(Painting by Greg Drasler)
Note: I should admit upfront that this is actually a sneak preview in the guise of a review of the first Rackett CD, which may be called Standing Room Only when it's released, possibly in time to coincide with a late March concert at Richardson.
If you were watching and listening to Rackett at the Berlind Theatre last Friday, and if you could hear what was happening (enlightened lyrics with nasty guitar licks) in spite of the problematic acoustics, you were witness to one more death blow to the caste system of culture. The joy of Rackett is that these two almost laughably opposite entities -- literary academia and the 3-car garage band -- can not only coexist but can do so uninhibitedly, shamelessly. Or are people so locked into their various castes that their jaws drop when a poet of serious stature shows up on a bandstand with an elecrtic guitar around his neck? Or when a Renaissance scholar of some repute playing and singing and bouncing around the stage like an enchanted Muppet while a grad student into Henry James strokes his guitar in an ecstasy and a student of Early Music blows blues harmonica and sings up a storm?
In graduate school we read T. S. Eliot on the "sometimes violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas and things" characteristic of the so-called metaphysical poets, John Donne in particular. That line came to mind when I encountered prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon's lyrics for the "3-car-garage" rock band he fronts with his colleague at Princeton University, Nigel Smith, who knows a thing or two about the metaphysical poets.
In reference to his own poetry, Muldoon has been quoted as saying that he's interested in what happens when you take "outlandish ideas and put them together in far-fetched comparisons."
What Eliot and Muldoon are getting at has a lot in common with that massively inclusive realm called rock. In a review long, long ago I described the way rock writer Richard Meltzer liked to sling together the most far-fetched associations as if to show that his writing could be as wantonly eclectic as the music was: "If Bob Dylan can put Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot on Desolation Row," I wrote, "Meltzer can put Teilhard de Chardin in bed with 'What's New, Pussycat?' and then mate 'Too Much Tequila' with William James." Far-fetched? You bet.
Or think of it this way: if Muldoon's poetry wasn't allowing him quite enough room to give free play to that component of outlandishness, why not really set it loose by putting together electric guitars, keyboards, drums, and amps, words and music, for a clear shot at the heart and head of a listener who might yawn at the idea of poetry on the page?
When did rock and literature get cozy?
Oldtimers will remember thinking it something of a breakthrough when George Harrison used the word "rectify" in "If I Needed Someone" on the Rubber Soul album. Wow! A serious word in a Beatles lyric!
Next thing you know John Lennon's citing Edgar Allan Poe and sticking a King Lear fade-out on "I am the Walrus."
Next next thing you know the chairman of the graduate English department at Rutgers, Richard Poirier, is writing about the Beatles in Partisan Review, thereby attracting a group of first year graduate students more conversant with the White Album, which the Beatles had just released, than English lit.
Paul Muldoon has also been quoted to the effect that rock lyrics should not stand alone. I don't think he means that they should need the music. They should demand it. It's there in the lift of the rhythm and the rhyming. It's irresistible. On the other hand, a poem like Muldoon's "Promises, Promises," with its subtle, elusive rhymes and rhythms, clearly stands alone. Definitely not 3-car garage material. In it he moves from a field in North Carolina to Sir Walter Raleigh in a colony "near the Atlantic" to a flat in Bayswater. When he says "I am with Raleigh" he isn't just playing with the association; he really is in a poetical reality with Raleigh. You believe in the movement; you go with it.
In the songs you go with the music and the flagrantly allusive words are simply fun. Here are some samples of the way it works, all first lines, because Muldoon has a knack for launching his lyrics:
That evening in Gethesame
The sky as near as near
When I took out the lieutenant
I sliced off his right ear
The monk despairs of his maker
Sheetrock the two-by-four
You may buckle your sword and sandals
To fight off the Goths and Vandals
The regime was now unstable
The rebels had reached the sea
I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The Rackett song called "Pencil" manages an exhilarating mix of extremes, using the basic essence of a rock lyric (the girl) to anchor allusions that in a lesser song might appear fatally pretentious, such as the opening mouthful:
It took ages for the neoliths
To find the charcoal stick
Wherewith to sketch a bear.
The Sumerians took another age
To get to the next stage
And fileshare, right, fileshare
And as you're wondering where can this be taking you, you get to the chorus:
But the girl with the pencil
the pencil in her hair
It was a #2 soft
She just called to cancel
She just wrote me off.
After that nifty little jolt of rock and roll reality Elvis Costello himself would admire you're ready to go on to the Egyptians and their "Encryptions" and those old Irish monks and the Chinese confréres etching "Exultet Caelum" on a "stinking piece of vellum." Oops! Just when you're falling through centuries, back you go to the girl with the pencil in her hair. From that point on, it's as if she's told the singer, "Enough already," and the lyrics drop down to earth ("When I asked her for a date/she said she'd pencil me in"). Muldoon's lyric outlines a trajectory similar to the one he followed in "Promises, Promises," taking you back in time and making an issue of it ("I spent ages with Job and Jonah/Before ditching my Smith Corona), and you and the singer end up "written off" in the equivalent of a Bayswater flat.
If you were watching and listening to Rackett at the Berlind Theatre last Friday, you saw how nicely "Pencil" rocks through those changes. Along with Muldoon and Smith, the other musicians are singer and lead guitarist Paul Grimstad (the Henry James student), singer/guitarist/blues harpist Lee Escandon (Early Music), Jim Linnehan (a third-generation drummer) and on keyboards, Stephen Allen (the lawyer).
Now to close out with a hometown stanza from Rackett's Princeton song, "Rap for You": I tracked you to the Princeton Record Exchange/ And the minute I came into range/ You shot Ray down between rock and blues/ He had nowhere to look but at his shoes/ I tracked you to the Princeton Record Exchange.
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