By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
If that slouching, antisocial clerk with the dead-end job at the used bookstore spent the slow hours working on his own version of "Aqualung" by Jethro Tull, it might go something like this: "searching for a place in the mountain, where the sexless virgins could moan, watched with clergymen with faces of stone . . . "
The characterization's just a guess, but the song, called "Human Breakdown of Absurdity," really existsas part of The American Song-Poem Anthology. Song-poems grow from the seed of a simple ad in a magazine: "Poems Needed for Songs to Be Set to Music." Everyday people mail in their poemswith a check, of courseto the address in the ad. The companies that advertise employ a staff of songwriters and musicians who bang out melodies to scores of poems per day and record the final results in an in-house studio, in a creative equivalent of burger-flipping. The songs are then pressed to record in limited quantity, and shipped to the customer.
Contributions run the gamut of love, patriotism, and heartbreak, as well as left-field themes like masturbation, racial paranoia, the lunar landing, hippies . . . and "yellow things." The Bar/None compilation, rivaled only by Carnage Press's disc I'm Just the Other Woman: MSR Madness Vol. 4(compiled by Don Bolles of the Germs), comes off like a comedy record. At times the musicians seem to mercilessly display their contempt for the deluded schmoes who write bad poetry thinking they have a chance at stardom. Other times, the musicians get caught in their own joke, throwing themselves into those few songs that might provoke a bit of creativity within their rote work week.
The new CD's subtitle track, "Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush," invokes euphemisms for male and female anatomy to tell the age-old story of an unfaithful husband. Details get muddled as the singer makes a heroic effort to cram too many syllables into measures where the poem was lopsidedly written. It's like a bunch of clowns crowding into a VW Beetle.
The real delight, though, lies in the embellishments. Doubled-up backing vocals gleefully reinforce the chorus of "Rat-a-Tat-Tat America." Instead of making the recording sound more legitimate, the flourishes just point even more mockingly at the ridiculousness of the lyric. (And is that really someone smoking a bong in the fade-out???)
The Song-Poem Genius Award goes undisputedly to Rodd Keith, also known as Rod Rogers. He's the one who lamentsin dragthe lead vocal to "I'm Just the Other Woman," a cut that angered the writer so much that she demanded it be re-recorded without a bizarre backwards-tracked keyboard line. Keith, an extreme manic-depressive who ultimately committed suicide, interpreted oddities like "The Beat of the Traps" as emotional psychedelia, in a voice crossing Johnny Cash with Huckleberry Hound.
Some songs on Anthology breathe long, exhausted sighs of resignation as musicians earn their pay. One wonders why a person would waste money sending in lyrics like, "Disco, disco, disco, I am going to Mount Kisco/I am going to buy Crisco, to bake a cake so I can disco, disco, disco." Or the loving words: "my mouth open wide as if it's saying 'come on in . . . ' and my tongue hanging so low it could cover my chin."
Others offend so shamelessly, like "Run Spook Run," they leave no doubt that these companies used no discretion whatsoever, but took any money that was green. Then again, maybe the song really is about a ghost. Hard to tell.
Either way, song-poems convey all the corniness, clumsiness, and ugliness that come with being a passionate human. But such a brutal display of truth can be beautiful in itself . . . and funny, too.