Beyond So Wrong They're Right (The Lost-and-Found Art of Songpoems)
Every man and every woman is a star.
- Aleister Crowley
Sometime in the early nineteen nineties, followers of Dan Clowes's giddy noir-surrealist comic book Eightball may have noticed a small ad on page 16 for something titled Beat of the Traps. The ad was for a compilation of "songpoems," the recordings that result from those little notices in the back of pulpier magazines and comic books—offering to assess the "hit potential" of your lyrics for possible collaboration with professional composers, arrangers, and performers. Of course, virtually none of the songs submitted are ever found to be lacking "hit potential," and for a usually modest investment, the budding Johnny Mercer or Ira Gershwin may receive an actual vinyl pressing or CD of their song, ready for auditioning to Sinatra's people or storming the charts on its own.
Were the aforementioned Eightball reader to send in a few extra bucks, he or she would have received in due time one of the stranger artifacts circulating in the innumerable microcultural currents that defined the period: a compilation LP filled with ditties written by starstruck amateur songwriters of the 60s and 70s and studded with gems such as Mrs. Louise Nelson's "Convertibles and Headbands," Louise I. Oliver's "Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush," and a truly amazing trio of presidential tributes— "John F. Kennedy Was Called Away," "Richard Nixon," and "Jimmy Carter Says 'Yes.'" The frothing title track to Beat of the Traps is a skronk-laced homage to the history and lore of the glorious drum kit, sung in a manner reminiscent of a crazy person at the bus station.
Compiled by Tom Ardolino of roots-rock band NRBQ (the group that ten years earlier had collectively masterminded the excavation of the Shaggs's Philosophy of the World LP, a masterpiece of earnest wrong-ness in its own right), the sixteen-song sampler proved to be only the tip of a massive and very strangely shaped iceberg.
Songpoems stand at the fulcrum of a shift to a post-ironic way of approaching culture, and as such they function remarkably well as a litmus test for how people understand contemporary art. A fair number of today's growing audience for unearthed songpoems are tainted with an unfortunate attitude of snide superiority, focusing exclusively on the unintended humor of many of the lyrics and projecting jaded irony onto their delivery. Indeed, it's hard to imagine acid-pickled Rodd Keith, the anointed songpoem genius, keeping a straight face while intoning, in 1969, "God in his infinite wisdom put Richard Nixon on this Earth/ To bring to us his heritage—one of priceless worth."
But what the hipster sees as ridiculous imperviousness to the "right" way to make pop songs should be viewed as a lateral evolutionary pathway for American popular vernacular. The initial songpoem revival advocates -- including Aldolino, Phil Milstein (keeper of the American Songpoem Music Archive), David Greenberger (of Duplex Planet, that great 'zine of nursing-home interviews fame), LA artist/hoarder Jim Shaw, and former Germs drummer Don Bolles - managed to avoid the obvious rut of mockery. Greenberger, for instance, carefully characterizes songpoems as "a remarkable opportunity to hear people who could be your neighbors offering words they think should be songs."
Songpoems, in both theory and practice, are a uniquely egalitarian popular artform, allowing all those involved virtually complete freedom of self-expression in the context of their complicity in producing a make-believe glamour. By sending in poems about love, death, hippies, astronauts, ginseng, disco, presidents, UFOs, Jesus, squeaky shoes, crack, goats, and interracial marriage, plus 50 or 100 bucks, amateur songwriters are able to negotiate participation in the star-maker machinery.
Locating themselves in a continuum with the increasingly distant entertainment aristocracy, the songwriters upend the industry's exclusivity with a vicarious ratification of their creative efforts. In giving up creative control in order to become a star, the song-poet enters into a collusion to construct an alternate, democratic version of celebrity culture, akin to the Midnite Movie circuit that sprung up around Warhol's Factory or John Waters's early film troupe. On the other end of the equation, the musician/producer in the songpoem company is free to inject as much or as little artistry into the deal as time and talent allows. Sometimes, the results are remarkable.
There have probably been hundreds of companies pulling variations on the songpoem thimblerig over the last century. As of this writing, the earliest known songpoem, the sheet-music for "Love's Sweet Dawn," dates back to January, 1901. At their peak, the larger songpoem studios could crank out fifteen recordings an hour, issuing several lps in a week. Throughout it all, one talent continues to draw especial attention—Rodd Keith, AKA Rod Rogers, Rood Keith, Cleveland Becker, Ron Davis, Dean Curtis, and Lindon Bridges. Rodd sang on most of the songs on Beat of the Traps (including the impressive eponym), and Arnoldi was curious enough to try and track him down. When he called MSR Records in Hollywood (still operating until 1983), he was informed that Rodd was "pushing up daisies."
Keith, whose real name was Rodney Eskelin, had in fact been pushing the little daisies up since 5:00 a.m. on December 15, 1974, when he fell or jumped from an overpass on the Hollywood Freeway. There the matter rested, until by bizarre coincidence New York jazz-sax improviser Ellery Eskelin happened upon a copy of Beat of the Traps at a WFMU record sale and recognized Keith as his long-lost father. What emerged thereafter was twofold—the exponential and ongoing recovery of masses of Keith's work -- thanks in part to Eskerlin's pack-rat relatives -- and the unearthing of details about the life story of the songpoem genre's most exalted visionary, worth recounting here.
The musical prodigy of a born-again preacher in the Midwest, Keith made his way with wife Bobbie and infant son Ellery out to California in the early nineteen sixties. Even then, his attitudes toward gainful employment and monogamy had grown so laissez-faire that Bobbie split for Baltimore with the baby, who never saw his father again. Keith fell in with the songpoem crowd—singing, playing, writing, and arranging music for the reams of lay poetry that poured in. Recruited by the legendary Sandy Stanton of Film Music Records, Keith was soon churning out product for both Stanton's company and its main competitor Preview, before finally joining the stable at Maury S. Rosen's MSR Records. While there is little record of who actually did what musical chore on each song, many of the tracks featuring Keith's vocals are obvious examples of what his colleagues referred to as his "musical genius."
In a situation where bare minimum effort and maximum turnover were the goal (most of the songs were recorded in one take, with little or no rehearsal}, the pop-symphonic intricacy of "Ecstasy to Frenzy," the psychedelic weirdness of the first (rejected) version of "I'm Just the Other Woman," and the improbable catchiness of dozens of tossed-off melodies are impressive. Keith mastered numerous instruments, including the Chamberlin, a Mellotron-like prototypical keyboard-sampler that gives many of his recordings a distinctively otherworldly timbre. Capable of improvising complex and inventive musical structures off the top of his head, and fitting them to sometimes cliché-ridden and bizarre amateur lyrics while performing them in one of a panoply of convincingly sincere popular vocal stylings, Keith was clearly channeling his prodigious talent deep into the cultural subconscious of the American hinterland, from whence – in all probability -- it might never reemerge.
At the same time, Keith's easy genius gave him enormous freedom to indulge his proclivities for sex and drugs, and he seems to have spent most of the last decade of his life under the influence of psychedelics and animal tranquilizers, supplementing the entertainment value of his chosen career by teaching himself how to talk backwards, and even reputedly inventing an entire language. He was arrested for shoplifting on numerous occasions, and once for public nudity, when he had to remove his raincoat on Sunset Boulevard while high on acid, after setting it on fire in a failed attempt to light a cigarette. Unfortunately, he hadn't worn clothes underneath, and his second wife had to bail him out. While tripping, Keith liked to walk on balcony railings. He grew more and more erratic, alternating between periods of intense productivity and of disinterest and apparent homelessness. Only a few weeks before his death, he told friends of his plans for a movie about a character who ends his life by leaping from a freeway overpass. Rumors persist that Keith documented his own death on video.
The tawdry pizzazz of Rodd Keith's martyrdom lends some mythological oomph to the sobriquet "The Mozart of Songpoems," but Keith might more appropriately be thought of as the Moby of songpoem music. Just as Moby's substantial talent was blown somewhat out of proportion as an obvious marketing ploy to create a star for what had been the inherently anonymous electronica subculture, so the energies of the songpoem revivalists have elevated Rodd Keith to a level of influence and importance that, while reflecting his undeniable gifts, undermines the very quality that makes songpoems so remarkable—the haphazard confluence of creative agendas that sometimes, and inexplicably, results in great art.
Part of the magic comes from the overlapping "wrong" intentions inherent in the production of a songpoem: Lyrics are composed in response to and in approximation of received tropes by intelligences deeply immersed in mass culture; the music and performances are designed to be entirely disposable, to placate the rubes and be forgotten; and the songs are brought to our attention only through a half-archeological or sociological recovery. This already improbable hybrid, filtered through a grieving son's attempt to exhume and resurrect his father, Osiris-like, from the bazillion vinyl shards of his squandered genius, should add up to a confused and embarrassing mess. Yet, in spite of all this, the best songpoems remain great art, stopping us dead in our tracks with their simultaneous alien familiarity and unexpected beauty. When each component of their resurrection is regarded with unjaded respect, there emerges a complex informational moiré that combines the idiosyncratic mimicry of generic commercialism with a spinning web of historical cultural associations.
Unlike most outsider art, you know that all those involved in the creation of songpoems think they are pulling a fast one—tapping into the hit-song market with their "brilliant" topical lyrics on the one hand, scamming the naive writers on the other.
But it is the very obviousness of their schemes, as they overlay knowing, playful constructions in a functioning simulacrum of show biz, that allows us to unselfconsciously embrace the results. It is only after this surrender of control that we are able to recognize the creative abandon that lies at the crux of art's emergence from the ironic. Recalling John Cage's failure (or refusal) to reconcile improvisational impulses of performing musicians and the theoretical openness of chance compositions, we may finally understand the dislocation of the creative impulse from the domain of the ego to that of the transpersonal. Songpoems are collaborative works in the deepest sense, where each side gets something from the other, disrupting the arbitrary boundaries of the self to create art that transcends individual conscious intentions.
One lesson that may be learned: Perhaps the increasing lack of surprising creative subcultural activity in America points not to the metabolic acceleration of hegemonic absorption, as is often touted, but to an unrecognized dissolution of the individual-identified artistic identity. As the means of popular and mass cultural production become more atomized, genius becomes dissipated among a multiplicity of nodal interconnections. If some housewife from Podunk and a talented fuck-up can create a work of pop art as great as the songpoem "I'm Just the Other Woman" without realizing it, then it seems likely that we may be immersed in a continuum of unintended and as-yet unrecognized epiphanies. We may only have to tilt our heads to catch the strain. It's even possible that we can create great art, in spite of our intentions. Maybe we already have, and just don't know it. Maybe we're doing it right now.
Original version published in Art issues. magazine, Summer 2000
This article was the impetus for the CD The New Now Sounds of Today! Songpoems By Twenty-One Contemporary Artists