Thursday, March 28, 2013

Allen Ginsberg....

When Allen died in 1997 a local record store in Indianapolis held a memorial and people were invited to speak. I wrote a poem about my encounter with Allen and read it. I later lost the poem and the cassette that had my reading on it. Just today in a file I found a copy of the poem. I found I still like it and want to share it.

Memories of Allen Ginsberg


brushed from
the thick black beard


onto the tablecloth of
20th Century literature


sung in the flat
off key
New York Jew voice

in the time
after Bob Dylan


in Sanskrit
to the sound of finger cymbals
in the flat nasal voice of the
New York Jew Buddha

It is April 22nd 1970
& I am standing in the light rain
& I am wearing my thrift store coat
& I am on Belmont Plateau
   in Fairmount Park
   in North Philadelphia
   on a weekday afternoon
   by the hippie girl with yellow hair in the
   thin transparent white dress
   who dances
   bare feet on wet grass

   to Redbone
   and Seatrain

& Edmund Muskie
who wants to be president
has come to talk about the earth
on the first "Earth Day"

at the end of the sixties
on Belmont Plateau
in Philadelphia

I am 16
I have cut Catholic school
I took the B bus to Bridge Street
  and rode the El
  past factories
  by warehouses
  past the large brimmed hat of William Penn
  past the Cathedral
  past Rodin's Gates of Hell
  past boat house row on East River Drive
  past the dark streets that border the ghetto
  past the Electric Factory
  past Rittenhouse Square

in my thrift store coat
in the light rain
on the wet grass
by the makeshift stage
the reincarnation of Walt Whitman
the bridge between Kerouac, Cassady & Bourroughs
& The Beatles, Dylan & LSD
in long white robe
& long black hair
& long strands of prayer beads
& small brass finger cymbals
by the microphone
on the small stage
in the light rain
at the end of the sixties
on Belmont Plateau
in Philadelphia
on April 22nd
& we chant
om hani padme om
om hani padme om
om hani padme om
& we chant
Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Songwriters... Phil Ochs

"Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That's morality, that's religion. That's art. That's life." - Phil Ochs

I had the great pleasure of seeing Phil Ochs play on three occasions, each representative of a particular phase in the arc of his career. First in the 1960s at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the opera house modeled after La Scala where Eugene Ormandy led the Philadelphia Philharmonic. It was the peak of Och's dominance as the best topical songwriter, perhaps ever.

Where he and Dylan had led the charge as songwriters in the intersection of the folk revival and the Civil Rights movement, Dylan abandoned the student left when the focus shifted to Vietnam while Phil became possibly the greatest anti-war songwriter ever.

"A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over." - Joe Hill

Between 1964 and 1966 Phil's first three albums were released on Jac Holzman's Elektra Records label. All three were basic solo voice and acoustic guitar, the third one was a live album. Phil was every bit as scathing in his criticism of the left as he was the political right and his In Concert album featured his "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" which was clearly aimed at the Democratic party of LBJ and Hubert Humphrey.

In 1967, in the wake of Dylan's trilogy of post-folk LPs, Phil switched labels moving to A&M and worked with producer Larry Marks. The album concludes with Ochs' greatest song, "The Crucifixion" exploring a cycle of sacrifice that compares JFK to Christ. The song caused Robert Kennedy to weep when Ochs performed a solo acoustic version just months before the younger Kennedy's own death. The album version marries Phil's performance to Joseph Byrd's avant garde arrangement.

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky
The stars settle slowly, in lonliness they lie
'Till the universe expodes as a falling star is raised
Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the briliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies.

In the green fields a turnin', a baby is born
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard
And the only single sound is the sighing of the stars
But to the silence and distance they are sworn

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
'Cause we love you

Images of innocence charge him go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
And a blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.

So he stands on the sea and shouts to the shore,
But the louder that he screams the longer he's ignored
For the wine of oblivion is drunk to the dregs
And the merchants of the masses almost have to be begged
'Till the giant is aware, someone's pulling at his leg,
And someone is tapping at the door.

To dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
'Cause we love you

Then his message gathers meaning and it spreads accross the land
The rewarding of his pain is the following of the man
But ignorance is everywhere and people have their way
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
For blood is the language of the band.

The Spanish bulls are beaten; the crowd is soon beguiled,
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style
Excitement is estatic, passion places bets
Gracefully he bows to ovations that he gets
But the hands that are applauding are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
'Cause we love you

Then this overflow of life is crushed into a liar
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire.
First a smile of rejection at the nearness of the night
Truth becomes a tragedy limping from the light
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger from the sight
As the cross is trembling with desire.

They say they can't believe it, it's a sacreligious shame
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, for I've got to know it all,
And do you have a picture of the pain?

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
'Cause we love you

Time takes her toll and the memory fades
but his glory is broken, in the magic that he made.
Reality is ruined; it's the freeing from the fear
The drama is distorted, to what they want to hear
Swimming in their sorrow, in the twisting of a tear
As they wait for the new thrill parade.

Yes, the eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind
To the safety of sterility, the threat has been refined
The child was created to the slaughterhouse he's led
So good to be alive when the eulogy is read
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
And the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
'Cause we love you

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky
The stars settle slowly, in lonliness they lie
'Till the universe expodes as a falling star is raised
Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the briliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he died. 

Ochs' next album, Tape From California, contains his other masterpiece, "When In Rome." I blogged about it a while back, here

Tom Paxton wrote a song about Phil's 1976 suicide. It has everything you need to know.

Tape From California had Phil's version of the old union song "Joe Hill." If Phil has a successor it is the British activist/singer Billy Bragg, and Bragg rewrote "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" in recognition of Phil's life.

"The fortunes of the entire world may well ride on the ability of young Americans to face the responsibilities of an old America gone mad." - Phil Ochs

I want to finish up with a very short clip I found very recently of Ochs with Bob Dylan, in a clip from Dylan's film Renaldo and Clara.

If you would like to know more about Phil Ochs' life and music, there are two excellent biographies available. Marc Elliot's 1978 study Death of a Rebel, and Michael Schumacher's 1997 book, There but for Fortune

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Songwriters... Paul Simon

If I ever meet Paul Simon I have one question for him. I want to know if, after writing the line "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar," he took the rest of the day off.

Over the past half century, Simon has emerged as one of the two or three finest songwriters of his generation. His skills are singularly unique, a perfect storm of musical and lyrical inventiveness that rarely sounds strained or hurried. In 1968 Simon wrote the song "America" which appeared on the Simon & Garfunkel album Bookends. It is one of a very few pop songs written in free verse; the only rhyme in the song is an internal one, "Michigan seems like a dream to me now."

Five years later, Simon returned to a similar rumination on the nature of identity and the character of the country of his birth. This performance from a 1974 Dick Cavett Show is just about perfect.

Jump ahead another twelve years and the release of Simon's finest album, Graceland. There is a DVD series on the making of classic albums, the one on the making of Graceland is really worth a look. Take a look:

Simon discusses changes in his process that took place around the time of Graceland. Now he would first develop the music, build the track until he was satisfied with the results. Then write a lyric and, if he wasn't happy with the results, remove the lyric and try again, but still have the track that he liked. This was the approach that produced the song "Boy in the Bubble."

It is one of my favorite Simon lyrics. Like the best of his work, the song moves from the specific to the universal with language that teases and hints at a larger meaning.

It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry

It was a dry wind
And it swept across the desert
And it curled into the circle of birth
And the dead sand
Falling on the children
The mothers and the fathers
And the automatic earth
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry

It's a turn-around jump shot
It's everybody jump start
It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart

And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry

That performance is so joyful and powerful... it is one of my favorites and presents Simon at the height of his powers. Let me finish here with this video that runs through Simon's catalog stopping at all the right places.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Playing chess with Domino in England
A pawn I took for granted won the game
My kingdom toppled in an instant
The queen and her bishops looked surprised

And the knights atop their horses
They had no where to go
The pawns were cheered like heroes
In the courtyard of the palace
And they danced around the castle
Arm in arm

Walking off the street and through an unmarked door in Oxford
We walked into a wholly different land
The green was the greenest green that I had ever seen
There were secret gardens, secret gardens, secret gardens everywhere

And we were riding in that tiny car and driving through the Cotswolds
Through Stanton, into Stanway and to Winchcombe and beyond
Through green fields lined with dry stone walls
And honey-colored limestone so warm in the setting English sun
A thousand years of history, kings and queens and peasants in the morning
Mist upon the water out by Castle Combe

And we followed the Romans and the Normans
Moving through the hills above the market
It was as if our souls were trying to remember
Something about that castle, something about the markings on the wall
I held you against the chill and we drank whisky in the pub that night by the fire
There was something eternal
There was something everlasting
There was some kind of mid-winter magic
On the water
In the fields
By that castle
As we rode along the country roads in England

Monday, January 7, 2013


For no reason I can fathom - I love how the brain works - this morning I was struck by how two great songs suddenly seemed related in some odd way. It had never occurred to me before, even though I have loved, and played, both songs countless times in the past forty years.

Six short verses, four lines each and, like every song on Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, no chorus. This is Dylan at his enigmatic best; the signifiers dance, whirl around as if in a strong wind, never stopping long enough for any meaning to become fixed. The greater context is, as it always is, important. There is the context of the album, stark, minimalist folk, loaded with odd religious imagery that has led some to interpret the Joker and thief as Christ on the cross speaking to Dismas, the penitent thief.

Dave Van Ronk was not a fan of the song, commenting that you cannot travel "along" a watchtower. I think Van Ronk found Dylan's dance with meaning irritating. I love Dave, always have, but where he is irritated I am more prone to exhilaration. I don't feel this way about all of Dylan, there are definitely songs in which he's just faking it, getting by. This is not one of those.

Beyond the context of the album is the context of the times, particularly important for JWH. Released at the very end, a scant few days before the end of 1967. 1967 was dominated by psychedelia, the "Summer of Love," Haight-Ashbury, Carnaby Street, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Neon flowers and paisley, elaborate album cover constructions (the Rolling Stones 3D cover, the Bee Gees red velvet) with lyric gate folds and booklets and cut out sheets and printed inner sleeves. When Dylan sings "There must be someway out of here" it is as if he is fixing an exit sign to all of that.

Released by Leonard Cohen in 1967 (though released first by Judy Collins a year earlier), "Suzanne" strikes me as a kind of bookend to "All Along the Watchtower" in its similar dance with ambiguity and meaning.

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.

Three verses, with the middle verse about the figure of Jesus - a character we recognize - in the center of two verses about Suzanne, a character we are only now trying to understand. Here, the singer speaks to the listener about Suzanne (and Christ). In the song, it is we whose bodies are perfect, not Christ's. Christ - if he is referenced in both songs, is impotent in both. And this, for want of a better term, impotence of Christ, becomes then the perfect metaphor for the tired, world weariness of the post-psychedelic experience.

As interesting as psychedelic music is, it is almost always superficial; everything of interest skirts along the surface. But post-psychedelic music... that's another thing altogether.  More later.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then, “Nowhere Man” came, words and music, the whole damn thing, as I lay down…Song writing is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed sleep.” - John Lennon

 “Somebody said to me, But the Beatles were anti-materialistic. That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, Now, let’s write a swimming pool.” - Paul McCartney

Songwriting is the biggest mystery to me. It is something so many people seem to be able to do, and yet I have tried for probably the better part of forty years now to write songs with virtually zero success. I have one song about how hard it is to score drugs when you get older. I have one other I've never sung for anyone ever. I have a wedding song I wrote in 1980 that I've always wanted Willie Nelson to record. I have a half-finished one about being in a plane looking down on the lights of Memphis that I kind of hear as a Vulgar Boatmen song. Years ago I wrote one called something like "The Patron Saint of Circumstance" that I recorded on a cassette that I lost. I can't remember much about the song other than that I liked it at the time.  I have a 22 second instrumental that I am very fond of.

And I have snippets, fragments, that I occasionally offer to people who never take me up on it. One, in particular, is the... I'm not sure what the word is. It's not the "chorus," I don't think it's a "bridge"... it's the line at the end of a verse that contains the key idea and probably the title. It's about how passions burn most fiercely when we are you and ebb as we age.

It is sung by an older man remembering his younger self. When I think about it I can hear George Jones singing it.  The line is: "But I was younger then, and my heart was full of roses." When I sing it, the word "roses" is stretched out at the end.  If you can do anything with it, it's yours.

 I want to look at songwriting by looking at some of what I consider to be some of the greatest songs we have. First up....
Written by Cole Porter in 1936. Sinatra first sang the song in 1946 and then, in 1956, he recorded this version, arranged by Nelson Riddle and known for Milt Bernhart's terrific trombone solo that shows up around 2:20 in. The collaboration of Porter, Sinatra and Riddle produces this moment of near-perfection. The pleasure here is right on the surface, in the grain of Sinatra's voice, the gorgeous lyric perfectly phrased and played with, and in Riddle's sense of swing. 

“I usually know what kind of song I’m after. I know what I’m trying to do when I start. I don’t always get there. But I try to visualize what it’s actually going to be." - Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb is one of the 5 or 10 best songwriters of all time. He's at his most interesting when he picks an artists to work with and writes an entire album for them. He did it with the Fifth Dimension, Richard Harris,  and with Johnny Rivers, and he did it for Art Garfunkel on his best album, "Watermarks." If I had to pick my favorite Webb collaboration of all time it would be Garfunkel's reading of Webb's "Crying in my Sleep." If you listen, you learn a volume of information about the people in the song, their history, their relationship, their friends, their jobs, etc. But if you just look at the lyrics you will not find ANY of that in there. This song is one of the greatest examples of the use of subtext I've ever found. With Webb, the pleasures are many, but a major one is in the way he suddenly moves n an odd angle away from the direction you were certain he was going. This has that characteristic that is common to all great songs - I never tire of it.

“My best songs were written very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it…In writing songs I've learned as much from Cezanne as I have from Woody Guthrie…It’s not me, it’s the songs. I’m just the postman, I deliver the songs…I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.” - Bob Dylan

It is probably silly to claim any one song as Dylan's best, but this is the least silly claim of all. What I find so telling is that this is the one song he never seems to stop writing. There are many on line sites that list the various lyric variations Dylan has played with over the years, this is just one example. The song comes from the period in which Dylan was trying to apply the principles of his painting teacher, Norman Raeben, to his movie project (Renaldo & Clara) and his songwriting around the time of his "Blood on the Tracks" album. The songs is an ocean of sub text and time travel. It is,for me, Dylan at his most singular,  powerful and sublime.