60s Music / a poem in progress by Tom Evans

50’s music — straight standards with strings —

Sinatra Fatha’ Hines — my parents’ music

Schmaltzy corny square, any way you

Want to put it — understandable

After a Depression and war.

 

I was a captive audience,

Who, while hearing, wasn’t tuned in,

Much less turned on,

knowing there must be a better way.

 

And there was.

 

My music, when it finally arrived,

Meant freedom of a sort,

Which, while not total,

Took me to another place In time

Just in time,

A place from which I never came back.

 

It meant more to me, you see,

Being the soundtrack of my life,

And why I was so

Opinionated about it,

Perhaps to my detriment,

Eclipsing everything else as it did.

 

In fact, like Fiddler Jones,

To this day I’d drop everything

For even the briefest strain of

Music or lyric that caught my ear

Hoping it would last forever,

Knowing it wouldn’t.

 

A quick study, I almost instantly

Had the words of a new song by heart,

Except when I didn’t, some impossibly garbled

Beyond recognition.

(“Louie, Louie” being the most famous example)

 

With some songs it didn’t matter,

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” for instance,

Many of the words unintelligible,

Like the line I thought was

“As the metal tore his chest,”

Until looking it up recently

Found it was really

“As the miller told his tale,”

Which, while good to know, didn’t change a thing.

 

I decided I liked my way better,

The song being so ethereal,

Not meant to be construed but felt,

And so many memories attached

to my version.

 

There are the exceptions, some songs

You need to get the lyrics exactly right,

Fit them to the music to make it complete,

A song like “Dangling Conversation”

For example, or most of Dylan’s songs

(especially when covered by others and

you can actually understand them)

 

As with all good music It not only

Evokes your past, if you’re receptive

(Or high) enough it can take you right back

To where or when you heard a particular song,

Perhaps recapture the same feelings

You had whenever or wherever

You heard it, recovering

Your youth, if only in part.

 

Listening lying down, needle in groove,

Vinyl slightly warped, static and hum,

Stacked six records high,

Light some candles and incense,

Your magic carpet ride would begin.

 

It was going to be a while,

Might even make a day of it,

Nothing else, or better, to do

Nowhere to be,

It was a necessity,

And what kept me going.

 

Stoned, drunk, sober, tripping —

Each a vastly different experience

Requiring different music, if not bands –

Something mellow when stoned

(Though at that point

Almost anything will do) –

Jackson Browne, Byrds,

After the Gold Rush

Something loud when drunk –

Stones, Allman Brothers, Moby Grape –

Something trippy when tripping –

Dark Side of the Moon, anything Hendrix,

Sergeant Pepper

Everyone had their go to music.

 

The blues were an entirely

Different category:

Being Introduced to it Relatively late,

And then, by an English rock band

On the album English Rose,

With several authentic covers of

Elmore James tunes — also hearing

Slide guitar for the first time,

Which, to this day, is still my favorite style.

 

Definitely drinking music,

The blues didn’t really hit me until,

Well, I had the blues, which I

Didn’t realize until I heard the blues.

 

Whose Muddy Shoes, my first real blues album,

Played over and over, was all

I would ever need to get me through

The tough times — they understood, I didn’t

Need to say anything, it was as if I was

Talking to myself, and they to me.

 

Until I was turned on to

Mississippi John Hurt,

A completely different style

Bred on the Mississippi Delta,

Acoustic fingerstyle guitar,

Much more mellow than the

Urban blues, though at times even

Sadder because it was so wistful;

He was the ultimate raconteur –

Funny, sly, wise, spell binding,

One of his several (among countless

Others by others) versions of

“Stagger Lee” the best

I ever heard, talking for the

First several minutes, giving

The back story of Stagger Lee

And Billy DeLion, leading into

Masterful fingerpicking

And his rendition of the song;

In “Payday” and “Casey Jones”

He’d sing a line and then, seamlessly,

Would have his guitar sing the same one,

And I swear you couldn’t tell the difference.

“Rediscovered” nearly

Forty years later and trotted

Out on stage at the

Newport Folk Festival,

He brought down the house

With his performance,

Was signed to a record deal

And made several albums

Before he died a few years later,

And several more posthumously.

Better late than never, I suppose,

Though he was never one to be bitter.

 

Everyone had their own first concert story,

But none could beat mine:

Hendrix at the Aud, sneaking out to

See it, wearing yellow bell bottoms

With blue pinstripes, the only I ever

Wore or stole;

It was a night of firsts: first concert,

First smell of pot, first toke on a joint,

First snowball fight with Mitch Mitchell and

Noel Redding, first time in a taxi,

Paid for by them after I missed my ride;

“Take your hat off,” someone in the cheap seats

Yelled at Hendrix, “I’ll take it off

If you take your pants off,” Jimi replied,

I don’t even remember the music

I was so overwhelmed by it all,

And, after having the taxi leave me

At the top of my street, I shed my

Bell bottoms and tossed them in a

Neighbor’s bushes, never to be seen

Again, then made my way down my street

In a blinding snowstorm, nobody the wiser

As far as I would ever know.

 

Steppenwolf, with songs like “The Ostrich”

And “Monster” were a Howard Zinn

History lesson in the guise of a

Rock song waiting to happen,

Turning out to be the most prescient

Lyricists of their generation

(Who would have thought?)

Though I doubt many listened to them for

That reason, but not surprising for those who knew

John Kay had been through the shit as a child,

And was lucky to be alive.

SYMPHONY / a new poem by Tom Evans

Lie down and hear the music.

Brahms.

Hear the melody as it moves,

The blend of the instruments,

The cadence of the violins.

Imagine the shadowy dancers

Waltzing on the polished floor,

Revolving, pausing,

Beginning again.

Feel the breeze

Through open windows

As it ruffles clothes and curtains.

See the tent of sky above,

The stars in the dark night,

As the music envelops you.

Brahms.

Alms for the weary soul.

 (But I Didn’t Die) / a new poem by Tom Evans

A.A.’s kidnapping and drowning

When I was a child, horrified me,

And still does.

It was an image of my

Own childhood —

To be taken away

In the midst of play —

What to say to the little

Brother (almost a twin)

Left behind?

He, too, came home

To an empty room.

 

You say — “We have packed your things

And are moving away.”

Away, today, from Jewett Parkway.

 

 

 

 

 

Say It Isn’t So / a new poem by Tom Evans

Days of summer gone.
If I had written a line like that,
Joe Bolton, I would have died
A happy man.

Why did you do it,
Were you half in love with
Easeful death?

How did you do it?
Did you bite your tongue?
I would understand
If that was the case.

You see, I have these questions.

The seasons, each one wistful
In its own way, but especially
Summer, which you chose, Joe-
Evanescent- lingering echoes,
Distant strains of music
Fading in and out,
Vestiges of the past that you can
Imagine, remember, and even see,
But never quite put your finger on,
Much less grasp.

And though you grieved
Summers past
You did it in
Marshy spring,
Not wanting to see
Another summer come
And go, I suppose.

Your poetry is full of
Lost loves, ghosted memories
And empty beds—
All unrequited.

I get that
Joe Bolton
And who am I
To say you nay?

But summer
Came anyway.

And couldn’t you
Have at least
Stuck around
To tell us
If it was worth
The strength it takes
To see another
One through?

Instead you
Left us
With a wordless
Answer.

Say it isn’t so Joe Bolton!

Heat Wave / a new poem by Tom Evans

Heat never bothers you

As a kid, play until

You drop, brown and dusty

Then haul ass on your bike

To the corner store,

Grab an ice cold pop

From the cooler

And you’re good to go,

Ready to play two

Before you’re called home for dinner.

 

It turns up a bit as a teen, though,

Hot to trot seemingly every second,

Flushing with embarrassment

At every faux pas committed,

A frequent occurrence

At that most awkward age,

As I’m sure we all remember.

 

Then in your prime, the biological clock

A time bomb ticking,

The procreative urge at white heat

Intensity, making you even

More prone to lapses in judgment

That can have a life-long impact

(choice of mate being one).

 

And perhaps a mid-life crisis

Or two, one last chance to

Recapture your vigor

(such as it was)

Ruin everyone’s life

(including yours)

Revisit your youthful aspirations

And do something about them

If it’s not too late

(it’s never too late).

 

Even now I love being out in it,

(Though admittedly mostly in my

Imagination these days)-

Reading about it in Faulkner,

Recalling the stillness of days past

In the shimmering heat.

Just the thought of it

Gives me some warmth

In the depths of winter.

.

But as you grow older, and the

Vital heat paradoxically wanes,

You can’t escape it, and notice it

In many different ways, though often

Retreating to desert cities,

Where, even if you wouldn’t

Be caught dead outside in the

Scorching air, you can still

Enjoy it vicariously

Through the picture window in your

Air conditioned abode.

 

I suppose it does warm your bones

A bit to do that

Although you know

Your time has passed

And you’re preoccupied

With merely trying to survive

Desperately attempting

To control your temperatures

Within and without

All the while allowing

The planet to burn up.

 

 

BASEBALL, OR THE MYTH OF THE ETERNAL RECCURENCE / a new poem by Tom Evans

Dear Ken, FDR wrote to Judge Landis

shortly after Pearl Harbor when it was

being decided whether major league games

should continue during the war,

America needs baseball as a recreational diversion for a nation

that will of necessity be working longer and harder than ever

 before in the coming times.

 

My friend Rich, when I stood beside him

in his hospital bed during his last days,

echoed a similar sentiment,

asking me to talk about baseball

for a while. I knew, that despite having

the mathematical mind of the engineer

he was, it wasn’t the facts he normally

craved- standings, statistics, playoff probabilities

of each team (especially those of his beloved

Phils)- that he wanted, he had the newspaper

lying next to him for that.

 

I chose instead to talk about the beauty

of the game we loved beyond measure, its

history, the evolution of its

rules, some of the players we loved- Cobb, Wheat,

Ruth, Mathewson, Parker, Stargell, Omar

the Outmaker, Schmidt, Carlton, and Richie

(call me Dick) Allen, the fact that it had

brought us together, what we would do

after the final out was made, but more particularly

of the time Ferris Fain (of the other

Philadelphia team) went 5 for 5

against Vic Raschi for his team (including

a game-winning  home run) in our

Strat-O-Matic baseball game.

 

Thank you for the diversion, he said,

looking up at me when I had finished.

I leaned over and kissed him good-bye.

Afterward, when asked by his wife to give

his eulogy, I declined. I couldn’t- wouldn’t-

discuss our friendship in front of strangers-

it was private, cherished, and ultimately ineffable.

 

I offer this elegy instead.

 

for Richard Swiniuch (1952-2001)

“Spoon River Anthology”

Perhaps Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was, SRA being one of the most idiosyncratic (one might say even accidental) masterpieces in any country’s literature. I believe I first came across it on a summer reading list sent to me by my high school and  it immediately became one of my go to books which I read on a least an annual basis.

It seems Masters (a lawyer by trade who once worked with Clarence Darrow but who had already had several books published at the beginning of a very prolific literary career), had just finished reading the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D., many of which took the form of epigrams-laconic sayings that may or may not harbor  a kernel of truth, while others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives from beyond the grave. Shortly after reading it, Masters, experimenting with free verse, penned some of his own using them as a model and sent them off to Editor Reedy of “Reedy’s Mirror”, a literary magazine published in St. Louis, mostly as a lark, and Reedy liked them so much he asked for more. The poems were serialized there in 1914 under the pseudonym Webster Ford for fear of damaging Masters’s law practice, his real identity being revealed later that year by Reedy.

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, it shattered the myth of small-town America as the bastion of American virtue. Meant to be read as a novel, the reader is required to piece together narratives from single lines and fragments contained in 244 individual poems. In his thinly veiled fictional town of Spoon River, situated in central Illinois near Lewistown, where Masters grew up, the honest, hardworking, chaste, and churchgoing live amidst corrupt bankers, abusive husbands, unfulfilled wives, sexual deviants, and failed dreamers, freed from the shackles of life by death, who “sleep beneath these weeds” confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living in the form of brutally honest free verse poems. The poems are remarkable for the breadth of personalities and the honesty with which they speak. When his book first came out, Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, voted to ban it. He was exposing family secrets; people were much more private then, and they didn’t want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it. Dubbed a sort of “Peyton Place” of its time, it was unofficially banned for over a half-century in his hometown. It wasn’t that people weren’t reading it- they most certainly were, they just wouldn’t admit or dare talk about it.

Championed early on by Ezra Pound (who wrote “At last the American West has produced a poet . . . ” ) and fellow Illinoisian Carl Sandburg, it was an international best-seller, reported to have sold 80,000 copies in four years, unheard of for a book of poetry. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had attempted so much or had been so original,” says John Hallwas, who edited and annotated the 1993 version published by the University of Illinois Press, which I highly recommend, but only after you have familiarized yourself with the book.

The book went on to influence American masterpieces like Sherwood Anderson’s book of interlocking short stories about a small town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ novels Main Street and Babbitt, and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The work continues to stay relevant for its treatment of the human condition Hallwas also says. Although unknown by the general public, and certainly not taught in schools, it has never been out of print, has been adapted for stage and screen, taught in acting classes, translated into numerous languages, and phrases from one of the poems entitled “Alexander Throckmorton” were quoted by Pope Francis during his recent visit to America.

In contemporary culture another fellow Illinoisian, the late folksinger songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” being his most well known song) has a song on his first album entitled “Spoon River,” obviously influenced by the book, though set in the Civil War time period, and more nostalgic; Richard Buckner, another admired folksinger songwriter made an entire album using some of the poems set to music, entitled appropriately, “The Hill” (after the prefatory poem), both well worth checking out.

I leave you with this,  spoken by my favorite Spoon River denizen, Fiddler Jones:

“Fiddler Jones

THE EARTH keeps some vibration going

There in your heart, and that is you.

And if the people find you can fiddle,

Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.

What do you see, a harvest of clover?

Or a meadow to walk through to the river?

The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands

For beeves hereafter ready for market;

Or else you hear the rustle of skirts

Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.

To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust

Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;

They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy

Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”

How could I till my forty acres

Not to speak of getting more,

With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos

Stirred in my brain by crows and robins

And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?

And I never started to plow in my life

That some one did not stop in the road

And take me away to a dance or picnic.

I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—

And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,

And not a single regret”.