the snow’ – repeated monomaniacally until the song’s close. It was a sure sign that Dawson and co. had got back their taste for blood and thunder. However, it must be said that some of the strongest songs on the album were the light pop songs. A particular standout was ‘Lady O’, a baffled and baffling account of a journeyman singer’s life and loves – at least, I think that’s what it’s about, the lyrics are more than a little vague. But as you listen to the song, you don’t mind – the tone of the thing takes over, and subsumes anything else.   Bright crisp piano and soaring strings are countered by Jinx Dawson’s blurred vocals, which alternate between rasp and full-throated yawp. ‘Just like an open field, it always catches rain/It’s just like my broken heart, it always feels the pain... she howls, and whatever ‘it’ she may be referring to, I believe her. But even that isn’t the highlight of Blood on the Snow, however. No, the highlight of Blood on the Snow is the final track, ‘Blue Blue Ships.’ Kindly overlook the fact that Dawson only repeats ‘blue’ twice so the thing scans; this song is a weird masterpiece. More than even the title song, ‘Blue Blue Ships’ represents a return to bloody and thunderous form – it’s a death song, sung from the perspective of someone who’s only just died. ‘Sweet life, you were always so contrary…’ moans Jinx, ‘does it make a difference now that I have died…’ What the blue, blue ships have to do with anything I still don’t know, but the song is genuinely disturbing.

Shocking and sweet by turns, a synthesis of two dead ends, Blood on the Snow missed the charts, and the public consciousness, by a long shot. Once again, it looked like the end for Coven.  It may not be true (no matter what F. Scott Fitzgerald said) that there are no second acts in America, but there are only so many second acts a person can have – or that a band can have, to get to the point. After the disastrous reception of Witchcraft…, the critical and commercial failure of both Coven and Blood on the Snow, and the one hit, ‘One Tin Soldier’ that brought them little royalties and much embarrassment, Dawson, and the rest of the group, realized it was time to pack it in. By 1977, Coven had disbanded for the second time, with Jinx Dawson attempting to start a career as an actress – the same thing she’d attempted to do in 1971, just before she was approached by Tom Laughlin – and the rest of the group vanishing into the ether.  Dawson’s attempts at acting proved only slightly more successful than her attempts at rock. However, she found more luck as – of all things – a clothing designer. In the early ‘80’s, she started making elaborate, rhinestone-studded jeans and jackets, selling them to people she’d met at Hollywood parties – rock stars and actresses more successful than herself, including Cher and Robert Plant. In an interview with author Jerry Miller, Dawson explained that ‘…I started making all my own stage clothes, then I started using crystals, then rhinestones. I wore one of my coats to a party, and Cher wanted me to make one for her.’ (Little Stars, Chapter Eight.) This ‘decking out of show business’ (as Jerry Miller calls it) was a profitable sideline, keeping the wolf from Dawson’s door and allowing her to keep one foot in the worlds of Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll. But her dreams of a rock career slowly faded. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that there came to be renewed interest in Coven. But there did indeed come to be renewed interest, as Goths and heavy-metal fans dug around looking for the roots of their subcultures, and found, among many other things, that curious album from way back in 1969 with the crazy cover and the weird title – Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. Coven had been ahead of their time in 1969. Though they may have brought bad luck on themselves, they influenced people (like the members of Black Sabbath) who had more success imitating Coven than Coven itself ever did. Now that the world had caught up with them, Jinx Dawson, and the rest of Coven, could start catching up with the world. In 2007, Dawson announced on her MySpace page that she, and three of the other original members of Coven, were planning to re-form the group, and record a new studio album. While an album of entirely new material from Coven has yet to appear, in 2008, Dawson released an album of previously unreleased Coven material from the ‘70’s. The collection was entitled Metal Goth Queen – an attempt by Jinx to align herself with the subculture she and her band had inadvertently influenced all those years ago.

Here ends the strange, slightly sad saga of Coven. Look for any of their three officially released albums – Witchcraft…, Coven, or Blood on the Snow – on vinyl. Buy one if you see one – they’re all rare, and they’re all worth a listen. If you find out that you love them, petition Rhino or Light In The Attic Records to reissue them. That would certainly expose more people to the work of one of the great forgotten bands of the classic-rock era, the band who proved before almost anyone else that the devil has all the best tunes.

The History Of Coven Part II: Disaster Strikes

January 2, 2014

Here stands part two of the mad, mystical saga of the benighted band known as Coven. When we last left our heroes, Jinx Dawson, Oz Osborne and Co., they had gone from a struggling Chicago band to potential antiheroes of rock ‘n’ roll. They’d just released their debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, and, like all up-and-coming bands, they wanted it to take over the world.  But it didn’t, as anyone who’s read Part One of this saga knows.  But, after having read Part One of this saga –  having read how much good, dark fun Coven’s first album was, readers can be forgiven for asking: If their album was so great, why have I never heard it? Here’s where I’ll give you the answer – and here’s where the hysterical journalists mentioned in Part One come into the story, too.  I expect that everyone who reads this part of the saga will think, Ah, the dawn of the ‘70’s, when people cared enough about rock ‘n’ roll to get offended by it, and took Esquire magazine seriously.

When Witchcraft… was released, in July of 1969, everyone – record managers, promoters, and of course, the band themselves – had high hopes for it. Here, surely, was the album that would cut through the ooze of hippie sentiment and bring blood and thunder back to rock ‘n’ roll. No one, least of all the members of Coven themselves, could have imagined what would happen one month after the album’s release. August of 1969 (as anyone who’s read anything about the 1960’s will know) was the season of the Manson murders. The demented followers of Charles Manson, a psychopathic cult-leader who sometimes styled himself as a devil-worshipper, viciously murdered seven people, actress Sharon Tate amongst them. This case is considered by many to be the crime of the twentieth century; at the time, it was all anyone could talk about. It was a crime with reverberations; it made people think twice about the cultish and the occult. Suddenly faced with terrible crime – a gush of real blood and thunder, from someone who actually claimed to worship Satan – the American public decided that the last thing it wanted was fake blood and thunder on record, certainly not from a band that decked themselves out in skulls and pentagrams for kicks. In March of 1970, when Witchcraft… had only been on record-store shelves for a few months, the thoroughly square men’s  magazine Esquire published a hysterical article attempting to examine the roots of Charles Manson’s cult. (I would tell you who wrote it, but unfortunately, in my research, I was unable to find a full copy of it, just a synopsis, and I couldn’t find the author’s name, either.) Entitled ‘Evil Lurks in California’, the fear-mongering article described California, and Los Angeles in particular, as hotbeds of occultism and devil-worship, swarming with the sort of disaffected drugged-out kids who could turn into Manson-imitators at any minute. At some point, the writer of the article found time to mention Coven, and their album Witchcraft…, and to imply that theirs was the sort of music that could drive people to commit murder. This, of course, was complete audience-baiting yellow-journalism – but readers took the bait. People who hadn’t taken any notice of Coven or their album before were now howling that Coven’s music incited people to murder and madness. Some people even demanded that Mercury Records remove the album from circulation.

All this was enough to leave Jinx Dawson and Co. completely gobsmacked. As mentioned above, they had never expected anything like this to happen; naturally they had no idea to deal with it. All they’d wanted to do was have a little disreputable fun, record a few dumb rock ‘n’ roll songs with a gimmick, and scare a few squares. Having succeeded in this last aim beyond their wildest dreams (or nightmares), they were forced to ask themselves whether scaring squares on purpose was really a good idea. Faced with such bad publicity, there were a couple of things they could have said and done in their own defense. Since most of the people calling for their album to be banned hadn’t actually listened to it in the first place, Dawson and Co. could have argued that their songs were actually anti-occult. After all, the album’s full title was Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls – not Witchcraft is the Thing to Do, or anything like that. But to be fair, this argument would almost certainly have collapsed as soon as anyone actually did bother to listen to the lyrics on the album, which positively revel in images of black magic. Failing that, Dawson and Co. could have fallen back on that line that every artist accused of offending public morality seems to fall back on on (though it seems to be much more common nowadays than it was in the ’60’s). This line goes: We didn’t It mean it! We were just playing around with bad ideas for the sake of playing around with bad ideas! It was all a joke! But they didn’t – they didn’t make any disingenuous claims about their album’s real meaning, and they didn’t even claim that it didn’t mean anything at all. The just stood by and watched, as their dreams of shock-rock superstardom unravelled. Shortly after the publication of the ridiculous Esquire article, management at Mercury Records bowed to the pressures from the scared squares of America, and pulled Witchcraft from record-store shelves. By the end of 1970, having reaped the bad luck inherent in their lead singer’s name, Coven had disbanded. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that the saga of Coven would be over at this point. But they would be wrong…

TO BE CONTINUED (Next time with more links and songs).

The Devil has all the Best Tunes – The History of Coven: Part One, Their Discovery and their First Album

November 9, 2013

Faced with the long and lurching title above, I’m sure people will be forced to ask – who the hell’s Coven? Well, wouldn’t you like to know? In this three-part essay, I aim to answer that hypothetical question, to reveal the secret history of Coven, to prove that the use of ‘hell’ in the question above is entirely le mot juste.

First, some background details.Coven was (or were), a rock ‘n’ roll band, founded in Chicago in the mid-1960’s. They were first discovered by record producer and local impresario Bill Traut (owner of the small independent record label Dunwich Records), and later signed to major label Mercury Records. By 1967, Coven served as the opening act for major psychedelic bands such as The Yardbirds and Vanilla Fudge; and Coven themselves had their defining moment in 1969. This sounds, of course, like it could be the history of any ‘60’s rock ‘n’ roll band. But Coven was more than a generic ‘60’s band. To explain what Coven was really like is to uncover the maze of oddities – good fortune, bad luck, maddened moviemakers, hysterical journalists, peculiar names, weird ironies bizarre coincidences – that are the reasons why hardly anyone remembers them today.

The one thing that set Coven apart from other U.S rock bands in the late 1960’s – the big shtick they held over their audience (terrible pun alert!) – was that they definitely weren’t hippies. They didn’t wear flowers in their hair, they didn’t sing about peace and love, and they went out of their way not to be sentimental. What they were instead, or what they tried to be, anyway, was diabolical. Literally – Coven was one of the first rock bands to incorporate images of black magic and devil-worship into their music and stage act, to attempt to prove that the Devil really did have all the best tunes. They were uniquely equipped to do this, too – because their lead singer’s name was Jinx. To be fair, Jinx was only her middle name; her full name was Esther Jinx Dawson. But she went by Jinx all her life, and her mother had actually written J-I-N-X on her birth certificate (apparently to honor the doctor who had assisted the birth, whose surname was spelt J-I-N-K-S.) It is my personal belief that with a name like Jinx, you’re destined not to lead a normal life, let alone lead a normal rock band, so it could be said she was on the road to infamy from the day she was born. Of course, the word Jinx literally means ‘a person, thing or influence supposed to bring bad luck’; and as we shall see, few rock bands of the ‘60’s had worse luck than Coven. Therefore, for me, anyway, the history of Coven really starts with Jinx’s name, the first peculiar name in this saga. The second peculiar name in this saga is that of the bass player that Jinx met up with, once she moved to Chicago from her hometown of Greendale, to study music. The bass player’s name was Oz Osborne; by the early 1970’s, he was doomed to have to tell everyone who met him not to confuse him with Ozzy Osbourne, of Black Sabbath. (This, of course, is the first bizarre coincidence in this saga.)

Anyway, Jinx and Oz (I’ll have to say ‘Dawson and Osborne’ from now on, now that I’ve told you their crazy first names) got together with the more averagely-named drummer Steve Ross, and formed a band, with Dawson serving as the lead vocalist. All three of them were fascinated by Satanism and the occult; they poured over books by leading occult writers like Anton LaVey and Aleister Crowley. It was from these books that they got the idea of making satanic rock ‘n’ roll. They set themselves hard against the prevailing hippie Utopianism of the most popular rock acts of the day; unlike The Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, or CSNY, they weren’t interested in changing the world. They got their band name, ‘Coven’, from the old-fashioned term for a gathering of witches. And they were all interested in witches, and demons, and the Devil himself. Above all, the members of Coven were interested in scaring squares – in thrilling and fascinating bored middle-class kids who were looking for a taste of the dark side, and making their boring uptight parents cringe in horror. Scaring squares, of course, has been the great prerogative of rock ‘n’ rollers since rock was invented, and Coven pursued this prerogative with great panache. Their early live shows put less emphasis on music than on the acting out of elaborate pseudo-Satanic rites, and when they signed their first contract with Mercury Records, in 1969, they signed it in their own blood. But once the contract was signed – once they’d proven they could be sinister in concert, and gross out whomever it was who had to file away their contract once they’d signed it – they had to prove they could be sinister on record, too. This they proceeded to do on their debut album, a slab of lurid melodrama with the suitably hysterical title Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.

Before we can begin listening to this album, we must examine the album cover, and its wealth of spooky symbolism.The front cover simply depicts the members of the band together, with the name of the group surrounded by flames, and with Jinx holding a skull. It’s the gatefold sleeve that’s truly fascinating, offering a mixture of kitsch horror and genuine titillation. Here, Oz Osborne and Steve Ross (alongside guitarists Jim Donlinger and Chris Neilsen, and keyboardist Rick Durret, who joined the group shortly after they signed with Mercury) are clustered around an altar, all of them wearing black robes adorned with inverted crosses, and one of them wearing a genuinely creepy masks. Laid out on the altar like a potential human sacrifice is Jinx Dawson herself, with a chalice perched between her breasts and another human skull covering her vulva. The guys in the group, leering down at her, are all making the devil-horns hand gesture. This may seem like an insignificant detail, so common has the devil-horns gesture become. But it must be mentioned, because the members of Coven were the first rock performers to popularize this gesture that has now become known to all. Even before the release of their album, Dawson would make the devil-horns sign at the end of every show that Coven played. With the sleazy spookiness of the infamous back cover out of the way, we can finally to the music on the album, and answer the question of – how do they sound under all that hype? You might be surprised by the answer.

From all I’ve said about them – their devil-worshiping image, their lurid album cover, their blood-stained contract – you’d have every right to expect their first album to be proto-heavy-metal. For better or worse, though, it really isn’t. Musically, it’s psychedelic pop, slightly darker and heavier than most examples of the genre. There’s a lot of piano on this album, and organ, and weirdly tropical-sounding drums, and guitars that never bludgeon or rage the way you think they would. In short, it seems to serve as proof that, all their protestations to the contrary, Coven actually had a lot in common with the hippie groups they claimed to despise. This impression is borne out by the vocals as well as the instrumentation – Jinx Dawson, her voice alternating between warble and wail, sounds like no one so much as Grace Slick, lead singer of that ultimate hippie band Jefferson Airplane (and before that, the Great Society.)

This may sound like so many strikes against Coven – but I don’t mean them to be. Personally, I really do not think music has to be loud in order to be sinister – surely the devil and his minions can whisper evil thoughts in our ears as well as bay for our blood. The piano and organ on songs like ‘White Witch of Rose Hall’ (which references a real historical witch) and ‘Dignitaries of Hell’ are often thrillingly spooky. I have to say, the music on Witchcraft (I can’t afford to keep spelling out the full title now that I’ve spelt it out once) enriches the lyrics, not vice versa. The lyrics to most of the songs on this album were written not by Dawson, but by guitarist Jim Donlinger. Donlinger was no poet, and with their mixture of gory subject matter and clunky flow, the songs on Witchcraft… often occupy a weird tonal space somewhere between icky and hokey.  ‘Coven in Charing Cross’ is particularly egregious. Its first verse begins: ‘Thirteen cultists held a secret meeting/bringing powers of the darkness upon those who opposed them./The chief of the circle, known as Malchius, drank the blood of a young baby/Offered unto him./They danced ecstatically, they orgied frantically/’till the demon had arisen from the circle on the floor…’ Not only is this monstrously stilted for rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t rhyme (until the internal near-rhyme of ‘ecstatically/frantically’ in the fifth line), and someone really should have told Jim Donlinger that ‘orgy’ isn’t a verb.

But I’m quibbling needlessly here. I know you shouldn’t go looking for poetry on an album like this, and the weird pleasure of Witchcraft… isn’t unduly diminished by its occasionally clumsy lyrics. ‘White Witch of Rose Hall’ is the catchiest song on the album, ‘Dignitaries of Hell’ the loudest, and ‘Portrait’ the most sinister. As a singer, Jinx Dawson has the peculiar ability (shared with Grace Slick) of making stridency sound appealing. All in all, Witchcraft succeeds as rock ‘n’ roll fun, with an edge, which is all Coven wanted it to be. It’s just a pity nobody else saw it the same way…

Kids’ Show Rock Part Three: The Cattanooga Cats, those Fantastical Felines

October 28, 2013

Though remembered by almost no-one, the Cattanooga Cats were one of the most interesting – and in my opinion, the genuine best – of the bands currently under discussion. Unlike The Bugaloos and The Banana Splits, who were live-action kids’-show characters, The Cattanooga Cats were a cartoon group, like the Archies. Their eponymous T.V series was produced by Hanna-Barbera for NBC, and ran from September 6th of 1969 to September 4th of 1971. Like The Banana Splits Adventure Hour (also produced by Hanna-Barbera),

The Cattanooga Cats show was a package program, composed of three or four different, unrelated segments. (Strangely, more people remember two different serial cartoons that rounded out the program – It’s the Wolf!, and Motormouse and Autocat – than The Cattanooga Cats show in its entirety. I personally think this is rather unfortunate.) But never mind all that. The important thing is the Cattanooga Cats themselves, and they – and the segments of the show that dealt with them – are truly a thing of wonder.

The Cattanooga Cats themselves were supposed to be (literal) hillbilly cats, from Tennessee (‘Cattanooga’ being a pun on ‘Chattanooga,’ one supposes.) The lead singer and guitarist was an orange tabby named Country, who wore a pink neckerchief and a big floppy hat, green or black depending on episode. (He looked, now that I think about it, a little bit like the singing-orange-cat character O’Malley, from Disney’s The Aristocats.) Then there was Scoots, the Bassist, Groove, the drummer, and – in some ways most importantly – Kitty Jo, the one girl in the group, with go-go boots and mini-dress, who danced around like a go-go girl and occasionally sang, and was the one character everyone recognized. The speaking voices for the characters were provided by Bill Callaway (Country), Jim Begg (Scoots), Casey Kasem (Groove), and Julie Bennet (Kitty Jo); and each character had a pseudo-Southern accent. Only nine ‘story segments’ featuring the characters were produced; these involved the group being ‘hounded’ by a literal ‘autograph hound’; or encountering strange supernatural entities – gormless ghosts, wacky witches, that sort of thing. But the group would pause once or twice every episode for a musical interlude completely unrelated to the plot, and of course it was the musical interludes that were really special.

It is here we come to a discussion of the actual music attributed to the Cattanooga Cats. Thankfully, these songs were not sung by the voice-actors mentioned above, and did not go out of their way to sound ‘Southern.’ Most of the songs were performed by Michael Lloyd, a seventeen-year-old singer-songwriter wunderkind who also headed two different L.A bands, The October Country and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. (The end of the ‘60’s was the glory period for foolishly- and grandiosely-named bands.) Lloyd sang the songs attributed to Country, the leader of the Cattanooga Cats; he also wrote the lyrics to most of the songs. The songs attributed to Kitty Jo were performed by Peggy Clinger, of the recording group The Clinger Sisters. The songs were produced and arranged – with more care and complexity than anyone expected two-minute pop songs aimed at kids and played on a cartoon show would have – by Mike Curb. (Mike Curb, an impresario who had his fingers in multiple pies over the course of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, is a man fascinating enough to merit an article of his own. In this context, though, the most important thing about him is that he wrote the lyrics to all the Cattanooga Cats songs that weren’t written by Michael Lloyd.)

The songs, in my opinion were brilliant – maybe even better examples of sunny ‘60’s pop than the ones attributed to the Banana Splits. For starters, there was the gleefully goofy theme tune, which, like the Banana Splits’ theme tune, featured lyrics so sublimely silly they were almost Zen: “The Cattanooga Cats don’t ever purr, they know how, but not what fer,/The Cattanooga Cats don’t go meow, wouldn’t try it if they did know how, they’re doin’ their thing!” Then there was ‘The Story of my Life’, with Michael Lloyd’s bright, clear voice floating over a sprightly piano riff. (The gloriously trippy Peter-Max-style images in the background of all the musical-interlude clips are by animator Iwao Takamoto. Besides the music, these images were what really set the show apart.)

Another favorite of mine is the winsome and chipper ‘Sittin’ by the Fireside’,with its opening flurry of strings, and what could almost be an answer song, the wistful ‘I Wish that I was a Fire.’ Like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’, the lyrics to ‘I Wish That I Was A Fire’ suggest there might be something liberating in being an insentient object – that fires, like rocks, never have to die, cry, or suffer the ravages of love. ‘Maybe if I close my eyes/I can try to visualize/just what it would be like to burn away…’ Michael Lloyd sings, and the faint air of melancholy in his voice is an intriguing contrast to the upbeat tune and instrumentation. By the time the trumpet fanfare comes in at the song’s close, it sounds more than slightly ironic. Also notable was ‘Merry-go-Round’,  Peggy Clinger’s (or should I say, Kitty Jo’s) thrilling, trilling tribute to riding the carousel at the summer fair and grabbing for the brass ring, among all the other transient joys of childhood.  (D’you think Michael Lloyd read The Catcher In The Rye?)

Last but not least, there’s my favorite of the bunch, ‘Sleep Tonight.’ It’s sung by Peggy Clinger as Kitty Jo, it’s awfully mature for a song ostensibly intended for a kids’ show, possibly an example of Getting Crap Past The Radar – and in my opinion, it’s the best song ever attributed to the Cattanooga Cats. In the song, Peggy-as-Kitty-Jo weepily confesses having ‘been untrue’ (to whom? Country?) just so she can sleep again without her conscience keeping her awake.  Now I know this is a one-minute-and-forty-five-second pop song that no one seems to remember except me, and I know there are a lot of other short sharp pop songs on the same topic, that are generally considered to be better by a lot of people.  But I must confess, with no irony whatsoever, that I love this song, entirely out of proportion to its merits. I love everything about it. I love the general air of low-fi franticness, I love the drummers going at full-tilt, I love the howling backing vocalists. I love the cold, brittle-sounding piano notes – like sleigh-bells, or shards of ice. I love the desperation in Peggy Clinger’s voice. I’m sorry to say, I couldn’t find a YouTube video of this song that actually has a clip from the show with it – just one with a still picture. Listen to it here anyway, just so you can hear what I’m talking about, and see whether or not I’m raving.

And that concludes our brief tour of the wonders of Kids’-Show Bubblegum Pop. I hope I’ve told you a few things you didn’t know, put some weird thoughts into your head, given you some fun videos to watch while you ought to be working, and hopefully broken through the film of snobbery and ignorance that too many people display towards the prefab pop of the past.